A new student arrived this week to the lab. I showed her around and for the first week or so she is expected to basically shadow all of us, learning the main techniques that we use. Just like me, she is a foreign student, coming from a much kinder weather (I am looking at you negative-double-digit temperatures!) and with no family here. It was heartbreaking for me when at the end of the first day she asked me: Do you think I made the right decision coming here?
In academia, we are encouraged to go do every degree in a different institution and if it can be in another country, it might be deemed even better, since you will learn not only different techniques but different ways of living. As my family put it when I left Colombia “it is easier to do this when you are young because you are still very adaptable” … And still what no one seems to talk about is that sinking feeling of knowing if you made a huge mistake.
To move here I had to go to a lot of hoops, just to get my visa and study permit, a process I had to repeat at least 3 times in my almost 7 years living in Canada, without counting the process of residency. Being in Colombia I sold or gave away almost all of my stuff, I said goodbye to ALL my family and friends left with two 23kg suitcases. I was excited and terrified. I was moving to a new country, going to work on a lab that mainly worked on my 3rd language and I had never before looked for an apartment on my own. My first crisis came about 2 weeks in, when I made a fairly silly mistake but my confidence plummeted and as it so happened I hadn’t had the time to re built a support net…that night, in my apartment, I cried.
As a foreign student, or even a someone who would’ve moved across the country, you are put in a position where all you want is to have those who have always been there for you (be it family or friends, or both) but when you finally get to talk to them, it’s extremely hard to say anything to them. You don’t want to make them worry. People, I am telling you, besides the long hours and the frustration that come to ANYONE in science, the hardest part for me has been being away from my family.
So when this new girl asked me that I told her the truth: I cannot answer that to you, all I can say is that it has been hard, but I would do it again. To be fair, she is mostly afraid of not being up to level, which if you ask me, is a good fear because 1) means she cares, and 2) is probably a sign she will do her darn best to catch up. But behind that fear, I know there is the “what if I left everything behind for nothing”.
I’ve mentioned some tips on how to choose a lab but besides the institution or the lab’s reputation there is something that you should always consider and it is yourself. How comfortable are you in a completely foreign environment? You might realize that there is comfort in being in the lab itself when thing become mechanic, but what about when you are out of the lab, or just not doing an experiment? If your family is very far away and you know you will need to see them at least once a year, take that into consideration: is your pay going to be enough to cover yearly travelling? Is the type of research your envisioning, flexible enough to allow for you to take more than 2 weeks off? A former student at the lab always took a month, because getting to her family alone would take more than a week of changing planes and buses. Are you comfortable enough with the local language/culture to have a life outside the lab? How long is the program you are considering and what is the mean length of it in the lab you are going to (in our institute a PhD is supposed to be a 4yr program, but the reality is the mean length of this specific program is 5+yrs).
Is it worth it? You will only know with time. I was extremely lucky with my master’s project, results wise, and even luckier to be have found great friends and in-law family here, which helped with the fact that my PhD proved being more taxing than I expected. But I’ve learned a lot because of my decision to move here. About me, about science, about academia. So as I told the new student: I would do it again. It has been hard in a lot of levels, but I would still do it again.
What other considerations did you take into account when (if) you moved to a different country for your studies?