Adapting to cultural differences

Embrace diversity

You and your supervisor may differ in a variety of ways including race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious/spiritual beliefs, (dis)abilities, and family structure. All of these factors influence and are a part of your cultural experiences. You might encounter cultural differences ranging from subtle to dramatic that might affect how you work with other students, peers, and supervisors. If you notice these differences, consider how they may positively and negatively influence your work together. You can learn a great deal from someone else’s cultural experiences and perspective, but such differences could also lead to miscommunications or differences in working styles.


Making the most of cultural diversity

  • Use this as an opportunity to look at your work and the world from a different perspective. Making friends and working with others (students and professors) of diverse cultural backgrounds can open your mind to a new ideas and beliefs.

    • It can be especially helpful for international students to make friends with students from the host country who can help them to better understand their new environment and new colleagues.

  • Use your friends’ and your supervisor’s different cultural experiences to your advantage – consider what they understand better than you and what they can teach you.

  • Can you take your project in an exciting new direction because of your supervisor’s cultural knowledge and experiences?

Addressing differences between you and your supervisor

If you find that the differences between you and your supervisor are making it difficult to communicate or work together effectively, consider the following approaches.

  • Reflect on your respective backgrounds and how they may influence your ideas about the supervisor-supervisee relationship, including how you think you should work, communicate, and interact with each other.

  • Identify which, if any, differences between you and your supervisor are causing miscommunications, discomfort, or otherwise negatively affecting your graduate experience.

  • Consider bringing up these issues with your supervisor. You may to consult McGill’s Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) Office for advice on how to talk about these issues with your supervisor.

For more information of addressing differences in race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious/spiritual beliefs, (dis)abilities, and family structure, consult the Resources section of this website.

How can diversity influence the supervisor-supervisee relationship?

Diversity in 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 often adapt to academic and cultural practices and environments that are unfamiliar to them. Consequently, they can face a number of intellectual challenges while studying in their "host" university.


We are, at almost every point of our day, immersed in cultural diversity: faces, clothes, smells, attitudes, values, traditions, behaviours, beliefs, rituals. - Randa Abdel-Fattah, writer

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?


Consider how the following may influence your relationship with your supervisor.



Universities that call for racial equality in teaching and learning help to reduce the effects of racism not only in the classroom but also on the job market and all the industries and governments it serves. It is worth thinking about how the typically one-to-one relationship in supervision can promote racial equality in larger groups, such as cohorts of graduate students.

See also:
Chesler, MA, Lewis, AE and Crowfoot, JE. (2005). Challenging racism in Higher Education. Lanham, Maryland, USA: Rowman and Littlefield.


How can an age difference between a supervisor and supervisee influence the relationship? Different generations will have different experience, different ideas about appropriate methods of communication, and potentially different lifestyles.

Religion and belief

This form of diversity is largely invisible, yet may powerfully influence student motivation. (See also Finding motivation to study.) Your supervisor or peers may not work or be available on certain days or at certain times of day due to religious ceremonies or holidays. They may also not consume certain foods, caffeine, or alcohol for personal, religious, or spiritual reasons and it is important to consider this when scheduling meetings and events or offering gifts.


Disability may be obvious (e.g. a supervisor or student uses a wheelchair) or unseen (e.g. a supervisor or student suffers from depression), and it might change over time. A student should be aware of his or her own disabilities and sensitive to possible disabilities of their supervisor. The challenge can be seen as an opportunity for creative and shared problem solving rather than a threat to research excellence.

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. Some of the reasons are listed here.

  • 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.

Below are some other areas where international students may experiences challenges as they adapt.



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, p. 3), "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 & 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."



Furnham, A. & Alibhai, N. (1985). The friendship networks of foreign students: A replication and extension of the functional model. International Journal of Psychology, 20, 709-722.

Leonard, D. (2007). Early career academics' doctoral experiences paper presented at the annual conference of the Society for Research in Higher Education, Brighton.

Further Reading

Cadman, K. (2000). "Voices in the Air": Evaluations of the learning experience of international postgraduates and their supervisors. Teaching in Higher Education, 5(4), 476-491.

Cargill, M. (2000). Intercultural postgraduate supervision meetings: An exploratory discourse study. Prospect, 15(2), 28-38.

Flowerdew, J. (2001). Attitudes of journal editors to non-native speaker contributions. TESOL Quarterly, 35(1), 121-150.

Furnham, A. (1997) "The experience of being an overseas student", in McNamara, D. and Harris, R. (Eds) Overseas students in higher education: Issues in teaching and learning. London: Routledge.

Garton, S., & Copland, F. (2009). "I want to make friends with different people in different country": Creating social opportunities for international students. Presentation at SRHE Conference 2009, Wednesday 9th December, Celtic Manor Resort, Newport, Wales.

Hanassab, S. (2006). Diversity, international students, and perceived discrimination: Implications for educators and counselors. Journal of Studies in International Education, 10(2), 157-172.

Kaplan, R. B. (1966). Cultural thought patterns in inter-cultural education. Language Learning, XVI (1&2), 1-20.

Kiley, M. (2000). Providing timely and appropriate support for international postgraduate students. In G. Wisker (Ed.), Good practice working with international students (pp. 89-108). Birmingham: SEDA.

Lea, M.R., & Street, B.V. (1998). Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach. Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), 157-170.

Maunder, R., Di Napoli, R., Borg, M., Fry, H., Walsh, E., & Jiang, J. (2009). Acculturation into UK academic practice: The experiences of international doctoral students and academic staff at two research-intensive universities. Presentation at SRHE Conference 2009, Wednesday 9th December, Celtic Manor Resort, Newport, Wales.

Morita, N. (2004). Negotiating participation and identity in second language academic communities. TESOL Quarterly, 38(4), 573-603.

Okorocha, E. (2007). Supervising international research students. London: Society for Research into Higher Education.

Robinson-Pant, A. (2009). Changing academies: exploring international PhD students' perspectives on 'host' and 'home' universities. Higher Education Research and Development, 28(4), 417-429.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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