The enactment of agency in international academic mobility: a case of Chinese female PhD students in Australia

Research Highlighted:

Xing Xu (2021): The enactment of agency in international academic mobility: a case of Chinese female PhD students in Australia. The Australian Educational Researcher. doi:10.1007/s13384-020-00411-x

Read Dr Xu’s other article here.

Dr Xing Xu, Sichuan International Studies University

Background and Research Questions

In China, there has been a rampant folklore about the female PhD, paralleling the female PhD with male and female as a third gender. Whether a third gender discourse was media manipulation or a social epidemic, the current literature on Chinese female PhDs is predominantly developed from an etic perspective. Little is known about how this cohort conceptualises themselves from an emic perspective as they internalise the identity of “female PhD” via their mundane doctoral education practices. Offering a platform for Chinese female PhDs to voice their perceptions is a significant step towards disclosing more pertinent nuances. Using Australia as the research site, this study aimed to investigate the interaction between identity and international academic mobility, with a focus on unpacking two research questions: 1. To what extent is the concept of third gender represented in Chinese female PhDs’ border- crossing doctoral education experiences? 2. How do Chinese female PhDs navigate their identity construction as an in-betweener traversing different sociocultural spaces?

Theoretical Framework and Research Methods

Given the salience of agency in one’s approaches to identity construction and study in an international education context (Inouye and McAlpine 2017; Phan et al. 2019), agency was chosen as the theoretical lens through which this study addressed the above questions. Also, the concept of in-betweenness (Bhabha 1994; Dai et al. 2018) was utilised, which was suitable for analysing how the participants mobilised agency to construct a transformed identity in physical and psychological transactions at and across the boundaries between their home and host cultural spaces. This study utilised a qualitative methodology of semi-structured interview that offers the flexibility to promote the participants’ fruitful reflection (Mill 2001). Depending on the participants’ availability and preference, either face-to-face (4 out of 10) or telephone (6 out of 10) interviews were conducted. Each interview lasted approximately 90 min. In this time, interviewees were encouraged to share their experiences regarding their preparedness prior to the overseas sojourn and their engagement in learning and social activities while studying in Australia. Further, as this study was a gender-based inquiry, they were also required to interpret their lived experiences from a female PhD student’s perspective.


By and large, this study reveals that the participants’ representation of their identity takes issue with their home cultural discourse, which stigmatises this cohort as a sexless third gender, objects to a deficit discourse that problematises international students as others, and challenges a broader gender discourse among societies which tends to highlight female doctoral students’ structural constraints (e.g. Haynes et al. 2012; Juniper et al. 2012) instead of their personal agency. With positive self-positioning, the participants employed three forms of “agency in mobility”, namely, agency as struggle and resistance, needs-response agency, and agency for becoming, to construct a transformative identity that was materialised through agentic endeavours and myriad structures within the in-between space. This study illuminates two dualities in the findings. The first duality points to the fact that the participants’ enactment of agency must accommodate structural factors in both home space and host spaces. On one hand, the participants’ agency as struggle and resistance was noticeably manifested prior to their mobility, in subverting the restrictive discourse held by their parents and relatives regarding the female PhD in their home context. On the other hand, their needs-response agency and agency for becoming were noteworthy during their stay in the host context. They presented themselves as proactive agents who capitalised on resources to meet professional, culture learning and emotional needs in the alien context. As well, they invested their efforts in the international education trajectory to transform their identity which features flexibility, inclusivity and liberality. The second duality relates to the reciprocity between agency and the in-between space in shaping the students’ identity. Whereas enactment of agency is entangled with the students’ assessment, imagination and manipulation of the in-between space, their agentic outcomes keep transforming the grand structure of that space, a consequence of which influences their agency.

As one of the first studies investigating the agency of international Chinese female PhDs, this study makes theoretical and empirical contributions documented above. It however has several limitations which hopefully can be addressed in future research. One of them is that it can hardly imply any generalisability or representativity of the cohort of international Chinese female PhDs given its small size. Also, the participants feature a great extent of homogeneity in terms of their socioeconomic level and marital status, which may hinder diverse findings from emerging. In order to tackle this, future research may consider investigating a bigger sample size with more heterogeneity. Further, this study only concentrated on an exploration of students’ interpretations at the time point when their sojourn was underway. Future studies may gain further insights by looking into their narrative after repatriating to China upon graduation. Does Chinese female PhDs’ enactment of agency change as they re-enter the home space? What impact does the international mobility have on their meaning-making and practices of agency upon repatriation? These are questions left to be examined.

Author Bio

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:

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