After five years of PhD work, Keerthiraju Ravichandran is finally nearing graduation from Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. Ravichandran, who is from India, is happy with his progress and excited by his future. But his doctoral programme posed obstacles that many of his colleagues never had to face. Whereas other students could focus on experiments and papers, Ravichandran had to expend huge amounts of time and mental energy on applying and reapplying for successive one-year visas to stay in the country. Each application took six to nine months to process, during which time he couldn’t travel to international conferences or take his samples to laboratories outside Poland for analysis. “That part of my experience was lost,” he says.
All told, he estimates, he could have graduated a year or two earlier if it weren’t for the hassles of immigrant life. “My project went well and I put in quite a lot of effort,” he says. “The only drawback is the bureaucratic process, and it’s been a nightmare.”
Ravichandran is one of the self-selected respondents who participated in Nature’s 2022 survey of graduate students, a global snapshot of the experiences and opinions of master’s and PhD students (see ‘Nature’s graduate student survey’). Twenty-nine per cent of the more than 3,250 respondents are international students studying outside their home countries. That’s a notable decline from the proportion in Nature’s pre-pandemic survey of 2019, the last time it was conducted, when 37% of respondents were international.
Through survey answers, free-text comments and follow-up interviews, international students express the pros and cons of studying far from home. They generally have reasons for optimism, but they also see barriers to their careers and their futures. “We could be doing better,” Ravichandran says.
A better life
The forces driving international mobility of graduate students are likely to grow only stronger in the coming years, says Chris Glass, a higher-education researcher at Boston College in Massachusetts. He says that global demand for higher-education degrees continues to grow, and that not all nations have the infrastructure in place to train students. According to the World Bank, a large number of countries — among them the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany and China — have increased their investment in research and numbers of full-time scientists in the past decade, boosting their appeal to graduate students trying to find a place to advance their education. “These macro trends are far bigger drivers than any kind of short-term shocks we might see from COVID,” says Glass, who reviewed the survey results.
Glass, who co-authored a 2021 study that tracked the academic experiences of international PhD recipients, acknowledges that mobility has its challenges (M. Hou et al. Int. Stud. Sociol. Educ. 30, 306–324; 2021). COVID-19-related travel restrictions, visa hassles and anti-immigrant political rhetoric in their adopted countries have soured the experiences of many international students, he says. “Those sorts of things do weigh on students’ minds,” he says.
Despite the challenges, 65% of international students in Nature’s survey say that they are satisfied with their programmes, a rate that puts them slightly ahead of domestic students (61%; see ‘International scholars’). International students often appreciate the facilities, equipment and funding that domestic students might take for granted, Ravichandran says. He completed his bachelor’s degree in India, where, he says, students had to compete fiercely to advance. “We have resources [in Europe] that you can’t even dream of in India. We aren’t as pressurized.”
Erika Murce, a PhD student at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, says that she’s satisfied with her programme half a world away from her home country of Brazil. She notes that her group, which uses radiochemistry to label proteins, is highly international, starting with its principal investigator, who is from France. She says that she left Brazil partly because the pay for PhD students in that country is “horrible”, but also because there are no Brazilian academics pursuing her preferred research field. Looking at the bigger picture, she knew she needed to change countries to move forward. “My parents always encouraged me to try to have a better life, to study abroad, to try something out,” she says.
When asked to choose from a list of reasons for studying abroad, 49% of international students identify the chance to experience another culture. Other common incentives include a lack of funding opportunities in their home country (45%), more job opportunities post-study (44%) and a lack of quality graduate programmes at home (37%).
International students are a diverse group with many different goals and aspirations, says Lizhou Wang, a PhD student at Boston College who studies the experiences of international students. (Glass is on Wang’s thesis committee.) As part of her dissertation, Wang has interviewed dozens of students who came from Asia to Massachusetts to study at Boston College, Harvard University in Cambridge and other nearby institutions. “For them, it’s less about cultural experiences and more about future opportunities,” she says. “They envision themselves to be doctors, scientists, lawyers and professors.”
International students often face hardships, including discrimination, as they pursue those lofty goals. In the survey, 26% of international students say that they have experienced discrimination or harassment during their studies, compared with 17% of domestic students. Among that subset of international students, 53% say that their mistreatment is racially based. (Editor’s note: Nature will examine the issues of racial discrimination in a future article.) Wang says she hasn’t noticed much discrimination in her university ‘bubble’. “Taking the subway in New York City is a different story,” she says.
Ravichandran says that he senses a strong anti-immigrant sentiment whenever he heads to the Polish immigration office to renew his one-year visa. “I don’t think they like international students being there,” he says. “They keep asking for the same documents over and over. They don’t believe in the documents that I provided.”
‘I don’t want this kind of life’: graduate students question career options
Survey respondent Xiangkun Cao, who is from China and started a postdoctoral position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge this year, says he encountered a faculty member during graduate school who would ridicule students for their English. He says that even students who had already earned master’s or undergraduate degrees at universities in the United States, including himself, were subject to over-the-top criticism of pronunciation and grammar. “One of my colleagues quit because he couldn’t take it any more,” Cao says. He recounted some of his experiences as an international student, including his search for role models and mentors, in a 2021 essay (X. E. Cao Matter 4, 332–335; 2021) .
Cao says that international students are often at a severe disadvantage as they try to advance their training and careers. In the United States, for example, many graduate-school fellowships are available only to US citizens and permanent residents. “International students don’t even have a chance,” he says. “We just want to be able to compete. I would encourage more [funding] agencies to open their doors to us. They would get a bigger pool.”
Finances are a struggle for many international students, Wang says. “There are very rich students who don’t really care about money, and there are other students who really need financial support,” she says.