November 9, 2023, by Postgraduate Placements Nottingham

3 reasons not to go on an overseas institutional visit

Jennifer Norris, School of Education, University of Nottingham



I went on a 3 month research visit to Uppsala, Sweden in the spring of 2023. It was fantastic but also challenging. I know others have shared some of the many benefits of an overseas visit on this blog, so I thought I would balance things out by talking about some challenges.

#1. Loneliness

Three months is a weird amount of time to be away from home. It’s long enough to get homesick, but not long enough to really settle in. Although I was in the department every day, a lot of academic staff worked from home so it could get pretty quiet in the office. The reason for my visit was to get hands-on experience of qualitative data analysis using a particular discourse theory of learning called commognition theory. It turned out this involved a lot of independent work – just me and the computer. While I had very helpful weekly chats with my local supervising academic, he trusted me to mostly get on with it on my own.

On top of this, I was not registered on the university network, so had to rely on the friendly local PhD students to pass on information about seminars and social events. And then I had to occupy myself in evenings and weekends too. I did slowly meet people through local folk dance groups, and a highlight of the visit was being invited to a midsummer party on my last weekend in Sweden – all night music, food, and dancing alongside a stunning lake.

#2. Finding accommodation

An office in Sweden

An office in Sweden is just an office

Booking temporary accommodation in a place you’ve never been can also be tricky. For me it was third time lucky. Uppsala University housing office initially offered me a place in an undergraduate halls of residence, next to an ongoing building site. As a mature student who is used to having my own space, I just couldn’t face the thought of going back into a student flat so I turned down the offer. Then my back up plan fell through. When originally costing my visit I had provisionally booked a small flat through Airbnb. But I later discovered that the overseas institutional visit (OIV) funding won’t pay for Airbnb accommodation, it’s just one of the rules. Luckily, Uppsala University came through with a second offer, this time for a ‘visiting researcher’ studio apartment which suited me much better.

#3. Extra expenses

The OIV funding I received generously covered transport and accommodation, without which I definitely could not have made the trip. But I did end up spending far more on day to day expenses than I would at home. Firstly, food and drink in Sweden is hugely expensive so my grocery bill skyrocketed. And secondly, you can’t be overseas without becoming a bit of a tourist, so I ended up spending extra on museums, concerts and souvenirs. On the plus side, I had all my Christmas shopping done by the end of June!

So was it worth going? On balance, it definitely was.

Traditional dancing around the midsommar pole

Traditional dancing around the midsommar pole

Firstly, the experience was hugely helpful in giving my a new perspective on my PhD project and the confidence to analyse qualitative data all by myself. In Sweden I was analysing the discourse in university mathematics teaching, back home on my PhD I’m analysing mathematical discourse in A-level exam papers. I’m currently in the messy early stages of this process and it’s so helpful to have been through this once before and know that if I sit with it, patterns will start to emerge. My PhD supervisors haven’t used this kind of analysis themselves, so having my own understanding of the process is really valuable. And maybe I can teach them something too.

Perhaps more importantly, I’m proud of myself for having had the courage to get out of my comfort zone. Constantly being the new person in the room, and occasionally being the only non-Swedish speaker, was personally challenging. But putting myself in that position meant I was able to exchange ideas with local researchers, spend time with a wonderful, welcoming group of PhD students from around the world, and get to know a bit of Swedish culture along the way. My take home message? If anyone ever invites you for Swedish ‘fika’, say yes!

Published by the Researcher Academy: Championing researchers for the world

Posted in Researcher AcademyResearcher Mobility