My name is Chris Thompson, and between 2016-2019 I was a PhD student in Saarbrücken (Germany), and Sydney (Australia). My thesis title was “Mental Fatigue in Football”.
Overall I spent just over two years in Germany, and six months in Australia, which proved to be the cliché “rollercoaster experience” you hear many a PhD student talk about! In this short article I will discuss the pros and cons of completing a PhD abroad.
1. I worked with professional footballers.
During my time in Germany, I was fortunate to complete field testing duties with the likes of Borussia Dortmund and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim. During this time, both teams were competing in the UEFA Champions League, and it was an honour to walk through their facilities and work with such talented players throughout my PhD. Opportunities like this are extremely rare for sports fans, and moving abroad for this chance was worth the sacrifice alone. I was a kid from a council estate in Leicester, and now here I was in Germany trying to persuade Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to join my beloved Foxes! Would I have got the opportunity to work with the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal if I stayed in the UK to do a PhD? Possibly. But realistically, I doubt it! I had to roll the dice and take this opportunity to move abroad, or else I would have regretted it forever.
2. I got to embrance new cultures.
I grew up in a single parent household with little money or hope about the future. We didn’t have the money for frequent holidays, so the opportunity to spend time abroad is something I will always be grateful for. Even at the age of 25, I was excited by the prospect of getting on a plane! Over time, I really fell in love with the German culture (despite my frequent complaining during the PhD), and I thrived on the challenge of learning the language. At times, I was having such a good time enjoying the nightlife in Germany, I would forget that I was there to do a job! I’m still not terribly sure I did do a job in Germany, but I hope someone out there can vouch for me.
Anyway, the PhD also allowed me to travel around Europe for field tests with other professional clubs (one random example was travelling to Portugal to work with a Chinese Super League football team), and the opportunity to present at international conferences, which I laugh about and reflect on most days even now. I can’t downplay Sydney though. Whilst I was only there for six months, it was the opportunity of a lifetime, and being paid to live there and do research on a sport I’m obsessed with wasn’t a bad deal on reflection! It’s probably the second most beautiful city in the world, with Belfast pipping it by a hair.
3. The culture was tough at first!
Despite my aforementioned praise for life in Germany, it wasn’t always this way. The first few months can be tough for any PhD student, but throwing in a new language and culture certainly adds to the challenge. Culturally, I was amazed by the way people spoke to each other. German sounded so aggressive, and people could be so blunt. Coming from the UK, I was used to people dancing around a subject instead of just telling you how it is!
During the first 12 months in Germany I would also struggle to articulate, and often feel uneasy when completing the seemingly simplest of tasks (e.g. speaking to a barber or bus driver). It made me feel like a child who was lost and unable to have any control of a situation. I would often rely on others to translate for me or take me to places to complete basic endeavours (e.g. opening a bank account or buying a new phone). Once I had a better command of German, these feelings did subside. By the end of my time in Germany I was actually gutted to leave, as I just started to get somewhere with the language and feel settled into the culture!
4. You can feel lonely.
My university in Germany had an international PhD program, which included native English speakers from the UK and Australia. This did make things a bit easier when settling in during the early stages, but there was still plenty of time spent alone with too much time to think. I also chose to live by myself, which probably did not help matters on occasions. With the language barrier and additional concern of speaking out, I would often bottle up negative feelings, which would only become more problematic and result in adverse behaviours (e.g. excessive alcohol consumption) in an attempt to curb these feelings. Owing to a reputation for enjoying a party, I was able to mask my real feelings with alcohol, which would only have a transient positive impact on my negative thoughts (just like anyone else who chooses alcohol for “medicinal” purposes). Drinking didn’t just occur whilst out with friends. I would often drink heavily alone at home, which brought on feelings of shame and helplessness.
Once I was in Australia, red flags were raised by colleagues, and I quickly received professional treatment. I was diagnosed with clinical depression, which was caused by personal issues built up over many years (and not academia just in case I’m scaring anyone off a PhD). Seeing a mental health specialist to talk about my feelings was a great first step, and I’m thankful to those around me who saw the warning signs in my behaviour. Overall it left me frustrated that I hadn’t reached out for help sooner in Germany, and also made me wonder how many other PhD students felt the same way I did. It’s the main reason I have started my own Twitter page and YouTube channel dedicated to supporting PhD students, and I welcome communication with anyone who wishes to discuss their highs and lows of doing a PhD, wherever you may be in the world!
5. You miss home comforts.
I’ll dial it down to a much smaller issue now. When you leave home you don’t think about the little things you will miss. You’re so excited about moving forward that you forget what is behind you.
I missed walking into a bar and watching Leicester City play. I now had to settle for Union Berlin vs Paderborn. I missed Guinness which was well poured. I was now overpaying for a watered down excuse for my go-to drink. I missed referencing lines from my favourite films or TV shows with friends. Now most of the things I said made no sense to anyone around me (or was that down to the copious amounts of alcohol I was consuming at the time!). I didn’t realise how lonely you could feel, even when speaking the same language as those around you.
I won’t overdo this section though, as it is the small things!
6. I worked with some of the best in my field.
Let’s move back to the positives! One of the supervisors listed on the PhD advertisement was a well-known professor who has significantly contributed to high impact team sport research over the past twenty years. Think of this person as the Pep Guardiola or Jürgen Klopp of my research interests, and you’re about there. I hadn’t even thought of studying abroad before seeing this advertisement, but the opportunity to work with this well revered researcher was a big attraction. I became a better person for working with this supervisor, and I will not forget the contribution they had on my life. I don’t even think of academia when I speak about this supervisor – I just think of a decent person who had my back and genuinely cared about my wellbeing and needs. Supervisors can make or break your PhD, so think carefully before accepting an offer!
A PhD abroad has pros and cons, just like doing a PhD in your back yard. For all the negatives I have discussed here, would I have been happier doing a PhD in the UK? Probably not. I had the opportunity to work with international football players, sample a new culture, and get paid to travel around to create amazing memories and meet people who are now some of my closest friends.
What would be my advice for anyone considering a PhD abroad? Take the language seriously, consider your living arrangements wisely, and be more vocal than I was when you are struggling. Speak to a range of international PhD students to get a broader idea of what to expect as well. Don’t just read an article like mine as your point of reference. I’m sure you can get a good pint of Guinness somewhere in Germany. Just let me know if you find it!
Want to learn more?
You can contact me on Twitter at @ThePhDBreakdown. Thank you for reading my story. I hope you enjoy your own PhD journey!