If you’re interested in learning a new skill, getting access to equipment you don’t have, or maybe both, a visiting scientist stint may be ideal for you. Here, we will chat about who might want to explore this role, how to seek out such an arrangement, and how to operate once in that position.
What is a visiting scientist?
A visiting scientist, in academia, is someone who visits an institution to perform research there temporarily. The length of stay could be from a month to a year. The researcher remains employed by their home institute, meaning the host university does not hire or pay them (typically). A visiting scientist is distinct from equipment sharing or a collaboration – it requires re-location of the scientist to the new institute where their typical workdays will be carried out until the end of the appointment. The visiting scientist could be a graduate student, postdoc, professor, etc.
Reasons to pursue a visiting role
The main motivation to pursue a visiting role is because the host lab or institute provides something that you can’t obtain at your current institute. A common reason is hands-on training in a technique that only a few labs have expertise in. Visiting a lab that has this expertise will provide you with guidance and training so that you yourself can become an expert and bring the knowledge back to your home lab. Alternatively, the host institute may have a piece of equipment that is custom-built, hard to find, or inaccessible to you for another reason. Visiting would allow you to train and acquire the data you need on the new instrumentation.
Visiting gives you access to possible new collaborations and fresh perspectives. For trainee level researchers, it can expose them to a new institute and mentor that they may want to consider for future work placements. The chance to learn and collaborate all while experiencing a new city or maybe even a new country can also be exciting!
Identifying a host institute or lab
So, you’ve identified a gap or need in your research and decided you want to pursue a visiting position. What now?
First, you’ll need to find someone who is willing to host you! If there is someone you personally know or your lab collaborates with that can fulfill your research needs, that is probably the easiest path. Some institutes have structured visiting positions within defined labs which you can apply to. These structured types of placements often have some form of built-in professional development. These programs are often great choices if they fit your research needs.
What are your options if neither of these situations apply to you? Once you’ve identified one or more labs that you would like to visit, if you don’t have a formal connection, you can just reach out to start the conversation. Many researchers are open to sharing knowledge and establishing collaborations, so it doesn’t hurt to reach out and ask if they would be willing to host you. This probably isn’t the lab’s first request for visitation if they have specialized skills and equipment!
Preparing for your visit
Design and communicate a research plan
Your time at the new research site is limited, and we all know that science usually doesn’t follow our timelines! Prepare a research plan to set yourself up for success prior to your departure for the new placement. Make sure you read any relevant literature for the techniques you will be performing to familiarize yourself. Identify reagents you will need, any required training, and a priority list of experiments you hope to complete. Share this plan with your host prior to arrival so that you can work together to ensure your expectations are reasonable, your reagents are onsite before you need them, and you are set up for success. If you are communicating with a professor or institute, ask if you will have a bench mentor or anyone else available to directly help you during your visit. Reach out to your bench mentor (if you have one) to communicate your plan as well.
Making logistical and funding arrangements
Visiting scientist positions take commitment, planning, and funding – they may not be right or necessary for many scientists! Unless some of these logistics are covered by a structured visiting program, you will have to make arrangements on your own. This will include, but is not limited to temporary housing, transportation, living expenses, and necessary reagents. Your primary lab may be willing to cover these expenses, or you may need to seek out travel grants available from third parties or your home institute.
Do you expect to generate data that will contribute to a publication? A grant? A patent? It is never too early to discuss authorship and rights for anything that could be generated during the visit. If you don’t feel comfortable initiating this conversation, your mentor can help get the ball rolling! If you are applying to a structured program, they likely have guidelines to consult on this topic.
Etiquette once you arrive
You are a guest and likely a trainee in your new lab, so make a good impression! Remember that your host is going out of their way to help you with your research and teach you new techniques. Show up on time (don’t make your bench mentor wait on you!), make sure you are prepared (read any protocols the day before, etc.), take good notes, and ask questions if you don’t understand something. Offer to help out wherever you can and don’t forget to express your gratitude. Be the mentee that YOU would like to train!
And, of course, don’t forget to have fun! Visiting is an amazing career opportunity, but also a really good time! If it sounds right for you, start thinking outside of your current research box, send out some feelers, apply to programs, and apply for travel grants. Good luck and happy travels!
Resources on the Addgene blog
- Fostering communication in remote collaborations
- Transferable Skills Guide: External collaborations
- Transferable Skills Guide: Teamwork
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