Some notes on the transcription…

I wanted to provide a transcript of The PhD Life Raft podcast episodes to make the material more accessible.

I have used an automated transcription service to produce this document. These, as we all know, are not 100% accurate. Please excuse the odd typos and grammatical mis-translations. I hope that you will find the documentation of this conversation useful.    

You can find the full interview here: https://thephdliferaft.libsyn.com/

Emma  

Okay, okay. Hello, Vicki. Hello, Vicki.

Vicky  

Hello, Emma,

Emma  

so lovely to have you here. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Vicky  

My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

Emma  

So, today we’re going to be talking about you literally went on a journey with your PhD because you literally decided to go out into the US to study and we’re going to talk about that in terms of, of the kind of the desire to do that but also the kind of the particular logistical practical challenges that you had to to navigate and I know you’ve got a load of great information to share on that. And so we’re gonna get into that in a minute. But first of all, I’m just going to invite you to say a little bit about the kind of the bigger picture what brought you to PhD study and tell us a little bit about that journey.

Vicky  

Gladly, so I’m going to start by saying that when I did my undergrad in math and started, I actually had no idea what research was, I finished my bachelor’s degree thinking that university professors were basically like, high school teachers only teaching more advanced mathematics, for example. So my first exposure to research was doing my master’s program and my thesis for that program, and I had a lot of fun with it, but I wasn’t yet sure if this is a path I want to take. So I went back home to Greece. This is where this is where I’m from. I can take a teaching mathematics for a little bit. And then I was continually thinking back to my experience with my masters. And I was like, Well, I actually really enjoyed working on that project. So maybe, since I’m still thinking about it, this is an indication that I should dive deeper into research and explore what that might look like for me. And that’s how I decided to pursue a doctorate in mathematics education and keep exploring that space.

Emma  

Stuff I love that came from a kind of a desire something ignited in you. Yes, I want to I want to see how that goes on. It’s a follow that through. So you you had that sense of wanting to explore and curiosity intellectual curiosity, which we love, we’re all about here. And and then you made some decisions about where you might like to go. So can you tell us a little bit about that?

Vicky  

Yes. Just to give a bit of a more general context, I am from Greece. I did my undergrad in Greece. Then I did my masters in England, and then I moved back to Greece. At the time. Greece was not doing so well. And I tried finding a full time job that I couldn’t actually do. So my first choice at the time was to start the PhD program in Greece while I was still looking for a full time position, right so I applied I actually started volunteering with a professor at the University as a research assistant. Then an opportunity came up for within your project and I applied and I got accepted into the program. And then for more than five months, I couldn’t actually enrolled in the program, because there were ongoing strikes, personnel strikes at the university.

Emma  

Right.

Vicky  

And during that time, and while I was waiting to be enrolled, my partner told me that he was invited to apply for a PhD in the US because he has been collaborating with a professor there and he’s advisor in Greece. And at first we were like, Well, okay, I already admitted I’m going to start here. You can move there and you know, if it works out, once I have all my data collected and everything and I don’t need to be at this specific place, right. Maybe I will move over with you. But then I couldn’t start the program. And you know, the months went by and eventually I was like, Well, I haven’t started I might as well start applying to the US as well. It doesn’t look like I know when I might start here.

Emma  

Well, I love that and what what a story about how, you know, PhD study and the rest of our lives really intermingle. There’s a real sense of that the life decisions sometimes are the ones that take us forward. Okay, so then what happens tell us the next witness story? Yes. So

Vicky  

if you cannot tell already, but what I have shared about my background, I did not really know people who had done a PhD before besides my university professors, so I didn’t really have anyone to guide me through the process of applying. I only knew about the most popular universities in the US. And so those were the places I started sending applications to, like I knew about Harvard, for example. And I knew about Stanford sounds like okay, these are the universities I know of love it. Let’s see if it works.

Emma  

Love it.

Vicky  

They started sending applications. I also was talking to some of my friends at the time, who mentioned two or three more universities they were aware of including Tufts University, or UPenn. And I searched their programs, I have found some opportunities with faculty that I could potentially work with. And I decided to send applications to these universities as well. I ended up sending I think, seven applications. Rice,

Emma  

rice and then

Vicky  

yes, and then I was blissfully unaware of what I didn’t know. I was actually invited to interview for three of the four universities I applied to and bad accepted into two of the programs. One of them was attached University, which is where I ended up starting. Yes, and the other one was a teacher scholars.

Emma  

And so what made you choose tufts?

Vicky  

Yes. It wasn’t that hard of a decision to be honest. The interview I had had with my advisor at Tufts was lovely. I really enjoyed talking with her and it looked like it was gonna be a really nice relationship moving forward. So that played a big role. And of course, the deciding factor was actually opportunity for funding during the whole process of applying and connecting with other applicants. One of them in one of our conversations had said that, you know, it’s a PhD, I wouldn’t do a PhD unless I was paid for it. It’s actual work. So you really shouldn’t do a PhD, unless you’re paid for it. And one offer had funding attached to it, the other offer didn’t, and the person with the funding would also way more friendly and approachable. So I went with Tufts, okay,

Emma  

so kind of it kind of made sense kind of a sense. And, as we’d say, a little bit of a no brainer. But I think what I just before we move on to finances because that will be I’ve know people will be interested to know a bit more about that. The sense of you were saying not knowing about that application process and how that is, is there anything you particularly just if people were thinking of doing, you know, applying to the US or anything particular that you encourage people to think about in that application process?

Vicky  

Yes. I think it’s really important to have a sense of what you’d like to study. Even if it’s not formulated just have a general sense of the area that you’re interested in exploring more and then go through the websites of the universities you’re considering. Look at faculty. Look at their more recent publications or projects that they might have running and reach out to them. Sometimes people are too busy and they might not respond. But other times they will actually respond to you and making that first contact, sharing your ideas. Listening to play their ideas, and exploring whether that might be a good match is really important, not only for you as an applicant to you know, have a sense of what the space is that you might find yourself in the future if you decide to apply, but also for the potential advisor you’re reaching out to, to get a better sense of whether they can actually support you. Sometimes people change their focus in their research and that is okay. And might not yet be reflected on what is on their website. So it’s important to know that there is potentially a good match between you two. Yes,

Emma  

and I think we talk about this a lot on the podcast this relationship this working relationship which you have with your supervisory team is so important. And I think to remember that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. I think this is really really important. Brilliant. So now then back to finances, which is which is so important. So it’s really fundamental. And you mentioned that you’re you were offered some funding with that, but I know you’ve got some other ideas in terms of funding and how you can support yourself financially. So tell us a little bit about that.

Vicky  

Yes. Typically, all PhD programs in the US are structured a little bit differently in the sense that they have a heavy course for taking components I guess at the beginning, so you take courses, as if you’re in a master’s program, and then you transition to the actual research part. And depending on your field that sometimes comes with opportunities to be a teaching assistant either in your program or adjacent programs. So there are usually opportunities for getting assistance slips that can cover usually most of your tuition and health insurance fees because these are also on top of everything else, and offer you a small monthly stipend that can go towards life expenses. Yes, they’re limited research assistantships. And depending again on the field of study, this can be very limited, whereas somewhat limited and these are usually originated directly with your advisor because the funding comes from individual projects most often and so they would be the best to know if such opportunities might be available. The other thing that is really important to remember is that if you go to the US as an international student, like I was, there is additional tuition. You need to say in those assistantships, either teaching or research did not typically cover that additional tuition. But it is a considerable amount. Yes. Sometimes, if you work as a research assistant, your advisor might have been proactive, or your PI might have been proactive in their budget, and they might be able to cover the additional tuition teaching assistants sips almost never cover that part. So this is something to keep in mind. Plan ahead, if possible, or know that you might need to apply for additional funding that could cover those expenses.

Emma  

Yes, yes. And I know its own is not only financially that is it’s trickier as an international student, and could you talk to us a little bit about kind of visas and that kind of thing? Yeah,

Vicky  

it’s usually like the opportunities for external Fellowships are fewer for international students. Sometimes your home country might be offering some fellowships for you to study abroad. And those might actually be your best bet to cover the additional expenses. scholarships that are offered within the US and that are open to international students are usually highly competitive and really hard to to get even with multiple attempts. There is also there are restrictions on the work you can do. As international students, you can only work for the university and for certain hours every semester. You can work more hours over the summer, but it needs to be again part of the University System securing internships is more tricky, I guess. So that is also something to keep in mind.

Emma  

So there’s a lot of additional paperwork if there wasn’t enough paperwork on the PhD, yet a lot of additional paperwork, but this presumably there are real benefits. So and what what did what did you experience as the benefits of of this as well, you know, being with your partner or received but well,

Vicky  

funnily enough, we didn’t end up in the same city and for the first two years, we weren’t in the same state in the US. But then my advisor, moved to another university and I really loved working with her so I decided to follow her and apply to and second University and start over. So then we found ourselves on different states, one on the East Coast. And the other one on the West Coast. Oh, wow. You know, we’re still in the same country, but not that close. But there were things I really really enjoyed. I found I found it much easier actually to create communities, amongst other students in the places I ended up studying. These were mostly communities between international students in those faces, so not necessarily many were US citizens or permanent residents in the US. Although, I will say that three of my closest friends in this journey were actually from the US. So there is that general my big takeaway is that I had the opportunities to be part of communities that felt really supportive. Even if that support was, you know, struggling together, like not feeling alone in this process,

Emma  

right? Because I think being an international student kind of puts you out there straightaway, doesn’t it? And I think that there is a different experience that can happen and can come from that in terms of, as you say, making connections being open to support and I am so pleased that you found found your squad. That sounds very, very good.

Vicky  

There is sorry there’s one more thing that I would like to find out as because I think it’s actually quite important. When I first started my program there, it was very strange to me because of the structure of taking classes at the beginning I was coming into the program thinking that I am actually ready to do a research project, having had the educational experiences I’ve had in Europe. And so having to take classes and not being able to work on a research proposal, for example, for the first years felt frustrating to me at the beginning. There is also a lot of ways in which instruction was happening in those classes felt foreign to me. It was much more collaborative. We were being asked to talk to each other all the time to think on the spot a lot to work on short presentations in class and present during the class. And for me, all of that was uncomfortable at the beginning. I had never been taught in that way before. And I felt that I was never offered enough time to actually think through the topic. And be able to come up with something that was worth sharing. Okay, I am gonna say all these years and training later, I actually really appreciate that opportunity. That was there for me. At the beginning. Because even though it made me very unprofitable at first, I think it’s one of the things that really supported me later on, to not be afraid to reach out and talk to people and share ideas that were still underdeveloped and just I was just thinking through them and I felt comfortable. You know, being in a place and saying, Well, this is what I’ve thought so far. Can we talk about it and maybe you can help me make progress with with it.

Emma  

Oh, I love that. I love that in terms of this true sense of conference and this sense of collaboration. Brilliant, but as you say quite a different way of of learning and I think being aware because even going from Department of IT department can be very different but going into a whole new educational system. Can be real culture shock really can. I’m aware of time decay. And I know we’ve touched on such good stuff here in terms of that application process in terms of finances in terms of cultural differences, and what that might mean and I wonder out of all of that. Whether there’s a top tip that you could share, or top tips indeed, for people to take away with them.

Vicky  

Yes, I think really, a PhD is a journey and it’s very much a learning journey. So my tip would be that wherever you find yourself, and especially if you find yourself in a foreign country. Be aware and keep in mind differences in culture and norms of communication, whether that’s everyday culture or academic culture. Because allowing yourself to recognize those differences and reflect on them not only helps you navigate that space a bit more productively, I would say but it also makes you as a researcher much stronger in your skills to you know, really identify what is going on and how this might be affecting you or others in the future. Oh,

Emma  

that’s cool. Just in the sense of the kind of the meta journey that’s going on, around and within your within your studies. Vicki, thank you so much for this. I know that you’re still traveling, you’re still on journeys, you’re in Austria now is that right?

Vicky  

Yes, that is correct. I currently on my if I haven’t lost count country of residing, studying and working. think

Emma  

is brilliant. I mean, often people talk about the PhD as a passport to literally be able to travel and it is fantastic. the scholarly community is a global one. And there definitely is opportunity to travel with that and you are testament to that. So thank you very much for being with us here and for sharing some of those experiences. Of course.

Vicky  

Thank you for having me. This is lovely.

Emma  

Thank you and thank you all for listening. Thank you