Another chapter in academia can be a harrowing concept for anyone as the journey begins, but for someone choosing to study abroad for their PhD, there is a whole extra level of anxiety that comes with uprooting one’s life to unpack in a new world.
Exciting, exhilarating, and rejuvenating? By all means! Anxiety riddled, nerve-wracking, and causing you to second guess every decision you’ve ever made? That too.
In this post, I want to talk through some of the challenges involved in starting a PhD abroad.
While I am grateful that my experience starting my PhD abroad in China has been a pretty smooth transition, for the most part, there is a lot of advice I wish I had been given before beginning this new life journey.
Simply being in an unfamiliar country magnifies the insecurities and anxieties you already have about starting a PhD. A new chapter, especially in a new culture, can be a magnificent adventure, but those worries can hamper your experience when starting on your journey.
Here is what I wish someone had told me over a hot cup of consultative coffee.
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What you’re feeling is normal
I wish someone had sat me down, bought me a cup of coffee, and given me five minutes of their time to tell me that what I was feeling was not only normal, but it would be worrisome if I wasn’t feeling anxious and insecure to some degree.
As the time draws near for your departure, it is normal for the excitement to flow to the backburner of your brain as anxiety starts to claim territory over your thoughts. Keep a list of things that you want to do and achieve while you are abroad (not just in academia!), and write down why you decided to choose this experience for your PhD.
Keep that list of reasons with you to read as you start to get nervous. It’ll help remind you what your goals are and that, not only are you capable of achieving them, you are on your way to doing so.
It can help keep anxiety at bay when your nerves start to nag at you.
The most important aspect of pursuing your PhD abroad, which I cannot stress enough, is making connections. Making connections with fellow PhD students, both local and foreign, is important, but before you arrive I highly recommend getting to know the staff at your international student office. They are the ones that will help you with issues that crop up.
Need to know where to find a certain building for a class? They have you covered. Not sure where to pick up your mail? That’s where to ask.
Introduce yourself by email before you arrive. I have found that bringing a small welcome gift from your native country never hurt anyone make an even better impression in person. Also, try to get to know older students who have already been through your experience (in the same field is even better!). They’ll understand what you’re going through and are able to give you the hacks for getting around campus and the city that the international student office can’t provide.
Do your homework
Be sure to make a list of any numbers you might need in case of emergency – hospitals, police stations, where to get your computer or cell phone fixed or replaced, and so on. This is handy to have and will help relieve stress, because you’ll know what to do when a problem crops up.
In addition to emergency numbers and addresses, be sure to ask around for the best coffee shops, pubs, and restaurants in the area. The social aspect of landing fresh in a new country is important, and knowing the right places to go make it easier to meet new people.
Don’t forget to check and make sure you know what the country will require of you before and/or when you land – what should you prepare besides your passport? Do you need extra passport pictures or forms filled out before arrival? Do you need doctor’s papers for shots, vaccines, etc.? The paperwork can take a lot of time, and making sure you know everything you need beforehand can make the process smoother.
Familiarise yourself with your area before you go – a little at a time, not in a “I’ll buy every Lonely Planet guide that has ever been printed” sort of way. Whether it’s a beginner’s course in a different language or using Google Maps to scope out the area, these steps will make the culture shock seem less like a body slam to your system upon arrival.
Your PhD thesis.
All on one page.
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One piece of advice that may seem counterintuitive is to keep in mind that over-planning (which often leads to overpacking) might not be the best way to go. Planning thoroughly and organising yourself is important, but focus on the big things, and let the little things go, such as making sure you have shoes for every season. Those things can always be taken care of once you are unpacked. A picture of your family cannot. Bring things from home that will remind you of your loved ones and your favourite places. You will miss home, even if you don’t think you will, so bring it with you in some form.
Lastly, as I finish sharing with you these hypothetical dregs of coffee from my consultative cup, I wish someone had just told me to keep an open mind and remember to breathe. The number one quality that you can possess and maintain during this experience is flexibility, because this next chapter will always be different from how you imagined. Accept the changes as they come with an open mind and the experiences will make you stronger. It’s a part of the adventure and those are the experiences that will impact you the most and make your time pursuing your PhD that much more meaningful.
Enjoy the magic, even if it is stressful.
Our minds are not only changing because of our journey through academia, but also because of the total immersion of the process around us. As we continue learning through our research, we will learn just as much about ourselves. It’s a leap of faith, but please, whatever you do, keep your eyes open when you are learning to fly.
Caitlin Meyer is an international student pursuing her PhD abroad in Shenyang, China at Northeastern University, where her focus is gender equality and innovation in Science and Technology Policy. If you have any questions about pursuing your studies abroad, email her at CaitPhDQuestions@outlook.com.