From “Up Top” to “Down Under”: Getting into Australia with your sanity intact

I was asked by my research academy, NAFOL, to write an travel account of my journey from Trondheim, Norway to Sydney, Australia where I’m doing a year abroad as a part of my PhD in teacher education research. Also, my hope is that this account will be of use to other academics, students and PhD researchers who are either planning a stay abroad or are waiting. For the purpose of this story, I would have to start from the very beginning at the point of which I first decided to look for opportunities abroad.

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Bangkok skyline seen from the top of Central World. We spent a total of 6 weeks in Thailand and Malaysia waiting for our Australian Visas.

Planning the stay – Part I: First contact
I decided early on in my PhD that I wanted to do up to 12 months abroad in order to gain more international experience and a new perspective on my work. The field I am in, the use of ICT in teacher education, is up an coming in Scandinavia, but could greatly benefit from international impulses. After talking the idea over with my supervisors, they were on board as long as I could fit it into my project time frame and as long as the stay could be related to my research topic.

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Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia. The view from the sky bridge is stunning.

Some of the criteria for my stay were the following: 1) The stay had to benefit my research topic, develop my skills as a researcher and add to my professional network, 2) the stay would not kill me financially with tuition and course fees, 3) the stay had to be at an institution and in a place that was ranked high on university ranking lists (see for example QS Top University or World University Rankings), 3) My wife would be on board (needless to say #3 was the most important point). Therefore, I started looking for other researchers to collaborate with using three approaches:

1) Google: The easiest way to encounter researchers looking for collaboration was just to Google just that: “researcher” + “collaborate” + “PhD”. However, I ended up drowning in results and in lack of good filtering strategies, I tried a different approach which was just as time consuming.

2) Journals: I started searching the databases for journals that best fit my research area, and noted down names of relevant researchers and institutions that would have similar research interests as me. Afterwards, I stated looking into the researchers’ profiles and found several potential candidates. However, after sending several e-mails and looking into programs for “Visiting Scholars/researchers”, I had little to no luck with this strategy. Some institutions would classify me as a post-graduate student and charge me up to $50.000 in tuition fees while others required me to already hold the title of “Associate Professor” in order to qualify as a “Visiting Scholar”. Also, some researchers were sadly too busy to take me on as they already had full work-schedules with teaching, supervision and their own research.

3) Institutional level: With this approach, I ended up using a more straight forward tactic: 1) Find a place you want go, 2) find a university you want to work at, 3) find people at that university you can collaborate with, 4) e-mail/send inquiries. In my case, I knew that I always wanted to live and work in Sydney as I had previously done in New Zealand a few years before. Completely by random, I found a research center at the University of Sydney, Centre for Research on Computer Supported Learning and Cognition (CoCo) that specialized in educational technology, and one of the center’s co-founders, Peter, openly stated in his profile that he was “always looking for PhD students to collaborate with”. I read up on his work and found several overlapping research interests. I took a chance, sent him an e-mail and so the fun began!

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Sydney Harbour Bridge. You can actually climb to the top where the flags are.

Planning the stay – Part II: Preliminary paperwork, Visa application, and more paperwork
Peter and I communicated well via e-mail and we quickly found common research interests. He could see how I would benefit his project at CoCo, and I could see how it would benefit me and my research from working with him and his team. Also, escaping Norwegian winter and enjoying the surf in Sydney was a huge push/pull factor! After finding a suitable time frame for me to potentially come and visit CoCo (12 months), Peter put me in touch with the faculty’s human resources contact for visiting researchers and we both had to “joyfully” navigate the Australian bureaucracy for immigration. In the end, we found out that in order for me to be allowed a Visa into Australia as visiting student researcher, I would have to acquire an Occupational Trainee Visa. The reason why I could not be on a Research Stream Visa (previously known as Visiting Scholar) was simply because I had no academic publications to show for and I did not (yet) have a sound academic record to speak of. However, as an Occupational Trainee, you can as a PhD student be granted a VISA for up to a year where you undergo workplace-based training to enhance your skills with your supervising professor (this may vary from case to case). Yet, there are several restrictions that apply to this Visa which you can read up on at the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s web site.

I cannot go into details about what you need to do/not do for your Visa application, but I did make a few experiences in the process that I would like to share:

1) Get a letter of invitation from the institution you wish to visit. No letter, no Visa. During this process, you might have to ask your institution’s financial officer and administrator write up a letter confirming your employment, your salary, that you are free to leave for your stay abroad and that you will be receiving your normal payment while working abroad (conditions might be different from case to case). Once all the terms have of your stay have been typed out and signed off by the right people, a letter of invitation should be coming your way.

2) Start reading the fill-in application paperwork as soon as possible, and start accumulating all the documents according to the instructions in the application. This includes getting certified copies of birth certificated, translated marriage licenses, police penalty clearance reports, letter of invitation as so on (NOTE: All must be in English!). I Norway, certified copies of legal documents can only be produced by a notary public or notaris publicus and this process can be quite pricy! Afterwards, you need to get these documents legalized for the country you are visiting with an Apostille certification stamp. For getting the Apostille certification stamp (Apostille stempel) in Norway, see the regional office of the Fylkesmannen (this service is free). Also, translations are pricy and can take time depending on the amount of documents you need translated. Furthermore, make sure that you get proper health insurance with a certified provider as NIB or Allianz. Budget packages designed for overseas visitors should be sufficient. Get certified copies of your pay slips from your workplace and copies of your bank statements from your bank, preferably in the currency of the country you are visiting. If you are granted extra travel funds (see #3), make sure to include this in your application, preferably in the visiting countries’ currency. In certain cases, you might also need to get a full medical checkup including a TB scan. This checkup can only be done by certain certified panel physicians so plan ahead if this applies to you. Take extra photocopies of the entire application before you mail it in for sake of reference.

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Darling Harbour. The ginormous turtle is a part of an art exhibition.

3) Apply for funding after getting the letter of invitation. Ask you institution or research academy if there are additional funding for longer research stays or “sabbaticals”. I my case, the research academy I am enrolled in, NAFOL, granted me additional funds for sponsoring my costs abroad. Make sure to produce a clear, comprehensible budget along with your application with all the supporting documents attached. Argue your case through the numbers in the budget and show how the stay can benefit your research project.

4) Wait for the Visa. Try to be optimistic, but conservative when waiting for a response on you visa application. Usually, all communication is done via e-mail, and Australia has a new system where Visa’s are granted electronically, meaning you do not have to send your passport to their embassies anymore in order to get Visa stickers. The listed waiting time for Training and Research Visas is set to up to 2 months for low-risk countries and 3 months for high-risk countries, but I would highly recommend anticipating 3 to 4 months as there are always a great number of applicants applying at the same time. Also, calling the Help Desk number and actually talking to someone helps with the anticipation as your e-mails tend to get lost.

5) Order flexible plane tickets! If you have miles or bonus points with the right airlines, use them as they usually grant you extra flexibility! The reason for this is listed in #4, and I am so thankful that my wife and I payed extra for this since we had to cancel and rebook our tickets a total number 5 times! In this process, we wasted some money, but it could have been much worse since we only had to pay a re-booking fee every time we changed our plans. We actually ended up being stuck in Thailand and Malaysia for 6 weeks because we anticipated our Visa to be granted at the end of May when in fact it was granted second week of July. It did not stop us from getting our diver’s licenses in Koh Tao, Thailand 😉

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Sydney Opera House. You will see how people are properly dressed for winter.

6) Make arrangements at home. A lot of people end up sub-leasing their homes while they are away, and a safe way to do this is through a real estate agent specialized in rentals. We ended up using a company called Utleiemegleren.no which was recommended by my colleagues. They offer a free home inspection if you consider using them and take a reasonable cut from your rental income. Also, they will take care of all of the legalities of renting, they locate and select tenants for you to approve or not, and act as the mediator between you and the tenants.

7) Look for and rent accommodation abroad. There are a number of real estate websites that offer short and long term lease of properties in Australia. These include Sabbaticalhomes.com, Gumtree.com.au and Domain.com.au. Unfortunately, because of an IP blocking issue, messages sent from a foreign IP address are not properly sent to the advertisers on the websites. Also, there is a great deal of paperwork involved when renting an apartment in Australia so be prepared to have a number of documents ready for this process (passport photos, payment slips, confirmation of employment, previous rental ledgers, Australian references/contact persons). The 100 points of ID system is perhaps one of the most fascinating I have ever come across! My wife and I used AirBnB when we first got to Sydney, and used that as a base for exploring other neighborhoods, going to house inspections and finally finding a place to stay. Also, AirBnB allowed us to get to know new people who gave us loads of tips on where to go, what to eat, which bank is the best, why Vegemite is better than Marmite and so on. For our housing situation, we ended up sharing a house with 2 others using a website called Flatmates.com.au. This was ideal since it allowed us to expand our network in Sydney, live closer to the CBD district and afforded us a larger living space (house is very pricy in Sydney!).

8) Expect to hit the ground running. There are a number of things that you need to get sorted out at once when you arrive such as opening up a bank account, getting a local photo ID card, getting a SIM card with a local provider, apply for a Tax file number, and get a confirmation of tenancy. When you encounter the 100 point of ID system, you will know why…

9) Keep a record of all of your expenses! Some institutions such as mine offers a post-trip refund of a certain number of expenses such as rent, conference fees and work related travel expenses. This requires that I need to keep a record of my work related spending and keep all original receipts (including boarding passes for flights), and present them to the financial officer upon my return (I asked if they accepted scanned copies, but the computer said no).

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University of Sydney. This picture shows the Main Quadrangle.

 

So far, I have my own office at CoCo where everybody have been very welcoming. Peter and I have started working together on a small project, and I feel very much included in the center’s research and work. The next entry will most likely be a post-trip reflection of what I have done and learned during my stay. Hopefully, this post was of some us or amusement for you.

 

Cheers!

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