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Insights and Tips for International Graduate Students

This blog post aims to highlight some of the common struggles of international students aiming to study or do research abroad and also provide some tips.

Many International students aim to continue their higher education abroad in countries with better education systems, such as the United States of America, countries of Europe or Australia. However, the application process can be challenging. International students must overcome various obstacles to secure admission to their desired graduate programs.

The lengthy admissions requirements are frequently confusing and are not standardized across programs or countries. International students may be required to provide additional documentation such as transcripts, diplomas, and translations of their academic records. They may also need to submit additional materials such as a statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, as well as personal and research statements. Navigating these requirements can be hard, especially for students unfamiliar with foreign education systems.

Demonstrating language proficiency is a large hurdle and an expensive barrier to entry. International students, even some from English speaking countries, are required to take standardized tests such as the TOEFL or IELTS to prove their English language proficiency. These tests can be costly and require significant preparation time. For instance, as of today the TOEFL test costs between $100-$120 depending on the country where you are from, the GRE test is over 200 USD and the IELTS can go up to 300 USD. Even if an international student is fluent in English, these tests have been criticized for their esoteric vocabulary testing and not assessing the ability to use English in an academic setting.

Another key requirement is getting an invitation letter from a faculty or an academic research institution. Regardless of proven skill sets and meeting all the requirements of these institutions, countless attempts to reach out to faculty that share your research interests are frequently met with a negative response or simply no response at all. Those within academia constantly hear about professors being extremely busy and justifiably lamenting about their overflowing email inboxes. Alternatively, it could be due to inequity of access and a lack of trust in the quality of education of international students, as the universities they come from are usually not ranked well worldwide.

Additionally, If accepted to a graduate program, international students must obtain a student visa to study abroad. The visa application process is expensive and can be long and complicated.The process requires extensive documentation and multiple visits to the closest embassy or consulate. There is a lot of uncertainty around the timing of this process. Students cannot always plan because they may not know when they will get their visas, let alone their dependents. Another hurdle is that oftentimes international students don't get to visit the campus beforehand, as most universities usually don’t help the admitted students with travel expenses.

Graduate school abroad is generally expensive, especially in the USA, and international students usually rely on scholarships or funding from their home countries or private organizations to cover their tuition and living expenses. However, securing these funding sources is difficult and highly competitive. Moreover, the student visas for these countries usually don't allow international students to have part-time jobs to supplement, often, meager scholarship funds.

On top of that, in most cases these students are subject to additional costs such as “international student fees” also known as tuition fees for international students ranging from a couple hundred dollars to a couple thousands depending on the university, they are usually higher than the fees charged to domestic students, as international students are not eligible for government funding that domestic students receive.

Last but not least, international students must adjust to a new cultural environment when they move to a new country. This includes adapting to a new education system, social norms, and potentially a new language. This adjustment period can be difficult and may impact the international student's academic performance and mental health.

Despite all the struggles mentioned above, many international students successfully navigate the application process and thrive in graduate school abroad. Below are some tips to increase your chances of getting into grad school abroad.

Dr. Ananya Ashnok shared advice she had given a student in India (

She suggested:

  1. Create a SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based) application plan

  2. Research professors, labs

  3. Find and learn which topics are trending!

  4. Tap into your network and connect.

  5. Be disciplined. You will face more than one rejection, and if you don't you're an anomaly!

  6. Indian education focuses a lot on memory skills. Focus on developing thinking and communication skills instead.

  7. Learn from your failures: ask for feedback and improve your applications based on it.

  8. Always write a thank you email back - even if you weren't successful!

I also suggest improving your visibility. Having a presence in the research scene and growing your network can be impactful:

  • Publishing a paper during your undergrad can be a substantial pillar to your applications, as it proves your academic writing skills and scientific research competency.

  • Participating in International conferences or meetings held in your home country to share your work, grow your network, meet and collaborate with visiting international faculties and institutes. This can boost your academic resume and help you get stronger recommendation letters.

  • Tap your existing network. Your home country professors or supervisors can be also a useful bridge by introducing and recommending you to their network. Faculty members may have existing collaborations with international institutions and faculties, therefore, choosing the right active mentor and advisor in your home institution is an important key to your application process.

  • Another way is to reach out to international students or alumni with the same background.They have likely gone through a similar process, and can share useful information, and better yet, which pitfalls to avoid!

  • Using social media. Twitter for instance or also refer to as #AcademicTwitter or #ScienceTwitter can be a great way to get visibility in front of the right people! Twitter is commonly used in the US among academics and can be a powerful tool to increase your network and easily share your work and ambitions. Platforms such as Facebook (e.g groups) or Linkedin are also widely used, especially by the international academic community.

  • Last but not least, following the recent advances in research in your field is a must!

Good luck!

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