7 Tips for prospective expat PhD students

Pranav S. Kulkarni
20 aug ’20

In these difficult ‘covid-19’-times, there has been an unprecedented pressure on the expat communities all over the world to secure admissions, and jobs in foreign institutions. The situation in academia is not dissimilar. Universities are also trying to adapt to changes in policy, travel and recruitment. Hence, more than ever, our prospective expat PhD’s need to be very well prepared when it comes to securing admissions. Following are some tips for you, the prospective PhD, which may help in making such a daunting task a tad bit easier.

1. Have a clear CV

Having a well-drafted CV is always the first on list of any “tips and tricks” blogs for securing admission or a job. Disregarding the risk of being repetitive, I will like to re-emphasize this point with a minor but crucial change in point of view. A clear CV is very important for increasing your chances of securing a PhD position. However, a ‘clear’ CV does not mean that you should make your CV as detailed and comprehensive as possible. You should keep it short and ONLY tailored to the position you are seeking. Try mentioning just the relevant amount of skills, techniques, achievements and experience for the PhD position. A short and relevant CV beats a long, cluttered detailed CV any day. Try to re-draft your CV for every position that you apply for. For example, your brief experience as a research assistant in some lab may be a better addition to your CV than your high school grades from long ago.

2. Showcase your unique skills

Seasoned recruiters, and senior personnel always say that in an interview or in a statement of intent you need to highlight the unique skills that you have. This is relevant for a PhD position too. PhD projects are generally aimed at a particular broad goal which calls for some skills and techniques that a candidate must already have in order to continue learning and researching. Try to think of which such skills you possess while applying for a PhD position. This practice might make you “valuable” and increase your chances of being recruited. For example, in my case, my supervisor told me once that one of the reasons that I got admitted to this PhD was because I demonstrated that I am good at working with large data of farm animals along with my knowledge of veterinary science.

3. Should I publish?

A publication of a scientific article is not a necessary part of a PhD resumé but it sure does impress the recruiter or principal investigator while considering your application. It reflects your scientific capability in a very objective fashion. Try to get some of your work from bachelors’ or masters’ degrees published. It needn’t be a world class contribution and you don’t need to be the first author, but it will definitely be a merit to your seriousness in pursuing a career in academia and science. If you don’t have a publication, you can always showcase your research ability by writing something in a popular media like a blog or a college magazine about the field of your interest.

4. Find friends of friends and create a network

Prospective expats generally don’t have a very large network of academics or professionals in the country of their interest, but they might have some friends who are already working in academia. It can be a fellow PhD student or a post-grad who is already present in that country. These friends can help you identify vacancies, introduce you to some professors that they know or in general give you advice about how things are done in their lab and university. This network of friends and their friends will definitely help you in PhD hunting. Connect with your friends abroad and if they can’t help ask them to introduce you to their friends that can help. It can also go a long way into forming a support network for you when you go abroad.

5. Keep your social media updated

In this day and age, most recruiters screen LinkedIn, Facebook and other platforms when hiring someone. Same might be true for the professor who has offered a PhD vacancy. Hence, it is important to keep your LinkedIn profiles updated, well connected and reflective of your passion and interests. Similarly, it won’t hurt your chances if your Facebook profile is clean and decent. Also try to connect with your prospective professors, colleagues, and other academics from similar fields to get as much advice and information as possible in the field of your interest. For example, before my admissions to a Masters’ program in Wageningen University, I had already talked to few of my professors in the department about the program on LinkedIn chat. This prepared me for what to expect while coming from a very different education system back in India.

6. Demonstrate sociability and your social acumen

Being an expat in a foreign university is not always a piece of cake. You have to be able to integrate and socialize with people who are from a different culture and possibly speak a different language. A professor might also emphasize the importance of this ability while considering an expat candidate. After all, PhD projects last for 4 or more years and hence your social and mental health needs to be sufficient. You don’t have to abandon your identity to be able to form good relationships with your new colleagues and friends. You just have to be kind, polite, empathetic and open to new possibilities.

7. Demonstrate your value

As an expat candidate you need to demonstrate that selecting you instead of another capable but local candidate is worthwhile. Why you? Why not someone else who is familiar with how things work here? These questions need careful reflection from you when you apply for an open position. There has to be a unique value to your application. Any job or academic position is a mutually beneficial arrangement. So, think of what you can give them (your recruiters and supervisors) along with what you will get. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a unique skill set. It can simply be your background, your extra-curricular interests, etc. For example, because you are an expat you might be uniquely suited to have a different cultural perspective to deal with the aim of the PhD position in sociology or social psychology.

In general, prospective expat candidates need to be on their toes more than ever. Following such small but simple tips can go a long way into helping you secure a foothold in the long career in academia and research.

Do you want to read more articles by Pranav Kulkarni? See his other blog posts Five great tips to start publishing as an undergraduateHow to become a PhD student and First steps in the PhD program

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