Graduate students and independent researchers face many of the same health, safety, and security challenges as undergraduates in more structured study abroad programs. However, the fact that one is often traveling and working solo and in more remote places adds additional areas/items that need consideration and attention.

First off, we strongly encourage all those doing research abroad to review the general health, safety, and security information found at http://abroad.pitt.edu/safetyfirst.

Second, independent researchers and scholars should consider the following:


  • Visa regulations: Each country has different stipulations about how research is done, whether it is considered “work” or an “educational activity” and that may result in needing a different type of visa. If you or your research advisor is unclear on the specifics, contact your target country’s embassy in Washington for more information.  More information on visa requirements is availabe through the Department of State.
  • IRB: If your work needs IRB approval, make sure to complete that before leaving for your fieldwork. Students should review the latest IRB and Export Control requirements before departure.
  • Research permits: Do you need to have a permit and/or letter of affiliation with a specific research organization to legally do your research in your target country? If so, do you know how/from whom/where/when to obtain this and where/how/with whom to file this? 
  • Registration of activity with US embassy/consulate: In addition to completing the general STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) registration, it is a good idea to contact the American Citizens Services office in the US embassy or consulate closest to your research site to introduce yourself and your research. Ask them if there are specific legal regulations that they are aware of in your target country related to independent research.
  • Safety contacts (at research institution): Who will help you onsite if you have a medical or legal issue or if there is a natural disaster or political unrest? If you do not know this before leaving, determine that as soon as you arrive and share that person’s contact information with your research advisor and your family (or personal) contact. 
  • Power of attorney/will: If you haven’t done so already, it is a good idea to get your legal affairs in order before you leave for fieldwork. At very least, designate a responsible family member or friend as your power of attorney so that s/he can help out with the bureaucratic details of life while you are abroad. If you need assistance drafting this documentation, please contact the School of Law’s Legal Clinic, located in Sennott Square.
  • Income taxes and voting: US Citizens can file federal taxes and vote in federal elections at US embassies and consulates abroad. However, state and local taxes and elections are subject to different rules. Make sure to be clear on how to do both before departure.  This may require that you work with a trust family member or friend to handle these matters on your behalf.
  • Register with the Study Abroad Office.  Contact Vanessa Sterling, Associate Director, to begin this process.  You should do this sooner rather than later. As a reminder, if you are using university funds or will be registered for credit while abroad, you are required to register.  More details can be found here.
  • Purchase International Health Insurance and work with your doctor to obtain any and all medications you need before going overseas.

  • Legality of residence: Some municipalities have specific regulations about where foreigners can and cannot live. There are also municipalities that do not allow foreigners without work visas and/or official long-term visas to live independently. Make sure to check into this before you commit to any housing situation, as often the penalty for violating is a hefty fine and/or deportation. Regardless, you will need to ensure that your landlord registers your stay properly with local legal authorities to be in compliance with the visa regulations of most countries. Ignorance of local laws is never a good idea.
  • Signing documents related to leases, telecom, utilities: Are you legally allowed to sign contracts and obtain services in your target country? If not, whom may do this for you? And, what recourse do you have to cancel services if there is an issue? Ask before you sign!
  • Receiving mail: Where can you do this? Will that address accept expedited packages (i.e. FedEx, DHL, etc?) Are there materials that are illegal to ship to you in your target country (such as prescription medication, cash currency, pornographic or otherwise “objectionable” material? Where do you need to go to pay any mail-related customs duty?
  • Safe storage of important documents: Make sure to immediately identify and use a safe location for your passport, credit cards, and other important items/documents. Do not let any local domestic help know where this storage is. Routinely change this storage location.

  • Different work-place safety regulations: Many labs, archives, and office spaces abroad do not follow US standards of safety in HVAC, fire, and structural integrity. Thus, you should make sure to have a thorough orientation to each work place and make your own plan for your personal safety, including evacuation, eye-washing (for labs), and ventilation. In addition, most countries do not have the accessibility guarantees that the Americans with Disabilities Act grants here.
  • On-site legal issues: Laws pertaining to sexual harassment, intellectual property, working with live subjects, transportation of equipment, research notes, academic freedom, and plagiarism will differ from those we have in the US. In fact, there may be no legal protection available to you in many of these areas in your target country. If such is the case, proceed with caution and ask your local contacts what is reasonable to expect and how to deal with difficult situations.
  • Emergency/evacuation plan: You should consult with any local supervisor about existing emergency/evacuation protocols and make sure to memorize and follow them. If one does not exist, create one for yourself and practice it!

  • Road safety: Your research may take you well off the beaten path. That said, you should always include road safety (or the lack thereof) into your consideration of what is necessary to your project. Ask local contacts about the safest mode of transport and use it. If there does not appear to be a safe way to go somewhere, do your best to mitigate risk by traveling during the day, during good weather, or consider other options to get the information you seek. And wear seatbelts when available!
  • Bicycles, motorcycles, cars, boats: You may want or need to provide your own transport in-country. Make sure to consult your local contacts on the safest mode of transport, whether you need to be licensed, and whom to contact in the event of accidents or traffic disputes.
  • Booking travel: Make sure to ask questions about route of travel, costs, and cancellation policies before committing to purchase tickets. In general, it is best to book online or in person (and thus protect your credit card information) or to use cash to purchase. And, we do not recommend overnight overland travel alone, as your safety is greatly compromised on dark trains and buses.
  • Credit card and document safety: When you are abroad, the most important thing you have is your passport. So, before leaving, develop a protocol for where/how to store it while you travel, where you will store it in your hotel/apartment, and make sure to have an electronic copy of your biodata page and any visa information to access in case it is lost or stolen. The same rule should apply to credit cards. In addition, “edit” your wallet for normal day-to-day activities and really only carry what you absolutely need at one point. During travel, separate your credit cards so that not everything is in one place. That way, you can ensure that you always have at least one form of accessing cash if everything else is lost/stolen. 
  • Sharing travel plans: Whether you are going to visit another research site, away for the weekend, or to another country, we advise you share a general travel plan with someone you trust, both locally and back at home. That way, if something happens to you (and really, anything can happen at any time), someone will realize that you are not where you are expected and can alert officials to help you. Remember, in addition to things possibly happening to you, events may transpire with family/loved ones at home that you would want to know about in a timely fashion. 

  • Different cultural expectations: While you may meet a person you’d like abroad in a setting much like you’d find here in Pittsburgh, that does not mean that the person (or his/her family) subscribes to the same values/mores/norms that you do vis-à-vis romantic and intimate relationships. Have clear, direct conversations about meanings, hopes, and expectations with potential partners before getting serious. Also, legal definitions of consent vary widely and are sometimes in direct opposition to those we have in the US. Again, clear and direct conversations are necessary for all concerned!
  • Legal/visa implications: If your relationship progresses to something more permanent or if others are involved (i.e. a child, parents, extended family), make sure to consult a local immigration official and the closest US (or your home country’s) embassy or consulate to get a clearer sense of how life events such as marriage and having a child might affect both your current visa and any needed to enter the US. This can be a lengthy, complicated, and expensive process, so be sure to have all the information you can get before making permanent arrangements. 
  • With research subjects/colleagues: Consider carefully how a romantic relationship with research subjects may affect your further access to informants, lab space, or to meeting others working in your field in-country. Will it play into unfortunate stereotypes? Would a breakup jeopardize your project or its outcomes? How might it affect your professional reputation? Academic expatriate communities tend to be fairly small and gossipy, so you should consider this carefully. 

If you have further questions, please contact Vanessa Sterling, Associate Director of Pitt Study Abroad.