A change is as good as a holiday

The UKCCSRC Early Career Researcher (ECR) International Exchange Fund allowed me to escape the Scottish winter and travel 9,156 miles to Perth, Western Australia, to undertake some exciting research with Dr Linda Stalker, Science Director of the National Geosequestration Laboratory (NGL) and her team. From mid-November 2015 to mid-February 2016 I was based at NGL, which is nested amongst part of the CSIRO Energy Team, in the Australian Resources Research Centre (ARRC), Perth. I have written an account of my research visit in a partner blog, A sunny secondment: My visit to Australia’s National Geosequestration Lab.

I found the whole experience refreshing. Surprisingly refreshing. I mean, like, off the scale refreshing. My CCS friends said I was positively glowing when I was in Australia (from the inside, i.e. not just because of the tan, or because it was unbelievably hot). I was not anticipating this. I thought I was going to go and do some cool research, meet some great people, and see some interesting natural environments. In actual fact it was all of these things, and a thousand more.

This confused me at first. I mean, I really like Glasgow, I have established a very wonderful life there, it is a great city full of great people, I enjoy my job, and working with my colleagues at Strathclyde, ClimateXChange and beyond. So, why was spending a decent chunk of time working somewhere removed from ‘the usual’ so entirely refreshing and positive? It all felt a bit soul-searchy, but I discussed these feelings with a number of individuals who has also undertaken a couple of months of work abroad, and they expressed or echoed similar thoughts to my own.

So, reflecting on my recent experience, and also the reflections from my colleagues, here are a couple of suggestions as to why being away from ‘normality’ felt so flippin’ liberating:

The natural environment
It was warm. Ok. That *is* because I went to a very toasty part of the Southern Hemisphere. And it really was very very very warm at times (incapacitatingly so). But it was sunny and dry. And if it did rain, it was a wonderfully welcome phenomenon often accompanied by spectacular electric storms. Quite markedly removed from the incessant rain that is so characteristic of the West of Scotland (and the whole UK this winter, by the sounds of it). I always cycled to work in the sunshine on traffic light, pot-hole free roads. The wildlife was all bonkers, and made noises like something out of Edward Lear skits. I felt I was always hyper-alert, in a good way (not in the way that can often be caused by stress). It felt like my vision was crisper, and that I noticed …everything. It is an enjoyable state.

Not a cloud in the sky in February as I cycle a scenic route home from work.

The workplace environment
The newly built collaboration space was really – well – collaborative! Eye contact could be made and a quick check meant that impromptu discussions on the research aspects could be had between myself, Linda and Matt easily. I really took advantage of those unscheduled moments to rapidly progress ideas – which is important for brief research visits. I had no weekend/out of hours access. I was light heartedly told-off by someone leaving the office if I happened to still be at my desk at 5.15 pm or so. And there are yoga sessions twice weekly at lunchtimes, at no charge…‘nuff said. All this slowly rubs off on you.

The work itself
Things like Summer Schools and fieldwork are obviously quite unlike the day-to-day work of a post-doc. My activities in the New Year were steadier, and so more comparable to ‘usual’ work. That said, given the nature of my post, it was a break from my norm to be wholly focussed on two very-related research projects that were driven entirely by me. The work was also, ultimately, for me, too. Yes the work would benefit Linda and Science and CCS and all that too, of course it would, but I was doing this research because I felt it was important to get it completed and published (and so, evidently, did UKCCSRC since they chose to fund my visit). This focus meant that everything else was put to one side, or took the backbench for a couple of months. There were fewer plates spinning at once (or, at least, I was responsible for keeping fewer plates in rotation at any great speed at any one time). I might take this approach more often as it’s a bit of a busman’s holiday!

Weather forecast and fieldwork landscape

The distance
The above were all so completely new that it really *felt* like I was the other side of the world. Like I was. The difference in time-zone, and being away from my desk so much, meant that things like emails lost their urgency. No one really minds if you don’t respond straight away (in fact, sometimes it is helpful to allow some time to pass) – I know that from time-management and leadership courses. However, it is a great deal easier to implement when you are the other side of the world.
Outside of work, you sort of have no friends. At least you don’t to start with. Your friends in the UK are all asleep when you are awake (my phone used to get a flurry of excitement at around 3 pm AUS time, which was when folk in the UK were starting to wake up and receive the correspondence that I had sent the evening before). This means that you have oodles more time. Time time time. Time to explore or wander or think or draw or go for a cycle or do pilates or whatever the hell you fancy. Or work, guilt free. Or do nothing. Whatever you want or need. I might have actually had too much time, had I not had family near to Perth. Each weekend, I could go and be entertained and exhausted by my niece; a wonderful, simple and joyous endeavour.

Morning picture

You know your time is finite
I don’t mean that the end of your life is imminent – aeroplanes really are a very low-risk form of transport. No, I mean that your time overseas is finite. A placement is for a couple of weeks or months, and so you really make the most of your time there, both inside and outside of work. At work, things go much faster when you have a finite time frame; meetings can’t be deferred too much, emails need swifter responses, questions can’t be parked for so long. Outside of work, you go do stuff. Because if you don’t, you wont get another chance (for a while at least).

Your life in a compact suitcase
It feels different from home when you have only a couple of outfits and a handful of other things. Fewer choices. Obama style. Except Obama chooses to do this to avoid decision-fatigue, whereas I simply didn’t own that many summer clothes – they are redundant in Glasgow for 99% of the time.

These are just a few ideas, from my perspective. Some readers who’ve had similar opportunities may have slightly different views or ideas to contribute. Its also worth saying that these experiences might not always be so positive, you could be put in a dingy office on your own, far away from any of your support network, perhaps in a culture extremely different to what you are used to, and perhaps with limited activities or resources on your doorstep. There were people I spoke with who were lumped with some of these things. However, some positives inevitably came out of these visits also. I am extremely grateful to a number of ‘bodies’  – individuals and organisations – that made my time down-under so successful and rewarding (please see ‘Who supported my visit? in my other post).

One final thing to ponder on is that overseas placements might be particularly welcome at this stage of my career and life. Most folk – though not all – who shared their experiences with me had done their placement(s) as an ECR. Perhaps this is because it is when we might be most mobile, and/or more eager for and receptive to personal development experiences. I’m not sure on this one. However, I am pretty sure that, should I progress far enough in my career, I am going to flippin’ love a sabbatical …