Get out of the Lab and See the World!

Why traveling – especially solo – is perfect for PhD students
JUN 2019
Ally
H.
Biological Engineering

Last September, I anxiously stood in front of my thesis committee, waiting for them to comment on my graduation timeline. To my surprise, not only did they say I could graduate soon, but they even suggested a date — May 2019! My initial reaction was the urge to go climb a rooftop and shout the good news to the world. After that burst of euphoria died down, however, I realized something. While I couldn’t wait to graduate, there would be aspects of my PhD experience that I would miss: namely, the near-complete freedom in my daily schedule and being able to work whatever hours I wanted.

Like most of my PhD classmates, I end up working late hours and weekends — but always by choice. It is comforting to know that, if I need to, I could sleep in or leave early every once in a while. In addition, we grad students have the flexibility to take vacations whenever we need (within reason) to get away for a little bit. It hit me that, once I had a “real” job, I wouldn’t have this freedom to just jet off whenever I wanted to.

This is probably why, shortly after that thesis committee meeting, I found myself spontaneously buying plane tickets to go to Portugal for a week over Thanksgiving break. Portugal has always been at the top of my travel to-do list. Now that I’m back with that experience under my belt, I want to share it to encourage everyone, especially young women like myself, to find some time away from studies, get out there, and explore the world solo.

While traveling with friends is incredibly fun, there is a certain freedom in doing it by yourself. There’s the obvious perk of being able to plan a trip that perfectly suits my preferences, but solo travel is also a great fit for a grad student’s schedule and budget. Since you aren’t traveling with anyone else, you can plan your trip for whenever it suits you best. For me, I had just published two big papers in August and knew my next major deadline would be months away, so November was the perfect time for this trip. It wouldn’t be perfect for everyone, but that didn’t matter, as I was packing up my backpack to go at this alone. Traveling solo also allows you to plan a grad student budget-friendly trip without having to compromise with anyone else. For example, I didn’t care much about how fancy my lodging was, so I stayed in hostels. That allowed me to save money that I could spend on what I really cared about – food and wine (one of the best perks of Portugal is just how cheap the wine is – a giant glass is only one or two euros!).

Solo traveling doesn’t mean being alone the entire time though. The first stop of my solo travel adventure was Lisbon, the capital of Portugal; there, I made a few friends by meeting people at the hostel or on the hostel-led tour groups that I spontaneously joined. It was great to be able to wander around by myself during the day (climbing numerous cobblestone-lined paths to see the beautiful views of the city), and then meet up with my new friends at night for dinner and drinks. I was impressed that my socially-awkward self was able to meet new people — it just goes to show how friendly travelers are!


With my new friend from Germany whom I met at a hostel in Lisbon

It was also very refreshing to talk to people from all over the world. Back at MIT, I’m so used to talking biology all day with my labmates, and then going home and complaining about biology with my roommates (who are in the same program as me). On the other hand, the conversations I had with those I met on my trip were anything but biology related. For example, on my last day in Lisbon, I took a day trip out to Sintra, a beautiful city with a mix of Gothic and Renaissance architecture and one of my favorite places in Portugal. There, on the top of the castle ruins, I met a woman who was studying art in the Philippines – a world completely different from where I’m from and what I do. Throughout my trip, I met many people with very different backgrounds and experiences, and it was really interesting to hear about their lives and compare and contrast them to mine.

Sometimes, we grad students get so caught up in our research that we forget that there is a whole world out there. Solo traveling encourages you to not only see the world, but also to chat with people different from you – and I think those unique perspectives are really valuable. Meeting diverse people can help challenge your everyday viewpoints and opinions and make you more open-minded and accepting of those different than you.


Admiring the view in Sintra

After a few wonderful days in Lisbon, I hopped on a train to the northern city of Porto. Here, I decided to be a little more adventurous and branch out to experience the city from the locals’ perspective rather than the tourists’. In the lab, we’re so used to following exact protocols and planning experiments down to the minute — so I did the same when planning this trip. After feeling more comfortable on my own, however, I decided to go off the script and be a little more spontaneous. Instead of picking out restaurants from Yelp, I asked locals for recommendations of their favorite places to eat. Many of the suggested places were tiny hole-in-the-wall places with very plain décors and waiters that didn’t speak English. Using the little Portuguese I knew, however, I asked the waiters about their favorite dishes and ended up with some of the best (and cheapest!) meals I’ve had in a long time. Sometimes, going with the flow can produce better results than meticulous planning – true while traveling, but certainly not back home in lab!


Enjoying a hearty meal (with wine) in Porto

In the end, it was an incredible week of running around Lisbon and Porto, taking in all the sights, eating/drinking to my heart's content, and not worrying about anything going on back in the lab. While this was my first time traveling solo, it certainly won't be my last - I absolutely loved it and can't wait to do it again. It was amazing to have time to relax and do some soul-searching - I definitely feel like I learned a little about myself and acquired a fresh perspective on my PhD. I encourage everyone else to try it as well!