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This article explores the academic trajectories of transnational postgraduates. We draw upon interrelated theories of globalization and transnational social fields to frame the globalizing social and educational contexts in which international students navigate their lives and careers after earning doctoral degrees. We draw on in-depth interviews where transnational postgraduates’ voices are placed at the center of the findings, and we explore how their background, journey, and environment simultaneously shaped them as well as transformed the spaces they inhabited. We highlight how the movement of transnational postgraduates is not simply a transfer from one physical location to another, but rather that the movement itself constitutes and structures a new space of identification and of belonging and global imagination.
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Transnational postgraduates: navigating academic
trajectories in the globalized university
Minghui Hou , Natalie Cruz , Chris R. Glass & Sherrie Lee
To cite this article: Minghui Hou , Natalie Cruz , Chris R. Glass & Sherrie Lee (2020):
Transnational postgraduates: navigating academic trajectories in the globalized university,
International Studies in Sociology of Education, DOI: 10.1080/09620214.2020.1853590
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Published online: 01 Dec 2020.
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Transnational postgraduates: navigating academic
trajectories in the globalized university
Minghui Hou
, Natalie Cruz
, Chris R. Glass
and Sherrie Lee
Department of Educational Foundations & Leadership, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA, USA;
Tertiary Education Commission, Wellington, New Zealand
This article explores the academic trajectories of transnational
postgraduates. We draw upon interrelated theories of globali-
zation and transnational social elds to frame the globalizing
social and educational contexts in which international stu-
dents navigate their lives and careers after earning doctoral
degrees. We draw on in-depth interviews where transnational
postgraduates’ voices are placed at the center of the ndings,
and we explore how their background, journey, and environ-
ment simultaneously shaped them as well as transformed the
spaces they inhabited. We highlight how the movement of
transnational postgraduates is not simply a transfer from one
physical location to another, but rather that the movement
itself constitutes and structures a new space of identication
and of belonging and global imagination.
Received 30 March 2020
Accepted 13 November 2020
International students;
transnational scholars;
academic mobility;
Research on international students’ postgraduate plans tends to view migration
as a binary choice to stay or return with a focus on the push-pull factors that
cause migration to and from nation states. Not only is the postgraduate migra-
tion literature limited by the dominance of this perspective (Van Mol &
Timmerman, 2014), but the understanding of postgraduate academic trajec-
tories and knowledge networks is limited by the conceptualization of mobility
in terms of push-pull factors that lead people to “stay in the host country’ or
‘return to their country of origin’ (Wu & Wilkes, 2017). Clearly, many post-
graduates opt to migrate to a third country and others may simply not view
their postgraduate mobility in terms of nation-based migration frameworks
(Larsen, 2016). Instead, a fundamental reconstruction of place may occur for
postgraduates through university study where identities and networks become
unanchored to specific nation-states (Phelps, 2016; Vertovec, 2009).
Furthermore, this type of migration integrates higher education and
cross-border academic capitalism in a transnational network
(Kauppinen, 2012). The blurring of boundaries and fuzziness increases
CONTACT Chris R. Glass
Supplemental data for this article can be accessed here.
© 2020 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
the attention to transnationalization, particularly, the uneven process
and unequal power of transnational academic capitalism. In this article,
we seek to move beyond nation-based migrant labels to explore the
experiences of new types of cross-border postgraduates who we char-
acterize as transnational postgraduates. Transnational postgraduate
scholars whose identities and networks transcend nation-based migra-
tion frameworks have begun to play explicit institutional roles in global
knowledge networks (Larner, 2015). We use the concept of transna-
tional scholars as a lens where international postgraduates are consid-
ered transnational scholars that break or embody particularly linguistic,
cultural, national knowledge, and epistemological resources in their
research endeavors, host institutional environment, and global networks
(Larner, 2015; Lee & Elliot, 2020).
Neo-colonialism has contributed to a geographic and geo-epistemic
hierarchy, which considers some countries as knowledge producers (metro-
polis), and others as knowledge consumers (colonies) (França et al., 2018).
The Global North has extended power over the Global South through the
imposition of language, culture, values, and the exploitation of people and
resources (Zuchowski et al., 2017). From ‘aid to trade’, ‘a firm distinction is
maintained between North–South educational leaderships premised on aid
and those oriented by economic interests, with a noted preference for the
former’ (Stein, 2019, p. 5). This study focuses on transnational mobility
from the ‘source’ countries in Asia to predominantly English-speaking
Western countries (Waters, 2012).
From a critical geopolitical perspective, Glassman (2009) examined how
Global North scholars who received training in institutions of metropoli-
tan powers turned against colonizers when they came back to their Global
South home countries. These migrations from South to North or vice versa
have increased the salience of critical geographies and transnational chains
(Glassman, 2009; Talleraas, 2020). Scholars who have migrated to the
metropole used their experiential understanding of locations, linguistic
skills, and ability to read cultural nuances through providing insider
accounts. Hence, our focus on transnational scholars marks a deliberate
effort to explore postgraduate academic mobility and move beyond binary
policy discourses that focus on mobility as a competition for talent
between nation-states (Kerr, 2013), as well as the research that categorizes
postgraduates solely in terms of nation-based identities (Shahjahan &
Kezar, 2013).
The purpose of this study is to develop a multi-dimensional conceptua-
lization of the multiple trajectories of transnational postgraduates and how
knowledge networks offer support, affiliations, and legitimacy as they navi-
gate transnational spaces. We explored the experiences of postgraduate
scholars with the following question: How do transnational postgraduates
describe the meaning of being a transnational scholar in their lives and
postgraduate careers?
Conceptual framework
The study draws upon interrelated theories of globalization and transna-
tional social fields to frame the globalizing social and educational contexts
where international students navigate their lives and careers after earning
their doctoral degrees. For this study, a transnational social field refers to ‘an
unbounded terrain of interlocking egocentric networks that extends across
the borders of two or more nation-states and that incorporates its partici-
pants in the day-to-day activities of social reproduction in these various
locations’ (Fouron & Schiller, 2001, p. 544). Transnational social fields
encompass ‘those who travel abroad and those who remain in contexts of
origin’ and are ‘spaces for the exchange, organization, and transformation of
ideas, practices, and social networks’ (Gargano, 2009, p. 332).
For the purpose of the study, transnationalism is defined as the process by
which individuals (educational sojourners) forge or establish social relations
across ‘cultural, ideological, linguistic, and geopolitical’ borders within
nation-states (Duff, 2015, p. 57). The notion of transnationalism brings
a new kind of migrating population whose networks, activities, and lives
encompass host and home countries by cutting across national boundaries
and bringing two societies into a single social field (Gargano, 2009). The
flow of ideas, practices, and goods embedded within the relationship
between scholars addresses familial, academic, and social networks across
borders to understand how educational sojourners position themselves
within the transnational scholar student communities. Students activate
their multilayered global, regional, and national identities to fulfill educa-
tional needs. At a time of transnational movement, the status of formal
citizenship associated with a nation-state holds enduring power and impor-
tance (Wood & Black, 2018). However, new affinities, loyalties, identities,
and hostilities may also be generated as a result of transnational movement
across borders (Bauman, 2004; Wood & Black, 2018).
Doctoral students are profoundly influenced by living and learning in the
transnational social fields found in globalized universities and cosmopolitan
cities where they temporarily reside, where they form peer networks, and
build professional connections with networked academic disciplines. As
Phelps (2016) emphasizes, ‘Doctoral study, especially when undertaken
internationally, is a temporary, discrete chapter of one’s life, characterized
by transit in-between life phases and geographic spaces’ (p. 12). Cultures
and spaces students inhabit are in transcultural flows with student engage-
ment and travel (Pennycook, 2005).
Furthermore, professional identities of transnational doctoral students
are often challenged in terms of their legitimacy and relevance in a new
environment, whether on the basis of one’s language, accent, colour, or
worldview (Fotovatian & Miller, 2014; Lee, 2018). The manifestation of such
tensions can be seen in patronizing attitudes towards non-White, non-
native English speakers (Kidman et al., 2017). These transnational doctoral
students have participated in multicultural encounters involving ‘negotia-
tions of language, culture, power, membership and legitimacy’ (Fotovatian
& Miller, 2014, p. 286; Deepak, 2012; Featherstone, 2003) during the flow.
Doctoral students with families face additional stressors and must reckon
with transformations in their children and spouses (Anderson, 2013;
Loveridge et al., 2018). These transnational postgraduate students’ career
trajectory can be exploited or expropriated due to the geopolitics of knowl-
edge production as westernized university models have taken root globally
with enfolding westernized curriculum, ranking, and concepts including but
not limited to autonomy, competition, and markets (Cantwell & Lee, 2010;
Shahjahan, 2016; Stein, 2019).
For the purpose of this study, we position the voices of transnational
postgraduates at the center of a discourse on student mobility through
a lens of transnationalism (Gargano, 2009). Within transnational social
fields, globalization is the grounded reality of the lives of transnational
scholars. Fotovatian and Miller (2014) argue that globalization emphasizes
diversity and complex conditions that affect locales and people in various
ways including ‘creolization, hybridization, and fragmentation’ (p. 332). In
speaking about transnational scholars, Kim (2010) argues that ‘mobile
academic intellectuals living such transnational lives cannot inhabit an
immutable “nation-home” once they become cosmopolitan’ and that they
develop ‘transnational identity capital,’ described as an orientation that is
‘generally expansionist in its management of meaning, and it is not a way
of becoming a local, but rather of simulating local knowledge’ (pp. 584,
585). Transnational scholars might see themselves as a cultural bridge and
knowledge brokers as they make efforts to build networks outside immedi-
ate affiliations (Lee, 2017, 2018).
Transnational scholars certainly include the globally mobile academic
scholars moving between top-ranked research universities (Larner, 2015),
where a distinguished professor at a prestigious university in China may also
be a research professor affiliate in the US and Australia. However, the
tendency to focus on researchers at top-ranked institutions illustrates
a hierarchy among transnational scholars, which leaves the experiences of
postgraduate transnational scholars underexplored who are just beginning
to forge such connections. The transnational lives of these scholars include
everyday complexities of staying connected to relatives ‘back home’, estab-
lishing local social support networks to manage home and family life, and
sustaining knowledge networks to build their careers as scholars (Brunsting
et al., 2018; Smith & Khawaja, 2011).
In line with calls in the field to place international student relational
networks in the center of a dialogue on international student mobility
(Gargano, 2009; Page & Chahboun, 2019), we place transnational post-
graduates’ voices in the center of this qualitative study using a multiple-
case narrative approach (Shkedi, 2005). We designed our study within
a constructivist research paradigm because our core concern was to
explore how transnational postgraduates actively negotiate their post-
graduate lives in the context of a globalizing world.
Data sources
This study draws on data derived from nine in-depth semi-structured inter-
views with postgraduate students and early career professionals in social
science and related fields (see Table 1). Researchers used purposeful sam-
pling to identify participants who migrated for doctoral study and maintain
multiple affiliations simultaneously post-graduation. This sampling criteria
aligns with how we defined transnational actors, or transnational scholars,
in this study. A purposive sampling strategy allowed individuals with
Table 1. Demographics.
Name Trajectory Summary
Estève Estève is pursuing a PhD in the US, and he received his master degrees in India and Europe. Born in
Nepal, he views being a transnational scholar as essential for him to be independent and free to
access different academic environments and experiences.
Eun-Jeong Eun-Jeong earned her PhD from a university in the US with extensive research, working
experiences, and family ties that traverse multiple East Asian contexts, and her trajectory is
shaped by a variety of cultural contexts and connections to a wide-variety of communities.
Sunya Sunya earned her PhD from a university in India and views education as a means of migration to
various countries around the world who have faced barriers due to English as the lingua franca
of academic publication.
Emek Emek earned his PhD from a university in Turkey with academic and activist work that involves
building connections with the infrastructure for immigrants and refugees from various migrant
Jia-Xin Jia-Xin earned her PhD from a university in New Zealand with a master’s degree from the US. Born
in China, she views her role and identity as a translational scholar with ambivalence.
Jón Jón earned his PhD from a university in China, and now works as a researcher in Canada. His
multicultural experiences have shaped his academic trajectory and his identity and perceptions
on his home country and international scholars.
Yuna Yuna earned his bachelor’s degree in Iraq and his PhD from a university in the US, and co-authors
publications in Arabic with scholars around the world to address critical concerns to members of
his network.
Ayandr Ayandr earned his PhD from a university in the Philippines and took a postdoctoral fellowship and
lecturer position in South Africa. Born in Nigeria, he also has served as a visiting scholar in
Denmark and the US.
Maya Maya earned her PhD in the US and maintains deep connections with family in India as well as
extensive kinship networks with diasporic communities in the US.
characteristics specific to the study’s research questions to be identified and
included in the study (Patton, 2002). Participants were recruited through
two globally representative higher education organizations, with a call for
scholars who had significant experiences studying and working in different
national contexts beyond their home country. E-mail communications and
further clarification allowed the researchers to ensure that participants met
the aforementioned criteria of a transnational postgraduate.
Interviews lasted 60–90 minutes and were conducted in an informal,
conversational manner, allowing a natural dialogue to emerge between the
researchers and the participants. The interviews used open-ended questions
to elicit detailed responses from participants (see Appendix A). The inter-
view protocol utilized three types of questions: main questions, follow-up
questions, and probes. During the interviews, the researchers took notes and
digitally-recorded the interview with the participant’s permission. Digital
audio files were transcribed and used to clarify the researchers’ notes.
Participants were asked to recount their postgraduate transnational col-
laborations and linkages, and interview questions invited participants to
situate their experiences within a discourse of transnational knowledge
networks. The interviews used open-ended questions to elicit detailed
responses from participants to explore the personal meaning of ‘transna-
tional scholar’ in their postgraduate lives and careers, as well as the forms of
tangible support, affiliations, and legitimacy are important to the develop-
ment of that academic trajectory. Data were collected from the participants
until the data reached a saturation point.
Nine scholars participated in the interviews, and a brief description of their
trajectories and affiliations are shared in Table 1. Participants resided in five
different countries at the time of data collection, with four people currently
working and living in the United States. They also represented six different
nationalities, and had experiences with multiple other countries outside of
their citizenship and resident countries. Three participants identified as
female, and five identified as male. All participants had doctoral degrees
except one participant who was currently enrolled in a PhD program.
Scholars all had some sort of important connection with a Westernized
country, including Canada, New Zealand, or the United States. This focus
on Anglophone and developed countries is explored in the findings.
Data analysis
We followed a two-stage analytic process with an initial phase where the-
matic identification included determining themes derived from theory that
were considered a priori, followed by a second phase where a small number
of ‘core’ categories were identified that anchored the analysis and presenta-
tion of initial findings outlined below (Shkedi, 2005). Multiple interpreta-
tions were considered before the analysis presented below. Our analysis
illustrates a set of themes related to various meanings of being
a transnational scholar and a multi-dimensional conceptualization of the
trajectories the scholars in our study took in their postgraduate lives and
Human subjects
Measures that protect participants’ identity were taken to the fullest extent,
including keeping data in a secure place, reporting findings as themes
(aggregating the data) and reporting individual responses using pseudo-
nyms (assigning different names). Researchers masked other markers of
identity (e.g., discipline, subject of teaching, and biographical data). The
names of individuals were not connected to participants’ identities during
analysis and are not included in the findings.
Researchers’ reexivity
Research reflexivity is the active self-reflection of an investigator which
allows the audience to grasp both the phenomenon of inquiry and the
development of the research itself (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007; Watt,
2007). Reflexivity is an important lens into the research process through
delving into the researchers’ thoughts, feelings, reactions, and interpreta-
tions of the data (Stake, 1995). In this paper, we draw on our own
experiences as transnational scholars to illustrate how using a data analysis
method within the context of this research process provided us with ‘a
time, a space, a context and a method for operationalizing a degree of
reflexivity during the analytic stages or our research’ (Mauthner & Doucet,
2003, p. 418).
The first author is from China and has studied in the United States for
both her master and doctoral programs. She maintains close ties with her
Chinese colleagues and does research about the mental health experiences
of Chinese students in the United States. The second author received her
degrees in the United States but has lived, worked, conducted research,
and professionally engaged in a variety of countries worldwide. The third
author works at a U.S. institution and briefly studied abroad, but has
extensive global connections and works closely with scholars worldwide.
The fourth author is from Singapore and currently works in New
Zealand. She received degrees from institutions in three different coun-
tries, and actively researches and embraces her identity as a ‘diasporic
As transnational scholars ourselves, we as researchers were able to sym-
pathise with the experiences and positions of our participants and provide
support in our interactions (Xu, 2019). Our study at the surface-level
certainly is influenced by our U.S. experiences, as most authors are located
in the United States, many of our connections are U.S. based, many of the
study participants worked in the States, and our understanding of doctoral
and academic scholarship is strongly influenced by our U.S. experiences.
However, we utilized our experiences and understanding of transnational
scholar contexts to better connect with and understand our participants, but
we also strived to set aside any biases. Our studies and lived experiences in
different countries certainly provided deeper contextual understanding in
communications with participants and interpretations of the data.
The narratives of participants reflect efforts to traverse national affiliations
as they develop knowledge networks that facilitate various types of academic
mobility. Yet, we argue that the movement of transnational postgraduates is
not simply a transfer from one physical location to another, but rather that
the movement itself constitutes and structures a new space of identification,
of belonging and of global imagination.
Meaning and meaningfulness
Participants described multiple meanings in response to our exploration of
the meaning of transnational scholar. The term ‘transnational scholar’ was
imbued with deep and profound meaning for some of the participants,
regardless of their sentiment towards it. Some participants expressed strong
political resistance to the power dynamics in discourse of transnationalism,
while others found it to be a positive affirmation of the direction of their
academic work. At the same time, the features of what it means to be
a transnational scholar were articulated by participants, but other partici-
pants invoked other languages or contested the term altogether.
Elements and emphases
The outline of the meaning of transnational scholar was described with
three basic elements and emphases: transcending boundaries, crossing bor-
ders of nation-states, and creating linkages across boundaries and borders.
Estève articulated that ‘the starting point as a transnational scholar would be
to go beyond the boundaries of your nation or your, your environment or
your comfort zone.’ We characterize this as the transcendence of bound-
aries, not just nation-state borders, as participants described transcending
boundaries in examples of how their academic lives and identities reflected
their personal construction of culture, nation-states, and social class that
transcends traditional categories.
Unsurprisingly, the element of cross-border mobility was also a common
theme among our participants. For example, Eun-Jeong offered a textbook
definition of transnational scholars as individuals ‘who themselves are
physically mobile, in their own trajectory or maybe even someone who
does research that has a kind of cross-border element to it.’ Others empha-
sized a more process-oriented conceptualization that involved the mutuality
and linkages that are created through the process of mobility among two or
more countries. Maya said she views transnational scholarship as a verb, not
a noun, describing a process where ‘scholars who engage in transnational
activities, they link the home country with the host country . . .. So this whole
thing is a process according to me, which I call a transnational process. So,
doing research on these transnational processes is what I feel transnational
scholars do.’
Colonial tendencies
Our explorations of the meaning of transnational scholarship were imbued
with deep personal meaning and strong reactions for some of the partici-
pants. Many of the participants had traveled to Anglophone countries to
gain credibility as scholars, and the discourse of transnational scholarship
evoked a strong reaction related to geopolitics. They felt that they had to
leave their home countries and enter the White, Western, English-speaking
world to gain credibility, even in their home contexts. The process of
making power relations visible is the product of distinctive spatialities and
trajectories of transnational resistances, which requires the examination of
the networks constituted through political activity in this colonialist
Sunya shared that she ‘graduated from the Oxford of India, but that’s not
enough.’ She had traveled to an Anglophone country for her doctorate to
gain legitimacy, yet she actively resisted this in her contestation of the term
transnational scholar:
I don’t like this idea of having, trans in this . . . our essence is either international or
transnational because here either sometimes we do not feel as if we belong here.
There’s a sense of uncertainty attached . . . I mean does it really call a person from
a developed country as transnational? No . . . they’re called transnational, You know
it’s like that because it’s the moment movement from developing to developed not in
the opposite direction . . . I think I’d be happy to call myself Indian scholar because it’s
part of my identity. And calling myself as Indian I understand that I am taking that
full responsibility of taking that identity at least.
Such an experience was often contrasted with the privilege of those who do
not need to move in order to gain such legitimacy, especially scholars who
are citizens of dominant Anglophone countries. For Jón, international
researcher now working in Canada reflected an additional burden that her
US peers and faculty mentor did not share: ‘Well the American scholars,
again, I’m talking about social science at the educational scholars, they
should get off their bum and go to another country.’
This burden was characterized largely by English as the medium of
instruction, not only in Western countries, but also in the growing numbers
of branch campuses and education hubs in non-Anglophone countries
around the world with English-only programs. Although Emek did not
contest the term, transnational scholar and even expressed ambivalence
about its meaning – he equated it with graduate study in English which
allowed for mobility across nations:
I’m a bit confused about this term actually . . . We can operate in another country in
any condition. This is a cross cross border issue. I think all scholars must be transna-
tional scholars, eh, because we should have this capacity. I think that every scholar
should integrate international ways and international sides in their scholarship, in
their studies research and their skills. actually. So you should know English. You
should research in English, for example. Uh, if this means that transnational scholar,
so this is the term.
Other participants offered neither strong positive or negative connotations
to the meaning of transnational scholar and instead opted to share alter-
native meanings and metaphors to describe how they made sense of it. Jón
emphasized the local aspects of scholarship and deemphasized the impor-
tance of nation-based identities. Transnational scholars enhance cultural
flows, the expansion of digital technologies, and social media, which have
led to multiple sites of connection. These transnational actors act as ambas-
sadors or diplomats in various ways in different nation states. For Jón,
transnational scholar was less descriptive than his personal sense of multi-
locality. This multilocality reflected his sense of feeling at home in multiple
local communities simultaneously. Like those whose perspectives have
colonial or Western dimensions to the term, he questioned the usefulness
of transnational as a category to describe scholars:
I’ve never thought about a transnational scholar as a unique category. I think in North
America is common in STEM areas, there are so many, a scholar from Iran, from
India, China, historically . . . I guess is very, very common for scholars to be transna-
tional. Um, particularly in engineering, science, technology, statistics and mathe-
matics. But education, not so much – education is local, the curriculum is local.
One or two participants offered metaphors that reflected the unique oppor-
tunity they had to experience multiple countries and cultures. These parti-
cipants considered themselves transnational scholars, not in the sense of
transcending national, but in the sense of embodying the multiple nations
10 M. HOU ET AL.
and cultures they had experienced. Yuna described herself as an ambassa-
dor, not representative of a particular country, but a representative of
a multiplicity of experiences that enriched and even subverted the norms
of places she studied and worked: ‘For me it will be very similar to some
term they say, ambassador of education. So basically once a scholar you are
an ambassador of your country and your program. And you will try to [use
these experiences] to subvert [whether you are] in the United States or back
in your country.’
Support networks and transactional ties
Participants used metaphors and images that conveyed what they had
imagined to be possible as transnational scholars, then contrasted those
images with the fundamental realities of their lives and how these conscious
or unconscious set of assumptions had been realized or not. Most partici-
pants described aspirations to join global networks that are increasingly
important to successful academic careers. The glocalized networks–net-
works with both local and global connection–have played a pivotal role in
boundary-crossing and transnational processes. The emphasis on networks
with others who they perceived to be transnational scholars was illustrated
by Eun-Jeong who described mentors who ‘exposed me to different net-
works, research projects that helped me to grow. I think that really helped
my career.’ Maya described hopeful images of the future realized through
the affirmations of a sustained network of academic colleagues: ‘Yes, I’ll be
able to do it. I can do it . . . . that has an amazing impact, more than I ever
imagined on the writing quality and the amount that I can produce.’
When we asked about efforts to access people, networks, and commu-
nities, three of the participants described relative ease in gaining access,
often through the assistance of mentors and advisors who are in privileged
positions to help them make these connections. Emek described ‘limited
resources in [my home country] . . . I was lucky actually, my advisor was
a challenge-handling man, for example. He could remove some barriers in
front of me. He was kind actually, and he was good.’ Yuna described
ongoing collaborations with academics after taking an academic position
in a developing country that ‘impact everything I’m doing now. This
enriches my experience . . . I am collaborating with many inside the US
and outside, actually. It’s a level of collaboration, not just in terms of
research.’ Others, like Ayandr, described themselves as natural network-
builders who ‘don’t remember having that resistance or feeling that diffi-
culty in accessing any network. So far so good. I mean, I have been able to
get my weight where I want to.’
Several participants felt cut-off by previous mentors, without access to
knowledge networks they desperately needed for successful early careers,
which left them listless and placeless with deep doubts and misgivings about
their doctoral studies abroad. The lack of access to knowledge networks
deprived these postgraduates of tangible forms of legitimacy, through
memberships and recognition, reflected in dark images of their future and
shattered images of doctoral study.
Ayandr offered a particularly powerful metaphor of his cut-throat experi-
ence of the competitive aspects of academic life after he returned to a third
country to take up an academic position. Mentors and peers who he once
felt were supportive colleagues were no longer interested in him if he could
not advance their academic careers:
You know [the] ‘crab’ mentality – they try to pull themselves down. Mentality of
pulling down, pulling down . . . In academia. And similar academia, academics, they’re
like a gorilla. They try to protect their territory, as was. So they want to stymie your
growth. And he is like your growth depends on death. So they decide the way out and
help you to the bottom.
What was striking in Ayandr’s extended account of his experiences in
different countries was that, in each of the places where he had studied
and worked, he felt that he was viewed as an outsider. Ayandr felt like
someone was always trying to trip him up or waiting for him to fail. He
described a struggle of feeling like his ability to stay in a country was tied to
his performance, and if he underperformed he would again have to move to
yet another country. He felt like a transnational scholar, but in the sense that
the pressures and demands of scholarship created a pervasive fear of being
forced to migrate yet again.
Not every participant had the ambition to do the things deemed necessary
to be a successful scholar in Anglophone countries. Not only did the cultural
norms and expectations not align with their goals, but they described
a desire to actively break out from what Jia-Xin described as ‘legitimacy
nonsense about you’re White and you’re right.’ Even if it was not something
participants said explicitly, power imbalance often pervaded these narra-
tives. Jia-Xin captured these sentiments describing her inner questioning as
a recent postgraduate: ‘Why are we feeling like we are being sidelined? Why
do we feel like we need to be in it but resist it? Why do we feel like we’re
fighting a losing battle almost? I can feel the angst in some ways, and I’m
thinking, “What is the alternative to buying into these spaces that we’ve
been told are the spaces to go into?”’
Participants who once saw themselves as transnational scholars began to
become dispirited when they experienced a more transactional form of
scholarly community post-graduation. Transactional scholarship reflected
a sort of exchange and agreement: I will do this for you, if you do this for me.
But several participants, including Ayandr, found themselves at the short
end of such transactional academic relationships:
12 M. HOU ET AL.
So, maybe Americans try to write about Africa, try to do a lot of things in Africa, but
I don’t see much collaborations, to allow fairly young African scholars to be involved.
They want us to publish in international journals, but sometimes you don’t get
enough subsidy if you don’t publish in American journals, like Higher Education,
for example. Higher Education Policy, it’s another top journal.
These participants felt they had studied and worked abroad to build rela-
tionships with scholars and peers, but now were valued in terms of their
ability to produce things: grants, articles, or awards for others. In addition,
in this transactional academic culture, Eun-Jeong felt the products she
produced were not always valued by the academic community:
I don’t think it’s necessarily specific networks, but I think there are certain points at
which you feel excluded and that could be more explicit and other times it’s much
more subtle and inferred and explicit would be, yeah, I mean I submit some proposals
to a conference and they’re flat out rejected and the reviewers are very harsh and
a little bit off color. Yeah, that’s an explicit form of you do not belong here . . . as
a woman, as a minority woman, there are certain moments where you don’t necessa-
rily feel as equal to.
About half of the participants navigated some sort of loss of mentor support
and described rejection from the academic community. They made efforts
to sustain and build relationships post-graduation, but felt the entire system
was set up to reject their work as they searched for mentorship and support.
While rejection is not uncommon for academics, academics in dominant
countries have access to mentors and academic peers who can provide
perspective and feedback on rejection. For the participants in our study,
like Jia-Xin, lacked communities of socioemotional support, and rejection
resulted in particularly painful form of self-questioning:
I’m just doing a bit of self-reflection because I’m in this space where someone asks me,
“How are you feeling today?” I say, “I’m very undoctor today actually.” I don’t feel
very doctorly at all. I don’t know what I am because I consider myself very academic
and I do mean it in the sense of taking scholarship to make a difference. But at the
same time because I’m not employed by an academic institution, I’m losing legiti-
macy. And now I can look at academics from a non-academic view point and go,
“Was that all I was hoping to do for the rest of my life? Being stuck in this race of
getting research projects that make money, that make you look good and getting the
next publication out?”
Some participants, like Jón, had experienced success in a traditional aca-
demic sense as measured by publication of research in top-ranked peer-
reviewed academic journals were shocked by the counterintuitive
response from their local institutions to their achievements:
I still remember, in 2016 I got a very good paper published . . . and I shared the good
news with the HR office. I thought that I would be congratulated. I was, I will be
praised on my hard work from an expertise [that I had] established. I think they do it
by getting something published. I can establish expertise in international education
for this office in general. But she handed me a form called a conflict, a conflict of
interest form. Oh, I was supposed to report to her that I did not use my time at work
for this. That’s from the [country] perspective. That was kind of odd, . . . they wanted
to make sure that I did not spend my time at work writing for publication.
The Western academic tradition has a long history, but the culture it has
created is not always aligned with the academic culture in countries with
different norms and sets of traditions, as this reflection by Jia-Xin highlights:
I was just thinking, because the US has a much longer history of building up and
nurturing only academics, whereas [country], has a relatively shorter history, and
a very different culture, there is something called the ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ in
[country] where you don’t stick out and say ‘Hey, I’m so smart. Look at me. I’ve
got all this research under my belt, and I’m really an expert in this area.” You could
very well be the expert in the area, and you could very well be the only one in the room
that knows anything about it, but for goodness sake, don’t stick your head out and go
‘Agh, look at me. I’m all great.’
Communities of socioemotional support
Our questions explored forms of tangible support, affiliations, and legiti-
macy, as well as people, networks, and communities that support the
participants’ academic work. The networks most often described by parti-
cipants were not necessarily academic in nature. And, when the commu-
nities described were academic in nature, the value of those academic
communities reflected forms of socioemotional support that bolstered
their development as scholars.
For these participants, academic communities offered the socioemotional
resources derived from a sense of belonging. These communities reflected
a sense where they felt accepted and could fully participate in shaping a living
tradition; communities where they encountered others with a shared set of
values, origins, and feelings. Maya described a desire to be accepted in
a community of experts, not just for academic connections, but also for her
academic trajectory as a postgraduate scholar:
I think I’m really looking for that presence of some experts around me. Maybe it’s just
positive vibes also that kind of give me strength. Maybe I’m at a stage where I need
strength along with the feedback on my work . . . [so the] first thing that I’m doing is
contacting different experts. Either experts or faculty who would like to work with me
on these projects . . . . That’s the only thing that’s occurring to me right now to contact
individuals to work with me, requesting them to work on my papers.
A majority of participants described some version of ‘finding your group’ or
‘finding your people’ as if giving advice to fellow emerging scholars. Eun-
Jeong described strong social connections within academic communities‘-
whether that’s colleagues or, or friends, you know, I feel like that’s the most
14 M. HOU ET AL.
encouraging thing because there are so many different kinds of personality
types within this field. But finding your particular your group it really
helps.’ Other participants, like Estève, described the importance of commu-
nity groups that reflected their cultural heritage as important sources of
support: ‘the [ethnic] population comprises a very little part of [city]. But we
have – we have an organization called the Greater [city] [ethnic] community
and they program on a regular basis.’
Finally, academic networks were not the only structuring relationships
that participants described. Academic parenthood was an often invisible
aspect of postgraduate student lives for young parents embarking on post-
graduate careers. The demands of caregiving in raising children away from
their self-identified home and family support networks added complexity to
the development of their academic trajectories. Maya expressed the pangs of
anxiety as she attempted to publish while caregiving for her two children:
‘She’s eight and he’s four, so they were really little, so time was a main issue
and I used to get tired by the end of the day.’ Another participant shared the
importance of family: ‘They are very important. They enable you to earn this
experience . . . family obligation is a big thing. I think for anyone who moved
to another country and another city.’
These participants were mothers and fathers. They were not just thinking
about their academic careers. Some of them were homeschooling and caring
for their extended families. Those commitments sometimes curtailed their
ability to do what was ‘necessary’ to advance their academic careers.
Researchers are just beginning to understand the transnational networks of
postgraduate students (Fotovatian & Miller, 2014; Rizvi, 2011), especially for
those who remain in country (Phelps, 2016), who may not go on to academic
jobs (Larner, 2015), or whose career trajectories may be influenced by their
partner’s job prospects (Anderson, 2013; Loveridge et al., 2018). The findings
from this study suggest that universities are not just sites of knowledge
production but also sites of self-formation that shape the trajectories of
postgraduates who navigate transnational social spaces in their early lives
and careers (Marginson, 2018). Larner (2015) described how top-ranked
researchers have become central to the creation of global knowledge networks.
This study marks a significant advancement to this line of research with its
focus on postgraduate academic mobility and how different imaginaries of
transnational scholars are tied to the forms of tangible support, affiliations, and
legitimacy are important to the life and career trajectories of transnational
postgraduates. Transnational scholars provide an avenue into the reconceptua-
lization of borders and nation-states, and contribute to a deeper understanding
of transnational scholars and cross-border education. Also, the emergence of
transnational academic capitalism links higher education to ‘transnational
circuits of capital,’ which leads to a new world capitalism through transnational
networks and circuits of knowledge (Kauppinen, 2012, p. 553).
Most studies on international students’ postgraduate plans have centered on
a binary choice to stay or return, whereas our study examines a new concep-
tualization of mobility for transnational scholars. The mobility patterns and
experiences of these transnational postgraduates articulates the resistance of
geopolitical activities, captures the structure of glocalized networks, and high-
lights the importance of increasing supporting networks and socioemotional
support in communities (Chen & Tan, 2009). The neocolonial perspective
allows higher education to examine power asymmetries in transnational scho-
lars’ experiences so as to decolonize the relationships between mobile transna-
tional scholars and institutions within and beyond the nation-states (Yang,
2020). The implications of transnational postgraduates are increasingly impor-
tant for education policy and decolonization through reexamining power
relations and transactional ties (Featherstone, 2003). Transnational postgradu-
ates in this study navigated lives not only in-between universities but also
transitioning to new phases of their academic careers and new locations for
their academic work.
In light of the theoretical framework proposed in this study, we suggest
higher education institutions need to provide a more flexible, supportive,
responsive, and expansive understanding of transnational postgraduates that
better reflects transnational scholars’ flow and migration. In addition, it is
essential to recognize that transnational postgraduates serve as diplomats and
ambassadors to build glocal connections and affirm their status as moral and
political agents on a local and global scale (Wayland, 2004; Wood & Black,
2018). Furthermore, higher education policies need to include strong emotional
and affective support structures for these transnational postgraduates.
Transnational scholars are an important but understudied and neglected popu-
lation in this global academic marketplace. The political economy has shaped
their experiences and academic trajectories. These findings are encouraging, but
there is much more that needs to be done to eliminate transactional ties and the
‘crab mentality’ in academia for transnational postgraduates.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
Notes on contributor
Sherrie Lee, Ph.D. is the Senior Advisor of Operational Policy at the Tertiary Education
Commission in New Zealand. She earned her doctorate from the University of Waikato. Her
writing focuses on empowering newcomers to navigate transitions in their social and
16 M. HOU ET AL.
cultural environments. Her research explores multicultural and transnational communities
through sociocultural theories and multimodal analytical approaches.
Natalie Cruz
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This piece explores the concept of 'diasporic education' and introduces the Special Issue I guest-edited for International Studies in Sociology of Education on diaspora, transnationality and education. The piece is open access.
Full-text available
The article explores the factors of career mobility choice by international graduates of regional universities, which directly affect their employment in the regions. As a result of the analysis of foreign experience, the authors come to a conclusion that locally-trained international graduates’ employment is an effective tool for replacing the migration outflow from the periphery to megalopolises. A strong positive correlation is proved between the share of international graduates in the normalized student body and the rate of migration growth for the period 2015–2020 in the peripheral subjects in the Northwestern federal district of the Russian Federation. Eight variants of educational migrants’ migration trajectories are identified and described as a combination of two choices: educational and career mobility. Based on the generalization of Russian and foreign approaches, factors of international graduates’ career mobility choice at national, regional, sectoral, university, and individual levels are systematized. Within the online survey of international graduates of Russian regional universities, influence of factors of each level on the choice of a migration trajectory was determined, the influence of the experience of living in the region and studying at the university on changing the migration trajectory was shown. It has been proved that international graduates from the CIS and Baltic countries can make the greatest contribution to the regional economy of the Russian peripheral regions. Recommendations for executive authorities and universities have been developed to stimulate international graduates’ post-study employment in the region of study. As a direction for further research, it seems expedient to develop a model for determining the needs of regional economy in locally-trained international graduates, as well as to test such a model in the peripheral territorial subjects of the Russian Federation.
Full-text available
Learning how to conduct qualitative research may seem daunting for those new to the task, especially given the paradigm ’s emphasis on complexity and emergent design. Although there are guidelines in the literature, each project is unique and ultimately the individual researcher must determine how best to proceed . Reflexivity is thus considered essential, potentially facilitating understanding of both the phenomenon under study and the research process itself . Drawing upon the contents of a reflective journal, the author provides an inside view of a first project, making connections between theory and practice. This personal narrative highlights the value of reflexivity both during and after a study, and may help to demystify the research process for those new to the field.
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In this paper, I reflect on the current state of critical internationalization studies, an area of study that problematizes the overwhelmingly positive and depoliticized approaches to internationalization in higher education. I note that, despite growing interest in this approach, there is a risk that critiques will circularly result in more of the same if we do not attend to the full complexity, uncertainty, and complicity involved in transforming internationalization. In an effort to continue this work, and clarify the distinctions between different approaches to critical internationalization studies, I offer two social cartographies: one of different theories of change in relation to internationalization, and one of different layers of intervention. Finally, I ask what kind of internationalization might be adequate for responding to today’s many global challenges.
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Social isolation has been a central focus within international student research, especially with regard to international/host national relations. While a worthy area of study, we argue that the sheer volume of such research stems from the fact that universities’ recruitment of foreign students is often justified by the claim that a more international campus will engender cross-cultural skills. The main argument of this paper is that, from this perspective, the “point” of such sojourns is seen as social, and any lack of interaction becomes problematic. This is an intellectually respectable position, but it is problematic that it has come to dominate the field to such a degree that the students’ own experiences and goals are rarely heard. This paper calls for a de-muting of international students in research, so that more research is oriented by their stated priorities. While there has been a shift in this regard around the turn of the millennium, presumptions as to the purpose of educational sojourns remain and continue to colour research.
The presence of international scholars at Western institutions is part of the larger phenomenon of internationalization of higher education. These scholars have been referred to as diasporic academics who act as knowledge brokers in transnational network flows, most obviously seen in the global academic elite with multiple affiliations. The potential of international doctoral students as diasporic academics, however, has not yet been sufficiently explored by the scholarship, particularly their implications for doctoral education. Instead, these foreign scholars are at times sadly portrayed as if they were merely research commodities, or even perceived to be deficient by ‘Western standards’. Literatures focusing on intercultural doctoral supervision help address these issues by recognizing how doctoral candidates’ cultural histories, identities, and intellectual resources can contribute to more equitable power relations in Western academe, rather than simply be construed as problematic. As a personal response, we have reflected on our own doctoral education experiences, articulating the risks and rewards of positioning ourselves as transnational knowledge brokers and co-creators of new forms of knowledge. We propose that institutions and supervisors are able to play a much more active role in nurturing their international doctoral students as diasporic academics, with a view to inspiring these students to envision themselves as diasporic academics and critically engage with their transnational networks.
In recent years, scholarship on international student mobility (ISM) has proliferated across various social science disciplines. Of late, an interest in the ethics and politics of ISM seems to be emerging, as more scholars begin to consider critically questions about rights, responsibility, justice, equality, and so forth that inhere in the thorny relationships between ISM stakeholders. To date, however, these discussions remain largely scattered. Bringing together these scattered conversations in literature, this article outlines elements of a framework for (re)thinking the ethics and politics of ISM. The proposed framework identifies eight key ISM actors between whom various ethical and political relationships arise, where these relationships range from the social to the institutional. Furthermore, the framework discusses four sets of concepts from the literature deemed pertinent in thinking further about ISM ethics and politics. This proposed framework is aimed at stimulating further conversations and efforts to make ISM more socially equitable and sustainable.
This paper draws on ‘diaspora at home’, a concept that encapsulates the unique dynamics between Hong Kong and mainland China, as an analytical tool to explore the cross-border experiences of 23 Hong Kong students at 11 universities in mainland China. It empirically ascertains how the made and imposed claims and identifications of these Hong Kong students resulted in inclusion and exclusion as their interactions with their mainland peers and institutions deepened. Specifically, it highlights how their ‘diaspora at home’ status offered exclusive access to privileged higher education opportunities, preferential treatments and opportunities for upward social mobility. Meanwhile, such a status also resulted in an overwhelming sense of political liability as they unwittingly became ‘political tokens’ and suspected political subjects amid the increasingly tense political atmosphere between mainland China and Hong Kong. This paper pinpoints the relevance of class and politics in understanding how diasporic groups engage with higher education.
This article analyses the institutional categorization of people who lead transnational lives but are clients of a national welfare system. Based on institutional ethnography, the article explores the standpoint of bureaucrats who work in the Norwegian welfare system and deal with clients receiving Norwegian welfare benefits abroad. The analysis reveals an inclusive albeit ambiguous attitude towards these clients, whose cross-border living is seen as a new norm, carried out by all segments of the population. When describing people who lead transnational lives, the bureaucrats move beyond migrant labels, citing a broad array of formal and informal categories and stereotypes. The blurring conceptualization of who is considered transnational signals institutional incertitudes about how to adapt to increasing cross-border mobility. The study’s findings add substance to the plea for a “de-migranticization” of migration research.