You know what they say: it’s not what you know but who you know. That old cliché turned out to be true for Raha Vafaei: while completing her master’s degree in engineering at the University of British Columbia, she worked with a French researcher who would go on to become her PhD supervisor at the Grenoble Institute of Technology in France.
“The experience has helped me grow, and has given me the chance to get to know myself and what I want more clearly.” —Raha Vafaei, PhD student, Grenoble Institute of Technology
“I enjoyed working with him and the proposed project was interesting,” Raha says.
That’s not the only reason she chose to complete her five-year PhD abroad though: “The university is well known in France and the city of Grenoble is a charming, small city surrounded by mountains.”
Adjusting to life abroad
Raha stayed with her supervisor and his partner when she first arrived in France. “They helped me hunt for an apartment. I found a nice little place within two weeks and moved in,” she says. “I was very lucky since my professor and his girlfriend are very nice, and – more than that – they’ve become good friends of mine.”
The first year of her PhD abroad was the most difficult, but it wasn’t anything she couldn’t handle. “At times, I felt homesick, but it never lasted too long,” she says. “Luckily, I met many nice people from my lab who included me in their events even though, at the time, I didn’t speak any French.”
Learning and growing in France
Yes, you read that correctly: Raha barely spoke a word of French before she arrived in France. She says she was so busy finishing her master’s and preparing all the paperwork to move abroad that she didn’t have time to take French language classes. She didn’t even take French in high school!
But, luckily, she’s gotten by, and today she describes her most memorable experience from being abroad as “learning a new language.” Raha also says she’s developed a new-found appreciation for bakeries – guess all those baguettes and croissants have made quite an impression on her!
On a more serious note, Raha says she has a greater appreciation for learning about and interacting with new cultures, and exploring new place. “The experience has helped me grow, and has given me the chance to get to know myself and what I want more clearly.”
What’s her next step? She’s hoping to find a post-doc in a laboratory once she completes her PhD in 2014.
Comparing grad school in Canada and abroad
In her experience, pursuing graduate school at UBC in Canada and abroad at Grenoble in France are both excellent options.
“Both schools are very well equipped and they both benefit from great professors,” Raha says.
The biggest difference she’s noticed in France so far is that her lab has created a community among students, staff members and professors alike.
“The lab is shared by many professors and almost all students have more than one supervisor,” she explains.
She’s also enjoyed participating in a number of events that involve not just students but also professors and staff members, whereas events she attended at UBC primarily involved only students.
Raha’s advice for studying abroad
- Look up the city to determine if you’ll be able to enjoy yourself there.
- Research the school to see if it has the academic qualities you’re looking for.
- Be honest with yourself: will the language be a challenge? Do as Raha says, not as she did: “Maybe prepare ahead of time.”