A longitudinal study of Chinese postgraduate taught students’ experience in the UK: how Chinese students have changed during the transition process?

Jie Zhang copy

Jie Zhang

University of Glasgow


UK, as one of the most desired destinations for studying abroad, has attracted a large number of international students. Chinese international students are the largest group of all international students in the UK and China is the only country that presents a significant increase in student numbers. Chinese international students have made important financial, academic and cultural contributions to the UK. Given the large number of Chinese international students and their potential contributions, it is crucial to enhance their experiences and strengthen benefits for both Chinese international students and host countries. Compared with undergraduate and PhD students, postgraduate taught students in the UK are usually enrolled in one-year programmes, which may face more challenges and gain more benefits from their experiences in the UK. The aim of this research is to explore Chinese international postgraduate taught students’ transitional experiences and, in particular, the role of their social networks on such experiences in the UK. This two-phase longitudinal study conducted semi-structured interviews across the whole academic year. The photo-elicitation technique and social network diagrams were used as innovative methods to facilitate in-depth interviews. Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) was employed as an inductive data analysis approach. Emergent findings include how students have changed when facing challenges on academic study, live away from families, and loneliness and homesickness, how they have changed their understandings of critical thinking, and how they deal with relationship with Chinese and non-Chinese, which is all beneficial for enhancement of their confidence, independence and maturity.





UK has been the second most popular destination for international students. Chinese international students are the dominant group, accounting for one fifth of the total number of international students in the UK (HESA, 2017). Chinese international students have made contributions such as making investment in economy by tuition fees and living costs, and bringing new ways of thinking and culture to enhance competition and diversity in the UK. Compared with undergraduate and PhD counterparts, Chinese international students at Master’s level may have different experience due to the nature of short-term Master’s programmes in the UK. Yet, there are limited studies focusing on this student cohort. This research aims to explore Chinese international postgraduate taught (PgT) students’ transitional experiences and the role of their social networks in the UK. More specifically, research questions are:

  • how Chinese international postgraduate taught (PgT) students adapt to a new academic and social culture during the transition process, and
  • how their social networks influence their transitional experiences in the UK.


A qualitative research method utilising photo-elicitation interviews was employed as part of a longitudinal study. Semi-structured interviews were conducted in two phases: at the beginning of and near the end of the study programme. The employed photo-elicitation technique facilitates participants to reflect on their phenomenological experiences by providing more specific and in-depth accounts (Denzin and Lincoln, 2012). In this study, participants were asked to provide photographs based on given topics, which was followed by individual semi-structured interviews with maximum of an hour each. Additionally, social network diagrams were helpful to prompt students’ reflection and detailed description of networks and their relationships with different networks (Golden, 1992). In this research, participants were asked to draw different sizes of circles to represent how they value their current social networks. I have completed data collection with totally 35 participants for both phases, all interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed and I am currently doing data analysis. The Interpretative Phenomenological Approach (IPA) was undertaken using NVivo software to identify superordinate and subordinate themes.


As the literature indicates, Chinese international students could face some academic, social and life challenges when studying in the UK. From this study, Chinese postgraduate taught students also face academic challenges, including doing presentations, writing assignments and taking exams. It is noted that at the beginning of the study programme, Chinese students tend to seek help from Chinese classmates when having doubts rather than lecturers and tutors, and they prefer asking questions after the class rather than raising hands up in class. But interestingly, my research shows that some Chinese students turn not to ask questions with Chinese classmates, but directly seek help from lecturers and tutors, and have the courage and feel natural to ask questions in class near the end of the study programme.


Apart from the finding of challenge on academic study, living away from families is regarded as another challenge for Chinese international students. For Chinese students who live abroad for the first time, cooking and having a good relationship with roommates could be difficult. Chinese students reported that they didn’t have much cooking experience when they were in China and they find cooking as an unexpected challenge living in the UK. Additionally, some Chinese students talked about issues with their roommates, for example, some roommates make kitchen dirty and they would not like to clean it even after pointing out the problem. When near the end of the study programme, some Chinese students mentioned they have greatly improved their cooking skills and have a better relationship with their roommates.


Moreover, loneliness and homesickness are common challenges that Chinese international students would face. In my research, the reasons Chinese students frequently mention are that Chinese students spend too much time in study and have less time with friends, and some Chinese students live alone. Chinese students feel anxious and stressful when facing loneliness and homesickness from the beginning of the study programme, but it clearly shows that they have changed to a more positive attitude to cope with loneliness and homesickness. Some Chinese students realise that they should take the initiative to build friendship, develop some hobbies and even learn to enjoy loneliness and homesickness.


In addition, critical thinking has always been argued as a big challenge for international students, especially for Asian international students. In my study, it is not necessarily the case. Some students showed their clear understanding of critical thinking. Possible reason could be that they have studied in the UK or Europe before and some lecturers encouraged them to think critically in their undergraduate’s study in China. For students who never know critical thinking, as in study, some Chinese are not familiar with critical thinking from the beginning of the study programme, but they have gained a clearer understanding of what critical thinking means and how to use critical thinking in study and life.


Besides, Chinese students generally have good relationship with Chinese and they provide mutual help on academic study, life troubles and emotional support. It is argued that Chinese students face challenges such as language barrier, cultural differences, shyness when in interaction with non-Chinese. Although most Chinese students reported that there have difficulties in making friends with non-Chinese, there are some students having good friendships with non-Chinese through church, group work and social activities and have gained great encouragement and support from them. Some Chinese students also mentioned that they feel very nervous and shy to talk to non-Chinese from the beginning, but they have gradually improved their confidence and feel natural when interacting with non-Chinese.


This research addresses the gap in the literature on Chinese postgraduate taught (PgT) students’ experience and the role of social networks during the transition process in the UK. Chinese students have largely improved their confidence, independence and maturity by facing challenges during the year. Apart from presented emergent findings, further results are on the way to see a bigger picture of Chinese international students’ experience in the UK. As a large and growing number of Chinese international students, it is significant to see possibly changed and unchanged experience in more depth. This research is likely to contribute to theoretical and practical understanding that could facilitate Chinese international postgraduate taught (PgT) students’ successful completion and enjoy their transition process in the UK. It is also the hope that this research as well as other research on Chinese education mobility could make contributions to a more comprehensive picture overall.



Author Bio

Jie Zhang is a doctoral researcher from School of Education, University of Glasgow. Her research interests include international students, higher education, transitional experience, social networks and creative methods. Her current research focuses on Chinese international students in the UK and she uses creative methods such as the photo-elicitation technique and social network diagrams to facilitate research. Prior to taking her doctoral studies, she holds a master’s degree from Human Resources Management, University of Sheffield. All comments and suggestions are very welcomed. Please contact her by J.ZHANG.3@research.gla.ac.uk

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