How to build up your life in a foreign country as a PhD student

Pranav S. Kulkarni
20 May ’21

This blogpost is aimed at those of us who come from abroad to pursue a PhD in Europe and more specifically in the Netherlands. There are a lot of small issues that we need to be aware of before we can settle into our new life comfortably. Coming from India to the Netherlands for my PhD, I had to jump through some of these hoops and hurdles.

I will not regurgitate the key directorial things you have to deal with such as finding accommodation, registration of the new address at the municipality, opening a bank account, human resource work, etc. since there is plenty of information available on the web for these things. Instead, I would like to talk about some non-administrative things that you need to deal with to secure a comfortable life while you complete your PhD. 

1. Keeping an open mindset

The key to making your life better in any new place is to approach it with a clear and open mind. To be more precise, the Netherlands is known worldwide for liberal laws, direct way of communication, healthy lifestyle and challenging weather. It will be in your best interest to look at this novel experience as an opportunity to broaden your horizons and widen your thought process. Coming from a place full of ‘sirs/ madams’, I was quite shocked with the informal way in which everyone is quick to use first names after getting acquainted. But this was a great strategy to break down the barriers between open communication and the voicing of one's' opinion clearly. 

2. Finding your social group

Coming from abroad is homologous to uprooting your life completely. Your acquaintances are few and the colleagues are new. That creates an urgency in making new friends and seeking advice. Then, your best bet will be to try to find out people who are in a similar situation as yours. Expat groups on Facebook or social groups on Google will be a good start. This network can then help you venture further into the new society. In my case, the Expats in Netherlands and Indians in Netherlands groups on Facebook and International Neighbours group (ING) on Google were quite helpful. Other than that, I got to know a lot of expat students from all over the world simply by getting a chance to stay in the student houses.

3. Learn the language

Just like anywhere else, if you know the language, you are able to integrate better. I would suggest that if you can spare some time, try to sign up for Dutch language classes. Language skills will not only help you navigate the new place but also have better awareness of your new home. On numerous occasions, especially in bars and cafes, I felt like it would have been nice to simply join a conversation. But, that was not possible since I couldn’t converse in Dutch. Nevertheless, I would like to be forthcoming and say that I have so far not taken my own advice to start learning Dutch. But it is something I plan to rectify as soon as time permits.

4. Get organized

After coming to the Netherlands (or western Europe in general), you will quickly realize that the people here are very organized and time oriented. Everything is obsessively about work-life balance. Some noteworthy things include, creating an agenda, work up to-do lists, plan regular travel routes and itineraries, plan fitness workouts, etc. To make your life as easy as possible, I suggest you should also adhere to some of these common practices. These routine practices, which might sound obvious, will really make your daily life easier and sustainable. For example, I realized that just by following a strict schedule of when to work and when to have free time can have an immense positive effect on my psyche; especially during corona-times where I was (and still am) working from home.

5. Explore your surroundings

I think exploring your surroundings in the first few weeks is a worthwhile endeavour to undertake in your leisure time. I would suggest doing this with your bicycle. You get to know your new home as well as get a good practice in using your bicycle (it’s a win-win!). Find new parks, tourist places, museums, ‘not-so-touristy’ artistic places as well as great restaurants and cafés. In the Netherlands, each town or city has multiple sites like windmills, canals and old castles to discover. Next time, you have friends or family come over, you can very well flaunt your knowledge of local attractions as well as be able to navigate confidently in the streets.

6. Try the local cuisine

You will be living in this new country for a considerable amount of time. Hence, trying the local cuisine is a gateway to understanding the local culture. For example, you will be pleasantly surprised by trying stroopwafels, speculaas and pepernoten if you have a sweet tooth. You will be equally happy with oorlog-frites, bitterballen, kibbeling, depending on your savoury taste buds. The best way to try different dishes is to visit local kiosks at weekly markets. In my case, the stalls and bars around Dom tower and Oudegracht canal in Utrecht city center were my first adventures during the weekends. Depending on your personal and cultural tastes, you can get as adventurous as you want. 

7. Find a hobby

Often, you will find yourself with some free time on weekends and national holidays, where you are not able to venture outside for a picnic (most frequently due to the famous Dutch weather) or do any other form of outdoor activity. In such situations, it is best to get settled in and find a stable hobby that will work for you. Hobbies such as board games, online games, cooking, music and painting are common in Dutch culture. In the recent corona times, we find ourselves increasingly hunkered down in our houses and then such hobbies will be your best mates. I was very happy to learn to cook new dishes, learn to paint during the frequent lockdowns and working from home.

8. Pick up new skills

It might be a shock to most but being a PhD student doesn’t stop at the end of office hours. I believe that picking up new skills and exploring new talents is valuable during the spare time. For example, taking up photography, joining a short course or attending a workshop (in a different domain than your research), learning a new instrument or learning to brew beer/ wine at home etc. Personally, I was fascinated by a couple of lecture series on YouTube concerned with archetypal stories of the past from different traditions of the world. The end result was that I had a new-found respect for study of philosophy and social psychology and have since tried to get my hands on more material in these domains. This type of activity couldn’t be more different than studying for grades or acquiring a diploma. 

Are you moving to the Netherlands, and want to know more about the country? Visit FactCards for information about arriving, living, studing, working and doing research in the Netherlands.

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