Advantages and disadvantages to doing a PhD abroad (Outside the USA)
Although American universities are some of the best in the world, there are plenty of good ones around the world too. I’ve had the benefit of doing my PhD jointly at 2 top universities on 2 different continents: National University of Singapore (NUS, ranked 24th) in Asia, and Imperial College London (ranked 8th) in Europe. I’ll go over some of the benefits of doing a PhD abroad in Europe or Asia based on my experiences.
I spent most of my first 2 years in Singapore, and the last 2 in London. It’s a long enough time in each place to get past the honeymoon period. You’ll be forced to adjust and learn about the culture in each place. It’s not a vacation, and it’s definitely not a semester abroad kind of experience. You become an “expat” of sorts, and have to figure out a lot on your own.
All the good things
Better or pretty decent scholarships
Depending on where you go, you could potentially get a better scholarship somewhere in Europe or in Asia. Some PhD studentships in the US are quite low because of the cost of living wherever that university is. It might be higher or it might be lower, but there are some decent PhD scholarships in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Singapore (where I get my scholarship from). No PhD student will ever be making bank, but you can save some money (for traveling!).
Learn a language
You could study or do a research exchange in another country where you could learn another language. Several of my colleagues at NUS, for example, learned Mandarin, Tamil, Malay, or Indonesian. Or if you are in Europe, you could study French, or Italian, or German, etc. Singapore has the added benefit of being an English speaking nation with English as the official language and 3 other languages being national languages. Although deep into Southeast Asia, everyone in Singapore speaks and operates in English so it isn’t a barrier for your studies.
Have an international crew
On a related note, you will have more chances to interact with people from all over the world. Rather than having a token European or Asian in the group, you might have a mixed bag of people from all continents equally. If you are all international, you’ll bond over being in a new country together. You can explore and find new things to do, and you’ll commiserate over what you miss from home. I love all my friends I’ve made during this time!
Travel to your heart’s desire! Not really, but almost
Living in a new country will give you plenty of options for exploring, even if it is just in your neighborhood. Once you get there, it’s likely that local flights or ground transportation will be quite affordable and you can easily do 3 day trips like I have to Warsaw and Copenhagen, or Thailand. You could also plan longer trips to tour a certain region during breaks.
Fewer requirements = less time!
Getting a PhD in the US usually means many requirements. From teaching hours, to mentoring, to publishing, you have a lot to do and it’ll take some time. European systems usually don’t have coursework or teaching requirements, instead letting you get straight into research. You could technically finish in 3 to 4 years, versus minimum 5 years in the US. At NUS, they mimic the US system with coursework and teaching requirements, but the allowed time is 4 years with strong encouragement to finish within 5. In the US, you’ll often hear of people finishing in 6 or 7 years.
With the impending election, I’m quite happy not to be bombarded with news every minute of every day. I will vote by mail in ballot, but I don’t want to hear about all the messy details of this particularly ugly lead up to the presidential election. Everyone jokes about leaving if you know who gets elected, but not joking it might really be something you want to do.
New music and art
You’ll be exposed to new things just by being in a new place. The best part might be hearing new music and seeing new art that you would not have noticed had you stayed at home. Living in Singapore and London, I’ve been more exposed to British and Asian (mostly K-pop and J-pop) music. When living in Singapore, I got to see my favorite Korean pop/rap/hip hop group BIGBANG in concert (T.O.P. is my favorite. His voice! I was about 3 or 4 rows of people from the stage!). Along similar lines, you get exposed to different fashion styles and trends, such as the weird big eyebrow trend amongst British women and girls.
Date someone who doesn’t come from your culture and you will realize how much of your own culture you have engrained in yourself. It can be an eye-opening experience. How people date in other countries is also an interesting part of the culture that you may find you like or don’t like. In all likeliness, you may be considered “exotic” for being from where you are from, good or bad.
It isn’t all good
Nothing is ever without a trade off, and neither is this. There are some disadvantages to doing a PhD abroad.
Far from home
You might end up far from home. I was literally on the other side of the world from my home when I lived in Singapore. This meant it was much much harder to go home for holidays and to see family and friends. The time difference also was something to consider when trying to communicate with people back home. Not only may it be far, it may be expensive to get there and back. This may limit home often you can travel home.
Change in climate
You might end up living in a place that has a very different climate to the one that you are used to. For me, having seasons where the temperature and surroundings changed was something that I missed when living in Singapore where the climate was tropical.
Differences in culture
You may find differences in cultures everywhere, even in places that you thought would be similar. I thought that British culture would be easy to adapt to, but there were a lot more subtleties than I had expected. Even with very little language barrier, there can still be a communications barrier! You have to keep an open mind if you are going to live somewhere else for several years at a time. Be aware that it may take time to adjust.
You’ll probably have to apply for a student visa, and that could be a lot of paperwork. It could also limit how much you can work to earn money outside of your scholarship, if this is important for you. Unfortunately for me, I had to apply for 2 visas, both with different requirements and fees, etc.
Reputation upon return
If you are concerned about getting a job in academia back in the US, you might be worried about the reputation of your school and program. If you really want to be a professor in the US, some people recommend doing your PhD in the US. I’m not so sure if a degree from an international university is penalized though, I’m not on a selection committee and haven’t heard much about this. I do, however, know several people who have finished their PhDs from my university in London and gone on to do post docs in the US.
Everyone else dances to electronic
I have nothing against electronic music, or electronic dance music (EDM), but it’s not my jam. I am from New York, and I dance to hip hop. Clubs in Singapore and London are mostly electronic, though in Singapore they often did play some hip hop earlier in the night.
Dating sucks everywhere
Although I did go on some dates in London, I have come to the conclusion that dating everywhere sucks. I’ve officially given up on online dating so many times, but this time might be for reals. But at least at home in New York, I’ll find people who are from a similar culture so we’ll have more of those unspoken cultural things in common.
Is it right for you?
There you have it! All of the main advantages and disadvantages to doing a PhD outside of the USA. I know most people are trying to get into the USA. But that doesn’t mean that Americans don’t have anything to take away from getting experience internationally. It may actually be a positive thing for when applying for jobs afterwards, or at least that is what I’m hoping!
You will learn a lot about yourself through the PhD process, whether you decide to go abroad or not. Living in a new country brings the benefit of access to different perspectives, and this alone could be worth the journey.
Are you thinking about doing a PhD abroad? Would you consider going abroad to do a PhD or other grad program?