On this page

Back to top

Studying Abroad as a PhD Student: Your Steps to Success

Studying abroad and completing a PhD both broaden your horizons. Learn how you can do both and graduate with greater global awareness and post-graduation potential.

Written By

Mikala Lugen

Last updated

Feb 08, 2024

According to Inside Higher Ed, just over 55,00 PhDs were awarded in 2020 across all academic fields. Pursuing a PhD demands a high level of dedication and a keen curiosity for research and learning. As a prospective or current doctoral students, you have the opportunity to dive into the expansive realm of research and the choice to combine the rigors of academic pursuit with the enriching experience of studying abroad. 

Studying abroad is widely recognized as a catalyst for personal and intellectual growth, offering a fresh lens through which you can view the world. Studying abroad while obtaining your PhD can help expand not only your academic horizons but also help you cultivate a heightened global awareness, fostering a deeper understanding of diverse perspectives, methodologies, and post-graduation potential.

Whether you were able to study abroad in your undergraduate years or are considering doing so for the first time, we’ll help you consider the steps, challenges, and benefits to studying abroad while earning your PhD. Keep reading to learn more.

Step 1: Decide How to Study Abroad as a PhD Student

When it comes to studying abroad as a PhD student, there are a variety of different ways you can weave international experiences into your PhD program, whether by pursuing a degree in another country, conducting fieldwork, enrolling in a study abroad program, or teaching overseas can do so. This section will help you learn more about your options and decide which is best for your goals.

Complete an International Degree

An international PhD degree offers a dynamic academic experience by allowing students to pursue their doctoral studies in a foreign country. Suited for ambitious scholars eager to widen their perspective, this option caters to those interested in immersing themselves in diverse research environments. To enroll, candidates typically apply directly to the international university’s PhD program, after meeting specific admission criteria. Completing an international degree promotes cross-cultural collaboration, and can help you establish a robust international network within your academic field. While some students opt for short-term enrollment — a semester or a year — in an international program, others earn their entire degree in a different country.

Conduct Fieldwork/Research Abroad

Conducting fieldwork or research abroad offers an immersive international experience to PhD students interested in gaining practical skills in a different setting without committing to living abroad long-term. Suited for those with a passion for field-specific exploration, this option involves collaborating with international institutions, communities, or ecosystems. To enroll, students typically liaise with their academic advisors to design a tailored research plan, secure necessary permissions, and coordinate logistical support. This avenue is perfect for you if you aspire to deepen your understanding of global issues through firsthand engagement in diverse cultural and geographic settings.

Enroll in a Study Abroad Program

Enrolling in a study abroad program during your PhD offers a structured yet dynamic way to incorporate international experiences into your studies. Suited for students eager to diversify their academic exposure, this option often involves collaborations between home and host institutions. To enroll, candidates typically coordinate with their program administrators, ensuring seamless credit transfer and alignment with their research goals. This option accommodates scholars across academic disciplines, providing a framework for cross-cultural learning within the context of their unique doctoral studies. Available countries will vary depending on your field of study and your goals, but European cities are popular among PhD students. You can choose from summer, semester-long, or year-long study abroad programs in order to accommodate both your schedule and your desire to see the world.

Teach Overseas

Teaching overseas as a PhD student offers a unique blend of academic and cultural immersion. Ideal for those aspiring to share and acquire knowledge globally, this option involves opportunities like teaching assistantships or language instruction positions, such as teaching courses in English to non-native speakers and students. To enroll, students typically collaborate with their academic advisors or university placement services. Suited for scholars seeking a transformative teaching experience, this avenue allows for skill development, cultural exchange, and the cultivation of a global perspective within the framework of their doctoral pursuits.

Step 2: Determine Where to Go by Looking at Key Factors

Choosing where to study abroad during a PhD journey involves considerable considerations. Factors such as academic reputation, financial aid, language of instruction, networking opportunities, research facilities, and support services are important factors to take into consideration. Keep reading to learn more about these factors and feel more confident in evaluating them.

Academic Reputation

Considering the academic reputation of a study abroad program is paramount for PhD students as it directly impacts the quality of education, research exposure, and career preparation. A strong reputation ensures access to renowned faculty, cutting-edge research facilities, and a vibrant academic community. Evaluating rankings, faculty profiles, and alumni success can help you gauge a program’s reputation, which in turn profoundly influences your depth of learning, opportunities for collaborative research, and future career opportunities. In short, a school’s standing plays a pivotal role in shaping the overall success of your study abroad experience. You’ll want to work with your academic advisor to make sure the credits you’ll be earning through a study abroad program will apply to your current PhD program.

Funding & Financial Support

Financial support is obviously a big factor when selecting a study abroad program as it will influence your student’s ability to focus on your research and academic goals. You should take into consideration all costs related to a study abroad program, including tuition and books, flights, housing, food, and international phone plans.

Evaluating available scholarships, grants, and stipends is essential. A well-supported program alleviates financial stress, allowing students to fully engage in their studies and research. Some countries also offer free or highly affordable tuition rates for international students.

According to Education Data, the total average cost of a doctoral degree in the United States is $150,835. However, the average study abroad semester costs between $7,000 and $15,000. Some institutions may work with you to this cost if you’re enrolled in a study abroad program while earning your PhD. Additionally, the cost for a study abroad program is usually outweighed by the enriched cultural learning and research opportunities that come along with it.

Language of Instruction

The language of instruction of your PhD program will directly affect your academic success and integration. According to the American Councils for International Education, one in three jobs are tied to international trade. However, a survey with American executives indicated that 80% lost business because too few employees could work across cultures.

Evaluating language support services, proficiency requirements, and language of instruction options is essential. A well-matched language environment enhances communication, collaboration, and understanding, ensuring you can fully participate in academic discourse and cultural interactions. You can’t excel in your PhD studies if you’re struggling to understand the instructor and if you’re not proficient in the country’s native language. Some study abroad programs do offer language immersion classes for international students, where you can converse with native speakers to improve your fluency. Be honest in your evaluation of your own skills and pick a program that meets your needs.

Networking Opportunities

Networking opportunities are important at every level in your education, but they are essential during your PhD as they can determine future collaborations and career prospects. Assessing faculty connections, industry partnerships, and alumni networks provides invaluable insight. A program that fosters networking facilitates interdisciplinary collaboration, exposure to diverse perspectives, and potential research partnerships. The impact extends beyond academic life, as well, influencing post-graduation connections with lifelong friends who can also provide career opportunities. Prioritizing networking opportunities ensures a comprehensive and impactful study abroad experience for doctoral candidates.

Research Opportunities and Facilities

You can evaluate research opportunities and facilities that will be pivotal over the course of your program and your time abroad by assessing available labs, resources, and collaborative projects. A program with robust research facilities will enhance your academic experience, allowing you to delve into innovative projects and contribute meaningfully to their field. You’ll want to make sure the study abroad program you pursue has strong research opportunities and facilities so you can efficiently conduct the research necessary to obtain your doctorate degree.

Support Services for International Students

Studying abroad is an immensely rewarding experience, but it comes with challenges that can be difficult to navigate alone. Evaluating language assistance, cultural integration programs, and counseling services can help you feel confident that you will have the support you need to overcome these challenges. This support ensures a smooth transition and fosters a sense of belonging, allowing students to focus on their studies. The impact of these services, or the lack thereof, can extend to your overall mental health, academic performance, and the enriching nature of the study abroad experience.

Step 3: Plan and Prepare for Challenges

There are several challenges associated with completing your PhD abroad, including understanding cultural nuances, managing domestic perceptions, meeting language requisites, and accepting visa limitations. Understanding and addressing these hurdles is essential for a successful and enriching international doctoral experience.

Cultural Differences

One of the main benefits of a study abroad program being immersed in a new culture, but this can pose a challenge as well. Cultural nuances may manifest in communication styles and language, academic norms, and social interactions. To overcome these challenges, it will be important to be proactive in your research of the country you’ll be studying in. Participating in cultural integration programs can also help you recognize and acclimate to these differences. Connecting with local mentors and peers can help bridge any remaining gaps. Embracing diversity and being open to new perspectives not only enriches the academic experience but also ensures a smoother transition, enhancing the overall quality of your study abroad journey.

Domestic Perception of International Degrees/Experience

If you plan to return to the United States to begin your career, you should consider the domestic perception of international degrees when seeking out study abroad programs. Perceptions may pose challenges when seeking employment or recognition back home since employers may be less familiar with international programs than they are domestic ones. Overcoming this challenge involves strategically choosing reputable institutions, building a strong international network, and staying engaged with local professional communities. Seeking internships or collaborations that bridge international and domestic contexts can demonstrate the value of your experience. Proactively addressing potential concerns through effective communication and showcasing acquired skills can also help mitigate any negative perceptions.

Language Requirements & Courses

Language barriers can manifest in coursework comprehension and communication challenges. Mitigating this involves assessing your language proficiency beforehand, enrolling in language courses or workshops, and utilizing language support services offered by your home and host institutions. Actively participating in academic discussions, seeking peer collaboration, and embracing language immersion opportunities can also greatly contribute to your language proficiency.

Visa Limitations

Enrolling in a study abroad program involves a considerable amount of paperwork and documentation — far more than going overseas for vacation. It’s important to consider the visa requirements for the countries you’re interested in studying abroad in as a PhD student as challenges may arise due to complex application processes and potential delays. Most countries require international students to hold a student visa as well as a passport. According to NAFSA, typical processing to obtain a passport takes up to 12 weeks while visa processing can take anywhere from a few days to several months.

You may have to consult with your host country’s embassy or the academic advisor from your host school to assist with the process. You can overcome this common challenge by starting your research early on visa regulations, seeking guidance from the host institution’s international office, and ensuring all required documentation is in order. Planning well in advance, maintaining clear communication with relevant authorities, and seeking legal advice when necessary can help reduce the likelihood of potential obstacles.

Example Preparation Timeline for a Successful Study Abroad Experience

Deciding to enroll in a study abroad program while earning your PhD requires strategic planning. We’ve developed an example timeline to help lay out necessary preparations and steps for success before, during, and after your time abroad. These steps ensure a seamless study abroad experience and can contribute to the successful development of your academic and professional pursuits.

Before

It pays to engage in meticulous planning before embarking on a study abroad PhD journey. Navigate these initial stages by arranging necessary documents and evaluating research opportunities to set the stage for success.

Arrange Necessary Documents

No matter where you go, you’ll need to secure a valid passport; research and obtain the required visa for the country you wish to study in; prepare your academic transcripts, recommendation letters, language proficiency certificates; and write a comprehensive research proposal. Additional documents may also include a change of address; travel insurance; any prescriptions for medications; proof of health insurance; and copies of credit cards and identification. Check your host country’s specific document requirements to ensure that you are in compliance with both academic and immigration regulations.

Evaluate Research Opportunities

Here’s where you would explore and research potential advisors, assess available research facilities, and examine ongoing projects. Consider how your research goals align with the host institution’s strengths and collaborations, and whether the school of your choice will help you make the most of your academic pursuits abroad.

During

As your study abroad journey unfolds, you’ll want to maximize your time and resources being overseas and seek out opportunities for academic growth. Acknowledging and applying global perspectives while actively contributing to international discourse through publications and presentations will be especially important if you hope to get the most out of your time abroad.

Acknowledge & Apply Global Perspectives to Your Work:

Once you’re in your study abroad program, you’ll want to actively engage with diverse academic communities, collaborate with your international peers, and integrate cross-cultural insights into your research. Embracing global perspectives enhances the depth and relevance of your work, contributing to a richer academic experience — which is essentially why you chose to study abroad while earning your PhD in the first place!

Publish & Present in International Journals & Conferences:

You should actively seek opportunities to share your research findings. Submitting articles to renowned journals and presenting at international conferences fosters academic visibility, enriches the global scholarly community, and enhances your academic profile.

After

As your study abroad journey unfolds, you’ll want to maximize your time and resources being overseas and seek out opportunities for academic growth. Acknowledging and applying global perspectives while actively contributing to international discourse through publications and presentations will be especially important if you hope to get the most out of your time abroad.

Acknowledge & Apply Global Perspectives to Your Work:

Once you’re in your study abroad program, you’ll want to actively engage with diverse academic communities, collaborate with your international peers, and integrate cross-cultural insights into your research. Embracing global perspectives enhances the depth and relevance of your work, contributing to a richer academic experience — which is essentially why you chose to study abroad while earning your PhD in the first place!

Publish & Present in International Journals & Conferences:

You should actively seek opportunities to share your research findings. Submitting articles to renowned journals and presenting at international conferences fosters academic visibility, enriches the global scholarly community, and enhances your academic profile.