PhD abroad: “There is no substitute for a quick cup of coffee with a professor you admire or a PhD student working on a similar topic”

Stephanie Tiefus

Stephanie Triefus, a PhD student at Erasmus School of Law, spent some time abroad for her PhD research. She has just returned from Florence, where she went after making a trip to her home country Australia and the Eastern European country Romania. In this interview, Stephanie tells us more about her PhD research and shares her experiences as a PhD student abroad. Why should you go abroad for your PhD? What should you take into account when going abroad? Moreover, what can you expect during your stay abroad and is it advisable to go abroad for your PhD research?

Why did you start with a PhD?

“I have always liked school because I love reading, writing, learning and teaching,” says Stephanie. “I practiced law in Australia. Although that was a good experience, I discovered during my master's that the academic world suited me better. I took the master's in Public International Law, emphasising human rights, at Utrecht University. There I discovered that PhD students in the Netherlands could get an appointment as an employee and receive a decent salary. So, for me, there was suddenly a possibility to do a PhD. In Australia, a PhD student's salary is small, which makes it less attractive for students to continue their academic path. Fortunately, I was studying for my master's in the Netherlands and saw a PhD position at Erasmus School of Law come up, which immediately attracted my attention.”

What is your PhD research about?

Stephanie explains that her PhD research is about participation rights and international investment law: “In my research, I focus on whether and how participation rights are facilitated or marginalised in and by the international investment law regime. I look at the human rights to participate in public affairs and how these rights relate to investor-state dispute settlement. In addition, I am conducting a case study on the arbitration Gabriel Resources v. Romania, using interviews with the local community at the centre of the dispute.”

Why did you want to do part of your PhD research abroad?

“I have always loved to travel,” says Stephanie. “The opportunity to go abroad was one of the things that attracted me to the academic world. Especially after the pandemic, I was very grateful for the opportunity to meet other PhD students and academics studying International Law.”

You ended up going to Italy. Did you also consider other countries?

Stephanie's first step was applying to the European University Institute (EUI). “My supervisor, Alessandra Arcuri, was Fernand Braudel Senior Fellow at EUI in the academic year of 2021/2022. She was very enthusiastic about the academic environment at EUI, the beautiful campus and the life in Florence. Besides Florence, I also considered going to Essex University in the UK to work with Tara van Ho and Anil Yilmaz.

Only the timing to go to England was not great; at the same time, I would have gone to Britain, I had the opportunity to visit my family in Australia, whom I had not seen for two years due to the pandemic. So, for me, the choice was not difficult; Florence it was. I was also lucky enough to be able to combine the trip to Australia with a visiting professorship at UNSW [University of New South Wales] in Sydney under the supervision of Jonathan Bonnitcha. A win-win!”

How did you arrange the funding to go abroad?

Stephanie did not have to arrange the funding for her trip abroad herself. “My PhD position came with about 20.000 euros of funding from the Research Excellence Initiative. This is an extremely unusual and fortunate position to be in as a PhD student. I, therefore, feel blessed by the opportunities the funding has given me for my PhD research.”


What are the benefits of going abroad for your PhD research?

“For me, going abroad has had several benefits. Starting with a changed work environment. Because of the pandemic, I was looking at the same walls for two years, and all contact was through Zoom. After the lockdown, it was great to be in a different environment, meet many interesting people and make new friends.”

“Furthermore, the working environment at EUI is great. On campus, you work in a room filled with other smart, hard-working PhD students, which is very motivating. When you are not at your desk reading and writing, you can have lunch in the garden, walk in beautiful surroundings and participate in EUI's thriving social calendar. For example, a student-run bar, Fiasco, hosts great parties and is a great place to relax. In addition, the EUI organises many academic events and conferences which you can attend for free, so there are many opportunities to meet professors and other academics. I have made some great new connections at these events.”

What does a typical working week look like in Italy? Moreover, how does this differ from a week in the Netherlands?

“A normal working week for PhDs in Italy is similar to that in the Netherlands,” Stephanie begins. “As a PhD student in both countries, you have the freedom to set your own hours, be on campus or work from home when it suits you best. The difference for me is the huge number of PhD students and academics who study international law and European Union law in one place, while the PhD students at Erasmus University deal with a wide range of subjects.”

How long did you spend abroad for your PhD research?

“I spent a month at the EUI in Florence, a month at UNSW in Australia and five weeks in Romania for fieldwork. These periods were chosen based on my schedule and funding, but I understand that it is common to stay longer. If I could choose, I would have liked to stay in Florence for three to six months.”

What is the best memory of your time in Florence?

“Getting in touch with the queer community in Florence was the most special thing I experienced in Italy,” Stephanie says. “By attending some events organised by local activists, I got in touch with the locals. As the EUI is mainly populated by internationals, you can easily fall into the expat bubble and not mix with the locals. Fortunately, I had met some nice Italians and EUI PhD students early on in my stay with whom I hung out a lot during my time in Florence.”

What (life) lessons did you learn during this period?

“Like many other PhD students, I struggle with mental health issues. Although going abroad was an uplifting experience, some moments were incredibly challenging. I learned during my time abroad that when you look good on the outside, it does not say anything about how you feel on the inside. Therefore, it is important for me to ask for help when I can use it, be open about how I feel and take time for myself when I need it. I have learned that I cannot receive help if I do not indicate to the outside world that I need help. With this lesson learned, I am very grateful for the support I received from my supervisors and the university when I struggled.”


What should PhD students consider when they want to go abroad for their PhD research?

According to Stephanie, it starts with having the stamina to go through the whole process before visiting abroad. “The administrative burden is considerable, but do not let that deter you. A trip abroad for your PhD research is worthwhile. Be realistic about what you want to achieve abroad because some days will be lost. For example, I experienced that my access card did not work. So, I had to contact many people to get the problem solved.”

“Also, I would like to advise PhDs to prioritize contact with people over writing on your PhD, as there is no substitute for a quick cup of coffee in the sunny garden with a professor you admire or a PhD student working on a similar topic. So do not feel bad if you spend more time in the garden than in your study. It would be a crime not to appreciate the beauty around you.”

Would you recommend other PhD students to go abroad?

“Absolutely, going abroad as a PhD student is an incredible experience. As a person with no children and sufficient financial resources, it is easy for me to travel. I know that not everyone is in this 'favourable' situation. Even if making long journeys is not possible, I am convinced that short trips can also be very valuable. The same applies to making virtual contact with institutions abroad. I have noticed that academics are very hospitable both in person and online. Make use of that hospitality, as I have benefited greatly from exchanging ideas with people worldwide.”

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More information

It will take some time, but don’t be encouraged: it is not that difficult to arrange your stay abroad. There are many possibilities to get funding for a research stay, e.g., Erasmus+, Erasmus Trust Fund, the EGSL international travel and subsistence fund, etc. Next to that, the personal material budget can be used. Finally, an Erasmus School of Law International Mobility Funding Scheme will be launched soon. When you would like to receive some sort of support or ask a question about the administrative process click here!

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