My supervisor has asked me to stay in a lab in a foreign country for a few months. That lab has some collaboration with us but their research is actually not related to mine. I don't know why my supervisor asked me to go, but I think it would be a great chance to broaden my experience so I did not complaint.

Besides travelling around the city and knowing new friends, what should I prepare and what should I do there to utilize this opportunity to help my PhD? I hope this opportunity can both benefit me academically and personally.

  • I wonder if at least the travel part of this question can be asked on Travel? Commented May 27, 2014 at 16:07
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    As for the academic portion, will there be any conferences nearby you can go to in order to get your research out in the new area? Perhaps take a poster along, in that case. Commented May 27, 2014 at 16:08

2 Answers 2


This is standard practice in Denmark (where I'm currently located). All PhD students are essentially required to spend 3-6 months at a foreign institution. Similarly we host a large number of PhD students in our department for stays of about this length. So, this is a question that's pretty relevant.

To take advantage of this opportunity you have to think about what you personally hope to get out of it. I'd say there are several possibilities:

  1. Discussing your research with people outside of your lab and narrow subfield. This can be a great opportunity to get novel feedback and insights. But, you need to make sure you actually have the chance to do this. Does the lab you're going to have regular meetings? Do you have a chance to present your work? Will you be able to go to local workshops/meetings/conferences at the host institution? We sometimes have students who end up not getting a lot of face time with members of their host institutions, which is unfortunate and you want to avoid that.

  2. Learning whether there are other areas of your discipline that are interesting besides what you're currently working. Presumably after you're done with your PhD you'll have to move somewhere else. This may require you "branch out" slightly from your current research work into related areas. This might be a good opportunity to learn about somewhat related work and get some knowledge that might help you start a new project, or land a postdoc or assistant professorship in the future.

  3. Getting a feel for another department. All departments and labs are different. They have different culture, different norms, different levels of social interaction, etc. This is a great time to see how another lab/department/university works and via that experience get some insight into aspects of that environment (and your home institution) that you do and do not like. This can be valuable for deciding what kind of environments you'd like to be part of in the future.

  4. Networking. Going to another institution is a great way to broaden your network. But, you need to make sure you'll actually get a chance to meet people. You don't want to end up going somewhere and just sitting in your office the whole time alone. Make sure there's a network of PhD students you can meet while you there and that you make a concerted effort to meet with faculty. And, outside of work, try to make some friends.

So, to prepare, figure out what you want to get out of the experience and then make sure the institution can satisfy those things (and, as part of that, try to setup the desired opportunities in advanced by scheduling meetings, etc.).


A few months is a fairly long time, and that could either be good or bad. There's no easy answer. You must quickly do some research and find out what other benefits you might get from spending time there. It could be very boring and take away valuable time from your schedule, but frankly it can be whatever you choose to make of it. Being prepared and having a "can do" attitude, then, is crucial. Alternatively, you can always recluse there and get a lot of private thinking and writing done! Also, some of the travel benefits are obviously personal enrichment and growth, but we're talking here more about academic benefits. (These may intersect!)

Most importantly in my mind, foreign academic experience provides a different context to the research that you are already doing. Universities are usually multi-cultural places, and you may meet a lot of international students who will give you useful perspectives in addition to the host lab members. Email and join in activities with the international student society that they will no doubt have! We are global citizens, and to be a prominent and respected scientist in the future you will be expected to have a global presence. So, understanding global perspectives on your work is valuable.

That said, if you will be visiting a tiny country with little academic infrastructure or funding, this may not be a particularly relevant point. But if it's a well known university, or in a "bigger" country, then you should get some valuable perspective from it in this way, which will also improve the value of putting this experience on your CV.

Participating in nearby conferences, or at asking to give a research presentation at the host institution (e.g. just a regular department seminar), all looks very good on your CV. It's usually a "given" that you will at least be able to give a departmental seminar if you visit.

Finally, as a PhD student, it's sometimes hard to get adequate breadth of experience about your research area while working in one lab with one mentor. Look for the connections with your collaborator, not the differences. Realize that this is an opportunity to get "free" input on your work and advice about the broader field from people who care about similar things. You will probably learn some insightful, useful (maybe even surprising) things about your mentor's personality or scientific approach that will help you become more independently minded and mature as a scientist.

Maybe the perspectives of your host lab will help you broaden your appreciation for what you should aim for in your scientific career. There are a lot of bigger, inter-related questions beyond what your current lab cares about, which you might not yet be able to appreciate with your prior background.

Lastly, as an extra incentive, remember that your hosts might be your future peer reviewers or writers or recommendation letters! Personal networks are very important in academia, even if sometimes there is some scientific disconnect between the everyday work that you do.

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