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4 Tips for foreign students looking to do a PhD in the US

A PhD is a very challenging endeavor on its own. Throw in a new country and a new academic culture on top of that, and it can get daunting rather quickly. When you are pursuing a PhD/postdoc in a new country, there are several challenges you need to overcome. It is very easy, and also very normal, to get anxious over questions like “How am I expected to deal with specific situations?” or “What is the ‘done’ thing in certain situations such as communicating with my supervisor?” This is especially difficult when you have no baseline to the academic culture of the country or the institution to use as a reference. However, there are concrete steps you can take and develop a toolbox of sorts to minimize these challenges. Here are four simple practices I followed to successfully navigate the PhD.

Take responsibility for communication with your professors/mentors/or principal investigator 

This may not come naturally to those of us who were students in Asia, where it is culturally disrespectful to be making demands on your mentor’s time by initiating meetings with your mentor. But once you are abroad, this must change. You must not hesitate to approach your professors/principal investigator/supervisor when you need. Look at it this way: given the increasing academic competition, most of all current research is happening under a new paradigm of significant resource crunch—which means that research professors have way less time now than they used to earlier. So, help them be better mentors by being proactive.

I also learned that I had to develop a bit of a thick skin when communicating with professors. Initially, I would second-guess myself if my supervisors did not respond quickly to my emails. But over time, I realized that they are extremely busy people. Don’t take it personally if you don’t hear from them immediately. If you think you are over-worked, think again! Most research professors (and principal investigators) juggle their time between writing grants, writing and/or supervising papers being written, managing research and research direction for existing grants, supervising their labs, teaching classes, executing departmental responsibilities, and navigating political landmines that exist within every university. So this means that the email you sent on a Friday evening is probably at the bottom of their pile by the time Monday morning rolls around, and by the time you get a reply, it will be a few days. One way to get around this to save time and anxiety is to check if your professor would be okay with you visiting their office to ask for quick feedback/input on important or time-critical events. This is what I did and it worked for me. This also helped me build a rapport with my supervisor. Learning to manage communication with those who supervise you is a skill that will serve you well in any situation, so be sure to learn it.

Ask for help

Again, this is intensely uncomfortable for some foreign students from a cultural perspective. You may feel that by asking for help, you are admitting failure and showing that you don’t know what you are supposed to know. When I first landed up at the lab, I was extremely hesitant to ask for help on statistical tools that I had never used before. It was the hardest thing I’d done in some ways—asking for help! But when I did, I learned from my PI that no one expects you to start out in a lab knowing everything or knowing exactly how things work around there. She (my PI) pointed out that this learning curve was normal and assigned a senior lab scientist to help me out. This taught me two things: a learning curve is the routine, and if you don’t ask for help, the assumption is that you already have the competencies required to complete the task at hand. Yes, it is uncomfortable saying you need help. My advice to you is make peace with that discomfort and ask! For example, you could ask for templates or rubrics if you are not sure about what is expected of you, or ask to be pointed in the direction of someone in your lab who has previously completed the task you’re working on, so that you can get some pointers. Once you politely explain that this is not something you have done before, and would like some guidance, you will get all the help you need. Know that most professors care deeply about their students and want to foster an environment that enables learning. And by asking for help when needed, you are only displaying an eagerness to learn.

Develop peer networks and hobbies

Make sure you reach out to your university’s international student bodies. You could also explore diversity committees, advocacy groups on campus, or subscribe to campus and department newsletters. For instance, at my university, there were groups that connected minority graduate students, international student services, several student clubs, and campus events, all designed to integrate and celebrate the diversity on campus. All these give you a flavor of life outside the lab. Additionally, try and expand your horizons by developing new interests and hobbies. Joining a sports league or an interest group is a fun way to meet new and like-minded people. A PhD takes a toll on your mental well-being and it is important to have a life outside your lab and work to avoid burning out.

Develop career networks simultaneously

During your PhD, your lab work, conference presentations, and papers you publish are not the only important components of your life. You need to start understanding the opportunities available to you at an early stage. Most researchers make the mistake of looking for postdoc positions or jobs at the last minute. Register for job fairs and university job events even if you are not actively looking for a job or a postdoctoral position. Look for fellowship opportunities that may be available in the local corporate and research community in your specific field: many state and federal agencies often take on interns into their projects, and non-profits often take on volunteers. Such opportunities are like a foot in the door that helps you expand your networks as well as build your resume by tying in coursework to real life applicability. Other options to develop career networks include joining professional societies in your field, identifying regional and local associations to actively network with, and registering for alumni events that are open to current students. These types of activities make it possible for you to meet career professionals in your field, and give you a better understanding of where you want to be once you are done with the PhD.

While I faced my share of challenges, over time, I also realized that I was not alone. Hundreds of researchers like me were trying to navigate a new academic environment and stay afloat. Remember that you are navigating an academic culture that is different from your own, so be open to understanding a different perspective and, above all, be open to new experiences. 

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