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Adapting to cultural differences

Be comfortable with thinking critically in your field.

As a supervisee, you might encounter cultural differences ranging from subtle to dramatic that might affect how you work with undergraduate students, peers, and supervisors. One common difference is in the style of thinking about existing research and its authority. If you are unfamiliar with the culture of English universities, know that thinking critically is acceptable and usually necessary.

The diversity of people in higher education, especially graduate education, is greater than ever. Being successful at a foreign university requires not only motivation but also an understanding of expectations that might differ from those at home. International students must adapt  to academic and cultural practices and environments that are often unfamiliar to them. Consequently, they can face a number of intellectual challenges while studying in their "host" university. Whether they perceive the changes they make in response to these challenges as temporary and strategic in order to finish their doctorate, or to be used to transform practices in their "home" academia, the challenges have to be negotiated.

Critical thinking

For some, a key area where these challenges arise is in being critical. The Western approach to education is one which requires an individual to be critical – to question texts and ideas, to challenge other people, to construct arguments, to have an opinion. For international students from a non-Western background critique may be an unfamiliar concept, something for which they are not well-equipped and, consequently, something which can be difficult for them to adjust to, for a variety of reasons:

  • Students may not be used to being independent learners. In many cultures international students will have studied in an environment where they have been told what to do and how to do it, where they have been relatively passive receivers of knowledge, rarely arguing about their subjects.
  • Critique may contradict the values emphasized in their previous education experience. To disobey or contradict what a teacher or supervisor recommends could be considered impolite and to subject the work of well-known and established academics to critical scrutiny could be considered disrespectful.
  • Critique may violate codes of language and social conduct. In some cultures "saving face" and maintaining political and racial harmony is extremely important and hence any criticism of ideas has to be offered in a roundabout, indirect way rather than the more direct, up front approach advocated in Western education.
  • Critique may be a politically or academically dangerous thing to undertake. Some international students come from a home culture or situation where taking a critical stance, even when abroad, is risky and might impact upon their academic reputation or have political repercussions.
  • Critique may not take place in their first language. International students may readily be able to critique in their first language but doing so in English may be the problem. When writing or discussing in English they may lack sufficient ability to express themselves or to structure their words with an order that is appropriate to the English language and, therefore, conveys the meaning they want to get across and enables listeners and readers to understand what they are saying.
  • Supervisors and teaching assistants may have well-defined views of what constitutes good writing e.g. critical analysis, evaluation, synthesis, but are unable to explain exactly what is meant by these terms.

The English language and metaphor

Although the English language ability of international students for whom English is not their first language will be required to be of a certain standard, there will often be certain nuances of English which cause linguistic problems. One such area is the use of metaphors, which is the comparison of one object with another in order to describe it (e.g. to say that a paragraph lacks focus is to compare the writing to a lens). Requiring culturally-based knowledge to interpret successfully both the context and meaning or connotation of a phrase, metaphors are frequently a source of difficulty for international overseas students. If they lack the requisite underpinning knowledge, students may not only not understand a metaphor but may also misunderstand them, to the extent that they make an interpretation which may make sense to them but be wholly different from that intended by the speaker. Such difficulties with metaphors can seriously affect a student's perception of the speaker's stance towards the topic under discussion and even send the student off in an erroneous direction.

Other areas where the challenges of adaptation can be experienced by international students are:

How can international supervisees be influential in graduate education?

International supervisees gain prominence at higher levels of education and may generally expect that supervisors will recognize diversity and adapt to it. In the context of decreasing doctoral graduations for all students at McGill (2009-2012), however, international supervisees must confront the uncertainty of enrolment trends and their effects on international communities at McGill.

The latest publicly available data tell us that in the fall term of 2012 McGill University had 37,835 enrolled students, of whom 8,881 were graduate students (20%). Of these graduate students, 2,052 (23%) were from outside of Canada (including U.S. students). In 2012 the number of doctoral students was 3,378 and there were 642 postdocs, giving a total of 4,020, of whom 1,530 were visa students (U.S. or other). 38% of doctoral students and postdocs at McGill were from other countries. If you are an international student, you have an important voice in graduate education.

In the academic year 2011-2012 there were 371 doctoral graduations, decreasing from 508 in the 2010-2011 academic year and from 413 in 2009-2010. In this context of decreasing doctoral graduations, it is especially important to reflect upon the factors (e.g., funding, global politics and economics, and McGill’s reputation) that might affect longer-term trends in the enrolment and graduation of international students.

You may wonder: 

  • Does your McGill experience reflect the diversity indicated in McGill’s demographics?
  • How do you approach graduate students and faculty who are different from you?
  • What can you do to enhance your understanding of the roles that culture, gender, race, sexual orientation and other human characteristics play in academic and research environments?

Money, status, and diversity of peers

Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at universities in North America often have a lower standard of living than that which they were accustomed to before enrolment, and this change can add to the challenge of becoming, in many cases, a visible minority. Partly because of this challenge, international students should seek a wider diversity of peers: those from "home," from the "host," and from elsewhere.

For many international students, motivation arises from a commitment to using their doctorate to contribute to the advancement of their home country. Although this sense of nationalism can be motivational, the challenges of living in a different country can leave students feeling uncomfortable, disempowered, or struggling for an identity.

Money and job-related status

There are considerable practical challenges to be faced. Financial support is often dependent on employers or home governments, or competitive scholarships such as the Vanier scholarship. Otherwise, students may be using gifts and loans from their extended families. During their doctorate, most are experiencing a substantially lower standard of living than they are used to; even those who continue on their previous salaries (funded by their employers) are faced with the costs of living in a big North American city and of travelling home when finances and time permit.

International students can be surprised to discover the relatively lowly status they hold as a research student. According to Leonard (2007, p3), "They expect to be treated differently from other students as a mark of their superior, doctoral student status... [but] there is seldom recognition of/ knowledge about/ interest in their home country, nor does anyone except their supervisor know what (sometimes prestigious) jobs they hold at home.”

The beneficial diversity of peers

For peer support, international candidates tend to choose other international students, especially where English is their second language. However, it appears from the research that to successfully negotiate their new personal and academic environments they need three sorts of peers: co-national, multi-national and host-national (Furnham and Alibhai, 1985).

  • Co-national peers, that is those from their own country, are particularly important for emotional support. Being able to talk with someone who has a shared culture and language is critical when one is going through a stressful emotional period. But is possible that in some cases the lack of other national peers is an absent factor for emotional support.
  • Multi-national peers can provide important social opportunities, as there is a shared "sojourner" experience which can often help with coming to terms with one's new environment. Doctoral students often report that it is easier to speak and understand English with other international students than with domestic students.
  • Host-national peers are important in assisting international students to understand how to negotiate their new academic environment and, in particular, ways of relating with supervisors and other staff involved in working with them on their research. It is through relationships with domestic peers that international students can learn the "tricks of the academic trade."

The text of this page was based on:

Further resources:

Rights, responsibilities, society, and finances

The McGill website provides many resources to better understand academic life as a graduate student. Some of them are tools that allow students to learn more about the demands of academic life at McGill. The prime example is the Student Handbook [.pdf]. This document establishes the rights and responsibilities of all students at McGill.

International students can learn how they will be expected to work in Canada through International Student Services, where they can find information and resources about working in and off campus. The McGill website provides many resources to better understand academic life as a graduate student. Some of them are tools that allow students to learn more about the demands of academic life at McGill. The prime example is the Student Handbook. This document establishes the rights and responsibilities of all students at McGill.

One of the most important expectations about graduate education at McGill is that research will be conducted with academic integrity, a concept that is sometimes difficult to understand because of cultural differences. The Student Rights and Responsibilities website has a page on Keeping it honest that can help to explain academic integrity. The Integrity and ethical practice page of this website is another resource, and it offers case studies and a presentation on video.

The Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) can also provide advice about McGill’s culture and regulations, and the Society offers many courses that have international origins—such as French and Spanish, salsa dancing, yoga, and meditation. First aid and public speaking courses are also offered. PGSS is located at Thomson House, a former mansion that now serves as a café, pub, and restaurant with comfortable lounge spaces that can help graduate students to feel at home at McGill.

Despite the support offered by McGill and its societies, international students may find that finances become a problem, particularly if they are taking longer to complete than they expected. Departments and colleges may be able to offer advice and hardship loans or grants, and there is information on the Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies website on other sources of funding for international students.

Acknowledgements: Adapted by the Oxford Learning Institute, with contributions from Gill Turner, based on original page prepared by Gerlese Akerlind and Margaret Kiley, CEDAM, ANU. We are grateful to Diana Leonard (late of Institute of Education, University of London) who provided us with a copy of her 2007 SRHE Conference Paper. Further updated by Lynn McAlpine in May 2011 and Gill Turner in March 2012. Adapted through an agreement with Oxford and ANU at McGill by Manuel Salamanca Cardona and Joel Deshaye, April 2013.