This edition of Glimpse features the expat experiences of Rtr. Sandamali Devadithya.
Rtr. Sandamali graduated from University of Moratuwa in 2014, majoring in Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering. Her life as an expat marked its beginning in 2015 when she moved to the United States of America to pursue her PhD. Her start there was at the University of Washington, Seattle where she completed her research in a master’s degree and moved to Boston to continue her PhD at Boston University.
Q: Selecting a country to make your home away from home, is rather a challenging decision. How did you make this choice and why was USA your selection?
Once I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I wanted to pursue a career in academia. So, many senior lecturers advised me to do a PhD in the USA. The PhD programs in the USA are very competitive. There are a certain number of graduate level course modules you have to take and in my field (ECE) you need to publish a lot of papers in top-notch journal publications, and the program is 5+ years. As a result, PhD degrees from the USA are recognized throughout the world. So my obvious preference was to get an opportunity in the USA, which I was fortunate to get.
Q: I am not wrong if I say that making the choice of the country you want to reside as an expat, is just the beginning of the real challenge, am I?
Yes definitely. I thought I was prepared to live abroad. I knew how to cook and manage a household, I knew the city I was going to live. But PhD life itself threw me off guard. I was not at all prepared for that. Getting into a PhD program here is hard and surviving it is harder. But remember ‘what doesn’t kill you make you stronger’.
When we were a freshman, we were used to be taken care of, in our schools, and in our universities. We had timetables, we had a fellow freshman who took classes together and who were completely clueless as we were. Here you are totally on your own. Everybody is busy with their research; they don’t have time for you. You have to figure out your stuff by yourself. For example, how do I get a key to my office, where do I sit, whom should I talk to get a new computer, where is the microwave, where is free coffee? are things you have to find solutions on your own.
Q: But no one can live in isolation like an island. Didn’t you feel that building a relationship with those around you and connecting them was important?
Networking with people is important here. It is a skill I still don’t have and hopefully will have one day. Here nobody is going to talk with you unless you introduced yourself and join a conversation without interrupting. Pretty hard if you are shy at first.
I have a very good example to relate to you how important people relationships are. As I said earlier, PhD programmes in the USA are very competitive and it all depends on finding the perfect advisor for you (much like dating). Here it is the advisor who pays for your tuition and your stipend. If you can’t find an advisor who matches your research interests and working style, and if you can’t keep up with the advisor’s working style you might as well pack your bags and go home. That’s what I thought at first. There were several mismatches between me and my first advisor, and as I was not happy I was not at all productive in research aspects. Naïve as I was, I thought I had to deal with it or work hard. But that just made me unhappier. And those days I did not have any courage to talk about this with my colleagues or peers.
After some time, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I decided to get help and gradually built up my courage to talk about it. I opened up to my advisor, and he is a nice guy and he understood me and we both agreed I should find a new advisor. Easier said than done. It is hard to find a professor who has same research interests as you and with money and willing to fund you. I wrote to a lot of professors in the university, I talked with graduate programme chairs and academic advisors and found a professor who I liked to work with but who did not have funding for me. Luckily I managed to find teaching assistant positions throughout the year, which covered my tuition and offered me a stipend.
Working in the new environment was an instant success. I liked working with my new professor and I had an amazing mentor. I simply loved doing research, and we published several papers at the end of the year. And when I transferred to Boston University and had to find an advisor I knew exactly what to do and whom to talk with.
Q: That’s quite an experience. What are your key learnings thus far, as an expat? These learnings will be an eye opener for all our Glimpse readers.
An important lesson I learnt from the experience I shared is not to be afraid to get help. Everybody will not be sympathetic to your cause or be helpful. But there will be someone whom you can talk to. It is important to talk with your peers, colleagues, and your bosses about the issues you have in working places. Because there will be a solution though it may not be easy or straightforward. But you need to have faith in you and believe in yourself. And in return help others and listen to others. It is not everybody’s culture to be sympathetic to another person’s problems. But we as Rotaractors it’s a value that should come from us naturally.