International mobility during a PhD: A journey with unexpected turns

By Irmak Karakislaj

Deciding to do a PhD abroad is the start of a journey with a lot of unexpected turns. From deciding on which topics motivate you and where you want to pursue your studies, to eventually getting into a doctoral program, can be exhausting. However, if you are persistent and lucky enough, your journey can take you to places you could have never imagined.

For me, it started with an email inviting me to an interview in Saarbrücken, Germany, a small city I have never been to before. Just a few weeks later, I found myself walking next to the Saar River, the river that flows across north-eastern France into Germany, imagining how my life would be here. Leaving Istanbul, my friends and family, not speaking German were some of the topics that challenged me the most as I was making my mind up. Then, I was in Brussels meeting some of the colleagues from MISTRAL, getting familiar with the project and feeling all the excitement. The aim of the project and all the opportunities I could explore inspired me. Eventually, I became a part of MISTRAL, studying the interaction between social norms and justice perceptions of the public regarding wind energy projects at IZES gGmbH, Saarbrücken.

Saar River, Saarbrücken, Germany
September 2019

Right after my move to Saarbrücken, I realized I desperately needed to learn German. My very basic knowledge of German I used in the supermarkets or cafes were not going to be enough. So, I started an evening course in the city. However, just a month after my courses started, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world. Even though lockdowns turned everyone`s world upside-down, I was lucky enough to continue my research and German courses virtually. Learning a new language, as an idea or a goal, was very interesting for me, but the execution was a challenge. It can be a rollercoaster; one day I, surprisingly, could make an appointment at my dentist speaking in German. Later on, that week, as I went to my dentist, very proudly, I realized that I completely misunderstood the hour and the date. In the past 18 months I have had countless similar experiences and misunderstandings but I feel more adapted to my international experience every day as I learn the language more. Also, our German-speaking team at IZES encourages and supports me to improve my language skills. Weekly online courses, doing homework, reading and listening to news in German were helpful but the most effective way for me was to practice. Trying to speak German, even by making mistakes, with the neighbours, friends, colleagues or the cashier at the supermarket improved my ability to communicate better which gave me more confidence.

There are many challenges and advantages to international mobility during your PhD, as you leave your old home and create a new one. Particularly, if you are going to a country without knowing the language, additional effort is required to settle into the new culture. My journey, until now, led me to learn a new language, struggle on the way, but be rewarded as I can finally make spot-on appointments on the phone 🙂

Vielen Dank für das Lesen!