A Support Tool for Navigating Transitions to the West


Utilising questions and resources, this tool guides the consideration of important questions, mentally prepares students to live abroad.



Research doctorates (PhD) are bespoke programs that lead to highly specialised qualifications. The application processes for PhD and coursework programs are very different. For instance, the PhD application requires the submission of a research proposal. In addition, the traditional expected post-graduation outcome of entering the academy has been severely limited in recent years across many disciplines and in many countries due to a drop in tenured positions. Hence, the decision to undertake PhD studies should be very carefully considered.

My study involved in-depth interviews with international Chinese doctoral students studying in Australia about their transition experiences. Before deciding to study an overseas PhD, they extensively researched host countries, study areas, and potential supervisors on the Internet and through consultation with their informal social networks. Once abroad, many of them reflected that they had been inadequately prepared for the rigours of the PhD program which resulted in feelings of stress, isolation, and loneliness. Stemming from the study, a support tool was developed and refined through feedback in Australia from university student support personnel, present international Chinese PhD students, and potential PhD students.

Unlike pre-sojourn guides that would-be international students might utilise in preparation for the practicalities of relocation such as visas and accommodation, the tool focuses on the decision-making processes leading up to educational and occupational decisions. Called the Journey to the West Guide¹, the tool helps potential and existing Chinese students to navigate the transitions journey from presojourn until graduation. Focusing on the Australian context, the tool might also offer insights to practitioners who support international students to investigate PhD studies in Australia, such as international student recruiters, educational agents, and university student support personnel. Likewise, although the tool was developed for international Chinese PhD students, it might also inform the decision-making of potential international PhD students of other nationalities keen to study in Australia.

Questions addressed include:

  • What are my motivations for studying a PhD? Why do I want to study a PhD
    overseas? Why do I want to study in Australia?
  • What do I expect from the PhD in terms of my career development?
  • Where can I find information to inform my decision? Whom should I talk to about my decision?
  • What does it feel like to live abroad? What cultural differences exist?
  • What does it feel like to study a PhD? How do I prepare for it?
  • What advice would past and present students offer regarding the mistakes and highlights of their PhD journeys?

Utilising thought-provoking questions and resources related to studying in Australia, the tool guides the consideration of important career-related questions, mentally prepares students to live abroad, and alerts them to the rigors of the PhD program. In the words of one international student recruiter who described the tool as addressing a gap: “I don’t see anything in this sort of detail … a very, very useful tool, to act as a reference.”

The tool will soon be available on the International Education Knowledgebase. 

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1] The Guide is named after Journey to the West (known as “Monkey Magic” in Australia). The titular 450-year old novel is beloved folklore in Asia, and was based on the historical sojourn of a monk from China to India. The Guide’s title thus plays on the word ‘West’.

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