I studied at three different universities in the UK where I completed my foundation, bachelor, Master’s, and PhD degree. In many aspects, I was a perfect example of a successful international student. I had never any catastrophic academic difficulties. For instance, I had never failed any exam or academic assignment. I did my Master’s Degree with Distinction in 12 months and PhD in three years. Actually, I did my PhD faster than most native-speakers of English I was studying with. I successfully defended my Viva (PhD examination) with minor corrections (which took me about six hours to rectify).
My obvious academic success should not obscure the fact that I did struggle academically, and I often experienced different academic challenges which I would place on a medium-severity scale (with the potential to become high-severity problems if I hadn’t come up with speedy and adequate solutions).
1. I struggled with writing my final undergraduate research project. My son had been just born, my wife was (incorrectly) diagnosed with post-natal depression and we were in a foreign country where we had no family to support us. Family-related pressures and stress affected my research work and academic writing. The deadline for submitting my project was approaching quickly. Fortunately, my wife suggested her GP that her health problems might have been caused by an underactive thyroid. She was right and her health issues were promptly solved with medication. I could focus on finishing my project (as much as it was possible with a baby crying in the room).
It was the time, I realized that studying in a second language could be challenging. I noticed that processing information in English took slightly more time and energy than in my mother tongue. For example, writing a decent sentence in English, or planning a persuasive argument was often a challenge which I would rarely encounter in my first language. At that time, I did not know anything about planning, researching, organising, pre-writing, drafting in the academic writing process. Although I was able to finish my research project successfully, it cost me more time and effort than I had expected. All in all, it was a rather frustrating experience.
2. I struggled with my first assignment at the postgraduate level. I remember how excited (and nervous) I was when I received my first 5,000-word written task. I was studying at the university which belongs to The Russell Group (which represents 24 leading UK universities known for the very best research standards). My tutor expected me to write a 1,000-word outline of my assignment and submit it to her. If my tutor was happy with it, I would get a green light and could start writing the actual assignment. So I submitted the first 1,000 words, and I was absolutely convinced that I did very well. Unfortunately, my tutor had a different opinion on the quality of my written work. Consequently, I was invited to the formal 1-to-1 meeting during which the problems with my assignment became glaringly obvious. I did not understand fully the task I was supposed to complete. I was not aware of my tutor’s expectations either. Fortunately, the meeting cleared up the confusion, and I did get 70% on my first Master’s level assignment.
3. I painfully struggled with my 25,000 word Masters dissertation. The scale of the project and demanding requirements (it was a research degree) turned a research process and academic writing into a nightmare. Selecting research methods, collecting data, analysis of data was obviously hard. Reading several academic books and probably 150 research papers were not easy either. Organising all pieces of information and including them in my dissertation was a scene of total chaos. I was looking for help. I took part in several university tutorials and courses on academic writing, dissertation writing, etc. They opened my eyes to certain issues I was struggling with, but they did not really help solve my problems. The people who did the workshops offered constructive advice, however, they did not seem to understand certain problems international students face. To implement the tips and suggestions, these courses offered, I would have had to completely overhaul my writing system which would have slowed my work substantially and I could not afford it because of the deadline. It became suddenly clear that writing longer academic projects require a different approach and a completely different set of skills. As I said, it was too late to improve or change things. So I displayed true grit, worked 18h a day, and finished the damn dissertation. I promised myself I would never again write anything academic in my life.
4. I broke the promise when I won a PhD scholarship. I was supposed to research the topic I did not understand well (early childhood bilingual education) using a methodology I was not familiar with (randomized controlled trials). Also, I was to analyze my data using advanced statistics (e.g. STATA, ANOVA, ANCOVA, multiple regression, t-tests) and I had zero knowledge of statistics. Writing 80,000 word PhD thesis would be quite a scary prospect for most of the native speakers of English. It was definitely daunting for someone like me who started to learn English independently at the age of 25. I also had heard so many horror stories about PhD academic writing woes, examiners from hell, nasty PhD supervisors, depressed students and students who failed. I knew that the prospect of failing PhD (or receiving MPhil degree as a consolation prize) was real. I had to step my game up if I wanted to have a fighting chance of getting my PhD.
From day one, I realized that PhD is different and harder than the Master’s degree. Firstly, the complexity of the tasks involved in the program increased considerably. It doesn’t come as a surprise that I was struggling with reading academic articles, or more precisely with their understanding :). For instance, I read important articles several times and still understood only 50% of the text. Furthermore, I was expected to read academic stuff critically (at the end of the day, it was PhD project). So I attended some courses on critical thinking. What a waste of time! The courses were developing general critical thinking skills, one could allegedly apply in any context. The problem is that critical reading (thinking) without the background knowledge of the field is almost impossible. I did not know it then, neither people who taught these courses. Also, the papers I had to read were dense, sprinkled with strange statistical terms. How could I understand the methodologies, research analyses, and conclusions, evaluate the strength of evidence if I did not know what bootstraping, discrete variables, p-value, Type I and Type II errors meant.
I had to learn experimental research methods, statistics and develop expertise in the field I was researching. Otherwise, I would not have been able to evaluate the knowledge critically. I also experienced problems with academic writing on PhD level. My supervisor kept repeating that my academic writing would improve. However, I felt that the progress was unnoticeable or disappointingly slow.
On top of that, I experienced ‘Deja Vu’ as far as the organisation of my research process was concerned. I was inundated with information without a clue how to use it in my project. As it was the case during writing my Master’s dissertation, I was overwhelmed with the number of articles, books I had to read, I did not know to organise my PDFs, scans, printed materials, notes. After three months into my PhD I collected about 3,000 research articles and books and 10,000 research notes. One day, I noticed that I read one research paper four times. Looking at the notes, I realized that every time I read it I was sure, it was the first time. I simply did not remember what I had read! At some point, I could not confidently distinguish between my notes, comments, and paragraphs which required paraphrasing and referencing. That could have lead to inadvertent plagiarism and sink my PhD project. I had PDFs with thousands of highlights. I had no effective way to extract this information and attach to my slowly emerging thesis. I knew I had hit the wall. The amount of information to read, process, organise and incorporate in writing was unbelievable. I realised that I would not finish my PhD if I did not improve on my learning, reading and writing skills rather quickly.
So I went through several small-scale academic crises which I, fortunately, handled in the right way (which is a story for another day) At the same time, around me, I could see other international students (incidentally smarter than I am) struggling more than I did and more stressed. They were working so hard that sometimes they did not have time for eating and sleeping. Despite their Herculean job, they often did not get the results they wanted. Many of them were struggling with the English language (despite good scores on IELTS), some with academic writing skills, others with reading. Some of these students felt completely abandoned by the university system. These students were often given generic and frankly misleading advice on improving their academic skills. They heard from their tutors slogans like: ‘you writing will improve, just write’, ‘no matter what, write 500 words every day’, ‘improve your grammar’, ‘you need to learn academic vocabulary to read better’. It was obvious that cliched advice they were getting was not going to solve their problems. If they were lucky to have a good academic tutor who understood the problems and challenges they faced, the advice was often falling in the category ‘too little too late’. Not enough and not soon enough to make a difference in students’ academic progress.
Of course, each student is unique and my experiences can differ markedly from other students. I am sure there must be academically brilliant, exceptional students (or simply lucky ones) out there, who never experienced the problems I described. My gut feeling tells me that they are probably a minority.
The point I wanted to make here is that even international students who are seemingly successful face obstacles that have the potential to become a serious predicament, if not counteracted.
In the next blog-post, I will write more about the academic challenges from my perspective as a Tutor of English for Academic Purposes.