Globalization has embraced the university, as it has sectors, owing largely to easy travel and a digital infrastructure that provides information instantly. Many academics appreciate the benefits that cross-cultural exchange allows as the ivory tower turns global. Knowledge now belongs to a world-wide arena in which we are all connected. While students and tutors have travelled since the time of Marco Polo, today an unprecedented number of international students study at Western universities and, indeed, unprecedented numbers of Western academics teach abroad.
There are enormous challenges for teaching, studying and research inside this globally-interdependent context. In the case of international graduate students, the language of instruction is not the only issue. They must learn different research methodologies and understand a new set of complex cultural dynamics both in their living situations and in their new university workplaces. Very often their adaptation takes place in a context of very little appreciation or understanding of the challenges of trying to perform according to the high academic standards of a new language, culture, and workplace. And there are often the unconscious assumptions of the “international faculty club” that promotes ideas and even behaviors largely dominated by Western (predominantly American) intellectuals.
How are the challenges of teaching international graduate students being met? To find out, between 2007 and 2008 I conducted a year-long investigation that began with a survey. The survey was initially distributed on-line to a few potential participants personally known to me. These people were invited to forward it to others interested in the study. Participants willingly responded to the survey with anonymity. In total, 126 volunteers from America, Australia, Britain, Canada, Hong Kong, Macao, Mainland China, New Zealand, Singapore and Taiwan completed the survey and returned it to me. Of them, 71 per cent were international graduate students and 29 per cent professors. The collected data revealed four significant challenges in teaching international graduate students: definition of a dissertation, research readiness, departmental advising, and English writing skills.
All professor respondents considered a graduate program design to be the most important element in facilitating a student’s transition from student to independent researcher. This transition usually contains four distinctive stages: a) facilitation, in which students are hesitant in their new role and their productivity is minimal; b) early confidence stage, during which student has the self-confidence to undertake research but lacks a base of knowledge which results in low productivity; c) independent stage, when the student’s productivity is good and ever improving; and d) advanced professional stage, when the student produces an independent project, including successful writing of a lengthy, formal treatise—a dissertation for a doctoral degree.
One American professor respondent commented: “A well-defined scope of the thesis will be a sufficient and guaranteed factor for success.”
Surprisingly, 70 per cent of student respondents felt that undergraduate learning and graduate studies appeared to be the same. One student wrote: “I always get A’s for most of my courses, you know. I see no problems in completing my graduate studies.”
These respondents failed to see that undergraduate course work is different from the reading assignments, tests and papers assigned to graduate students. They did not recognize that any thesis, and a doctoral dissertation in particular, is a completely different academic project, with different expectations, than work at the undergraduate level.
They did not understand that thesis writing (in a Western university) is considered to be the first step toward research whose findings will be available to other scholars and benefit scholarship at a professional level. This is a real challenge to all graduate students, domestic and international alike, if they are to compete with success, globally.
The next challenge was students’ research readiness. Sixty-two percent of professors and 89 per cent of students reported that international graduate students were in general ill-prepared for conducting independent research projects. Since the numbers so clearly indicate that graduate students do not understand foreign research expectations, a few anecdotes illustrate the ways in which this is the case.
One student submitted a 20-word title for a doctoral dissertation completed in North America. It was easily edited down to eight words without its meaning being changed. When the title failed to meet the basic criterion for its discipline (maximum 16 words), we can imagine the difficulties of reading the dissertation itself.
In one two-year, full-time Masters program run at an Eastern university and coordinated by a professor from a well-respected North American university, there was no research training component. Nevertheless, students were required to conduct an empirical study and to write a thesis in English. In four years, only 6 (22 per cent) students out of 27 completed their studies. Their attempts (without support or training) consumed a tremendous amount of their energy and time, and they were unsuccessful. The leadership in this program was sorely deficient as the coordinator became embroiled in cross-cultural differences and unprofessional hiring practices. The faculty dean said openly: “These foreign devils, they are here to have fun, enjoy life, make money,” a remark that certainly does not set the tone for respectful, international academic exchange.
In another case, a North American born teacher was offered a position at an Eastern university after he had completed a doctoral degree there. One day he asked at a faculty meeting how to write a research proposal. His question invited much skepticism about his ability to research, as all adequately-trained Ph.Ds know how to write research proposals. A Western professor suggested respectfully: “Students should perhaps have to take more rigorous training in actual research methods and be better prepared for the type of research they are required to do.”
The third area of challenge for international graduate students was the complementary relationship between how much support and independence international graduate students are expected to have. Seventy per cent of student respondents mentioned their disappointment at the unavailability of their supervisors and commented on the lack of departmental support, which, in their view, were vital factors for their success.
One student described her experience as terrifying because her thesis supervisor was always busy and impatient with her questions.
Another felt lonely: “The department where I’m based doesn’t provide Ph.D students with a fixed workspace. I have to study at home. This makes me feel rather isolated from the department and lack a sense of community.”
Still another reflected with bitterness: “One day, I was doing an experiment on fetus cells in a lab, my supervisor passed by and said to me, ‘I will never let my children do this kind of work.’ This made me angry because she treated me as if I were inferior. She accepted me as a graduate student not for academic advancement but for her personal promotion.”
On the faculty side, 60 per cent of professor respondents remarked that the greatest challenge of international students was their lack of independence. They noted that international graduate students rarely asked questions and needed a lot of guidance and specific instructions. In an Eastern context, students’ dependence on their supervisors was found to be greater than that of those in a Western context. Such dependence sometimes created frustration and displeasure in thesis advisers.
One English literature professor shared his disappointment without any reticence: “So far, after six years in the Far East, it would be difficult to say that supervising graduate students has had any positive aspects. Students are usually ill prepared for graduate studies, so while their enthusiasm is obviously a plus, their cultural preparation, in areas of literature, is all too often wholly inadequate for the task they wish to approach.”
Another vented her frustration with humour: “I came here to teach, but at the end of the semester, I realized that instead of ‘teaching students,’ I had been taking what I was teaching myself.”
In early 2007, I witnessed a senior Western professor responsible for an Eastern graduate program who could not cope with his students’ heavy dependence and saw no way to guide the professors working under him. He was overwhelmed by the inability to teach independence in both writing and research. He wrote to his colleagues who were attempting to teach and supervise graduate students: “Dear All…I’m sorry if I sometimes seem to be standing there speechless with despair, since I don’t really know what to do or suggest about it.”
Seventy per cent of professors felt that many of their international students did not have adequate writing skills for the graduate level.
The final challenge is perhaps the most crucial: the writing needs of international graduate students. Seventy per cent of professors felt that many of their students did not have adequate skills to write effectively at a graduate level. A Canadian professor elaborated: “Generally they have limited academic writing ability in English, which makes it very difficult for them to clearly present their thoughts and ideas or argue for a particular point of view. Text organization is also often a great challenge for them. I spend a lot of time correcting the form and organization of my international students’ papers and theses.” The same professor also pointed out: “…due to again relatively limited English language proficiency, international students have a hard time handling heavy reading and synthesizing of the relevant points from the literature.”
It is interesting that only 40 per cent of students acknowledged their writing difficulties, and many failed to realize its impact until they reached the independent stage of their research.
A Chinese student studying at a British university reported putting off her graduation deadline twice as a result of “my poor writing skills. I regret not taking seriously what my teacher[s] had told me earlier, ‘it is the writing that is often the most challenging for non-native Englishspeaking students like you.’”
Another student currently pursuing a doctoral degree at a Canadian university felt ashamed of her writing difficulty: “At the beginning I was quite confident because I got A’s for most of my courses. But now I am struggling with my writing. Once I wrote an abstract, and all the readers said that the language reads ‘awkward.’ I was really embarrassed.”
But worst was the case of a doctoral student who simply discontinued his studies in his fourth year and ending up being ABD, when he was bluntly told: “If you can’t write, there will be no future for you at the university.” He was not even able to construct an error-free short paragraph of 100 words.
Writing challenges are so important that students sometimes become desperate. One Ph.D holder, for instance, “confessed” to me that he had paid a native-speaker of English to write his dissertation during the final stage of his graduate studies. Another Ph.D recipient told me that his thesis had been written up to the finish by his supervisor (called a “gun hand” by the Chinese). Perhaps most disturbing was an MA thesis completed at a well-known European university that was a translation from Chinese into English, and the “translator” later became a full professor at a Chinese university.
In The Besieged, Qian offered an interpretation of this unethical writing behaviour: obtaining a degree means writing a thesis capable of fooling the supervisor; later lesson plans will surely be capable of fooling the students, and such individuals with empty souls but big egos will end up in the classroom, teaching.
To help international graduate students cope with their writing difficulties, it is important to ensure that they understand how English words are adapted and arranged to form sentences and why words have to be subjected to adaptation and arrangement in a certain way. Equally important, they should be familiarized with the guidelines and requirements that govern academic and, professional writing.
These two areas are complementary, with each mutually supporting the other. The first one shows how clear communication can be achieved by analysis, and the second shows how efficiency in the formation of meaning of their knowledge can be achieved by synthesis. Taken together, they can contribute to success in disseminating research findings.
When we step back to examine these elements as a single phenomenon, we will realize that the challenges we face are great. They require time, mentoring, and great patience. If hundreds of international programs continue to be created without clear anticipation of these challenges, international graduate students are bound to fail in acquiring the skills essential to functioning as independent scholars. In consequence, many international campuses will be littered with pilot programs that fail to fly.
A case in point is Stanford University, which has recently launched a DARE Project (Diversifying Academia Recruiting Excellence) because the number of doctoral students has decreased from 13 per cent to 8 per cent in the current year. No school can afford to ignore student enrollment. Particularly in the era of globalization, there is intense competition among universities in recruiting international students. Moreover, it has been a tradition in many Western universities that international graduate students are seen as valuable members of the academic environment, teaching undergraduates and collaborating with their supervisors in research across national boundaries.
Where should we go from here? The challenges we have seen are faced by both faculty advisors and international graduate students. To ensure success in graduate education in a world-wide academic context, teachers and students must create and share a dynamic, respectful, mutually equal and rewarding relationship.
International graduate students’ advisers should be aware of their advisees’ needs and assist them in their integration into Western academic culture and expectations. In this regard, a Canadian professor suggested: “They should be put in touch with some more ‘senior’ students for mentorship, or an association for support and networking so that the process of acculturation is smoother for these students. This will allow them to focus more on the academic challenges at hand.”
Likewise, international graduate students should be fully aware that the secret of their success in graduate education lies in their ability to conquer two major challenges.
One is how to conduct a scientific inquiry. They have to understand that what uniquely sets science (seeking truth) apart from enterprise (e.g., in politics, compromise is part of the game and in business, profit is the primary concern) is a method based on logic. Research explores a body of substantive knowledge, and the scientific method is a way of assessing the validity of that knowledge. When trained properly and adequately in research methodology, they will have a method that embodies a variety of assumptions regarding the nature of knowledge and the methods through which they can discover knowledge and apply assumptions about the nature of the phenomena they are to investigate.
The other is how to write effectively. International graduate students should remember that writing a thesis or dissertation is not only something new but also a very large and very independent project. It is by definition a self-directed process, during which there are no weekly deadlines from professors, no regular discussions with classmates, no reading assignments, no one telling them what to do—they are on their own, writing something longer than they’ve ever written, and doing it without a net. This independence seems intimidating, but it enables them to build writing skills which they will use throughout their career. If they can’t learn this or ignore this important part of their graduate studies, their whole education or future professional career will suffer. For some scholars, the essence of writing is style and structure; great ideas are immaterial. Thus, international graduate students must, at the outset, sharpen their English writing skills systematically, for writing is an earned skill acquired through a slow process and there is no quick fix for writing difficulty. Otherwise, time will disillusion them as with the above ABD, first flattered for talent and the passion of being good at school until reaching the stage of “putting your research findings in writing.”
Some of my own experiences as an international graduate student from China over a decade ago are illustrative of the direction that could be taken. I was fortunate to study in a program much better designed than many existing ones. I received a rigid training under the guidance of a committee comprising five highly professional and competent scholars, who were also culturally sensitive and caring. For research methodology alone, I took six courses, well over half the number of courses required of many current students for their entire graduate study program. I would not have been able to complete my dissertation of nearly 400 pages without the availability and constant encouragement of my thesis supervisor, one of the national and international leading scholars in my discipline. I have learned from my experience that for non-native speakers of English the biggest challenge is, more often than not, how to succeed in academic written communication, which is also part of research process.
Writing makes us think better. Thinking better makes our writing better. Writing better helps us arrive at a better research product. If we are unable to share or disseminate our research findings with the scientific community, mostly in a written form, our research is incomplete, or perhaps even worthless. Therefore, writing should not be understood as a sub-skill nor treated as a service course at university. Only in this way is it possible that more international graduate students will grow into well-trained independent researchers, and fewer will turn out to be scholars who can’t write, and hopefully, none will be an academic who feels forced to perform with deception and pretense, eking out a meager existence within the academic community. AM
Fengying Xu, who received her Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Ottawa and has taught in and outside Canada, is currently teaching at Algonquin College in Ottawa.