As much as I’ve come to appreciate the research environment in Groningen over the last couple of years, it cannot compare to UCLA—and probably other great research institutes. In Groningen there are only a few PhD candidates in our research group, and most of them don’t work on their PhD fulltime. They have actual jobs, and write a dissertation on the side; the faculty in the meantime has an enormous teaching load, and so has little time for research; and we lack the funding to regularly invite famous scholars for colloquia or workshops. People also generally don’t really look beyond their own niche; not only do linguists not mingle with for example sociologists, but excluding one short monthly lunch, the different fields of linguistics don’t even meet.
It’s also weird how productive you become in such an environment. I’m a pretty quick writer, partly because I can get an analysis down quickly, but also because I have a decent work discipline. And still the amount of research and writing I got done in just a few months is so much more than what I would normally have done in Groningen, while still having time to explore everything the west coast of the USA has to offer. Just in the fall I managed to write a complete paper, from idea to analysis, in a matter of months, and having finished that I resubmitted a second paper, and wrote a third, this time even collecting and transcribing my own data.
One reason is of course that you want to impress the researchers who read your work. It’s a great opportunity to show to top scholars what you’re capable of. But it’s more than that. The frequent conversations, discussions, and feedback sessions provide you with so many ideas, that you have enough energy to just keep going. I still have plenty of ideas for projects I want to work on: For example, how do we use the past tense in conversation? It’s definitely not only for describing past events, but it seems to have a large social and epistemic component as well. Something I probably would not have figured out, had I not written a term paper.
But of course, these trips abroad are about more than just doing research. I’ve always loathed major cities. I never liked Amsterdam or Rotterdam, Paris is massively overrated as far as I’m concerned, and I couldn’t get out of Johannesburg fast enough. The crowds, the filth, the noise: I preferred the quiet life. So moving to Los Angeles seemed crazy: one of the biggest cities in the world, with no decent public transportation, and very little opportunities to walk anywhere. But LA has so much to offer in terms of culture, cuisine, and hiking, that it’s hard to not love the city.
It’s always a shame coming home after such a great time, but at least the experience confirms that academia is a great environment to work in. If only The Netherlands had such research driven environments. But I guess you can’t have everything.