Local and non-local doctoral students in Hong Kong: Do stressors differ with students’ origins?

Jung, J. (2019). Local and non-local doctoral students in Hong Kong: Do stressors differ with students’ origins? International Journal of Chinese Education, 8, 160-185.

Dr Jisun Jung, University of Hong Kong

How did this study begin? A short introduction to the project

The rapid growth of Asian higher education in the last four decades, in terms of scale and quality, has garnered significant attention in global higher education. In particular, East Asian universities have focused extensively on knowledge production, research capacity building, global ranking and global talent recruitment. However, many of the top universities in Asia still tend to hire overseas doctoral graduates for academic positions in the home country. Is that because they do not have the capacity to train their own doctoral graduates? What is the current landscape of doctoral training in East Asian countries? How do doctoral students in East Asian research universities perceive their learning experiences, and how do they plan their career paths? What are the unique characteristics of doctoral education in East Asian research universities? Based on these questions, some scholars in East Asian countries have developed a comparative research project entitled ‘A Comparative Study of Doctoral Education in Asian Flagship Universities’, conducted a collaboratively developed survey and shared their findings through conferences, seminars and workshops. More findings from this project can be found in two journal special issues: ‘Research Universities in East Asia: Graduate, Student and Faculty Perspectives’ (Asia Pacific Educational Review, 16(2), edited by Kong Chong Ho, Gerard A. Postiglione and Futao Huang) and ‘Introduction to Doctoral Education and Beyond: Learning Experiences, Competence and Career Plans in East Asia’ (International Journal of Chinese Education, 8(2), edited by Jung Cheol Shin and Futao Huang).

What was my research focus? A short summary of the paper

I was privileged to join the Hong Kong team for the project, and I identified my research questions about doctoral students in Hong Kong. As an international academic working in Hong Kong, I was always fascinated to see doctoral students’ diverse backgrounds and their dynamics on my campus. There is also a unique expression we use in Hong Kong to distinguish students as either local or non-local, which a lot of outsiders are puzzled by. The term non-local students used in this study is defined as “a politically correct term that refers to both foreign students originating outside of the administrative region and Mainland students from China” (Yu & Zhang, 2016; p. 2) in the Hong Kong context. In demographic terms, Hong Kong students can be divided into three groups: Hong Kong local, mainland, and international, with the latter two defined as non-local. My question was whether these different backgrounds of doctoral students have different learning styles, preferred supervising styles, and whether they are stressed with different factors.

Several studies have explored how Chinese students study overseas in Western countries, but little is known about the acculturation experiences of Chinese students in Asian contexts, including Hong Kong. Some recent studies have explored their motivations for choosing Hong Kong for their studies, but most focused on the undergraduate level (i.e. Li & Bray, 2007). Few comparisons of the three groups (local, mainland, and international) have been conducted in terms of who they are, what and how they learn differently, what makes their learning experiences satisfactory, and what factors influence their stress.

How did I conduct the analysis and what were major findings?

Based on 482 responses from the survey, the analysis of variance (ANOVA) test and a multiple regression were conducted. The results showed that doctoral students have different perceptions of their competency depending on their origins. They also assess their supervisory styles and learning environments differently. For example, international students tend to perceive their research capacity highly compared to Chinese students (Hong Kong local and mainland). Chinese students have clearly different perceptions from international students about how they regard their relationships with supervisors. Stress factors were also different. Hong Kong local students were stressed about their perceived competency and by an authoritarian supervisory style, while they felt less stress when the institutional environment was supportive. Doctoral students from the Mainland China were stressed about their perceived competency and by research- and resource-oriented cultures, but their stress was reduced when they felt their relationship with their supervisor was more professional. International students were stressed by their dissertation requirements and by a collegial supervisory style, but they felt less stress in an autonomous culture.

What are the implications?

The study demonstrates the importance of understanding the characteristics of different groups of doctoral students and of providing appropriate support for their doctoral journey. Although students’ cultural backgrounds affect their perceived level of stress, their perception can be transformed through the positive learning experience in a multicultural learning environment. Arranging mutual learning experiences for all students, no matter where they originate from, is important, along with providing the synergy to encourage them to understand each other’s strengths in terms of their learning styles. Previous studies have consistently emphasised the importance of crosscultural experiences (i.e., Sit et al., 2017). However, in doctoral programmes, this should not only be in terms of cultural exchange but should also be linked with their research experiences, thus helping them to be independent researchers with an active and dynamic interaction with learning community.


Li, M., & Bray, M. (2007). Cross-border flows of students for higher education: Push-pull factors and motivations of mainland Chinese students in Hong Kong and Macau. Higher Education, 53(6), 791–818.

Sit, A., Mak, A. S., & Neill, J. T. (2017). Does cross-cultural training in tertiary education enhance cross-cultural adjustment? A systematic review. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 57, 1–18.

Yu, B., & Zhang, K. (2016). ‘It’s more foreign than a foreign country’: Adaptation and experience of Mainland Chinese students in Hong Kong. Tertiary Education and Management, 22(4), 300–315

Author Bio

Jisun Jung is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong since September, 2015. She received a Ph.D. from Seoul National University, Korea, in 2011, and she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong. She has been involved in the international comparative project ‘The Changing Academic Profession’ since 2009. Her current research focuses on academic profession, doctoral education, employment and postgraduate studies and higher education research in Asia. She is the co-editor of two journal special issues, ‘Higher Education Research in East Asia: Regional and National Evolution and Path-Dependencies’ in Higher Education Policy and ‘Graduate Employment and Higher Education in East Asia’ in International Journal of Chinese Education, and also a co-editor of the two books ‘The Changing Academic Profession in Hong Kong’ published by Springer in 2018 and ‘Researching in Higher Education in Asia’ by Springer in 2019. She is currently co-editor of Higher Education Research & Development.

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