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From Italy, with love: brief practical guide for international PhD students who meet Italian PhD stu

Valeria Bellan from the Body in Mind writes for us today!

‘Why we should pay scientists while we produce the best shoes in the world?’

October 2010

Silvio Berlusconi, Italian Prime Minister at that time

Let’s do a brief experiment. We are in Italy. Take a girl, put her on a stool in a bar and wait. After a while a boy will approach her kindly, asking her name and what she does for a living. Let’s say the girl is a PhD student, so her reply will be that she is currently working to complete her PhD. Wait. It would then be very likely that the nice guy’s first response would be: ‘So, you still go to school. And when you finish, what job would you like to do?’.

Doing a PhD is not a common career option in Italy and the general thought is that you do a PhD because you’re unsure of what you want to be when you grow up. This post aims to provide international students some advice about what they should know about Italian students and, hopefully, give some advice to Italian students who may decide to give an international academic experience a try.

First. Italians struggle with English, even those who tell you ‘I’ve been to England thousands of times, I won’t have any problem with English!’ (like me before moving to Australia, BTW). False. You’ll have lots of problems on both sides. For Italians away from home, it is really hard because people speak quickly and different people have different accents and different ways to pronounce words (just imagine the difference between the Italian spoken by a person from Milan and by a person from Naples, and we even live in the same country!). Thus, keep it in your mind: you’ll struggle. But you’ll improve little by little. So, English speakers, please, make little efforts: try to be clear, fully pronounce your words (Australians!) and use words that you would use when speaking to an old lady (old ladies – don’t ask me why – always use the same vocabulary you’ve been taught at school…so if you get lost and need directions, ask an old lady!).

Second. Our school system is different, so Italians, it’s quite normal if you’re older than the other PhD students. It’s not because outside Italy everybody is super smart (well, maybe, but that’s not the point), it’s because we start school later and in order to start a PhD we need a Master degree first. So, you’re not slow, just delayed!

Third. You’ll be slower than the others at the beginning – English speakers will understand. So, don’t feel bad: it’ll take you more time than others when reading and writing, as well.

Fourth. I found it very useful, before starting my project here, to partake in other researchers’ experiments. Basically, be the Guinea Pig, as much as you can. In this way you’ll start having an idea about the words, the behaviours and all the other stuff you are supposed to know when you run an experiment in another country. You’ll soon realise that all these things matter and you’d better being prepared!

If you’re as lucky as I’ve been, you’ll find a kind research assistant with a ‘BBC accent’ that will help you out and will encourage you constantly. English speakers: please, correct our grammar and we won’t be offended by your comments (as long as they’re polite, of course!).

And when you’re feeling blue about your English, remember this: you’re better at speaking English than most of the other students at speaking Italian (well, this is because Italian is not a very useful language if you travel around the world, but always remember almost everyone loves our language!).

And, by the way, English speakers (and eaters!): Carbonara pasta doesn’t have mushrooms and, to my knowledge, not a single Italian restaurant in Italy has ever had ‘Alfredo pasta’ on the menu.