An International PhD Student’s Guidebook

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Vaishnavi Warrier is a graduate student pursuing her PhD at Boston College.

This article is part of the 2023 September International Student Perspectives Collection.

I came to the United States in the fall of 2020 in the heat of a global pandemic. Needless to say, the pursuit of achieving an advanced degree came with its own share of difficulties that were added to by the state of the world. Leaving the comfort of my home and family to come to a new country was one of the most exciting yet formidable steps that I had ever taken. My journey, like that of any other international student, was filled with excitement, fear, and hope but above all, it was a journey to discover my passion for research and in turn, discover myself.

When I came to the US, everything seemed difficult at first. My bank balance was scarce, house was small, self-esteem was low, and the support of friends and family was not immediately at hand. Nonetheless, I soon realized this is how millions of people start out their dreams in this country. I, at least, have an opportunity to learn something through this process. I promised myself that things will get better, I just need to keep working hard. And so, I started my journey as a non-immigrant graduate student in the United States.

For me as an international student, adjusting to the educational system, understanding the teaching techniques, and gaining the requisite technical and communication skills proved to be a bit of a learning curve. In the initial days, I even confessed openly that I envy my peers who could write interesting articles, give great presentations, and even express themselves so confidently. Nonetheless, I soon realized that one of the key features that would help me achieve those qualities is adaptability. As long as you are adaptable and approach these hurdles with an open mind, the gradient of the learning curve will become less and less steep. I simply started approaching these peers of mine and speaking to them at length about a diverse array of topics, in the hope of improving my communication skills. Most of my lab mates and classmates were truly friendly and considerate, which made me really enjoy these conversations. Our shared love for science, food, and sitcoms actually made me open up to them and work on my vulnerabilities. Giving presentations and discussing science does not seem to be as daunting as it once used to.

While support from friends helps you navigate smoothly through a PhD, the most important aspect of your doctoral journey is to choose the right advisor/mentor. Choosing the right person to work for is often more important than even choosing the right school or the right topic. Your advisor has to be someone you can approach with your concerns and questions, especially when you are an international student and cannot apply to several scholarships (due to rules and restrictions surrounding residential status). Most cases of dropping out of a PhD program stem from an unhealthy relationship between an advisor and their student. For an international student, the period where we have to choose an advisor can really be a period of anxiety and stress. We have a lot at stake which makes us overly cautious while choosing someone. It has to be someone who not only supports our scientific ambitions and ideas, but also understands our visa situation. We need to choose someone who comprehends that we might have to take longer periods of time off to visit our home country, prepare us for the job market in the United States, and most important of all, someone who would not exploit our visa status and obligations for their own personal gains. Personally, I have been really fortunate to find an advisor that understands these requirements. I can not only openly communicate with him about my struggles and shortcomings, but also brainstorm my ideas to achieve scientific advances.

Despite having these benefits, I still face a number of failures and experience moments of frustration each day of my PhD. Some days my experiments fail, my ideas get rejected, and I just don’t find myself motivated enough to keep working on my project. It is completely normal to go through such emotions during your PhD, but the most important thing in all of this is to keep working on yourself. As philosophical as it may sound, it isn’t easy to like every aspect of your work every day, but the key here is perseverance, to show up every day to work, to convince yourself that the research you do will benefit society and shape you as an individual that your future self will be proud of.

Each individual has a distinct PhD journey, and my small piece of advice would be to craft your own strategy for how you would approach your day-to-day hurdles to make your journey as smooth as possible. My experiences as an international student may or may not have been more difficult than my peers’ but each of us has and will go through a unique set of struggles that we deal with in our own inimitable ways to rise up to the challenge. To be a PhD student is to not just have an end goal in mind but to learn, grow, and take enjoyment from the journey that will lead you to your final goal. For me, things did get better.

Vaishnavi is a 4th year graduate student pursuing her PhD at Boston College. She studies the microbial interactions of the human nasal microbiota. Her interests are microbiology and protein biochemistry. Vaishnavi pursued her Master’s in Biotechnology from Dr. D.Y. Patil University, India. Outside the lab, she enjoys hikes, traveling, music, and dance.

Published by Britt Knight PhD, Director

I received my PhD in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Connecticut. My doctoral research focused on basic mechanisms in peripheral inflammatory pain biology. After, I completed about two years of postdoctoral research understanding how biomaterials can be used to deliver analgesics for treating musculoskeletal pain I transitioned to the Program Coordinator position for the United States Association for the Study of Pain (USASP). I am also the regional Director of CT Junior Science and Humanities Symposium.

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