I spoke last week to graduate students at the University of Maryland on the topic of “How to Reach Your Dissertation Goals This Semester.” At the end of my presentation, I was asked for some tips on completing the dissertation as a foreign student; that is, someone who had come from another country to complete a U.S. University Ph.D. program.
I had a few strategies to share which would make the process easier, and I thought that if they were helpful to the students in the talk, they would probably also be useful to those of you reading this blog.
So here are a few tips for dissertating as a foreign student:
1) Connect with other students who are in the same circumstance. Even if the other students don’t come from your country or your part of the world, seek out connections with other students in similar circumstances. There is value in sharing experiences and knowledge with others in similar circumstances.
2) Read a lot of dissertations in your department, especially those advised by your Chairperson. I recommend reading a lot of dissertations to everyone, but especially for students who are coming from other countries. The more dissertations you read, the better feel you will have for the size and scope of the project.
3) Connect with an English tutor or editor if English is not your primary language. The number one complaint I have heard from students is that they are judged very harshly on their writing. Some have trouble writing or thinking in English, and, as a result, their papers come back full of red ink and harsh commentary. You can reduce the shock of feedback in this way by using an editor to review your complete drafts before sending them in. I would suggest having your complete three chapter proposal edited, as well as your final complete copy. A good editor can help refine your writing in such a way that your meaning comes through, free of any unusual word phrasings or usage. If you need to turn in a prospectus, you might consider getting that edited as well, perhaps even by a sympathetic fellow graduate student.
In the most extreme case, you might try writing your project in your native language and translating it over to English afterward. This is not a 100% solution, but can help you overcome writing blocks if you find yourself unable to think easily in English.
4) Focus on replicating a study or extending a study that has already been done. I recommend this for all dissertation writers, as this is one of the fastest ways to get your dissertation done. But it can be especially valuable for a student coming from another country to have an accepted and approved model for a suitable dissertation. You can extend the project, or change it slightly, and still offer an original contribution to the literature.
5) Stay in touch with family and close friends. You might need some extra support to navigate the dissertation process, and keep in touch with family and close friends to provide this. With technology such as Skype and social networks like Facebook, you can stay in touch more easily, and more cost-effectively.
Finally, my last tip is to try and complete the dissertation as quickly as you can. I recommend this to everyone, but, as a foreign student, you may be anxious to return home, and so will want to keep your dissertation process as efficient as possible.
I hope these tips are helpful, and happy dissertating!