Reza Salim came to Sweden from Bangladesh and is now a researcher at Mid-Sweden University in Sundsvall. He regards cultural differences as an asset that has made it easier for him to do things in his own way. As part of his union work, however, he has encountered many examples of conflicts between doctoral students and supervisors that can be attributed to cultural differences.

The problems facing foreign doctoral students

Svenska 2017-01-11

Conflicts, psychological problems and ineffective research work.

“Cultural differences can be a major problem for foreign students”, says Reza Salim – a researcher at Mid-Sweden University and vice-chair of SULF’s Association of Doctoral Candidates, which works to improve conditions for international doctoral students.

Reza Salim came to Sweden from Bangladesh. One of the reasons why he chose to come to Sweden was the Scandinavian culture.

“Although all my family are Muslims, I am an atheist. I knew that Sweden is quite liberal and that many people here are also atheists. Scandinavia was my own personal Mecca”, says Reza Salim.

Even so, he was surprised when he encountered the working environment at a Swedish university.

“It was extremely relaxed and not very hierarchical. There was a manager but this person wasn’t always telling us what to do. And you didn’t need to call the manager ‘Sir’ or ‘Professor’. This came as a bit of a shock to me.”

But, for his part, he has a positive view of the cultural differences.

“I am quite an independent person and this allowed me to do things my own way. In actual fact, the cultural differences helped me”, says Reza Salim who recently attained his PhD and now works as a researcher at the Department for Electronics Design at Mid-Sweden University in Sundsvall.

Conflicts between supervisors and PhD students

As part of his work as vice-chair of SULF’s Association of Doctoral Candidates (SDF), however, he has often seen the opposite effect. Many of the conflicts between supervisors and doctoral students can stem from a misunderstanding that is due to cultural differences.

“The supervisor has perhaps given broad guidelines for the work and assumes that it is progressing as planned, whilst the student is still waiting for more-detailed instructions, and time is ticking away. This type of problem often resolves itself with time but, in other cases, there is a risk of bitterness developing in the workplace – the atmosphere becomes unpleasant and people feel excluded.”

During the past year, SDF has paid particular attention to vulnerable groups, such as international doctoral students. On Reza Salim’s initiative, the association is planning to produce a ‘starter’s kit’ that includes information that will make life easier for doctoral students who come to Sweden.

Examination of cultural differences

Stefanie Mallow – a Master’s student in cultural anthropology at Uppsala University – has examined how non-western doctoral students in Uppsala experience life in Sweden. She found that the problems that doctoral students encountered with cultural differences were not as great as she had expected.

“Everybody said ‘I cope just fine’ or ‘I can handle it’. Of course, there were aspects of the cultural encounter that they found difficult, but they didn’t see this as an area for concern”, says Stefanie Mallow.

On the other hand, however, supervisors and other members of staff at the university witnessed more-significant problems with cultural differences.

“Many of them were very worried and wondered why the students were afraid of them and why they didn’t ask questions, and they were concerned that they didn’t understand what they should be doing.”

A doubling of foreign doctoral students

According to statistics from the Swedish Higher Education Authority, the number of foreign doctoral students at Swedish universities has almost doubled in the past ten years. In the academic year 2014/15, there were 7,000 foreign doctoral students at Swedish universities.

Monika Appel – doctoral student representative at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Uppsala – has noticed that more and more international doctoral students are seeking to make contact with her.

“I have seen a steady increase which corresponds to the increasing number of international doctoral students coming to SLU.”

Quite often, they are contacting her for the same reasons as the Swedish students, but she identifies four areas where the foreign students stand out: difficulties experienced in contact with Swedish authorities, the need for linguistic support, questions concerning funding by means of scholarships, and loneliness.

“Some of those who come to me do not know anybody. They feel that it is difficult to make contact and they have a sense of social exclusion. Language barriers can arise and people at the department will be speaking Swedish when they all gather for breaks.”

Introduction weeks, language workshops and welcome booklets are some ways of countering these difficulties. Another is the inclusion of diversity issues in the training of research supervisors.

Different study cultures

Johan Wickström is an educational developer at the Unit for Academic Teaching and Learning at Uppsala University. He teaches research supervisors about how attitudes and opinions related to different study cultures can affect the supervisory process.

“We often talk about the existence of different study cultures within the international academic world – these can arise from different ways of viewing academic authorities and of how one demonstrates one’s knowledge. What is interesting is the similarities and the differences that become evident when different study cultures meet.”

He sometimes hears alarming accounts from course participants.

“These can include everything from harassment to discrimination.”

It is not unusual for the question of listening to feedback to come up on the courses.

“Some doctoral students come from cultural environments where the advice of supervisors is not something to be questioned. Some of the supervisors find it difficult when communication is not a two-way process. It is important to stimulate the students to reflect, and to have a permissive and open climate for discussion.”

Major differences in awareness

The awareness of, and interest in, issues of diversity varies greatly among supervisors.

“Some researches are themselves involved with working with this type of subject and are, therefore, very aware – but there are those who have never previously given the subject any thought at all. Some consider these to be very important issues, whilst others think ‘No, this is just a case of political correctness’”, says Johan Wickström.

Johan Wickström stresses that this is not an exact science.

“But I do hope that we are raising awareness of diversity issues among the supervisors.”

Read more in Curie:

Make more room for language issues in PhD studies

Text: Teresia Borgman
Photo: Sandra Pettersson

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