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TIP-Topics for Students: The Top Five Challenges International Students In I-O Face and How to Overcome Them

Stefanie Gisler, Bradley Gray, Jenna-Lyn Roman, & Ethan Rothstein, Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY

From going through a competitive admissions process to taking advanced courses while juggling multiple responsibilities, life as a graduate student can be stressful. We all had to adjust to the increased demands associated with graduate school. For international students studying abroad on a temporary visa, this adjustment period is paired with some additional, unique challenges. As of 2015, nearly five million students globally were pursuing their higher education abroad. The majority of them were enrolled in master’s or doctorate programs (The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, 2017). Many international students study in a foreign language and live in countries that are culturally different from their home country. These are some common difficulties across all international students, but what about international students in I-O?

Currently, little is known about the types of challenges that international students in I-O face. In order to learn more about this population, we decided to collect some data. We developed a survey to collect both quantitative and qualitative data on international students’ experiences and attitudes. The survey was distributed to the graduate programs listed on SIOP’s database. A total of 61 international students completed the survey, of which 61% are currently enrolled in an I-O program and 39% completed an I-O degree. Participants stem from five continents. The majority of respondents indicated that they are extremely or somewhat satisfied with their I-O program (see graph). However, we were also able to identify five common challenges international students are facing: difficulties during the admissions process, overcoming a language barrier, adjusting to the foreign culture, financial difficulties due to visa restrictions, and insufficient practical knowledge/experience at the end of their studies. 1

After uncovering these challenges, we wanted to find ways to cope with them. We thought that one of the best resources for advice would be successful I-O psychologists who used to be international students themselves. Three faculty members agreed to help with our project: Benjamin Elman (Program Director, Touro College), Christiane Spitzmueller (Professor, University of Houston), and Zhiqing “Albert” Zhou (Assistant Professor, Florida Institute of Technology). Each one of them offered excellent advice that we hope will be helpful for prospective and current international students in I-O.

Admissions Process

We all had to go through a daunting admissions process. Filling out online applications, writing personal statements, ordering transcripts from past schools, submitting GRE scores, submitting résumés/CVs, and securing letters of recommendations are some common requirements of I-O programs. Ensuring that all the requirements are met and all the documents are submitted on time can be very stressful, especially for international students who have to submit additional documents regarding their immigration status. Usually, these documents need to be submitted to the International Student Office at the prospective school. As a consequence, international students frequently have to communicate with both the academic department and the International Student Office during the admissions process. Communication issues with the different departments and unclear application requirements for international students were some complaints voiced in our survey. One student mentioned that she had to send many follow-up emails to check if all the documents had been received.

“Make sure you start the application process at least 4 months before the deadline for domestic students to ascertain you get everything in place,” recommends Christiane Spitzmueller. In other words, international students require a longer lead time to prepare their application. Dr. Spitzmueller adds that international students should check the application requirements for domestic students and then follow up with the department and the international student office to see if there are any additional requirements. Albert Zhou found it helpful to get in touch with current international students in the program, especially if the students are from the same country. The program director should be able to get applicants in touch with current students. He also encourages international students to be proactive and to contact the admissions office when they are confused with any of the requirements.

Language Barrier

Most graduate programs have formal language requirements that international students need to meet in order to be considered for admissions. The requirements can vary across programs, and they are usually met by attaining a certain score on foreign language tests or by providing other documentation verifying language proficiency (e.g., a bachelor’s degree completed in the same language). Nevertheless, many international students still experience challenges related to language, especially in the early stages of their graduate studies. Some students indicated in our survey that the language barrier is one of their greatest challenges. It can be difficult to understand people when they talk at a fast pace. Language can also be a challenge for teaching, research, and writing assignments.

Unfortunately, improving language skills can take time, but there are ways to speed up the process. “I think international students should proactively push themselves out of their comfort zone,” Albert Zhou states. He adds that class and group discussions as well as class presentations are good opportunities for international students to improve their language skills. It is important to also practice outside of the classroom. Christiane Spitzmueller recommends to start watching TV upon arrival and to listen to podcasts in the local language while commuting. Reading the news and reading I-O journals in the foreign language can also be helpful. Last, international students should make sure to seek friends who are not from their home country. According to Dr. Spitzmueller: “Students who interact a lot in the foreign language adjust fast and improve rapidly.”

Cultural Adjustment

Living in a culture that is different from your own can be exciting, but it can also pose challenges. Some students experience culture shock when they move abroad due to differing values and beliefs (Wu, Garza, & Guzman, 2015). As a result, international students often have to go through an adjustment period. In our survey, some students indicated that they are having difficulties adjusting to the local culture. They indicated that cultural differences make it difficult to network in a professional setting or to make friends with domestic students. This can result in feelings of isolation or loneliness.

Although there might be pressure to adjust to the local culture, Albert Zhou recommends to not fully succumb to it. International students should only adjust to the degree they feel comfortable in order to avoid unnecessary pressure or stress. It is not a problem if students want to maintain their cultural identity, but “they should at least understand the local culture so that cultural conflicts can be avoided.” In order to gain a better understanding of the local culture, Dr. Zhou advises students to engage in social and group activities with which they feel comfortable. Benjamin Elman believes that joining Meetup groups or sports teams are excellent ways to learn more about the local culture while also potentially developing social circles.

Financial Difficulties

Balancing a personal budget on a graduate student stipend can be tough, if you even receive one. Although most PhD programs offer some form of funding and/or tuition remission, many master’s programs do not. Students in both types of programs often need to take out student loans to afford their education. Furthermore, some students have to take on additional responsibilities during the semester (e.g., teaching extra courses) or work during the summers. For international students, the situation is even more complicated. If they are enrolled in a public university that does not offer tuition remission, they usually have to pay out-of-state tuition for the duration of their studies. International students also do not qualify for foreign student loans.

Generally, students on a student visa are permitted to work a certain number of hours on or off campus. Whether students are permitted to work off campus varies widely depending on the host country. In some countries, students have to apply for off-campus employment in the form of special work authorizations, but obtaining these temporary work authorizations can be tricky, and they are tied to specific stipulations. Some students indicated that they found it very challenging to obtain work authorization while still being enrolled in their graduate program. Others felt that they were at a disadvantage compared to domestic students in terms of receiving assistantships. Overall, lack of funding was a common challenge for the international students who took our survey.

Christiane Spitzmueller recommends going for a PhD rather than a master’s if funding is a concern because they typically come with full tuition waivers and funding. She urges international students to not seek unauthorized work. It is illegal and students could risk losing their immigration status or even face deportation. Albert Zhou recommends that students actively seek research/teaching assistant positions or other jobs on campus. “Being actively involved in research for potential grant funding opportunities can sometimes turn into financial support,” he adds. “Paid summer internships can also be helpful when they do not interfere with coursework progress.” If funding through the university is not an option, Benjamin Elman suggests that students could investigate student loan options from their home country.

Insufficient Practical Knowledge/Experience

Nearly 60% of students in our survey who are currently enrolled in a graduate program would like to pursue their careers in the country where they are currently studying. Competing with domestic students over internships and jobs can be difficult. Depending on the country, students might also have to apply for a work visa. Many international students who completed their graduate degree in I-O indicated that securing a work visa was very challenging or even impossible. Some were forced to move back to their home country. One way to improve international students’ chances to find a position abroad is to accumulate job-relevant experience and knowledge during their time in graduate school. However, some international students indicated that they did not gain sufficient practical knowledge and/or experience during their graduate studies.

Benjamin Elman suggests that international students seek unpaid positions at nonprofit organizations that they could add to their résumé. Albert Zhou also recommends that students try to seek experiences beyond what is traditionally offered by graduate programs. He offers some possible options: “Students should try to take the advantage of alumni connections, and look for potential paid/unpaid internship opportunities,” and “SIOP is a good place to network and seek opportunities for job-relevant experiences. For example, SIOP has mentoring opportunities where new attendees can be paired with experienced attendees who might be able to provide job-relevant opportunities.” 2 He also adds that coursework only provides foundational knowledge, which should be supplemented by practice and self-learning. For international students seeking an applied career, Christiane Spitzmueller recommends joining programs with applied research centers or faculty and student-run consulting practices. “I would argue that much of your research is the most meaningful applied experience,” she adds. “Much of the technical expertise will transfer well to real world settings and provide as valuable of a skill set as experiences on ‘actual’ internships.”


Graduate school can be stressful for any student. Navigating the admissions process, finding ways to accumulate practical experiences, and dealing with limited financial resources are struggles many of us are experiencing. International students face some additional, unique challenges in the form of language barriers, cultural adjustments, and restrictions due to their immigration status. These added challenges can make graduate school seem like an uphill battle at times, but there are ways to cope with them. A common theme throughout this article is the importance of being proactive. Establish relationships inside and outside of your program, practice the foreign language whenever you can, and search for additional funding opportunities. These are some examples of how you can be proactive, and they can make a big difference! Last, we would like to thank the international students who took the survey. We would also like to thank the I-O psychologists who offered their advice. They are excellent examples of international students who successfully pursued their careers abroad!


1    Although our sample consisted primarily of international students studying in the U.S., many of the challenges students mentioned are common to international students at large.

2   SIOP is a popular conference in the field, but depending on your geographic region you might want to consider other conferences as well. Some examples are CSIOP (Canada), EAWOP (Europe), and COP (Australia). Check which conferences faculty and students in your program usually attend.



The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. (2017). Education at a glance 2016. Retrieved from http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/education/education-at-a-glance-2017_eag-2017-en#page302

Wu, H. P., Garza, E., & Guzman, N. (2015). International student’s challenge and adjustment to college. Education Research International2015.


Stefanie Gisler is a PhD student at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. She received her BA from Bucknell University and an MS in I-O Psychology from the University of Central Florida (UCF). Her research interests include occupational health psychology, diversity, and selection. After earning her PhD, Stefanie would like to pursue a career in academia.

Bradley Gray is a PhD student at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. He obtained a BA in Psychology from Wake Forest University in 2010 and an MA in Clinical Psychology from Towson University in 2012. He researches occupational health psychology, with an interest in the relationship between supervisors and their employees, and is also interested in culture change and executive development.

Jenna-Lyn Roman is an MS student at Baruch College, CUNY. She received her BA in Psychology from the University of South Florida. She is interested in work–family research with an emphasis on nontraditional workers and understudied populations (i.e., military families), and gender parity topics. She is currently working on her thesis project and applying to PhD programs for an August 2018 program start. Jenna would like to be a university professor specializing in work–family topics.

Ethan Rothstein is a PhD student at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. Ethan obtained his BA in Clinical Psychology from Tufts University in 2013. His primary area of research has been the interface between work and family, but he has also conducted research on motivation, leadership, team processes, and occupational health psychology. After he graduates, Ethan would like to pursue an applied career in both consulting and industry.

The TIP-TOPics team can be reached by email at sgisler@gradcenter.cuny.edu.


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