Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.
Lots of people say that moving abroad to pursue a graduate (or other) degree is a mind-expanding, life-enriching and fundamentally empowering experience - and most of the time it is. Living 6,700 miles away from home has taught me more about myself, about life and about other people than any school or book ever could, and I've had some incredible professional opportunities as a result that I know I'd never have had in my home country.
But below the glitzy surface of "expat living" there's a darker, more complicated aspect to making such a move, which many proponents (and online pros/cons lists) overlook. So before you pack your bags for Paris or Singapore, here are a few things to consider:
If your goal is to work in academia you might have trouble finding a job when/if you return.
Greater trouble, that is, than the flocks of PhDs graduating from US universities. While, to some extent, the difficulty varies among fields, keep in mind that many of the shorter programs (like the 3-year PhD in the UK) are frowned upon in the US, as they generally involve little more than the dissertation project. Since most PhD programs abroad include minimal coursework, a hiring committee might question your ability to teach a broad range of courses. In many places there's also much less emphasis on academic and community service, student mentoring, public speaking and other skills that are highly valued in the American market. And then, of course, there's the possibility of the hiring committee not ever having heard of your university, even if it's the equivalent of an Ivy League institution. So, while a foreign university might offer a top notch education, you have to consider the US job market if that's where you want to work.
You probably won't be able to move into a faculty job immediately, even if you stay overseas.
This is especially true in Europe, where PhDs are generally expected to complete a postdoc (occasionally at the university they earned their PhD) before moving to a faculty position.
Funding might be really crappy.
It's true that PhDs overseas are generally cheaper than in the States, at least tuition-wise, but many are also underfunded, especially in the social sciences and humanities. Even top universities like Cambridge and Oxford regularly accept students without funding. In my own experience, European institutions also feel less obligated to come up with funding for their students compared to the US, as there's less "mothering" going on in general (see below). There are also fewer TA opportunities in Europe, so if you managed to fund your masters in the States through TAships, that's unlikely to be an option during the PhD. Accepting an unfunded PhD and hoping that things will work out might not be the greatest idea, especially if your visa comes with work restrictions that prohibit you from working off-campus or full-time.
You'll have to adapt to a different academic culture (and it might take a while).
Professors in a foreign country will have a different teaching style and a different mentoring style, so it's important to do your research and see if that style fits your working style and needs. Academic institutions will also have wildly different approaches to treating their students. In Europe, for example, faculty and administrators are generally much more hands off compared to the US and PhDs are largely treated like employees. Assessment is also quite different, with greater emphasis on written work and much less on participation and presentations. This might not sound like a big deal, but it means having to relearn how to be a student and/or an employee while also adapting to a different city, way of life, etc. What made you a successful student in the States (great presentation skills, involvement in the community etc.) might not matter as much abroad and vice versa: a writing-oriented culture might finally put the hermit inside you at ease. Before you pack your bags, do your research: ask students about their experiences and faculty about their expectations. And don't forget people at home! If you can find academics at your school or city that are from your target country or students that have experience with both systems, reach out to them and ask them for advice.
There are important personal considerations too:
Your relationships with loved ones will change (and not always in a good way).
No matter how you look at it, moving abroad to chase your dreams is always, to a certain extent, a selfish act. There are people you leave behind: family, friends and lovers who might have trouble understanding your motives and might even resent you - subconsciously or not - for moving. Sure, there's Skype and email and Facebook but it's not the same as being around and there's always someone who'll make sure you know that. This doesn’t mean you should be guilted into staying when you know you “need” to go for your own sake, but be attuned to the fact that you could be hurting the people you care most about and not all of them will have an easy time forgiving you.
There's guilt associated with being away.
As a graduate student you likely won't have the time and financial resources to drop everything and fly home whenever there's a family emergency or an important event. I was doing well building a new life on a different continent until this past Spring, when my best friend got married (I was supposed to be the bridesmaid), someone in my immediate family passed away and another family member underwent serious surgery. It was the first time I truly realized what I had given up. Highs (weddings, births, baby showers etc.) will generally be easier to miss than lows (such as serious illness, funerals and miscarriages) and sometimes the pain of not being there will be unbearable. While those aren't really the things one's thinking about when moving abroad (I certainly wasn't), it's important to know what you can live without.
Obviously everyone's experience differs based on country, university, and their own background. I wrote this as a European social scientist/ humanist and as a scholar with a background in international higher education, but I'm curious to hear from people in other fields and/or with experience on other continents. So please feel free to share your experiences in the comment section below!
Did you move away for graduate school? What challenges did you face, expected or unexpected?
[Image by Flickr user Strange Luke and used under Creative Commons Licensing]
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