Beki Grinter

Foreign Students: The Choice to do a Ph.D. in the U.S. is More Than Making the Choice to do a Ph.D. in the U.S.

In academia, immigration on September 7, 2011 at 8:39 am

I’ve been co-teaching the Introduction to Graduate Studies class for a couple of weeks now. I am reminded of a  piece of advice I want to give to foreign students based on both my experiences as a foreign student in the United States and being an administrator for a Ph.D. program.

Foreign students arrive in the United States being very aware that they have chosen to complete their Ph.D. in the United States. But my experience is that there is less awareness that it is simultaneously two choices: the place of Ph.D. and the culture that creates that Ph.D. experience. What do I mean? I’ve never met a foreign student who did not understand that they chose to persue their studies in the United States because of the quality and calibre of the Ph.D. process offered. But, I have met many students who take some time or fail to grasp that they have simultaneously chosen to participate in a cultural experience that is shaped and dominated by American values.

This matters because the latter affects the ability to succeed in the former. An obvious example is conduct in the classroom. American students often address their Professors by their first name. Professors encourage it. Despite the differences in rank and status, the use of first names is considered appropriate. As is speaking up in class. No, I don’t mean being loud and talking over people, but students are expected to engage in discussion and ask questions.

It’s always dangerous to generalize about culture and values, but happens in the Ph.D. experience here must surely be tied to the value system that surrounds it: American academics and America itself. And I believe that there are some failure modes associated with not understanding the implications of coming to the U.S. to do a Ph.D. One challenge can be to not embrace the culture as it operates in the academic settings in which the student finds itself. Its hard to participate appropriately if does not engage the modes of participation. You may find it difficult, and that may be valuable to understand and reflect upon.

Another failure mode is to surround yourself with a culture that is more familiar. The most obvious example of this I can think of is that if you don’t practice speaking English as often as possible it diminishes the amount of practice you can get before having to present the results of research in English. The ability to write and speak English is essential for foreign students (and in that regard I was uniquely lucky being a native English speaker). But even with that huge advantage I spent time in graduate school learning how to write academic papers. I know other native English speakers who’ve gone through the same education. Our starting point was a huge advantage in this, for foreign students for whom English is not their first language, underestimating the amount of time that needs to be devoted to mastering the language and exposing yourself to every single opportunity to achieve that is vital.

And this is what I mean about the culture in which the Ph.D. experience occurs. It may not be “ideal” or even “right”, but it is present. Perhaps this doesn’t change how someone feels they can (or not) engage it, but at least I think seeing it as a cultural process that responds to certain values or not, provides a lens through which to understand success. And since many Ph.D. programs evaluate students on a yearly basis, it may also help to understand the outcomes of those processes too.

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