TU Delft: Taking a PhD abroad makes you more independent

Here is an interview of me that by TU Delft (originally published on TU Delft- Employees portal):

It took a year before he got used to Dutch cheese sandwiches, and he still misses the Chinese dishes. Yue Xiao talks about his experiences as a Chinese PhD student in the Netherlands. Together with other Chinese students, he is organising a get-together at CEG on 23 January to mark Chinese New Year.

Xiao obtained his master’s degree from Wuhan University of Technology. He arrived in Delft in 2008 with a Chinese grant to take a PhD with the Road Engineering research group. He is carrying out research under professor André Molenaar – who is also a visiting professor in Wuhan – into alternatives for tar in anti-skid surfaces on the take-off and landing runways at airports. From 2012, the use of tar for this will no longer be permitted owing to its toxicity.

Intensive contacts

“I chose TU Delft for several reasons”, he explains. “The first is being that the TU is one of the best universities in the world for my specialisation. The second is that the university in Wuhan has been working with the TU for many years, and there are intensive contacts between researchers at the two universities. This made it easier to get a good letter of recommendation to apply for a grant. Another factor is that pretty much everyone in the Netherlands speaks good English. This makes taking a PhD at a Dutch university considerably more attractive than in a country such as France or Italy.Here in the Netherlands, it’s possible to communicate with everyone, both at work and in your free time.”


“The journey to Delft was the first time I’d ever travelled such a long distance by plane. Of course, it was very exciting coming to a completely different country, but at the same time it was easier because I travelled to Delft with two other Chinese students. And once we arrived, we were welcomed by Chinese students who had been in Delft for some time already. They showed us the ropes and helped us into our new life. It was all a bit strange at first, of course. I remember being surprised how everyone cycles here, and that the bikes are like the ‘kings of the road’. You ride on separate cycle paths and, if you do have an accident, you enjoy special status. The punctuality of public transport in the Netherlands was also a pleasant surprise to me.”

Coffee corner

“University life in the Netherlands is also different from in China. For example, here you meet your colleagues every day and can have an informal chat in the coffee corner, about your research or other subjects. In China, that doesn’t really happen. There, you just get a cup of hot water for tea on the corridor and then go back to your workstation. In Chinese universities, there aren’t really any public spaces where you can meet freely and talk to one another. Another big difference is the relationship between the professors and PhD students. In China, the professors tell you what to do and what your research topic is. Doing a PhD is following their ideas, while the students themselves may not have clear answers to questions like why, what and how.”


“Here, the professor is much more like a mentor. You come up with what you want to research yourself, and how you want to do it. The professor will support you in this, but leaves you to make the decisions. In the beginning, I had trouble with this, but after a while I really came to appreciate it. It is good to have responsibility for your project yourself, and to be able to make your own choices. This also means that you always have to think carefully about what you are doing – why you are doing it and whether it fits into the big picture of your research. It also increases your independence.”

Life lessons

Xiao continues: “Generally speaking, a long-term stay abroad makes us Chinese students more independent. I have a brother, but most parents in China have only one child. And they will do anything for that child, which can mean you don’t learn to cook or how to run your household. But if you are alone and in a foreign country, you are forced to learn all these things.”


According to Xiao, some of the differences take a lot of getting used to for Chinese students. One of these is the Dutch lunch. “In China, we are used to hot food in the middle of the day. Personally, it took me a year to get used to bread for lunch, but many Chinese students and PhD students still bring a hot meal with them from home and heat it up here in the microwave. And I still find it strange that it isn’t normal to eat out after work. In China, that’s something we do pretty much every day. Another thing I still find strange is that almost all the shops are closed on public holidays.And I miss the Chinese dishes.”

Karaoke bar

At the university, Xiao has relatively little contact with other Chinese, even though more than half of the twenty PhD students in his research group come from China. “Within the research group, we made a deliberate choice not to put people from China together in the same room. In my free time, I do mix mainly with other Chinese students, however, with whom I share a cultural background. In China, it’s not usual to go to a café to drink beer and chat, but rather to go to a karaoke bar with your friends at the weekends. Here, that isn’t really possible – karaoke bars are only found in expensive hotels – and for me that’s a shame.”

Hard deadline

Xiao hopes to complete his PhD studies this year. “As my studies are financed by a grant, I have a hard deadline to complete them. Like most Chinese PhD students, I am making every possible effort to finish everything on time. But there’s another reason for this too. Dutch PhD students often see their PhD research as work, whereas for us it is studying. And I don’t want to be a student all my life.”

Chinese New Year party

Xiao is organising a party for the whole CEG faculty to celebrate Chinese New Year, together with a number of other Chinese PhD students. “In China, this is a very important celebration. You can see this on the trains in the week leading up to it. They are always full to bursting with people going home to see their families, to welcome in the new year together. I find it a shame that I can’t be with my family at this time. But by organising something at the faculty, I can still mark this important occasion. And it’s a good way of showing off part of our culture.”

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