Dylan: Being an international student can be daunting. A student’s journey into the academic world is already a challenge with networking, publishing, and the ‘student experience’. When you are an international student, a whole new set of challenges arise. Language, socialising, local culture, all can be brand new things for international students to encounter when studying abroad for the first time. There are dozens of reasons why one would move to another country to study, and the accompanying hurdles are all part of the experience that makes it so unforgettable.
Becoming a confident international student is a gradual process, something to build up towards as you spend more and more time in your chosen location. Every student has their own pace of breaking out of their shell and fully embracing the international student experience. The COVID pandemic has shaken up the university experience worldwide, but there are still many ways to grow confident in your academic journey. For example, with the rise of online seminars and internet communication, discussing academic topics with people far away has become more prominent than ever. Nor has the full impact of the UK separating from the EU yet to be felt in universities, by students and staff, but let's hope that not too many opportunities for study exchanges and inter-university collaboration are lost as a result of Brexit.
Communication and confidence are key to the international student experience, but as mentioned, every student’s experience is unique and can differ wildly! Here to discuss their journeys as international students in the UK are Jordon Houston from New Zealand, studying his PhD at the School of Advanced Study in London, and Cristiana Lucidi from Italy, working on her PhD at the University of Roehampton.
Joey: Quick introduction: please tell us a little about yourself and where/what you study.
Hey, I am Jordon Houston. I am from New Zealand and did my bachelor’s and master’s (in Roman Republican Numismatics) degrees at the University of Auckland. I am currently in the fourth year of my PhD studying at the Institute of Classical Studies, which is part of the School of Advanced Study in London and planning on submitting my thesis in January. My PhD looks at the organisation and financing of entertainment outside Rome during the Imperial Period (1st to 3rd centuries AD more specifically). I reconstruct and compare the infrastructures of gladiatorial combat, beast-hunts, chariot racing, and agonistic festivals to demonstrate that there was a degree of globalisation and localisation taking place in the Empire during this period.
Hey, I am Cristiana Lucidi and I come from Italy, where I got both my BA and MA in Classics at the University of Macerata. After my MA, I decided to take a gap year in order to improve my English before moving to London. I am enrolled with the University of Roehampton and I am currently on my third year. My PhD project, which focuses on the ideal of a beautiful death in Euripidean tragedy, is both multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary, since it is characterised by an approach that is not only literary and philological, but also sociological, anthropological, and political. In addition, it also moves from gender studies, queer studies, and military theory. The principal aim of my work is to give a comprehensive analysis of the ‘beautiful death’ as it emerges from Euripides’ plays.
Joey: What factors led you to decide to study at your respective university in the UK? How did you find your supervisor?
Jordon: I always knew that I would have to go overseas for my PhD, in New Zealand it is the main piece of advice that Classics postgrads are given. Europe and America are closer to resources and where all the action is happening. So, towards the end of my master’s degree, I was already researching and applying for universities in the UK and Ireland. I initially planned to study at Trinity College in Dublin, however, my master’s supervisor had suggested that I get in touch with a Professor from his old university, just to have another option on the table.
I was only able to email him at first and from those messages I could sense how enthusiastic he was and the fact that he was already planning meetings to talk about resources six months before I was even meant to begin researching, officially, was a promising sign to me. I was committed to studying at the Institute of Classical Studies in London rather than in Dublin after those first emails. It was the right choice for me, and I have had such a good time. Whenever I talk to master’s students who are thinking of doing a PhD, I always reference those early emails to stress how important it is for people to consider the supervisor/student dynamic. In my opinion, it is just as much as the prestige of the institute or the resources available.
Cristiana: I decided to study at the University of Roehampton exclusively because I wanted to keep on working with Marco Fantuzzi, who is currently my supervisor. He is one of the most brilliant and respected scholars of Euripides, plus I had the privilege to attend his Greek Literature and Greek Grammar courses respectively during my BA and MA in Italy. He was my master’s thesis supervisor and, one year after my graduation, he suggested I try to enrol at the University of Roehampton because he wanted to help me develop the potential of the project I had in mind.
Joey: What advice would you give a first-year postgrad regarding professional networking? Are there any organisations that you would recommend they join?
Jordon: I would say the biggest piece of advice I could give first years is to just do it! Too often I hear other PhD students saying that they do not know how to approach or meet academics, it is important to remember that they are people too and they are probably just as excited about classical studies as us postgrads are, if not more. In my experience, if you want to get somebody’s opinion the easiest way is just to email them. As long as you are courteous and make it clear exactly what you are emailing about, most people are more than happy to email back. I have also had academics get in touch with me after hearing about me from people I had emailed for a one-off question.
The same rules apply to in-person networking. Many academics are excited to find out what postgrads are doing and sometimes they are even happy to go out of their way to provide you with opportunities that you would not have otherwise had the chance to be a part of. Just make sure to have an elevator pitch of your research that is to the point and really highlights what makes your work exciting.
Cristiana: When I moved to London in September 2018, I knew nobody except for my supervisor. He immediately suggested that I work at the ICS. It took me a while to find the courage to approach other researchers, but eventually I met those who are now not only colleagues, but also good friends. They introduced me to the ICS Postgraduate Work in Progress, a seminar series focused on Postgraduates which I am currently co-chairing. During my second year and the first half of my third year I gave papers at many work-in-progress seminars and attended several conferences in the UK, broadening my academic connections, and meeting researchers and professors from all over the world. Thus, my first suggestion is to go study in a library instead of staying home, since it is a privileged occasion where you can easily meet older PhD students who can introduce you to the academic environment.
Secondly, it is fundamental to stay informed about seminars and conferences you can attend, to both become an active part of the academic environment and widen your working connections. You also need to find the courage to give your own papers without any fear of being judged by either your peers or scholars. Indeed, giving a paper is vital not only to receive substantial feedback and reconsider/improve some aspects of your research, but also to let your academic environment know that you are validly contributing to your field.
Joey: Are there any services you think a student should exploit as soon as possible? I am thinking getting a membership to the British Library or the ICS Library for example.
Jordon: If you are London-based, memberships to both the ICS library and the British Library are essential! Between these two libraries, you will have access to 99% of the sources you would ever need. But the nice thing about London is all the other libraries, I have spent quite a bit of time at the Warburg library and is invaluable if you deal with anything art related. Another excellent library in London is the Senate House Library. While it can be a bit of a labyrinth at times, the vast array of resources they have available really helps.
Another service which I wished I had used earlier was the school’s career advisors. If you have access at your university, I recommend setting up an appointment. They can help you explore options, work on a CV, and teach you how to best advertise yourself on the job market. Even if you are only in your first or second year of your PhD, if you have an idea of the sort of career you want to pursue after postgrad, then you should start building those marketable skills now.
Cristiana: The first thing you should do is to subscribe to the Liverpool Classics Mailing List, thanks to which you are constantly made aware of seminars and conferences you can attend either as a spectator or as a speaker. I also agree that memberships to both the ICS and the British Library are fundamental.
Joey: To address the elephant in the room, how has COVID-19 and lockdowns affected your studies and personal life as an international student?
Jordon: Fortunately for me, I had just started doing my Write-up year in March last year, so I have come off unscathed since I spent most of 2020 writing and editing my research. But this does not mean I have completely bypassed all the stresses of being a Research Student under lockdown, there were times where I had to get creative. One of the best skills I have learnt over the past year is the power of “Effective Googling” to get access to particular books that my university can’t provide digitally. I remember at one point I was even using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to follow up a reference from an article I had read.
I have found that simply sending academics polite emails explaining my situation to be one of the most effective methods of accessing resources that I would usually find at the library. London’s postgraduate scene is also very supportive. Having so many universities in such a small area means that you get to know a lot of students from different schools over the years and I have made use of those contacts to get a hold of books when I could not find them through my usual avenues.
Personally, I have seen a much bigger change. Not being able to study in the same libraries as my friends means that I have not been able to go to as many after-work pub and banter sessions. Thankfully, we live in a time when social media and communication is so accessible, so I have been making plenty of use of Facebook, WhatsApp, and Zoom to keep in touch with my usual support base. It does not replace the real deal but is better than nothing!
Cristiana: Covid-19 has hit me hard from both an academic and a psychological point of view. In fact, at the beginning of 2020, after one year and a half in the UK, I had finally found the perfect balance between my personal life and my career, my hobbies and my work. I was working hard and producing quality pieces of scholarship, I had been asked to teach at the UCL Summer School, and my paper for the CA in Swansea had just been accepted.
In addition, despite being far away, the relationship with my family had substantially improved thanks to my professional satisfaction since my sense of frustration and usefulness has always had a heavy impact on them. The period between March and August was tough. I managed to work, but I could not keep at pace with my schedule. I missed my daily routine in London and I could not find any stimulus nor motivation. I felt like I was forced to take a long interruption against my will, feeling which made me very nervous, anxious, and depressed. It was a relief for me to finally go back to London in September.
It is true that things were not the same as when I had to leave, but that was still the right environment to be productive. When I am in London, my work is my main responsibility, plus, I can focus only to myself and I do not have to adapt my needs to those of the people around me. I must admit that I am finding extremely challenging to deal with the current circumstances. Being stuck in Italy and having no idea when I will be able to go back to London prevents me from making plans and respecting my working schedule. In addition, it undermines the relationship with my family since my impatience and dissatisfaction are unfairly poured upon them. I also miss my everyday life in London, first and foremost meeting my colleagues and spending time in the library. I hope I will be able to find a new balance, because I am afraid that this situation is not going to change soon. In any case, I am still motivated and willing to finish my PhD: it may take longer, but it is still worth the effort.
Joey: What have been the most memorable parts about being a postgrad in the UK?
Jordon: I think the most memorable part of being a postgrad in the UK is the sheer number of people I have met and experiences that I have had that would not have been available to me back in New Zealand. If you are ready to get into the thick of it, you can really get involved in lots of exciting stuff here, all of which look great on a CV.
Cristiana: Coming from Italy, I would never have expected famous scholars and professors to treat me as a colleague and even compliment me when attending or speaking at conferences. This raised my self-esteem substantially and made me realise that I am worthy of being a researcher. I am also very proud of chairing the ICS Postgraduate Work in Progress, which is putting to the test my sense of responsibility and my organisational and social skills. In general, my biggest achievement was to grow both academically and personally. I have become aware of the value of what I am doing and proud of the person I am. Nevertheless, the PhD is a never-ending series of ups and downs.
Joey: What is the single best advice you can give an international student moving to the UK?
Jordon: Get to know the city you are moving to and do not be afraid to meet new people, both at university and out in public. Burn-out was a real problem for me early on in my PhD in London. Since I did not know anyone, I often did not have anything else to do on weekends other than watch movies, play video games or research. You can end up feeling exhausted and just in general not so great about packing up and leaving everything and everyone you have ever known to study on the other side of the world.
My solution to this was to make sure to carve out 2 days each week to have to myself. Whether that be just sitting in my tiny student residence and watch movies or spend the day walking around London and getting to know the city. By being strict on this one aspect really improved my overall outlook on life. This is not so much a problem once you have established a solid friend group that you can spend time with, but early on you should make a conscious effort to take some time off.
Cristiana: My only advice is to never give up when facing problems which seem insurmountable and always ask for help when you feel like you cannot make it. Every time you feel lonely, homesick, worthless, anxious, and depressed, just remember that many of us have been in the same situation at least once during their PhD. I can confirm from my personal experience that PhD students in the UK are a cohesive community, always ready to help you when you are in dire straits and give you precious advice. So, whether you are struggling with personal or work-related problems, do not hesitate to share your worries and concerns with your colleagues, especially the more experienced ones. They will not solve your problems for you, but they will certainly support you and renew your motivation.