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Crystal Grant is spending a year in the Netherlands as part of her graduate program at Emory University in Atlanta.

Bryan Meltz/Emory photo video

How much do graduate students benefit from studying abroad?

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is rethinking how to provide U.S. graduate students with a chance to do science in another country. It also wants to know whether its current foreign travel programs are working.

“We want graduate students to go where they need to go for the science,” says Rebecca Keiser, head of NSF’s international office, which is conducting a multipronged review of the agency’s investments in such programs. “But we need to figure out how to provide the right opportunities for them.”

The issue is also the subject of a NSF-funded workshop this week. And NSF has resumed accepting applications from students in its flagship Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF) program to carry out research in one of 18 countries. Last fall, GRF fellows seeking a Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW) supplement were surprised to find out that NSF wasn’t accepting proposals.

Keiser says NSF regrets that the unannounced pause of GROW caught the academic community by surprise, creating confusion among students and institutions about whether the program had been canceled. “We never stopped it,” Keiser says. But, “We learned that you can never communicate enough. It was an important lesson for us.”

Looking for evidence

Many U.S. graduate students in the sciences see working in another nation as an important part of their training. For example, molecular biologist Crystal Grant says a big reason she applied for one of NSF’s GRFs was that she would also be eligible for a $5000 GROW award.

She got both. As a result, after spending 4 years at Emory University in Atlanta studying the epigenetic factors in healthy human aging under human geneticist Karen Conneely, Grant is now halfway through a 1-year stint with scientists at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

Grant assumed that building an international network of research collaborators, and learning about another culture, would be a surefire way to boost her scientific career. But the conventional wisdom that such international experiences result in a better-trained U.S. scientific workforce turns out to be based largely on anecdotal evidence.

“There’s not a lot of research on the topic,” says Brian Mitchell, interim associate dean for graduate studies at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. “As with graduate education as a whole, we believe that it works. But we don’t really know how or why.”

To find some answers, NSF gave Mitchell $100,000 to hold this week’s workshop. (The workshop was originally scheduled for NSF headquarters in Alexandria, Virgiinia, but the partial government shutdown forced Mitchell to move it to a hotel across the street.) One goal is to develop a research agenda that could help the agency better understand and improve international work experiences. For example, little is known about how mentors view such programs, or how best to evaluate the value of working abroad.

Graduate education is based on an apprenticeship model, Mitchell notes, with the student typically working under a single faculty member. What that mentor thinks about the idea of doing research overseas plays a huge role in shaping the student’s experience. “For a lot of advisers,” says Mitchell, a chemical engineer, “their attitude is, ‘I’m OK with it as long as it doesn’t slow you down [from finishing your degree].’ So the duration and timing of the research experience is an important factor.”

Even if a student gets the green light to go abroad, Mitchell says, researchers know very little about the experience itself, including how best to support students in a new setting, what skills they acquire, and how to assess whether they have put their time to good use.

The traditional yardsticks for measuring research outputs are publications or presentations at a scientific meeting, he says. But that may not necessarily be true for judging an overseas experience, he speculates. In any case, capturing the full impact of their visit means tracking them for a long time, and Mitchell says few programs have the resources or even the desire to do that.

Seeking greater impact

Last month, NSF sent a letter to the research community seeking input on its international programs for graduate students. It mentions some of the challenges those programs face. For example, it notes that GROW has been undersubscribed, and Keiser says, “We’re not sure why.”

One hurdle, she speculates, is that students must make their own arrangements with the host institution. Another potential obstacle is that students can only go to one of the 18 countries that have inked a bilateral agreement with NSF for such visits.

More broadly, she says, there’s also concern that the impact of GROW and other NSF programs funding individual students is limited to those students and is not scalable. In addition, such programs may unconsciously favor students with means and existing connections over students from groups traditionally underrepresented in science. “We would like to make these opportunities available to as many students as possible,” Keiser says.

Toward that goal, last year, NSF broadened a long-running program called International Research Experiences for Students (IRES). It has traditionally given grants to about a dozen U.S. universities a year to support a small group of undergraduate and graduate students exploring a particular topic at a foreign institution for a month or so.

A new solicitation for IRES contains two new tracks. One will fund a dozen or so intensive, short courses for graduate students at an international revue. A second track invites professional societies and other nonacademic institutions to apply for a grant to run a semester-long course abroad drawing on a diverse pool of U.S.-based students. Grantees would select participants and be responsible for ensuring a high-quality research experience. NSF has set aside $11 million this year for the program.

An extension for GROW

Even as NSF tries out new approaches, the agency decided to extend GROW, which began as a pilot in 2013, for at least one more year. Last month, it notified all current GRF fellows that they could submit a GROW application, due on 1 February, for a research project to be carried out during the next academic year.

For Grant, her stint at Leiden has gone exactly as she had hoped. She gained access to tissue from a much larger cohort of patients and expects to write up a paper that is distinct from her work at Emory. And then there are the intangible benefits.

“I think that the scientific method is the same around the world,” she says. “So that wasn’t a big change. But learning to be comfortable engaging people from a different culture, in a new setting and with a different adviser, that’s a really valuable skill I’ve been able to acquire.”

“Yeah, it may have delayed my graduation date a bit,” Grant concedes. “But that’s a small price to pay for everything I’ve gotten from it.”

Clarification, 8 January 2019, 1:37 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify the location of the NSF-funded workshop.