Finding your place as an international PhD Student

Doing your PhD as an international student can sometimes feel a bit scary and overwhelming. In this post, Daria discusses several ways of fighting the common fears of not fitting in or being left out. 

By Daria Akhapkina

Settling in a new environment is hard, especially coming from a completely different academic and cultural background. As an international student myself, I’ve experienced a lot of struggles and found my own ways to overcome fears and hardships of getting accustomed to the new lifestyle. Here are some of my ideas on how to fight the sense of alienation and loneliness when you’re away from home.

A hand drawing of a person in a scarf with a photo of family nearby and a thought bubble with a jumble of thread in it, showing the student as confused and sad.
Missing family as an international student. Illustration: Daria Akhapkina.

Connect with other people

From my experience, international students sometimes fall into two categories while choosing their community: some prefer to only socialise with students of their own background, and some avoid their compatriots completely, looking to disassociate from their native culture for their own reasons. Both strategies have their benefits and downsides, but my suggestion would be to try and socialise with as many different people as you can. Luckily, the University provides a lot of opportunities to meet with all kinds of students and get to know people whom you would have never met in other circumstances. The Community Engagement team in the Library hosts a weekly Research Refresh which is a great way to connect with others. Meeting other international students from different countries will help you broaden your horizons and provide you with a perspective of other people’s experiences and struggles. Seeing students from various regions of the UK allows you to understand the diversity of the local culture and get a deeper insight into your likenesses and differences. And socialising with students from your own or similar background may help you to get a sense of home and acceptance which is sometimes hard to achieve while living abroad.

A group of people in coats walking outside and talking.
Meeting with people is really important for your PhD. Image: Ivy Zhuo.

Celebrate your culture

When I just arrived in the UK, everything seemed to remind me that I was a foreigner: the slightest hint that I might have an accent, numerous failed attempts to utter my unpronounceable name, even politely curious questions about my looks and background… It can still be hard sometimes, but now I try to remind myself that not only do I deserve to be here, but I also have the right to be different and accepted. People around are most likely really interested in understanding you and your culture, so don’t be shy to celebrate it as much as you feel comfortable! Of course, you don’t have to educate everyone all the time, but sometimes it is just pleasant to share your favourite traditional meal with your friends or explain the meaning behind a certain piece of clothing of yours, or just talk over some aspects of your culture, religion and/or traditions. It actually started growing on me over the time, so don’t be surprised if you meet me and get an invitation to try my borscht.*

*a type of beetroot soup popular in Russia.

Experience local lifestyle

To me the best part about studying abroad is the opportunity to experience living in a new country on a deeper level than you would while simply visiting. So why not get the best out of it? Don’t miss out on local activities simply because they sound unfamiliar or you feel like you won’t ‘fit in’: it’s about having fun and exploring the culture, not passing another exam! Grab your friends along for a Sunday roast or a pub quiz at SU pub The Dirty Duck, get involved in community activities, visit local and faraway sights, go on long walks to some beautiful destinations, learn about the opportunities and services provided to you as a local resident, try some new food or watch the film that all your British friends keep telling you about.

“People around are most likely really interested in understanding you and your culture, so don’t be shy to celebrate it as much as you feel comfortable!”

Be patient with yourself

I’m often my own harshest critic, so during my first years in the UK I used to constantly feel embarrassed if I didn’t get a local joke or missed a reference to some obscure 1950s comedy apparently known by everyone in the room. But you don’t have to repeat my mistakes! Remember, nobody judges you for not knowing everything, and most of the time people are genuinely grateful for your interest in their culture. You have already done so much and deserve respect for your effort to understand something so different from what you’ve been experiencing your entire life. Don’t push yourself too hard, explore local lifestyle, culture and language at your own pace, and don’t be ashamed to ask questions.

Tell us about your own experience of getting used to the new environment. What are your ideas about overcoming fears of being left out? Tweet us @researchex, message us on Instagram @warwicklibrary, or email us at

If you’re an international student and would like further advice for settling in, why not check out our blog on making friends on your PhD, or settling in as an international student.

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