When I was finishing my masters and deciding where to go for a PhD, I did what every student in my position would do: ask around for advice. I talked to some of my professors that did do a PhD to find out about their experiences, where they went and so on. Being a theory oriented person, I could see more attractive opportunities in Europe other than the US, and the programs looked very different (from the duration, style, tuition, etc.). When confronted with these options, I got almost unanimously the same argument:
The quality of education in the US will be better, it is a longer phd but you will leave with more opportunities and more knowledge. It will be expensive, there will be sleepless nights, you’ll have no vacations for a long time and will kill yourself to work, but it is worth it. In Europe things are much more relaxed and you will do a lot of tourism. Sure you’ll end with a PhD, but much less worthy.
I found that somehow strange… This was not too great of a case for the US, nevertheless they wanted me to go and sacrifice some years of my life for a title. Suffice to say that I did not apply for any positions in the US… In the end, I got a position in Vienna, Austria, and that’s where I went to.
Looking back, having finished a PhD in Europe and understanding better how the American programs work, I sort of see their point. I am sure you see it as well, so I will not go over that. My intention here is to say what they have not told me (maybe because most or all of them had got a PhD from an American university). Given the choice, I would *never* exchange the years I spent in Vienna and Paris for a PhD from an ivy-league school in the US. Here’s why.
I moved to Vienna alone. It was the first time I was living outside my parents’ house and I started big: other side of the world in a country whose language I did not speak. I not only had to learn how to manage my own life, but how to manage my life in a society completely different from the one I was used to. And do a PhD on my spare time. In trying to adapt, I started looking at life differently. Suddenly answers like “that’s the way things are” or “it’s just how it works” stopped making sense because here I was at a place where things were not like that and, guess what? Everything still works! (Even better sometimes…) The opportunity to travel a lot (Europe is really very small… and a bunch of different countries are just a 3-hour flight away) has contributed to that feeling. Everywhere there was something curious, something different, a new unsaid rule that everyone followed. And as we try to fit in, we test different behaviors on ourselves, and realize that many “defaults” we have can be changed to something that works better, or to something that is more “you”. It is interesting the moment you feel more at home at a place that is completely different from the one where you were born, simply because that is more in line with your values. I feel like those years were a deconstruction and reconstruction of myself, and I feel much more comfortable in my skin today than I did 6 years ago. Hopefully this will only get better with time 🙂
Sure I did learn a lot scientifically as well, and I did get a PhD, and a job. My professors might think that I got lucky. (I think so too). But even if I hadn’t got a position, and was unemployed in Vienna today, still I would not change a thing. I am a resourceful person and I could get a job eventually, even outside academia. What I have learned and how much I have grown during this experience is beyond any career-oriented measurement of success.
You might argue that the same would happen if I had moved to the US, but I don’t think so. We know too much about them. We get their music, movies, series, news, culture… From what I know, life would not be so much different from the life I had before. Also, I have lived in the US long ago. Back then, I did not realize all the nuances and particularities I noticed last semester, when I was living there for a few months again. Since we know so much, it is a hard place to feel like an outsider. Maybe it will be more comfortable, but less eye-opening.
What I want to show now, specially now, is that going to the US does not have to be the ultimate dream or the best/only choice. The world is a big place, and great opportunities are available everywhere. We just need to remember that opportunities should encompass employment *and* life as well.