Five life saving suggestions for international PhD students

Like many other academics, I have huge admiration for international students, especially those who are doing a thesis in another language. I find it difficult to write on this issue as I have never directly experienced it, so I was delighted when Dr Ehsan Gharaie, who wrote the extremely popular “What to say when someone asks you: should I do a PhD?”, offered to write some posts.

Ehsan has experienced the PhD process from start to finish in a new country and now works at RMIT as Lecturer in Construction Project Management. In this post he offers his life saving suggestions – I hope others with similar experiences might write in and offer their ideas in the comments.

Being a PhD student and managing life is difficult enough. Add to this living in another country, cultural differences, language barriers and financial difficulties and you will see how international PhD students feel when they complain about life. Here is some suggestions for those students:

1. Know the game that you are playing.

You probably have some idea about doing PhD from studying in your home country. But the Australian system might be different. Thus, spend some time understanding it. I have seen students that after two years of study and many conflicts with their supervisors and university realised that their approach has been wrong from the beginning.

If you are familiar with American PhD programs where coursework is part of the program, you need to know that there is no coursework in Australia. This does not make life easier. This, in fact, means you have to learn those courses by yourself and without guidance of a teacher. Keep in mind that the whole PhD process is designed to make you an independent researcher. Therefore, facing tough challenges, taking responsibility and making difficult decisions are parts of the training. Face them and you will be happy when you see the results at the end.

2. Understand the supervisory relationship.

This point is probably more important for the students coming from the eastern cultures where PhD supervisors culturally have superiority and students have to learn to listen to them. Further, the word “supervisor” is very deceptive and plays a big role in confusing students. “Supervisor” consists of two words of “super” and “visor” meaning someone who watches you with authority. In everyday life, it means manger or director.

In the Australian PhD system, there is no superiority for supervisors and they are not your managers. In fact, you have the upper hand in making decisions and they only help you in that regard. They are “advisers” more than “supervisors”. Thus, if in the first six months of your PhD, every time you have a meeting with them you talk about a different topic for your PhD, and every time they encourage you to follow those topics while they are very different, do not be confused and upset. This is their responsibility to encourage you to do whatever you like. They are not there to tell you what to do. They are there to help you in your journey and advice you. That is all you can expect from them. Therefore, stop whinging and take the responsibility.

3. Language barriers and writing style

The result of your PhD will be examined in writing format. Whatever you do, whatever you know, whatever your results are, they have to be communicated through writing. Writing is not an easy skill to learn. Sense making through writing make it more difficult. Think about writing an eighty to hundred thousand word thesis and you will get a sense of enormity of work that you have to go through.

There are many local students that struggle with their writing. You have an extra burden, that you have to overcome, which is writing in another language. Language is not only a medium for communication. It is a way of thinking. Thus, to be able to write in another language you better learn how to think in that language. I know it is not easy. But that seems the only way for writing quality pieces and making sense.

Another problem is to write in academic style. This is not only for you. This is for anyone who wants to be an academic or a researcher. You only need to compare an academic article with a newspaper article to feel the differences between their styles. But knowing the reasons for that difference and learning how to make that difference is a task that you have to undertake and a skill that you need to learn. Therefore, my advice is to spend some time studying about writing, sense making through writing, and academic writing and use any chance to practice. The book “helping doctoral students write” by Kamler and Thomson is a wonderful place to start with.

4. Family commitments

If you think you are the only PhD student who has to think about family, you are wrong. Family commitment is a normality during your PhD. The average age of research students at RMIT is 37. Many have children and elderly parents. Doing Phd is tough. Add to that the stresses of migration and having family concerns. Then you have got a recipe for a very stressful life.

Thus, cut these stresses as much as you can with planning ahead, and sorting things out before your PhD starts. Do not let them happen simultaneously. If you are coming to Australia with your own family. Think about your partner and children. It is not enough that your language proficiency is good. Your family need to know English as well. You cannot stay home for four years and entertain them. They need to go out, network and make friends. They need their own social life. If they have been working in your country and have had a busy life, coming here and experiencing the void would be shocking. They need to fill their time and probably find a job. Do not think you can do everything for them. Whatever stresses they experience will transfer to you and at the end will hurt your relationship. The last thing you want is to sacrifice your family for your PhD. Thus, think ahead and find a solution before the problem arises.

5. Networking and dealing with isolation

Isolation is part of your PhD. This is what every PhD student probably experience. However, local students have their networks around them to help them go through the process. You have to leave your networks in your country and start from scratch. There is no extended family, friends, former or present colleagues and you are here on your own.

Thus, think out of the box. Your life is not only your PhD. You need to have friends and people around you. Therefore, try to join a network and make friends with like-minded people. There are plenty opportunities for that. You just need to try them. The easiest way is to join your countrymates community. But it is not enough. You are here to experience a different life style. Thus, try new things. If you have a hobby, you will definitely find a group of people with the same interest. Do not wait for people to come to you. You have to be active or even super-active to overcome the cultural barriers, make friends, and establish your network. Do not take this lightly. Isolation in another country can affect you and your family. Try this website for start:

Good luck with your experience. If you have been studying for awhile, what advice would you have for students who have just started in a new country?

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15 thoughts on “Five life saving suggestions for international PhD students

  1. vickyteinaki says:

    Do try and get back regularly, as a way to help ground you. A PhD is a long grind, and it’s easy for time to disappear without a touching base. Admittedly, my situation is the most extreme (I’m in the UK and from New Zealand, a 26+ hour flight home!) but I wish I’d got back in the first summer holidays to see friends and family rather than leaving it for 18 months (and even that just because there happened to be a conference back home).

  2. Dale Reardon (@DaleReardon) says:


    I think some of these points are quite valid for Australian PhD students as well.

    The first in relation to course work is good point. The current system doesn’t teach you everything you need to know and worse still they don’t even tell you what you need to learn. Prior to finding these blogs and twitter it was a guessing game as to what needed to know.

    I really think the Australian system could benefit from some course work component but only if the time period for completion is extended accordingly. UTAS where I am has introduced some limited course work but not extended the time for completion and this is very bad in my view.

    In terms of the supervisors I would like to see them take a more forceful stance rather than a very meek stand. I think more forceful guidance could be good at times.

    And of course the family / friends also applies to many of us.

    Twitter: @DaleReardon

  3. DB says:

    Good points. I’d like to make one minor and one major addition:

    1. Minor: re: the first point about different systems and structures of training and coursework. Even where the pattern of work is known and laid out, your particular Ph.D. might require you to teach yourself more than what is taught to you. Choose your topic knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. I came from a Eurocentric literary training in India to a cultural studies Ph.D. in the U.S. There was little coursework in my chosen area at my chosen institution (that’s just the way my work developed) and less training in interdisciplinary work. I have a fantastic adviser but the plod to completion has been grueling.

    2. Major addition: Imagine a life after a Ph.D. There is one. And thinking about it can help you focus, keep pace and finish. If you are going into academia, great. Get into the culture and its politics. If you veer toward a non-academic career and you are not in the sciences or technology departments, be aware that as an international candidate you may have fewer options. If there is a career counseling unit on campus, make friends with them.

  4. tezenzi says:

    thank you for your great post!

    i’m from an eastern country and doing phd in the uk. i totally agree with your points because i experienced all of them. although i did masters in the uk, i found it extremely difficult to adapt the academic system here, particularly the relationship between the supervisor and the student. in my country, a supervisor is a manager and he/she is like a co-worker of your research. i always expected my supervisors to tell me what to do, and it only caused me to waste my time. i’m currently in my third year and i’ve just started to get used to the system. if anyone like me asks me about doing phd in the uk, i’ll definitely suggest blogs or books on academic research. for me, there’s no other way to learn how things work here.

    • Ehsan says:

      Thanks tezenzi for sharing your story. The problem with supervisory relationship is something that I have seen many international students have gone through. I believe it should be somehow brought up to university management level, particularly in universities that host lots of international Phd students.

  5. Faroque says:

    My co-supervisor stood up when I entered his room. It was my very first day here in Australia and in the university. I had appointment with him and I must be recognized by my appearance, nevertheless I thought that he probably mistook and considered me as someone else. I said “Good morning, Sir, I am Faroque”. He replied smiling: “Hi ………. Please never call me sir, call me John (for example)”. I became speechless.

    After doing honors, diploma and an MA with thesis in three different eastern countries, I have started learning a new way of life 12 months ago here. Hundreds of events and incidents have happened during this time. Sometimes I hope that I will be able to teach something new to my students when I will go back. But I am sure that the existing establishment would make it difficult, interesting though.

    I had to sacrifice relations and commitments temporarily by secluding me from many things. If I will be able to complete this degree with keeping my psychological state sound, I hope to restore those relationships one day. I know that I should try to do things right simultaneously, but I simply cannot do it right now. The stress of PhD impacting one’s family and personal life is tremendous.

    About the language problem, these stuttering paragraphs are the evident. I am struggling. Thanks you for this excellent post.

  6. Colombina says:

    Thank you Ehsan, this is a great post. I´m Chilean (and also half German) and doing a PhD in Sydney. I agree completely with the points you made, it´s key to get those things right in time. In think that in Australia, however, they help you a lot in understanding everything. People are very nice and friendly, which is a very good thing.

  7. Sungod says:

    I’m starting my PhD in Australia this august , on my project which I want to furnish as commercial product . After going through all the procedures and work , Now I am rethinking about my decision . Although I don’t want any interference from my supervisor regarding my project and he has agreed too . But Sometime’s I feel like , Am I diving in some unknown territory without anyone’s support . It’s troubling me from some time . Let’s see how it goes .

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, this was meant for ME- every single one of those points! So, I’ll stop ‘whinging and take responsibility’.

  9. CA says:

    Hi, Thanks for this post. I am a PhD student in my last year in a Business Psychology program, in Los Angeles, CA USA. I only have a few classes left to take, and a PhD of course. I just found out that I have run out of financial aid funding, and now I am facing having to give up the past 5 years of coursework, for nothing, but a giant bill. 🙁 I have family in Australia, and I am considering locating a scholarship to finish my PhD…which now knowing that there is no coursework, makes it appealing. I have stopped and started my dissertation many times, only to start from scratch again.
    I would love to hear your thoughts!

  10. Serge says:

    Thank you very much for your post. What you wrote quite well applies to many European PhD student frameworks. Particularly valuable is your point on supervision. I’m a Russian with multidisciplinary background doing a PhD in Germany on the topic different from my education. I realize that the first 2 years of doctorate were at large wasted. Because of coming from a different field and unawareness of the general spirit due to being the only foreigner in the lab, I stopped to be awaiting for a guiding hand only a month ago, after a major failure within the project. Then, realizing that graduate studentship is about forging independent researchers was life-transforming. I wish everyone could know ahead that nursery of lecturers and simple plain rules of exam grade-guided life stop when you leave your MS school.

    • SLO says:

      On the contrary, I joined a phd program in the Netherlands, liking their expectation of a phd student to be an independent researcher. Having experienced the conservative research climate of India, this sounded great. However, in reality, I found my supervisor to be too restrictive and ended up quitting after a year.

      The university’s expectations from me weren’t in sync with what the professor expected.

  11. Suhasini says:

    Hi Eshan,

    I completely agree with your suggestions to International students.
    Being an international staff working in the academic library for many years, and pursuing higher degree study just want to give a suggestion. May be, students might be knowing this…
    Please, please do attend all the workshops which are provided by your library, make an appointment with your liaison librarian and also by learning advisors about how to write academically, how to structure paragraphs and so on.

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