I’m Cat O’Rourke, a 4th Year student doing MChem Chemistry with external placement. My research focus is computational chemistry – using coding and maths to solve chemical problems. My 6-month placement was at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. This blog post covers my full experience of studying abroad, from first arriving to finishing my research project.
Preparing to Leave
Once I received my offer to research at UC, my main goals were sorting out my VISA, accommodation, and packing up my whole life into one suitcase. I left myself plenty of time for my VISA application which took a lot of stress off my shoulders. For accommodation, I found a woman in Christchurch renting out a spare room in her flat and got in contact to discuss a long term stay. If this is the route you plan on taking, I recommend reaching out to have a conversation with your accommodation host to make sure you will be comfortable living with them for a long period of time. Finally, I made a checklist for everything I would need to take with me. The two most important things to take into consideration are prescriptions (arrange things like contact lenses and medications so that you have enough for your placement), and weather (since New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere, seasons are the opposite so it is Winter in August.) I also kept in contact with my UoS supervisor to make sure all my forms were completed in plenty of time.
Since the journey from the UK to New Zealand is over 24 hours, I made sure to arrive in Christchurch a week before my research placement at UC began. This gave me plenty of time to recover from jet lag and get comfortable navigating around the city. The most important things I did during this time were:
- Getting a bus card and learning the routes from my accommodation to the university and the city centre
- Finding my local grocery stores and coffee shops
- Signing up at a bouldering gym (it is very useful to have hobbies and develop a routine, especially in a new environment)
- Exploring the city to find clothing stores and restaurants I would like to check out
- Doing touristy things like museums and boat trips
My Research Project
My project was based in quantum chemistry – I took a theoretical molecular system and simulated different configurations, then implemented various quantum chemical methods to investigate their advantages and disadvantages. The outcome of the project had the possibility to lead to further research from my supervisor, which was exciting as it meant my name might appear on a published paper! My first week at UC coincided with a two-week break for the students so I could begin my project while campus was very quiet. I spent this time discovering the best food and study spots, memorising how to get to and from the research office, and having many meetings with my supervisor to get me set up. Although starting independent research was very daunting, it really helped me to remember that my supervisor wants me to succeed and has faith in me to do a good job. Also, there is no shame in needing support and asking for help – that’s what professors are for!
As time went on, I got much more confident in my abilities. I was learning how to use a new software called Psi4 which had a steep learning curve. Once I got used to it though, my research progressed much faster. This is normal – progress isn’t always linear! Generally, I spent 5-6 hours Mon-Fri which allowed me to enjoy my weekends without stress.I also worked on my written report alongside the quantitative research which took a lot of pressure off near the end of my placement. Not only did I not have to worry about forgetting things I had done months ago, but I also got continuous feedback on my drafts from my supervisor, meaning I didn’t have to edit all of it in one go at the end.
Life Outside of Research
When I first arrived, my supervisor introduced me to a fellow researcher who loved climbing and I met lots of people, both researchers and climbers, through her. I also met people through various websites and apps. Making friends with locals let me experience a lot of really cool things that aren’t advertised as much to tourists – from underground speakeasys to stunning hiking trails and local pub quizzes. Additionally, as a member of the LGBT community, I made an effort to find local queer events and spaces through Instagram, and ended up attending club nights, gigs, and drag events where I met lots of amazing people.
I think the best thing I did was really dive in to bouldering in my spare time. Climbing is very popular in New Zealand, and I met lots of people and even got to attend competitions! I found that having a constant activity helped me build a solid routine and not feel homesick. Moving to a new country, especially one with a 12-hour time difference, can be quite isolating and throw you off, so going climbing 3 or 4 times a week gave me something to do in the evenings.
Participating in a 6-month placement abroad has been so beneficial for me, not only as a student but also as a person. Living independently has made me confident and self-reliant. My research skills have improved greatly, and I am proud of the Master’s thesis I produced. I highly recommend doing an academic placement, especially if you are considering a Master’s or PhD in the future.