Tomáš, can you tell us something about yourself? What do you study? Where are you spending your exchange stay?
Hi, I am a PhD student of Public and Social Policy, and I am currently spending my time at University of Colorado Denver in the US, at the School of Public Affairs (SPA).
What made you decide for University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver)? Was it the reputation of the university, the professors, or a particular project?
It was more about professors and projects, although the school also has a good reputation for its Public Affairs program, which is one of the top 30 in the US. Prof. Weible, with whom members of our department collaborate on research articles, was one of them. He visited us just before the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic as part of a PhD seminar and workshop at Charles University. Prof. Weible is a world leader in policy process research, and it was on this day that I learned about the inter-faculty agreement between our faculty and SPA CU Denver and that it was possible to go there as a visiting scholar/researcher.
You are a PhD student, so what exactly do you do there?
I attend the Doctoral Seminar in Public Policy and the Policy Workshop Seminar. We also have weekly meetings of the Center for Policy and Democracy which is a hub for research, teaching, and community engagement on public policy and democracy. I was also a speaker at an international conference hosted by CU Denver, which brought together leaders in our field from around the world. The rest of my time is spent working on my research and dissertation. Now, at the end of my stay, I am focusing mainly on collecting interviews for a planned article.
I know you had to defer your exchange quite a bit due to the communication challenges with the partner university. How did you manage to stay positive?
This can certainly happen with new agreements when all channels of communication are not yet established. But it wasn’t a big deal, I only missed a few weeks of the fall trimester, but in return I was able to stay longer until the end of the spring trimester, which is great! I stayed positive as I was looking forward to going to the US again, although it wasn’t easy as arranging such a stay and going outside the EU for 8 months is quite demanding, but the result was worth it! The Americans themselves are also contributing to the positivity, as they are much more positive compared to us Czechs. We could take inspiration from that.
Part of the study requirements of PhD students is to go abroad (either conference participation or research, study stay). Is it manageable to implement it in your life as most of you already have a full-time job, partners, children…?
It’s a challenge, but it can be combined. Stays abroad can be split up into shorter stays if someone’s personal situation does not allow them to go abroad for a longer period consistently. We also have mothers of young children in our PhD class who go on conferences or short-term stays abroad. So, there is a choice for the student to fulfill these obligations.
Although you were awarded partial funding, I don’t suppose it is possible to cover all your expenses, so how challenging is the financial part?
In my experience, the funding will cover about half the cost of the stay, which is the maximum amount that can be applied for. Additional funding is then required for general expenses such as food, culture, transportation, etc.
Support from the school is essential. Due to the higher price level in the US, the stay is expensive for a Czech, so you will hardly see students from Central and Eastern Europe in these programs, rather those from more affluent countries. It is good that there is some form of support that balances this negative ratio. After all, the US, by various measures, has some of the best universities in the world, with prestigious research programs. It would be a pity not to take advantage of these opportunities when partnership agreements with universities are already in place.
Tell us something regarding your stay beyond the academic world. Would you share with us your favorite memory/experience?
Colorado is a beautiful mountain state full of places for outdoor activities. I was able to get a significant discount on a ski pass through CU Denver, which allowed me almost unlimited use at resorts across the US. I have enjoyed many days on the slopes. Denver is then a place with a lot of sporting activities, so I visited the games of professional teams of the NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB, and especially the games of our university in American football, which is always a unique experience, with all the marching bands, mascots, pre-game shows as you know from American movies. But there are plenty of memories, from traveling, having fun with my classmates, or other great people I met in the US, whether in my free time or professionally at a conference or while collecting interviews with experts.
In the International Office we think that the exchange stay shapes the student. Would you agree? And if so, have you learnt anything about yourself during your exchanges?
Surely the stay shapes the student’s view on various social issues to a certain extent. You have the opportunity to compare life situations abroad and evaluate which approach is more suitable for you – whether at home or abroad. Although life in Europe is very similar to that in the USA, it is quite different in certain matters. In the US you see huge social inequalities and poverty on a daily basis, there is also worse consumer protection and you come across situations where you as an individual find yourself in an unequal position to a company when dealing with a problem. We have a different approach to governance in Europe, which is more interventionist in these issues, more proactive and not so risk averse, and I personally prefer that system. So, although we tend to grumble about a lot of issues at home, abroad you realize that it’s actually not bad at all and that even a country like the United States has huge problems or differences between individual states.
Why is it important for students to experience a semester abroad?
I think it’s mainly the cognition and experience that you gain through such a stay. During your time abroad you go through all sorts of life situations that you deal with in a foreign country in a different language, which is a good experience for life. But also important is the knowledge or skills you gain from studying or making valuable contacts abroad that can help you in your further research. You will also gain new horizons, as other academic departments use different sources of books, journals, or may recommend authors you don’t even know.
And finally, what’s next? You are in your final year/s of your studies. What are your plans after you finish your studies?
When I return from my stay abroad, I will continue to work on a joint research project between our department and CU Denver. In Colorado, I am now collecting interviews for the US part of the research and will then replicate the process with Czech respondents for comparison. Early next academic year, we will present our preliminary results at the ECPR conference in Prague, where my colleagues and PhD students from CU Denver will participate in the same panel.
After graduation, I would like to pursue a job that will overlap with societal issues, where I can use my knowledge and skills gained during my studies to analyze the social life of individuals, groups, and societies. I would also not be opposed to working in an international environment.