What is it like to do a PhD as an international student in the UK

Algerian student Riadh Ghemmour shares his experiences of studying for a PhD abroad at a UK university

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Riadh Ghemmour

December 8 2020
Studying abroad, studying for a PhD in the UK, doing a PhD as an international student

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I am an international doctoral researcher in education at the Graduate School of Education, affiliated to the University of Exeter (UK). In this blog, I would like to share my lived experience of doing a PhD at a British university with its ups and downs.

I did my BA and MA in Algeria at the University of Abdelhamid Ibn Badis (Mostaganem, Algeria). University has always been a space where I can learn, make mistakes, develop relationships and grow as an individual and a student.

I chose to pursue a postgraduate research programme abroad because I have always dreamed of experiencing higher education in another country and embracing the complexity, tensions and beauty of international studies.

Transitioning from Algeria to the UK has been challenging given the fact that they have two different education systems, policies, requirements and expectations which inform overall teaching, learning and assessment criteria. Adding to this is the self-doubt and anxiety that comes with studying abroad - lots of what ifs.

Coming to a British institution I had to learn what teaching looked like at my new university and what was expected from me as an international PhD candidate in terms of contribution, integration, impact and sustainability.

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It took me many months to navigate my own path in order to understand how the whole university ecosystem and structure functions in order to fit in. The support I received from other PhD fellows, academics, students, staff within the university and beyond was instrumental.

In addition, I struggled with academic writing. Although I was new to the UK back in 2016 and my academic English was fairly good, it needed lots of improvement to fit in the "academic scholarly conventions". Although there are many programmes and support services provided by universities to help international students enhance their academic writing abilities, I personally engaged in a self-teaching process to improve it myself.

Of course, my supervisors provided me with feedback on my written chapters, but I also found reading, blogging, or email correspondence an effective way to understand how to write. Therefore, practice made me better (not perfect as I believe there is no perfection in writing!). It is an unfinished process which requires hard work, commitment and practice.

Furthermore, pursuing postgraduate research studies can be a lonely journey as you are in your own bubble and nobody understands what you are trying to achieve (maybe not even yourself!). Working on a research project on your own for a number of years where you have to motivate and monitor your own progress and learning is hard work.

So it is essential to stay connected to the PhD community and find other students and staff members who speak the same academic language as you. Finding this genuine support and solidarity are so needed when doing a PhD and this is how I could build the momentum and keep going with my research. 

I feel less alienated and alone in this journey as I have wonderful colleagues and friends who show support although their busy schedules and who I collaborate with in various student-led and charitable projects within the university. It is all about how we balance our own commitments while staying connected to the wider university initiatives and opportunities to grow and make connections.

I am aware of my privilege of undertaking postgraduate research studies especially abroad. Although university life can bring stress and anxiety, we can make university  an enjoyable learning experience through building a community. 

Read more: Transitioning from a non-Western university to a Western one: highs and lows

 


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