Mind The Gap: A Guide for International Students

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Are you new to the PhD environment in the UK? Do you come from a different educational system? If your answer to both questions is yes, then this post is for you.

Throughout my education, I have been transitioning from one distinctive educational system to another. My primary education was at an Islamic school in Indonesia where religious morality and ethics were the ultimate goals of education. During the education, I learned that the primary goal of education was to get close to God. Within this tradition, learning should always lead to a sense of humbleness, to the awareness that I am just a little dot within the universe.

Meanwhile, in the Western tradition, education is a way to maximise individual potential. Within this tradition, individual curiosity is a foundation to innovate for the sake of human development. Learning is an individual process to achieve educational goals in a various level of society. Adapting to this different learning environment was challenging. At the beginning of my PhD, I felt overwhelmed by the amount of goals that I should achieve within a tight deadline. It was not easy for me to adapt to the style of learning in the UK.

At the same time, I realised that PhD students at British universities are diverse. They have different social and cultural backgrounds. Some of them have international qualifications before the PhD, while other PhD students are just moving to a new system of education for the first time. It is important for potential PhD students, particularly from a non-Western background, to prepare some strategies before starting their research degree.

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Here I present the top three tips based on my own experience:

1. Get to know your supervisor

You need to have a similar expectations to your supervisor. If your PhD is your first experience of studying in a different educational context, your supervisor should be aware of this too. Tell them about your educational background and the potential difficulties that may arise due to this. Doing a PhD is a big thing, even for students from similar educational backgrounds. By connecting with your supervisor at the early stages of your PhD, you will be able to familiarise yourself with a different set of educational goals as a PhD student in the UK.

2. Get to know your support system

Universities in the UK have a long tradition in supporting the individual educational needs of students. If you have difficulties in language, there is a service available throughout the academic year. If you have difficulties in adapting to the new environment, there are a variety of faith and cultural societies available on campus. There are also support system available for students with learning difficulties or mental health problems. Whatever your kind of difficulties, the individual system of education in British universities provides a wide range of services to cater to individual needs.

3. Get to know your strengths and weakness

Coming from a non-Western background is not a negative thing. Philosophically, I feel constantly challenged by diverse perspectives, not only in developing my research agenda but also in thinking about society in general. In a practical sense, I have been disciplined to get up early for morning prayer. I could come to the library at 6 am, find the right spot for study, and spend the rest of the day productively. My spiritual mind also keeping me believe that this long journey of PhD is a test from God, and I certainly will pass. In the time of the mental health crisis in universities, this belief always gives me strength at the lowest points of my PhD.

I am grateful that my diverse educational background has provided me with a ‘bridge’ between different ways of thinking. I have acquired important tools to understand the great minds in both worlds. I believe that the understanding of the diversity of human being has been essential in the increasingly divisive world.

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