International education through a bioecological development lens – a case study of Chinese doctoral students in Australia

Research Highlighted:

Xing Xu, Helena Sit & Shen Chen (2020): International education through a bioecological development lens – a case study of Chinese doctoral students in Australia, Higher Education Research & Development, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2020.1811646

Read Dr Xu’s other article here.


Scholars have identified an increasing interest in exploring the lived experiences of international research students in Australia (e.g., Ai, 2017; Yu & Wright, 2016), which ranks fourth in attracting international doctoral students (Shen et al., 2016). However, few studies have focused specifically on the Chinese cohort, which remains the largest single national group (Shen et al., 2016) with steadily rising numbers (Chung & Ingleby, 2011). By listening to Chinese doctoral students’ emic conceptualizations of studying in Australia, this study aimed to expand the current literature regarding the enablers and disablers that contribute to their doctoral journey as a developmental trajectory under a self-formation paradigm of international study. Specifically, this article focuses on addressing two sets of research questions:(1) According to the participants, what factors contribute to their positive and negative experiences of studying in Australia? (2) Through the lens of the bioecological systems theory, how do these factors dynamically interact with each other to affect the participants’ doctoral trajectories?

Theoretical Framework

This paper adopts the theoretical framework of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory. It offers an analytic framework that explains human development as proximal processes within a constellation of relationships that forms the whole system of a person’s environment. A bioecological approach would contribute to a comprehensive yet nuanced understanding of the person–environment interactivity in Chinese students’ navigation of their doctoral trajectories. It would also offer international education market dominated by the global North countries such as Australia valuable insights to accommodate needs in the global South and capitalize on intellectual assets of the global South. This study bears potential practical significance to the internationalization of doctoral education given the salient status of the Chinese cohort in the international education market.


This paper adopts a volunteer-employed photography (VEP) approach, wherein participants use photographs they choose to assist their recall or make concrete their point. Applying VEP to examine doctoral students’ experiences, previous research has revealed that the method (combined with interviews) brings abstract questions down to a hands-on and imagery level due to its visual nature (van Auken et al., 2010). Thus, it enables more disclosures of the students’ lived reality. Snowball sampling was utilised for the recruitment of participants, which secured 24 participants. The data collection was conducted over two phases: the first being the time-point where participants consented to participation, after they were informed of requirements concerning collection of photos and ethics considerations; and the second being the interview, when they elaborated on their chosen photos. The participants were required to prepare self-taken photos depicting settings, activities, or persons that negatively and positively affect their study trajectory. They were guaranteed sufficient time to compile photos they took previously or to take photos to capture a current phenomenon (Bates et al.,2017). The 24 participants were then invited to take part in a one-on-one interview. The photographs with concomitant elicitations, along with the interview transcripts, were transferred into NVivo 12 for thematic analysis.


Findings of the study reveal that the developing person with varying dispositions, resources, and demands sits at the core of the developmental trajectory. In particular, this study shows how developmentally generative dispositions featuring agency, initiative, and engagement, reflected in inward management, enabled the participants’ doctoral study. Further, the participants demonstrated inviting demand characteristics as agents who reciprocated care and showcased initiative, encouraging favorable reactions from the social nexus. Through these transactions, more developmental dyads featuring mutually supportive effects were nurtured, boosting positive development of the doctoral trajectory. Nevertheless, not all characteristics were developmentally instigative. Health issues, for example, were counterproductive in terms of stimulating and sustaining the students’ momentum, posing barriers to the doctoral development. Further, the evolvement of development was embedded at the intersection of various contexts, ranging from direct settings to broader sociocultural factors. The findings show that the participants’ doctoral trajectory transcended the academic sphere and was influenced substantially by non-academic factors. It was holistically molded by social agents, behaviors, and relationships within the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem. The complexity of the content and structure of these subsystems concurrently enabled and restrained the students’ PhD journeys.

The findings suggest some practical suggestions for stakeholders involved in this trajectory. For example, the doctoral students’ situation warrants empathy and cultural sensitivity from supervisors who enact pedagogical principles based on equity and professionalism. As important shapers of students’ experiences, institutions and faculties should give greater voice to PhD students regarding teaching, learning, and other facets of student life, as a holistic understanding can allow for optimization of service delivery. Further, as the core driving force in the bioecological system, it is contingent upon PhD students to initiate their autonomy to negotiate, utilize, and create resources for their development in both their home and host environments. A fine-grained elaboration of these practices, however, is neither the focus of this study, nor possible to accomplish in a piece of this length. Based on a small sample, this study is limited in terms of generalizability and representativeness. Nevertheless, it has contributed to the current scholarship of international education by (1) further substantiating the self-formation paradigm based on empirical discussions with a particular cohort in a particular locale, and (2) unpacking the entwining dynamics shaping the developmental trajectory of international study using the broad framework of the bioecological systems theory.

Authors’ Bio

Dr Xing Xu, Sichuan International Studies University

Dr Xing Xu obtained her PhD from the University of Newcastle, Australia, and is Lecturer at Sichuan International Studies University. Her research interests include internationalization of higher education, doctoral students’ evaluation of educational experience, academic mobility, identity construction of doctoral students, and qualitative inquiry. Her publications have appeared in Higher Education Research and Development, The Australian Educational Researcher, Reflective Practice, etc. Her recent co-authored book The Eastern Train on the Western Track: An Australian Case of Chinese Doctoral Students’ Adaptation was published by Springer in 2020. She can be contacted via email:

Dr Helena Sit, University of Newcastle, Australia

Dr Helena Sit is a Senior Lecturer and PhD supervisor in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Prior to joining the University of Newcastle, she worked as a teaching and research academic at Macquarie University and the University of Hong Kong. Her research expertise includes Second Language Education, International Education, Higher Education and Teacher Education. Her research experience is concerned with internationalisation, transformative learning, and innovation language education programmes. She supervises Ph.D. students in Education and her contributions have been recognised at both the national and international levels. 

Dr Shen Chen, University of Newcastle, Australia

Dr Shen Chen is a teacher educator in School of Education at University of Newcastle, Australia. He has extensive teaching experiences including a visiting fellow in Cambridge University, Warwick University, UK, University of California, Berkeley, USA, University of British Columbia, Canada, University of Hong Kong, Nanjing University, Beijing Language and Culture University, China. His contribution has been in the teaching and research of culture in language education and second language teacher education. He was the recipient of the Australian National Teaching Award in 2014. His established record as an excellent researcher has been demonstrated by 8 books and numerous articles.

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