Transitioning to an independent researcher: Reconciling the conceptual conflicts in cross-cultural doctoral supervision

Minghua Wu & Yanjuan Hu (2019): Transitioning to an independent researcher: reconciling the conceptual conflicts in cross-cultural doctoral supervision, Studies in Continuing Education,


Dr Minghua Wu, Chongqing University, China


Dr Yanjuan Hu, Southwest University, China

This recently published article reveals how misunderstandings arose and evolved from mismatched assumptions during the cross-cultural learning process experienced by a successful doctoral candidate. To gain an in-depth understanding of the causes of the often implicit conceptual conflicts between Western supervisors and their Chinese doctoral students, a blend of autoethnography and interactive interview are used to codify, analyze and ultimately further intercultural discourse. We assumed that the conceptual conflicts involved in cross-cultural doctoral research can be reconciled and structured in ways that can assist student development, which in this case is the transformation towards an independent researcher. We reconsidered the possible roles of misunderstandings as catalysts for positive development of independent judgment in three key ways: developing self-confidence in driving my own research; re-conceptualizing ‘critical thinking’; and re-evaluating my own gendered social construction as an independent researcher.

Conceptual conflicts widely exist at different stages of a doctoral research study but are hard to recognize in daily supervisory practices. This study uses the model of turning points to highlight the differences in education and cultural mismatches that may occur in transcultural settings. We also give three examples of such points: supervision instruction, definition of critical thinking, and the social construction of gender values. Our example shows that implicit differences in the expression of these ideas is an area that needs to be more clearly stated for both parties to have a better working relationship.

The first conflict arose from a confusion regarding the expected level of supervisor instruction being provided in the actual supervision meetings. In our case, this conflict was also rooted in Chinese educational background, which was highly structured. Our reflection pointed to a lack of autonomy-related training. The second conflict refers to a mismatched expression of critical thinking, which is both culturally and educationally grounded. In this conflict, I was too quick to doubt myself to lack critical thinking upon hearing this evaluation from my supervisor. In the Chinese context, critiques are not often welcomed from a subordinate, and can be easily frowned upon when people lack the skill to express critique in a respectful, friendly and constructive manner. Whereas our example shows that implicit and embedded critique of authority added to the understanding of critical thinking. The final conflict identified in this study focuses on the restructuring of a socially dependent and conservative gender identity into that of an independent academic researcher. My new, developing identity is continuously constructed through self-evaluation and opinion sharing.

In addition to my self-reflections as discussed above, there were other support mechanisms that helped me solve conflicts in a productive and character-building way. The Integrated Bridging Program (IBP) offered by the University of A help me acclimatize to western academia. I was also fortunate to have a Chinese supervisor to act as a mediator in helping me to overcome and capitalize on conceptual conflict barriers. She was able to clarify my Australian supervisors’ expectation, explain the targets set for me to complete my thesis, and share her experiences of transcultural differences in methodology both in Chinese and English. There were also a number of workshops and resources recommended by both my Australian supervisors and Chinese supervisor to help me develop my English academic writing.


Authors Bio

Book coverDr Minghua Wu is an Associated Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Chongqing University, China. She has been working at Chongqing University since 2014 after she gained her PhD in the Discipline of Media at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Her doctoral research was “Chinese new media cultures in transition: Weibo and the Carnivalesque” which is published as a book by Peter Lang, ISBN: 978-1-4331-5229-0. DOI: Her research interests include new media and society, cross-cultural communication and high education innovation. She can be contacted at

Dr. Yanjuan Hu is an associate professor in Higher Education at the Faculty of Education, Southwest University, China. She obtained her PhD in 2014 from Leiden University Graduate School of Teaching, the Netherlands. She worked at as a postdoc researcher (2016-2018) at the department of teacher education, University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Yanjuan has published in international peer-reviewed journals, including Higher Education, Higher Education Research & Development, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, Higher Education Policy, Studies in Continuing Education, Studying Teacher Education. Her research interests include transcultural learning and research supervision, teacher professional development, workplace learning, and research-based teaching. She can be reached at

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