Kshitij Tiwari Ph.D.

15 Challenges faced by incoming international PhD scholars

10 min read

As an incoming international PhD scholar, you may already know the many exciting, rewarding, and challenging experiences that await when you complete your degree. You are likely to come up against a range of different obstacles as you go about your studies that can, at times, be challenging to overcome.

In this blog post, we will cover 15 common challenges that incoming international PhD scholars face, and offer some advice on how to best tackle them.

Life of a local vs overseas PhD scholar

Living in the same city as your university can bring advantages for those doing research that require frequent visits to the library or laboratory. Similarly, over the weekends, local Scholars can easily visit their family and unwind.

However, for those who come from abroad, living away from home and in a foreign country can be difficult. Life as an International PhD scholar comes with a whole set of challenges all the way from preparing the application packet including Statement of Purpose (SOPs), Letter of Recommendation (LOR), Test scores, Transcripts etc.

The challenges don’t end with getting an offer letter. Settling in to a new country may come with additional challenges that, if tackle with the right mindset are very manageable.

Challenges faced by International PhDs

Incoming international PhD scholars face a tough time applying to overseas PhD programs but the struggle doesn’t end with getting an offer letter. There are numerous challenges that one needs to navigate to establish themselves overseas as an international PhD scholar.

Cultural and language barriers

One of the most common challenges that incoming international PhD scholars face is overcoming cultural and language barriers. If you are studying overseas in a country where the primary spoken language is not your native language, you may find it difficult to navigate your day-to-day tasks. This can lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed, isolated, and frustrated. In order to best tackle this challenge, it is important to develop a good rapport with your peers and professors. That way, they can help you understand the local culture and language, provide important resources, and offer support.

Taking on a new curriculum

Another challenge you may face is having to take on a new curriculum. Depending on where you are studying and the institution you are attending, the courses you will be taking may be very different from what you are used to. This can cause confusion and difficulty, and make it hard to keep up. In order to best tackle this challenge, it is important to familiarize yourself with the course requirements early on and conduct thorough research into the topics. Doing so can help you quickly adjust to the new curriculum and give you a better understanding of the material.

Dealing with financial stress

As an international student, you may also experience a lot of financial stress. Depending on where you are studying, the cost of living may be significantly higher than your home country, making it difficult to make ends meet. Additionally, you may be working with a limited budget that impedes your ability to pay for necessary expenses such as housing, groceries, and tuition. To best tackle this challenge, it is important to create and adhere to a budget, look for job opportunities that can either supplement your income or provide financial assistance, and use any scholarship programs that may be available to you.

Managing your time

Incoming international PhD scholars also need to be mindful of how they manage their time. Finding a balance between the demands of your studies and living in a new country can be difficult, and it can be hard to stay motivated and focused on your studies. In order to successfully manage your time, it is important to set clear goals, create a rigid schedule, and stick to it. Be sure to also build in time for yourself, so you can relax and enjoy your new home.

Moving away from home

It can also be difficult to move away from home and the support network you have in your home country. Many people face feelings of homesickness and loneliness when they first move away, and this can affect their studies and mental health. To help tackle this, it is important to stay connected to those at home by using things like social media, video conferencing, and even letters. Additionally, make sure to build a support network in your new home and engage with people in your community.

Dealing with burnout

As an international PhD scholar, it can also be easy to experience burnout. This is when you become exhausted due to the demands of your studies and the pressure to succeed. To prevent burnout, it is important to practice self-care and make sure to build in ‘me time’ into your schedule. Additionally, it is important to recognize when you are overworking yourself, and take a step back to ensure that you are not risking your mental and physical health.

Unhealthy eating and sleeping habits

Another challenge that incoming international PhD scholars may face is creating unhealthy habits with eating and sleeping. It can be easy to fall into a routine of eating unhealthy foods or skipping meals, or staying up too late working on projects or studying. To ensure you are taking care of yourself, it is important to prioritize a healthy diet and create a regular sleeping schedule.

Finding accommodation

The challenge of finding suitable accommodation is one that many incoming international PhD scholars face. It is important to find somewhere to live that is both comfortable and secure, but also within your budget. This can be a time consuming and frustrating task, especially when dealing with language and cultural barriers. To best tackle this, it is important to start your research early, have a clear idea of what you are looking for, and speak to a range of people to get the best advice.

Struggles with housemates

Also on the topic of accommodation, PhD scholars usually look for shared housing to save up on rental and utility bills. This can be a great way to get to know locals and build a support network, however tensions between housemates can arise. To ensure that your living arrangement is a positive and peaceful one, it is important to set ground rules and expectations early on, and make sure everybody is on the same page.

Navigating red tape

Navigating the red-tape that comes with enrolling in a new institution, and navigating the visa process in order to stay in the country, can be a daunting task for incoming international PhD scholars. There are a lot of steps to take and paperwork to fill out, and the process can be confusing and difficult to understand. An important tip here is to go directly to the source – find out who is in charge of specific processes and speak to them directly to get the help you need.

Adapting to a new environment

Adapting to a new environment can also be a challenge for incoming international PhD scholars. This includes things like understanding the public transportation system which may be obvious to locals but for the incoming international PhD scholars, could be a whole new ball game.

Finding and applying to scholarships

Finding and applying for scholarships is an important step for incoming international PhD scholars, as it can help with managing the financial burden of studying overseas. In order to best tackle this challenge, it is important to start your research early, be aware of all the options that are available to you, and make sure to fill out your applications thoroughly and accurately.

Developing new research skills

Incoming international PhD scholars also need to be prepared to develop new research skills. This involves learning to design, conduct, and analyze research studies, and understanding the nuances of field research in unfamiliar contexts. It can also include mastering new software and learning to use technology in research. To best tackle this challenge, it is important to take the initiative to learn as much as possible, and to use the resources available to you, such as training sessions, tutorials, and workshops.

Finding suitable part-time jobs

Lastly, finding suitable part-time jobs to supplement your income is an important challenge for incoming international PhD scholars. Many students rely on part-time jobs to cover their essential living costs while they study, and these can be difficult to come by. To best tackle this challenge, it is important to look for jobs that are related to your field of study, try to use your connections to find opportunities, and be sure to research any job before you apply.

Adjusting to Supervisors and peers

Each supervisor has their own way to approach supervision of PhD students- some might be hands on, some might be hands off, some in between. This also reflects to some extent in their students some of whom would likely become your peers. It is important to understand what the dynamics are and adjust to them to the best of your ability. This will help you to form relationships with your supervisor, get the proper help and feedback and get along better with peers.

Key takeaways

Making up your mind about pursuing the PhD can feel daunting. Starting a PhD program in a whole new country can add to additional challenges for international students.

There are a wide range of challenges that need to be tackled, from developing a good rapport with peers and professors, to navigating the red-tape and finding suitable accommodation.

It is important to be prepared for these challenges and to develop the skills and strategies that will help you succeed in your program. By researching and engaging with your new home, and by taking the initiative to learn as much as possible, you can be well on your way to achieving your goals.