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My Research Adventure Abroad: A Semester at Arizona State University

25 Jun 2024

Spending a semester at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, Arizona, was an incredible adventure that combined academic growth with cultural exploration. There were however quite some things that needed figuring out which took time and increased stress. To make this a bit easier for you, here’s a look at my journey before, during, and after my time at ASU.

By Karen Moesker

My research trip consisted of two parts, the more theoretical part at ASU in Tempe and a field research part in San Diego. I spent about 8 weeks in Tempe, 6 weeks in San Diego and 4 weeks doing a road trip afterwards. In this blog, I will talk about the stay in Tempe, Arizona.

Before: Planning and Preparation

Visa Process, Registration and Choosing a Supervisor: Start Early!

First things first: the visa. Applying for a J-1 visa can be a real headache, so it’s important to start early. Gathering documents, filling out forms, and (potentially) scheduling embassy appointments takes time. I began the process 5 months before my visit to ASU, which saved me from a lot of last-minute stress. It did take 3 months though and I did not need to do an interview, which saved quite some time. Also, you are dependent on a lot of other people signing things. A colleague needed to reschedule their flight because of this, surely no one wants that. Note that all visa fees combined cost about $400.

The registration process at ASU can be lengthy and frustrating. Be prepared to send the same documents multiple times to different departments or personnel. Time management is crucial here, as delays in registration can affect your course enrollment and access to university facilities.

For the registration and visa process you will also need to have a supervisor that can write a letter of invitation for you which is mandatory for the visa. Therefore, start looking at potential supervisors as soon as possible. Get in touch with them to see whether their research interests match yours, discuss meeting frequencies upfront to establish a regular schedule for communication and clarify expectations regarding the scope of work, timelines, and potential outcomes such as co-authoring a paper. There is a document available from this program that you can use as a semi-official agreement between you and the supervisor.

Timing: When to Schedule your Trip

One thing to consider when planning a research visit to ASU is the difference in semester schedules compared to Dutch universities AND the weather in Arizona. ASU has a fall semester from late August to December and a spring semester from January to May. My initial plan was going from April to June but was quickly put to doubt by my supervisor who said that from May on Tempe gets really ‘toasty’. Which essentially meant 40 degrees and very low humidity. From May onward you will basically run from one building to the other.

The perfect months to go there were March and April with 20 to 30 degrees and sunshine, so try to plan around that. The equivalent in the fall semester should be October and November.

Budgeting: Plan and Prepare

Make a budget. Ensure you have a well-thought-out budget because the travel to Tempe, housing, and visa fees are incredibly expensive. It’s important to recognize that these costs will need to be paid before you even go abroad and roughly all at the same time. If your university allows, ask for an advance payment to make this easier for you. Having a financial plan in place will help you manage your expenses and avoid any financial stress during your stay.

Housing: Expectations and Costs

Housing in Tempe can be quite expensive. Expect to pay at least $1500 for shared housing and around $2000 for private housing per month. ASU offers housing options, but these can exceed $3000 a month and are almost never available. South East Tempe and AirBnB options are more affordable alternatives, especially if you’re willing to share accommodations with others. Make sure to start looking as soon as possible as the cheaper options are quickly taken by others.

During: Experiencing ASU and Tempe

The Campus: A Huge and Beautiful Space

ASU’s campus is massive and absolutely stunning. It has everything you could possibly need, from restaurants and hairdressers to a big gym and even a museum! If you enjoy working out, you can join the gym for just $40 per month. This includes access to group lessons like yoga and indoor cycling, plus the main gym facilities (and maybe more, I also saw squash booths and those things). There’s also some decent coffee on campus, though you’ll find more affordable options just outside the university grounds. The campus is super central, about a five-minute walk from the main road with lots of bars and eateries. My faculty (SFIS) was directly on the main road to the city and just two minutes away from restaurants and the Orbit bus stop.

The Grad Room: A Collaborative Hub

One of the coolest things about ASU is the grad room where everyone works. Instead of having isolated cubicles, it’s an open space where PhDs can easily interact (and distract each other). This setup makes it super easy to meet new people, share ideas, and collaborate on projects. The room was great environment to stay motivated and productive.

The research: Collaboration with an on-campus supervisor

Most of the time I just did my own thing. I had set a goal for this research abroad, which was writing a paper on RRI with the supervisor from ASU. I aimed to do most of the theoretical work during the ASU stay and after collect the data in San Diego. We agreed to meet once a week to talk about the progress and to continue working on the paper after the research visit has ended. This worked very well, also thanks to a written agreement we setup beforehand. My supervisor was from a different field than I am, providing new and more hands-on perspectives which are super helpful for my research. If you intend to do field work, supervisors are also great for providing local connections.

Regarding taking courses: you can attend course lectures. But the courses probably will go longer than your research stay, and you will not be awarded credits. I did not try to follow any courses for these reasons.

Building Connections: The International Office

Another fantastic aspect of my time at ASU was the international community. The International Office at ASU hosts weekly events where you can meet other exchange students, PhD candidates, lecturers, and expats. These events are a great way to make new friends, share experiences, and build a supportive network. They also have a WhatsApp group where I saw people asking for travel buddies or offering spots in a car for road trips.

Getting Around: The Orbit Buses

Getting around Tempe is relatively easy, thanks to the Orbit buses. These free public transport buses run frequently and connect various parts of the city, including the ASU campus. There is even an app where you can track the busses’ locations. If you want to go outside the Orbit’s reach, it get more difficult. The paid busses are not so reliable and sometimes also just don’t pick you up.

Travel: Exploring Beyond Tempe

Once you are in Tempe, you should definitely take the time to visit its surroundings! For this, admittedly, you will need a car (or hitch a ride with some fellow PhDs or internationals). Sedona, Las Vegas, Zion, the Grand Canyon, and Canyonlands are a must if you are in this area. Don’t forget to take your hiking boots and sun screen, you will need them! These trips were some of the highlights of my time in Arizona with absolutely breathtaking natural landscapes and unforgettable experiences.

Some pictures from Karens travel to the Grand Canyon, Papago Park in Phoenix and Zion National Park. If you can afford some local travel, it is a great personal extension of your research visit.

The Food: A Culinary Adventure

Now, let’s talk about the food. Tempe has a decent food scene, thanks to its university community. There’s a wide range of options, from classic BBQ, burgers to Chinese takeout and healthy protein bowls. Vegetarians can find plenty of great options here, although veggie-friendly places are more the exception than the rule in this meat-loving country. I mostly cooked at home and bought my groceries at Walmart. Expect roughly 1.5 times the costs than groceries in NL and (much) more in other grocery stores such as Safeway, Fry’s or Wholefoods.

After: Reflecting on the Experience

Academic Growth and Personal Development

My semester at Arizona State University was an unforgettable experience that offered new perspectives from other research fields and learning about what being a PhD student in the United States is like.

Final Tasks: Hand in Your Declaration and Rest

Once back home, there are a couple of important things to do. First, make sure to hand in your expense declaration. Keep all your receipts so you can get reimbursed for your expenses. Also, take some time to rest. Travel is incredibly straining, and giving yourself a break will help you recover and reflect on your journey.

Final Thoughts

For anyone considering a research visit abroad, I highly recommend ASU. Embrace the adventure, plan ahead, and get ready for an amazing journey. The experience, both academically and personally, is totally worth it.

Participant in this program?

Karen Moesker

Karen Moesker

PhD student working on Direct Potable Water Reuse (DPR) technology
Delft University of Technology

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