Coming to America

Irina Filonova and Paola Barriga share four key things they wish they'd known about graduate training in the United States when they came from abroad.

October 12, 2020
 
 
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One of us, Paola, was among 500,000-plus international students enrolled in an academic program in the United States in 2006. Being trained in the country would allow her to have a professional life in Ecuador, a dream she nurtured since she was an undergraduate student in biological sciences.

The other of us, Irina, came to the United States as part of an exchange while she studied literature in Russia. With no specific goal in mind, but possessing a love for the study of human behavior, she ended up in the College of Medicine, pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences.

Both our journeys were challenging, and as it turned out, similar to those of many international students now enrolled in advanced degree programs across the country. Along the way, we learned many important things we’d like to share with the international graduate STEM community and those who support it, in hopes of making their training more successful.

No. 1: Financial support for international researchers is important but scarce. The majority of international researchers come to the United States using personal/family savings or fellowship funds. Paola wasn’t an exception, as she was the recipient of a two-year fellowship with a modest $15,000 to $20,000 per year stipend. Unfortunately, the fellowship could not cover all personal expenses, and Paola had to find supplementary income while doing full-time research. In contrast, Irina pursued her Ph.D. in a medical school, where she had full access to funding because of her permanent resident status and the nature of her biomedical research.

Comparing our stories, we realized: first, international students receive very few funding opportunities and, second, such opportunities depend significantly on immigration status, academic discipline/department and research alignment. For instance, the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health provide solid support for students with citizenship or permanent residency, yet seldom offer stipends to international trainees. A similar situation occurs when a lab is funded by large grants with aims unrelated to the international student’s dissertation research.

Knowing this, we suggest starting a money conversation with a potential or new adviser while choosing programs or as soon as you join a lab. Asking the following questions will help you to survey the funding landscape while highlighting your determination toward your academic career.

  • “What are the funding opportunities the program offers?”
  • “How much, how long and what research-related items are covered?”
  • “What additional funding and employment opportunities are available specifically for international students?”

In case your principal investigator is unsure about funding opportunities, a pre-award office or a grant section would be a good initial starting point to explore internal fellowships and small private grants. Another way to get ahead of the financial scarcity is to plan for research agendas that don’t require substantial funding. Those could include chapters with research performed locally at your institution, topic reviews, meta-analyses and/or surveys.

On a personal note, we advise you to be prepared for rejections when applying to widely available financial and “safety net” programs. Due to immigration restrictions and a lack of credit history, you are more likely to encounter “no” to credit requests and might be assessed higher fees and offered unreasonable credit card rates. That said, the longer you stay in the United States, the easier it becomes to establish a presence comparable to that in your home country.

No. 2: Not all advisers and programs are created equal. Once you are in a graduate program with secured finances, it is time to re-evaluate your fit with the program and the adviser. Being extremely grateful for the opportunity to conduct research in a top research-conducting county, international researchers might often overlook red flags that are perhaps more visible to citizens who grew up in the United States. In our past, we witnessed unfairness or experienced disrespect at times, but we didn’t dare to question authority because it was deemed inappropriate in both Ecuador and Russia. Any graduate student could find themselves in a similar situation, but understanding the cultural dos and don’ts is harder for international trainees who are unfamiliar with the distinct characteristics and customs of North American culture. More often than not, international students can feel trapped by limited opportunities and visa restrictions, making it difficult to entertain other options such as switching labs, looking for additional mentors or transferring to another department.

While no blanket advice will fit everyone, if your program doesn’t clearly involve supportive peers and an understanding and experienced PI, we encourage you to investigate other places where multiple faculty members serve as advisers, or seek out departments that share your passion for a specific research question. Also, connecting with officials in the central administration, like Graduate Affairs, could give you additional support outside individual departments in case you decide to switch labs, find committee members or meet out-of-field mentors who are eager to contribute to your growth.

Another option is to look for labs that are known for successfully hosting international and national researchers, or programs that emphasize diverse and international agendas. Their agendas are aimed at bringing like-minded people together, and you may find yourself in the midst of a vibrant, globally oriented workforce.

No. 3: Mental health should be your No. 1 priority. Being a graduate student is not easy for anyone, but international researchers face additional challenges related to being far from their support network. The fact that international students might look, sound, communicate and think differently may also exacerbate culture shock and elicit microaggressions. Thus, international trainees commonly feel misunderstood and isolated even in a welcoming work environment.

Irina vividly remembers days when she was unable to bring herself to go to the lab because of an incredible amount of stress stemming from failing experiments, time pressures and unbearable homesickness. She was used a hierarchical work structure and a direct communication style, so the North American work environment was confusing, overwhelming and extremely lonely. And, despite full access to mental health providers, the stigma around mental health issues brought from her home country prevented her from seeking immediate help.

Turning to Paola, emotions were there to be felt in her culture. But she experienced being unheard in difficult situations and constantly lacked the financial support and training that would have helped her better teach undergraduate students in the United States. In the beginning, she didn’t know she had access to mental health assistance, but she then found a mental health counselor’s office to be a place where she could express herself and feel comfortable in her own skin. Moreover, the counselor helped her understand the perception of her host culture regarding mental health.

We recently learned that academic articles have reinforced our experiences, showing that international students tend to use available counseling services less than domestic students for a wide array of reasons, including a lack of awareness and cultural attitudes. As beneficiaries of such services, we highly recommend contacting mental health providers as soon as you notice the first signs of anxiety, homesickness, loneliness or difficulties in cultural adjustments.

In addition, it is a good idea to build a new support system in the host country to increase your sense of groundedness and belonging. This new “tribe” could include people who are not directly related to your program or school, but share something in common such as love for books, similar hobbies or religious affiliation. Building a social life and making regular trips to the psychologist’s office might seem like an unjustifiable distraction from your research, but it is a tested way to build the resilience and grit necessary to finish Ph.D. training.

No. 4: Career development experts can help reconcile cultural differences during job searches or other professional activities. The reality for international students is that they grew up in another culture and came to the States with previously established ways of living, working and job seeking. Unaware of cultural differences in career management and development, international trainees might continue to utilize strategies not appropriate to their current situation. Moreover, they might have a hard time embracing American self-promotion and networking behaviors.

For example, Paola grew up in a family where humility was valued. Thus, the intense activity of self-promotion she saw in American peers was overwhelming at times. She felt more comfortable promoting and focusing on the care and well-being of others, rather than talking about herself.

For her part, Irina was apprehensive about using her well-crafted elevator pitch at networking events because of Russian societal norms. And her Russian accent undermined her confidence.

From where we stand now in our lives and careers, we can clearly see the importance of expanding our horizons by engaging in our own professional and career development. Attending workshops and panel discussions and setting up informational interviews allowed us to see what was possible in academia and beyond. As a result, we encourage you to reach out to career centers at your university and/or seek the services graduate schools offer. Career development professionals are ready to help you to reconnect with yourself by identifying your strengths, values and purpose. Knowing those key components of your core identity will boost your resilience during challenging times as well as offer a compass on your quest to find a career where you can make the greatest impact. These exercises can also deepen your understanding of your cultural background and pinpoint any misalignments with your current environment.

If possible, take advantage of meeting with a career coach who will work with you to improve your application materials, conduct mock interviews and practice negotiation strategies. Many of those activities will put you outside your comfort zone and stretch your limits, but the resulting personal and professional growth will pay off in no time when you are on the job market.

Looking back, we agree that leaving our home countries led to many financial and emotional sacrifices. Both of us were overwhelmed with change and felt unsupported and rootless until we slowly assimilated into American culture. But this journey taught us how to use our strengths and harness our distinct knowledge and awareness of multiple cultures. We have learned that being international means being adaptable, flexible, global, culturally intelligent and, most importantly, marketable. We are confident that with institutional resources and strong peer networks, you can make the very best of your training experience and become as competitive as a graduate student can be on the way to a fulfilling career.

Bio

Irina Filonova is a postdoctoral development specialist and a strength coach at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Japan, and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium, an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. Paola Barriga is a postdoctoral researcher and teaching associate at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia and a certified career services provider.

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