Lab Life

The Chemistry of Culture: Studying in a Foreign Country

Youngah (Karen) Kwon

“Chemistry is universal around the globe,” or so I thought. When I made the big move from South Korea to the United States for graduate school, I knew that the sci­ence of chemistry itself was universal, but I wasn’t prepared for how differ­ent the culture surrounding chemistry could be. International students face the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture around our graduate schools and our labs after moving to a new country, where we also need to figure out how to make a life.

According to the National Sci­ence Foundation, about one-third of U.S. doctoral degrees in chemistry in 2016 were awarded to international students. Even though we constitute a significant proportion of the chemistry graduate school population, being an international student can feel lonely and isolating. Here I will talk about some of the difficulties I encountered and how I overcame them.

Different Lab Dynamics

Hierarchy based on seniority is prevalent in Korean society, including chemistry labs. For this reason, when I first joined my current department, I was shocked to find out that everyone addressed their advisers by their first names. In Korea, students addressed their advisers as “Professor;” using their first names was unthinkable. I also noticed a general informality among students and post­docs that seems to create a more open environment for discussions.

Adjusting to the difference in lab dynamics between cultures can chal­lenge international students in the beginning, though. When I first moved to the United States, I realized that the adviser’s expectations of me had changed drastically from those in Korea. I sud­denly had to be proactive in asking questions and sharing opinions more openly. However, since I was raised in a culture where being proactive is literally a foreign concept, I could not even fathom what it en­tailed. This got me off to a bad start. My adviser took my lack of action as a lack of interest, when I was simply not used to taking the initiative. I was waiting for her and the other senior students to start dis­cussions first.

This kind of misunderstanding happens regularly among people who come from different cultural backgrounds. For example, stu­dents from a culture where being blunt is more of a norm could come off as rude to coworkers used to less forthright ways of expressing opinions. In a chemistry lab, where you often need to cooperate with your labmates to move a project forward, adapting to the new culture is almost as important as the research itself.

Transparent communication is the key to building positive lab dynamics. If possible, discuss unanswered questions or the issues that are troubling you more openly with your adviser and labmates. It might be a little hard to initiate these conversations at first, but remember that these people want you to succeed.

Also, adjusting to a new place takes time. Don’t beat yourself up for not fit­ting in right away in your first week.

Finally, remember that you are now a part of the lab culture, too, so don’t be afraid to help shape it as you move along.

When I first moved to the United States, I realized that the adviser’s expectations of me had changed drastically from those in Korea.

Building a Support Network

Being a chemistry graduate student is tough. Being an international one adds another layer of difficulty because of the lack of a support network. We often work ridiculously long hours, includ­ing weekends, and even after that, our experiments and simulations often don’t go as we expected. Encouragement from our loved ones is the life support everyone in graduate school needs. However, when your family and friends are thousands of miles away, talking to them—not to men­tion seeing them— becomes extremely hard. Not getting the proper support from the familiar faces can definitely take a toll on your life as a graduate student. Especially when the holidays roll around—whether one from your home country or an American one—sitting at home alone or working in an empty lab can feel isolating and demoralizing. When you are separated from your loved ones by the ocean and several time zones, it is important to find new networks to support you in your vicinity.

When I first started out in my Ph.D. program, I participated in as many so­cial events as possible. Since everyone in my cohort was new, we were all open to making new friends. My department also has many small shared interest groups, from playing sports to board games, so I tried to seize opportunities to hang out with other graduate stu­dents and postdocs who share the same interests. Building close relationships with your lab mates and fellow chemis­try graduate students and postdocs in the department is always a good idea. Since they experience similar things, they often understand what you are go­ing through even better than your own family members, who may not relate to the grind of graduate school. Your peers understand that you’re in a bad mood because you ran experiments all week­end without success.

A lot of international students also turn to various student associations on campus relating to their nationalities. Such groups host events when major holidays take place in their home coun­tries. Celebrating them can go a long way in overcoming homesickness. Plus, it can be refreshing to get your mind off chemistry by hanging out with people who study different subjects. 

Understanding Cultural References

If you have never been an international student, you might be thinking that the biggest challenge you will encounter in social settings is the language barrier. The truth is, that problem is not as big as some people might think. Most of the time, the bigger challenge is not getting cultural references in conversations. People who did not grow up in the Unit­ed States lack the common pop culture thread that permeates all Americans. It can feel very isolating when everyone else is laughing at a joke you don’t un­derstand. This might sound trivial, but considering how socializing in depart­mental or interdepartmental events can lead to collaborations in the future, this issue is more consequential than most people think.

For example, when I came to the United States in early 2014 for visit­ing weekends, people in one chemistry department were talking extensively about the Bill Nye and Ken Ham de­bate about evolution. I didn’t know who either of them were, but I couldn’t admit it at first, especially since people kept referring to someone called Bill Nye the Science Guy. I thought he was someone I should have known. I only found out that he was a TV personality when I went back to my hotel room and Googled him. Even though I could fol­low the conversation on a surface level, I could not fully understand what people were talking about without compre­hending the reference.

In these scenarios, don’t overana­lyze the situation. Try to relax and listen. When you don’t understand something, it’s okay to ask questions. It can feel awkward at first, especially when you feel like you’re disturbing the flow of the group’s conversation and are the only one who doesn’t get it. But most of the time, people don’t mind filling you in. Some of them might even like getting questions, because it means they get to talk more about something they enjoy.

You should also remember that conversation is a two-way street. You might not know much about 1990s American pop culture, for instance, but your counterpart probably doesn’t know much when it comes to your culture, either. So, don’t be intimidated. Remember that your participation could work as a chance to broaden the conversation by offering a different perspective.

Give It Time

If you are a new international student who just moved to the United States, it might seem like you will never be able to adjust to life in a foreign country. Now that I am entering my fifth year of my Ph.D. program, however, I can as­sure you that you will soon grow accus­tomed to your surroundings. Looking back on my years since coming here, I see that there is now clearer commu­nication between my adviser and me, I have new friends I can easily reach out to when things are not going well, and I can carry on conversations without being intimidated by new cultural refer­ences. I have come a long way, and I know you will too. ■