Doing A PhD Study Abroad? 6 Things I Learned
In January 2018, I moved from the UK to the United Arab Emirates, to launch my PhD research investigating bilingualism, autism, and mental skills! Here are 6 key, and hopefully helpful, insights from my UK-UAE PhD journey to date!
1- Location, Location, Location
I got the idea for my PhD project when I was 20 years old (so, 8 years ago) in the middle of a psychology class at university. Since inception, I knew I wanted to collect my data in the UAE. For some PhD students, this clarity over a data collection site doesn’t kick in till mid-first year into their program but when the clarity does set in, it will be because you found the ‘best fit’ for you and your project. I am researching bilingual children with autism, and chose the UAE as there are multilinguals in a large variety of cultural and linguistic variations. Furthermore, I have been actively involved in the field of autism for more than a decade in the UAE and relevant networks for recruitment were relatively well established. Before you take a decision to choose a place, I strongly recommend investing in a trip there to determine suitability for your research in that part of the world. I saved up for such a trip and it was one of the best decisions of my PhD journey.
2- Find Funding
In the absence of funding, some projects need to be re-designed with respect to methodology and study location, so plan ahead as much as you can. I’ve been on a never-ending quest for funding since applying to my PhD program at the University of Edinburgh. I didn’t get any for the first 12 months of my PhD but I kept going and suddenly, new opportunities started coming through (albeit small ones). There is more funding available than might seem at first, from society grants to university grants to national grants. Sometimes you figure out the funds as you go along but do have enough to get started and learn to write a strong funding proposal!
3- Be Prepared To Take A Leap of Faith
Your leap of faith might be much bigger than mine, especially when you’re collecting data in an unfamiliar culture and climate. Find a strong mentor where you are or even just someone who can relate and always remember why you are doing this in the first place. Whenever things get tough, I always think to myself, “Somebody out there is waiting for me to finish this PhD so that I can help them”. And then I’m back on track.
4- The Need for Adaptation
Despite having lived in high-context cultures like the UAE and low-context cultures like the UK, it takes effort to adapt. There is an art to sending emails across different cultures. This week, I spent close to 20 minutes carefully wording a simple “meeting request” email to the director of an organization. It touched on the great work they are doing for the community, my admiration for it, and many blessings for their health and life. This was all genuine, but it is also ‘good email protocol’ in high-context cultures to highlight the good work of the person/institution you are addressing before making any request. In high-context cultures it’s also common to follow up your email with a call. Of course, some things are harder to figure out than others. For instance, the Middle Eastern word ‘inshallah’ means ‘God willing’. So let’s say you’re setting a meeting with someone and they say “inshallah we can meet next week”, you’re meeting them next week right? Well, maybe. The word is frequently used to mean that something is unlikely to happen. A recent example from home: My mother asks if I’m going to wash the dishes, I replied ‘inshallah’ (with every intention of washing the dishes), but upon hearing my reply, she started washing up.
5- The Importance of Your Research Team (AKA The Tribe)
Without the right support in place from your supervisors and your lab partners, working remotely for PhD data collection can be risky. After all, research is never done in a vacuum, and you’ll always need support, emotional and professional, no matter how independent you get as a researcher. So book your supervision and group meetings regularly and make the most of that quality time.
6- The Power of Networking
I can’t emphasize enough that maybe, maybe, this is what it’s all about. It made all the difference to my PhD. During my first year, I made it a point to try and find everyone that was working on my PhD topic, wherever they were in this world. I found them, and you could count them on one hand. After a year of reviewing literatures and developing my methods, I reached out and scheduled skype meetings with anyone I could. I bombarded them (hope they can forgive me) with questions. Thank you Napoleon Katsos, Weronika Ozpolat, Ana Maria Barrero, and Stefka Marinova-Todd for sharing your journeys and helping me do this kind of research better! Networking during my first field trip to the UAE also helped me gain the approval of local autism centers, who I later approached for research participation.
Remember; when you hit a rough spot, it helps to zoom out a bit. I think about how lucky I am to be working on this project in the first place, led by the supervision team I have, supported by my lab mates, rooted for by loving family and friends.
It can only get better.