My overseas institutional visit to Case Western Research University

Jingwen Zhang, Social Statistics, University of Manchester (2020 Cohort)

From the end of September to November 2022, I visited Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in the United States funded by the NWSSDTP (Overseas institutional visits/OIV scheme). This visit was one of the most fruitful and valuable experiences that I have had since my PhD started. In this blog, I would like to share some tips for the application process and my experiences during the visit.  

Tips for OIV application

The first step for applying for OIV funding is identifying a host supervisor who can support your application. Conceivably, the ideal host supervisor is a prominent scholar in your field with whom you would like to work or whose research areas are closely linked to your PhD project. However, the career stage of the potential supervisor and the administrative roles they shoulder are also practical factors to consider because they determine whether they have time to host you and what resources they can provide for you. It could also improve your response rate if you and your home supervisors have a prior connection with the host.

I would recommend starting to prepare your application at least 6 months before the application deadline. That will give you enough time to identify a suitable host supervisor and plan your visit. During this time, you can apply for relevant academic conferences or look for training opportunities in the destination country. These are all key components of a strong and successful application. Meanwhile, you can discuss with the potential host supervisor how they can contribute to your PhD research. If you plan to conduct a collaborative research project, it would be more effective to discuss this with the potential host prior to the visit, especially if your visit is less than three months.

Supervision and collaboration

I was hosted by Professor Jessica Kelley from the Department of Sociology at CWRU. She is a leading expert in my field and the chief editor of a top journal in social gerontology. Professor Kelley supported me very well during my visit. We met on a weekly basis to discuss my PhD project and a research project that we are collaborating on. We have completed the initial data analysis for the collaborative work and plan to further develop it into a co-authored journal publication.

To support my research skill development, Professor Kelley organised a series of advanced quantitative method workshops for me and other PhD students. These workshops focused on statistical models beyond standard curricular and practical issues not covered by statistics textbooks. I benefited a lot from these workshops as they addressed some challenges I faced during my own PhD project.

Engaged in departmental research and social activities

This department at CWRU specialises in ageing and life course studies which is closely linked to my research interests. Professor Kelley tried to involve me in all departmental academic and social activities. On my induction day, Professor Kelley introduced me to PhD students from the department who share similar research and methodological interests with me and Professor Dale Dannefer, a prestigious scholar in life course studies. They helped me enormously during my stay and I benefitted from our many opportunities to exchange ideas about our research.

The Department of Sociology regularly organised work-in-progress seminars. I actively participated in them and provided feedback to presenters. I also presented the preliminary findings from the fourth empirical chapter of my PhD, which I was working on during my visit. Students and faculty from the department offered me useful feedback to further develop this chapter. I also attended monthly departmental seminars focusing on professional and career development, which will be instrumental for my future career. In one seminar, Professor Kelley provided an insider’s view on the peer review process, and offered top tips on journal choice and addressing reviewer’s comments. As I am at the stage of transforming my PhD chapters to publications, her suggestions were very timely and instrumental in helping me prepare my manuscripts.

Taking PhD-level courses

As opposed to the UK, PhD students in American universities undertake advanced level courses before conducting independent research. To fully embrace American learning culture and further enrich my subject knowledge, I audited three courses: “Development in Sociological Theory”, “Social Inequality”, and “Advanced Statistical Methods”. The learning in the former two courses was underpinned by prior reading and seminar-based discussion. Given that my undergraduate and master’s degree were methodologically-focused, these two theory courses complemented my training, increased the depth of my knowledge, and developed my critical thinking skills. These two courses developed my interest in the racial inequality in American society and inspired me to consider this area in my future research. As I use quantitative method in my PhD, the course on “Advanced Statistical Methods” further enhanced my quantitative skills.

Attending conferences and establishing research networks

The visit in the US enabled me to disseminate my research to a wider audience. I presented at two important academic conference: the Society for Longitudinal and Lifecourse Studies (SLLS) annual conference and the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) annual. Both of them were attended by leading experts in my field, and the latter one is the largest international conference in the field of gerontology. I received many comments and questions from the conference attendees which were very helpful for me to strengthen my thesis. More importantly, I communicated with several researchers, whom I cited in my own thesis, during the session breaks and receptions. As an early career researcher, these conferences provided me with valuable opportunities to build my research network that will be essential for future collaborations and my academic career.

In summary, the OIV at CWRU enabled me to disseminate my work to a wider audience, develop my network with established scholars and promising peers, collaborate with international scholars, and learn new skills to enrich my research toolkit. It also exposed me to a different social and cultural environment, which is not only inspiring for my future research but was a unique and valuable life experience. I am very grateful for the generous funding from the NWSSDTP and I highly recommend ESRC-funded PhD students to make use of the funding opportunities to undertake an overseas institutional visit.

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