For Brazilian psychology graduate student Luciana Dutra Thomé, one of the most important research tools is her passport.
Now in her final year at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Dutra Thomé realized early on that few researchers in her home country focused on her area of interest, emerging adulthood. She didn't let that stop her: Instead, she packed her bags and headed to Clark University in Worcester, Mass. She spent last year there working with a top researcher on the topic, taking classes and networking with students and professors.
The experience gave Dutra Thomé fresh insight into her work, exposed her to new research methodologies and helped her improve her English. And the benefits keep coming: She's now collaborating with her emerging adulthood research group on an article comparing data from Brazil and the United States.
Brazil — along with many other nations, including Germany and Japan — actively encourages graduate students to "sandwich" time abroad in between years at their home institutions. For Dutra Thomé, the term has another meaning. "The experience of living abroad is something new that's added to our sandwich," she says. "When we come back, the sandwich has another flavor."
Americans also benefit from adding international spice to their grad school training, says Lauren Levy, a doctoral student in the counseling psychology program at the University of Iowa, who has studied abroad in Guatemala. In a 2012 paper in Training and Education in Professional Psychology, she argues that international experiences can help psychology students prepare to serve an increasingly diverse population back home — especially given the burgeoning immigrant population in the United States.
"It's really important for grad students and psychology professionals to understand how culture, class, nationality and very different socioeconomic conditions affect psychological well-being," Levy says.
With some planning and a little luck, American students can take Levy's advice and visit other countries, whether they want to enhance their language skills, spend a year doing research in a lab at a foreign institution, explore international career opportunities or just attend a conference.
For Levy, it was a desire to hone her Spanish skills that prompted her to pack her bags and head to Guatemala five years ago — the first of several six-week trips south of the border.
Levy's new goal? Perfecting her Spanish to the point where she's able to conduct therapy in the language.
"There's a real lack of mental health care for Spanish-speaking people in the United States, especially in areas like Iowa," she says, adding that the situation is much worse for smaller ethnic minority populations. "Many people consider Iowa a pretty white-dominated state, but actually the demographics in a state like Iowa are changing the most dramatically, with immigrant people coming from all over the world."
On her first visit to Guatemala, Levy enrolled in an intensive language course. Such programs, which may entail one-on-one or small group training, exist all over the world. "You can learn a lot in a relatively short period of time," she says.
Over the course of several visits, Levy has done more than just improve her fluency. She has gotten so enmeshed in the culture that she cofounded a nonprofit organization devoted to reducing violence against women in Guatemala.
International travel isn't just for future therapists. Psychological researchers can also benefit from time spent abroad. Take Natalie Brito, a human development and public policy grad student at Georgetown University. For her dissertation on memory differences between monolingual and bilingual infants, she needed young children who spoke two very similar languages. "I hypothesized that if the languages were more similar, bilingual infants might have an even bigger advantage in memory flexibility. It takes more effort to discriminate Spanish and Catalan than Spanish and English, therefore the type of language could have an effect on bilingual cognitive development," she explains.
The solution? Spending two months last summer as a visiting researcher at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, where she joined a psycholinguist's lab and studied bilingual infants exposed to Catalan and Spanish.
"It was great to have a participant pool I wouldn't have access to at home," says Brito. And while Brito's advisor back home focuses on cognition, her Spanish collaborator has three decades of experience working on the language side of infancy — a new perspective that has changed Brito's ideas about what underlies the bilingual cognitive advantage during early childhood. She also enjoyed learning new research methodologies, interacting with graduate students from around the world and talking with Spanish families. "It definitely gives you a better perspective on how culture affects behavior, even in the simplest ways," she says.
Now, the research lab in Barcelona is continuing a study of trilingual infants that Brito began in her time there. "Real trilingual infants are really hard to find, so this will help us increase our sample size," says Brito. The two universities plan to continue collaborating on other studies as well. That international experience, says Brito, will help set her apart when she applies for junior faculty or postdoctoral research positions. "I'm seeing it as a really big asset to put on my CV — that I did an entire research study in another country," she says.
Even a quick trip abroad can expand your research horizons, says Max E. Butterfield, a doctoral student in the experimental psychology program at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Butterfield attended the International Congress of Psychology in Cape Town, South Africa, last summer with support from a travel grant from the National Science Foundation to APA for an international travel-mentoring program.
Butterfield's research focuses on how to increase behavior that preserves the environment and fights disease, so the trip was a chance to present his findings in a country with an extremely high HIV/AIDS rate where people are eager to put his work to use. "I met a guy after my talk who works directly with people who have HIV in a very small, remote place in South Africa, who's interested in using some of the theoretical interventions I talked about on a practical level," says Butterfield. He also met an established researcher and a fellow student he hopes to collaborate with on future research. More important, he adds, engaging in a different culture has stimulated his creativity and given him a more global perspective.
How to get there
Traveling abroad can add a year or more to your grad school career, especially if you're in a clinical or counseling program, says Levy. That's because qualified supervisors — doctoral-level psychologists — are hard to come by outside of North America. Plus, APA accreditation standards limit the acceptability of coursework and training that take place abroad.
But the payoff is often worth the hassle, says Levy. She and others offer the following advice:
Time your departure
Bidding adieu to your home university can be disruptive to both your academic and personal life. Perhaps the best time to head abroad is after your comprehensive exams but before you begin your dissertation research in earnest. If you're halfway through collecting data for your dissertation, international travel could derail your progress, points out Puncky P. Heppner, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri who takes graduate students to Taiwan for two-week immersion experiences. But spending time in someone else's lab in your second year can help you generate new ideas, he says.
"If you want to be exposed to different research questions or methodologies or learn the complexities of different cultural concepts, sometimes later in training is a better time," he says.
That said, don't wait until the very end of your graduate career to head somewhere else, says Merry Bullock, PhD, director of APA's Office of International Affairs. Although it's fine to go abroad to attend a conference and present your research at any point in your grad school career, she says, spending a significant chunk of time away late in your training might limit the help you receive as you prepare job or postdoc applications. "You want to be back in your home institution ... when you're looking for what to do next," she says.
Explore existing opportunities
Many universities have exchange programs that smooth the way for students to visit other institutions. The counseling psychology program at the University at Albany, State University of New York, for instance, has an ongoing exchange program with the Universidad de la Coruña in Spain. There are also plenty of summer training opportunities. The counseling psychology program at Alliant International University's Mexico City campus, for example, offers a Spanish language and cultural immersion program specifically designed for would-be clinicians. APA's Office of International Affairs maintains a list of international conferences; you can learn about travel grants and awards offered by APA and its affiliate organizations. When choosing a grad school, you may also want to look for a researcher with existing international collaborations or departments that encourage such activities, says Bullock.
Work your connections
Ask faculty members in your department if they have relationships with peers at other universities who may welcome visiting scholars. That can not only facilitate the process, says Heppner, but also lessen students' isolation when they land in new territory and reduce the risk of falling out of touch with advisors back home. If your professors don't know anyone, you can meet potential hosts by attending international conferences, either in the United States or abroad. "Look through the program to see who's going, find people you're interested in and write ahead of time and arrange to meet them at the conference," says Bullock. Your own department may also be a source of potential contacts. "Most programs have students from other countries," says Bullock. "Talk to them about psychology in their home countries."
Be open to the experience
Once you're in your new environment, plunge into the experience whole-heartedly, says Butterfield. "At a conference or on a short trip, it's easy to be insulated in your hotel or the neighborhood where you're staying, especially when you're with a group of Americans," he says. To avoid that kind of insularity, Butterfield made sure to see a bit of South Africa and spent a lot of time talking to locals, whether cab drivers or vendors in the local marketplace.
Keep the home fires burning
Stay in close email or phone contact with your home department so they don't forget you, says Bullock. "Have regular communication," she says. "And keep your advisor in the loop." In addition to reminding your American faculty that you exist, she says, you don't want to stray too far afield from the work you're doing back home.
Give yourself plenty of lead time, ideally starting your preparations at least a year before you hope to go abroad. You may need to apply for a visa or get international health insurance, for example. You'll also have time to explore funding opportunities, such as university travel grants or the Fulbright U.S. Student Program and meet application deadlines. Your host institution will also need time to arrange such details as getting you a student ID and work space. "Although the logistics might be a little difficult, that shouldn't dissuade anybody," says Brito. "The benefits definitely outweigh the grunt work you have to do."
"It's a very wise investment for any grad student today to have cross-cultural experiences," he says. "The more they can learn about different cultural contexts and how they affect human behavior, the better a psychologist they will be."
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.
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