This is a guest post jointly written by Melissa Laufer and Meta Gorup, doctoral candidates at the Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent at Ghent University in Belgium. Together, they explored the dropout experiences of international doctoral students and the factors that contributed to the discontinuation of their studies. The full article, ‘The invisible Others: stories of international doctoral student dropout’, is available here.
The hardships of pursuing a doctorate abroad
A doctoral journey is both professionally and personally challenging. Research indicates that international doctoral students (IDSs) are especially vulnerable to extreme challenges due to their positions as academic novices and cultural outsiders. In our examination of the literature, we observed IDSs like their local counterparts exhibit alarming rates of dropout, yet we have little knowledge of what factors cause them to discontinue their studies.
As international students ourselves, we were personally motivated to contribute to research on this topic. During our doctoral studies, we developed friendships with a number of other international colleagues pursuing PhDs. Sharing this common experience often resulted in conversations about the ups and downs of our doctoral journeys abroad. Their stories and our scholarly focus on higher education governance fueled our interest in giving voice to this invisible group by systematically exploring the hardships that contribute to dropout among IDSs.
Listening to international doctoral students’ stories
One of the first steps in our study was to conduct an informal focus group with international students who had or were currently pursuing doctorates abroad. We encouraged the participants to speak openly about their doctoral experiences. This resulted in numerous reports of the participants feeling disempowered within their university and host society.
This prompted the selection of our conceptual framework, ‘Othering’, which focused our attention on how IDSs experience being perceived as Others, as in ‘less-than’ in relation to their supervisors and local colleagues. We thus set out to investigate the various ways in which IDSs experience Othering and how this contributes to their discontinuation.
Our method of choice was the life story interview, which positioned the participants as main narrators and provided us with a comprehensive view of their experiences and the intertwining factors that contributed to their attrition. However, finding IDSs who were willing to relive their – most likely difficult – experiences of discontinuation was not a simple task. Over several months, we connected to students through informal and social media channels, managing to recruit 11 participants (from a Western European university in a non-English speaking EU country) who subsequently shared with us the distressing difficulties they faced during their PhD journeys.
International doctoral students as ‘Others’
The findings revealed four types of Othering experienced by the IDSs: Foreign, Academic, Financial and Social.
We identified Foreign Othering as a student experiencing negative assumptions or precarious work situations due to their status as a foreigner. For example, there were cases reported of supervisors threatening not to renew a student’s work contract (and thus their ability to remain legally in the country) as a method for controlling their work output.
Students’ positions as Foreign Others reinforced additional types of Othering. For instance, Academic Othering, which we defined as an individual being put in a disadvantageous situation due to their position as an academic novice and lack of knowledge of academic norms and rules. There were several examples in the study that illustrated how lack of familiarity with academic work, work agreements and academic advising, disempowered IDSs to steer their own research projects, question work agreements and determine the appropriateness of supervisor interaction.
These forms of Othering also contributed to IDSs being more vulnerable to Financial Othering, such as receiving short-term contracts, unreliable external funding and being financially dependent on their supervisors. For example, the most common form of external funding for non-EU doctoral students provided a smaller monthly stipend for approximately one year less than state/federal doctoral funding awarded to local and EU students.
Lastly, Social Othering refers to an individual’s experience of exclusion in formal and informal social interactions at the university and within the host society. The IDSs shared how lacking familiarity with the local culture and language isolated them from social activities in their departments, excluded them from relevant work conversations (being held in the local language) and prevented them from establishing a social support network.
How to improve the (international) doctoral student experience?
Drawing on our findings, we propose a number of recommendations for (prospective) doctoral students, supervisors and universities.
For many of the students in our study lack of support and information contributed to them not knowing where to turn to for help when challenges arose. This led to them being further isolated and normalizing extreme problems. We recommend potential and current doctoral students become their own advocates. For example, students should have numerous conversations with their supervisors about work expectations, research topics and supervising style, preferably prior to starting a doctorate. Students can also seek out (or form) support networks among their peers and more experienced academics as a method to share information and resources.
We recommend that doctoral supervisors reflect on their own academic expectations, supervising style and communication methods. It is important to communicate about these issues to doctoral students as perceptions of doctoral supervision may differ greatly and be linked to implicit assumptions regarding academic work and behavior.
Universities can support doctoral students and their supervisors by providing training for navigating this relationship as well as a system of checks and balances. For example, it is important to formalize an anonymous and fair system in which junior academics may file complaints and concerns without fear of negative consequences.