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Grad School Abroad: What Do You REALLY Need to Bring?

How to pack for grad school in another country.

December 2, 2014

Hanna Peacock is a PhD student in Cardiovascular Sciences at the KU Leuven. You can find her on Twitter @hannapeacock or at her website.

Moving abroad for grad school is an exciting adventure. Unfortunately, moving abroad also comes with many practical challenges. I moved from Canada to Belgium this past September, and found the largest practical challenge was deciding what to bring. The objective, particularly if you are flying, is to bring as few things as possible, since additional or heavy bags are quite expensive to fly with. Now, a few months in, there are some things I’m glad I chose to pack, or not pack—and others that I really wish I had brought along with me.

Do Bring

An open mind: Even if you are moving between relatively similar countries, differences will exist. Coming from Canada to Europe, I really had to re-calibrate my idea of the size of accommodation I was going to rent. My vision of having a multi-room apartment was quickly adjusted to having a 22 m2 studio. Watch what the locals do, and copy.

Rolling suitcases: When you are exhausted from traveling, not having to carry bags through train stations will make a world of difference.

Comfort food: I arrived on a Sunday to find that shops were closed, and I was too tired from traveling to find a restaurant. Fortunately, I’d brought a few packs of instant oatmeal and some tea. There were bowls and a microwave at the guest house where I was staying, so I didn’t starve on my first day in a new country. If you are going to be moving into an empty apartment, make sure you have a bowl, cup, and spoon, or whatever you will need to prepare your food for a day or two until you can stock your kitchen.

Unlocked cell phone: With an unlocked phone, getting a number in your new country is as easy as buying a SIM card and popping it into the phone. Check with your carrier before you leave to make sure that your phone will work in your destination country, and that you can put a SIM from another company into your phone. Before you go, train your friends and family to use Viber, WhatsApp, Skype, FaceTime, or similar, so that you don’t incur long distance charges when you phone or text them.

A variety of clothes and shoes: One thing I didn’t expect was that grad students at my new university would dress more formally than at my old one. I was really glad I’d packed a couple of blazers, which made it easy to dress up an otherwise casual outfit. What I didn’t have was a pair of dressy shoes or boots, which would have polished off an outfit.

Plug adapters: Make sure you bring a few—they’re quite cheap—so that you can have multiple electronics plugged in at once. Most laptop and cell phone chargers will be able to handle a variety of voltages, but it’s best to check before plugging it in. I learned the hard way that toothbrush chargers do not always accept multiple voltages. Oops!

Towel, bedding, (and shower shoes): If you’ll be staying in a guest house or hostel when you arrive, you will probably be using a shared shower. I regretted not bringing flip-flops for the shower. Some places allow you to rent a towel and bedding, so it’s best to ask ahead. If, like me, you arrive on a Sunday, it may not be possible to purchase these the day you arrive.

Cold/Sinus/Headache/Allergy medication: You may not be able to get the medication or cough drops that you are comfortable using. Going to a pharmacy when you are sick and trying to describe the sort of medication you want is not a fun experience (trust me!). Bring enough medication with you so that you can get through a couple of days of being sick.

Cash: To my surprise, a lot of shops and grocery stores in Belgium do not accept VISA or MasterCard. I depended largely on cash until I had a Belgian bank account set up, which took several weeks. Make sure you bring enough cash (or can draw cash on your credit card) to pay all your expenses for the first few weeks.

Reuseable shopping bags: Having fabric shopping bags can save you money on buying plastic bags in each store. Additionally, they are a lot more comfortable to carry.

Umbrella: Or a raincoat.

Camera: You get to be a tourist, too!

Your hobbies: Sketch book, musical instrument, running shoes—whatever keeps you sane, make sure to bring it. Keeping busy means you won’t have time to be homesick. And having a hobby can help you meet new friends with similar interests.

Don’t Bring

Books: They are heavy. They take up valuable space in your suitcase. Pretty much every textbook or novel ever written can be found digitally. If you are moving for grad school, chances are you’re going to move again in three to five years. You’re going to end up moving all those books again, plus any new ones you acquire. Get them digitally. An e-reader for novels is cheap and light, and you can read textbooks on your computer. No, it’s not the same “experience” as a paper book, but it will spare you the “experience" of running through the train station with a suitcase full of books after 12 hours of travel!

Clothes you “might” wear: Don’t do it. If the item of clothing isn’t perfectly fitting and absolutely your favorite, don’t bring it.

Framed photos: Bringing photos or art to decorate your new place is a great idea, but take pictures out of the frame to travel and reframe them in your new destination.

Pillows: Again, this just takes up way too much space. As a worst-case scenario, you can always stuff some clothes into a T-shirt for a makeshift pillow on your first night.

Final Tips

Anything critical should be in your carry-on. Don’t put your family photos, laptop, or personal documents in checked luggage. As a rule, if you want to see it again, carry it on. And make sure to label all your luggage with the contact info at your new destination (hostel, hotel, guest house, whatever…).

What would you bring with you for grad school in a new country?

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Nomadic Lass and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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