Erin Bedford (@erinellyse) is a PhD student in Nanotechnology Engineering at the University of Waterloo and the Pierre and Marie Curie University (Paris VI) in a co-supervised program.
There are many recognizable stereotypes of PhD students—a scientist working in the lab until 3 am, a historian sitting in an old library at a table piled high with books and papers—but the globetrotting PhD student is less recognized, and yet just as common. Research today is an international pursuit. Laboratories have members from around the world. International collaborations are not just common but expected. And this means that researchers often find themselves living abroad. Whatever our reasons for choosing to study abroad, once there, we all have similar challenges and similar learning experiences that make it difficult, exciting, and often extremely rewarding.
I’m in a program that allows me to do a joint PhD between Canada and France. Others in my program have come from around the world to do similar PhDs between two countries in Western Europe or Canada. We’re a tight knit group, in part because of our common experiences; we share our problems (read: complain about paperwork), we support each other throughout the tough times (read: bring each other wine and cake), and we help each other to know that we’re not alone. This is why I think of this post as being a collaborative post, based on the experiences, thoughts, struggles, and achievements of all of the international students who I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with over the years.
GradHackers have previously given tips on research trips abroad (here, here, and here). I want to describe what it’s like to not just do research abroad, but to fully study abroad—the challenges we face, the lessons we learn. Whether you’re thinking about studying abroad, you’re just starting out, or you work with international students, this post is for you—a look into the world of a PhD abroad.
Balance between comfort and new experiences
You might have noticed that international students stick together. In particular, they often stick with others from similar cultures. I’ve heard both locals and international students question and criticize this. But the reality is, we need it. If doing a PhD is like hiking through a mountain range, doing a PhD abroad is like hiking in extreme weather that changes after every hill and valley. Your friends and your culture are your tent, your rain jacket, your sunscreen. They’re what make the rain and the heat bearable. These comforts can help you to fully appreciate the many new experiences that you’ll have.
One of these comforts is food. Adapting to the food in a new culture can be hard. As a Vietnamese friend of mine, studying in France and Canada, has said:
“Changes of daily diet from vegetable majority to cheese and meat and sugar and wine (this is the most difficult part for me) messed with my body, affecting my moods and my working efficiency.”
While it’s normal to want to embrace the new culture and its food, it’s also perfectly fine to search out what you’re comfortable with. It can be difficult—another friend of mine would spend three hours traveling to and from Paris on weekends just to buy the right groceries that she needed to cook—but if holding onto this comfort allows you to embrace other new experiences, it’s probably worth it.
A balance between holding on to what is comfortable and embracing new experiences is key to enjoying studies abroad. There is something wonderful in discovering a new culture and feeling like it’s becoming a part of you. This can also be difficult; first, getting over a natural resistance to change and fear of the unfamiliar is challenging, and second, not everyone finds befriending locals who can expose you to the culture easy. But if you’re willing to face your fears, the rewards are great. I have wonderful memories of eating raclette in a chalet in the French Alps after a beautiful day of skiing with a French labmate and his friends. I would not have had this memory were it not for his kindness in inviting me and my willingness to try something new, even if it scared me (I’m a terrible skier!). For any local students reading this, please keep this in mind! Even something as small as inviting an international student over for a home-cooked meal can be a pretty cool experience for them.
When you study abroad, you’re expected to be comfortable enough in the working language that it won’t interfere with your work. But today, at least in the sciences, the working language is often English (something us anglophones should not take for granted!), which is not necessarily the spoken language of the country. Even if the working and spoken language is the same, there’s a difference between efficiently communicating in a non-native language and mastering the subtleties of truly relating to the people using it.
My program is a case where the working language is English, but the spoken language in the country is often something else. While most of the people we directly work with speak English, there are always people with whom communication is more difficult. A friend of mine terrifyingly found herself learning how to use a several hundred thousand dollar piece of equipment in French, despite her “rough relationship” with the language. And then there are the day-to-day experiences—dealing with papers and forms in a foreign language and even basic shopping can be frustrating, exhausting experiences. Not being able to find what you want, not even knowing what store to go to, along with problems with communication when you ask for help mean that at the end of a long day in the lab, the extra effort that’s needed can be overwhelming.
On the other hand, learning a new language and watching yourself improve can be immensely rewarding. As difficult as it may be, learning that other language is worth the effort. A Canadian friend says:
“When I first came to Bordeaux, my French was abysmal… Over the years, it has improved significantly as I’ve been listening and practicing my French—albeit with a LOT of help from lab mates who were kind and attentive enough to help me learn. This learning experience has been beneficial in my case, as most of the technicians speak varying levels of English, so sometimes moving to French does give me the opportunity to practice and learn new words but also allows them to be a bit more comfortable when instructing me.”
In addition to language difficulties, cultural misunderstandings are common for international students, particularly when many cultures mix as they do in research crowds. A Canadian friend of mine found himself in a situation of this type when he went to say goodbye to a colleague of his. In France, it’s normal to “faire la bise,” or exchange “kisses” on both cheeks upon greeting or saying goodbye. He went around the circle, exchanging “la bise” with everyone, but when he approached one woman, another international student, she quickly moved away because she wasn’t comfortable with this particular convention. Apparently, his French friends were all aware of this based on what they knew of her and her culture, but for him, the mishmash of cultures led to an awkward situation for both of them.
Stereotypes are also tough. People assume things about you, you assume things about them, you assume that they assume things about you, and vice versa… and so it’s easy to fall into a trap of either completely rejecting or completely embracing your stereotype. Completely rejecting it might involve getting angry every time someone assumes something about you based on where you’re from or what you look like. When it happens often, the anger is understandable, but often not the most effective way to deal with it. Instead, explain, move on, and learn to laugh (even if the laughter is at the ignorance of others… “Really? He actually thinks that Canadians live in igloos???”). On the other hand, we sometimes go in the opposite direction: if everyone thinks that this is what I am, it must be true. And so we perpetuate the stereotype. Sometimes it’s harmless fun—there’s not much wrong with a Canadian talking about the many uses of maple syrup—but when she starts going on about how hockey is infinitely better than all of the silly sports the rest of the world plays, well, people can get annoyed (a mild example).
On the other hand, the mix of cultures that results when PhD students go abroad also provides the opportunity to challenge current views. Many ideas are taken as truth within a culture, when in reality, other conflicting ideas may be just as valid. An Indian friend writes:
“People doing research in India… should follow the guidelines of their supervisors without fail. There isn’t much individuality prevailing. It contradicts with the way your supervisors should consider you as a fellow researcher and not like a below par technical worker. I would definitely want to take home the working style from France—and of course some delicious cuisine, especially the desserts (almost all of them!).”
Whether the challenges that occur lead to a strengthening, a relaxation, or a complete change of your current views, those challenges help you to better understand where you fit within the world and to become more accepting and understanding of others.
Patience and understanding are some of the most valuable tools we have as researchers working in international environments. Focusing on learning rather than assuming, and on helping rather than criticizing, can make everyone’s working experience more comfortable.
Got a good story about studying abroad? A challenge you’ve faced, something you’ve learned, an unfortunate cultural mishap? Share it with us!