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Going Abroad for Your Ph.D.

Graduating with a bachelor's degree is the end of a long journey of study, but it's just the beginning of another adventure. There are so many possibilities: Should I continue in academic research? Should I get a Ph.D.? Should I get a job? With all those difficult choices to make, it's not surprising that few graduates make the bold choice of going to a foreign country to pursue a Ph.D.

According to Eurostat, in 2004 (the most recent statistics available), only 0.6% of United Kingdom (U.K.) students travelled abroad for a Ph.D. The numbers are higher--around 2%--in France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany. They reach 8% in countries outside Europe's economic centre, like Bulgaria, Ireland, Malta, and Slovakia. Irena Jennings, who works for the internationalisation task force of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS), speculates that U.K. graduates tend to stay at home because of language limitations, whereas foreign graduates are keen to study in the United Kingdom to improve their English-language skills.

But language is just one of several excellent reasons to travel abroad. Students brave enough to dust off their passports face some obstacles, but the rewards can also be great.

Why go abroad?

If you're interested in studying abroad, your decision about where to go could be influenced by the desire to experience a particular language, culture, or location. Or, it could be driven by the type of research you want to do. Three Ph.D. students at the University of Glasgow in Scotland shared their reasons for coming to the United Kingdom for graduate study.

Cecilia Lindestam came to Glasgow from Sweden as part of her master's degree program so she could improve her English, learn about another culture, and meet new people. "At first I was only meant to stay abroad for 6 months, but I decided to apply for a Ph.D. scholarship," Lindestam says. "When I got offered that, I decided to stay, mainly because I hadn't applied for anything else and I really liked Glasgow."

Luis Bicheiro, a Portuguese student getting a Ph.D. in immunology at Glasgow, had similar motivations. "I wanted to see how things are done in another country, meet new people, and learn in a cosmopolitan environment. At the same time, I was also looking for more and better resources for Ph.D. students and research."

For Rinako Nakagawa, the desire to study abroad was driven by limitations on her opportunities at home in Japan. "I wanted to study immunology earlier than I could in Japan, so I became an exchange student in immunology at the University of Toronto in Canada, where I met my current boss, who was working then as a postdoc," Nakagawa says. When her old boss became an independent investigator at the University of Glasgow, Nakagawa moved with her.

Opinions vary on whether studying abroad enhances students’ career prospects. "In the past, time abroad showed initiative, but in the current climate, promotion is more likely to be based on publications, the topic of specialisation … and excellent references," says Tracy Hussell, education secretary of the British Society of Immunology. For someone in a situation like Nakagawa's, going abroad was the best route to getting into her chosen field--and probably also the best route to getting those all-important publications and references.

Paul Garside, director of the Centre for Biophotonics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, spent time working as a postdoc in the United States and thinks that it gave him "a broader perspective and made it easier to land a permanent post." If he is interviewing for a lecturer's post, he says, "International experience could tip the balance in an otherwise even contest."

Cecilia Lindestam

Luis Bicheiro

Rinako Nakagawa


Lindestam, Bicheiro, and Nakagawa landed in Glasgow, but precisely where you end up should depend on a number of factors--notably what kind of research you want to do. Once you've decided to explore going abroad for your Ph.D., "talk to your undergraduate lecturers and course supervisors about where the good labs are. Science is international and they are likely to have contacts in other countries," says Jim Wilson, a student adviser in the International & Graduate Office at the University of Strathclyde.

That's exactly what Bicheiro did--except that he also decided up front that he wanted to study in the United Kingdom. "I first selected the area I would like to do research, then the country," he says. "I then talked to a few researchers and professors in my home country and they gave me some names to check out. From those I chose a project and supervisor."

After you've got some idea of what lab and university you want to study at, contact the international office of the host institution. The international office usually deals with applications, visas, language requirements, housing, and funding, says Wilson, the international student adviser. "Once students are here, I deal with any problems they might have, whether it be relationship, financial, academic, immigration, or homesickness," he says.

It is also important to find out from the international office whether your degree or qualification allows you to study for a Ph.D. at the host university, says Wilson. An organisation called the National Academic Recognition Information Centres checks for equivalence of degrees awarded in different European Union countries. The international office can usually look into this for you.

Another factor that you may have to consider is how long it will take to get a Ph.D., as this can differ among countries. One of the reasons Lindestam chose to go abroad was because a Ph.D. in the United Kingdom takes 4 years on average, but in Sweden, it can take longer.


"Ph.D. students are funded in a number of different ways," says Avril MacGregor, who advises international students studying at the University of Glasgow. Some students will finance themselves, whereas "some are funded by their own government or scholarships." Students seeking scholarships to study in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries should look into the Commonwealth Scholarship & Fellowship Plan and Overseas Research Scholarships.

Scholarships are available through international agencies such as the United Nations and European Commission, and you should ask your host university about institutional scholarships. The AGCAS's Jennings advises students interested in postgraduate study in the United States to check out the Fulbright Program for Foreign Students, which has information on postgraduate study and scholarships.

Lindestam was lucky to get a Wellcome Trust 4-year fellowship, which allowed her to work in a number of labs in the first year and then choose a lab and project for her Ph.D. Bicheiro's salary, tuition, and bench fees were paid by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology.

Research assistantships, where students spend a few hours each week preparing and teaching in undergraduate lab courses, are another way to fund your Ph.D. Your university's international office can tell you whether you are eligible to apply for research assistantships; policies vary among countries and even among institutions within the same country.


Postgraduate students from any European Economic Area (EEA) country (the member states of the European Union, plus Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein) and nationals of Switzerland do not require visas to enter another EEA country. Students who are visa nationals and are going to be in the United Kingdom for longer than 6 months require a student visa to enter the United Kingdom. "They will need to have an unconditional letter of acceptance from the host university, details of the duration of the project, the title of the project, and evidence that tuition fees and living expenses are funded" in order to qualify, MacGregor says.

International students wishing to study for a Ph.D. in the United States have to apply for an F-1 student visa; contact the nearest U.S. embassy or go to to find out more. Wilson recommends that students contact the embassy of the country they hope to study in to check on visa requirements.

Small minuses, big pluses

"The main difficulties, other than everyone speaking a different language, have been learning the culture--all the small differences compared to Sweden that everyone else takes for granted like I do when I'm at home," Lindestam says. "Things such as sorting out council tax, gas company, and so on. However, I can't think of any specific difficulties concerning my Ph.D. or project."

Among the three students, the cultural differences were likely greatest for Nakagawa. She experienced some difficulties due to the language barrier. She also jokes about the cultural differences in food: "I could not accept chips as the main source of carbohydrates for awhile."

Lindestam has her own solution for homesickness and an antidote to Glasgow cuisine: "Homesickness for me is easily cured with some news over the Internet and, in more severe cases, a trip to IKEA to get some food."

Cultural issues aside, Lindestam is enthusiastic about her study-abroad experience. "I would definitely recommend this to someone else. It's a great experience! You get to learn a lot, and not just things to do with your studies."

Additional resources

Irena Jennings recommends, which lists Ph.D. programs throughout Europe with funded Ph.D. studentships and opportunities for self-financed students.

At you can access information on working and studying in over 50 countries. This Web site has country-specific information about language, visa and eligibility requirements, and advice on when is the best time to apply.

Both and the British Council’s education Web site,, are useful sites for students from abroad who want to study in the United Kingdom.

For international students seeking to study for a Ph.D. abroad, provides a comprehensive directory of study programmes and language courses, and you can search by subject, country, or city.

Hilary Marshall is a freelance writer in Scotland.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

Photos: Top, credit M. Stute. Others, courtesy of the subjects.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700096

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