I have been a visiting PhD student at MIT since February, coming from a PhD program called MIT Portugal. This is a collaboration between several Portuguese universities and MIT. Some of the courses back home were taught by MIT faculty, so that is how I met my current advisor here. From interacting with other students, I came to learn the differences between the grad school system in Portugal (and more broadly in Europe) and the USA. Also, I found out that my time management systems would have to be completely revamped. So, how did I cope with the changes?
From a 4 year PhD system to a longer grad school culture
If you are a funded student by the government agency in Portugal, you are expected to graduate in 4 years. At least, this is the amount of time you have funding from the PhD scholarship. I’m in the end of my third year and I have so much work left to do. Like many programs in the US, my PhD program has a full year of classes and lab rotations, so I only have 3 years total to work on my own project. Here in the US, people have told me it can go from 4 to 6 or even 7 years. The idea I have is that time or funding is not such a large issue here and quality is valued over getting the PhD done timely. For instance, my program in Portugal has dictated that I cannot go over 5 years. Of course staying very long on a PhD project also has its downsides, getting a job after graduation is delayed. like taking longer to find a job in another field, being in academia or not. So, bear with me while I have to up my game in quality + time. I still don’t have a submitted manuscript and my time here with so many meetings has kind of delayed its execution, but I know all the advice helped to get a much higher quality work done.
From having to look outside my department for seminars to having to refuse so many activities
I am working in a campus back home that is outside Lisbon and there is not much going on there. Even though I am fortunate to live close to Portugal’s capital, which is bursting with activities, I never thought I would see the overload of interesting things that MIT has to offer. During my first few months I would attend every event I thought was interesting, but now I have to refuse a lot of them because there are other priorities, like working on my thesis. Still, it is incredibly enriching to have so many career and personal growth opportunities going on!
From having meetings rarely to having a huge amount of meetings per week
I used to meet with my supervisor every other week and have a group meeting every month at most. Now I have weekly meetings with my MIT supervisor, biweekly meetings with my Portuguese supervisor, and the weekly group meetings here. I also have lots of meetings with collaborators who provide feedback on my work. I have learned a lot from all these meetings. But for me, who needs a very steady schedule, this feels like overkill. I have now achieved a calmer schedule workwise, and I feel that having so many meetings also helps me to be more focused whenever I work. Or try to.
From having to wait a long time to get things paid and shipped to having orders ready in 2-3 days
It is really hard to get lab supplies in Portugal, since the orders go through several processes and funding is more limited. Everything has to be purchased very wisely. any reagents might come from other countries. Here, most reagents arrive within a week and there is more funding for purchases. I think it is always a good practice to learn how to do very well with little resources, but at times it’s good to know you have a buffer for things to come faster if something goes wrong.
From a 1h train or bus commute to riding a bike every day
This is specific for me of course, since I used to live with my parents when I worked in the Lisbon area in Portugal. So, since we live in the suburbs, my days were filled with commutes, traffic and waiting times. It was also not the norm to work at night in the office or lab due to commuting. Now, I live quite close to campus (20 minute walking distance, fortunately!) and I use the shared bike system in Boston. This has the advantages of giving me more time to cook, sleep and have a social life, but also the downfall that I can be at MIT anytime and it can engulf life.
While things are certainly different in a a PhD program in the states compared to Portugal, I have learned to adapt to the new challenges of time management I’ve encountered since moving here. I felt that my routine, which included regular hours for commuting (I had to share the car with my mom and I abided by her work hours), was completely thrown out the window. However, I learned how to make the most of my time here at MIT and engage into a lot of activities that would bring personal and professional growth. While a new routine was formed, I learned what I want to do after earning my PhD and the kind of woman I want to be.