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.

To foster an ongoing appreciation of the distinct experiences of international doctoral students in the UK, our team from the School of Education, University of Glasgow in partnership with the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) organised a national event held in Glasgow in November 2017 called ‘Enhancing the Student Experience for International Doctoral Students’.

Through this event, we intended to harness and synthesise ideas from presenters and delegates representing 20 different Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and organisations in the UK. Thoughtful reflection and discussion revolved around how supervisors, international doctoral researchers, researcher training managers and HEIs could improve international PGR learners’ overall experience by identifying strong and effective support mechanisms.

These collective ideas led to the production of a concise list of key messages that is now available on the UKCGE website (see ‘Latest Resources’). These messages are intended to offer recommendations for how key stakeholders can assist these learners, including what international doctoral learners can do to help themselves!

For this blog, the attention is on PhD supervisors. Of all the guidelines proposed, we only highlight what our delegates regarded as the most crucial. These messages stress a few points that you probably already know and have put into practice. Yet, gentle reminders would not go amiss:

  • Consider that effective support provision needs to take into account different cultural backgrounds – this is because the learning orientations previously received do still influence learners’ preferred study approach and practices even in the new learning context.
  • From the beginning of the PhD, establish a learning alliance towards a shared goal, i.e. successful PhD completion – not only does a focus on success help reinforce the idea of genuine partnership, it also serves as a tool for combating attrition.
  • Set expectations (including explanations and clarifications), that can serve as a ‘contract’ with PGR learners – this is an effective strategy that can help smoothe the working relationship by bringing clarity of expectations between the two parties.
  • Aim for clarity of deadlines, i.e. what is due each year, overview of processes and distinguishing what is needed and what is critical – enabling a shared workable timeline from which reasonable major and minor goals can be derived.
  • Discuss academic cultures, e.g. how to address feedback received, what the PGR processes entail, expectations of supervisors and researchers, use of supervisor’s first names or their titles, the role of indigenous knowledge when conducting research – informally facilitating a sound understanding of the new academic culture helps international PhD learners to feel reassured and to act more confidently in their new learning contexts.
  • Help address PGR learners’ feeling of isolation – although this is not strictly within the remit of PhD supervisors, they tend to be international PGRs’ key contact in the new environment. Therefore, thinking of ways of assisting them to alleviate this sense of isolation is indispensable (e.g. to encourage them to join different communities, to facilitate community-building among PhD learners).

The last two points are slightly different as they pertain to what can assist supervisors in equipping themselves with ‘tools’ to enable them to be more effective in their roles.

  • Stress the importance of peer and professional development – as supervisors need to keep abreast of PGR-related developments. It was emphasised that learning how to supervise should be based on effective practice rather than what they ‘learned’ from their previous personal experience as doctoral learners.
  • Possibility for induction with supervisors on a one-to-one basis, if necessary – should supervisors not able to take part in the induction for PGRs; an alternative could be to obtain a handbook for supervisors informed by the questions typically raised by the PGR learners.

Although the delegates focused on international PGR learners during the group conversations, what is apparent from these exemplars is that these critical messages, if carefully implemented, can benefit all doctoral researchers since many points are equally relevant to local students. Also, both local and international learners are part of the same doctoral community, as one of the delegates stressed:

‘Working towards trying to enhance PGR experience and international experience [are] important issues to address, to encourage better inclusivity.’

What this means is that efforts to support international doctoral learners will, first and foremost, benefit these learners. Effective transition to a new environment, feeling empowered and acquiring the confidence they require to function better as learners will create a more favourable impact as they interact with fellow local and international doctoral learners, and arguably extended to their respective supervisors and others in different communities of which they are part. In turn, we can argue that nurturing this group not only leads to their own growth and development but also to an enhanced and enriched experience for the whole academic community.

These ideas are merely starting points for consideration. A bigger question worth asking is how HEIs can promote a better and more coordinated approach towards enhancing institutional PGR experience – for all concerned.

Should you wish to speak to us about this event or the key messages, please feel free to contact any of the research team.


Author: Dr Kay Guccione

I listen to stories & I think about them. @kayguccione National Teaching Fellow. PFHEA. Design and teach #mentoring/#coaching/#tutoring. Strategic educational development for #phd/#postdoc/#academic.

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