PhDs from overseas: the rocky road to success for students and supervisors

Cultural differences can complicate relationships between international doctoral students and supervisors, Jack Grove hears

August 20, 2015
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Bridging the gap: international students face many hurdles in postgraduate study

Moving to a foreign country to study at an advanced level can be a daunting experience for even the most high-flying students.

One brilliant young American physicist became so frustrated by his unhappy time at the University of Cambridge that he left an apple laced with noxious chemicals on the desk of his PhD supervisor.

Robert Oppenheimer left the Cavendish laboratory in disgrace shortly afterwards in 1926, but flourished under a new supervisor in Germany to become one of the most famous scientists of the 20th century as head of the Manhattan Project to build the first nuclear bomb.

So what can supervisors and their universities do to help international students adapt to life as a PhD student? And what are some of the problems they are likely to encounter?

Language is, of course, one of the major obstacles faced by many overseas PhD students, explained Gina Wisker, head of the University of Brighton’s Centre for Learning and Teaching, who will speak at a Society for Research into Higher Education event on 16 September on the issue.

“Students are often working in their second, third or fourth language when they come to study here, so it will be difficult for them,” said Professor Wisker.

“But there is no point in infantilising students because they do not speak English to the required level, as [then] they just will not hit the level they need to reach,” she added.

Professor Wisker, a professor of higher education and comparative literature who has completed numerous supervisions in both subjects, said institutions should provide support in the year before students arrive to ensure they have academic-level English.

“Otherwise you will have highly intelligent students who just do not do well,” she said.

Rigorous screening is necessary to avoid taking on unsuitable candidates merely because there is a financial incentive to admit them, Professor Wisker continued.

“We once interviewed someone via Skype and it was clear an agent was in the background feeding him answers,” she said of one rejected applicant.

Some PhD students have struggled to adapt to the UK’s cultural norms, such as the presence of female academics in senior roles.

“I’ve had male students from Asia who have found having a woman supervisor difficult,” Professor Wisker said. “It’s important to have a conversation about this early on. Intelligent students will soon realise it is in their interests to make the relationship work.”

The styles of learning prevalent in China and Southeast Asian countries can also present challenges, she continued.

“Critical thinking is approached differently by students from a Confucian background,” Professor Wisker said.

That style of education, which esteems rote learning and mimesis of teachers’ opinions, can be a “block” on students reaching PhD-level learning, she added.

Universities are advised to provide international students with a more general introduction to the basics of doctoral study, rather than relying on individual tutors to broach these difficult issues.

Such inductions “take the weight off personal interactions between students and supervisors”, Professor Wisker said.

“Some supervisors find it hard to have these conversations,” she added, citing male scientists as a group that might not always have the social skills suited to addressing such topics.

Communicating the rigours and hardship involved in doctoral work to international students can also be difficult.

“These are high achievers used to academic success throughout their entire lives, so you need to explain how a PhD might dip in the middle and then soar as they begin to create new knowledge,” Professor Wisker said. “Doing a PhD is a big step up for any student and it’s sometimes hard to explain that this isn’t just a few extra years of a master’s degree.”


Bishop Grosseteste University has made four new appointments. David Rae becomes executive dean for research and knowledge exchange. Jan Pascal and Frederick Attenborough have joined as academic coordinators for the new suite of health and social care courses and the new single honours degree in sociology, respectively. Finally, Waseem Alladin has joined as the academic coordinator for counselling and will lead the university's new psychology and counselling degree programme.

Mark Ormerod, currently pro vice-chancellor for research, enterprise and the environment at Keele University, has been promoted to deputy vice-chancellor and provost at the institution.

Kellie Vincent has joined the University of Westminster’s business school as director of its MBA programme. Dr Vincent joins from Oxford Brookes University, where she was MBA director.

The Open University has named Kevin Hetherington to the post of pro vice-chancellor for research and academic strategy. He is currently head of the OU’s Faculty of Social Sciences.

Gillian Camm has been appointed chair of the board at the Leadership Foundation. Ms Camm, currently chair of the board of the University of the West of England, becomes the foundation’s third chair in its 11-year history.

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Reader's comments (1)

I have supervised PhD students from about 16 countries who have arrived in the UK with everything from perfect English to needing a year's pre-sessional training in the language. I am always surprised how well most of them do; they are generally bright and well-motivated, and by the end of their studies speak and write very good English. And yes, some of them do write better than some native speakers!

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