The Importance of being different: Three case studies of international doctoral students



Publication Details

Chatterjee, M. (2011). The Importance of being different: Three case studies of international doctoral students. Postgraduate Supervision Conference, Centre for Higher and Adult Education South Africa:


International doctoral students arrive at doctoral research and writing with fully-fledged professional and/or academic identities in their disciplines (see Belcher and Hirvela, 2001). They may have developed a sense of 'being' from their own experience as professionals and researchers in their own languages. However, the researching and writing of a doctoral thesis entails re-learning to be a student in another language. This is likely to present many difficulties for them. There are many reasons for this, especially, if the student writers choose to use qualitative methods in their study. Writing in the 'fuzzy genre' (Belcher and Hirvela, 2005) could entail a number of tasks that baffle writers of English as a first language. Multilingual international students may derive their empirical data from a non-English speaking populace after having engaged with literature in English and acquired their theoretical frameworks produced in Anglophone research environments. This can be daunting. International doctoral students writing in English as an Additional Language (EAL) face the challenging task of translating their empirical data into English. Time is not the only issue in undertaking this task. There are challenges that relate to the translation of the data from one language to another. Secondly, there may be a misfit between the theories that emerge from Anglophone countries and the empirical data that is encountered by the doctoral writers in the countries in which the research is conducted. On the other hand, conducting qualitative research in English in an Anglophone country as a site of research poses other problems. It requires the researcher writing in EAL to be highly proficient in English and be able to understand not just spoken academic language but also idioms, slang, subtleties of figures of speech, intonation and even humour. Thus, in enacting various roles as collectors, translators and interpreters of data, reviewers of the literature and assessors of the applicability of theories that have been derived from other locations, there is a constant struggle to project an appropriate identity in their thesis. The paper draws on qualitative research based on interviews and textual analysis to investigate some of the endeavours of international students who have grappled with these issues. Strategies to enable this group of students to maintain and present their 'difference' in language that would pass the gate-keepers (supervisors, examiners and peers) will be discussed in the paper. Hirvela, A., & Belcher, D., 2001, 'Coming back to voice: the multiple voices and identities of mature multilingual writers', Journal of Second Language Writing, Vol. 9, pp 83-106. Belcher, D., & Hirvela, A., 2005, 'writing the Qualitative dissertation: What motivates ad sustains commitment to a fuzzy genre? Journal of Academic Purposes, JEAP, 4, 187-205

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