Doing an Australian PhD while being based overseas (Sandi James)

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In this post La Trobe graduate researcher Sandi James reflects on what it is like to do your research while you are based overseas. She shares her experience and lessons she has learned to get connected and deal with isolation.

When I decided to pursue a graduate research degree I was already living and working in Southeast Asia. As I began looking around for research on doing a PhD while based overseas I found a lot of information and resources for international students arriving to study in Australian universities. This is great, and really helpful for students who are arriving to Australia for their studies. But I didn’t find a lot out there on navigating the system in reverse, i.e. studying with an Australian university from a very distant location. Given this absence, I thought I would write this post!

My research had been conceived out of other projects myself and my colleagues from the University of Malaysia Sabah were already running in Malaysia, and I thought everything would be OK with the support I had and the networks I had developed in over there.

And it was kind of OK, albeit a significant challenge.

The feeling was like climbing a mountain without a safety harness, and little understanding of the unique challenges of studying in academic isolation in a location where you aren’t fluent in the language… My supervisors were, and are, amazing and supportive under the circumstances, and others around the university have also been amazing and helped where they can.

Participating remotely

Attending sessions via video conference is one way that I have participated in university life while being based overseas. I know it is difficult to arrange sessions for off-campus students who often sign up to attend and, for whatever reason, end up not attending. Time differences, work and family commitments, or other life events, also often get in the way of people being able to attend. Access to the technology required can also be difficult. I believe this is an area where we need to make improvements somehow. The impact of this for rural and remote students within Australia is also huge and finding ways to work around these barriers has become one of my side passions, a soapbox of sorts.

I have attended some brilliant zoom sessions, and the small number of attendees online was one of the benefits in that it allowed for greater engagement with the presenter. There was time and space to talk and everyone involved was able to ask questions and get answers. Other sessions have had breakout rooms where the online participants were able to meet and talk, while those physically attending did the same thing. I really hope we see more of these activities on the calendar as I found them to be incredibly beneficial. So I encourage people to think carefully about how we use zoom to include researchers who can't be there in the flesh.

Conducting research while based overseas

Conducting a research project in a foreign country is a unique and amazing challenge. There are the usual language barriers, adjusting to cultural differences, new and at times, unidentifiable foods and variations on social etiquette are just a few of the things to be navigated. Alongside that is the homesickness and longing for something familiar, or even just to watch a favourite tv show in a language that requires no thought or translation. The different weather and environment can be a challenge, but this was one of my favourite things. Warm and humid all year round, perfect!
Some other La Trobe researchers have written about life hacks for the remote researcher, and some of the positive sides of undertaking research in the regions, and I wanted to share the things that have helped me here too.

One of the first things to know, whether you are studying online or on campus, is that you may not find exactly “your kind of academic people” where you are located, and you have to reach out online and via social media to make connections wherever you can. I have made so many friends in Malaysia and found my people in places I never even knew existed, or that I never thought I would fit into.

I found trail running and cycling to be very social activities and helpful for my mental state. Spending time in the jungle or out on the open road on a bicycle, with other people who also enjoy those activities, is refreshing and helps to maintain focus and energy for the difficult times. Importantly, I also joined forums, attended every workshop possible via zoom, asked the library for help via zoom (as well as the IT people), became active on twitter and other social media forums. I told everyone who would listen that I was studying in isolation, when I was struggling, and that I felt like I was out my depth sometimes. I also started a blog and sent that out into the universe to connect people with my work and goals.

Indeed, these suggestions might even be useful for anyone who is new to graduate research, or feeling isolated – even if they are based on a large and busy central campus location.

Summing up 

I am not a natural academic (if there is such a thing!), I don’t really like reading and I have a very short concentration span. I work best when I am around others and learn by talking and doing… yet I find myself studying by distance from an overseas location, where I don’t fluently speak the language and don’t yet have deep connections with the academic community in Australia (although this is building)… I have made the effort to establish online connections with others, joining Shut up and Write sessions via Zoom where I can, becoming a student representative, reaching out the library and the RED team regularly, and basically being seen and hear. Twitter has also been an awesome way to connect with the academic community.

I am learning a whole new language so I can function in academia, a new and frightening bunch of academics to try and communicate with, and to have to learn to operate almost completely in an online environment… and somehow I decided this was still an awesome plan. It is a work in process, and it is happening. I am loving most of this experience and I am incredibly happy to be on this journey.


Sandi James is currently undertaking her research in the school of Science, Health and Engineering at La Trobe University, Australia. She has lived and worked in South East Asia for the past six years and is about to return to Malaysia to take up an academic position in the Univeristi Malaysia Sabah and undertake her PhD candidature. Her research focus is on the traditional use of alcohol in the Indigenous communities of Sabah, Malaysia. Other research interests include evidence-based treatments for mental illness in the Malaysian context, ACT and Ultra Brief Psychological Interventions, collaborative health care provision, and alcohol harm reduction programs. Sandi is a registered psychologist, also practicing in this capacity in Malaysia. She tweets as @jsandi27 and you can find her blog here