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On October 18 and 19, I attended the Journées de la relève en recherche 2018 organized by ACFAS, in Sherbrooke, thanks to an ÉTS scholarship. I attended lectures that made me think about my experience so far as an international PhD student. Here are some of those thoughts, fuelled by professionals who attended this important event.
Managing Stress During Your Studies
Stress is a normal reaction when facing demands, be they objective or subjective. And it can be said that the pursuit of university studies is a biggie! Causes of stress include continued pressure to obtain research results, constant supervision, and worry about finding a job befitting all that preparation. It is important to develop a toolbox of technical, intellectual and emotional skills along with sustainable processes in order to achieve the best possible results in contexts involving significant demands, all of which have major consequences on our professional and academic future. Factor in other personal reasons, and pursuing a PhD starts to resemble a marathon.
The PhD: An Often Personal and Solitary Journey
I had a hard time transitioning from “work generated by others” to “working for myself”, directing my own research, often without prior baselines. Going from team work, where instructions are given and received, to complete management of a solution without prior instructions or set itinerary can be rather painful. Only time, getting those first experimental results, and having that first publication accepted provide some assurance that you are on the right track. That being said, as a sound practice, I strongly recommend joining research teams. Although most of us are members of a lab with many people, we rarely get to know or talk to people around us because we are so focused on our own research. Without a doubt, spending a few minutes a day talking with others and listening is well worth it. This makes us realize that we are not alone with our challenges.
Insecurity and Demotivation
I have on occasion experienced insecurity and loss of motivation during my journey because of the lack of immediate rewards for my research work. Conducting research generally requires precision, depth and thought, and actual benefits only occur in the long run, through publishing papers or attending courses and conferences.
There is an excellent ÉTS-led initiative offering specialized Psychological Assistance to the student community. This service addresses a definite need, because managing emotions plays a key role in this journey which, according to expert opinion, can only be achieved through high motivation, discipline and a tolerance for frustration and criticism, all the more so when the goals are not achieved.
I believe that in addition to a good dose of personal discipline, it is essential to have a healthy lifestyle—proper diet, regular sports, exercise and leisure activities—and not to isolate ourselves from others, especially people we meet outside the academic context. Studying at the PhD level does not imply being antisocial or never having fun.
An Uncertain Future?
I have often hard that the job market is limited to academia after earning a PhD, because industry considers us to be overqualified for jobs that may adequately be filled by technical professionals. However, I frequently receive job offers that I unfortunately have to turn down, in order to focus on my personal and professional goals. This leads me to the conclusion that the future of a PhD student depends on several factors, such as the type of specialization, the job market in the city or country where we wish to practice and, finally, our passion for our profession. Our limits are the ones we put on ourselves; they exist only our own minds.
Money: One of the Obstacles
The biggest challenge for international PhD students is, without a doubt, obtaining funding that will allow them to live in dignity while completing their research activities. In many cases, students already have funding from their supervisor; others, like me, arrive with their own budget, and that’s where it gets complicated. Money starts to run out over the months mainly because some things tend to be expensive: renting a room near the institution where we are studying, food, transportation, teaching materials, winter clothing and everything else. We must then be creative and innovate. To this end, the relationship developed over a few months with our supervisor and the smart use of ÉTS resources and social support organizations are crucial. For example, undertaking projects for private companies through agreements between ÉTS and our supervisor not only brings important financial aid but also augments our professional experience. Organizations like MITACS are vitally important in finding internships each semester to provide financial support for our research activities. Quebec Government scholarship applications also provide an interesting option.
Learning a New Language
Learning a new language or mastering one is a challenge intrinsic to studying in another country. The helplessness caused by language barriers and not being able to understand a supervisor’s instructions at the beginning is a very heavy burden to carry during the first months of study. In my case, I was prepared enough to speak and write in English when the case warranted, but from the classroom to reality is quite a leap. Because Montreal is a multicultural city, my supervisor and all my colleagues come from different countries, and talk in different dialects and accents, which made my language adaptation process a bit more complicated, but not impossible. The good news is that daily practice of a language, free online classes and free classroom courses have helped me a lot in this continuous learning process. However, it is not enough to improve our mastery of English for studies and research. The challenge is that if we want to truly integrate into Quebec society in order to have more job opportunities after graduation or to get the legal documents necessary for permanent residence in this wonderful country, it is imperative to also learn French. As with English, there is an endless variety of free government resources and other affordable private classes that can help us learn the language, as well as provide the opportunity to practice it daily, which makes it much easier.
Finally, I cannot deny that pursuing a PhD is a long and winding journey, but the satisfaction it brings is a thousand times greater than its daily challenges.
The adventure is complicated, I know, but great accomplishments are complicated. So keep the joy and enthusiasm: this adventure is and will remain unique. I promise you that.
Christian Miranda Moreira
Christian Miranda Moreira is a PhD student in the Department of Electrical Engineering. His thesis focuses on 5G wireless network security and is supervised by Professor Georges Kaddoum.
Program : Electrical Engineering
Research laboratories : LACIME – Communications and Microelectronic Integration Laboratory