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Are you applying for a PhD program in a new country and feeling overwhelmed? This article offers some top tips on how to successfully navigate the international waters to help yourself thrive abroad! Important considerations include researching the right country/university fit for you, giving plenty of time to getting a residence permit, and helping yourself feel part of a community in your new city.

Choosing to study a PhD abroad, especially in a foreign country with a new language, is not something to take lightly. But as I write this on my second day in Sweden, in my dorm room with the sounds of Swedish life outside my window, I’m here to tell you it’s not impossible.  
 
Despite the many challenges of pursuing an academic career outside your home country, the breadth of experiences and connections that come with it are well worth the short-term obstacles. Whether you opt for a PhD on the other side of the world or somewhere a bit closer to home, making the journey towards becoming an international PhD student is something deserving of applause. But there are several things I wish I would have known before choosing to pursue my PhD in a foreign country. From learning the language to understanding banks to asking questions about immigration and residency permits, there are many things to consider before making the jump abroad! 

Which Country, Which Uni, Which Advisor?

So you’ve decided that you want to pursue a PhD abroad? 
 
That’s great! But there are some very important questions to ask yourself which will ultimately determine your future and where you’ll end up. One of the first beginner questions you must ask yourself, as I did, was, “Where do I want to go and why? While it’s fun to dream up your life in various foreign countries, you’re ultimately making a career choice by moving to a different country. So, it’s crucial that you have a solid reason for why you want to go to that specific country, and have a short and long-term plan as to how you want to make the most of your time there.  
 
The second and third questions are mundane but also incredibly important: “What university do I want to apply to?” and, “Where are there openings? For me, choosing Sweden was prompted by an email telling me there were two openings to PhD programs. However, I was also prompted by another major factor, something we often hear in graduate studies. Namely, finding the right advisor(s), and having a clear research question. 
 
Many questions related to PhD studies in your country of choice can be answered by a good advisor/supervisor. Of course, they can’t guarantee you actually get into the university, but they can help you decide if applying is a good choice for you and your choice of research. Making it clear what you’re looking for in an advisor can often help you narrow down where it is you want to study. In my experience, these went hand in hand. If you know what you’re researching, what niche you want to fill in terms of your applicable academic discourse, and you have a solid question with some evidence to back it up, then all you have to do is find a university department that aligns with your work and research interests. This can be far more complicated in practice, but if you let your research lead you in your search for a foreign university, paying attention to openings when they arise, then you’ll be set to go! Asking questions, and often, is key, and don’t be afraid to email potential advisors for help if you need it! 

You’ve Been Accepted! Now What?

If you’ve found yourself with an acceptance letter and a willing advisor in a foreign university – congratulations! But now begins the myriad of complexities and tasks in order to actually be able to begin your life abroad as a student. Whether it’s getting a residence permit accepted, attempting to learn a foreign language, opening a new bank account, or arranging housing, there’s lots to juggle at this point. But if you take it one step at a time, and try to do things in order, you’ll find everything seems to fall into place.

Residence Permits, Housing and Language

One of the first things to think about is the residence permit which will allow you to live in your foreign country. Without it, all the other elements fall to the wayside as you won’t be able to stay in the country. Sometimes, as was the case in my experience, the process takes quite a while and includes several arduous steps. Be careful to familiarize yourself with the process before you begin! Further, the road towards finding housing may not be straight either. Take care to reach out to your university’s housing department and see if you can procure university housing. If not, make sure to look up, or ask around, where others look for housing.

After completing your residence permit and housing, you may want to start thinking about the language. Whether that means learning it on your own, finding a tutor, or even just watching some videos on the web, trying your best to learn the native language will help you feel at home. Although you may be nervous, learning how to say “Please” and “Thank you” might just win you your first international friend and open doors for you, who knows!?

Ultimately, making a list of important to lesser important points will be helped by reading and rereading the information that your university gives you, and by asking questions. Don’t be afraid to send that email if you don’t understand or if something doesn’t make sense. If you are clear with what your question is, then most likely you’ll find your answer.

Now the Fun Stuff Begins

Phew. It’s completed. You’ve done the heavy lifting of getting yourself set up to begin your studies abroad and, by some miracle, all your efforts have culminated in you moving to your new place. Now you’re on your own and have to do quite a few more tasks in order to really feel at home in your new city. From finding the train station to the grocery store, you have to know your surroundings, and give yourself time to find everything that your city has to offer its residents!

One of the first few things I did when moving to Uppsala was find a church. For others, it may be a coffee shop or library that can offer you a place of community. Trying to put yourself into the community fabric of your city is such an important point in really feeling like you have a place here as a newly arrived foreigner. Although it’s scary, at times, to not really know the language and attempt to socialize, it’s often fruitful when you do. So, if you can find a place where you can integrate yourself into a community, then it’ll be easier to make that first friend. Part of that community building can also be finding places of culture to visit. In your city, there may be countless museums for you to see. All you have to do is just look for them. A helpful way of organizing all of what you find is by using Google Docs to make a list of those places you’ve been to and not been to yet. These include the location of your local train station and grocery stores!

Looking After Your Mental Health

Finally, when it comes to fun, finding your parks and recreational areas outside will be helpful in navigating the waters of how to spend time outdoors in nature. Don’t forget that you’re human. While you’re here to complete your PhD, you can’t forget that looking after your mental health is just as important as your academic success. Thus, plan accordingly and think about which parks you might want to go visit, and bodies of water you might want to go see. Spending time outdoors is a helpful way of fuelling the body and mind so you can be more productive when it’s time to work.

Overall, if you stay focused on the fundamental steps that will let you live in your foreign country successfully and then let your interests lead the way, a whole new world will open up. While moving to a different country is a huge task, if you break it down into manageable steps and do one after the other, you’ll find yourself capable of doing things you had previously only imagined!

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All views expressed are those of the individual authors and do not reflect the views of The PhD Place Ltd.
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