Chinese International Doctoral Students’ Navigation of a Disrupted Study Trajectory During COVID-19

Research Highlighted:

Xu, X, Tran, L. (2021): A qualitative investigation into Chinese international doctoral students’ navigation of a disrupted study trajectory during COVID-19. Journal of Studies in International Education. doi:10.1177/10283153211042092

Despite the growing scholarship on the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education, there remains a scarcity of a nuanced probe into how international doctoral students perceive their navigation of an overseas study journey that has been holistically disrupted. It is not yet clear whether and how this cohort enacts agency during this navigation. Bearing these gaps in mind, this study recruited a group of international Chinese doctoral students (ICDS) to share their emic perceptions, aiming to unpack two research questions: 1. How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the PhD study trajectory that is embedded within a complex system of person−environment factors? 2. How have the ICDS coped with these impacts?

To facilitate data analysis, this study brought together two theories—bioecological systems theory and needs−response agency. The first theory is suitable for probing into how the COVID-19 breakout as a global risk has a ripple effect on a doctoral student’s study trajectory that is constructed within a constellation of persons, settings, relations and objects, all of which are subject to change due to the pandemic. The second theory is of particular relevance to investigate how international students perceive and respond to situated needs arising out of the unprecedented context. Combining these two branches of theoretical underpinnings into the conceptual framework, this study teased out a full picture of international doctoral students’ navigation of a disrupted study trajectory at the interface of person−environment factors.

To facilitate a deep investigation, this study employed a qualitative methodology. The recruitment was circulated with a purposive snowballing strategy to target ICDS who were either overseas or in China when the interview was conducted between late September 2020 and February 2021. While snowball sampling is helpful in allowing the researchers to access potential participants who meet the eligibility criteria through the nomination of people, it might not ensure a good representativeness of the sample. To mitigate this limitation, we tried purposefully to attend to the issue of diversity in the sample. To overcome physical constraints, online one-on-one semi-structured interview was conducted, each lasting approximately 30−60 min. During this time, the students were encouraged to share their lived experiences around open-ended questions about how they navigated a disrupted PhD trajectory since the outbreak of the pandemic. All transcripts were transported into NVivo 12 for a thematic analysis informed by the data and the theoretical underpinnings adopted by the study.

The findings revealed that the impacts of the pandemic penetrate into diverse layers of subsystems within which their doctoral study is nested. COVID-19 has impacted profoundly on the microsystem where the innermost circle of interactions happened between the ICDS and their immediate surroundings. The impact was most saliently embodied in the change of doctoral supervision and family relations. Beyond the microsystem, the mesosystem that constitutes the interconnections of situations, events and relations within the ICDS’ immediate surroundings was also affected by COVID-19. The pandemic has disabled many formal and informal networking functions which used to be a key to cohesion of the research community and PhD student’ academic socialization. A massive and abrupt relocation of networking to virtual space was identified less engaging and attractive. The study also manifested that the exosystem incorporating policy-designing and decision making processes which although were executed at the institution/faculty level and did not involve the ICDS directly have yet had tremendous impacts on their doctoral study. These processes were mainly orientated toward crisis management, about which the ICDS’ perceptions varied. Finally, COVID-19 has intensified existing sociopolitical conflicts, distorting belief and value systems in relation to international Chinese students, which enclosed this cohort in a macrosystem less favorable than it was before the outbreak of the pandemic. Enmeshed in a changing bioecological system, the participants as autonomous and active agents explored and mobilized resources to mitigate the damage, sparing no efforts to restore the stability of the bioecological system. Bearing in mind structural adjustments in response to the risk, they enacted needs−response agency to deal with the specific demands rising from a gloomy context that however garnered latent force for empowering personal growth. Making full use of domestic and overseas, on-site and online resources, they practiced virtual internationalization at home, thus preserving immobile mobility.

In light of the findings, some practical implications were proposed for related stakeholders in the bioecological system to generate conditions and support for students to harness possibilities for growth amidst and beyond the health crisis. To begin with, in the spirit of empathy and professionalism, supervisors should sensitize themselves to extra difficulties faced by students, and make pedagogical adaptations to cater for students’ needs. As well, it is contingent upon host universities to protect students’ wellbeing, and provide more coherent and systemic support in order that students can better tap into the potential of online programs and activities, many of which are made readily available and free access during COVID-19. Further, more investment in educational technology should be enhanced to boost research connectivity so that the potential of virtual exchange can be harnessed to provide an inclusive approach for intercultural learning (Jørgensen, Mason, Pedersen, & Harrison, 2020). Third, at the macrosystem level, some governments and social media should stop spreading hostile sentiments and practices that Chinese and other international students have been unjustifiably suffering. On top of that, as the core navigator of a doctoral journey, international students themselves need to take advantage of the benefits of transnational mobilities of research, ideas, knowledge and networks through various online channels. Given possibilities are high that the fallout may continue for a relatively lengthy period for international students, it requires concerted efforts from concerned parties to address these challenges and transform them into generative forces where possible.

Read about Xing’s research on enactment of agency of female Chinese doctoral researchers in Australia here.

Authors’ Bio

Dr Xing Xu, Sichuan International Studies University, China

Dr Xing Xu is a lecturer at Sichuan International Studies University, China. Her research interests include internationalization of higher education, doctoral students’ evaluation of educational experience, academic mobility, identity construction of doctoral students, and qualitative inquiry. She can be contacted via email:

Professor Ly Thi Tran, Deakin University, Australia

Dr Ly Thi Tran is a professor in Deakin University, Australia, and an Australian Research Council Future Fellow. Her work focuses on the internationalization of education, international student mobility, the New Colombo Plan, and teacher professional learning in international education. She can be contacted via email:

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