The university visit

Last week I was at a conference in Vienna and next week I am speaking at a conference in Spain. Although my love of Canberra runs deep, I was hardly going to ‘pop’ back to Australia for the interim. So what to do?

Like many far-flung colleagues in my field attending both meetings, I set about organising some institutional visits. After several years of muted travelling, I had a few casual “come and visit us” invitations that I hadn’t taken up. I emailed colleagues and expressed my firm interest in visiting.

The university visit is a common feature of academic life. It is up there with conferences, dodging emails and forgetting it was your turn to bring biscuits to the group meeting. Although they are common, these visits can take different forms.

A few years back, I took up an invitation to visit a university in the USA. I had been casually invited by a colleague at several previous meetings and when I was planning to fly across the Pacific for a 2-day meeting in a neighbouring state, the time seemed perfect to actually take up the offer.

My host was brilliant. The visit was fairly formal, which seems more typical of visits in the US. In advance, I was invited to give a departmental seminar and to teach a Masters class. I was provided with funds for travel and accommodation. My details were widely distributed and week long schedule of meetings, lunches and dinners was coordinate for me.

Basically, I left Australia an ordinary postdoc and arrived on campus feeling like a rockstar. It was exciting and useful for cementing previously loose collaborations. It was also exhausting!

Other university visits are more organic (/haphazard/chaotic..). Sometimes a visitor arrives at a University having been invited or coordinated well in advance to a startled welcome of “Oh, you’re here…” or an even more concerning “where do I know you from again?”

While such visits can seem deflating, all is not lost. Any chance to meet postdocs or students or talk about work can be valuable for hearing about new work in the field or new data that can be shared. These meetings are also useful for other people – learning to confidently and concisely talk about research is a key skill that students need to learn, and having international visitors can help students along.

Even in cases where the visit seems to be completely derailed, the rare chance to have some space can be invaluable. Being in a new environment with vast physical space or a time zone juncture from ordinary research life can allow creativity and connections to occur.

Most often, research visits fall in between the surprise at your arrival and the military-like schedule of adoration. More typically, your host and their group will be excited to have you there, will have loosely organised some meetings and a lunch with you and will have advertised your seminar to a wider audience.

In my experience, getting the most value out of a research visit is about being flexible. It is great to have an idea in advance about what you would like to present and discuss, and who you would like to meet with. At the same time, academics are busy and notoriously badly organised, so it’s good to be flexible and open to different outcomes and possibilities. This will allow you the best chance of developing collaborations, making connections and being open to possibilities for your own research.

This week I have squeezed in two visits at different universities, which have both left me craving more time to talk to these colleagues. As I left one university yesterday, I was so exhilarated by the day’s discussions that I discarded ongoing work and began writing a new paper on the train. It turns out that my week of visits will be just as valuable on this trip as the conferences that brought me over to Europe in the first place.

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