Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: Learning the Ropes as an International Graduate Student

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Sometimes it is hard for me, as an international grad student at a public university, to attend conferences and get papers published because I do not know how things work in the American academic world. Also, financial constraints make international students less willing to spend money going to major conferences if we don't have the support of a scholarship (especially because, as in my case, I have a big tuition bill to pay and cannot work off campus to make ends meet). Do you have any insights for international students on U.S. campuses?

International graduate students in the United States have many additional challenges compared to their American counterparts. The challenges fall in two categories: financial and cultural. Financial challenges arise from limits on foreign students’ ability to work off campus, and their ineligibility for many grants and fellowships. Language and lack of cultural knowledge prevent them from catching all of the spoken and unspoken cues by which the “secret handshakes” of the academic career are communicated. Since even native-born American graduate students routinely miss those cues, the challenges for international students are significant.

Financially, if you are an international student, it behooves you especially to finish your Ph.D. as quickly as possible. Maximize all of the institutional funding for which you are eligible. Some national grants are not available to you, but all campus grants should be. Make sure that your applications are flawless. You may be making serious errors in your approach and not even know it. One tendency in my international clients is to come across as either excessively diffident, or excessively arrogant in their applications for grants and jobs. It is very difficult to master precisely the right tone of collegial confidence in English. It is critical that you have editors and mentors who can review your applications materials and set the right tone.

You mention the difficulties of going to big conferences. Here are some money-saving techniques you can use to make those meetings more affordable:

  • If the conference is within driving distance, carpool with friends to get there. If it requires a flight, see if friends or family will donate frequent flier miles toward a ticket for you. Or see if your friends and family will all contribute to a ticket fund.
  • Be sure to check Studentuniverse.com and similar sites for budget tickets. Also check LivingSocial.com for deals; you may be able to score one if your conference is at a major hub.
  • Use departmental or disciplinary email groups to arrange shared transport from the airport to the hotel. And check subway and bus schedules, and free hotel shuttles.
  • Never stay at the overpriced conference hotels, unless you are with a group large enough to substantially reduce the per-person cost. Instead, use Groupon.com, LivingSocial.com, and similar sites to find cut-rate deals.
  • Maximize free breakfasts offered by your hotel or motel. Ttry to find one with a substantial hot breakfast with protein sources like sausages or hard-boiled eggs. A carb-only breakfast of waffles with syrup is going to leave you crashed and weaving by the time you get to the interview.
  • If you want to meet up with someone, consider doing it at the free wine and cheese events hosted by the major academic presses. You can score wine and a plate of food, and stand in a quiet corner to talk.

With regard to academic culture, it is critical that you participate in all aspects of your graduate program. When I was head of an East Asian languages department, the majority of our graduate students came from East Asian countries. Only a small minority of our students were American. However, it was the American students who nearly always ran the department’s grad-student association, and who served as graduate student representative on searches and at faculty meetings. Most of the international students did not regularly participate in these activities.

That was an enormous lost opportunity to absorb the cultural norms of academic work and life. If you want to work at an American institution, a dissertation will only get you so far. When you get to the interview stage, colleagues want to know that you can behave like a colleague. One of the best ways to learn how to do that is through active participation in the life of the department--not, emphatically, through endless service obligations that crowd your research and writing time, but rather through targeted and self-interested participation in departmental groups and events that provide an understanding of how things work. The best possible service for an international student is taking on the role of graduate-student representative at faculty meetings and on search committees.

Whatever service work you choose, remember that your academic accomplishments constitute only a part of your candidacy for a tenure-track job. The rest is showing that you’re a colleague who understands how a department works.

I’m wondering if I should take an adjunct job at a for-profit college. My teaching experience is almost zero, and I thought it might be a good thing to do while on the job market. But would accepting the position hinder my future in nonprofit academe? I'm against the for-profit model, but it's still teaching experience while I'm trying to strengthen my CV. What are your recommendations?

If you have no teaching experience, then having any at the college level is better than having none. Under those circumstances, if the for-profit college is your only option, then it is worth pursuing--in a limited way. Teaching a class or two there will give you an opportunity to demonstrate basic teaching competencies, from designing a syllabus to grading. Because it may include online teaching, you can use it to build or augment your skills in that realm.

However, an exclusive record of teaching at for-profits will not serve you well on the tenure-track job market. For-profit colleges are not considered equivalent to accredited nonprofit colleges and universities, and the value of the teaching on your record will be limited. You don't mention your geographic location, but if there are traditional college campuses in your area, you would do best to try and find teaching opportunities at one of them as soon as you can.

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