Under Pressure: the challenges of doing a PhD abroad

When you accept the idea of doing a PhD, it is not just “work,” as many people assume. Once you are in it, the PhD becomes your life; it truly becomes part of your own being — you wake up and go to sleep thinking about it. It looks like an obsession and it totally is. It does not matter how hard you try to explain to friends and family, because they do not understand. “When are you going to start working?” is a very common question in my life.

For instance, no one told me how excruciatingly lonely it would be. And I am not talking about loneliness itself. I am talking about academic loneliness — which is ten times harder. Having to dissect and work with my data; all the hours spent in the laboratory; the number of articles to read on a monthly basis and many other obligations. It comes as no surprise that many students face major psychological distress, because the pressure on their shoulders is almost unbearable to deal with. In fact, the suicide rate among post-grad students has been increasing and it is up to the institutions to acknowledge these issues  and provide technical support to the students.

As a Brazilian student, I thought that it would be less challenging to do my PhD program in Portugal, but the language is the only thing that still connects these two countries. Plus: although the language is similar, it is definitely not the same. The Portuguese way of living is completely different and after almost five years living in Portugal, I still have the feeling that I am adjusting — trying to fit in.

One other thing important to point out is that English is the language of science, and many conferences, courses, and lectures are taught in English— as well as the publications. Yes, speaking English is a necessity. In order to do a PhD, you have to speak English. There is no way around it. I know that all this could sound discouraging for many people, but it is just the way it is — honesty in all its brutality.

With all this being said, I could give a few pieces of advice. First and foremost, study English. I know that English courses are expensive, but there are other ways to learn as well: YouTube channels, apps, TV shows, and so on. Second, work on your emotional intelligence and on your social skills. From my perspective, these two are the most important skills that you will need to develop in your PhD — and in your life as well. Third, only enroll on a PhD if you desperately want it.

Aline Alvarenga da Rocha
PhD Candidate
Universidade do Porto, Portugal

I am a citizen of the world, but from Brazil. I think that this sentence sums up how I face myself and the world. I am a veterinarian and I received my undergraduate degree in Rio. During my undergraduate studies, I fell in love with pathology. From that moment, I decided to pursue a career as a pathologist. I did my residency in pathology and during my Master’s program, I studied lymphoma in dogs. At this moment, I am finishing my PhD program which focuses on canine mammary tumors. Beyond that, I am really interested in arts in general, traveling, economics, and coffee.

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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