Overseas Institutional Visits: I went, I saw, I conquered (my own fears)
On a chilly November day just over two years ago, I sat in a room which reeked of excitement and fear. It was emanating from me, and possibly the rest the new intake of ESRC-funded PhD students who sitting with me at the SGSSS induction event. In those early days, we hadn’t worked out how to tell others about our studies in the snappy accessible phrases we’d eventually adopt, so every coffee-break conversation that day took forever. It was during one of those breaks that I remember a fellow newbie asking whether I was thinking of taking advantage of the funded overseas institutional visit we had just been told about. ‘Nah mate, not for me. I’d never manage to live abroad on my own, let alone work confidently with academic types I’ve never even met’.
Fast-forward two years, and here I am, tanned by late-Summer Canadian sunshine and writing a blog about my trip. Who’da thunk it? Not me, that’s for sure. So why did I do it? What had changed since that November day two years ago?
The reasons I went were simple, and resolutely academic. Canada is the birthplace of my field, Mad Studies. In the second half of the 20th century Canadian intellectual heavyweights were thinking Big Thoughts about what it was to be mad in a sanist world. When I’d entered my own PhD decades later, it was this theoretical perspective which seemed to speak loudest and best for me. I knew I needed to learn more, and I’d long understood that ploughing through books could only get me so far. After all, some of my best ideas in HE had come from those random encounters and surprising conversations I’d had over a teeny-tiny cup of coffee at training events. I’d learned that knowledge is often a group exercise. I realised I needed to immerse myself in the field and create a chance to mingle with some of my heroes. I knew that my own study, knowledge and skills would be immeasurably better as a result. The problem was that although fine and esteemed scholars had taken up the mad gauntlet for the UK, I felt that if I could, I’d best benefit from going to where it had all started.
In my head, however, was that ongoing fear that I wasn’t up to it. The turnabout came when I acknowledged to myself that my studies have already made me braver. Anxiety is my constant companion, but I’ve learned to ignore its constant negativity. Inch by inch I’ve responded to a supportive supervisory team and the enticements of my academic curiosity, and I’ve stretched myself. What used to terrify me, now just gives me a tingle of adrenaline. Speaking with a degree of research-based confidence to conference goers, students, senior academics and to my fiercest critic of all, Dad? I can do it. Attending bustling conferences? Bring it on. Dealing with critical feedback? Still not fun, but absolutely necessary and totally do-able. I’ve crawled from underneath my safety blanket. Could I add a new one to my list of personal triumphs? Travelling, living and working abroad? Holding my own with other academics? Of course I could. The benefits outweighed my eroding fears. First, I made my case for going on an OIV to myself, then I stuck it all on an application form and applied for funding.
Funding was secured and I was Canada-bound two years after I’d drunk coffee in that hot room and told somebody I wouldn’t dream of doing an OIV. The trip certainly lived up to my expectations. A lot of that was the result of some pretty detailed planning. In the lead-up to the OIV I’d worked with my host in Canada, my supervisors, a person I knew who’d been on an OIV before, my Uni HE admin, PhD peers and anybody who I thought might be able to add their tuppence-worth. It meant that I worked out in advance what I wanted to achieve, and had established that it was achievable. I’d converse and learn and maybe get a paper out of it. I’d deliver a talk about my study. I’d attend an event where I’d certainly get a chance to improve my networks. I’d get some ideas about how scholars in Canada managed to create impact with their thinking, and get some ideas about to create my own.
As I got closer to the visit logistical planning became important; how was I going to get to the airport, travel around when I got there, how would I use my phone, did I need a visa, was my passport in date, would I have free access to wi-fi, did I need sunscreen (I did++)? Because I know me well, I made sure that I had a clear idea about who to contact if I went into a meltdown 3500 miles from home. Planning is important. My experience tells me that if I’ve planned enough there are few worrying surprises to freak me out, but this OIV was to teach me to rethink that script. It seems that over-planning is a thing. Surprises aren’t always worrying. Sometimes they’re absolutely wonderful. In Canada, I produced the outcomes I’d planned for, but that was only the half of it. My host was busy. I couldn’t monopolise her time, so I had to take advantage of meeting and speaking to others whenever I could. This was a real value-add. Remembering the random conversations I’d had over teeny-tiny cups of coffee throughout my PhD, I already knew that some of the best ideas, discussions and learning was opportunistic. In Canada I met my heroes, but it was there that I created some new ones. I met people and visited organisations that made me fizz with excitement, filled my head with ideas and intellectual connections, and filled my address book with names. Exploiting random opportunities was an important outcome for me, and one I didn’t think to put on my application.
I realise that the benefits of the OIV have been far-reaching, and in part unexpected. The academic case for going to Canada was solid and the preparation thorough, but there was a great deal of advantage to be found in seizing unplanned opportunities. My personal circumstances made the prospect of going to Canada challenging, but I took courage from my reflections about the huge personal growth I’d already made during the PhD and took a bold step into the Canadian sunlight. The summary of this blog is clear: don’t chuck it in the ‘too hard for me’ bin. If there’s a Canada somewhere in the world for you, you owe it to your study and yourself to find a way to go if you possibly can.