Undertaking a PhD in an International Lab
By Sonia Sanz Muñoz
How many times through your PhD have you asked yourself: “Why am I doing this? Is this what I wanted? Is it all worth it?”
I’m pretty sure that as an international PhD student these questions tend to repeat themselves much more often because, just in case studying a PhD wasn’t a big enough challenge, doing it in new country and sometimes a different language makes it even harder.
The reasons behind deciding to study a PhD in a different country might go from: “It’s a personal challenge” to: “This is the next step to grow in my scientific career”; “There were no options in my home country”; or “I needed a big change in my life.”
In my case, I was never sure about studying a PhD until I realised it was the way to continue in research, what I love. However, the scientific crisis in Spain pushed me to look for something else overseas and I found it in Australia. Now that my PhD journey is almost over, I can look back on everything I’ve learned in the last four years that might help if you are going to undertake – or are already undertaking – a PhD in an international lab.
Choosing the right topic and supervisors
Choosing the topic that you are passionate about is important, but so is finding the right supervisors to guide you. Your supervisors are going to become a fundamental piece of your PhD life, and it may help to have some contact with them before starting. Meeting them in person can be difficult sometimes, but you can Skype or email to discuss the project together. To be honest, your project will change through the years, so discussing a possible ‘Plan B’ with them helps to see if your ideas are heading in the same direction, and finally decide if you want to commit to it.
Even though this seems like the classic advice, the level of commitment required to do a PhD is higher when you have just moved to a new country. It can be harder to manage, specially in the early stages, than it would be if you were closer to your support network. Therefore, it’s important to make sure you are taking on these challenges for the right project and with the right supervisors.
Language as a potential barrier
Moving to a new country, most of the time, comes with facing a new language. It’s true that English is the default language in science, but a PhD is more than just reading papers, and even English can be hard if you are not familiar with some accents. In my opinion, it’s about time and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Don’t be shy because you are not proficient in the language, just speak up and ask questions when you don’t understand something. Behaving like you understood what was said can put you in even more uncomfortable situations both inside and outside the lab than if you just admit you don’t understand. It might take time, but you’ll make it!
Adapting to your new life
Studying a PhD away from your home country is a whole new experience that takes a bit of time to adapt to. Before it even starts, you need to deal with tons of paperwork: from medical checks to visas; forms to get the scholarship; opening a bank account and finding accommodation. Some universities have a good administrative system that helps international students so, if you are lucky enough that yours has one, make use of it. Otherwise, my recommendation is to get in contact with other international PhD students from that university as they may be able to guide you through all the processes.
Moreover, it’s not only a new city to adapt to, it is a whole new culture and lifestyle and you are probably there by yourself. Simple things such as going to the supermarket or catching the right train without getting lost can become an adventure. Do a big search online in specific blogs from the country or the city to get your head around other issues that people might have faced before. After a few months you will be more settled and the feeling of having survived those little steps is great when you look back!
Creating your support network
Starting a new life in another country is never easy, and finding the right support around you can be complicated. Time is not something that you can spare too much during your PhD, especially with crazy schedules due to mouse work, cell culture, or time-course experiments, but always remember to take a break (I know, easy to say and hard to do!)
In my case, other international PhD students became my family. We were all busy but we were all in the same boat. We understood each other and we wanted to disconnect from our experiments whenever we met for a quick drink, to play sports or (if we were lucky) to escape somewhere for a weekend.
At the same time, it is important to build your support network within your lab or research institute. I was really lucky to be part of a lab that was getting bigger with new PhDs and postdocs, and to work in a research institute where everybody was keen to help. Participating in social outdoor activities helped build up friendships with other lab members and co-workers and that became positively translated into day-to-day life in the lab. It might also help you get in contact with other groups that may offer some casual jobs. This can be extremely useful if you need extra money, or if your scholarship will run out before you have finished your thesis, and to learn new techniques and discover other research areas.
Missing family and friends
There are going to be lots of moments in which you need a reminder of why you decided to do your PhD overseas. In those moments, the support of your family and friends is the most valuable one. But now you must learn to have those conversations over the phone and, in some cases, from a different time zone. Keeping in touch with your old friends is not going to be easy, and most of the time you are going to learn that the hard way. In my case, I decided to go back home once a year to keep that link going, but at the same time I was regretting not spending my holidays travelling to new places. As this depends on your personal preferences, my advice is to be aware of that from the beginning because you might need to compromise.
Don’t think you can’t do it – it is all worth in the end!
This idea will be popping up from time to time in your mind, and the difficult moments of the PhD will be even harder. However, when you look back, you’ll see a stronger version of yourself that has achieved not only a PhD but also learnt a new language, established a strong international professional network, experienced working in different environments, travelled and discovered new cultures and, of course, made awesome friends. And that’s the most rewarding part!
Sonia Sanz Muñoz is a Spanish PhD student at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, University of Wollongong, Australia, where she investigates Alzheimer’s disease.
Sonia’s research focuses on developing new in vitro models by using cell models such as induced pluripotent stem cells with new tools like CRISPR to understand the neurobiology of Alzheimer’s disease.
Follow Sonia on Twitter @soniusly
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If you enjoyed reading this article, why not check out our other guides, and resources below. One of the things we’re most passionate about is supporting early career life scientists and PhD students. We know how tough it is - so we hope you find these helpful!
Guides & Tips:
- The Life Scientists' Guide to Wellbeing
- The Life Scientists' Guide for New PhD Students
- The Life Scientist's Guide to Cost-Saving in the Lab
- The Most Common PhD Problems & How to Get Past Them
- Maintaining PhD Productivity: Tips for Mindset and Organisation
- Tips for Oral Presentations at Scientific Meetings and Conferences
- Tips for Poster Presentations at Scientific Meetings and Conferences
- Why Scientists Need Great Mentors
- “I can’t believe they’re letting me write this blog”: Imposter Syndrome, Science, and the Rest of the World
- My PI & I: What Makes A Good Student-Supervisor Relationship?
- Workplace Wellbeing For Life Scientists
See all of our guides and tips for early career scientists
- Apply for a Travel Grant: every month we give away $500 to PhD students and Postdocs so that they can attend a scientific conference. Give it a go - it's really easy to apply.
- You can also read advice from other scientists - in our Interviews with Scientists' series
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