Drop around for a visit

This article is based on material that I wrote in 1994, when working with Margaret Jackson and Rosemary O’Connor on a project related to encouraging research in disciplines that were not traditionally considered strong in research. It originally appeared in Margaret Jackson and Rosemary O’Connor. 1994, ‘Developing Academic Research Performance’. Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Melbourne, Australia.


Urbex image of an old and abandoned desk, with a bright orange chair behind it. On the wall is graffiti - TSJ
Beauty in decay #10, by Jinterwas, on Flickr.

Having someone come to visit is always nice. Unless they arrive unannounced, or stay too long, or too many people come at once, or… actually, there are a myriad of things that can go wrong with visitors.

Visiting researchers can be like that, too: a great boon to a research group when the visit is well planned, a special kind of hell for the guest when it isn’t.

Visits are usually initiated by individual staff members, based on their personal connections. However, the organisational support for the visit is generally provided by a research centre or group. They take a bit of work to organise, so it’s worth it to put in the planning time to make the visit a success.

How do you plan for a visiting scholar?

Well, if you were visiting, how would you want things to be organised? Thinking about the visit from the visitor’s point of view can help you to:

  • Clarify the purpose of the visit and set realistic expectations.
  • Understand the logistics and funding required to get a visitor to your campus.
  • Plan the actual visit, including a welcome kit for your visitor.

As a visitor, you would probably want to know why you are being invited to visit. This is often assumed and unstated, which can lead to mixed expectations.

Sometimes, the person or group that you are visiting have specific aims for your visit. If this is the case, you would probably want to know what they trying to do by inviting you along. How do they want to work with you? Are they trying to break into a new intellectual area? Are they interested in your research techniques? Are they looking for research leadership or are they just intellectually lonely? Having some idea before you arrive might help you to frame your expectations. It is too easy to lose sight of the main aim of the visit in all the ‘hail fellow, well met’ bonhomie.

You would definitely want to know if you are expected to sing for your supper so that you can prepare well ahead of time. Will you be expected to give a guest lecture or teach into a subject? When you are giving a talk, will it be to first-year undergraduates, the university professoriate or the general public? Researchers generally like to prepare their talks, so knowing the expected size and composition of the audience would be nice.

Meeting people who are working in allied areas is also valuable, even if they don’t happen to be in the inviting Centre or Department. As a visitor, you don’t care about the institutional silos of the place that you are visiting. You probably want to meet a lot of interesting people with related interests. Sometimes, it is useful to meet key people from the university management, too. It isn’t all about research – talking to the Faculty Dean can round out the picture of an organisation, and also make a visitor feel valued. This is especially true if you are trying to establish a reciprocal visiting program.

There are some very bits of basic information that you might like to know, too. Knowing in advice how the funding for your visit will work is vitally important. Will you be provided accommodation, or will you need to find your own? If it is provided, will it be on or close to campus? Knowing what you will need to pay for and what will be covered by the hosting organisation helps everybody get along.

Wherever you are visiting, there is a range of practical information that can help make your life easier. You will probably want to know how the local public transport works. You would probably want to look around the city on the weekends. If your host were to pre-purchase a travel pass for you, things might be enormously easier, knowing that you could just hop on and off any bus or train without having to puzzle out a completely foreign transport system.

While you would want some time to do your own work, you probably wouldn’t want to spend all your time working. You might want to have a drink with people at a pub, or even go out to dinner once or twice. You wouldn’t want to feel like you were left all alone to fend for yourself every night.

A program of visiting scholars

In some research groups, it seems like the organisation for a visit starts from scratch every time someone is invited to visit. Each individual visit is treated as a one-off event, so there is no framework in place to support visitors. A program of support helps make things easier.

To set up a program of support, your unit should think about how often you want to support a visiting researcher, and for how long. Do you want to try to have someone each year for six weeks, or every couple of years for six months? Thinking about questions like this will help you to understand how much work is involved, and what level of person you are looking for.

It will also help to understand who might, and might not, be interested in coming. Some people may only be able to come for personal reasons. Others may not want to travel half-way around the world for a short visit. You won’t know until you ask, but it is worth being prepared for their questions. Also, don’t underestimate the attraction of visiting another country. For some researchers, part of their interest in coming might be that they have never visited your country before.

You should think about where you are going to get the funds for this visit. Will the group be able to cover some or all of the costs? Can you identify internal university and external funding sources to meet costs of visitors? Do you need to prepare a business case or a grant application? Either way, having a library of past applications will save people time and effort. You will need to think about funding for airfares, accommodation and living expenses. You will also need to think about some space for them to work, and access to the library and the Internet. These may not all require funding, but if they can be included in a bid as in-kind contributions to the visit, that might help your case.

If you need to prepare a business case or a grant for this visit, think about why you want the person to come. It could be the simplest things that lead to a visit. Did they give a particularly inspiring presentation at a conference? Is their research key to your work – do you reference them a lot? Talk to the researchers that you work with – you may find that there are other people who are interested in having this visitor come, too.

Think about what could happen after a visit. You might be interested in the possibility of joint research, reciprocal visits, or co-supervision of students? If that is the case, it is worth talking about those possibilities during the visit, rather than trying to arrange them after your visitor has left.

Finally, think about the day to day practicalities of the visit. How they are going to get to the campus each day? What social aspects might you organise – you don’t want them ending up feeling lonely in a hotel room. These small touches are often what makes things memorable.

Visiting researchers can provide research inspiration in key areas, as well as encouragement and motivation to new researchers and postgraduate students. They can introduce new ideas and methods and can provide an impetus to research activity within the group.

A considerable amount of time is involved in arranging for the visit of an outside academic. Don’t let visits be a series of ad hoc events. Plan them, and learn from each one, so that the next one will run more smoothly and be more effective.

About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne in Australia. All opinions are his own. He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia. His ORCID is 0000-0001-5435-235X. The views expressed here are his personal views and are not the views of the University of Melbourne.

One Response to Drop around for a visit

  1. Short visits, of a few days, to a university can be arranged informally. If I don’t know anyone at the institution, I search through my LinkedIn contacts to see who could introduce me. Once I have one contact, that can be used for further introductions. If nothing else this usually results in a good lunch.

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