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How to successfully negotiate the international PhD student experience

Starting a PhD is, in itself, a very big deal. Having to also travel and settle into another country, be away from the comforts of home and adapt to a new culture and education system can make the process that much more daunting for new researchers. 

But doing a PhD as an international student does not just have to be a stressful experience – it can also be a very fulfilling and enjoyable one. The connections you make and the skills you develop along the way will enrich not only your PhD but also your personal development and overall life experiences.

We share below some of the key factors to bear in mind as you embark on your PhD in new lands! 

Seek out the international student community

Most universities should have dedicated support for the international student community (at all levels of study) and will usually also have international or cultural societies and clubs. It is really worth going along to the socials or events they organise, especially at the beginning of the academic year (even if they are currently only virtual gatherings). 

These can be a really good way to meet and connect with other international students who may share similar backgrounds to you, or be dealing with similar issues as you in their work and life. As well as being able to empathise and share tips for studying and living abroad, the students in these groups may also be able to direct you to the right places for support, services or even just finding good food! 

Find out about available support for language and academic skills

It is important to look for the academic support provided to international students, or students who will be doing their studies in their second (or third or fourth) language. Most universities today should have some language or writing support in place. It is also worth checking with your PhD supervisor if there is any additional internal support within your department for international students – for example, study groups or language/conversation practice groups (and if not, you could even consider starting your own).

Additionally, look out for doctoral training sessions or workshops offered to the wider PhD community. Even if these trainings are not language-specific, they will give you a better understanding of the academic culture of the host country and the skills that are prioritised and emphasised within that education system. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

International students often feel shy or silly asking questions, or asking for help. In most cases however, people will be more than willing to help you and accommodate your requests. Remember that you are not being unreasonable, you just want to understand something that you are not familiar with, and there’s nothing wrong with that. 

Politely ask people to explain terms that you don’t understand (the local language, slang or accents may be different to understand), or you could even ask them to speak a little slower. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about cultural differences that you find unfamiliar or confusing – most locals should be willing to explain more.

Most importantly, be sure to maintain open and frank communication with your supervisor. If there is anything you are struggling with – either in your academic work or even in your personal life – try to talk to them about it as much you are comfortable doing. It is their job to support and guide you to do your best work; they will not be able to do this unless you are clear with them about any issues you are dealing with and ask for the help you need. 

Broaden your social circles

International students can sometimes tend to only hang out with their compatriots. While it is always comforting to be around people who fully understand your home and culture, do also try to broaden your social circles during this time abroad – this is such an excellent opportunity to discover new cultures and befriend people you might never otherwise meet.

Expanding your cultural circles will also benefit your PhD. You’ll have greater chances to practise speaking the language of the host country and learn other ways of doing things, both culturally and academically. Spending time regularly with both local students and other international students can help you to better adjust and become familiar with the country’s culture and academic system: locals can explain why they do what they do or show you what is expected, while other internationals can advise how to adapt and make sense of the system. 

Create a new home and life for yourself

For these few years, try to think about creating a new home for yourself, rather than thinking that you’re just ‘visiting’ or living in this country temporarily. A PhD lasts for quite a long time and it will do wonders for your overall wellbeing to create a space that is as comfortable as possible for you to do good research.

Making friends and building your own community there will also help you feel like you’ve got a family away from home. Getting involved in other non-PhD activity and social events can go a long way to creating a new life for yourself – it could be signing up for a gym or an activity in town, regularly checking out the local cultural sites or arts events, or even something as simple as finding a new favourite local café to frequent with friends.


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