Renée Bultijnck, from Ghent University, shares her international experience at the University of Sydney
I obtained my Master of Science in Health Education and Health Promotion in 2014 at Ghent University. After my teachers training and one year as a research assistant, I started my PhD fellowship at Ghent University, Faculty of Medicine and Health Science, supervised by Prof dr. Piet Ost and Prof. dr. Benedicte Deforche, funded by Research Foundation Flanders (FWO).
Currently, I am conducting a part of my PhD fellowship abroad at the University of Sydney, Faculty of Science, Centre for Medical Psychology & Evidence-based Decision-making, supervised by A/Prof. dr. Haryana Dhillon, funded by an additional travel scholarship by FWO.
My research focuses on the translation and implementation of exercise programs for men with prostate cancer.
My academia experiences
Where do/can I start with this topic? I have the opportunity to work in a very open, collaborative and experienced research environment at the University of Sydney. Especially, the type of expertise is complementary to that of which I can rely on from Ghent University. So, it is a no brainer that contentwise I have learned a lot, but my learning possibilities go much further than only content. I had the opportunity to attend and participate in 3 conferences, several courses and lectures and engage with academic community through extra curriculars (e.g. Pedalthon fundraising event, network events, etc.). Therefore, I was able to further develop my international profile as researcher. I also absorbed new ideas on structures and processes in academia (for instance better poster design & 3-minute thesis presentation).
An added value is the combination of having guidance from both a A/professor, Haryana Dhillon and a postdoc researcher, Jasmine Yee. Due to their networks, I was able to arrange some visits with other research teams and their clinical trials.
Another important learning experience was improving my overall soft skills because of the new start somewhere else and new culture. Furthermore, I am keen on not only having benefit for my own personal scientific growth but also expand this benefit to others. For instance, I am convinced that my research stay will also enhance my research group and department back home and create new collaboration opportunities.
The majority of people tend to think you are living the ‘good life fantasy’. By this, I mean other people often only see the advantages of going abroad. In reality, while I am living in another country, I still also go to work 5 days a week. I do have to admit my weekends are more adventurous because of the new possibilities compared to weekends back home and life is simpler.
Another thing you need to take into consideration living abroad is that your personal ‘stress bucket’ has an extra layer because you are living in a different country/city and culture. Therefore, it is crucial that you create a new supporting environment. I can recommend investing in social life, either with people from work, other international students (try social media groups) or via a sport club for instance. Also get familiarized with the new culture/language, even if for instance both countries are western countries, there is still a lot of cultural differences. The sooner you learn these differences the better you can incorporate them. Communication is key!
Although my overall experience living in Australia was filled with a lot of positive enjoyment of fauna and flora, I unfortunately also faced the direct impact of the bushfires in Australia. An area larger than my home country has already gone up in flames. My gratitude and thoughts go to those who work day and night to combat these fires.
I also have to mention this unexpected negative one, “I did not know that cockroaches could be that big!”
Below the Belt Pedalthon fundraising event (a challenge to make the world different, 4 hours to defeat 4 below the belt cancers testicular, prostate, kidney and bladder by cycling and raising money and awareness).
Tips & tricks
The most important tip I can give is to start early enough, especially for countries that are across continents (with a high administration load due to visa requests). A move abroad for a longer period (>3 months) is not something you just do and therefore requires the necessary preparation time. Both at the work level (ranging from looking a host institution to applying for funding) and private-related matters, there are many things you need to take into consideration (such as visa approval, housing, insurance). Ask, as early as possible, the host institution and your own university about support they offer. Try to contact other researchers that went to the same country/institution to get familiarized with the country and institution specific processes. Finally, think about the timing (the official academic year can differ from your own institution) and total duration of your visit. I had the choice for 3 or 6 months, but I am grateful that I opted for 6 months. It takes time to familiarize yourself with the new research group and as you all know research takes time and delays are not rare. Incorporate also some time to get logistics sorted (preferable before you actually start) such as opening a bank account, settling down in you new housing, insurance/medical arrangements, etc.
To summarize, some main factors positively affecting my overall international experience both professionally and privately; my relationship with my host research team, work and transition support from my research team back home, financial support, investing in social life, adjusting to new academia cultures and the general culture differences, and make sure to keep in touch with your family and friends.
“Going abroad as a researcher is a great learning experience that you can reuse over and over”