• Danni Reches

Studying abroad – some advice

You’ve been accepted and are going to study abroad. You are probably excited and terrified at the same time. How are you going to make the most out of it and how will you face challenges? There are a million things you should cover before landing in your new destination country, such as getting your visa, plane ticket, pack (please do not forget the international converter!), get health insurance, funding/enough savings, accommodation, and more. All this planning could make one forget what to expect of those first few days in the new place. This blog post helps you remember what to consider, and most of all, encourages you to get out there and explore while you’re given this opportunity of a lifetime.


Practical matters

Of course there are the practical matters to consider: get a local sim card, open a bank account, get a public transportation card. All this arranging could take more time and be more frustrating then you thought. You might have to go to the bank several times, which only has certain (inconvenient) opening hours and you might take the wrong bus initially. That’s normal. Our academic YouTube friend Stefanie Ginster of Career Conversations shared that in her experience, new colleagues, supervisors and/or PI’s understand that you need some time to settle before starting your research full power – you are probably not the first one coming from abroad and they know the drill.


Finding recourses

Vera Chan of PhD Coffee Time on YouTube relocated twice for her studies, and explained that whatever activities that are important for your routine need to be maintained to ensure a smooth transition. What could help you in finding these resources, such as sports or religious activities, are representatives of student unions, societies or groups. When you arrive to campus you will probably meet these representatives at activities for the start of the semester or when you are getting your student card (which is worth doing sooner than later, as it usually gets you discounts). These people are a major source of information – they know how to get a gym card, at what times cafes on campus are open, and which bus numbers run to the nearest supermarket or pub. Don’t be afraid to ask them your questions and make sure you follow them on social media or are on their mailing list.


Language

On campus, you’ll probably get around just fine with only English. But as soon as you leave that international bubble, it is always good to know at least the basics of the language (Where is the toilet? Does this bus go to…?). Locals often appreciate you trying, even if it doesn’t go very well. There are various apps that help you learn the language, including ‘DuoLingo’, ‘MemRise’, ‘HelloTalk’. Sometimes your new university will give you the opportunity to learn the language during the semester. If you can, take this chance – an extra language never hurt anyone’s resume.


Discovering your new environment

Another YouTuber and former guest on our podcast Fernando García-Bastidas of FerchuckyGarcia, who moved from Colombia to the Netherlands for his PhD and postdoc, advices international students to be open to the food and culture of your new environment. You might have the tendency to strongly hold on to what you know from back home. Checking in regularly with family and friend can help with the homesickness. Nevertheless, to enjoy your new place to the fullest it is important to be open to what it has to offer. It is often fun to discover especially the very local things you never knew about. Locals love sharing secret view points, and their favorite pub serving dishes you’ve not seen before. Give it a try and you might make new friends.

In case you moved in the midst of a pandemic and haven’t been able to meet locals yet, there are still things to discover together with a flat mate or partner. Free apps such as ‘Like a Local’, ‘Spotted by Locals’ and ‘Now’ could help you start an expedition.


Institutional differences

Once back on campus, keep in mind that different universities, especially in different countries, have different expectations from their researchers. Natalia Bielczyk, the founder of Welcome Solutions on YouTube who is originally from Poland, said that she signed a contract for her PhD in the Netherlands, which tied her to her project and writing four publishable articles. Learn beforehand what you’re getting into and what is expected of you. Then, upon arrival, make sure you plan an (online) meeting with your new supervisor to recall these expectations, including those from your side. That way you can make a draft-plan of how to go about your research. Don’t worry about it changing, that happens. It is however helpful to have an sense of direction.


Cultural differences

The world is interesting because of its diversity, but it can also be overwhelming. You cannot avoid a culture shock, no matter how much of the language you’ve learned or how many documentaries you’ve seen about the country. Everything is different and it takes some getting used to. It might make you tired faster than usual because you’re taking in all these new impressions and speak a different language. It is important to take care and not over-burden yourself.

You might get into situations in which you do not know what would be an appropriate way of connecting with colleagues. In some countries, people are described as ‘cold’ and difficult to connect with. In others, personal space is non-existent and supervisors are addressed by their first name – while this might be disrespectful where you come from. Don’t be afraid to make small cultural mistakes or simply ask what is considered appropriate. The people you work with understand that you are adjusting.


Finally, it has to be said that studying abroad is not easy. At the same time however, it can be a great experience. Keep in mind why you set out on this academic journey in this particular place and focus on your goals. It is a time in your early career and in your life that you will always remember and you will gain skills you wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. Enjoy it as much as you can!


Did you do research abroad as an Early Career Researcher (ECR)? How was your experience? Do you have tips and advice for others? Contact us through our twitter account @What2DoWithTHAT.

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