Cultural Differences in Academia: Major Points to Keep in Mind While Studying Abroad

Cultural Differences in Academia: Major Points to Keep in Mind While Studying Abroad

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In recent years, more and more universities are deliberately seeking out international students and encouraging cross-cultural exchange, whether through direct exchange programs, entire degrees for or including international students, or wider networks such as the Erasmus program in Europe. The benefits of working and studying abroad are numerous – they can lead to improved language skills, salary, a global network of contacts and increased cultural sensitivity.

Such an experience can prepare a student for their future career, and (more importantly, perhaps) for life. In a globalised world, it is increasingly important that people are able to interact and work comfortably with individuals from all around the world. However, it isn’t always easy! In order to be successful in your studies and to make the most of your time abroad, it will often be necessary to adjust your expectations and behaviour. What is considered normal or expected in your own country may in fact be a bad idea at your host university! The following are a few major points of cultural difference to keep in mind while studying overseas.

  • Language

One of the biggest cultural differences that you are likely to encounter - wherever you choose to study abroad - is language. Effective communication is key in academia, and it can be very difficult for an international student to keep up in classes, particularly when the language of instruction is not your first language. In some countries, such as the United Kingdom, United States and Australia, class participation is often an important (sometimes mandatory) component of each course, and it is therefore necessary to participate in class discussion. Academic presentation style can be particularly important for international students, who benefit from visual aids such as powerpoint.

It can be particularly difficult if you come from a country where the teaching style does not require as much discussion and debate. In Japan, for example, the teaching style often requires less speaking and more written components, so it is important to keep this difference in mind! There are also differences in the way that written work is expected to be done – for example in France, written work is often written in the “thèse, antithèse, synthèse” style, with more rigid rules that must be conformed to (such as not using conjugated verbs in headings).

  • Interaction with faculty members and teaching staff

The way that students interact with their teachers is different in every country, often to a very great degree! In Australia, for example, it is common to address lecturers by their first name, which would be unacceptable in many other countries. In tutorials in particular, the teaching style can be very informal, often student-led, and groupwork is common. This is another aspect to keep in mind – working with others can be a rewarding way to learn, but particularly challenging when you are studying in a foreign country and not used to the way that tasks are allocated and how groups are expected to work together.

  • Managing your own time and research

In some countries, students will be given a great deal of direction by teachers. In others, students need to learn to be self-sufficient, and to manage their own time and resources. Both styles have their positive and negative aspects, and so it is important to be able to adapt to both. If you’re from a country where teachers usually give a great deal of guidance about your time and research, it can feel very confusing and isolated to be expected to study with less input. In some countries, students are expected to take notes in lectures; in others, all the course material is provided by the teacher, or available in a textbook. It is important to understand how this works in the country that you choose to study in, so that you don’t miss out! Often it is a good idea to ask friends at your host university to explain how it works, as they will have more time than teachers, and likely be going through the same experiences as you.

  • Examination style

One of the biggest examination style differences is written versus oral examinations. In many English-speaking countries, written examinations are common, whereas in others, such as France, students are often required to defend themselves orally during an examination, to demonstrate their knowledge. For a student who is used to a particular way of being examined, it can be very difficult to adapt to the other style.

Studying abroad can be one of the most rewarding experiences of a student’s life. However, it can also be one of the most challenging. If you’re studying abroad, it is always important to ask for help if you need it. The majority of universities have international student offices, and it is always possible to ask other students to explain if you’re having trouble with cultural differences. If you’re considering study abroad, take a look at the INOMICS website for information about Master’s and PhD programs available all around the world! If you’re trying to decide on a country, we’ve written specific posts about why to consider Italy, the UK, Turkey, China and Spain!

Photo credit: SLU Madrid Campus 


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