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Diversities in Transnational Experience

ImageInternational students are often grouped together as a homogenous category. However, students come to the UK from a variety of backgrounds and contexts, bringing a wealth of different experiences and achievements with them. The impact and consequences of studying in the UK for each international PhD student are equally diverse.

This page can be used to help navigate and reflect on the experiences transnational researchers can have, whilst also questioning common assumptions. All quotations are taken from transcripts which formed part of the Oxford CETL Network’s project. Drawing on qualitative interviews with African DPhil students at Oxford, the project investigated the academic identities and practices of researchers from the post-colonial South and found that experiences differ greatly for students from the same country and region, let alone those from entirely different continents.


A common assumption made about international students is that they will find their new environment very different to what they are used to and will have difficulty adjusting to an ‘alien’ culture. This need not be the case, however, as some students find that they adjust reasonably quickly and easily. Each person has their own way of adjusting to their new surroundings and circumstances;

“We’re all in a university, an academic community, okay? You are there to do things like research, you know, read, write and all that, and to that extent, there was not any cultural exchanges. We are not African or American or Chinese or … Welsh or anything, we are all academics and we interact quite happily. After every seminar, we would go to the pub. The University system in the United Kingdom is designed in a way that, wherever you come from, you don’t feel lost, okay. You feel at home.”

It can therefore seem odd or unnecessary to be plied with help and advice on how to ‘fit in’ or ‘adjust’. It may even come across as an offensive generalisation when in fact you’re dealing with the same kinds of issues as most British PhD students, as everyone is facing a new experience when they begin to study for a doctorate. This will vary from person to person, meaning that potential differences and difficult adjustment periods are not to be dismissed out of hand;

“It’s that whole question again of negotiating and navigating, because they are two different places and two different sort of cultural spaces … The need to get grounded, for me, is the most important thing. I haven’t quite yet sort of mastered how to be sort of trans-national person and sort of not identify with a place … For me, I think my identity still comes from a place and a particular culture that I come from, and I feel grounded if I can still meaningfully engage and be part of that community.”

It is important to remember that each individual’s personal response to adjustment will be different; support networks with colleagues and other fellow postgraduate students can be useful but are ultimately a matter of personal choice.

For tips and advice on managing your studies, see Getting Through Your PhD and Related Resources for International PhD Researchers

Educational experience

Another common assumption is that international students, particularly those from outside the EU, will have very different educational experiences and perspectives to those practised in UK institutions. This need not be the case if home institutional models are similar to the British education system,

“The educational system in Ghana at the time was modelled after the UK system, so it was seen as an easy integration to, you know, easy choice in some ways.”

At other times, you will draw comparisons between different teaching and learning styles;

“The African teaching style is much more hands-on, here it is less structured, less directed which can be good but challenging, also in African universities you have less freedom, but your supervisor might tell you what to do.”

It is always useful to understand the expectations of your supervisors and other colleagues, as there may be methods and approaches that they take for granted, but which are less familiar or known to you.

Brain Circulation

Discussion of ‘brain drain’ can lead to the expectation that most international students, particularly those from the global South, will not return to their countries of origin. Again, this will vary according to peoples’ personal goals;

"The financial story is obviously a big one … salaries here are a factor of what they are back on the continent. That’s one. Two I think is sectorial, so I think you’ll find a lot of people who are in the Sciences or in Medicine, they find it really hard to go back because … if you want to be an academic, in an environment where resources count, you’re in big trouble if you’re wanting to go back. So I know a couple of guys who are doing, you know, Chemistry or Physics or Electronics, and being a professor at MIT versus a professor at University of Zambia is … it’s a no-brainer, right?”

Many international students, however, study abroad with the intention of returning ‘home’. It can often be a case of ‘brain circulation’ rather than ‘brain drain’,

“I’d like to at least build up a profile as an academic, finish my D.Phil, publish a couple of papers, and build a profile, but, for some reason, I’d like to be on the African continent … and doing something that is very relevant to the context of Africa and contemporary problems in Africa at that stage. So I really want to be back in Africa, doing work there, and finding myself in a career maybe in a regional organisation, something that has influence on policy and on the direction of where things are going. So hopefully my time here and the networks I build can help me sort of build on that kind of career path.”

For others, writing a PhD thesis may have much more to do with their specialist subject rather than immediate career plans. The question of returning, remaining or moving on to somewhere entirely different can be left open and not be the issue at the heart of an international academic’s life.

Transnational networks

Despite the diversity of social and financial biographies, international students often draw on transnational networks and experiences to get through their PhD, to make the most of studying in the UK and to work towards common goals:

"I want to be from wherever I am from and grounded in that, but to be able to engage with different communities, diverse societies, and to be able to engage [...]  So, because of that, for me, when I see myself in my career, I need to be able to speak to different sorts of communities and engage with them in a meaningful way and be able to understand where they’re coming from, and being here is very important.  I’ve just met so many different people  …  You know, I had travelled a bit, but Oxford is I guess…you know, it’s like a Mecca of sorts [laughing]! People come in from different places, and engaging with them and coming to know them is very…for me, is very enriching."  

Whoever you meet, therefore, whether from the UK, other countries or your place(s) of origin, there will be much to learn, create and share as part of a transnational academic community.

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