On 16 December 2019, I defended my PhD thesis in a public examination at the University of Helsinki. At that point I had been studying for my PhD for ten long, torturous years. After successfully defending my doctoral thesis, I felt nothing. I was totally numb. The year leading to my defense was the hardest I had ever been through in my whole PhD. Due to the long journey and additional challenges, including harassment that I faced on campus that same year (which I will not go into detail on here), I was struggling with anxiety, PTSD and a depressive episode. I was taking medication while also dealing with poor physical health and insomnia. Just a few months before my defense, I was feeling so bad that I wanted to quit everything. Everything was indifferent and insignificant for me; this big accomplishment, being the first PhD holder in our family, meant absolutely nothing. I just wanted to leave that ugly place and the toxic people I had been surrounded by for so long.
Two words could perfectly describe the start of my journey in Finland: culture shock. I had taken the decision to move to Finland in 2009, after getting a Master’s degree from the University of Rome Sapienza, and the contrast was stark.
Living in a new country
We Italians are friendly, welcoming and talkative people; we enjoy a quick chat while waiting for a bus or paying at the cashier even if we don’t know each other. I believe this gives a sense of community and belonging that makes your everyday life a bit better. Personally, I found Finnish people are aloof, taciturn and not very welcoming at first. To give you an idea, in Finland, your own neighbors won’t say hi to you; instead, if they will hear you in the hallway, they will avoid leaving their apartments to dodge meeting you. In a bus or in a canteen, they will look for a place where no one is sitting close by to avoid any possible interaction with another person; only if there is no other option, they will then sit close to you. This is how socially awkward Finns are and these are the same reasons why becoming friends with Finns is a long process: it can literally take years!
I first thought this reserved nature was common only among people who don´t know each other or don’t regularly meet such as neighbors. To my surprise, I soon realized that this behaviour was also common in Finnish academia. As my first few months went by, I began to understand that many colleagues would simply not say hello despite seeing me every day in the corridors. I also noticed that for Finnish people it was very common to sit together with me for lunch and then keep quiet for the whole meal. The language barrier was also an issue, as locals would often speak Finnish when in groups with me there, making me feel awkward and even more excluded.
I soon realized that “isolation” was a common feature also in the supervision of PhD students. Students in Finland had a degree of freedom and independence I had never seen before; they were expected to fully lead and make their own project work, mostly by themselves with minimum contact time. I joined a very small lab, composed of my supervisor, a postdoc and another PhD student. The latter was my biggest support, especially in the lab, and made things much easier; but, despite this, the deep-set feelings of isolation were still very prominent most of the time.
So here I was, in a new country where I didn’t know anyone and where making friends was a difficult task. To find relief from this isolation I fully immersed myself in work. I would work many hours every day and I would often visit the lab during weekends; all my time was solely divided between research and coursework. This ultimately resulted in burnout, halfway through my PhD – and honestly, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.
I started having physical symptoms due to the huge amount of work and the accumulated stress I was experiencing. Symptoms of anxiety emerged, including chest heaviness and shortness of breath that affected my sleep, to the point of causing me insomnia for several nights in a row. For the first time, I had panic attacks. I never had those before, but I still remember my racing heart, the shortness of breath, the shaking, the dizziness. I truly thought, “This is it, I am going to die” while trying to reach the window and put my head out in order to get some air.
I didn’t seek professional help and, as everything went away after a few weeks, I went back to my “normal” routine. The fact of still lacking meaningful connections and being mostly alone meant that I kept this all this to myself. I also kept my situation hidden from my own supervisor and pretended all was okay; I just couldn’t bring myself to tell her. I realise now, if I had only reached out, she would have helped me, but back then, feeling isolated and alone like I did, I could not find the courage.
Moreover, reaching out and asking for help, even to my own friends, has always been very challenging for me. Now, in a foreign country this was even harder. When I was harassed, only my supervisor stood by me, whilst most of my academic colleagues distanced themselves from me, or worse, shamed me and were victim blaming. This made me feel very isolated.
Sadly, even experiencing physical symptoms was still not enough for me to understand the need and importance of self-care and healthy work-life balance. It is only later on that I have realised this.
I believe part of the reasons that caused me to behave in this way was the fact that many academics around me were all dealing with their own anxiety, stress, burnout or even depression and (as far as I was aware) none of them sought professional help. Asking them how they were doing and never getting past a superficial response encouraged me to think that maybe the best way to deal with my situation was to simply survive, day by day.
I was attending courses, both in and out of campus, and as years went by, I managed to build up my small community, mostly foreigner students like me, often dealing with isolation and difficulties in getting integrated in the tight-knit Finnish society. I finally built a support network and started to feel less alone. Though I was still spending most of my time at work, this small support system was very important because I finally had something to do with my time that was not work-related. Furthermore, this turned out to be life-saving during the last year of my PhD journey; these became the people who stood by me, who supported me but, more importantly, who did not shame me when, later on, I struggled with a depressive episode, PTSD and excessive anxiety following periods of intense stress induced by the harassment I was subjected to.
How can we improve the experience for foreign students?
My experience has led me to reflect on what more could be done for foreign students to help them avoid feeling alone, unsupported and isolated. The need to help foreign PhD students is evident as researchers have demonstrated that feelings of isolation and loneliness can affect their wellbeing and academic performance. As universities across the globe look to internationalize by recruiting more international researchers in the future, investing in further activities and initiatives for newcomers from abroad is paramount.
There is a great support system for undergraduate students but in my experience I believe that much more work is needed at the PhD degree level. So, what can be done to make international PhD students feel like they matter and truly belong in their new work environment?
For me, I think there should be regular informal get togethers within the departments or research programs in order to allow people to get to know each other and establish a supportive network. PhD students join throughout the year, so one-off events like the annual Christmas party, a yearly meeting for newcomers or some outreach activities are not the only events that departments should put on as a social activity. In my experience, Christmas parties are often not the ideal situation to know people and establish meaningful connections. Events should also not be exclusive; for example, the graduate schools in Finland often organized events that were not open to everybody, which excluded many PhD students.
General get together events should not be organized around specific scientific topics but instead should be still connected to the working environment and community. For example, it is important to have discussions around aspects of academic life such as student wellbeing and maintaining a healthy life-work balance and mental health; why not regularly meet and discuss (with or without an expert) these topics?
Another option that would allow local and foreigner students to meet and connect is volunteering via the university; introducing diverse groups of people and supporting a small local cause would encourage networking and increase the sense of shared community.
As mentioned before, undergraduate students have a very strong support system with different student associations, tutors and support groups. Why can’t we create a support system on campus that PhD students contact throughout their studies for help and guidance? Talking to various people from the University of Helsinki, funding and lack of interest appear to be the main reason for the absence of dedicated initiatives. Also, many native students do not feel the need to organize anything as they have their friends and family close by.
Language is also a big barrier that hinders the integration of foreigners in the academic community. Though I believe that people planning to stay settle down in a foreign country in a country should learn the language, for newcomers and short-term visitors, helping them improve their use of English should be a priority. If one of the aims of our universities is to internationalize by recruiting foreigner PhD students and researchers, setting English as the first language in the university could be a great step forward towards better inclusion and integration.
Many universities deliver great messages in order to attract international students. Posters, websites and leaflets show how perfect the life of a student is going to be—but is this an accurate portrayal? The lack of a sense of community can affect the native student population as well as the international community. Ask yourself: if a native PhD student, with nearby friends and family with an established social network struggles with their mental health, how much bigger is the struggle of someone who has left everything behind and is thrown into an unfamiliar and unwelcoming environment?
Overall, I hope that local communities will begin to view international students not a burden but as highly trained individuals who bring with them a wealth of resources and skillsets as well as cultural richness. I believe that universities, in particular, need to improve their approach with targeted initiatives to create a solid and lasting bond between local and international communities. This is the only way to create a welcoming and inclusive academic working environment where each and every person feels that their wellbeing is a priority. Only when this happens can they strive for success and feel that they belong.
Born in Rome (Italy) from Pakistani parents, Tahira Anwar obtained her Master of Science from Sapienza University. In 2009 she moved to Helsinki (Finland) where she obtained her PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Helsinki. She studied autophagy, a cellular self-eating process involved in many physiological processes and diseases. She likes baking, reading books and travelling.