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My ethical dilemma with international students


Katinka Stecina
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Katinka Stecina

I have been receiving a lot of graduate student applications from keenly interested, dedicated students outside of my country, Canada. It has not been that long ago, when I was an international student myself, with a student visa in a country where I knew no one else other than my lab´s members. It is also vividly in my mind, how I envied all other students around me who had a status different from being on a “student visa”. They were free to do anything in their lives and they could decide about the future without ever considering the thought that “I need to figure out a way to establish myself in this country for real or go back home when I am done with graduate studies”.
Well, sometimes this is a rhetorical question. Often there are no programs allowing for a different visa status to students after their studies have terminated. Unless there is a magic job offer that happens and satisfies all current immigration preferences, there is no other way to change the status, to secure a “more established” life. Then there is only the other option that becomes the path of least resistance and “the most likely to happen to me” option - unless the immigration laws change by the time one graduates, or I wins the lottery. OK, move on!
Imagine a 20-some year old student, starting an MSc or a PhD, just beginning to understand the world of opportunities within “research, academia and neurosciences” and just beginning to be worried about what to do in life “for real”. Imagine, how could this person decide about the question: “Should I establish myself here or 3000+ miles over there?”
When I was at this point in my life myself, things could have not been murkier than they were in all aspects of my life. And yes, I did want someone to tell me what I should do. There was, of course, no one knowing the answers. But there were at least people to talk to about my options. This is what makes me today, to be one of those supervisors who want to talk about options upfront, especially with international applicants.
I encourage all of the incoming students to consider the MSc program as a start. If their performance and motivation aligns after the first year into the program, they can make the decision to transfer into the PhD program (at least at my institution). But if they wish to obtain a more secure status in their new country – prior to pursuing PhD studies - they can do so after the 2 years of the MSc program and then a shot at gaining work experience. This, however, overall, resulted in me offering a lot of opportunities to international students at the Master’s level but not transitioning many of them onto higher levels of graduate training and I feel as if I am being less encouraging to my students in terms of the PhD training.
How do other supervisors think about this dilemma?

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  • 4 months later...
Gabriella Panuccio

I believe that establishing an international and multi-cultural environment in the lab fosters creativity and team-building spirit. But I also agree with you that before making that big jump into the unknown of a new country, with different rules and social habits etc, it is important to have a ‘try before you buy’. A PhD is a 360 degrees commitment, it requires dedication and at times also putting our private lives aside. If the lab does not feel like home and if the country you live in gives you a sense of foreign place, maybe it’s not wise to go beyond the MSc. I have heard of many PhD students who unfortunately decided to get their PhD and then quit research because they couldn’t thrive in their lab while the foreign country they were living in was ‘too foreign’.
I am myself a traveler scientist: I have spent 7 years in Canada, then 2 years in Belgium, then came back to Italy (my home country) for another 2 years and I am now ready to take off for the Netherlands. I have always been overall very lucky with my experiences, but I have learned that a lab must be chosen according to the feeling of home and the team spirit that you can perceive from lab members. Also, it is fundamental to study a bit of the societal structure and organization in order to understand if the system we’re going to be part of is actually compatible with our needs. After all, when we leave the lab in the evening, we also need to conduct our private life.

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