Many prospective international graduate students – even if they have obtained a bachelor's degree from a U.S. college – do not know what to expect from U.S. graduate programs. International students new to the American higher education system have an even bigger transition to make.
In graduate school, the focus of study shifts from information to ideas. While acquiring and regurgitating vast amounts of information frequently guaranteed success in an undergraduate program, in American graduate programs, students are routinely asked questions for which a single correct answer or solution may not exist.
Going into an examination not knowing all the right answers is one of the most difficult things to get used to for international students – many of whom have been successful previously because they knew the correct solutions – but it is also critical to success in graduate school.
The good news is that international students can and do succeed in U.S. graduate programs by learning to adjust to a different set of expectations and to separate the failure of an idea from a sense of personal failure. The following are some common challenges international students face as part of that adjustment.
1. Drawing your own conclusions: International students can be reluctant – afraid even – of criticizing ideas held by people with greater experience or authority than themselves. Often this is in spite of having doubts, or disagreeing entirely, with the interpretation of their superiors – even when asked to voice their opinions.
Superiors mostly do know more than you, but as you start doing graduate-level research, you will find that nobody in the world knows more about your project than you do. You are the expert.
Once, as I looked for justification on the direction in which to take my research, I was handed two sets of data by my immediate research supervisor with an explanation that I didn't find fully convincing. But she was my supervisor and she already had her Ph.D., so I accepted her interpretation.
As I presented my research proposal to professors at a formal meeting, I was asked that same question, and I had no answer for it because I had accepted another person's conclusions and assumed a superior knew better than I did.
2. Getting research experience: While not all graduate programs require students to complete a research project, acceptance into high-ranked Ph.D. programs is often impossible without research experience. Many in academic circles believe that research experience is more desirable than any number of hard courses or examinations.
International students should make every effort to do a research thesis or project even if it is not required. As an applicant from India from a university that is not well known to U.S. professors, I was aware that I was unlikely to get accepted to a top Ph.D. program in my field.
Instead, I applied for a master's program and spent two years doing research full time, using my evenings and weekends to study for my classes. When I applied for my Ph.D., I was extended offers from top-ranked programs in my field.
[Use these tips to adjust to grad school as an international student.]
3. Forging professional friendships: Many international students skip trips to the local pub on Friday night, or miss the department holiday parties because they want to get extra time for a trip back home.
This is a mistake, because professional relationships are formed at these social events. These people are either taking the same classes as you are, or have already done so, or work with you as part of a research team.
You should be on fairly familiar terms with them even if you do not see yourself being best friends with any of them. News about job offers, upcoming conferences and sometimes even valuable tips on how to best study for that eccentric professor's exams are available only at such events.
If you do not drink, order a soda and talk with people. You will find that most people who work in American universities are very understanding of cultural differences and your dietary restrictions or religious restrictions will not prevent you from enjoying your time networking.
[Learn how to budget for a U.S. grad school.]
4. Understanding the importance of homework: Many international students are not used to the idea of graded homework beyond high school.
I certainly was not, and did not anticipate the deadline for homework assignments being seriously enforced until I saw someone get a zero on an assignment submitted late. Professors will let you know in advance which homework assignments are for your benefit only and which will contribute toward a final grade.
Sometimes there are no single correct answers to graduate homework assignments. Your grade is often determined by the approach you take and the creativity you show in your solution. Feel free to discuss your approach with the professor who assigned you the homework unless specifically told otherwise.
Adjusting to being an international graduate student can be difficult at first, but gets easier. Attend classes, go to department meetings and seminars and talk to others – professors, your fellow students and senior graduate students – to make sure you are taking the right classes and doing the right things at the right times.
Remember to enjoy the process. This is your dream education come true, after all.
Swati B. Carr, from India, is currently pursuing her doctorate in synthetic biology at Boston University and advises prospective international students. She first came to the U.S. as an international student for her master's in microbial genetics from the University of Rhode Island.