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: meetup.com
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?