Advice: Starting a PhD in a Foreign Country

It’s over halfway through March and over the next several weeks American universities will start mailing out acceptances and offers into postgraduate programs. But what if you decide to move abroad for graduate school? I chose to do that and spent 2012 – 2017 living in London to research my PhD about pirates. This is more practical advice than a personal story and I’m not touching on PhD advice. That’s for another day.

In 2012 I picked up and moved from Los Angeles to London to start a PhD in history. I didn’t know a single soul in the city and I left all my friends and family behind to do this. Then, 3 hours after I arrived in London, I called my mom over Skype in tears to say that I made a horrible mistake and that I was coming home (I was 27 years old.)

After about 3 days I started to relax and settle in. Over that first year, I vacillated between moments of awesome and fun and a lot of time wide-eyed and shell-shocked. So my goal here is to offer some insight to help prevent you from bursting into tears when you can’t find your Oyster card in Oxford Circus station during rush hour. (Disclaimer: This will still happen.) This will be mostly relevant to Americans moving to London, but I hope this post can be applied to those moving abroad in general.

BEFORE MOVING

  1. Save money! You need a visa to study in the UK and those don’t come cheap. In order to qualify for a visa you have to show that you won’t be a drain on the system so make sure you have the minimum amount of money in your bank account for at least 30 days before you start your application. (To live in London, you need about £9,000 in your account: £1,000 per month of the academic year.) Plus, if you’re not funded, you have international tuition to pay.
    1. DO NOT GO INTO DEBT. Job security is a myth post-PhD and you do not want to finish in debt. Look into grants, scholarships, and savings, anything before you start dipping into Sally Mae.
  2. Sort out your visa! As an international student you’ll arrive on a Tier 4 Student Visa that should be valid for the length of your program plus an additional 4 months to find work. [Note: I have no idea what will happen after Brexit so this might change.] Study the website carefully. It will take a while and I’m pretty certain part of the visa application’s vetting system is what I call “Unofficial Round One”: who’s able to complete it correctly?
    1. Note: If you live in New York or can get to NYC easily, you can have your visa sorted at the embassy in a day. If you can’t get to NYC, it will take several weeks to get your visa sorted unless you have it expedited (I had to this and it was another additional expense).
  3. Buy your plane tickets with an airline of your choice, join whatever loyalty/rewards program they have, and stick with this airline as exclusively as you can. You’ll earn miles, rewards, points, etc. If they offer a credit card, apply for one because you’ll earn even more points and miles that way. I signed up with Virgin Atlantic and I can’t recommend them enough. The planes are nice, they treat everyone really well, and their tier points rewards program gets you some great perks after a while. For instance, I’ve flown so much that I’m now a known as a frequent flyer and I even became a Gold Tier member for a year at some point, which usually got me an extra glass of prosecco on the plane.
  4. Sort out your housing. I went the student-accommodation route. During my first year I lived in Lillian-Penson Hall, which is an international post-graduate student hall. It’s a typical student hall, but I made good friends that first year and it’s in a convenient location (Paddington). Otherwise, unless you have someone in the UK who can act as co-signer (guarantor in the UK), be prepared to shell out 6 months of rent in advance. If you’re in London, that will be a LOT.

WHEN YOU ARRIVE

You made it! You’re in the UK, you’ve moved into your accommodation, and you’ve gone to your program’s orientations (go to ALL OF THEM). Now what?

  1. Prepare to get sick. You’re in a new country, new city, surrounded by new people and therefore new germs. You’re going to sick fast and often. My first year in London I was sick no less than 6 times. I arrived at my department’s new-PhD induction day with freshers’ flu completely conked out on cold medicine (over-the-counter drugs in the UK are amazing and actually work.). That was not how I wanted to introduce myself to my supervisor, my fellow new PhD colleagues under his supervision, and new PhD students in general. How would I make a good impression if I couldn’t even smile without feeling like my face would crack in half and liquefy?
    1. Note: This problem can be, and was, solved with alcohol.
  2. Prepare to get homesick. It will take time to settle in. Don’t be a hermit. Go out, take a walk (get used to walking), and go see the sights. Use time on weekends to take day trips. There are so many amazing towns and cities throughout the UK. If you can afford it, go abroad when you can. EasyJet is an amazing airline. It’s cheap and goes to most places you’d like to go to in Europe for a quick weekend getaway.
  3. Open a standard checking account. I was recommended to join Lloyd’s because they’re known for being friendly to international students and that was totally on point. I never had any problems with them whatsoever. It’s an easy process and you’ll be done quickly.
  4. Now that you have a bank account, it’s time to get a smart-phone. You might have to do the pay-as-you-go route at first because you have to build credit. I had a crappy standard phone that any crime show would refer to as a “burner” for about 3 months and then I was able to start a contract with O2. This is where you have to make some decisions. You can either pay-as-you-go the whole time, or you can choose the option of signing a 2-year contract. That’s up to you. You also have to decide on which company to use. O2 is great because you can use it in continental Europe like normal for £3 a day and elsewhere in the world for £5 a day (it adds up but is helpful in a pinch). EE has international coverage as well.
  5. Get an Oyster student card. You can use contactless debit cards on everything but as a student you’ll save 30% on public transport costs. DO IT. You can’t use cash on any forms of public transport (save cabs).
  6. Get a youth card for National Rail. Even if you’re over 25 you can get one as long as you’re a student. Again, you’ll save about 30% on train tickets.

SOME GENERAL BITS OF ADVICE

  • Find a hobby outside your program. I became a film location tour guide and did that job throughout my entire PhD program. I learned the city really well extremely quickly, got to talk about films and history several times a week to people from all over the world, it provided daylight and exercise (SO IMPORTANT), and it was really helpful financially-speaking.
  • Get loyalty cards at places like Boots (it’s similar to CVS) and Sainsbury’s. You get points and can save money.
  • Get to know your neighborhood. Each area of London is so unique. Try out local cafes, restaurants, shops, etc.
  • Don’t be afraid to do things alone. If you’re like me and arrived without any friends or family in the UK, you’ll be alone a lot at first. That’s okay! No one will judge you for eating out alone, going to the movies alone, etc. Go out and do things.
  • Say yes to everything. The reason I said to go to ALL of your PhD inductions is because that’s where you’ll initially meet people and your cohort is your family. No one will understand the process like those who started with you. The people I met on my first night at my university with freshers’ flu are the people that stuck by me through thick and thin and became some of my best friends. Through them I met other people because they would invite me to things. The PhD is lonely so go out of your comfort zone. Before moving to London I was quite shy and introverted and I would never be able to text anyone I barely knew to grab lunch. In London I forced myself to do that and guess what? That’s how you make friends.
  • Join MeetUp.com and go to events. PhD friends are the best friends you’ll ever make but you also want to have outside support. I went to several events through this website (I even joined a little choir) and made other fantastic friends who helped keep me grounded. The PhD is a bit of a bubble so step out of it whenever you can.
  • Join Facebook groups like Americans in London or Expat RecRoom. Sometimes they do events but often times it’s mostly a commiseration of other expats who will offer advice or talk about things they miss about America. It can make things feel a bit less lonely.
  • Join twitter! It’s a phenomenal way to network with other academics. I’ve met people through twitter and gained amazing opportunities through it.
  • Check out websites that advertise local events and cultural sites. I liked Londonist and Time Out London. The former is great because they’ll let you know awesome events happening throughout the city every day. Time Out is great for recommendations and deals.
  • Get accounts for Spotify, Netflix, and Amazon Prime. You’ll need them. Trust me.
  • Brand recognition: I found this to be exhausting when I moved to the UK. You don’t realize how much you depend on it when you suddenly don’t recognize any products so I’ll recommend a few things/places (feel free to disagree – these are just what I liked).
    • Market: Sainsbury’s
    • Drugstore: Boots
    • Washing-up soap: Fairy
    • Cold meds: Day Nurse/Night Nurse
    • Painkillers: Paracetamol and Panadol
    • Chain coffee: Café Nero
    • Chain take-out: Pret, Leon, GBK
    • Chain Mexican (SO important if you’re from the Southwest region of the USA): Tortilla and Chilango’s.

That’s all I can think of at the moment. Add more in the comments!

About Rebecca Simon

A California-girl based in London working on a PhD in early modern Atlantic history at King's College London: piracy, executions, British law. https://twitter.com/beckalex
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