From September to December 2019 I went on an Overseas Institutional Visit (OIV) to McMaster University in Canada. During my time at McMaster I was hosted by Professor Gavin Andrews, an academic based in the faculty of Health, Aging & Society. His work ranges from gerontology, to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), to theoretical work in health geography.
The University is based in the city of Hamilton, a post-industrial steel city in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) on the shore of Lake Ontario that lies in the traditional territories of the Mississauga and Haudenosaunee nations. Over the 12 weeks I developed a real fondness for Hamilton (or HamOnt, or the Hammer). It has a vibrant arts, film and creative community and houses a number of independent cafes and restaurants; and as a consequence, it sometimes referred to as the Brooklyn of Canada.
Also, due to the city’s architectural mix and low permit costs, the film and television industry uses the area as filming locations. Shows such as HBO’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and Netflix’s ‘Umbrella Academy’ have been filmed in the city.
The Overseas Institutional Visit (OIV) scheme is a funding opportunity available to ESRC funded students (more information on the scheme can be found here). The scheme aims to provide the opportunity for postgraduate researchers to study at an overseas research institution for up to 13 weeks, in order to network with academics and researchers by participating in departmental seminars, events, and training activities.
I was inspired to apply for the scheme back in my first year of study. I was introduced to the funding at the SWDTP’s induction, and then again when I spoke to a second year PhD researcher who was about to spend 13 weeks at a university in New York. Subsequently, I hastily wrote the trip into my ongoing research plan for the PhD upgrade review process, whilst searching for an academic I could work with overseas.
I felt that the opportunity to meet and work with academics and graduate students from an overseas university would be highly beneficial to my development as a researcher (which it certainly was!). Moreover, the prospect of working with Gavin was exciting – I had read and used his research since my undergraduate course, and felt that being supervised by him would provide new and different lines of thought and ways of doing in health geography. I also hoped the trip would give me some time to reflect on my research post-fieldwork – as a much needed opportunity to think, network, write, and read in a new and exciting research environment.
Planning the visit
Organising the trip required planning and communication with multiple people and institutions. Early on I contacted Gavin to ensure he was available during my planned visit time, and I also spoke to my supervisors to make sure they were aware of my intentions. Communicating early was important as the application processes requires that your supervisor and host each write a supporting statement. Also, bear in mind the length of the application process itself, which at the SWDTP takes up to a month.
Once I had received confirmation of the funding, I liaised with administrators at McMaster about my status and registration as visiting student, and the fees I required to pay for this (and to note that the OIV fund does not fund your institutional cost, although this is normally a nominal amount, it’s worth trying to get this waived).
One thing that I found particularly challenging was finding suitable accommodation for my length of stay. Student sub-lets for the dates I required did not seem to exist, and was naive to the process of renting in Canada. On my application I had applied for a sufficient budget to allow me to stay in a long-term Airbnb (something I recommend doing as it gives you the flexibility that rentals may not). In the end I went with that option, and was hugely glad that I did. My Airbnb hosts (including their dog Cali) were incredible, and were local to the area meaning that they could recommend places to visit and, most importantly, cafes where I could find good coffee!
Reflections on the scheme
My time in Canada has been the highlight of my PhD so far. It came at an ideal time in my research trajectory. I flew out a month after I had finished my fieldwork and transcription, and the contract for my student house had ended. The timing meant that the visit gave me time to reflect on my progress and the work I had completed to date. Moreover, I felt worn down by the academic culture in the UK. The sticky sensations of anxiety and imposter syndrome were overwhelming, crippling my ability to write or talk about my research. Throwing myself in the deep-end with new challenges in a different country was both scary but also intensely energising; scrambling up my habits and mindset I had towards my research and extending my thinking whilst reading widely for the research project I did with Gavin.
My time in Canada was hugely productive both personally: I travelled around Ontario and Quebec, visiting Niagara Falls, Toronto, and Montreal; I found a new sense of self-worth and motivation; I also met some incredible people. And academically: I planned the structure of my thesis; I drafted a thesis chapter; I researched and wrote a review paper with Gavin which was submitted to the Canadian Geographer; and I networked and chatted with graduate students and academics – creating ongoing research and social connections.
I would encourage any SWDTP funded student who is eligible to apply to the scheme, and to get in touch with me if you want any advice or guidance on the application process and the visit itself.
Finally, I’d like to acknowledge and thank the SWDTP for funding the overseas visit to McMaster in order to work with Gavin. As well as the faculty, administrative staff, academics, and graduate students for their hospitality, support, and kindness during her time at the University.
To read more about Overseas Institutional Visits and how to apply: Click Here