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How to succeed as an 'overseas' / 'international' research student

Students working away from their home countries often face challenges that 'home' students do not. This page considers three such challenges which often seem particularly daunting.

How funding can affect progress

If your funding comes from your own country, you need to be aware that it can be cripplingly expensive for your funding body. Not only are fees so much higher for overseas students, but also the exchange rate may not be favourable. Consequently funding bodies require and demand value for money.

Funding for three or (in some cases) four years may seem a comfortable deal at the outset, but students will need to hit the ground running to be sure that all aspects of the work are completed before the money runs out. Only in very special circumstances and with a great deal of paperwork will funding be extended.

How the expectations of people at home can affect progress

General information

The common second concern is that the people back home will expect anyone who has studied away for so long to be returning as a success. This can 'hang over' international research students as a source of unremitting strain and worry. If this applies to you, you would be well advised to familiarise yourself as soon as possible with all the pages for students on this site and possibly also all of the book, so that you can understand and manage what lies ahead.

In particular, do make sure that the project you undertake will not be too ambitious in terms of data collection and analyses. In particular, aiming for 'quantity' is not necessarily the best way of achieving the quality, originality and significance appropriate for work at PhD level. You will need to think independently and take advice from supervisors* while not following instructions blindly.

Also keep alert to a fall-back position.

Cultural issues

International students may face another significant challenge. It applies where they come from cultures which expect a student never to stray from giving the outward appearance that a teacher is right in all respects all of the time. These cultures value deference, humility and compliance, without displays of emotion. Students from such cultures face a major readjustment when they first arrive in a Western educational system where independent thinking is valued and where students, particularly research students, are expected to demonstrate this in ways which may seem alien and uncomfortable.

Most supervisors are sensitive to the issues and help their students to handle them, but supervisors who have never worked outside their own country may not be. This puts the onus on the international students. The issues will not go away. Remedies are matters for individual preference, often worked out with guidance from more experienced members of the same culture. Often all that is needed is a form of 'permission' from supervisors that academic argument, originality and creative thinking are acceptable within the framework of the research; that this is what will please supervisors; and that it will not be regarded as lack of respect. Chapter 6 of the book considers the move towards independence in more detail and suggests ways of taking initiatives with supervisors on this and various other matters.

A related matter is that students from these cultures tend to think that their written work should include chunks copied verbatim from the publications of experts, because this shows that they honour those experts. Whatever the intentions and rationales of the students doing the copying, it is nevertheless regarded an attempt to pass of the work of others as one's own. This is known as 'plagiarism' and the temptation to do it must be overcome. Plagiarism is considered more fully on another page of this site.

Sections from The Research Student's Guide to Success in the chapter on succeeding as an 'overseas' research student

The challenges of being a postgraduate research student outside your home country

Preparing yourself while still at home

Selecting a suitable institution

Funding issues and their implications

Timing the application

The challenge of working in another language

The challenge of thinking independently

Other possible challenges

Whatever the culture at home, postgraduate research students in a Western culture are expected to work things out for themselves. At the level of postgraduate research no supervisor or teacher will tell students what to do at least not after a relatively short induction period. General training will be given but, after that, supervisors are there to advise, warn and encourage. It will be a good idea to watch how British students interact with supervisors and take that as a rough model. It is also important to realise that, because supervisors are not all-knowing, they can, just like everyone else, be sufficiently insecure to feel threatened in certain situations.

In contrast there are students from some cultures who may give the impression that, having paid their fees to the institution, it is obliged to give them the corresponding award, regardless of anything else. Such students need to appreciate that their fees are buying opportunity, i.e. the opportunity to develop themselves, and that it is up to them how they use this opportunity. In particular no academic with any professionalism will sign certificates of attendance at training where the student has not participated.

© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.