Top Challenges Faced by International PhD Students in the USA

The United States of America is one of the most preferred destinations for PhD programs among students from all over the world. This is owing to the US having some of the best universities that offer advanced research facilities and outstanding faculty members in different disciplines. While PhD programs are difficult for all students, international students face and have to overcome additional challenges. This is why this post pays more attention to the international student community in the USA by treating extensively some of the major challenges faced by International PhD Students in the USAMajor Challenges Faced by International PhD Students in the USA

See Also: PhD in the USA Without GRE

Coming from a different country, international students have to adapt to a new culture, a new education system, a new language (for some), and in many cases a new living standard. These students face many difficulties even before they start their education in the US, such as obtaining a US Visa for PhD studies, finding affordable housing, and securing enough funds to live in the US for several years.

While international students face these pre-arrival challenges, the post-arrival challenges can often be more daunting. The process of acculturation, research coursework, teaching requirements, research quality, and thesis writing add up to the already existing stress of international students.

In a study by Yves et al, they explored some of these challenges and the impact it has on international students at different stages of their PhD program. Hence, to curb these challenges, we take data and insights from existing research to highlight the major challenges that international PhD students face in the USA. We believe that a discussion about these challenges will help in better preparation for future international PhD students.

Major Challenges Faced by International PhD Students in the USAChallenges Faced by International PhD Students in the USA

The USA is a nation of immigrants and as such is made up of a very diverse population. However, this does not mean that it is necessarily easy for newcomers to adapt. Each state, and often each city, has its own unique culture. One of the biggest challenges for most international PhD students is the high level of competition and the unfamiliar teaching and research methods.

See Also: Top Universities Offering Part-Time PhD Programs in the USA

Studying for a PhD is a challenging experience no matter where you are from. Each country has different rules and regulations, different standards and different expectations. International PhD students must not only contend with the rigors of PhD study, but also with the process of acculturation and the challenges of living in a foreign country.

Most international students experience a kind of ‘cultural shock’ when they first arrive in the USA. This is a perfectly normal experience that arises from suddenly being immersed in a completely new culture with no preparation. These and many more are the top challenges faced by international students in the United States. Below is a full list of these challenges.

1. Academic Challenges

International students face more significant academic challenges than domestic students, which can be attributed to factors such as their field of study, educational background, and language competency. For many, the primary challenge lies in language competency, as articulating thoughts and ideas in an academically acceptable manner is a major hurdle.

Academic culture shock and a lack of understanding of the unwritten rules of academia also hinder their progress. Furthermore, the varying quality of prior education, different educational approaches, and incomplete understanding of academic expectations present additional challenges for international students.

See: Cheapest Schools In USA To Do A PhD

2. Cultural Challenges

In addition to the academic obstacles, international PhD students also confront cultural challenges. These arise when people from differing cultural backgrounds clash in their beliefs and practices. These difficulties can impede the progress of international students in their graduate programs and lead them to feel vulnerable, threatened, or uncomfortable.

These challenges are evident both on and off campus. On campus, socializing with American students in the same research group can be tough, and language barriers can contribute to self-esteem issues and hinder the cultural adjustment process, leading international students to feel isolated. Off-campus, international students may be hesitant to ask questions during recruitment events due to fears that their accent will disclose their international status, potentially indicating discrimination.

3. Financial Challenges

Higher education in the United States is costly for American and international students alike. Financial difficulties pose a significant barrier for PhD students from other countries who are pursuing their studies in the USA. Many of these students struggle to afford the high tuition fees and cost of living. International students look for the most affordable cities in the USA to live in while studying in order to save money and costs alike. The expenses of pursuing higher education have been increasing rapidly, leading to a crisis in student loans across the nation.

The majority of international PhD students depend on assistantships or internships offered by their universities to cover their tuition fees, although the stipend attached to these programs is often insufficient to cover living expenses, especially in expensive cities. As a result, many students are forced to seek menial jobs and part-time employment, especially during the summer months when they are not working on campus. This situation creates immense pressure for students to make ends meet while completing their PhD. Along with financial stress, students also face anxiety about filing taxes each year, as the tax laws in the United States vary based on visa status.

Read Also: Getting a PhD in the UK vs Getting a PhD in the USA

Administrative and legal obstacles present a major hurdle for international PhD students studying in the United States. Some potential difficulties include navigating visa regulations and grasping employment laws. In addition, international students may encounter issues with accessing healthcare and meeting taxation requirements. The intricate U.S. immigration system often creates significant barriers for international PhD students.

The legal and administrative challenges faced by these students can have grave consequences. The process of obtaining a student visa is frequently very taxing, and once in the USA, students must comply with numerous intricate regulations to keep their visas valid. Any misstep can result in serious repercussions, and the constantly changing visa regulations only add to the pressure.

Read Up: Working in the USA: Best Guide for International PhD Students

5. Mental Health Challenges

The mental well-being of international PhD students is crucial, and it poses a unique challenge for these students as compared to their domestic counterparts. Various factors such as culture shock, discrimination, feelings of isolation, and language barriers can contribute to the decline in mental health among international students in the United States. Furthermore, international PhD students may be at a higher risk of developing mental health issues compared to local students.

The rigorous research and coursework demands placed on these students can increase stress levels, and inadequate financial support adds to their burden. Additionally, international students may be reluctant to seek help for mental health concerns due to stigma in their home culture or fears related to their immigration status. The fear of deportation can be a significant source of anxiety for international students in the USA.

6. Lack of Adequate Support Systems and Resources

International PhD students in the USA are not receiving the necessary specialized support, particularly relating to their research and dissertation. While social and cultural needs are being met at the university and department level, there is a lack of support for international students in areas such as language issues, research development, and the dissertation process. Many international students struggle with critical thinking and research skills due to their previous educational backgrounds. This makes it difficult for them to keep up with domestic students in these areas.

International students often feel excluded from financial aid opportunities available to domestic students, such as grants and scholarships. Their visa status also limits their ability to work off-campus, adding another financial burden. Changes to financial support or their programs further impact their educational journey. It is disheartening that there is not enough support available for international PhD students as they pursue their degrees in the USA leading to why most PhD students drop out.

Coping Strategies for International PhD Students in the USA

While many international PhD students experience a whole lot of challenges during their doctoral studies in the USA, they have been found to adopt various coping strategies. Some of the common coping mechanisms include:

  • Seeking social support, engaging in problem-focused coping, and using emotion-focused coping.
  • Specifically, obtaining support from family or co-nationals
  • Seeking advice and mentorship from more experienced co-nationals who have lived in the USA for an extended period while building horizontal relationships with other students in similar situations are also common strategies.
  • When it comes to academics, students may cope by selecting a less competitive research topic or modifying their research interests in favor of a more feasible research trajectory.

Other academic coping strategies may include:

  • Repeating instructions to ensure understanding
  • Asking for feedback or help from faculty
  • Seeking additional training or resources outside the university to fill research gaps.


The United States has consistently been a top choice for international students at all levels of education, including PhD programs. In recent years, there has been a notable increase in the number of international PhD candidates, many of whom finance their own studies and come from Asian nations. However, pursuing a PhD abroad presents numerous obstacles, and foreign students must navigate additional challenges in addition to the typical struggles experienced by domestic students. The unique structure of PhD programs in the USA adds an additional layer of complexity for international students, who may find themselves unprepared for the differences in the educational system.


Leave a Reply

You May Also Like