In the digital age, the search for knowledge transcends national boundaries. Students are increasingly choosing to study abroad to learn from the world’s brightest minds and acquire a global perspective. Among the almost 8,000 international students at the University of Cambridge is Canadian PhD candidate Olivia Remes.
Pursuing a PhD after completing her Master’s degree in Canada was a natural next step for Olivia. She enjoyed the epidemiology coursework of her Master’s, and when she started reading about mental disorders she realized that this was what she wanted to focus her academic career on. She started researching PhD programs in mental health at several Canadian and European universities. While she found many excellent, rigorous research programs at home in Canada, she ultimately decided to make the leap across the pond to continue her graduate studies at the University of Cambridge. “I wanted to gain experience in other parts of the world,” Olivia explained. “I think it’s good to broaden your horizons and see what it’s like at other places – to learn about different ways of working and make new collaborations. The fact that the University of Cambridge is one of the world’s top research institutions made it my first choice when looking at PhD programs.”
At Cambridge in the Department of Public Health and Primary Care, Olivia researches mental health with a focus on anxiety and depression. “When I started reading about anxiety and depression, I became very interested in these topics and wanted to gain a deeper understanding about why some people are more prone to developing them and the impact that [these conditions] have on society.” These common mental disorders are highly stigmatized and associated with substantial human burden, which is the reason she decided to make them the focus of her studies.
Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health disorders in the world today affecting one in 14 and one in 20 people respectively. People suffering from these conditions are at higher risk for disability, substance abuse, and suicide. Despite the prevalence of mental health problems, there is still much that isn’t known about them. Some of Olivia’s research examines the burden of mental illness. “By shedding light on the burden of anxiety and depression, which population sub-groups are most affected, and the substantial personal and societal costs associated with untreated illness, we are hoping to make our health services understand the importance of screening and providing targeted treatment to people with mental disorders.” Evidently she’s having an impact as she has been interviewed by the BBC and Sky News about her findings, opportunities she might not have had if she hadn’t decided to study overseas. She even gave a widely-viewed TEDx talk about techniques to cope with anxiety.
As a researcher, Olivia’s favourite part of her job is that she gets to be her own boss while at the same time collaborating with and learning from some of the top experts in the field. She can research the topics that she is passionate about, and tailor her program to her needs. All that freedom could be overwhelming, so Olivia has some advice for young researchers doing their undergraduate or Master’s students who are unsure if they want to continue further into academia. “I would encourage you to become involved in a research project. It’s an excellent first step to take to see if you like this route and explore topics that might be of interest to you.”
Having an interest in the topic of your PhD research is critical. It’s what you will be immersed in for the next few years—or longer if you continue on to a career in academia. In addition to having passion for your chosen subject, it is also important to choose a supervisor who can provide guidance and counsel when needed. It can be helpful to talk to former students of the professor you are interested in working with to learn more about them and their research before you apply.
Olivia has never regretted her decision to do her PhD abroad. “The University of Cambridge is a great place to study because it is committed to excellence in research and teaching, and is dedicated to inspiring innovation.” In addition to being a world-class academic environment, the city of Cambridge is vibrant and filled with enthusiastic students. While making friends is a common concern when moving to a new place, the university’s college system (where communities of students live and eat together in residential colleges) gives students a built-in friend group. Olivia adds that “Colleges also organize many events for their students – formal dinner evenings, themed events, dances, outings to nearby cities, punting trips.”
There are many things to consider when deciding whether to pursue a degree abroad, but Olivia encourages others just to go for it. “Don’t be scared to take risks – to move abroad, embark on a new program with a new topic, collaborate and meet new people. I think this is what makes life exciting!”