Complementary approaches to working effectively with international PGRs

This is a guest blog post jointly written by Dely Elliot from the University of Glasgow and Sofie Kobayashi from the University of Copenhagen. Together, they have explored the experiences of international PhD students and how supervisors may support them.

If you are interested, you can find the whole article entitled ‘How can PhD supervisors play a role in bridging academic cultures?’ here.

Embarking on a PhD in a foreign country can be a daunting experience. The challenges of research education are many and varied. Therefore, the added inherent challenges involved when navigating through a new national and academic culture tend to intensify such an experience. For many, it can easily be a steep learning curve in a double sense. 

Drawing upon our own experience, we know that moving to a new country entails a journey of ‘decoding’ another culture while simultaneously learning about one’s own culture. This comes with the realisation that the obvious ways of ‘how to do things at home’ no longer work, and therefore requires a whole new strategy of learning, unlearning, and re-learning while discovering novel and fascinating ideas in the new setting – both in academic and personal terms. 

Likewise, we can see that such a daunting experience is not restricted to PhD students alone. It can also pose as a challenging learning experience for the supervisors who work with them, especially if the culture of the PhD student is one that they are not familiar with. If so, they need to tailor their support and engage effectively in supervision across cultures where they cannot take much for granted. However, we learned that supervisors enjoy that – after all researchers are eager to learn new things. 

As researchers in higher education we are curious to better understand the challenges as well as the opportunities that our international PhD students and their supervisors encounter. This has been inspired by the two authors’ firsthand experience of being educated abroad.

Hailing from the Philippines, Dely was herself an international student who did her postgraduate studies in Thailand (MSc) and England (PhD), and has now settled in Glasgow. At the University of Glasgow, one of her primary responsibilities (and the one that she enjoys the most) is supervising postgraduate students, many of whom are international students, who undertake their research – either at Master’s or at PhD levels.

Equally, Sofie has rich personal insight into international student experience having studied and worked abroad. Currently, she is involved in teaching international PhD students and supervisors in her home country of Denmark. 

So, as part of our research, we interviewed two respective groups of PhD students and supervisors from a science faculty in Denmark. The PhD student participants all came from abroad and came specifically with the intention of doing their PhD in a Danish university. Originally, they came from Iran, Japan, India, Bangladesh, Kenya and China. The supervisors, on the other hand, were all experienced supervisors with extensive international collaboration and were highly proficient in cross-cultural communication. 

On the surface, many of their efforts appear to be informal and practical ways of supporting international PhD cohorts’ general adjustment, but they are in fact, indirect and strategic moves designed to provide gradual social assistance that is inherently and strongly linked to the academic growth and development of PhD students.

These interviews have confirmed how the international PhD students we interviewed were facing numerous challenges that resulted from contrasting what they were familiar with in their home country, compared with the new expectations that they need to meet in the host country. Examples vary from differences in teaching and learning practices, to mismatched expectations of the feedback process, and challenges posed by becoming critical thinkers – or voicing their critical thoughts. Needless to say, each example is central to the day-to-day experience of typical PhD students – local and international. Reiterating an earlier argument, existing differences between old and new academic cultures among the international cohort are contributory factors, which tend to intensify these challenges. 

Building on a deep and sensitive understanding of these culturally-informed and intensified challenges, the supervisors we interviewed then exemplified how they attempted to bridge the existing gap between the two academic cultures.

On the surface, many of their efforts appear to be informal and practical ways of supporting international PhD cohorts’ general adjustment, but they are in fact, indirect and strategic moves designed to provide gradual social assistance that is inherently and strongly linked to the academic growth and development of PhD students in Denmark.

There is evidence to suggest that supervisors’ actions result from their conscious contemplation of how to approach and support their international PhD students. They had strategies in place, i.e. of being more direct in the beginning than they would with most local PhD students. They also acknowledge that in general they put in more time and effort with international PhD students, as they always adjust their supervision to align with the actual needs of each of their students. It is worth noting that they would have strategies to enhance equity in their relationship by endeavouring to get to know their students well – in the academic or social contexts. 

Such gradual efforts to get to know the students better as a preliminary step towards helping them academically are arguably important. By doing so, supervisors then implicitly and strongly convey to their international PhD students the idea that they fully acknowledge them as whole human beings and not just as doctoral students – recognising them as people who have needs beyond doctoral-related knowledge and skills.

Additionally, humour is a tool that some supervisors in our study habitually use in an effort to flatten the supervisor-supervisee hierarchy and, in turn, make the atmosphere of supervision meetings a lot more informal and open. Supervisors do steer carefully towards a ‘friend-like’ relationship, yet avoid being friends with their PhD students. There is an argument that a friendly, professional relationship with their supervisors serves as the crucial means to encourage the international PhD students to take charge and subsequently, be more courageous in voicing their views and opinions, which is a precondition for taking a critical stance and becoming more critical in their thinking and discussion. 

Supervisors will rightly argue that international PhD students, depending on their background and experience, do possess a combination of varying strengths and weaknesses. Our study suggests that, in supporting our international PhD students and responding to their needs, some underlying mechanisms need to be recognised, too. It is because these mechanisms often underpin the overall effectiveness of the support provided, and as a result, bring delight and satisfaction not only to the international PhD students themselves, but equally, to their supervisors.  

the power of peer support

This is a guest post by Sherrie Lee, an international PhD candidate based in New Zealand. She is a past president of, and current mentor to, the Postgraduate Students’ Association at her university. Her doctoral research examines informal academic learning among international tertiary students in New Zealand. Sherrie has an ongoing interest in the intersecting areas of language, culture, and identity, and has a personal blog about such topics at thediasporicacademic.wordpress.com

I write from the perspective of a former postgraduate student leader (peer-mentoring others) and an international doctoral student. Based on my personal doctoral experiences, and interactions with fellow doctoral students, I share how peer support addresses supervision-related issues that are not easily met by administrative processes or supervisors themselves.

In the New Zealand context, the early period of one’s PhD candidature is ‘conditional’ and the candidate has to prepare a research proposal (or report), and a research ethics application if applicable, to be approved by the end of 6 months (extendable to 9 months). Thus, the most important milestone of a first-year PhD student was reaching ‘confirmed enrolment’. The stress of not seeming to make progress in meeting that milestone is compounded for international students who face family, societal, and/or financial pressure to succeed.

The stress of possible failure, as I have experienced for myself, comes about from supervision practices that do not provide encouragement to the developing researcher, and/or clear guidance for the documentation required for confirmation. Students who are new to the country and the institutional culture may be trying to make sense of their supervisors’ communication style and unspoken expectations. One may be trying very hard to read between the lines, while respecting the supervisors’ authority, and at the same time, wondering how far, and how best to assert one’s autonomy and epistemological perspective. Such negotiations may even continue past the confirmed enrolment stage and into the unfolding doctoral journey.

Across self-help guides and well-meaning (or maybe just mean) advice, such worries are often dismissed as ‘normal’ or somewhat needing to be better managed by the student. Rare is the response that asks supervisors to take greater responsibility in engaging with their students, especially those who are negotiating with intersecting demands of cultural ‘adaptation’, scholarly independence, and personal pressures of dealing with failure (however defined by the individual).

In my role as a postgraduate student representative at the university, I regularly engaged with international doctoral students. After I stepped down from the leadership position, I continued to mentor peers as and when the need arose. Having gone through a fairly rough first year, but coming out stronger at the end of it, provided me the insight to assist my peers in making sense of their experiences. I had also personally been on the receiving end of constructive advice from a more experienced peer. Had it not been for her regular following up on my situation, I might not have taken action to address my own well-being as a doctoral student.

In my conversations with fellow doctoral students, the issues they raised was more often than not related to the supervision relationship or supervision/communication practices. I usually respond by pointing out the various institutional structures that provide support for doctoral students. While many students had some idea of the hierarchy and reporting lines, few were prepared to use official routes of seeking redress. The suspicion of the efficacy of bureaucratic intervention was one reason; not wishing to expend additional emotional and mental energy was another; avoiding the embarrassment and shame of being exposed was also a likely reason if admitted. We would then discuss communication strategies, talk through possible outcomes, and debate on what a best case scenario would look like. Sometimes they concluded that institutional intervention was necessary. At other times, they chose to ‘wait and see’. It was also useful for us to rehearse what they wished to say to supervisors or other authority figures. Our conversations, done in private, did not promise to make things perfect. If anything, it reinforced the reality of imperfect but negotiable supervision experiences.

The doctoral journey is notorious for being isolating and emotionally draining. Institutions, especially at the faculty level, need to make concerted efforts to encourage peer interactions and peer mentorship so PhD students have opportunities to consult, debate and consider possibilities regarding supervision issues in a safe and supportive environment. As an international doctoral student, I have experienced and observed the benefits of peer support, especially when institutional structures and authority figures are not able to satisfactorily meet emotional and cultural needs.

what does supporting international doctoral learners mean?

This is a guest post by a team from the School of Education at the University of Glasgow: Dr Dely Elliot, Dr Muir Houston, Dr Kara Makara, Dr Kate Reid, Dr Catherine Lido. They reflect here on their recent national event with the UK Council for Graduate Education.

We cannot fail to notice the strong presence of international doctoral learners in British Higher Education Institutions. After all, they comprise almost half of the entire doctoral community. Although they may be under the umbrella of ‘international learners’, they are far from being a homogeneous group as they often hail from different continents. Interestingly, their shared experience of being away from home to pursue what often becomes an isolated doctoral journey can also easily lead to comparable experiences of the rewards and concerns that international doctoral education entails. Continue reading “what does supporting international doctoral learners mean?”

Community Acuity (2) kindness and tough love: interacting with international students

‘Community Acuity’ blog posts are from supervisors, to supervisors. They share the thoughts, experiences and reflection of the highs and the challenges of supervising doctoral students. See also #comacu on the @predoctorbility Twitter.

This post is by Dely ElliotLecturer in Education (Creativity Culture and Faith), University of Glasgow.

I am inspired by articles that I have read as well as a few events that I participated in recently, which impressed on me the idea that PhD supervision style tends to be strongly informed by one’s own experience of being supervised. Often, there are tacit traces of good supervisory examples, which were previously observed from the PhD supervisors’ own supervisors. Continue reading “Community Acuity (2) kindness and tough love: interacting with international students”

Community Acuity (1) the sympathetic supervision of international students

‘Community Acuity’ blog posts are from supervisors, to supervisors. They  share the thoughts, experiences and reflection of the highs and the challenges of supervising doctoral students. See also #comacu on the @predoctorbility Twitter.

This post is by Jane Plastow, Professor of African Theatre, University of Leeds.  Continue reading “Community Acuity (1) the sympathetic supervision of international students”