How to go surfin' USA

Studying for a PhD is a journey into your chosen subject. But some universities are going further and giving graduates a chance to travel the world too. Amy McLellan reports

It's a common complaint that a PhD can be a long, lonely slog. To remedy this, universities have taken steps to provide training for supervisors and improve postgraduate social facilities, to help counter the isolation felt after days spent buried in the archives or crunching the numbers in the lab.

These social and academic connections can be vital: some of the best breakthroughs are made when bouncing ideas off other researchers or viewing a problem through fresh eyes. When this stimulus comes through the prism of a different culture, its impact can be yet more dramatic.

This is the thinking behind the traffic in PhD students between UK and overseas institutions. Often these exchanges are informal, arranged between departments that over time have developed strong academic links, and sometimes they are part of a more formal exchange network.

One example of the more formal international PhD exchange is the Global Exchange Programme run by the Worldwide Universities Network. With 16 member institutions - six in the UK, five in the US, three in Europe and two in China - the WUN provides funding to enable PhD students and research staff to spend time with their peers in partner institutions.

Exchanges can last for a couple of months or a couple of semesters, and the students get to tailor the exchange to fit their research, be it undertaking field work, collaborating with other experts or gaining access to specialist archives and facilities.

The funding is generous: there's a pot of $1m that is replenished on an annual basis by the member institutions - and the mentality isn't one of shoestring travel. The award covers travel expenses, incremental subsistence costs, plus specific extras, such as undertaking field trips or accessing special facilities. WUN chief executive David Pilsbury believes member institutions get a great return on investment, particularly when exchanges are made at PhD level.

"The best time to be offered this opportunity is not when you are 45 but when you are in your early twenties and you can really make the most of it," says Pilsbury. "It's like compound interest and it grows over the length of your career; and the longer that career is going to be, the greater impact it will have."

The benefits are multi-fold, from the energizing impact of exposure to different methodologies, different assumptions and different research environments to the ability to undertake field work or access world-class specialists and resources. There's also the opportunity to present your work to an international audience and do some serious networking: an international network of contacts can prove invaluable for those seeking to progress in academia.

And the old adage that a change is as good as a rest can be very important when you need to grind out ten thousands words. "Going somewhere new and exciting for some time was good motivation, especially important in the crucial writing period midway through my PhD," says Alexej Behnisch, in his second year of a PhD on globalisation theory; he exchanged winter in Aberystwyth for the sunshine of the University of Southern California in January. "Experiencing something exciting helps you get through the mostly rather boring middle period in your PhD life."

The change also allows you to review familiar material through different eyes. "Academically, apart from all the obvious research opportunities, such as special libraries or field work, going abroad broadens your horizon because your work will be challenged from different angles and assumptions," says Behnisch.

And it's not just individual students who benefit from this collaborative effort. There are spin-off benefits for academic staff. Sian Impey, WUN development manager at Southampton University, recalls one case where a geography PhD student went on exchange to the University of Washington in Seattle, prompting dialogue between her home and host supervisors.

"They found there was a lot in common in their own research and there is now a strong link between those two departments, even though that student has long gone," says Impey.

Such success stories have seen enthusiasm for the WUN exchanges multiply at Southampton, which now finds applications outstrip its annual £30,000 funding pot.

Other institutions have formed their own exchange programmes. Aberystwyth's department of international politics, for example, has exchange links with the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, the Australian National University, in Canberra, and the University of Queensland, in Brisbane, links that grew out of the personal contacts of the academic staff in the four universities.

First-year PhD students apply to do an exchange in their second year, and usually one or two a year, out of the 50-60 PhD students in the department, make the trip. The numbers may be modest - in part because of funding issues and the administrative hassle of finding suitable supervisors and sorting out visas - but it seems the benefits speak for themselves.

"It makes a real difference," says Jenny Mathers, senior lecturer and director of admissions for the department. "They benefit from exposure to different academics, different kinds of research activity and different assumptions and methodologies."

It can add weight to research: a thesis on the Asian financial crisis gains real muscle when the student has spent time in Australia and can undertake in-depth interviews and get close to case studies.

And these benefits are two-way. "It's exciting for the staff and students here in Aberystwyth to work with the PhD students who come here," says Mathers. "It's nice to have that cross-fertilization of graduates in the department."

Most institutions are keen to widen the international reach of their PhD students, aware that this is an area where the British lag behind their counterparts in Europe and the US. Mark Pickerill, of the Study Abroad Office, at University College London, says the college is looking to increase international exchanges at all levels. "The whole concept of studying abroad experience is relatively rare in the UK, whereas in the US it's been embedded for many years," he says. Funding constraints, language issues and lack of knowledge of the opportunities are part of the problem, says Pickerill.

While many PhD students are clocking up air miles on their own account to get their research done, it seems that those exchanges that have some structure, and allow for two-way traffic, reap the most rewards, building long-standing relationships and collaborative ventures between individuals, departments and institutions.

How students benefit from a foreign perspective on their research

University of Wales PhD student Columba Peoples, who is researching US plans for a National Missile Defence system, is on exchange at the University of Southern California (USC), in Los Angeles.

"I found out about the exchange through my department in Aberystwyth. There was a lot of paperwork to go through, especially in connection with a visa, so that took a bit of time and effort. The exchange rate favours exchange students from the UK in the US at the moment, which helps ease the cost of rent and offsets the expense of living in LA.

"It's been really helpful. I've learned a lot from the lecturers I've worked with here, and the department at USC has excellent research facilities. I've been able to do some interviews in California and Washington DC, thanks to opportunities provided by the School of International Relations at USC.

"There are differences. USC focuses more on foreign policy analysis, diplomacy and international political economy, whereas Aberystwyth is more theory-oriented and focused on security studies, postcolonial studies and the EU. The benefit of the exchange is taking in a range of different academic perspectives."

Jadunandan Dash, a PhD student in Southampton's school of geography, spent three months at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, after receiving funding from the WUN's Global Exchange Programme.

"The two institutions use different types of imaging spectrometer to estimate vegetation condition at a global scale. These sensors share common features and the aim of my visit was to explore the value of both data for the estimation of vegetation condition," says Jadunandan.

"While I was at UW-Madison, I discussed some technical problems I'd had with experts in the field, something that would never have been possible from here. I was also able to present my work to them, so they got to know in detail what research is going on at Southampton.This meant that I could bring this research to the attention of people who may not otherwise have heard about it, and there has been an interest in future collaborations.

"At Southampton, you have more freedom and you are more independent in your research, whereas at Wisconsin things are more confined. There are other differences: at the major US universities you need to do at least three semesters of coursework before starting your original research, whereas you can start your research here from the very first day.

"The exchange is something I would definitely recommend. It helps you gain some international exposure and helps you make decisions about future research."