Tuesday, 6 August 2019

International graduate researchers: You are not alone! (Kiran Shinde)




This week’s blogpost is written by Kiran Shinde, who recently gave a workshop called 'International PhD students: Identifying and overcoming hurdles' at the last College of Arts, Social Sciences, and Commerce (ASSC) Higher Degree Researcher Retreat. 

Kiran’s post builds on other RED Alert contributions by international researchers at La Trobe, Shawgat Sharmeen Kutubi and Lynna Feng.

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For an international student, pursuing a Higher Degree by Research is a multifaceted growth opportunity. It is now widely recognised that international students “represent a high-achieving and highly motivated group” (Russell, Rosenthal, & Thomson, 2010) as they choose to pursue their dreams for higher study in a sociocultural and educational environment that is different from their own.

But these journeys are also full of challenges.


In a broad review of studies addressing international students in Australia, Jeong-Bae Son & Sang-Soon Park (2014) found 13 main factors affecting international non-English speaking background (NESB) students’ successful completion of their academic programs. These ranged from motivation to study to English language proficiency, the relationships students had with supervisors to financial support, family matters and intercultural adjustment. These are in addition to the basic challenges of doing a higher degree by research that all students, irrespective of background, will negotiate.

If we examine the research carefully, we can see that for many international students these challenges are underpinned by the fact that there is often a major cultural shift that happens for students.

On one hand, there are external systems and expectations of the system that they must learn. On the other, there are internal struggles where their social- religious-cultural upbringing may intersect with demands of a system that they can see as alien. These challenges can be organic and highly individual, but some could be anticipated. For instance, some of the most fruitful discussions happen in smaller groups of graduate research candidates after a seminar or an event and the setting for that discussion may be at a pub. In some cultures, going to a pub is a taboo and prohibited. This can close down opportunities for social learning. Considering more neutral locations, such as cafés, would enable these conversations to occur more readily.

Another oft-repeated instance of difference is in the culture of learning: some students from non-western countries may be used to structured and rigid styles of learning where they receive clear instructions from supervisors. But in many contexts in Australia, the emphasis is on self-learning and discovery, which aims to give agency to students to think independently. These differences make it harder for international students to perform as they may be unfamiliar with these dynamics and feel they are caught in unsaid and unwritten rules of obeying (or disobeying) teachers. The list could go on. It is important to know that Australian universities are aware of many of these challenges and are extending help to international students in many ways.

If you are a domestic student reading this blog post, then please remember you are interacting with students and peers who come from another place. They may be different from you so be prepared to accept differences in ideas, behaviours and expectations of what learning and knowledge look like. That way, you can help your peers by bridging things that they might not know. You might also see the opportunities that exist to learn from the unique perspectives that international students bring with them when they come to study in Australia.

If you are an international student reading this then please remember that if you don’t share your experiences with your fellow graduate researchers, then how will they know? It can be valuable to ask questions and for help if you need it. How you navigate this journey will depend a lot on you – how you seek the kind of assistance you need, whether you are open about your challenges and have the necessary conversations with supervisors and peers.

While there are many challenges and adventures, finding success as an international student is doable and many have fulfilled their dreams and achieved their goals. There are more than 350,000 international students studying in Australia at this point, for different levels of degrees and types of courses - remember you are not alone!

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References

Jeong-Bae Son & Sang-Soon Park, (2014). Academic Experiences of International PhD Students in Australian Higher Education: From an EAP program to a PhD program. International Journal of Pedagogies and Learning, 9(1), 26-37. View 

Russell J., Rosenthal, D., & Thomson, G. (2010). The international student experience: Three styles of adaptation. Higher Education, 60(2), 235–249. doi: 10.1007/s10734-009-9297-7. View

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Kiran Shinde combines research training of an academic and professional practice of a planner with vast experience in different planning sectors across three countries (India, Australia, and Thailand). His international qualifications include a PhD from Monash University, Australia; MSc Urban Management from Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand; MTech Urban Planning from CEPT University in India and a BArch (Architecture) from Pune University in India. 

He has published close to 50 research papers across cultural heritage, religious tourism, destination planning, policy analysis, and environmental management and has delivered talks at conferences in Canada, Turkey, Australia, Portugal, Singapore, the UK, and USA.

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