Adjusting to American Grad School

Information compiled by the team - last updated August 2010

Moving to a new country can be a very stressful experience, and going there to attend graduate school only compounds the process. After all, this is not a vacation you're here for, so on top of all the normal difficulties associated with moving abroad, you will have graduate level schoolwork added to the mix. And if you're not careful, it could become overwhelming.

With the right attitude, however, attending graduate school can actually make adjusting to your new home easier. It's just a matter of attitude, a willingness to open yourself up to new experiences, and your ability to bend to a new culture. So while the following suggestions are certainly not solutions to all the problems you may encounter, they are sure to help. And the philosophy behind them is generally applicable to most of the stresses you will experience as you adjust to life as an American graduate student.

Just remember: it's more than possible, and it's extremely rewarding.

Remember who you are, but stay open to everyone else

Who we are is very much a product of where we've been raised and spent most of our lives. A person who was raised in the United States would likely have a very different outlook on the world, and a very different way of doing things, if he were raised in Russia or France or Namibia instead. It is widely accepted that much of who we are is determined not by intrinsic internalities but rather by the accumulated experience of having lived in a specific place at a specific time. In other words, though we are who we are no matter where we're from, the details of how we go about our lives are very much determined by the culture in which we have always lived.

And this is one of the most difficult and complicated parts of living in a foreign country: We remain who we are, but the cultural references that we have always used to order our lives are missing. Which means that, in order to ease the adjustment period, you should do everything you can to accept your new country's way of doing things. Don't forget your ways, of course, and don't ever pretend to be someone or something you're not, but by adapting your normal routines to those that are accepted in your host country, you will ease the transition tremendously.

One of the best ways to start adapting is by trying to eat like the residents of your host country. For students attending graduate school in the United States, the first thing they may realize is the way Americans eat. Indeed, especially for Western Europeans, whose cultures generally consider mealtime to be a somewhat sacred time in the day that should be extended, savored, and lingered over, it can be rather difficult to adjust to the American way of eating. Except for rare occasions, eating in America is a quick affair. The two-hour lunch almost never occurs in America, and it is considered bad form to drink in the middle of the day. This is perhaps a result of our Puritan roots, or due to the constant pressure to perform and to get as much accomplished in as short a period of time as possible. Or it's just because there's something good on TV and we have to hurry up and finish our food so we can fully enjoy it. Whatever the reason, try not to confuse the way Americans eat with a disregard for the small pleasures. It is simply a different way of doing things, and you may even discover somewhere along the line that there is a certain amount of enjoyment to be gained from the American way of eating, regardless of how different it is from what you're used to.

Also, once you've made friends, you may want to invite them over to your residence for a traditional meal from your home country. This will not only allow you to host your new friends, but it will also serve to bridge whatever culture gap may exist. And a little taste of home always helps.

Learn to love the language 

Most foreign graduate students speak a textbook version of English. There's nothing wrong with this-it's simply how English is taught around the world. In fact, it's how most languages are taught. And while this will certainly prepare you for the more formalized type of discourse employed in graduate studies, it will not prepare you for the many variations of it that are employed in informal interactions. For example, you may have learned that the proper English-language greeting is "Hello. It is a pleasure to meet you." In reality, however, Americans are a distinctly casual people, and you may be surprised to discover that the vast majority simply greet each other with nothing more than, "Hey, how are you?" or even, "What's up?" This is not disrespectful, and it is not an indication that you are being brushed off. Rather, informality like this can and should be seen as a sign of acceptance. And indeed, the proper response, "Good. How are you?" or "Nothing much, you?" is informal as well. You'll become more comfortable with this as you continually adjust to life in the United States.

One of the best ways to really learn the English language is through popular culture. Chances are you've already spent some time listening to American music or watching American movies. And now that you're here to attend school for an extended period of time, you should take even greater advantage of this opportunity. Remember, the more you can use the language in the same was as Americans do, the easier time you'll have communicating and fitting in. And that will make your time here even easier and more enjoyable.

Don't get overwhelmed with your school work 

Graduate school is stressful in the best of situations. Indeed, working at this high a level in your specific field is both highly rewarding and extremely demanding. On top of all this is the fact that you're living in a new country, and trying to adjust to a new way of life. So it is not uncommon to feel overwhelmed at times. In fact, it would be a bit odd if you didn't feel the strain at some point-it's one of the natural effects of transitioning to life in a new country.

Therefore, it's important to make time for yourself. Remember, it is not possible to study all the time, nor is it advisable to lock yourself in the library 24 hours a day and do nothing but work. You'll burn out, and as a result, you won't get anything accomplished. So while you're here for school, you should still explore this country. Try to make friends. Go to restaurants. Enjoy the city or town in which you're living. Join clubs on campus or in your new community. Whatever you do, make sure you take time out for yourself. In the long term, you'll be glad you did. And your education will not just have occurred in the classroom, but in the larger world, too. And you will be a better, more interesting person for having allowed that to happen. Plus, you're bound to have some fun along the way.


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