Why do some international doctoral students decide to drop out?


Melissa Laufer and Meta Gorup, doctoral candidates at the Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent (CHEGG) at Ghent University in Belgium, have recently published an article in which they present and analyze stories of international doctoral students who have decided to discontinue their studies.

In this interview, we ask Melissa and Meta about the research process behind the article, choices related to their conceptual approach, as well as about their publishing experience.

Your article is about challenges associated with the experience of doing a PhD abroad and you are specifically interested in the doctoral students who, due to these challenges, decide to drop out. As international doctoral students yourselves, do you relate with the stories of your interviewees and, in general, with the subject you write about?

As international doctoral students, we have developed close ties with others pursuing their doctorates abroad. This shared experience and our research interest in higher education often resulted in conversations about the cultural, linguistic and academic challenges related to completing a doctorate abroad as well as sparked our interest in pursuing this topic academically. Upon reviewing the literature, we recognized that the difficulties experienced by international doctoral students have been addressed, however limited attention has been paid to how these challenges contribute to discontinuation. Our interest in this topic was driven both by academic and personal motivations, with the hope that our research may shed light on this issue and encourage positive change for future (international) doctoral students.

The main concept of your study is the one of Othering, which, as you say, has its roots in postcolonial theory. How did you come across this concept and were there any other conceptual or theoretical frameworks you were considering?

Melissa: From my background in intercultural communication, I was aware of the Othering concept as well as its emerging presence in higher education literature. During our literature review, we identified other prominent frameworks and concepts (e.g. socialization, identity) used in doctoral education research, however our final selection was guided by the results of a focus group we conducted in the early stages of the study. The focus group consisted of current international doctoral students and one recent graduate from various cultural and academic backgrounds. Throughout the focus group, themes related to cultural differences, exclusion of internationals, and experiences of being made to feel inferior were commonly expressed. These themes are mirrored in the Othering framework and not addressed to the same extent in the other identified frameworks, which informed our final decision of employing Othering.

To understand the challenges faced by international doctoral students, you conducted 11 interviews with individuals who decided to drop out from their doctoral studies. Some of the stories shared by your interviewees were rather shocking, especially examples of supervisors clearly taking advantage of them and even openly threatening them not to renew contracts unless they do what they are asked. Were you surprised by these stories?

Prior to conducting the fieldwork, we were somewhat prepared to hear difficult stories from our interviewees as we were aware of the challenges cited in the literature as well as some disquieting stories from our social circles. However, we were surprised by the strong parallels among the interview accounts – not only in terms of the difficulties and gravity thereof that the students faced, but the extent of this pattern in students’ stories across faculties and research groups at the studied university.

It was also startling to hear that some interviewees reported incidents that they considered to be intentional mistreatment of international students by their supervisors. In light of these findings, we found it particularly impressive to see the strength of the interviewees, their spirit of endurance, and coping strategies in the face of such difficulty; a topic we hope to address in our future research.

Your findings send an important message to university administrators and policy makers. At the end of the article you put forward a number of recommendations for administrators and supervisors which could help ensure a more positive and successful doctoral experience for international students. Is there anything you would recommend (prospective) international doctoral students as a measure of precaution?

For many of the students in our study problems often emerged during the selection process and snowballed; such as the mismatch of expertise, supervisors, and projects. The majority of these students did not know where to turn to for support or were unaware of their rights, which resulted in further isolation and/or normalization of the mistreatment they were experiencing. Therefore, we recommend that prospective (international) doctoral students empower themselves from the onset with information and support networks.

For example, students should have in-depth conversations with potential supervisors and their current – and/or past – doctoral students about the proposed research topic, supervising style and support as well as group interactions. Additionally, we suggest that students get in touch with doctoral student associations (both formal and informal, such as social media groups) at their prospective universities to discuss questions and concerns.

Why did you choose Higher Education as the outlet for your study?

We selected the journal, Higher Education, as our topic was relatively under-researched and we thought a journal with a wider scope would be a better fit. Furthermore, we also hoped to reach a broader readership in order to spark discussion about this issue and encourage positive change.

How would you describe your experience with the journal and would you recommend Higher Education to other early-career scholars?

We found that the review and publication process was fairly straightforward; it took approximately ten months from the first submission of our paper to its online publication. We received the first reviews after three months, after which we revised and resubmitted the paper. Three months later, we received a second very minor review that we quickly addressed and the manuscript was resubmitted. After the paper was accepted for publication, the production and editing of the proofs was completed in a couple of weeks.

Our experience with the journal was positive and we would recommend it to early-career scholars as the review and publication process was relatively smooth and helpful. In our case, it was especially important that the journal was open to explorative and methodologically diverse research; providing a platform for our research and a broad readership for a topic that is only marginally discussed in the higher education community.

Thank you very much for sharing your experience!

You can find the article by clicking on the following link:

Laufer, M., & Gorup, M. (2018). The invisible Others: stories of international doctoral student dropout. Higher Education. Online first.

Authors’ bios

Melissa Laufer is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent (CHEGG) at Ghent University in Belgium. In her research, Melissa focuses on the interplay between the internationalization process and university cultures, mobility experiences of doctoral students and international academic careers.

Meta Gorup is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent (CHEGG) at Ghent University, Belgium. Drawing on her background in cultural anthropology and organization sciences, Meta’s research is dedicated to ethnographic explorations of complexities characterizing university life, cultures, and identities, specifically among academic middle managers, academics, and doctoral students.

Interviewer: Jelena Brankovic

Jelena Brankovic is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Sociology, Bielefeld University, Germany. Her research interests are in the sociology of organizations, competition, and global dynamics. You can follow her on Twitter.

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