The Unmet Mental-Health Needs of Foreign Doctoral Students

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Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

By Bhargavi Bharadwaj

Eight years ago, I made a choice to come to the United States for my doctoral education. The plethora of opportunities at American universities was an instant draw, but back then, I did not know that a decision to study here would come with a price to pay beyond dollars.

What I’ve felt most often — as an international student trying to secure a doctorate within a unique field — is confusion. After silently struggling for years with guilt that I was a misfit, a psychologist helped me understand my experiences with American graduate education.

However, every time I had a chance to talk about what it was like to be an international doctoral student at an American university, my words were met with two types of responses — concern ("How can I be of help?") and irritation ("There you go, again. You’re one of those students."). Of the latter type, the most dehumanizing and devastating comment, by far, came from an academic adviser who told me, "Remember Bhargavi, you chose to come here. It was your choice."

Yes, it was my choice. I wanted to pursue higher education in the United States. And beyond that, this education was supposed to equip me with skills to help build a research ecosystem in my own country. But many Americans seem unaware of the huge bureaucratic, financial, and emotional burdens placed on international students here. Here is a peek into the extra layer of work and stress we face because we chose to come here:

  • When my American adviser takes our research team to other countries, I am the only non-American participant on the team and, thus, have to manage an extra layer of visa and travel paperwork.
  • I was trained to write in British English. I cannot make my manuscript look like it was written by an American because I am not an American. Most of my American professors never worked with me on my writing style. They just said things like: "When I was a graduate student, my papers were ripped apart by my professor, so I will take the same approach of editing your work." I’m not talking about the technical robustness of the manuscript; every graduate student faces that sort of critique. I mean being censured for the peculiarities of one’s writing style, with little guidance on how to fix the problems.
  • Visa restrictions don’t allow mental-health breaks. An American doctoral student can take time off to deal with stress and anxiety, if necessary. An international doctoral student cannot consider such an option due to the F1 visa format. This is compounded by the fear of mental-health documentation that could potentially be on your file forever.
  • It’s much trickier for us to voice our disagreements with a professor than for American doctoral students to do so. As an international staff member once said to me, "Your confidence is being ‘arrogant,’ while their confidence is being ‘assertive.’" I’ve heard many an American student boldly disagree with an American professor. In contrast, when I disagree with a professor’s view — stating my argument as professionally as I can — I’ve often found my opinion gets lost while I am "educated" about etiquette in the American academy.

Many international students take a long time to understand the multitude of personalities we must deal with in graduate school. That’s partly because doctoral students have to hit the ground running, but it’s also because international doctoral students rarely receive any training to understand American culture and social practices.

We end up learning American mores mostly by trial and error, which, quite honestly, can be a highly stressful and bewildering experience. I once told a professor that I was uncomfortable being hugged by a lab mate who was the "hug giver" of the lab. Here’s what I was told in response: "When I came to your country, I learned to bow and greet everyone with folded hands. In America, people greet one another by hugging. You must learn!"

Later, of course, I learned from American friends that what that professor had said was wrong and inappropriate — hugging was not the only American way of greeting someone, and not even all that typical.

In far too many doctoral programs, faculty advisers create an unhealthy competitive environment among their trainees. More so than their American peers, international students struggle to understand and cope with such a hypercompetitive climate.

To put everything you need into two bags and board a flight to the United States is an act of courage that first needs to be understood. Yes, it is a conscious choice — one fueled by a desire to learn and improve. It may also be fueled, as in my case, by the lack of similar training opportunities in my home country. We bring with us our cultures, our languages, our origin stories — and we are excited to share the beauty of our worlds with colleagues.

But that’s not easy to do when we are reminded in countless ways that we are outsiders. In my own case, I advocated my way out of a hostile, unwelcoming environment with my initial American adviser. Now I have a new adviser, who cares for my dream to earn a Ph.D. with the same dedication as she has for her American students. My new adviser has learned a lot about my culture and showed me that graduate school didn’t have to be a toxic experience.

Advisers: If you are a professor or administrator who is in a position to improve campus culture for international doctoral students, here are the most important things you can do when one of us knocks on your door to talk about a pernicious adviser or environment that is causing us stress and anxiety:

  • Hear us out. Then follow due process.
  • Don’t look the other way when a colleague in your program needs to be taught what it means to accept diversity at your university, in both letter and spirit.
  • Design straightforward administrative processes for reporting a grievance that don’t spin complainants in circles.
  • Don’t tell overburdened and fearful students, "Change is not possible in a day." Instead, tell us: "Change is possible by following the process and by seeking support." And remind us that there is no shame in that.

Institutions: If your university or your particular doctoral program actively recruits foreign students, here are some steps you can take to help ease our transition and aid those of us who face mental-health issues:

  • Destigmatize the process of seeking psychological services. And ensure that at least some members of the counseling staff at the institution are trained to work with international populations.
  • Doctoral students can be at your university far longer than undergraduates. Help us to make friends in the local region, or connect us to a local family. Connect a newcomer with a more-advanced doctoral student (if possible, someone from our home country) who can show us the ropes.
  • Encourage international students to share information about their cultures and their countries with one another and with American students. Find ways to bridge the cultural disconnects that may be creating toxic situations in your programs.
  • Most of us can’t afford to hire a lawyer when something goes seriously wrong in graduate school. Appoint an ombuds to advocate for the rights of international doctoral students.

Doctoral students: Finally, if you are an international doctoral student and any of these problems sound all too familiar, here is my advice:

  • There is help out there on your campus. Some doctoral programs still perpetuate a culture of "don’t ask, don’t tell" when it comes to mental-health issues, and as an international student, you may feel especially helpless and isolated. But try to muster the creativity and resourcefulness that brought you to this point. Remember: Those traits are among your strongest tools of survival. (Participate in a survey here on the mental-health issues facing doctoral students and recent Ph.D.s.)
  • Create a support group. Look for colleagues who have the patience to strategize with you. Avoid the ones who try to silence you or urge you to "let it go."
  • Discuss with a trained professional whether quitting your graduate program is an option. (I did consider it on multiple occasions.) Can you return to your country and continue the fieldwork? Can you continue to pursue your passion for research in your home country without a Ph.D.? Can you create employment opportunities for yourself?
  • If a legal solution becomes necessary, don’t be afraid to make calls and ask if lawyers are willing to help you on a pro bono basis. Taking that step will make things easier for students who come after you, too.

Yes, choosing to pursue graduate work at an American university is always a choice. But it should never turn into a choice between a Ph.D. and your mental health.

Bhargavi Bharadwaj is the pseudonym of a doctoral candidate in the sciences at a university in the South.

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