Impact Blog

Supervising International HDRs from Non-English Speaking Countries

June 2024

A blog by Associate Professor Santosh Jatrana and Dr Susan Gasson in preparation for an upcoming Webinar on 25 June 2024—Empowering supervisors in working with non-English speaking candidates: examples from practice.

The Australian Council of Graduate Research (ACGR) is dedicated to advancing research training and scholarship while upholding national standards for graduate research degree programs. Over decades, the ACGR has invested in resources to aid HDR supervisors’ implementation of best practices, recognising the pivotal role of supervision in fostering quality doctoral education. With the surge in international student enrolment, which injected over $29 billion into the Australian economy in 2022 alone (, supervisors face new opportunities and challenges. In 2023, a record number of international students, with the majority from non-English speaking countries like China and India, arrived in Australia. The 10% increase in international higher degree research enrolments since 2018 underscores the demand for specialised support. Recognising this, universities both nationally and globally have established international student offices aiming to enhance the educational experience and ensure enrollment sustainability.

Given supervisors’ pivotal role in guiding higher degree researchers, there’s a clear imperative to better understand and support supervisory practices for this cohort of international students from non-English speaking backgrounds. One open-access resource addressing this need is a chapter in Confident Supervisors titled Supervising international higher degree researchers from non-English speaking countries – a tool to support success, authored by experienced supervisor Associate Professor Santosh Jatrana and researcher developer Dr Susan Gasson.

Santosh draws from her personal journey as a higher degree researcher from India studying in Australia, along with her experience as a supervisor in multiple Australian universities, supporting higher degree researchers from non-English speaking countries. Susan, having worked as a research manager and developer in Australia for over 30 years, has extensive experience with international higher degree researchers and their supervisors. They define doctoral success as the completion of a passing thesis and the provision of skills and capacity that facilitate smooth transitions to future employment in industry, government, and academia.

Key learning outcomes of the chapter include:

  • An overview of enrolment trends among international higher degree researchers in Australia.
  • Supervisor strategies to address common challenges encountered by higher degree researchers from non-English speaking countries.
  • A six-phase tool outlining supervisory approaches that support the progress of higher degree researchers.

Together Santosh and Susan created a framework that guides supervisors through a six-phase journey with their students. Within each phase, they discuss the resources potentially available through institutions and detail key practices supervisors can use to foster success.

Through each of the phases, a key message is that supervisors and higher degree researchers are not isolated entities. They are encouraged to remain attuned to their broader environment and to actively seek additional help and expertise when needed. Supervisors play a pivotal role in tracking the thesis’s progress, drawing from their own experiences. Leveraging their expertise and their knowledge of the research education environment, they are encouraged to provide their higher degree researchers with guidance and information about developmental opportunities that can contribute to their success.

One key supervisory practice examined involves scheduling regular meetings to foster higher degree researcher engagement. Meetings experienced as safe spaces ensure higher degree researchers feel comfortable sharing any obstacles impacting their progress. Issues such as family and financial worries, common among international students arriving alone in a new country, can similarly affect domestic students relocating for study. This practice facilitates the early detection of concerns, allowing supervisors to refer researchers to appropriate services for resolution of issue before matters escalate.

Another practice involves leveraging field-specific knowledge to guide higher degree researchers in defining the scope and focus of their studies during critical moments. Early discussions can reveal expertise or interests of the supervisors and higher degree researchers and available infrastructure previously unknown. Together the supervisors and higher degree researchers can then account for these in the development of research designs for investigation of identified research questions. This type of interactive and iterative discussion may be new to some international higher degree researchers given the research cultures and research experiences available in their home countries.  These may have been more prescriptive, leaving higher degree researchers feeling disempowered, and lacking confidence to lead the direction for their research. Sensitivity is paramount when addressing any reluctance to engage in discussions, whether stemming from language, cultural or other concerns.

Compliance with visa regulations, responsibility for tuition fees, overseas health cover, and constraints on worker rights are among the unique experiences that impact international higher degree researchers. Each of these factors affects the availability of time and resources, adding extra pressure on higher degree researchers as they navigate through their candidatures. Simple things like encouraging engagement with library services, and the technologies and techniques they can provide, will enhance higher degree researchers’ information literacy ensuring effective use of time.

Additionally, some national scholarships impose time limits and publication targets during doctoral candidature. It is not the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure compliance with these requirements. Being aware of any agreements allows supervisors to work with higher degree researchers to consider how to accommodate these requirements within the candidature.

We aim for this chapter to be a user-friendly and accessible resource, providing practical tips and advice relevant to supervisors and their candidates in their everyday work. We encourage you to share this open resource with others you think may find it beneficial. Any feedback is welcomed.

Register for the Empowering supervisors in working with non-English speaking candidates: examples from practice webinar on 25 June.


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