International Graduate Students
All new graduate students must adapt to life in the CU Linguistics community, but international graduate students face additional challenges, including those of setting up a household in a new country, navigating daily life in an unfamiliar culture and adjusting to new academic and social mores and norms. To assist international graduate students in finding their footing here, we offer an orientation program that includes peer mentorship. Both department-specific events and Graduate Teacher Program events can assist new international graduate students in developing skills and strategies for graduate teaching. Below we offer some insights from former doctoral student Ashwini Vaidya (now an Assistant Professor at IIT-Delhi). Ashwini writes about things she learned and things she wished she’d known earlier as a CU Linguistics graduate student.
Notes for New International Graduate Students
Ashwini Vaidya (CU Linguistics PhD, 2015)
This note/advisory is aimed at new PhD students who have recently arrived in the US and are fairly unfamiliar with the American academic system and its peculiarities. It is probably not useful for international students who have already had some exposure to US academic life.
Linguistics courses and indeed most social science/humanities courses in the US place heavy emphasis on producing high quality writing. This could be in the form of term papers, commentaries, project reports or essays. It is possible that your previous courses may not have have evaluated you on the basis of your writing (this is common where written/oral exams are considered more important). When you turn in a piece of writing, most instructors will consider factors such as quality of argumentation and clarity and consistency in presentation and style (including proper citation). Although your analysis and data may be interesting, the way you write it up matters a lot!
Most undergraduates and Master’s students in the US have taken academic writing courses. If you have never taken such a course, it is a good idea to ask the graduate advisor if this will be appropriate for you. Alternatively, you could also approach your linguistics course instructor and ask for writing samples from previous years. It may also be a good idea to get your drafts checked by the experts in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric.
During the initial years, the focus is usually on finding an interesting topic to work on. However, developing writing skills is equally important. These skills will be needed when you need to turn in prelim papers, synthesis drafts and ultimately the dissertation!
During international student orientations, the student advisors will often remark on the 'informal' nature of interactions between professors and students. They will mention the fact that you can call professors by their first name. This is a very alien concept for some international students and for some Asian cultures, it's fairly disrespectful. It is alright to continue to say (or write) 'Dr so-and-so' or 'Prof so-and-so' until you get used to the idea. Take your time!
Another more confusing aspect of written and spoken communication in the US is the heavy use of superlative adjectives. Seemingly ordinary things are described as being fantastic or amazing. If you describe things as 'good' or 'ok', then it will be interpreted as being terrible or disappointing. It will take some time to understand the correct interpretation of these adjectives.
In the academic setting, this is occasionally confusing because you may get feedback on your paper or abstract with the word 'wonderful' or even 'fantastic', but the paper may actually contain several red underscores, notes and suggestions for revisions (“But you said it was wonderful, so should I take the revisions seriously??” BTW, the answer is 'Yes'). At least initially, it may help to focus on specific suggestions and comments made by the professor. Once you are used to your professor's working style, the context in which the adjectives are used will begin to make sense.
There are many cultures where the working relationship between teacher and student or advisor and advisee is very formal. The teacher or professor has the final word and there is no space to express an opinion or idea. Luckily, this formal hierarchy is absent (for the most part) in teacher and student interactions here.
There is a more informal exchange of ideas and you are often expected to have an opinion or come prepared with one. It may feel wrong to contradict what a professor has just said-- but it is not considered insulting. It is part of the exchange of ideas. At the same time, this does not mean that the student-professor relationship is completely informal, it is merely more professional.
Later, when you pick an advisor, it is also considered perfectly fine to discuss topics such as overall research direction, research goals and problems, even if they are vague. These interactions may seem 'personal', or you may hesitate to discuss them at all, but they are not out of the ordinary for most faculty.
Although the Linguistics department has several international students in the Masters and PhD programs, it may be the case that in several graduate level courses, you are the only non-American. Within the classroom, this is hardly a problem as most discussions are about technical topics. Most professors will welcome the fact that you can contribute to the discussion from your unique perspective.
The challenge is outside the classroom, in a more informal setting. For example, while forming study groups or consulting with peers about various aspects of a PhD. We often don’t realize that other graduate students are probably going to be our research collaborators. It is often challenging to deal with cultural divides during informal communication, hence having a particular problem or paper to discuss often helps. During this process, the discussion may even evolve into finding common ground on other topics! Other international students who are further along in their program are often a great resource.
This is probably one of the tougher aspects of student life here and it sometimes takes much longer as international students are already dealing with major changes in food, climate and academic environment.
Special Administrative Requirements
Most international students are in the US on a student visa and this presents some of their own challenges with respect to travel and other restrictions (based on the country). This section is not about the US visa but about travelling to other countries for conferences or other academic activities. International students travelling to Europe or other countries require additional expenses (and time) for visa applications. This needs to be taken into account when applying for funding.
There are several other aspects of academic life, e.g. applying for research funding, which are not covered in this advisory. Some of these areas may be better covered in detail by other sources (and may be specific to sub-disciplines).