Supervising international research students

There is no set formula for the successful supervision of research students. There are obviously some practices that are tried and true and expected, but ultimately it’s about building a constructive relationship. That relationship will necessarily be slightly different every time because of the unique make-up of the people involved.

All students anticipate that their supervisor is knowledgeable and respected in the research field they have chosen to do their studies in. They also expect that the supervisor will be supportive, accessible, caring, respectful, provide timely quality feedback and show genuine interest in their research. A critical element in the student-supervisor relationship is also clear, consistent, regular communication.

Australia has a sizeable population of international research students, with those from China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam accounting for the largest enrolments. Universities are enriched by the cultural diversity of their international student body.

Universities in Australia have well established support mechanisms in place to help international students orient to their new ‘home’.

However, for students who find themselves alone and in unfamiliar surroundings, for whom English is not their first language, who may have considerable pressure placed on them by family to do well and who self-impose high expectations, adjusting to sometimes quite different cultural, social as well as academic experiences can be daunting and even traumatic.

Reliance on a positive student-supervisor relationship in these instances takes on an even more significant role.

Adjusting to difference

Different food, weather, social customs and academic culture along with a dissimilar teaching-learning context and language as well as inevitable homesickness can all impact on the learning journey of the international research student. It takes some time to adjust to the many differences.

Even when international students are welcomed to social events they can experience confusion. I recall the student who was told to bring a plate. She was unsure what this meant. Should she bring an empty plate? Should she bring a plate with food? Would she be expected to drink alcohol? What was the expected dress code? The poor student knew to put something on the plate for the subsequent social event she was invited to!

Underpinning the uncertainty in various social as well as academic situations is the language divide. An example which illustrates this is how Australians adopt a more casual approach to how supervisors are addressed. It can take some time (and sometimes it just never happens) for international students to call their supervisor by his or her first name rather than address them as Professor or Dr. Use of a first name is considered disrespectful in their home country.

Even when working with Canadian students studying in Australia, there is often a period of language adjustment as they demystify the ‘Aussie’ accent and colloquialisms. What they consider most amusing is the Australian way of abbreviating words, for example, brekkie (for breakfast), arvo (for afternoon), footy (for football) and so on and how quickly Australians talk.

These are confident, well assured students with an excellent command of the language. That same assuredness is not always there for students from countries whose first language is not English.

Independent study

Many international students in Australia come from teaching-learning environments that can be best described as teacher-centric. In such cases, the supervisor is seen to be the expert, the authority who has the answers and his or her views are not to be questioned.

This in itself creates challenges in the student-supervisor relationship because the student will likely repeat the supervisor’s views rather than expressing their own or providing a critique of others’ interpretations.

The supervisor may think that the student is not being proactive and taking sufficient ownership of their study, while the student is respectfully deferring to the supervisor as the knowledgeable specialist.

There are international students who have handed their supervisor a draft chapter of their doctoral thesis and expressed great dismay at receiving some negative feedback and-or questions about their work. They were unsure how to approach the supervisor as the expert, to discuss and seek clarification about the feedback.

What they wanted more than anything was well-defined instruction about exactly what to write and which sources to read. They found it daunting to make decisions about matters such as thesis structure, the conceptual framework, methodology and so on, considering these elements to be something they should take direction on from their supervisor.

The student-supervisor relationship is pivotal to making the journey a successful and happy one. There is a lot of adjusting for students to do, but there may also be some modifications supervisors need to make and scope for them to attune to a potentially distinct way of interacting that is more culturally sensitive and aware.

There is a role for supervisors to support their international students so they can understand social conventions just as there is a need to mentor and advise them about academic standards and procedures and future career options.

Further, supervisors can effectively role model the mores attached to good oral and written communication. A lack of confidence in communication skills affects students’ overall willingness to start conversations, to ask questions, to send emails and contribute to any situation for fear of making a mistake.

Differences per se do not have to be problematic. Difficulties arise where student and-or supervisor do not respectfully and honestly communicate expectations and concerns with each other and acknowledge that both can and are willing to learn from the other. This, of course, does not just relate to international students, but all students.

Dr Nita Temmerman is a former pro vice-chancellor (academic) and executive dean of the faculty of education at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. She is currently chair of two higher education academic boards in Australia, visiting professor to Ho Chi Minh City Open University, Solomon Islands National University and Soran University in Kurdistan, as well as invited specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications, invited external reviewer with the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority, a registered expert at the Australian Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, and an author.