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Why do your PhD abroad?

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

Unless you are already in the university which is the best in your chosen area, you are extremely specialised or there is only one place to do the PhD you are interested in, spending some time abroad during your early research career could prove invaluable. The creation of the European Research Area is one of the instruments by which researchers' mobility is supported. Throughout Europe (and beyond) being mobile is recognized as an important part of your professional development. In Europeanese, the term "researchers" actually means anyone from PhD students to professors. Researchers' mobility should, however, be in pursuit of excellence (ie to do research in the best place for that particular area) rather than just the thrill of being abroad.

While there are many different ways to gain a "global perspective", doing your entire (or a substantial part of) PhD studies abroad will bring you a research and cultural experience which goes beyond that of a short field trip. In the UK, a greater emphasis is now being placed on making sure that PhD students have opportunities to evolve in global research environment to allow them to develop long-term research partnerships and to develop new skills and ideas. If your long-term plan as a PhD holder is NOT to stay in academia, private sector employers too agree on the benefits of periods abroad. I have studied, done research and worked in several countries, and this is definitely the common train of thoughts amongst employers who want graduates with an international and inter-cultural experience as well as language skills. Having said all this, what are, in concrete terms, the benefits of doing your postgraduate research abroad?

1) It will help you expand your horizons, discover a new country and culture and enhance your personal development.

As you do research with students and research staff from around the world in a country different from your own, you will enhance your cultural awareness removing barriers that you will no longer have to experience as you start working or as you begin a research degree.

It won't just be people from the country you are in that you meet. What you will gain from working in an international research context is an added cultural dimension to your research. And, imagine how great it will be to have international friends for life! This has more than social benefits: professional networks are incredibly valuable and your fellow students could become your future colleagues.

Doing a PhD is no easy thing and the skills you gain are invaluable. Doing your PhD abroad enhances those skills even further but you will have to work hard, be sensitive to local practices, develop alternative ways to debate and negotiate as well as getting used to not having access to things you normally do (like a cinema that shows films in English). It means that you will have to embrace an unfamiliar environment and perhaps also a new language. Unless you spend the duration of your PhD with people from your own country (not necessarily the best move in my view), it will allow you to gain an insight in a way of life which may be radically different from your own.

2) You will be exposed to new research environment or methods as well as academics who have a different perspective

During your PhD abroad, you will benefit from learning new techniques, attend lectures by "local" experts, be part of a unique research community which itself is international and have access to resources such as archives, collections, materials and equipment that are unique to your location. But bear in mind that, it will most likely involve getting used to a different way of doing research. From what you have read and heard from current PhD students, you may have expectations as to what being supervised means but the supervisory structure may be very different in another country. It may involve a committee or very little structure. Something to consider is the cultural difference in approaches to both academic freedom and to research ethics. Check the ethos of your selected destination and institution.

For some students, studying abroad is simply the only way to get into their chosen field and therefore to get those important publications. Does your preferred university overseas have experts, facilities and resources (inc. natural resources) not available in your home country? Similarly, are the facilities attractive? Will they be a crucial part of your research project? For example, Switzerland has a fantastic academic research sector but Swiss students wanting to do their PhD in areas such as oceanography, marine biology or the shipping industry will obviously have to look overseas for opportunities. On the other hand, is your research focussed on a region or a particular landscape? The best place to study your area-specific discipline is arguably in that country itself! Your research on rainforest ecosystems may be best done from a university close to your fieldwork area.

3) It will "internationalise" your CV and show you are mobile.

Throughout Europe, being mobile and having "some experience" of conducting research abroad is looked upon favourably. Easier said than done, you may add! And it is true that doing a PhD abroad can be challenging especially if you have never been abroad or if you have a young family. But undergraduate degrees in Europe are becoming shorter, Masters degrees don't always allow a period of study abroad so it may be that your PhD is the only opportunity for you to take the plunge.

Joint-PhDs such as Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctorates or the U21 joint-PhD programme are a good way to experience the research culture of 2 or more countries for shorter periods of time and to gain a PhD from overseas universities. It may be a good compromise if you wish to study part of your PhD at "home".

4) You will gain language skills.

While English is the common language of research in most countries, doing a PhD abroad means that you are exposed to the language of that country. Having knowledge of foreign languages will also help you in your future job search but also in your future research. For example, if you are a social scientist and your research involves interviews of members of the public, knowledge of the country's language is essential. You will have time over the course of your PhD to pick up these linguistic skills to use for your research and beyond your PhD.

5) A more attractive degree duration and structure?

Entry requirements can vary quite a lot between countries and between disciplines. In Switzerland, to gain access to the 12 universities which have PhD-granting authority a Masters degree is compulsory. This is the same in Singapore but in Malaysia you may be able to gain entry directly into a PhD if you have an excellent first degree. In the UK, variations appear between disciplines: in the sciences, a Masters is not required while it is expected in the humanities. So check the requirements and choose a country which suits your educational plans.

Perhaps there is a very simple rationale for doing a PhD abroad? The structure of in your home country doesn't suit you. Things to consider:

  • Number of compulsory hours of teaching. In some countries there are no requirements for taught modules while in others there is a significant taught component. What would suit you best?
  • Duration of a PhD. In the UK and in Europe, PhDs are quite short and generally 3-4 years in duration. In Switzerland, however, things can vary hugely across disciplines: a PhD in economics can take as little as 2 years but in the humanities and sciences, this is commonly 4-6 years. In the US or in Sweden, the typical duration is 5 years, although there is no prescribed period in the US.
  • What will your status be? Student? Staff? In the UK, you are generally a student. In the Netherlands you can be either staff or student. In Scandinavia, you're most likely to be staff. In the US, you are often both. In France, there are several possibilities depending on how you are funded (if at all).
  • Teaching opportunities. Do you want to gain teaching experience? In the US, it is almost a given that you'll be involved in teaching. In Europe, it is not compulsory and in some cases, almost impossible, for example if you are in a research institute where no undergraduate teaching takes place.

Other doctoral opportunities allow students to do their research and training in industry. This is the case of Denmark, France and in the UK which offers the qualification of DEng (Doctorate of engineering). Professional doctorates, a UK concept, allow students to do research and reflect on their professional practice as it is the case with the EdD (Doctorate of Education) or a PhD in Music by Composition. These may appeal to you but as they are delivered only in a handful of places, it is likely you will have to go abroad for those, unless you are already in one of those countries

6) Your career opportunities will be enhanced

First of all, a quick piece of advice. If you are intending on returning home after your PhD, you should make sure that your doctoral degree is recognised by universities and private sector employers. Organisations like the European Network of Information Centres (ENIC) or National Academic Recognition Information Centres (NARIC) provide equivalence information for most countries around the world.

In the American Higher Education sector, there can be a preference for the US model of PhD so if this is where you want your research career to evolve it may be the most sensible option.

Like in the private sector, universities are also looking for staff which can understand global issues and be able to interact with a diverse student population. So your CV can be enhanced by doing your PhD abroad but you need to consider "how" and "where" will have an influence on this. Your network of research contacts will be increased considerably, either because your fellow PhD students will be your colleagues of tomorrow or because the contacts your supervisor has and the researchers you meet.

If your long-term plans are to work outside of academia, you have to consider whether the country you are planning to do your PhD offers new opportunities. The German research sector is characterised by a close cooperation between academic research and industry (loosely defined). German private and public sector organisations have long recognised the value of PhDs. In France, initiatives such as the "Doctoriales" encourage students to spend time with a local company, often resulting in longer term employment opportunities.

Career advisors in your institution will have in-depth knowledge of the local labour market. You may also have opportunities to meet company representatives at career fairs or at presentations during your studies or your fellow PhD students may have tips on how to approach a job search in their own country.

Where to go for your PhD degree?

So the last thing to consider is where to study abroad. Some destinations like the US and the UK are well known to international students but the picture is changing and new study abroad destinations are making head way.

In terms of choosing a quality research environment, the best thing to do is to choose a research group (or institute or laboratory if you are a scientist), rather than a university. Indeed, poorly known universities may be home to a top research laboratory while highly-ranked universities may have only an average reputation in the subject area you are interested in. One the reasons for choosing a particular university is often that one researcher you want to be supervised by.

Tips to choose your research group/department/lab:

  • Ask your current lecturers for recommendations of experts in your subject area
  • Research the most influential publication in this area
  • If possible (ie if it is not too late), try to do an internship in a lab or department during your undergraduate or Masters degree
  • Contact former PhD students at the institution you have selected. You can contact Alumni associations or Career offices who can put you in touch with former students. Another option is to join relevant LinkedIn groups or to post a question on our Postgraduate Forum [Link to Postgraduate Forum].

UK universities, especially research-intensive universities, will seek international talent because they understand the importance and the benefits of having a diverse research community. Europe-wide schemes specific to PhD students will include Erasmus Mundus Joint PhDs and Marie Curie Actions (to and from Europe). The Leverhulme Trust has fellowships for research to be conducted outside of the UK or the US while the Fullbright Commission provides opportunities for PhD students to study in the US (as do a number of libraries, museums and research organisations by providing residential opportunities). Other countries like Canada, Germany and Japan all have big plans to attract international PhD students.

References:

1. Recommendations to Support UK Outward Student Mobility (2012)
2. Global Horizons and the Role of Employers (2008)

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