“You’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.” The experience of being an international PhD student can be daunting when faced with the prospect of living in a new country for the next four years, alongside the pressures of undertaking a demanding, major research project. Jenny Mak shares three tips on how she settled in as an international doctoral student…
Tip #1: Create a Sense of Home
As an international student living in a different country for the first time, you might find yourself grappling with the question of ‘Where is home?’ Faced with the prospect of living in an unfamiliar environment for the next four years, with the added pressure of feeling that you have to make it work because your PhD is a huge investment in itself and that a lot is at stake, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. What can help is a change of mindset: start thinking of your adopted country as your home, and your home country as a place you go back for holidays.
How do you create a sense of home? One way is to set up a daily routine to follow. For a PhD student, this isn’t difficult because your research project is something with clear parameters that offers a basic structure to build up from—a set deadline, monthly and annual submission targets, and a regular workplace like the lab, the office, or the library that you go to every day. An everyday routine of waking up, eating breakfast, commuting to your workplace, grabbing a cup of Joe, and having a chat with your colleagues before starting work can sound mundane. But in an unfamiliar environment, this can create a sense of familiarity and comfort that grounds you. Other examples include finding a regular gym, decorating your living space with meaningful items, and setting up a regular time in the week to talk to your family back home. As you do this routine like clockwork, it can help you feel more settled, combating homesickness. In turn, you can better channel your energies towards doing your PhD—which is why you’ve chosen to be in this foreign country in the first place—and open yourself fully to exciting new experiences.
Tip #2: Communicate your Culture
Culture shock can manifest in your academic relationships, whether with your peers, your supervisors, or your own students. Regarding supervisor-supervisee relationships, for instance, expectations differ across cultures. In the UK, this relationship tends to be more informal. But in other countries, the supervisor might be seen as a ‘big boss’ or a superior and thus the supervisee might hesitate to speak his/her mind about any dissatisfaction, out of the fear of being seen as disloyal or disrespectful. On the teaching front, lingering cultural preconceptions and language barriers can make it daunting for international PhD students to teach home students.
How do we navigate these challenges? I suggest working extra hard to ensure you’ve mastered your material, whether for a supervisory meeting or for a lesson or lab session. When you’re confident about the content of your work, this will shine through. Ask for more supervisory meetings for a ‘hands on’ approach if you’re facing communication difficulties. Talk to your fellow supervisees (under the same supervisor) to better understand how your supervisor communicates to avoid misunderstandings. You don’t have to be overly defensive or apologetic about your cultural assumptions and habits—I think it’s more productive to cultivate a sense of openness and willingness to share about your own culture and to learn from other cultures as well, on equal ground. Cross-cultural engagement goes both ways, and ultimately this skill will be invaluable in helping you make global connections in your academic career.
Tip #3: Build your Community
When you live abroad as an international student, you go from perhaps seeing your family every day to being by yourself for days on end. Isolation is a major challenge even more so for PhD students, because the nature of a PhD is such that for us to complete our dissertations, a certain degree of isolation is unavoidable. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need to isolate yourself socially in order to finish your PhD as soon as possible so that you can return to your home country—it doesn’t work that way. Don’t underestimate how loneliness can affect your psychological and emotional state, when you need all the mental strength and stability you can get in order to get through this major academic undertaking.
Your friends become your family during this time. Ways to build your community and support system include joining international students societies or your home country society on campus, participating in departmental socials—I’ve heard of football sessions, games nights, movie nights with pizzas—or sports and activities groups. PhD candidates often already see themselves as early career researchers rather than as ‘students’ so these extracurricular activities might come across as distractions, but it is when we are emotionally and psychologically supported that we thrive. As international students, we have the added challenge of building this support system from the ground up. But remember that you are already living amidst the buzz of campus life, and it is waiting for you to step in and participate.
Have your experiences as an international PhD student been positive or negative? How have you adapted to your new living environment? How do you balance your international student experience with the pressures of your PhD? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at email@example.com, or leave a comment below.
Jenny Mak is a PhD researcher in the English and Comparative Literary Studies department at the University of Warwick. She has been an international student in the UK for ten years. Her research looks at embodied experiences of globalisation in contemporary world literature. She has a background in creative writing, journalism, publishing, and sports training.