The PhD voice

How to deal with homesickness during your PhD abroad

Hi all! First post of November, which is ironically a month dedicated to writing. There’s the National Novel Writing Month in the US and I hope I can get a lot of pages for my personal novels (first PhD manuscript, first PhD chapter, blog) in this month. But first, of all, big news…

I’M HOME!

I just arrived in Portugal one hour ago and I started writing! I will be here for about one week and a half visiting family and friends. So, what better way to start my trip here to Portugal (which will not be vacations by any means, need to work a lot), than writing about homesickness?

I returned home after 9 months. I am not a naturally homesick person, I have this travel bug and I am not a person of creating huge roots. I’m a free spirit, but I felt such a huge emotion after coming home. This was a surprise for my parents, who had no idea that I was coming. I have been having a ton of fun in the US and I want this adventure to last more. I traveled quite a lot, made a lot of relevant professional connections, made new friends and I am even getting more inspired for my next career move after the PhD. However, dealing with culture shock and missing your world and routines from back home is not easy. Especially during a PhD, that sometimes can be isolating. So, I’ll start by saying what were the strategies I used for these 9 months to feel less homesick.

1. Get busy

My Portuguese friends in Cambridge nicknamed me “Infinite Schedule”. I was also like this back home, always going to a lot of events while working hard. I’m not saying this is always benefitial and I suffer the nasty effects of this, but in a way it helped me. I know, from my past international experience in Czech Republic as well that the worst thing you can do is to spend too much time dwelling on how much you miss your country. It’s good to keep in touch and find time to talk with friends, but it’s good to take advantage of all the opportunities for work and socializing. As I wrote in this post about my stay at MIT, I figured out very early it was easy to keep myself busy and meet people outside work. Explore new hobbies, but find yourself time to sleep and for yourself to recharge 😉

insane

2. Find an association related to your home culture

MIT has plenty of student associations and groups. While there is not a Portuguese association there, we have our community of MIT Portugal students and our room, where I work from most days. In Boston there is also a chapter of the Portuguese American Postgraduate Society (PAPS), organizing some networking events and themed dinners. In a way I am so lucky to have this network that connects me to my country, but it might not have been the case in other cities. So, when you come to a new country, try your best to find the associations and clubs where you can share your culture shock and homesickness with other students that know what you’re going through.

3. Use all technology…and also snail mail!

I regularly talk with my closest family through Skype and we also have a family chat on Whatsapp that we use to share a lot of pictures. I don’t do videochats every day due to the time difference (my family is having dinner while I’m working). I also try to have videochats with friends often, but to me it has also been awesome to write postcards for birthdays and to show people places that remind me of them. I have even wrote some postcards to fellow bloggers which is pretty cool. Do you remember what was the last time you wrote a letter or a postcard? Might be a nice experience!

4. Travel in your new country as much as you can

I have so much to write about my travels in the US! The fact that I have a project that allows me a more flexible schedule and location independency has been great to get to know diverse sides of American culture. However, I know this is not the case for everyone and some people have to be in the lab for very long periods of time and traveling for them might mean going sometimes to a new park in the town of your research institution. Anyway, it’s always good to refresh the mind with some new sights! I cannot advocate enough the huge investment traveling is for me as a person. I was very lucky to have reconnected with family and friends of family I have in the US and Canada while I also engaged into unexpected travels that proved to be very effective to work better afterwards.

travelclouds

5. Check cheap flights to go home…or to have someone visit you

If you’re a grad student like me, you’re still entitled to use Student Universe discounts which can help a great deal. It’s always a good idea to compare with the deals you find through Skyscanner but I booked my round trip direct flights to Lisbon with Student Universe and got an awesome $500 deal so I’m pretty satisfied. In the case that it is not possible for you to travel back home, you can always offer your house for family or friends to crash your couch and bring you food and drinks! I had two visits from Portugal already in the US and they brought me olive oil to cook more healthy food. Besides from hugs and comfort too. I helped them into looking for better deals and also on information on what to do while I would be working.

I could write more on how to deal with homesickness and obviously this post is aimed at beating homesickness while in an overseas situation, but these could also apply for people doing their PhD in the country of birth but in another city or region. Of course homesickness can be hard to beat and can take a toll on your productivity and mental health. It can be especially daunting if you already have your own family or you’re in a long distance commited relationship. But this can be a phase of intense growth and hope you can overcome your homesickness like I am trying to. But right now, I’ll enjoy my family and friends, Portuguese food, and binge watching on figure skating competitions on TV =D

Are you also doing your PhD overseas and struggling with homesickness? How do you cope? Let me know! In the meantime, don’t forget to follow my PhD journey in the US in FacebookTwitterInstagram and Pinterest to keep up to date!

Cátia

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