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Should I move countries for a PhD?


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Hi all,

I am a currently an undergrad psych student who hopes to one day do their psychology PhD on treating psychopathology/trauma in ethnic minority communities and reducing racial disparities in mental health. The problem is the country I am in (Australia) doesn't have a lot of research/supervisors available in my interested area while the United States (the West Coast specifically) offer PhD programs with faculty that specialise in ethnic minority psychology and generally has more academic resources available (such as a Journal of Ethnic Minority Psychology). Basically while what I want is doable in Australia, it is much more advanced/established in the States.

I am looking for advice/information on exactly how solid the benefits are regarding relocating to the States for a PhD as I unfortunately don't know a lot about how institutions can affect your career. In terms of costs, I would have to break off a long-term relationship I have here and start as an international student, which carries its own inconveniences, so I really want to find out if moving is really 'worth it' so to speak. I would really appreciate any advice since this is a pretty distressing situation.


Edited by Dirtwitch
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Moving to another country comes with the obvious difficulties that you might imagine -- it's a new culture, education system, etc. You won't have the language barrier that many international students have, but still, you'll have to figure out everything from the currency and tipping and the banking system to which brand of toilet paper you like, and everything in between. You won't have a credit history, you'll be away from your family and friends, you'll be in a new health system that might not be obvious, and at the same time you'll be starting a PhD program and will need to figure that out, too. It's a lot, but it's something that a lot of people successfully navigate every year. If you do get admitted to a PhD program, you'll also get funding that should be sufficient to live on, so that doesn't need to be a concern. 

I'm not sure what you mean by what the benefits would be; you'll be a funded PhD student, presumably in a good program that can support your research interests and train you for your chosen career. If you want to have a career in academia, you'll need to think about whether you'll want to have that back home or somewhere else, and then I'd suggest looking at the website of the relevant universities and seeing who they have hired recently and where they got their degrees from. If you want to go into practice, you'll need to figure out certification. I would imagine that there is a process, but it may take some time or require some local examinations. That's definitely something to figure out before making any decisions. 

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I'm from Canada, so a move to the US wasn't as far for me as it would be for you and most other international students. The two main reasons why I chose to go to the US for my PhD programs are:

1) When I look at the professors hired at the top schools in my general field in Canada, they all have PhDs or did 1-2 postdocs at top US schools.

2) When I look at the top researchers doing work in my subfield, they all reside in the US. Not only that, in 2011, when I was applying to PhD programs, there were zero active research programs in the subfield I wanted to work on in Canada. (My subfield is very young and experienced huge increases in popularity in 1995 and again in 2009).

Choosing to go for Reason #2 was a little risky. I was betting that between 2011 and when I was ready to apply to jobs in Canada (i.e. either after graduation or as 2nd postdoc or permanent job), my subfield would grow in Canada and they would be seeking experts in this subfield. In general, I was betting that by 2020, my subfield would be a big thing in Canada.

Luckily for me, I was kind of right. (I don't take credit for this prediction of course, it came from discussions with current Canadian and American professors in my field and subfield). In the past 2-3 years, all the top schools in Canada created or expanded planetary science research programs to include exoplanet research (my subfield). I applied to all of these Canadian positions for a postdoc and I'll be starting a prize fellowship postdoc this summer in Canada. My new boss says that I'll be the first holder of this fellowship to be working in my subfield! Again, this was a risk that paid out---since they have never awarded this fellowship to an exoplanet scientist before, another likely outcome would be that no one wants to risk hiring for this new subfield. And this risk/gamble did fail at other Canadian schools---many other fellowships' shortlists did not even include any exoplanet scientist at all. 

So, my answer to your question is that you have to first decide what you want to do in the long run, and whether a US degree and training will make a difference. My long term goal was to work as an exoplanet scientist in Canada. I decided that moving to the US was worth it because 1) I could get the best training possible, 2) almost all professors in my field at Canadian schools have US postdocs or PhDs, and 3) the US has resources to train me in a way that Canada could not. I also felt that even if I don't end up as an exoplanet scientist, a PhD from a top US school will be helpful for me to compete against other Canadians for top quantitative jobs in Canada.

My decision was easier because of the support of my family and my spouse, who also moved to the US with me. My spouse has also been able to develop their career while we are in the US. (We only considered PhD schools in places that would benefit both of us). We're moving back to Canada in a few months and I think the time in the US was definitely worth it and we are both definitely much better off in the long run, career-wise.

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