6 lessons from 6 months of PhD life abroad

Featured photo: Charles River from Harvard Bridge at Sunset. View over Memorial Drive, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Hi all! It’s August 3rd, so yay, it’s 6 months since I came to the USA! These have been by far the most intense 6 months of my life in all aspects. I’ve been going through the highest highs and lowest lows but crafting my way through this. I’m primed to stay here another 6 months, so it’s the half way mark for me! I don’t want to make this a “6 lessons of living in America” post, since I feel it’s better suited to make an overview of an international experience in more generic terms. You can learn more about my experience living in the USA and being a grad student at MIT here.

1. You know everything you thought your stay would be? Spoiler alert: It won’t.

Before I came, I thought I would be a workaholic. Even more than I am at home. And that I would work super hard on the blog. I am sad I haven’t had much more time for blogging and I said it a lot of times, but I try to think positive that all the work and life challenges and opportunities I had have taken a lot of time away from it. And it’s for the better. I have traveled already to 7 US states and I am not going to stop soon! I have attended more concerts than I ever thought in my life and tried food from so many different countries. I attended so many work events and meetings and met people in such diverse fields. I am now, I think, more settled into a work-life balance and I have a lot on my plate workwise right now but I’m excited to keep on finding out what new avenues my stay here will bring me.


2. A different work methodology is always helpful. So take advantage of it as much as possible.

One of the best reasons to have a stay abroad during your PhD is to gain experience from a different supervisor and research group, and also to use equipments and methodologies different from what you would have available at your regular host university. Since I don’t work with experiments I can’t talk much about this, but there are many computer clusters here. However, what I gained the most from is from talking with my supervisor, who has been immensely helpful and, even for what he thinks he would not be able to advise me on, points me towards people who could give some insight. I am not part of a research group per se, but attend meetings with another group closely related and they are very insightful as well. I know some horror stories that are clearly the opposite of mine, where people felt exploited in their stays outside. I feel really bad that some research groups work like that, just thinking about making students a means to an end. However, my lesson is to always look on the positives of working with different people and try to have as much honest feedback about your work as possible. If something is going terribly wrong, talk with any support groups or offices your faculty might have for international students.


3. You might become incredibly nostalgic about your home country. And your home people.

I never thought I’d feel such joy in going to Casa do Benfica here in Cambridge (Benfica is the largest soccer team in Portugal, and the one I’ve always supported. You can read about my guided tour to the stadium in Lisbon here) to eat pastéis de bacalhau (codfish fried cakes) and drink Super Bock (one of the local favorites Portuguese beer) while watching the team become champions for the 4th year in a row. I never thought I’d devote a full blog post about the Little Portugal in Cambridge. I never thought I’d be asking anyone who visited me to bring Portuguese olive oil since it’s so cheap and better than the one sold here. I never thought I’d watch the Boston Marathon with a Portuguese flag to show support for any Portuguese running the race. About people, I have written way more postcards than I thought in my life and ask my parents to always make a videochat when there is some important family occasion so that I don’t miss out. I haven’t been having any large crying sessions but I feel occasionally homesick. I still didn’t go to Portugal to visit and I don’t have any plans for that soon.

When you almost cry of joy at Portugal Ave after drinking galão and eating pastéis de nata. Ferry Street, Newark, NJ, USA

4. Culture shock is real. But you might like your new life so much that you want to stay more time

As I mentioned in my post about my first weekend in Boston, people here are quite talkative on the streets and in UberPool when compared to Portugal. They comment on your hair, your shopping bags, the people you hang out with. While there are a lot of very open minded people here, some people might dislike foreign citizen and judge them on their looks or ethnicity. You always have to carry your passport to prove you’re 21+ to be able to drink at any bar or restaurant. Prices are without tax and you should tip 15-20% of the total bill. People are much more active and outspoken in terms of politics. Food is so different. So, these are the main examples of culture shock I found here in Cambridge. However, Boston is a very European city, walkable and with great public transportation and events. So, the culture shock of coming to the USA could have been way larger, like I know with Portuguese people who went to other states. Still, I think the entrepreneurial spirit that people around here have and their overall kindness, as well as the organization of the city, makes me wonder if staying here would not be a bad idea. Boston is a very thriving hub for biotech, so I wouldn’t frown upon an opportunity to work.


5. You will do things you never thought in your life

With the fact that, in a new environment, lots of events that wouldn’t be available in your home country are available, makes you become generally more open to new opportunities. Some funny or bizarre events that I went to (and I don’t think they exist in Portugal yet) are:

  1. Petting goats in a small zoo (twice).
  2. Hopping on a FB organized event to watch a Hot Air Baloon Festival (where hot baloon launches didn’t happen).
  3. Going to a K-pop culture convention and painting a K-pop Youtuber. And then going to a Paint Nite and finding out you are not as bad of a painter than you thought you would be, while sipping cocktails.
  4. Co-organizing a Tweetup before a conference (with the lovely Samantha Yammine) and actually having people come and have a fun night.
  5. Going sailing under moonlight for free!

I can list way more! Anyway, some of these events deserve their own posts and that will come later 😉


6. Don’t sweat the small stuff

With so many opportunities to grow personally and professionally in a new country, it would be easy to think all would be smooth sailing. Obviously, like in all of PhDs or stays abroad, it’s not. I have already left some small events, disappointments and misunderstandings affect my personal well being and all I know is that it took time away from being more organized and effective in all dimensions of my life. Of course it is part of growing, but I learned that the events have the relevance you give them. Then, I have been trying to become more forgiving with these situations and let them go. PhD is already a very challenging time of my life in itself, so there’s no use to let your mind become bugged by things that can be very easily solved.



So yeah, overall these are my top lessons! Share your lessons with me if you also are in an abroad PhD stay or living abroad by any means! In the meantime, don’t forget to follow my journey around my PhD in the US in FacebookTwitterInstagram and Pinterest to keep up to date!


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