In last week’s article, my colleague explored how to take care of your mental health during your undergraduate and master’s degrees, touching upon the challenges of studying in the UK as a foreign student (which will be the main focus of our next and final installment).
This week, I will address transitioning into a PhD from the perspective of those students who moved to the UK later on in their academic life, after completing degrees in their home countries.
However, at the end of the article, I will offer a tip suitable for anyone who’s about to start a PhD and for those who are contemplating whether or not to apply to one in the future.
Mind the Culture Gap
There are many reasons why you might choose to study for a degree at a university back home. Some of us want to stay close to family and friends, some have excellent institutions in their home countries, while others may not consider pursuing a PhD or an academic career when they first start university.
Whatever the reason, there are many of us who decided to relocate later on in life to pursue a PhD at a UK institution. If you can, you should arrive ahead of the start date of your course and before the stress of the PhD kicks in, to get a taste of the culture and familiarise yourself with the little things that will make your life easier (transports, currency, etc.).
However, this is not always possible, in which case you should start preparing from home. It can be tough to adjust, and if the culture gap is not significantly reduced, it can cause the transition to be stressful and frustrating.
Ideally, before you even start your PhD, you should work on getting familiar with:
The structure of your course
I know it might sound trite and obvious, but the months before the beginning of your course can be incredibly hectic - finishing your degree, sorting out visas, and finding accommodation - so a little reminder won’t hurt.
1. Why should you get familiar with the structure of your course?
You will immediately notice several stark differences in the education system in the UK compared to your home country. For example, the contrast in course structure, teaching methods, writing style, and the relationships with professors might vary significantly from one country to another and catch you off guard.
In fact, while undergraduate and even master’s students are projected into a rigidly structured course, with assignments and clearly set deadlines, the learning curve for PhD researchers can be quite confusing, as they are completely in charge of their own schedule (and let’s be honest, not everyone is a pro at time management).
Particularly during the crucial first months of your PhD, researchers risk ending up consumed with stress and anxiety as they attempt to navigate their new circumstances, what is required of them and how to go about their work.
So, make sure you carefully read the overview of your course, the requirements, the deadlines and anything else you might want to know to start thinking about how to organise your workload. Remember that time slips away, particularly in the beginning, and pre-planning can help avoid the sudden realisation that you’re behind everyone else and any ensuing panic and anxiety.
2. Why should you get familiar with academic English?
As much as you probably understand English very well and can express yourself effectively, writing your PhD thesis in another language is a whole different challenge. Not only is English not your first language but you might be used to a writing style that is incompatible with the traditional academic style in the UK – sentences’ length, use of punctuation, paragraph structure, etc.
I highly recommend practicing writing in academic English, maybe with a dedicated course or following some online guidelines. You might not think so, but it is a big adjustment, and you should welcome all the help you can find. Get in touch with AcademiaOne if this is something you would like to know more about!
3. Why should you get familiar with British culture?
The UK will be your adopted home for a significant amount of time, and it is important that you feel comfortable and integrated in the culture around you. Leaving home can be hard, and it can be tempting to exclusively surround yourself with other students from your country to combat nostalgia, but trying to recreate familiar dynamics can be limiting and prevent you from fully experiencing what the UK has to offer.
Use this opportunity to enrich your knowledge and appreciation of other cultures.
Nothing will be exactly like home, so why not create a new, cosmopolitan, and diverse home?
Your friends will understand when you feel homesick and support you like a second family. Accepting and embracing your new adventure will dramatically increase your confidence and overall wellbeing, and it will strengthen your ties to your country of origin even more.
AND FINALLY … A TIP FOR EVERYONE
As you will quickly realise, life as a graduate student is full of responsibilities. The idea of making your own schedule and being your own boss might sound exciting at first, but it is only to the extent that you’re able to effectively juggle your work and personal life.
Too much freedom can be dangerous, and it can be very easy to favour one over the other. Many of us end up overworked, constantly concerned about their thesis and feeling guilty and stressed every moment they are not writing or collecting data.
Others get carried away by the flexible schedule and forget about working, finding themselves in dire straits as deadlines approach.
So, remember that balance is key.
It is important to establish boundaries and take care of your mental health by compartmentalising and exercising self-control. If you can successfully do that (and it is certainly not an easy task), you will live your best PhD life!
E. H. was a PhD student in Classical Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford. She received an MA from the University of Florence and her research interests revolve around issues of representation in Latin poetry.