Do you get to travel a lot as a PhD researcher?

During a PhD there can be many opportunities for travel around the globe. But beware, it's not all benefits.

Do you get to travel a lot as a PhD researcher?
Travelling can be one of the perks of a PhD

A PhD is a great way to have opportunities to see the world on a budget.

You can absolutely get to travel all over the world during your PhD. Particularly within STEM subjects you are often actively encouraged to attend far flung places in person. And there's no reason why you can't extend your stay to make the most of your time there.

Opportunities to see the world

International conferences, by definition of course, are held all over the world. For annual conferences organised by International societies, they can even be in a different country each year. Obviously you need a legitimate reason to attend any conference but for most subjects there are plenty of events to choose from.

If you find one you would like to go to, then generally your stipend or budget will cover any costs associated to attend. This includes return travel, accommodation, conference fees and food. There is usually always the option to apply for extra funding from other providers if your budget won't stretch that far. Often large conferences offer bursaries for early career researchers and researchers from low income countries to help them attend.

The upside of all this, is that if you want to extend the time that you want to stay in the country by a week to have a holiday then that's OK! You would need to cover the costs for that extra week, but you can rest safe in the knowledge that your return travel has already been paid for. In fact, sometimes it means you can save money on your stipend by staying a few days more and take opportunity to get cheaper travel home; it's a win-win!

People out hiking looking at the mountains and the river with a boat
You might get to go to some amazing places as part of your PhD

Of course it doesn't have to be exotic international travel. There may be opportunities to visit regional labs or institutions. There's also often a course or two that you would benefit from attending in person. If you have a field-based component to your PhD, then there may be plenty of options for sites you need to visit. If you're lucky (or unlucky?!) then your field site might be at the top of a mountain or other wild lands far away from civilisation. You may even have an International field site where you can stay for long periods of time, immersing yourself in the culture and traditions of that country Or visiting libraries or international collections that hold items key to the topic of your research.

Limitations on travelling for a PhD

It's not all super rosy though as there are some limitations to be aware of. Depending on the timing of the conference, you may not be able to fit in a holiday afterwards. PhDs are very demanding and sometimes it's not possible to fit it in. Bear in mind, everyone deserves a holiday though! I am encouraged to take at least 4 weeks off a year.

Money is often the most limiting factor. Most student stipends will stretch to only one or maybe two medium distance big conferences so prioritise where you want to go. It's probably a better idea to save a big one up for nearer the end. This is when you'll have a good body of research to go with and talk about. Aiming to get a talk in international conferences will make your money seem more worth it. And you're (probably) more likely to get a presentation if you have a good backing of interesting results behind you.

With the global pandemic changing how we work, many international conferences now have a strong online presence. Whilst there is nothing like attending in person from a networking perspective, there may be occasions when it makes more sense to attend virtually. And this leads me onto my final comment; your carbon emissions.

Family looking at the impact of urban trees on reducing carbon emissions
Try to consider your CO2 emissions when travelling during your PhD

The biggest contributor to most research and particularly a PhD's carbon cost, is international travel; specifically flights. Attendance at conferences is estimated to be 35% of the total carbon footprint of a PhD (Achten, Almeida and Muys, 2013).

By choosing to stay at home you are making a huge difference to reducing your impacts on climate change. To give you an idea, due to participant travel Nathans and Sterling (2016) estimated that the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting, has a "carbon footprint of 1000 medium-sized laboratories". This is pretty insane.

Conferences are increasingly aware of the carbon cost they entail and are starting to make efforts to curb and/or offset emissions.

Where have I travelled to so far in my PhD

Well that's a good question! Unfortunately the pandemic got in the way of my first and second year, so the furthest I've got is Glasgow. But I've got a field site in Dundee so have the opportunity to travel there regularly. I'm hoping for something more exotic over the next few years! Watch this space.