International Doctoral Students: The Potential of Diasporic Academics

International doctoral students enhance institutions’ reputation as global players in higher education. However, there’s much to be done to engage international doctoral students as diasporic academics and pursuing intercultural relationships, whether on a personal or professional level.

International students make up a significant population of doctoral students at many universities worldwide, particularly at Western universities such as those in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In New Zealand, 16 per cent of students pursuing doctoral study are international students, and  about a fifth of them remain in New Zealand to work. The presence of these scholars from overseas is part of the larger phenomenon of internationalization of higher education. Engagement with a global research community not only contributes to countries’ economic and political developments, but are of direct financial benefit to the institutions (Larner, 2015).

Larner (2015) has identified these global scholars and similar others as diasporic academics. Diasporic academics are those with multiple national affiliations. Examples of such academics include a researcher from one country based in another country working on a collaborative project, and a doctoral student from one country carrying out research in another country, or travelling between countries for research purposes. Diasporic academics are valuable because they act as transnational knowledge brokers or academic intermediaries. They broker international relationships between countries by using “their experiential understandings, linguistic skills and ability to read cultural nuance by providing insider accounts” (Larner, 2015, p. 202).

While the value of diasporic academics is probably most obviously seen in the global academic elite (e.g. academics with positions at various universities, multinational research teams), the potential of international doctoral students as diasporic academics is comparatively less discussed, let alone problematised. Drawing from my experiences as an international doctoral student at a New Zealand university, as well as a student leader in the postgraduate community, I highlight how the lack of engagement between the host institution and international doctoral students serves to undermine the potential of intercultural understanding and collaborative action.

Firstly, international doctoral students do not typically have strong connections with their domestic counterparts. For example, at my faculty, many domestic doctoral students study part-time and do not have an office on campus. Also, domestic doctoral students may concurrently be faculty members and do not readily identify themselves as doctoral students. Another possible reason is that domestic students simply do not wish to pursue friendships with international students, preferring instead to maintain a polite distance. With relatively weak links with domestic peers, international doctoral students naturally gravitate towards fellow international or co-national students. What results is a community of international doctoral students that remain outside the larger local research community.

Secondly, there is no policy or consistent practice of cultivating a community of practice where international doctoral students are socialized into the research and campus community. This is exacerbated in the climate of restructuring in higher education institutions, leadership positions may see several faces in a short period of time or remain vacant for several months. In terms of overseeing doctoral students’ affairs, one leader’s good practices may not be taken up by the next, or intentions to organize gatherings and seminars for students may not materialize due to already stretched resources because of the university wide restructuring efforts. Based on my experiences, meetings for doctoral students to socialize with peers and faculty members are far too few to lead to meaningful social or mentoring relationships. As outsiders of the local research community, international doctoral students are further disadvantaged in a culture where it is who you know that counts.

Finally, when gatherings are organized for international doctoral students with the purpose of providing a supportive environment, critics point out how such groupings promote segregation. International students, however, appreciate such opportunities to connect with peers and mitigate the isolating nature of doctoral work. I’m therefore disappointed by comments that imply the undesirability of ‘international only’ groups. Instead of promoting a discourse of ‘us versus them’, perhaps those critics should think about cultivating an inclusive culture at the faculty.

International doctoral students enhance institutions’ reputation as global players in higher education. However, there’s much to be done to engage international doctoral students as diasporic academics and pursuing intercultural relationships, whether on a personal or professional level. Perhaps we can learn from the indigenous culture of New Zealand through the Māori concept of mannakitanga, which means “… mutual care and respect for people, honouring one another or power sharing…” (Kukutai & Rata, 2017, p. 41). If host institutions put on an attitude of mannakitanga, perhaps integrating international doctoral students into the fabric of university life would be less a burden and simply a way of doing things.


Kukutai, T., & Rata, A. (2017). From mainstream to Manaaki: Indigenising our approach to immigration. In D. Hall (ed.), Fair borders? Migration policy in the twenty-first century (pp. 26–45). Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget Williams Books.

Larner, W. (2015). Globalising knowledge networks: Universities, diaspora strategies, and academic intermediaries. Geoforum, 59, 197–205. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2014.10.006

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