Alone in academia

For international students, the path to a research career is fraught with issues of isolation and belonging.

For many international students, a loss of contact with family and networks leads to loneliness and isolation.   Tortugadatacorp/Pixabay  (CC0)

For many international students, a loss of contact with family and networks leads to loneliness and isolation. Tortugadatacorp/Pixabay (CC0)

Before starting my university degree in Australia, I had never met a real-life zoologist—or any scientist. Yet somehow, I wanted to be one. Towards the end of my Honours degree in zoology last year, I inevitably started thinking about career options. I thoroughly enjoyed my undergraduate research experiences: research projects in third-year units, summer research scholarships and most importantly the whole of my Honours year. I could confidently say that I could imagine myself as a research scientist in academia.

Like me, many people in academia have pursued part of their education or career overseas from their home country—or at the very least through attending international conferences, fellowships or short visits for international collaborations. There are known benefits of having a diverse research team, both in terms of sex, as well as multiculturalism. It allows for learning different ways to do research, a broader perspective to answering questions and the opportunity to work with people from a range of different backgrounds. There are also undoubted benefits of undertaking research overseas for the individual. For me, the opportunity to work under high-quality researchers does not come so easily back home.

In reality, pursuing a career as a research scientist in academia isn’t so easy for international students. Although finding a supervisor or project isn’t an issue for me, in Australia, a scholarship is needed to be approved into a PhD. For Australians, this is easily solved as PhD applications include an application for the Commonwealth scholarship. As an international student, I am eligible for the Australian Government Research Training Program (AGRTP) scholarship. But the due date for AGRTP applications was in the middle of my Honours year—which means the earliest intake I can do my PhD will be in 2020—and only if I manage to actually get the scholarship.

Australian scholarships for international students are highly competitive. Often, they require at least one or two first-authored published manuscripts to be competitive—a tough ask for an undergraduate. Beyond Australia, international scholarships are competitive too. This is because  most scholarships are offered to domestic students, with the aim of improving the educational worth of their own citizens. Scholarships are expensive and investing money in international recipients could involve taking a risk. Perhaps the student will not remain in Australia (or the country they plan to study in), and thus will not contribute to further economic or educational growth. Some countries such as Singapore provide international scholarships that include a ‘bond’ or contract that makes it compulsory for the recipient to remain and work in the country for a certain amount of time.

 
There are known benefits of having a diverse research team, both in terms of sex, as well as multiculturalism.   Argonne National Laboratory/Wikimedia  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There are known benefits of having a diverse research team, both in terms of sex, as well as multiculturalism. Argonne National Laboratory/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

Of course, another potential option for international students is to seek governmental scholarships from their home country. Even these are hard to come by—for example, my areas of Zoology, Ecology & Conservation Biology are not eligible for several common government scholarships from my home country, Indonesia.

There are more than 600,000 international students studying in Australia, according to the International Student Data 2018 by the Australian Government. A myriad of challenges come with being an international student: poverty, racism, English competency and loneliness, to name a few. Asides from tuition fees, the sum of expenses such as rent, bills and food can be extremely high. With the difficulty of finding employment in addition to a full-time study load, and a lack of understanding of fair work regulations, many international students are found overworked, underpaid or accepting cash-on-hand jobs. There are also stories of international students with very poor English—who did not meet the initial English prerequisites for university yet passed an English bridging course—who still struggle to keep up with university workloads. Even with my ‘Very Good User’ result from the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), constant critical feedback on the grammar of my written assignments is often hard to swallow.

Two thirds of students in a study looking at loneliness among international students identified that their experiences with loneliness and isolation were due to a “loss of contact with families and networks”. International students are less likely to seek help for mental health issues as this is considered ‘taboo’ in their culture. I’ve had my fair share of brushes with these challenges, but my recent experience highlights a challenge that is perhaps unique to international students interested in pursuing academia in Australia—a kind of systemic isolation.

In short, it is a question of belonging. In Australia, I do not truly belong as a scientist as I am not eligible for many opportunities. In my home country, I do not truly belong in academic research as it is not a sector that is generally well-funded or supported.

The problem is further compounded by visas and residency status. As a fresh graduate, most programmes and government positions require a permanent residency status at the very least. Many academic professions do not fall under the Skilled Occupation List for a Permanent Residency (PR) visa application. For a BSc (Hons) Zoology graduate like myself, obtaining PR will be a long, gruelling process with a heavy reliance on finding a job that can provide an employee sponsorship visa. This is not an easy task in an already highly competitive job market where employers are less willing to give international students equal opportunity.

 
A person’s citizenship can affect their ability to travel—and therefore their ability to easily pursue an academic career.   (nutmeg)/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

A person’s citizenship can affect their ability to travel—and therefore their ability to easily pursue an academic career. (nutmeg)/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

Academic jobs are even harder to come by. In other overseas countries, such as the United States or the United Kingdom, work visa regimes are often strict and rely on your luck and networking. Most high-level research hotspots are found in developed countries and therefore, international doctorate students compete for a place in the country not just with other fellow doctoral applicants, but also a large pool of individuals looking for other non-academic opportunities. An individual’s country of origin would also make it easier, or in most cases harder, to apply for the right to stay or even travel in specific countries. For example, those holding Australian citizenship would have a much easier time travelling across America compared to an Indonesian.

Differences in cultural and family backgrounds further accentuate the divide. For most of my life growing up, I have had no scientist role models from my own country. The lack of understanding and support for my chosen career from the community back home further amplifies the feeling of isolation. Going into academia is a foreign concept to many and, for me, there is no one back home I can seek advice from. It is only through my experience in Australia that academia has opened up as a potential career path.

 
International students are Australia’s third-largest export.   John Walker/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

International students are Australia’s third-largest export. John Walker/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

These isolating, systemic issues hinder many young international students from pursuing a career in academia. The benefits of employing international students extend beyond broadening creativity and research avenues. International students are a huge earner for Australia, bringing $32 billion into the economy in 2018. In 2017, international students were Australia’s third largest export. Given their importance to the economy, it makes sense to improve postgraduate opportunities for international students, and there is huge room for improvement in this regard.

Whether this is achieved by widening the range of available scholarships or pathways, or through improving collaborations between countries, international students are a force to be reckoned with. The Council of International Students Australia (CISA) recently proposed five key recommendations regarding the Higher Degree by Research (HDR) system in Australia, including improving visa regulation pathways and support services regarding financial concerns, and better employment practices. If international students are left in loneliness and isolation, this could lead to a huge loss—or if effectively managed, a potentially even larger gain. For me, being able to learn from the best-of-the-best overseas and to one day bring back the knowledge to Indonesia will be the least I can do to support the next generation of researchers back home.

Edited by Sumudu Narayana and Ellen Rykers.