Surviving a PhD abroad

The decision to go abroad for my PhD was quite rightly based on finding the right topic for me to study further. A research question that I was passionate enough about to endure the challenges involved in completing a PhD.

I have lived abroad twice before, so it was not such a big deal for me to do it again. And to make it short- I think that going abroad for a time is the best decision anyone can make. It will not always be easy and you will have moments were you really just want to go back home, but if you just wait it out and let the bad times pass, your life will be enriched by the all the amazing experiences you will have. By the end of your journey you will realise that “everyone cooks with water”. It is the same, just in a different flavour.

When you first arrive the biggest challenges are the new language and a different bureaucratic system – but you will be amazed how many people will help you and how quickly your language skills will improve. After a month or two you will feel proud of successfully navigating through this first stage. By then you will have started to get curious about the different food and the customs of your adopted new home. Your normal schedule and social life will have been uprooted too, so you will also have to make some new friends.

I think living abroad allows you to make two kinds of friends – the local friends, who will be your fountain of wisdom and guides in the new country. Now these are  harder to find as they have an established life and it is not always easy for them to accommodate a new person (however, these friendships will probably last forever). Then you will find other friends who are also foreign and going through the same experience as you are. You will also be surprised at the whole bunch of different cultures you will be introduced to when you are abroad doing a PhD, not just your current country of residence    – and it is great. It will open your eyes to the world.

This much for the personal experience, but what about the actual PhD? The educational system will be different from home. One piece of advice, inform yourself what it means to do a PhD in the country you’ve chosen. It will help you to prepare for what is to come and avoid any unexpected surprises in the end. You should definitely get to know your supervisor and understand how they think and to read between the lines- this, I believe, is one of the hardest challenges you may face. This task would be hard in your own country, now try doing it in another language. Ask former students about your supervisor or more experienced PhD students.

You should also make friends in your research group, so that the long hours you will spend with them will be both productive and fun! Get to know your institute, most places have an international student group that organises trips, social events and offers advice. They can be extremely helpful and it’s a great place to find a few friends too.

Now this really goes for any PhD- work hard and do not give up! Read as much as you can. You will eventually make it.

My general advice to anyone facing the challenges of moving to a different country: keep an open mind and embrace all the ups and downs! You will survive and end up a much stronger and more confident person than when you first arrived. Additionally you will have gained many new friends and gained a second (or in my case a fourth) place to call home. Do not be afraid, just give it go and never give up! Be brave and embrace change, you never know where it will lead you- most likely somewhere amazing.


“When we get out of the glass bottle of ego and when we escape like the squirrels in the cage of our personality and get into the forest again, we shall shiver with cold and frigidity, but things will happen to us so that we don’t know ourselves. Cool, unlying life will rush in” – D. H. Lawrence

Jana Hiltner. University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.

Jana joined the ECS Committee of SfAM in 2014 as an ordinary member, after attending the SfAM Summer Conference in the previous year where she joined the Steering Group.  Jana was appointed to the role of ECS Secretary in 2015.

Categories: Early Career Scientists, Member Viewpoints

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