In my experience, travelling abroad to foreign conferences carries a definite kudos factor back at base way beyond any home-stationed affair. Yet this is nothing compared with the wow factor you can create by going to a foreign lab to actually do some work. I mean, anyone can sign up for a conference. But as your lab colleagues watch you carefully wrapping up and sending mysterious packages abroad (your chemicals) a week before you fly out yourself, they naturally think you must be up to something special. It's any budding special agent's fantasy scenario.
My most recent trip was a quick in-and-out, work-like-crazy type of job. This time, my mission was twofold: to learn a tricky new technique and set up a formal collaboration on the common ground between my research and theirs. My visit had been arranged entirely by e-mail, after meeting the group leader incognito a few times previously at conferences across Europe. D-day came and I arrived for a clandestine meeting at an airport (the name of which I shall better not disclose) with a person I had never set eyes on in my entire life. This go-between was apparently a grad student from the laboratory I was to visit. Contact made.
We travelled to our final destination taking several changes of public transport to avoid being followed. Soon, we were on the other side of the city, arranging security passes to enter the building out of hours. I was in. Sigh of relief. I opened my bags in the office I was ushered into and hooked up my laptop--I was ready to report back to headquarters on my progress.
But before I could settle in, I was whisked away for an unscheduled meeting with many unidentified individuals. These co-workers were a mixed bag of European nationalities of unknown background. On the surface, they seemed friendly, but could I trust them? There was only one way to find out. We went out for a meal and a few beers.
In these highly charged social situations, where the focus of attention is on you, the greatest skill you need is the ability to blend in quickly. If you want these people to open up and share their knowledge, time, and energy with you, lesson one is to let them know that you are at ease in their company. So the onus is on you to send out approving and complimentary signals.
Tell them how amazing their city is and ask lots of questions about the language, culture, and especially their food and drink. Not knowing anyone is actually a distinct advantage. You have no preconceptions, and most important, your list of open questions is almost endless. So in short, be affable. Be genuine. Warning: if you are not really interested in people, you may become unstuck. Back in the bar, I started feeling people relaxing in my presence too--I was "in". End of day one.
The next day--the first full day in the lab--was intense. You may never encounter a steeper learning curve. Here is the lowdown. You cannot remember half of the people's names, you have no idea where to find anything, and worse, you are hung over from the night before (all part of the blending-in).
Don't panic. Seek out assistance from the most willing and best-informed person you can find. Be systematic: I went through three "helpers" before hitting on a real gem. He was very keen to help, he was clued up on seemingly everything, and his English was excellent. Within an hour, I had almost everything I needed.
Armed with this vast information download, I burned rubber all day long and far into the evening. It helps to be really psyched up on your first day. In this frame of mind, I was blessed by one of those "Midas moments"--you must have had one at some stage, you know, when everything you touch turns instantly into gold. I reported back to base on the successful completion of the first stage of my mission, learning those new techniques, before settling down for a short night's sleep.
The toughest was yet to come. I was due to give a talk the next day in another department across town. I made it there on my own, successfully figuring out an incomprehensible map of the underground while wondering who would be in the audience and if they would subject me to a tough interrogation. If I could pull this off, I would be well placed to continue the new collaborations I had been sent to set up. It all went according to plan, and on top of this I learned some juicy titbits of information by chatting to the rather select bunch of people who had gathered to hear me. I, of course, played it cool. Like I knew that all along. (Wait 'till I tell my boss.)
My week continued in this enjoyable covert fantasy until culminating in the pinnacle of my achievement: being asked to come and visit again. Taking this as a sign I had succeeded in my mission abroad, I was finally able to relax and consider why this type of adventure has such an impact on the folks back home. It became clear to me there were three main reasons.
First, you have been invited to go. This speaks volumes about who you are: It implies that you are worth inviting. In reality, you have probably been the one taking the initiative and invited yourself. That is irrelevant; you are still going. Second, you have something worth doing in the foreign lab. OK, even if your real reason for going is that the lab's city ranks in the top 10 places to visit in the world, your research still warrants the visit. Third, you have the money to go. The source of the funding matters little. The fact is that you have been resourceful enough to find it. I got it myself from a prestigious scientific body--applying for this type of cash is usually easy; all you need is a single-page form and a couple of references.
An added bonus is that you become not just a collaborator in words (on your CV), but also in deeds. Furthermore, by socialising with people on their turf, you are let into an inner circle of confidants. Here, you can access not only what they know themselves, but also what they know about other people.
There are a few tricks to make sure that these benefits do not wear off as soon as you have set foot back in your country. Remember not to burn bridges once you have built them. Take this new working relationship forward by maintaining contact and doing what you said you would.
There may be few perks in science, but few other careers offer such a diversity of potential destinations. Your existing collaborators are by definition a good place to start a global tour. If you have already been there, why not hook up with some more foreign types at the next conference you go to? Although my most recent trip abroad was to another European lab, I'm sure the further you travel, the more you impress. A trip to Japan or Australia, now that's a long way to go just to do an experiment!