While I have never been a graduate student in a foreign country, as an undergraduate I spent a year studying in Goettingen Germany at George-August Universitat (Politikwissenschaft). I also studied abroad in Paris for a summer, and Italy for three months after I graduated (I guess this makes me a fairly atypical American). The graduate student and undergraduate experience are not the same, but having been a foreign exchange student and having quit graduate school I can anticipate some additional issues that foreign graduate students may want to think about, and I offer this advice in case it is useful. If it isn't useful, I would love to hear from you in the comments section (which I now actually check).
Some of this advice may also be useful for graduate students who are in programs out of state, away from family, or even find themselves in a different department then where they did their undergraduate work.
1) Getting clarity on whether you are actually unhappy. If you are living in a foreign-to-you culture (let's get real, this is probably all graduate programs anyway) you need to discern whether you are having a bad time adjusting, or if you are really truly unhappy. For some people this will be obvious--so obvious in fact they don't need to read this blog. For the rest of us, we feel conflicted because on any given day we may have a tough time sorting out whether we are unhappy because we truly don't like our program and graduate school is not a good fit, or if we are simply in the painful process of stretching and learning to do something new.
This is where the two week rule comes in. This advice came to me by way of the two hour (that was it!) training that my university did for foreign exchange students, and was probably not standard so much as the advice of an eager to help and super awesome speaker. I wish I knew her name, but I don't, so good Internet vibes where ever you are for giving me one of the most useful tools ever.
Over a two week period, mark how many days you are unhappy. Put a big X on the calendar and record that day as having sucked. When I told my grad school friends I was doing this they freaked because they assumed every day would suck. In reality, I was surprised to see that it wasn't every day that was horrible. At the end of the two weeks evaluate whether you are truly still unhappy, or if you are just fixating on a few bad days.
2) Connect with resources to help you get past any cultural challenges. Most universities in the US now have fantastic programs for students on study skills, stress management, and counseling. Use these resources. They can be particularly useful for overcoming language barriers, navigating the stress of school, and figuring out what you want. One limitation is that most of the programs are aimed at undergraduates, but I took full advantage of these and they were extremely useful. Of course at a certain point if everything you are doing requires a coping mechanism, you may be doing something that you really shouldn't be.
3) Understand the limitations of the US system. The US University
- Heavy focus on grades and evaluation, with frequent assignments and deadlines. This can be extremely stressful, as well as limiting as you often don't feel you have the time to explore ideas.
- Big emphasis on attendance and participation.
- Extremely competitive nature of the American system. Some programs the students are incredibly competitive with each other and not helpful toward other students.
- Obsession (at least in my department) with normative progress and how quickly you are going through the program. This is likely due in part to the high cost of tuition.
- Expense. My goodness it is expensive to go to college in the US, and there are not a lot of aid opportunities for foreign students. You are usually looked at by a University as a source of $$$$ in the form of out of state tuition.
Deciding whether to stay in your program or leave is a big decision made even bigger by the distance you may have traveled to get there. Just know that even if you leave without your degree doesn't mean you haven't gained valuable experience and understanding that you would never have had without your time spent as a graduate student.