Few tips from an academic, if you’re considering Australia as your study destination

By Dr Hemant R Ojha, Sydney
30 May 2019

Positive student experience in Australia is attracting massive public interest and government attention across many source countries of international students in the country. If you are a young student thinking of Australia as your ultimate study destination then you are obviously keen on learning more about life, study and work opportunities in Australia.

I myself studied in more than one country – first in Nepal where I was born, then in India and finally in the UK. I also had a brief exposure to education systems of North America and Europe.

Following some globe-trotting, I began visiting Australia only after I had this international exposure and hence, I was keen to find out how teaching and student life in Australia compared with other countries. So I was curious when I first arrived in Australia in 2011, and since then, I have been able to get some answers, which could be useful to many of you who are still new to Australia or may simply be planning to emigrate here.

I have had the opportunity of teaching and working at three of the eight Group of Eight elite universities of Australia. On the sidelines, I have also worked with numerous international students as part of a diasporic community and social engagement.

Based on my interactions and experiences with many a bright international students, I have six useful tips for prospective international students considering Australia as their next study destination.

Time-management skill a must to balance study, work and lifestyle

I have seen students stressing out, following their overnight shifts, to complete assignments while some other do not even meet the minimum attendance requirement as they spend too much time going out and enjoying parties. I have also come across those who spend more time in work than study thus achieving poor study outcomes.

You must realise that you do not need to spend all of your time in study alone – if you have proper time management skills then you will have enough time for both paid work and fun while still carrying on with your studies.

No single strategy can work for everyone as students have different financial situations, study requirements, and work expectations. Based on my experience with international students, I recommend carefully assessing:

  • your financial situation (and hence the amount of time you need to work),
  • the type of course you are attending (whether you have online course option, a compulsory laboratory activity or so on), and
  • your post-study goals (which might affect your allocation of time across formal studies and practical workplace training while studying).
Become a local, cultivate people skills if you’re poor in that department

From the classroom to workplace and community life, one thing I have consistently found intriguing is that international students too often struggle to communicate and present themselves effectively. They are often very competent on subject matters and secure exam results well above the average expected level of competency. However, due to limitations of language and culturally fixated communication style (not considered smart in the Western society), their message does not come across well. I have heard people asking the salesperson in a shop “Give me that box”, while the latter still smiles and says “No problem, sir”. A local person is more likely to say “Can I have a look at that box, please?”. The latter is a more polite way to express the same thing.

I have seen a local friend of mine come out of a supermarket and exclaim “What a rude response!” just because the salesperson failed do smile at us as we were checking out merchandise. In retrospect, perhaps she was a new international student not yet trained to ‘smile’ at workplace!

Here, I do not mean to imply that Asian or African people are impolite compared to Australians. Perhaps, people in developing countries have stronger traditional values with greater respect for fellow human beings than in the industrialised countries. In the developed world, a corporate culture requires everyone to be smart, smiling, polite and communicative as a means of enhancing work efficiency.

Your people skills count no matter where you go. As a student, you are frequently required to work in groups. When you work part of your time for money, you will have to interact with a number of people. You are also supposed to interact with your teachers on matters related to studies. When you have any issues on the study, you should be able to come forward and talk to the relevant authority in the University. More importantly, if you decided to stay in Australia after graduation and want to apply for the job, your interview is the most critical point where your people skills arejudged.

What all this means is that international students confront a very different people skills situation in Australia, and to succeed during the study and post-study career, people and communication skills are as important as the core subject matter knowledge, in the sophisticated industrialized society.

Proactively manage your supervisors and teachers

Things are bound to be litter different in Australia compared to the learning environment back home. Here, your academic life is closely overseen by your university supervisors, especially if you are doing post-graduate studies or honors level work at bachelor’s degree. I have seen several instances in which international students are under stress due to strained relationships with their supervisors. In Australia, post-graduate supervisors are given tremendous power over students when it comes to defining students’ progress and accomplishments. And the universities have the power (and in fact obligation by law) to report to the Immigration any instances of unsatisfactory study progress of international students. This means that post-graduate international students, even when they are genuinely committed to the study, feel insecure and have a fear and high level of anxiety during the study. Their research performance at times becomes a survival compulsion rather than a joyful outcome of intellectual curiosity and commitment.

In particular, PhD studies modality in Australia involves primarily a relationship between the candidate and his or her supervisor. The power imbalance between the two actors means that in a lot of situation the intellectual autonomy is compromised. Compared to North American model, the Australian approach, modelled after the UK one, concentrate on interactions among fewer individuals, often with a single primary supervisor. As a result, PhD students feel greatly constrained in their study, although if you are lucky, you may find greatly empowering supervisors too, who use their discretionary power to further empower and assist you in your learning (but this is not so common).

In these situations of University supervisors having discretionary powers, what you need to do is to proactively manage your supervisors, and not let supervisors manage you. For example, if you are late in asking for a meeting, proposing an idea for your research, and discussing next steps in your research, then you will see these things coming from your supervisor. You will then find it hard to reject, and as result, you will slowly be doing the research of your supervisor and not yours.

Live here – in the true sense of the term

Most international students enjoy living in Australia, though how much you enjoy varies across different cities and places in Australia. I have seen some students who live in Australia only physically but mentally they are always at home – more so in case of younger students who are in the country to do their bachelor’s level. Such young students miss their family and friends so much that they are not living in true sense of the term while they are here in Australia.

Always have plan B and C and be prepared to use them

Many international students see studies as a step towards permanent residency. This is their ideal dream. There are others  who deem for international career regardless of permanent settlement in Australia. Many of those who wish to stay on, this is something achievable and eventually they settle in Australia. Their dream fulfilled. However, there are students who have little chance of getting a permanent residence technically – their course or degree is not listed in the priority list for residency, or their age limit has crossed, or their performance in English is below the required level. The problem is not that they do not get permanent residency, but that they are not ready for options B and C. Why will you do if plan A fails? You need to have plan B and C too.

Look for your own community and engage with them

Many countries have their diasporic communities here in Australia. I often find that international students do not show interest in reaching out to their communities and engage with them even when there is an opportunity to do so. A community that speaks the same tongue as yourself may actually offer you a home away from home. They could invite you during your major festivals, join community events so on and so forth.

Dr Ojha is a University academic in Australia and a well-known social science researcher in the field of environment and international development. His twitter handle is @ojhahemant1

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