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.