An international student’s guide to grad school

8 min read
An international student’s guide to grad school

Are you curious about what it takes to earn a postgraduate degree, particularly one from another country? You are not alone. The number of international students worldwide has steadily increased over time, though this may be changing. While it may feel daunting to start an education by yourself in a foreign country, this journey, as I have found myself, is also rewarding and exciting!

There are many stories out there about international student experiences in the US, but rather than describing my experiences of moving to another country and educational system, I’m hoping to shed some light on the process that brought me here and the things I wish I had known when I applied to graduate schools.

Let’s start with some terminology: in the US, a “graduate degree” is any degree you can obtain after a Bachelor’s or undergraduate degree. In the UK, such a degree is called a “postgraduate degree”. The application process between different countries and cultures can vary widely. While this article highlights the various elements of the admissions process and what you need to look out for as an international student, bear in mind that cultural differences specific to the institution and country you’re applying to will still matter.


Start this process at least one year before your intended start date, if not sooner. This includes standardized testing, doing your research on programs and advisors, emailing potential advisors, preparing application materials like research statements, CV, etc., the interview process, and finally, visa and immigration procedures.

Keep in mind that some programs might take a few months to respond to your application, whereas others might get back to you within a few weeks. It might be worth talking to the lab heads you correspond with about general timelines so that you have a realistic idea of what to expect.

Stage 1: Do your research

The University

Finding a university that is able to support your research and professional goals is critical. While this can mean identifying the most exciting research programs in your field, it should also include an assessment of how well the university and the program supports their graduate students. Some questions to ask might be: what kind of financial support will I receive as a graduate student in terms of tuition, stipend and health insurance (if applicable)? Do they have emergency funds available for international students in case you have a health-associated or family emergency? Does the program have a culture of fostering community and making students feel included (Look for graduate student associations or other clubs that enable such interactions)?

Will you have support to pursue your chosen career path, even if it happens to be a non-academic one? Will you have access to adequate health facilities, both physical and mental? Institutional support in such areas can go a long way and enable you to succeed in your graduate career.

Local Cuisine and Culture

Even if you’re glad to move away from your home country, homesickness will strike after a while. Look for places to fulfil those cravings: are there restaurants with your local cuisine in the area? If not, are there ethnic grocery stores that sell food you’re used to? Places where you can find community and listen to the music and languages that you grew up with? These are some of the things that have kept me going through the hardest times. If you’re vegetarian, vegan or have other dietary restrictions, check that grocery stores or restaurants can cater to your needs! Different regions within the same country can have different cuisines with wide variations in usage of meat and other ingredients. Food is one of the areas where cultural differences shine through.

Stage 2: Submitting an Application

It’s important to get a sense of what your intended program looks for in their applicants, for example: if the program you’re interested in requires a faculty member to support your application, it’s a good idea to start contacting prospective advisors via email. Here is a template that explains how to compose this introductory email.

If you’re applying to a few different programs or even countries, staying organized is essential to keeping on top of your applications. Here’s a sample worksheet I used for this purpose. The first tab was used to keep track of responses from groups that I was interested in, and their responses to me: did they think I would be a good fit? Did they have the space and funding to take on additional students Tab #2 was helpful to organize my applications once I had selected the programs I was applying to. Using this checklist, I was able to make sure that all of my application materials had been submitted on time. Finally, I used tab #3 to write down the pros and cons of each program and whether they had accepted or rejected my application. Having all of this information in one place was immensely helpful towards making the final decision.

Other factors to consider when deciding between programs: this can be included in Tab #3 of your worksheet!

  • Cost of living, see for ideas on what stipends look like in your city and what that means compared to the cost of living
  • Local community and culture: can you build the kind of community you want at this place?
  • Ease of travel to other locations
  • Support for international scholars, both at the institutional and individual level (i.e. from your advisor or department)
  • Support and acknowledgment for any other unique needs you might have, eg. disability needs or language assistance needs
  • Job opportunities in country of residence, should you wish to continue living in the same country after graduation

One thing I wish I’d realised when I was in the process of applying was that not only was the school choosing me, I was also choosing the school. This is a crucial part of knowing that you have the support and resources that you need to succeed in your graduate career. What does this mean in practical terms?

Entrance Tests

Different countries/institutions can have different entrance test requirements. For example, many programs in the US require GRE scores whereas some countries have their own nationalized exam scores that need to be submitted as part of the application process.

You should be prepared to pay for standardized tests, admission fees, etc., including conversion fees, in your local currency. If transcripts need to be translated or converted to a different system, agencies that do this will require additional fees as well. This can be a very expensive process, so plan and save ahead! (is there a link or some resources for the translation agencies?)

Stage 3: Interviewing

If you are invited to an interview, remember that this is also an opportunity to interview the people who will be your future advisors and colleagues. Can you see them being kind and supportive?

Here is a YouTube playlist from Cornell's Diversity Preview Weekend that contains a ton of information about applying to graduate school, ranging from preparing application materials to navigating the interview process. While this event is aimed at domestic students in the US, a lot of the takeaways are equally applicable to international students as well, particularly the parts about the kinds of questions you can ask while interviewing.

International students often don't get flown out for recruitment weekends, where prospective students can visit the university campus they’re interested in and get a real-time feel of the location, people, etc. Talk to current graduate students, especially international students, in your program and find out what their daily lives are like. Are their stipends sufficient to cover rent and food? Do they have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet? This last point could be a red flag since student visas in the United States may not allow you to work off-campus, thus cutting off a potential source of income. If potential advisors or departments don’t offer to put you in touch with current students, ask! Many students will be happy to talk with you about their experiences, and you get to hear some truly invaluable perspectives.

The costs of funding a graduate program in a different country could also be weighing heavily on your mind. Having a funding plan is necessary for the security and well-being of every graduate student. This is a particularly important consideration if you’re an international student as it might be harder to fund yourself or obtain loans if financial support networks are sparse or non-existent in your country of study. While international students are typically ineligible for various federal scholarships and grants in many countries, some institutions have internal fellowships that you might be able to apply for. Familiarize yourself with any internal fellowship opportunities, and bring up these opportunities during Skype meetings or interviews with potential advisors. Failing availability of internal fellowships, here are two resources for external fellowships that allow you to filter your searches by citizenship status: the UCLA GRAPES database and a compilation of funding opportunities from Johns Hopkins University.

Stage 4: Pre-departure

Health and Immunizations. Many universities will require evidence of specific vaccinations, depending on the country you’re traveling from. As I was living in India before, I also had to get tested for tuberculosis. Bear in mind region-specific requirements and schedule a doctor’s visit well in advance.

Finances. Familiarize yourself with the banking system in your new country of residence. For example, building up a good credit history can be essential to things like renting apartments, obtaining loans etc. in the US. What will you need to do to ensure financial security? If financial assistance might be required from your family/home country, what is the best means to transfer money?

I’ve found this website helpful to improve my financial literacy and understand how to manage my stipend better. (Warning: it will be most useful for students living and working in the US).

Transportation. What will your mode of transport be? While some cities have good public transport infrastructure, others may need you to drive yourself around. As an international student, you may not always know this information before you arrive, but talk to current graduate students to figure out what strategies they use: can you get a bus/train pass? Do you have to pay for parking on campus? Do you need an international driver’s license?

Language. Do you have to learn a new language? Shanmugapriya Kannaiah, a PhD student in Israel, says “In the local markets or while using public transportation, an English-speaking person could survive but when it came to dealing with bureaucracy, all forms and papers were in Hebrew, so, I always needed an Israeli friend to get through the official process. It was not mandatory for me to learn Hebrew to pursue my studies, therefore, I did not learn Hebrew. I would advise my younger self to learn Hebrew. I'm sure it would have helped me socially and academically.” Her experience also emphasizes the importance of social networks, which you might have to intentionally create for yourself in your new city. While old friends and family will still be around through FaceTime or Skype, there is nothing quite like finding people who care about you in a new country.

DO's at your new school:

be upfront about money or lifestyle-related questions.

be realistic about your expectations while moving to another country

Give yourself enough time to adjust and learn, both academically and personally

Branch out of your comfort zone and making friends and trying things you haven’t tried before

Being an international student can be an incredibly rewarding experience: it exposes you to a new way of being and a new lifestyle, it affords opportunities for growth as a researcher and as a human being, it offers you the chance to meet people you wouldn’t have met otherwise, and it gives you a unique, big picture perspective on community, identity and world affairs.

It can also be a tricky and complicated adjustment, especially if you don’t have the right support systems in place or people who can help demystify the new academic and social culture you find yourself in. We hope this article will help you reap the benefits of an international education while mitigating any associated challenges.

About the Author:

Janani Hariharan is a PhD candidate at Cornell University. You can follow her on twitter @jananiharan.

Footnote: If you’re looking for first person narratives that describe the experience of being an international student in different countries, here's a non-comprehensive list: China to Canada, India to UK, USA to UK and South Korea to USA.

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