Thinking Of Going Back To School? 6 Tips From An International PhD Student

February 27, 2020

Making the decision to go back to school after 7 years took much deliberation. Throw moving halfway across the world into the mix and a part of me feared I was biting off more than I could chew. As it turns out, like most worthwhile pursuits, the universe hasn’t (yet) dealt me more than I can handle. Somehow—miraculously—I appear to be keeping my head above water! Whether you’re considering moving abroad for school, or returning to the books after several comfortable years doing the 9-5 thing, here are my top tips to not only survive, but thrive.

1. Imposter Syndrome is real and felt by everyone. In case you’re unfamiliar, Imposter Syndrome is a pattern of thinking whereby one feels she is a fraud, soon to have her true identity revealed to her peers. She feels undeserving of her position in a social circle, relationship or work environment and it’s particularly common in academia. Despite achievements on paper that prove she has the skills required to succeed, she still feels as though she is unworthy; anxious about The Great Reveal of who she’s terrified she might actually be (a fraudulent failure who managed to “slip in” purely by chance). I say “she” but this paralyzing condition is also prevalent in men. Those who embrace a change in career or graduate program after years away from academia are particularly prone to feeling the clammy grip of Imposter Syndrome.

I felt that getting my application accepted and then surviving what felt like a million and one interviews with an acceptance letter only a couple days afterwards was all a fluke. Surely little old me couldn’t even operate in the same sphere as these over-achievers with all the impressive experience in the world under their belts? Turns out, the weeks are going by and I’m holding my own. What’s proved tremendously helpful has been simply voicing these fears with a therapist, fellow students, and my professors. Turns out it’s felt by us all; there’s some comfort in that.

2. Age is just a number. At first, it was weird being in a classroom again, sitting among many folks who were younger than I was. There was frustration that arose when I felt as though they were understanding concepts that I couldn’t yet grasp with my seemingly decrepit brain. I also felt an “us vs them” when it came to divisions based purely upon age. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is an inevitable gap in life experience between someone in their early twenties and someone approaching 30, but something truly magical happens when you shove your prejudice aside and make an attempt to get to know someone for who they actually are and what they have to offer, regardless of how many times they’ve ventured round the sun. One of my best friends—twenty-something years my senior—took a chance on me when I was 22 and now I’m making a conscious effort to do the same with my peers. I’ve been proven wrong countless times now and continue to foster meaningful connections with students several years younger. Don’t rule out that option for yourself!

3. Learning how to learn takes time. If you’ve been out of the swing of things for a while, it can be surprisingly overwhelming to shift back into the student mindset. We’re constantly learning in our everyday lives, but throwing oneself into graduate school presents a sudden, staggering volume of information that must be processed in a very short period of time. It takes a while to get into a rhythm that works for you and bear in mind that that groove might be different to how the rest of your peers learn. I used my first semester to explore various styles of learning; from how I took notes in class to how I studied for exams, it took a few months to be able to figure out how to get the information to stick. Eventually, though, it got easier. My only wish is that I had been more patient with myself.

4. Your age and experience set you apart. While it contributes to the Imposter Syndrome and might make you a little rusty when you’re first back in the classroom, I’ve found that being a bit older and having had a past life working in industry has offered a sense of maturity that colleagues have picked up on. It has facilitated some fruitful conversations and allowed me to benefit from having a unique perspective when certain kinds of problems arise. Having a greater sense of awareness about other paths in life outside of academia can also offer an important sense of perspective when tunnel vision strikes.

5. Remember that university life is a bubble. Moving abroad, it was really important for me to be able to ensure that I immersed myself not only in my new college, but also the community at large. When I was a newbie in town and struggling somewhat with the academic bubble, I made sure to draw upon the connections I had in the community. Friends of friends and those who shared common interests outside of my research helped add to that sense of perspective that is important to keep in check when all the school stuff gets tough.

6. It’s OK if you miss home and equally OK if you don’t. Moving to an unfamiliar place and experiencing culture shock without your usual support system nearby can leave you a little lonely and homesick. But over time, things become normal, you make that place your own and start to form a community. Remember how connected we all are now! Friends and family really are only a message away. Creature comforts (hello Marmite and tea bags!) in a care package go a long way and it can be fun for friends and family back home to receive goodies from your new town too. Ask loved ones for what you need (thanks, Mama!) and share some of your favorite things with your new friends, teaching them a thing or two about the place that you call home. On the flip side, don’t feel guilty if you find yourself not missing home or not planning a return visit in the immediate future; you’re allowed to enjoy your time in a new place!

Have you moved abroad for school? Or returned to academia after working life? What are your top tips?

Photo: Kat Kennedy

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Kat Kennedy is an explorative writer and advocate for sustainable living, pursuing a PhD in Physiology. A proud 'third culture kid' and desert dweller, she's often found swooning at stars amongst the saguaros of southern Arizona. You can read more of her articles on her blog, Sphynx Kennedy, or keep up with her on Instagram @sphynxkennedy.

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