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SPSP Summer Abroad

SPSP is excited to begin this blog series following graduate student member DJ Lick as he conducts research for the EAPSI summer program in Australia. Updated once a month, follow DJ on his travels and experiences abroad!

Part I

The sunburned deserts of Australia. The night markets of Taiwan. The rice terraces of rural China. Graduate student stipends don’t often afford the opportunity to visit such exotic locations, but a summer abroad may be more feasible than you realize. Indeed, each year the National Science Foundation funds 205 graduate students to travel and work with internationally renowned experts in their fields of study. The program – called East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes (EAPSI) – fosters collaborations between U.S. graduate students and established scholars in Australia, China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, and Taiwan. Awardees receive a $5,000 stipend from the National Science Foundation, an additional stipend from their host countries to cover living expenses while in residence, and airfare to and from their host location to defray the costs associated with international travel. I was lucky enough to receive an EAPSI award for 2015, and I am writing a blog series to spread the word about this unique and surprisingly underutilized research opportunity.

My adventure is just beginning; in fact, I am writing this post aboard a Boeing 777 en route to Western Australia. So while I eventually hope to share stories of kangaroos and koalas and quokkas (look them up – you’ll be glad you did!), all I have at the moment is anticipation. Rather than share tales of diffuse excitement, I thought it might be helpful to introduce the program and briefly describe the application process. I can’t provide a complete description of the program in such limited space, so instead I’ll try to highlight some key features of the program based on my own experience. Here goes nothing!

Unlike many other grants from the National Science Foundation, EAPSI is designed to foster collaborations between U.S. graduate students and foreign researchers. This means that applicants not only propose a specific research project, but also a specific mentor at a specific university in a specific country. Therefore, applications often begin with an email to a foreign researcher in your area of study. For me, that researcher was Prof. Gillian Rhodes at the University of Western Australia. Last summer, I spent an embarrassingly long time composing an email to Gill asking if she might be interested in collaborating on a research project this year. I was pleasantly surprised to receive a quick and friendly reply saying that she would be happy to work together. The ball was rolling! We bounced ideas back and forth for a couple of weeks before nailing down a specific project idea. Before I knew it, we had gone through several drafts and submitted an application by the November deadline.

The application itself consists of four primary components: (1) a one-page project summary, (2) a five-page project description, (3) a CV, and (4) proof that your proposed collaborator is willing to act as host. The adjudication process is similar to that of the Graduate Research Fellowship Program, with applications evaluated in terms of intellectual merit and broader impacts. Importantly, however, EAPSI applications are also judged in terms of feasibility. As such, each application includes a specific timeline outlining how the research will be conducted during the 8 – 10 week program.

During my time in Australia, I will be studying the perceptual underpinnings of impression formation.  Specifically, I will be using a classic method called visual adaptation to test whether and how visual exposure shapes our evaluative judgments of social groups. The prediction is that visual exposure to a particular social group will lead to preferences for that group relative others, whereas a lack of visual exposure to a particular social group will lead to prejudices against that group relative to others. So while EAPSI is an interdisciplinary program funding work in Chemistry, Biology, and Neuroscience, the reviewers certainly seem willing to fund studies that fall within the purview of social psychology. 

If you’re interested in hearing more about the EAPSI program, stay tuned for future blog posts.  In the meantime, you can browse the official NSF website ( or talk with your university’s grant manager about the program. And who knows? With some careful planning and a little luck, you could find yourself exploring those sunburned deserts, night markets, and rice terraces one year from now. Let the daydreams begin!

Part II

Although we haven’t started collecting data just yet, I must say that the project is coming along quite nicely, due in no small part to Dr. Rhodes’s incredible mentorship. Within two weeks of my arrival in Perth, she had met with me to discuss the design of our study, gone over several drafts of my proposal, set up a personal lab space where I could work, organized a lab meeting for me to present and get feedback on my idea, devised a way for me to collect a large number of participants in a short period of time, and helped me locate stimuli that suit our needs. So while I’ve certainly been having fun in Australia, I’ve also been making the most of my relatively short time with Dr. Rhodes. And it’s been well worth the effort: We initially thought we’d only have time to run a single study, but it turns out that we’ll be able to collect at least two studies worth of data testing our hypotheses. So the summer is turning out to be more academically productive than I had expected.

I want to share one last part of my EAPSI experience before signing off for the day. When I told my friends and family that I received the award, everyone was thrilled but some also thought I was crazy to spend the summer in a country where I had no friends. And of course, being familiar with Baumeister and Leary (1995), I was a little concerned myself. But for anyone out there who has similar fears that might prevent them from applying for EAPSI, let me just say that my anxieties were unnecessary. I feel right at home in Western Australia, thanks primarily to the family I’ve found in Dr. Rhodes’s lab. On the day I arrived, the graduate students and postdocs took me out to lunch, and the next week, they organized a dinner and movie outing. Just yesterday, the lab organized a seminar where I gave a talk about my program of research to students and faculty from around the department. And we’ve already planned an outing to see an Australian Football (“footie”) game before the end of the month. So yes, I do miss my friends. I miss my family. I miss my lab mates and cohort and advisor from UCLA. But the good news is that I have a new family to help fill the gap. My fundamental need to belong is being fulfilled. :)

Part III

As the end of my EAPSI fellowship draws near, several people have asked me about the biggest challenge I faced while working abroad. My tendency has been to avoid the question and reply that I’m just thankful for the experience to spend the summer in Australia. If hard-pressed, I might say that I’ve missed my friends, my dad’s homemade birthday ice cream, and my cat. But I certainly wouldn’t be lying when I said those things felt like a small price to pay for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Does it still sound like I’m hedging? Okay, fine. One thing proved more difficult than I expected, and it’s something I couldn’t have anticipated before leaving Los Angeles. During my time in Australia, I’ve had to … cue thunderclap … work in the office.

I know that sounds absurd, but hear me out. As an undergraduate and even more so as a PhD student, I became a bit of a reclusive worker. In fact, during my last year of graduate school, I only went to campus about once a week. A prime example of what my friend Grace Jackson calls a “socially adept introvert,” I prefer to analyze data, edit manuscripts, and write applications in the warm embrace of my robe and slippers. And overall, this strategy has served me well. I’ve been able to keep up with work while avoiding the distractions of campus, and I’ve had the freedom to run errands during the middle of the day when most people are slaving away under the headache-inducing glare of fluorescent lights. I suspect many others feel the same way, and rightfully so: Avoiding the drudgery of a 9-5 schedule is part of the reason Kerri Johnson says that being an academic is the best job in the world.

Having said all that, you can imagine my horror when I arrived in Australia to learn that everyone in my host lab works from the office. In fact, working from the office is a formal expectation so that students and faculty members can have impromptu meetings about ongoing projects throughout the day. Fast-forward two months, a large packet of foam earplugs, and many Spotify playlists later, I can honestly say that I’m thankful for the experience. The primary reason is that working from the office taught me something about work/life balance that I didn’t realize before. When I work from home, I take many small breaks throughout the day: An hour for yoga here, two hours at the DMV there … you get the gist. Working from the office doesn’t allow for those breaks, but it does provide a nice separation of work and home. Yes, it’s true that I often arrive at the office in Australia before I would normally wake up in Los Angeles. It’s also true that I often stay in the office well past sunset. But when I do leave, I’m done for the day. I get home to my apartment with several hours of free time to exercise, cook, read for pleasure, and Skype with family and friends back home. Before this summer, my apartment doubled as office and home. The places where I worked simultaneously served as places where I relaxed, which allowed the two activities to bleed together all too easily. I used to bemoan the fact that it felt as if I was working all the time, in part because I was working all the time; my life was characterized by a seamless flow of work into down time and back to work. But this summer, my home base was reserved exclusively for relaxation, and my personal time was unapologetically mine.

Can I say that I’ll continue to be an office worker when I return to the United States? Probably not. As the cliché goes, old habits die hard. But what I can say is that the separation of work and home has been a healthy learning experience for me, and one that has helped me reclaim home time as personal time. For people who can manage it, forcing academic life into the structure of a more traditional work week can have some benefits, and it may well come in handy later in life when juggling schedules with partners and children. Regardless of how my future schedule looks, I’ll be leaving Australia with a newfound appreciation for the benefits that come from maintaining separate spaces for work and play.

Part IV

What a whirlwind this summer has been! Since the beginning of this blod series, I traveled over 25,000 miles to explore the science, culture, flora, and fauna that Australia has to offer. So you can imagine my struggle as I sat down to write this final blog post. What knowledge did I bring back that would be of interest to my SPSP colleagues? I took over 500 pictures, but trying to embed them in a mass email would be a nightmare. I made some good Aussie friends, but I suspect they would feel intimidated by the prospect of being contacted by a crew of incisively smart social psychologists. I even returned home with a wicked bout of jet lag, but I doubt anyone wants to share in that adventure. Instead, I thought I’d condense my experience down to some nuggets of wisdom I wish someone had shared with me around this time last year. So here they are – my top ten pieces of advice for anyone who is considering an EAPSI fellowship.

1)    Apply and then apply again. Social scientists are underrepresented among EAPSI awardees, so I encourage everyone to put together and application and increase our numbers in future cohorts. Even if you’ve already attended the program once, apply again; you can receive the fellowship multiple summers in a row. The catch is that you have to switch locations from year to year, but the opportunity to see more of the world hardly seems like a deterrent.

2)    Start early. Once you’ve decided to put together an EAPSI application, start the process early. This is not only to ensure that you and your host have enough time to write a strong proposal, but also because some universities require this type of application to go through the internal grants office. My university was one of them, and it caused a bit of a headache on the day of the application deadline. Save yourself the stress and contact them earlier rather than later.

3)    Be flexible. EAPSI applications are due in mid-fall each year, but the awards aren’t announced until late spring. This means awardees only have a couple of months from the time the award is announced until they depart. Thus, it would be wise to keep your summer schedule as flexible as possible during the year you apply. If you have a lot of summer commitments on the books, you may end up stuck with a slew of last-minute cancellations.

4)    Be a defensive pessimist. As someone named Murphy once said: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” A summer abroad will almost certainly involve a few snafus. Try your best to stop these issues before they begin by planning ahead, talking to previous awardees, and communicating with your cohort.

5)    … and still be prepared for things to go wrong. Even if you’ve made contingency plans, things will probably still go wrong. In those cases, I found it best to take a deep breath, chalk it all up to experience, and cope as best as possible. There are helpful resources both at the NSF and in your host country to help troubleshoot. In moments of panic, I found that yoga helps. So does wine.

6)    If you’re going to Australia, pack for all types of weather. Before this summer, I kind of thought the entirety of Australia looked like Ayers Rock. Instead, I was greeted by nearly freezing temperatures and rain … with a suitcase full of shorts. The blunder gave me the opportunity to go on a shopping spree, but my bank account would have looked much better if I had packed appropriately. Save yourself some money and check the weather.

7)    Speaking of money: Save up! The EAPSI stipend is rather generous, and certainly enough to live comfortably for a summer. That said, I did quite a bit of extra travel during my trip, which involved additional out-of-pocket expense. I was glad to have some personal savings to satisfy my wanderlust.

8)    Share your knowledge. For me, one of the most fulfilling scientific aspects of EAPSI was the ability learn new skills from scientists working outside of social psychology. I expected that before arriving. What I didn’t expect was my ability to share information in return. Don’t underestimate the unique skills and talents that a background in social psychology affords; sharing those insights will make your visit productive for everyone involved.

9)    Get to know your new lab mates personally. I made a number of new friends while in Australia, but it wasn’t through our conversations in the lab (although they were certainly inspiring). What solidified these new relationships was time we spent away from the office going to lunches, sporting events, and movies. I learned more about Australian culture from these people than I could have on my own, and I left with friends that I’ll continue to stay in touch with for years to come. And that leads me to my final piece of advice:

10)  Have fun! As highly motivated people, there’s a temptation to enter a program like EAPSI with guns blazing. Indeed, I arrived in Australia wanting to conduct as many lab studies as humanly possible in three months. But my mentor urged me to plan just a couple of studies, taking the extra time to explore and enjoy. That turned out to be the best advice I got all summer. I left Australia with enough fond memories to sustain me until my next visit, mostly because I took my mentor’s advice to slow down and have fun. I hope many of you will do the same!

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