Studying a PhD in a Foreign country

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Stevelee
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Hi everyone,

I am a 21 year old Chemistry student currently in his final year of his masters degree at the University of Strathclyde.

Part of my masters degree is a compulsory 1 year placement in industry in our fourth year of study. I decided to take this opportunity and go to France for the year, despite the fact I didn’t speak the language.

Now it’s time to start thinking about a potential PhD or to try and find a job after my final year of studies.

I have applied a lot of thought into a potential PhD and it is something I am about 75% sure (at the moment) I want to do. But PhD opportunities are always going to be limited.

This is of course completely understandable, but from my experience in France, I feel that I have the right frame of mind to undertake a PhD abroad. This would both increase the possibility of finding a program that will interest me, as well as allowing me to experience the culture of a different country. Something I have thoroughly enjoyed in my time over here in France.

Possible destinations are America, Canada, Australia, France and Germany.

But with all this ambition and desire it's hard to find someone that has done what I have in mind. There are multiple sites where people give their opinion about the good and the bad of studying abroad. But, it has been hard to find a real person to relate to.

So discussion forums are probably the best bet to find someone in this situation.

- What country did you decide to do your PhD in?
- Funding varies depending on the program / country, but if you did do one at a foreign university, did you find it difficult?
- Would you recommend it?
- Has it been beneficial to you?
- Did you find more PhD programs available to you when you did decide to go abroad?
- Where are you now?
- Was applying to a different country hard?

Generally, what was it like? the more details the better.

Thanks for your response in advance.

Steven
ryone,

I am a 21 year old Chemistry student currently in his final year of his masters degree at the University of Strathclyde.

Part of my masters degree is a compulsory 1 year placement in industry in our fourth year of study. I decided to take this opportunity and go to France for the year, despite the fact I didn’t speak the language.

Now it’s time to start thinking about a potential PhD or to try and find a job after my final year of studies.

I have applied a lot of thought into a potential PhD and it is something I am about 75% sure (at the moment) I want to do. But PhD opportunities are always going to be limited.

This is of course completely understandable, but from my experience in France, I feel that I have the right frame of mind to undertake a PhD abroad. This would both increase the possibility of finding a program that will interest me, as well as allowing me to experience the culture of a different country. Something I have thoroughly enjoyed in my time over here in France.

Possible destinations are America, Canada, Australia, France and Germany.

But with all this ambition and desire it's hard to find someone that has done what I have in mind. There are multiple sites where people give their opinion about the good and the bad of studying abroad. But, it has been hard to find a real person to relate to.

So discussion forums are probably the best bet to find someone in this situation.

- What country did you decide to do your PhD in?
- Funding varies depending on the program / country, but if you did do one at a foreign university, did you find it difficult?
- Would you recommend it?
- Has it been beneficial to you?
- Did you find more PhD programs available to you when you did decide to go abroad?
- Where are you now?
- Was applying to a different country hard?

Generally, what was it like? the more details the better.

Thanks for your response in advance.

Steven
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madamemerle
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(Original post by Stevelee)
- What country did you decide to do your PhD in?
- Funding varies depending on the program / country, but if you did do one at a foreign university, did you find it difficult?
- Would you recommend it?
- Has it been beneficial to you?
- Did you find more PhD programs available to you when you did decide to go abroad?
- Where are you now?
- Was applying to a different country hard?

Generally, what was it like? the more details the better.
Country: America
- regarding the second question: does "did you find it difficult" refer to finding funding? I'll answer as if it does: No, finding funding was not difficult, in the sense that all the programs I applied to offered full funding, which is the norm in my discipline. I just applied to the programs, no searching for scholarships or additional applications necessary. What 'full funding' means in monetary terms varies wildly, and it also varies in the length of funding terms (e.g. one program I applied to could only offer four years funding if you had a Master's already, while some offered six years).
-Would you recommend it/has it been beneficial?
Absolutely and absolutely. In the American system you get two to three years to explore your field while doing work and taking classes at a very high level - that's incredibly valuable, you have the space and time to explore related subfields and really get to grips with the field you are choosing before you start work on your dissertation/thesis. Comprehensive exams mean that you frontload background research, and you (should have) a very firm grasp of your subfield and where your work sits within it by the time you start writing. I am a much better scholar, particularly methodologically (where my post Master's thinking was very fuzzy), after coursework/exams than I was before, and my dissertation will be much better for it.
US degrees also offer built-in teaching experience, which is useful on the job market. It's worth seeking out schools that approach this experience as a kind of apprenticeship, rather than as an excuse to exploit cheap labour. All teaching experience will be useful, but some schools actually care about developing you as a teacher and will offer a variety of teaching and a coherent development plan - look out for these to get the most out of it.
-were more programs available abroad?
Sort of...my research is interdisciplinary and I could have done it in a variety of departments in the UK and abroad. There is a much larger concentration of faculty working in related areas to me in U.S. departments; in the UK, I would be lucky to find one or two faculty members in a department who I could work with, my current department in the U.S. has 12 faculty members working in closely related areas - I'm spoilt for choice when putting together committees etc and that gives me a bit more flexibility with things like personality clashes etc. That's specific to my field, though.
-where are you?
I'm in the fourth year of my PhD at a Boston area university.
-Was applying hard?
It was really stressful, and time consuming and it cost A LOT of money. Nothing was especially hard, but the psychological pressure was what was difficult. Many people don't get accepted anywhere every year and I felt that there was a lot riding on my application materials (not least the £1500 I spent on them) - I couldn't afford to apply again and was kind of tortured by the 'out of my hands' aspect, especially when with the numbers applying, it's almost like gambling.
-General what's it like:
It's been a culture shock moving to the U.S. for PhD; the shared language and pop culture lull you into a false sense of familiarity which day-to-day exposure to all the myriad ways in which you do things differently from everyone around you soon erodes. I struggled for quite some time to get over feeling intensely alienated from the academic culture. Everything is subtly different. Being an English speaker from a similar culture means that people expect you to be like them, and so you don't get the same degree of awareness from faculty when it comes to things like cultural differences in writing, interaction, teaching etc. It's taken me a long time to feel comfortable here.

That said, I'm very happy to have made the move: even the difficulties above are useful in that they make you much more attuned to the invisible assumptions, hierarchies and workings of both your host culture and your own culture...it's fascinating to be able to look at UK academia with a fresh perspective and to be able to pick and choose the best of what works from each for yourself, to the degree that you are able.

More practically, resources and funding at my school here are outstanding and well above what would be available to me at the majority of UK universities. I'm also in a fantastic city for academics with all the library, seminar and conference pluses that brings.

One thing that I find frustrating is the relative rigidity and formality of the academic system here - in the UK, movement between and among fields is more fluid, and there's a much more relaxed and responsive academy: people can put together a conference or a special issue journal relatively quickly and these things are happening all over the place. It's vibrant and exciting, fast moving. In the U.S. everything feels much more institutionalized and compartmentalized, conferences are either massive affairs run by scholarly member groups or small graduate conferences, where students talk to each other only. There are far less chances for the relatively informal British style small conferences, or reading groups etc.

In general, I really enjoy living in America. The standard of living is very high, food is fantastic, and, more than anything, I love the weather and the landscape - New England is extraordinarily beautiful and being able to drive to Cape Cod or Maine or the mountains in two hours or less is amazing.
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Stevelee
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Thank you for your response, finding someone / anyone that did what I am thinking on doing is near on impossible! From what you have mentioned I have a few questions if you have some time to answer them:

"US degrees also offer built-in teaching experience" - this I have read up on and in most cases is why a PhD in America takes longer to that of UK PhDs. In terms of cheap labor, I have read several articles stating that this is the case, but if I do further research into a specific PhD then I ask the previous students

"not least the £1500 I spent on them" - what cost you £1500?! Is that including work visas and everything? Or is that purely for sending away specific documentation needed? If possible could you elaborate on this?

I also wanted to ask, did you find competition fierce? The competition for PhDs in the UK next year I can imagine will be insane. From what I’ve gathered from students a year above me it hasn’t been too easy.

Of course the better PhDs will give you more competition, did you find being from the UK you were at a disadvantage when it came to the selection process?

And lastly, do you see yourself living in America for an extended period of time after your PhD or do you intend to return to the UK straight away?

Sorry for the dozens of questions.
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returnmigrant
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(Original post by Stevelee)
"US degrees also offer built-in teaching experience" - this I have read up on and in most cases is why a PhD in America takes longer to that of UK PhDs. In terms of cheap labor ..
Most UK PhD students also teach at some point in their studies. Its well paid, gives you something else to do apart from 'research', and this experience is vital for many subsequent academic or research posts. With the increase in student numbers, few Unis could survive without using postgrads as teachers. PS. It also tells you what you don't know .... answering undergrad questions really does sharpen up your own breadth of knowledge and/or make you question some assumptions. I did some teaching at another Uni whilst I was in Australia (in the same city) and was later offered a temp teaching post there which enabled me to get Australian citizenship.
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madamemerle
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(Original post by Stevelee)
Thank you for your response, finding someone / anyone that did what I am thinking on doing is near on impossible! From what you have mentioned I have a few questions if you have some time to answer them:

"US degrees also offer built-in teaching experience" - this I have read up on and in most cases is why a PhD in America takes longer to that of UK PhDs. In terms of cheap labor, I have read several articles stating that this is the case, but if I do further research into a specific PhD then I ask the previous students

"not least the £1500 I spent on them" - what cost you £1500?! Is that including work visas and everything? Or is that purely for sending away specific documentation needed? If possible could you elaborate on this?

I also wanted to ask, did you find competition fierce? The competition for PhDs in the UK next year I can imagine will be insane. From what I’ve gathered from students a year above me it hasn’t been too easy.

Of course the better PhDs will give you more competition, did you find being from the UK you were at a disadvantage when it came to the selection process?

And lastly, do you see yourself living in America for an extended period of time after your PhD or do you intend to return to the UK straight away?

Sorry for the dozens of questions.
No problem!

Regarding teaching: that isn't really why U.S. degrees take longer (since you do it alongside everything else), what makes it take longer are the three years of coursework and exams that make up the first half of the program. Occasionally you come across a program that asks you to teach 2:2 (meaning two classes-modules- per semester) or more, and that kind of load would likely slow you down - if you're offered 2:2 or more, which is very unlikely in the sciences, think very very hard about taking it...it's those kinds of teaching loads that are exploitative and get in the way of your study. Generally, though, you'll teach 1:1 and in the sciences you'll probably only ever be a TA, not an instructor, which is much less time consuming on the prep front because you just run discussion sections and mark papers and don't need to prepare all the class's content. If you actively want more teaching development, look for programs that make you take classes in pedagogy, or offer pedagogy seminars etc and things like teaching mentors - you can ask current students, or faculty about what kind of training and support they offer for new students.

The money to apply: each application I sent had a fee of between $50 and 150, and I applied to ten universities. Then I had to pay for the GRE, and the subject GRE (and to send those scores to four more places after the free reports) - that was around £300 then there was the postage to America of all my transcripts and documents - around £200. The exchange rate was awful at the time. Maybe I exaggerated slightly...it was around £1000 just for the applications. But then, yes, if you get in there are the visa fees, too. So, it is expensive.

Competition: yes, I found the competition fierce. I didn't fully appreciate how fierce, even as I was applying. I have a strong background with a BA from Oxford and I had what I thought were strong application materials, which a U.S. educated prof (young and recently graduated from her PhD) told me were excellent. I thought I was a strong candidate, even for very highly thought of schools, but they did not agree haha! In retrospect, I applied to far too many conventionally 'elite' universities (with application numbers topping 700 for 10 or so places). Having lived and studied in the U.S. and seen a number of unis etc, I can categorically say that the experience of going almost anywhere in the top 80 ish public unis and the top 50 ish private unis will be similar to being at a Russell group UK university, and I'd recommend applicants be open to all sorts of universities. Confining applications to the upper echelon is a)not necessary for an excellent education, and b)really likely to result in across the board rejection.

Of course, you need to weigh up the extent to which a university's name, or lack thereof, might hurt or help you in your eventual career. But there are plenty of internationally renowned unis outside of the super elite and these are the places that I'd focus my applications on if I were doing it again. And above all, of course, you need to apply to the places that will best support your research, and sometimes those are Harvard, Yale, Chicago etc; but be smart about it and don't confine your applications to places like that, because the competition can be so insane that it's more or less a lottery.

Yes, I do think being an international student puts you at a disadvantage, mostly because when it gets down to the 100 or so possible admits out of their massive pile of applications, letters of recommendation come to play a somewhat large role (or so I've been told) and often faculty have networks of friends and acquaintances whose recs they trust - obviously, then, this advantages U.S. students (and particularly U.S. students who are already at research universities or fancy LACS). Additionally, though, there are subtle differences in content, coverage and styles of learning in our undergrad degrees that make our records and the work we submit not quite line up with Tue expectations of an American admissions committee. Obviously, they appreciate that there are differences, but I still think it puts us at a slight disadvantage when competing with US students who perfectly line up with their expectations.
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madamemerle
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Oh, just add: you should check out The Grad Cafe; it can be hysteria inducing, but when you are an outsider to the system it's really useful for getting a better sense of how everything works (take it all with a grain of salt though).
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Stevelee
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I remember talking to a number of professors when I just had this idea. There was only one professor that did undertake a postdoc in America but stated that for a chance you need at minimum of a 2:1 with a good recommendation letter. He essentially stated that a 1st in masters is essential.

I always assumed that, if I wasn't applying to the elites of Yale, Harvard and etc. the requirements would be less demanding. Maybe NYU with a 2:1 is possible, but the requirements are hard to judge and the lack of direct contacts from my university to that of an American institute will make it even harder.

It would be my dream to do a PhD in NYC or nearby as I would like to settle in NYC in the near future. But like you said, the reputation of the university is by far the most essential to the choice. In saying that, there is no real Google searches that detail the reputation of each department at a university. Most of the "comparison sites" for university I feel are totally unreliable! So thus, I’ll need to do a [email protected]# tonne of research to determine everything.

I am on track for a 2:1 but maybe with a lot more effort I could push it to a 1st.

unless I do feel confident on achieving a 1st and having good contacts and a good letter of approval, I feel it is going to be a tall order.

All of this having to be done,
Decisions, approvals, contacts sending away documentation and etc. usually by Christmas is going to be damn stressful.
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madamemerle
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(Original post by Stevelee)
I remember talking to a number of professors when I just had this idea. There was only one professor that did undertake a postdoc in America but stated that for a chance you need at minimum of a 2:1 with a good recommendation letter. He essentially stated that a 1st in masters is essential.

I always assumed that, if I wasn't applying to the elites of Yale, Harvard and etc. the requirements would be less demanding. Maybe NYU with a 2:1 is possible, but the requirements are hard to judge and the lack of direct contacts from my university to that of an American institute will make it even harder.

It would be my dream to do a PhD in NYC or nearby as I would like to settle in NYC in the near future. But like you said, the reputation of the university is by far the most essential to the choice. In saying that, there is no real Google searches that detail the reputation of each department at a university. Most of the "comparison sites" for university I feel are totally unreliable! So thus, I’ll need to do a [email protected]# tonne of research to determine everything.

I am on track for a 2:1 but maybe with a lot more effort I could push it to a 1st.

unless I do feel confident on achieving a 1st and having good contacts and a good letter of approval, I feel it is going to be a tall order.

All of this having to be done,
Decisions, approvals, contacts sending away documentation and etc. usually by Christmas is going to be damn stressful.
I don't know about your subject, but NYU is a top ten or top twenty grad school in a lot of areas...and because it's in NYC attracts insane numbers of applicants. That's not to say you shouldn't apply, but just to say that it's not really a rung below! In my subject, I would class it as one of the very top schools. In, or near, NYC look into Rutgers, Rockefeller and CUNY Grad Center.

You might find the U.S. news subject rankings helpful. They're really only a reputational measure, so don't tell you anything very substantive about the programs themselves...so keep that in mind. But they do a give a general sense of where is likely to be the most competitive (anywhere in the top twenty of those lists will be extremely, extremely competitive). However, public schools usually accept larger cohorts and have fewer applicants, on the whole, so highly ranked public schools tend to give you a bit of a better chance of acceptance.
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Stevelee
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(Original post by madamemerle)
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Hi sorry, I know it been a few weeks since your response but i was wondering if I could ask you one last question.

With your PhD, where you able to obtain financial aid? if so was that enough (+ doing teaching for the university) enough to sustain you for the years of study?

My only real concern now is finance as I have decided to apply to some universities in America and hope for the best.

Thanks for your response.
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madamemerle
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(Original post by Stevelee)
Hi sorry, I know it been a few weeks since your response but i was wondering if I could ask you one last question.

With your PhD, where you able to obtain financial aid? if so was that enough (+ doing teaching for the university) enough to sustain you for the years of study?

My only real concern now is finance as I have decided to apply to some universities in America and hope for the best.

Thanks for your response.
Hey again, no problem!

Yes, my offers came with funding, as is the norm for my subject (and also, probably, for science subjects as they generally have better funding anyway). Offers usually include a tuition scholarship, which covers tuition/fees, a living stipend (which may, or may not be separate from teaching pay), and medical insurance.

My stipend is just about enough to live on ($20,000) fairly comfortably. New York stipends are generally higher, to account for the higher cost of living; and science stipends are usually much higher than those in the humanities (seems like $30,000 isn't unusual in some science/tech subjects). But cost of living varies massively in the U.S. - I would have a very similar stipend amount were I a student in Atlanta or Boston (where I am now) but I could live REALLY well on it in Atlanta, where housing costs are less than half what they are here in Boston. So, it can be beneficial to factor things like that in to your consideration of where to apply.

Edited to add: you can also supplement your income with on-campus work of up to 20 hrs a work during the semester, and more during the holidays. I have a job in my university archives, which adds another 3 or 4k a year to my overall earnings, and helps with cash flow issues caused by the weird way that stipends are paid (our stipends are divided into 8 payments for each month that school is in session). I work only a small amount during the semester, and then three days a week during holidays. It's also a great way to meet more people on campus and/or learn or maintain other skills that might be useful down the line.
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Stevelee
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(Original post by madamemerle)
Hey again, no problem!

Yes, my offers came with funding, as is the norm for my subject (and also, probably, for science subjects as they generally have better funding anyway). Offers usually include a tuition scholarship, which covers tuition/fees, a living stipend (which may, or may not be separate from teaching pay), and medical insurance.

My stipend is just about enough to live on ($20,000) fairly comfortably. New York stipends are generally higher, to account for the higher cost of living; and science stipends are usually much higher than those in the humanities (seems like $30,000 isn't unusual in some science/tech subjects). But cost of living varies massively in the U.S. - I would have a very similar stipend amount were I a student in Atlanta or Boston (where I am now) but I could live REALLY well on it in Atlanta, where housing costs are less than half what they are here in Boston. So, it can be beneficial to factor things like that in to your consideration of where to apply.

Edited to add: you can also supplement your income with on-campus work of up to 20 hrs a work during the semester, and more during the holidays. I have a job in my university archives, which adds another 3 or 4k a year to my overall earnings, and helps with cash flow issues caused by the weird way that stipends are paid (our stipends are divided into 8 payments for each month that school is in session). I work only a small amount during the semester, and then three days a week during holidays. It's also a great way to meet more people on campus and/or learn or maintain other skills that might be useful down the line.
With your combined income of financial aid + you doing work for the university, is that sufficient to live off of or did you have to use your savings to live off of and maybe have a trip or two around the states.
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Nathanielle
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(Original post by Stevelee)
What country did you decide to do your PhD in?
Did not, but know how it works: Germany
- Funding varies depending on the program / country, but if you did do one at a foreign university, did you find it difficult?
Usually you are getting a 50% job, which means you are paid for 50% of your time spent at university. Otherwise you need to apply for scholarships, but usually you can't begin without funding and it is not expected from you. (In Chemistry.) Teaching is usually mandatory, teaching experience will vary from supervising undergraduates and graduates writing their Bachelor/Master thesis to courses and exams. Depending on your project you also might have interns or paid student research assistants, working for you.
Would you recommend it?
That totally depends on your supervisor and how much lab experience you already had. (Exception of course, when you do theoretical work.) You will be thrown into being a nearly independant researcher from the first moment. For some people that is great, others will be a bit surprised they are seen as academic staff and not students.
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madamemerle
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(Original post by Stevelee)
With your combined income of financial aid + you doing work for the university, is that sufficient to live off of or did you have to use your savings to live off of and maybe have a trip or two around the states.
It's plenty to live off. You might have to save and scrimp for a few months if you want to take a long trip, but in general it's enough - the stipend by itself is enough to live off: they set the amount by what is needed to live a fairly basic life in the area. If you want more disposable income, what most people do is live with more roommates; my friend lives with three other grad students in order to keep her rent low.

It all depends on a number of different factors, though, and particularly on the cost of living where you are + your lifestyle. I'm in an expensive city, but I'm part of a couple and together we are quite comfortable. Were I living alone, rent would be my biggest expense and I'd likely forgo having more money to spend on eating out or other non essentials in order to live by myself in a studio apartment. Others prioritize having the extra cash and so are happy to live with roommates. As it is, no one in my program seems to struggle with the money, no one has taken loans that I know of, and we all go out for drinks and dinner etc fairly regularly, so we have enough disposable income to entertain ourselves.
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Stevelee
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(Original post by madamemerle)
It's plenty to live off. You might have to save and scrimp for a few months if you want to take a long trip, but in general it's enough - the stipend by itself is enough to live off: they set the amount by what is needed to live a fairly basic life in the area. If you want more disposable income, what most people do is live with more roommates; my friend lives with three other grad students in order to keep her rent low.

It all depends on a number of different factors, though, and particularly on the cost of living where you are + your lifestyle. I'm in an expensive city, but I'm part of a couple and together we are quite comfortable. Were I living alone, rent would be my biggest expense and I'd likely forgo having more money to spend on eating out or other non essentials in order to live by myself in a studio apartment. Others prioritize having the extra cash and so are happy to live with roommates. As it is, no one in my program seems to struggle with the money, no one has taken loans that I know of, and we all go out for drinks and dinner etc fairly regularly, so we have enough disposable income to entertain ourselves.
Thats great, thanks for the response again, finance was the only other factor I was skeptical about but it seems you are doing good!
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