Out of the basement to go down under: doing an international visit

“I have recently (pretty) successfully completed the task of co-ordinating an international visit as part of my NIHR Clinical Lectureship. I thought it might be helpful to others planning training to share some of the things that worked well for me…and some that didn’t!!”

By Sarah Moore

Trying to organise the chaos of my clinical, academic and family life to enable me to get out of my basement office and off our manic ward and go down under to visit some of the world leads in stroke recovery and rehabilitation research was by no means an easy task.

Planning an international visit when you have a young family and clinical academic commitments is a logistical nightmare. This nightmare may lead some to put off or not even attempt to co-ordinate an international visit. I didn’t want this to happen as for me the visit was an opportunity worth the large headache and hours of meticulous planning.

From the start of planning my lectureship I was very clear that I wanted to visit Professor Julie Bernhardt’s team at the Florey Institute in Melbourne. Julie is a world lead in stroke recovery and rehabilitation research and has been an inspiration of mine for many years. I’ve also been lucky enough to meet a number of Julie’s mentees at conferences over the years and was keen to travel to Australia to meet build on existing and potential collaborations. So I wrote an international visit into my fellowship training and development plan, put some initial feelers out with Julie’s team and then spent three years trying to work out how on earth I was going to make this happen!!

Tip 1: Don’t be frightened to approach someone from your field who inspires you and ask if you can visit them or their group. Most people will be flattered that you want to learn more about their work or learn from their mentorship.

Tip 2: A lot of this trip was initiated by chatting to people when presenting posters of my work at conferences. Never under estimate the value of presenting a poster and the networking it can create….and sometimes you even win prizes…thank you SSA 2019 😉

I’d originally planned to go away for three months…which in retrospect was ridiculous when the longest I can be away from my family is about two nights without having palpitations!! It also was logistically impossible to be away for too long due to my clinical commitments and the fact I have two relatively large studies currently recruiting. I needed to find a balance of not being away for too long, but being away for long enough to make it worthwhile. As I didn’t think two nights would really allow me to even get to Australia from the UK, I decided I needed to find a happy medium and in the end opted for a two week visit.

Tip 3: Be realistic about how much time you can be away, particularly if you have a young family.

Tip 4: Start planning a long time in advance. You may need leave granted from your NHS role, which may need to be reviewed by a board before you leave…this all takes time. The timing of the conference I wished to attend as part of the visit also coincided nicely with the end of school holidays enabling my family to come out with me for a holiday before my visit. Without the support of my family, I would not be able to undertake this crazy clinical academic career it was therefore essential that they were able to share part of this trip with me.

Being able to take my daughter to the Great Barrier Reef to see parrotfish pooing sand in real life also somewhat abated my guilt for sending her and my husband home whilst I stayed to work for two weeks!!

Having an amazing holiday with my family however, did not help when I had to say goodbye and was left standing by myself crying in the middle of the street… half way around the world…. all alone.

Further tears ensued when I missed my daughter loose her two front teeth. It was only a trip at the weekend to the old Melbourne Gaol that made me realise my life wasn’t really that hard and my isolation was only temporary!

Tip 5: Try to take your family along for part of the trip, but also create time and space for you to make the most of your training (and pack many hankies for when they leave!!!)

I think being away from my family for two weeks really made me focus on planning what I could achieve and start to build, in a relatively short space of time.

One of the things that worked really well for me during this trip was the inclusion of attendance at a relevant conference. I knew that many people I had started/wanted to build collaborations with would be at this conference so it was a great place to show case my work.

Some of the people I met at the conference were also at the Florey Institute the following week allowing me to follow-up conversations and observe work in progress.

I had planned a few essential elements of the trip including an invited presentation of my work and a mentorship session with Prof Julie Bernhardt but left quite a lot of time to be spent hot-desking. This allowed me to firstly keep an eye on my projects at home, secondly be free if any unplanned opportunities came my way (which they did) and thirdly it created time and space to reflect on my progress and plan.

Tip 6: Think about including a well-respected conference in your visit to allow you to meet lots of researchers and clinicians in a short space of time.

Tip 7: Create an opportunity to present you work to the team you are visiting. Time restraints meant that my presentation was just before I was due to leave but I would advise to try to do it earlier so you can follow up on conversations your presentation creates.

Tip 8: Try to fully prepare your invited presentations before the conferences and the visit…. I failed in this as I was too busy trying to co-ordinate a plan to keep my projects running when I was away. This meant I was preparing and panicking about my presentation when I should have been absorbing what was going on around me

Tip 9: I found it useful to visit a university with a hospital onsite. This allowed me to observe research being undertaken but also gain an understanding of clinical services in another continent. Be mindful you may need to gain observer status to allow this to happen in some countries.

As I already mentioned, an important part of my trip was a follow up mentorship session with Prof Julie Bernhardt. I’ve been inspired by Julie’s work for years since one of her early publications (‘inactive and alone’ on physical activity after stroke) caught my eye and led me to undertake my own research endeavours in this field.

Pre-fellowship, in the wilderness of early post PhD life, I had previously plucked up the courage to ask for a mentorship session with Julie. Although short, this session had been pivotal in my decision to pursue a further clinical academic career, and had been a driver in my subsequent NIHR Clinical Lectureship application.

This follow on international visit provided me with the opportunity to observe Julie’s team at work and to receive further inspiring mentorship. My original mentorship had been via skype but meeting face-to-face and spending time working in the same institute as Julie allowed me to pick up some really useful advice (sometimes in short catch ups e.g. whilst making a cup of tea!).

Tip 9: Great mentorship is key and even in short sessions can be effective.

My final overall take on this visit is that although it required meticulous planning it was worth the effort.

Tip 10: Get out of your basement and out exploring as who knows where it will lead!!