Don’t fear British sarcasm – and other advice for overseas postgrads

Moving countries for a degree is a formidable challenge but it’s immensely rewarding. Here are some lessons I learned

Students outside university building

‘I was warned that the British are stand-offish, prim and take offence at the slightest social misstep.’ Photograph: University of Glasgow

In my year group as a postgraduate, I saw half of the non-UK students drop out. This far exceeded the class’s drop-out rate for UK students. It helps put into context the scale of the challenges that international students face in coming to the UK to do a postgrad degree. Having recently faced those challenges myself, I have some advice.

Making friends is easier than you think

As I prepared to emigrate to the UK, I was repeatedly warned that the British are standoffish, prim and take offence at the slightest social misstep. These cautionary tales were reinforced by funny articles insisting that the British use words to say the opposite of what they mean. As a result, I remained silent and petrified during my first few months.

It’s best to dispel this ridiculous stereotype at once. This is not to say that every Briton wants to be your best friend, but neither are they likely to murder you for adding both lemon and milk to your tea. (They may do for queue jumping, though.)

That said, you might find it helpful to befriend fellow non-UK postgrads, as they are probably in a similar situation and equally eager to make new friends. Some postgraduate programmes actively support such connections by running mentorship programmes.

Don’t blame yourself

Unless you are superhuman, the going will get tough. Completing a master’s or PhD is a gargantuan task under the best of circumstances. You will have to manage everything involved in settling in the UK: keeping up with immigration bureaucracy; finding somewhere to live; opening a bank account; registering with the NHS; arranging travel cards for public transport; maybe managing a language barrier; probably hunting for and holding down a part-time job. If you are self-funded at the overseas rate, you will also be burdened by the knowledge that you are paying an enormous amount for your degree.

It is perfectly natural, even unavoidable, that at times you will feel overwhelmed, anxious and even depressed. Talk to your international colleagues and you will likely discover that they share your anxieties.

You have much to learn, but still more to teach

One of the big differences between international students who pursue an undergraduate degree in the UK, and those who come for the first time to do a postgraduate degree, is their starting position. Every undergrad knows nothing about higher education, and their degrees are structured and paced accordingly. This is not the case for postgraduate degrees. You may well find yourself envious of students who have studied in this system before, who know the inside track and might even be on a first-name basis with staff.

Be prepared to unlearn some habits you acquired at your home institution, and to adopt some of the unfamiliar ways of UK universities. But don’t abandon your academic background entirely. I often found I had the advantage of a fresh perspective or a rare piece of knowledge. So don’t be afraid to speak up.

Plan ahead for your career

There are different steps you should take during your postgraduate studies, depending on whether you intend to return to your country of origin or stay on in the UK to work. Either way, planning ahead is crucial.

If you intend to return, you should maintain professional as well as social ties with your home country. These include presenting at conferences back home, and returning for work experience or internships. You may not feel it yet, but postgraduate studies in the UK can earn you a fair amount of respect.

If you intend to stay, cement connections with contacts in the UK. On top of all that, make sure you research the UK immigration rules that apply to your country of origin. If you come from a country outside the EU or commonwealth, staying in the UK might prove difficult. Many graduate-level jobs can be too poorly paid to sponsor work visas.

Finally, allow yourself a moment of pride for making a courageous decision. For an international student, completing a UK postgrad degree is a formidable challenge, but it is immensely rewarding. It will, quite simply, change your life. How and in what way is largely up to you.

Follow Guardian Students on Twitter: @GdnStudents. For graduate career opportunities, take a look at Guardian Jobs.

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