Nottingham ESRC Doctoral Training Programmes

Overseas Institution Visit Report: Emma Nielsen


Nottingham DTC student Emma Nielsen, reporting back after her ESRC-funded Overseas Institution Visit to Harvard:

LHR-BOS-LHR and the learning in between: Reflections on an OIV visiting fellowship

Hands up who has a favourite academic paper? You might not like to admit it but, if you do, you are amongst company. I certainly have a favourite. It is a paper I read as an undergraduate that challenged my thinking and got me engaged and questioning in a way no other paper had before. It also played a big part in sparking the idea that later became my PhD.

Having a favourite paper is one thing. The prospect of approaching the author to discuss the possibility of going to work with them on a visiting fellowship is quite another. But that is exactly what we did. After being prompted to think about an overseas study visit at a conference, at the start of the year my supervisor and I started planning.  Ten months later, I was sat in departures at London Heathrow (LHR), awaiting a flight to Boston (BOS) to spend two months at Professor Matt Nock’s Lab, Harvard University.

Why did I go and what did I learn?

Writing grant applications is a sure fire way of crystallising the purpose of your visit. So, as I sat at Heathrow, I knew I was heading to the US with three main objectives in mind. I wanted to: (i) learn new research methods; (ii) understand more about the US research context and; (iii) meet new people and share my doctoral data.

A chance to learn new methods

The most quantifiable gain of the research visit is undoubtedly the research skills I developed. With great mentorship, I was able to learn to use statistics software and advanced statistical techniques that were new to me. Moreover, I was encouraged to think about and explore my PhD data in novel ways. New ideas are exciting. Harvard gave me a real chance to feel the excitement of research, condensed. While at Nock Lab, I was introduced to novel tasks and techniques and as yet unpublished methodologies. This experience was not only exposure to science at the cutting edge of the field, but was interaction and dialogue. I was able to ask technical questions and practical questions, glean the researchers’ top-tips and learn from the problems they faced and the strategies levelled to resolve them. This is insight you can rarely, if ever, glean from a published manuscript or conference presentation.

New lab, new context

I am a fan of the familiar. I find comfort in routine and, in many ways, deem change to be unnerving. I know my supervisor and my department well and I love it at UoN. However, sometimes, there is value in stepping outside of your comfort zone and into different ideas and structures.

I am a Psychologist. In the US, the doctoral structure in our field is fundamentally different. Understanding how the systems are comparable and divergent is an invaluable grounding. Getting to ‘live’ both sides has allowed me to develop a fuller appreciation of the skills my US-educated counterparts have – this is something that will be vital when planning future projects and building effective teams. I found that being immersed in a different research culture has helped me to build understanding; in many ways the field in which I work lacks a common language, with key conceptual differences being apparent between North American academics and their European colleagues. Spending time working on the other side of this Atlantic divide prompted an opportunity to not only comprehensively explore these alternative conceptualisations but also to challenge my own position and assumptions. During my visiting fellowship I had time and space to really delve into where I stand, what I think, and, most importantly, why.

Networking, ideas and many, many questions

I am an odd breed of researcher who looks forwards to the questions at the end of a presentation. At Harvard there were a lot of questions. I was in the privileged position of getting to ask researchers about their work and to present my research to them. It was odd – but awesome – to find that people were keen to devote an hour or two of their schedules to speak with me; my head has never been so consistently full of musings and ideas. My fellowship was an invaluable platform for my work and knowledge to be challenged, both formally when presenting to the lab, but also informally when recruiting knowledge and constructing lines of argument to bring to discussions with other researchers.

To me, my time at Harvard was a way of starting as I mean to go on; academia is increasingly thinking global and thinking collaboratively – this is something I want to be part of. Spending a sustained period of time within a research group broadens horizons and opens doors in a way that snippets of conversation at conferences, e-mail exchanges and 140 character Twitter dialogues just can’t. Throughout the fellowship I was able to establish new connections and initiate collaborations. While I don’t think the success of an overseas institutional visit can be measures in publications, the prospect of co-authored papers is an added bonus.

Through spending time away I also learnt much broader lessons than I set out to. I learnt that I am both more and less independent than I thought. I learnt to manage time in a new way, to be assertive, to take chances. I learnt about what I really value back home. I learnt that pumpkin really is good in pie! l got to experience New England in ‘the fall’ and took time to reflect.  I have come back home with a rejuvenated enthusiasm for all things PhD – moving into the latter stages of my doctorate, that in itself is hugely valuable. I was once told that there are no shortcuts to inspiration. Perhaps this is true - I don’t know - but I do know that the ‘jump start’ of spending time at Harvard sure comes pretty close. 

Advice to other Early Career Researchers?

What would my advice to other Early Career Researchers be? Give it a go! If you are in any doubt, speak to someone who has done a visiting scholarship before and they will convince you. Yes, applying does take time and awards are competitive, but there is something liberating about giving yourself permission to think big. Like, really big. ‘If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you want to go?’ kind of big (this is the question my supervisor asked me when we were discussing the possibility of an international placement). The experience of applying for a grant is undoubtedly valuable. The experience of being open to possibility and believing in yourself is game-changing. And who knows, perhaps you too will get to go and work with the researcher(s) who wrote your favourite paper.

Emma Nielsen

Posted on Wednesday 21st December 2016

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