How to Manage Your Time During the PhD: Balancing the Thesis, Writing for Publications and Gaining Teaching Experience

This post was originally published at the FERSA blog.

During my PhD career at Cambridge (September 2012 to July 2016), I spent around 95 per cent of my time in a magical sphere called the University of Cambridge Writing Group. In this space, I wrote nearly my entire thesis, published three peer-reviewed journal articles, won a Best Paper Award and landed a job as Lecturer in Education immediately after graduation. I now have friends who write to me from time to time to get my advice on time management, on job hunting and on work-life balance. While I keep emphasising to them that publication is the most important, I feel obliged to tell the ‘truth’ behind all these ‘hard facts’ or what some people would call ‘achievements’.

Cora Lingling Xu

The truth is, when my current Head of School asked me how I found my experience at Cambridge, I told him that these have been the best four years of my life so far. This is the truth. Yet this is not all the truth. There were difficult periods throughout my PhD, moments of doubt, agony, and despair—this is no news to anybody pursuing or holding a PhD. What I want to share in this post, therefore, is how I have survived all the difficult moments. I want to offer three reflective moments.

Moment 1

Venue: Tea Room, Sociology Department, Free School Lane

Date: 31st December 2012

Attendees: Moira, Christine, Dee and Emma

Event: This was probably the second Writing Group session that I had attended. Moira, Christine, Dee and Emma were all senior PhD students finishing their PhD theses. These were the people that I later looked up to and often sought advice from. During one break, Moira made a comment about minding her ‘authorial voice’. This little phrase stuck with me ever since. I started to realise that the PhD experience (at least for social sciences) was really about developing an academic identity that is primarily represented by one’s written work.

Moral: This revelation was pivotal in that I made a conscious decision to frequent the Writing Group, because this was so much more than a writing space. It was a place for me to get inspiration, seek advice and develop friendship; it was my support network and my ‘security net’. I am not asking everybody who reads this post to join the Writing Group (although it is a worthwhile idea), but rather I am suggesting that buddies at the Writing Group were the ones who helped me survive all the self-doubts, agony and despair. It is essential for PhD students to feel secure and supported among like-minded friends. So, your first task is to seek such a space and grow with it.

Moment 2

Venue: Barbara White Room, Newnham College

Date: April 2014

Attendees: Writing Group buddies

Event: I received a notification from the European Educational Research Association (EERA) that my article had won the Best Paper Award and that it would be published in the European Educational Research Journal (EERJ).

Moral: Start publishing as early as you can. I learned about the EERA Best Paper Award competition when I attended the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER) in 2013. The prospect of publishing a paper at the EERJ was appealing. I carefully studied previous winning essays and prepared my article while I was conducting fieldwork. At that time, I only had some preliminary analysis of the first round of interviews. However, I wrote up my analysis and got helpful feedback from my supervisor Professor Diane Reay and my friends, including Dr Erin Spring, who was then a PhD student. This was my first article, published in early 2015.

When I nearly finished my first phase of fieldwork in March 2014, I wrote another article for a conference in Denmark. This article was based on more comprehensive analysis of the bulk of my empirical data. Although the analysis was relatively crude and broad-stroked, I gained some valuable feedback at the conference and my article was included in a special issue, published in October 2015.

As I was writing my findings chapters, I began to write my third article, which was submitted to the British Journal of Sociology of Education in early 2015. I received reviewers’ ‘ruthless’ feedback in July 2015, which, when I look back now, was hugely beneficial to strengthening the rigour of my analysis. I submitted my revised version in September 2015 and the article was accepted in February 2016.

To summarise, it is never too early to write for publications during your PhD. I began writing for publication as soon as I had some data at hand to analyse. I was constantly thinking about the next article and how I could make sure that I had a worthwhile message to communicate to readers of my targeted journals. My motto, which I have inherited from my wise Writing Group buddies, is that you write (a lot) to become a good writer and similarly, you write (a lot of articles) to become a good published author.

What I found most beneficial was that I had supportive but critical colleagues to comment on my drafts. At Cambridge I co-organised a reading group with Dr Selena Yuan in which we regularly critiqued on each other’s works and helped each other publish more effectively. Cambridge is a gold mine of talented and critical friends, so start building a network to support each other’s publication journeys.

Moment 3

Date: Some time in 2015

Venue: Origin 8 Café, FOE

Attendees: Elizabeth and Pu Shi

Event: I came out of GS4 and ran into Elizabeth and Pu Shi, who were having a meeting at the café. Upon learning that I was acting as a Teaching Assistant to facilitate a Master’s research methods class, Elizabeth commented that I was career-oriented.

Moral: Yes, I was quite strategic about gaining teaching experience during the PhD. Since 2013 I had been supervising Tripos Sociology papers and Research and Investigating projects. However, I ensured that such teaching did not take up too much of my time. Now that I think about it, I spent around ten to fifteen per cent of my time doing supervisions and acting as a teaching assistant. I also gave some guest lectures at different universities, such as the University of Northampton and the Open University of Hong Kong. These experiences proved instrumental for informing my pedagogical understanding and helpful in allowing me to construct a coherent narrative about my repertoire of teaching experience.

To return to what I set out to answer in this post: How did I manage my time during PhD in order to balance finishing the thesis, writing publications and gaining teaching experience? Firstly, I established an important network of support from which I gained inspirations, friendship, and a sense of security. Secondly, I began writing for publication as soon as the early stages of my data collection, and I kept writing for publications throughout the PhD journey. Lastly, I strategically sought opportunities to gain teaching experience, while ensuring that teaching did not take up too much of my time.

Dr Cora Lingling Xu graduated with a PhD from the Faculty of Education in 2016. Her doctoral thesis examined the identity constructions of tertiary-level border-crossing students from mainland China to Hong Kong. She is currently a Lecturer in Education at Keele University. You can follow Cora on Twitter @CoraLinglingXu and find out more about her research on and Research Gate


Dealing with Journal Rejections as an Early-Career Researcher

This post was originally published at the FERSA blog.

By: Dr Cora Lingling Xu, PhD Cambridge, Keele University

Note: This blog entry is adapted from Cora’s presentation at the ‘BERA-BAICE Writing for Publication Workshop’ held on 2 March 2018 at King’s College London.

Among the many encouraging positive comments I received at the BERA-BAICE Writing for Publication Workshop, a persistent message conveyed by other early career researchers was this: it was important for them to learn about not only my successful publication experience, but also my vulnerability in the face of rejections. Given space constraints, in this post I will focus solely on how I dealt with rejections. For other sharing of my publication experiences, please refer to this post and my upcoming posts on the BERA blog and BERA Research Intelligence.

Over and above all, I want to demonstrate that, IT IS POSSIBLE TO PUBLISH, for somebody like me, who is not particularly gifted in writing, who does not know many grand English words, who does not speak English as a first language and whose article manuscripts kept getting rejected.

It is…possible

Cora Lingling Xu

It is possible to publish, although one has to undergo quite a lot of hardships. The biggest one of which is probably rejections. In my own experience, during my PhD years (2012-2016), I had been rejected three times over two different articles. My articles were rejected by Sociology, The China Quarterly and The Journal of Contemporary China. During the first year of my post-PhD period (2016-2017), I was rejected once—this time it was a co-authored paper for which I am the lead author, by Race, Ethnicity and Education.

Despite these discouraging rejections, there is still consolation that it is possible to publish. During my PhD, I had three articles published, respectively in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, and European Educational Research Journal. During my first post-PhD year (2016-2017), I had one article published by The Sociological Review and one accepted for publication in the International Studies in Sociology of Education.


Working towards reviewers’ comments with a prospect of getting it accepted is a hard process, but at least it is hopeful and encouraging. How about when you get rejections? When my articles got rejected, I was of course very sad. After some recovery time (usually a week or two), I started to plan the way forward. Today I want to share with you two such examples of rejections and the subsequent publications.

The first is my article published in The Sociological Review. It was submitted to Sociology in July 2016 and rejected in October 2016. Despite the rejection, the reviewers’ feedback was extremely helpful. Then I did not have time to work on it until the following year as I was settling into my new lectureship job at Keele University. I did some follow up research between December 2016 and January 2017, and almost completely rewrote the paper and submitted it to The Sociological Review in May 2017. This time all the three reviewers were very positive about the article, so there were only some minor revisions and it was accepted on 22 August. The initial rejection was very disheartening. But I do appreciate the editor at Sociology’s encouraging words and the reviewers’ feedback. What I have learned from this process is that I should not take the rejection personally, but to benefit from the reviewers’ feedback and make it work for my next publication.

However, the next example I am going to share with you is somewhat different—in that no reviewers’ feedback was provided. This is my article that has been accepted for publication in International Studies in Sociology of Education, to be published in mid-2018.  This one was initially submitted to The China Quarterly on 19 Aug 2016 and was rejected on 2 Sept 2016. It was a desk rejection. The editors explained that they had received a few articles on similar topics and were not interested in such articles any more. Although disheartened, I quickly revised the format and sent it to The Journal of Contemporary China on 17 September, which was then rejected on 29 September 2016. This time it was desk rejection again and no feedback was provided whatsoever.  Because there was no reviewers’ feedback, there was little way to go about it. I then conducted a follow-up phase of the study and collected further data. Meanwhile, I sent the rejected article to another critical friend who came back with a heap of helpful suggestions. Then I substantially revised the paper by drawing on new data and theoretical tools and submitted this to the International Studies in Sociology of Education.

This time there were three rounds of reviewers’ feedback and revisions. It took a lot of patience and one lesson that I learned was ‘Haste makes waste’. In the second round of revision, I hurried to provide a revision within three days, only to receive further revision requests that were mainly stemmed from my hasty changes made. This is also to do with the fact that English is not my first language. In the third round of revision, I took time to deliberate on my expressions and invited native English speakers to comment on my changes. The article was eventually accepted in December 2017. What I have learned in this process is that when there is no feedback it is quite important to be critical of your own work, but never give up or abandon your ideas altogether.

Cora presenting at BERA-BAICE Writing for Publication Workshop. Photo credit: Yuwei Xu

Non-native English writers

Throughout my publication trajectory thus far, I have been battling with the challenges of being a non-native English writer. Well, the good news is that academic English is nobody’s native tongue. It is a completely new set of convention and linguistic practices that everybody has to consciously acquire. Still, not being a native English speaker does not help. This is of course spoken with the knowledge that at university I was an English major student and I in fact taught English as a second language at secondary schools in Hong Kong. In other words, my English proficiency is not too bad to begin with. However, my social background means that I did not grow up in a household full of books and I had not read extensively. As a result, it has never been my strong suit to use big, intelligent and elegant words in my writing. Instead, I have found personally that clarity is key. Making my texts easily understandable not only allows the editors and reviewers to engage with my work, but it also forces me to confront with my ideas in a straightforward manner. If an idea cannot be expressed in plain and simple language, then perhaps it is not well formulated enough. Of course, striving for clarity is not easy. This is where peer feedback has been instrumental. For every manuscript that I send for peer reviews, I ensure that I get critical feedback from at least two or three peer authors. Over these years, I have cultivated a group of critical friends with whom I share my writing and get feedback from. Of course, I strive as much as possible to reciprocate such favours. As I am a second language speaker, I also always ensure that before I submit a manuscript, I get professional proofreading services. This seems to work quite well. Lastly, it always helps to believe that I can. I keep telling myself that ‘I can do it’ every day and every time I face a difficult task or a harsh remark.

As early career academics we are operating within an increasingly challenging environment. Performance indicators and managerial measurements can so readily creep in our everyday work and subconsciousness in harmful ways. Rejections, therefore, can be detrimental if not handled properly. The purpose of this post therefore, is to show that although rejections are BAD, if you adapt and persist, IT IS STILL POSSIBLE TO PUBLISH, even if English is not your native tongue!



Dr Cora Lingling Xu (PhD, Cambridge, FHEA) is Lecturer in Education at Keele University, UK. She is an editorial board member of British Journal of Sociology of Education and editorial team member of on_education: Journal for Research and Debate. In 2017, Cora founded the Network for Research into Chinese Education Mobilities. Cora has published in international peer-reviewed journals, including British Journal of Sociology of Education, The Sociological Review, International Studies in Sociology of Education, European Educational Research Journal and Journal of Current Chinese Affairs. Her research interests include Bourdieu’s theory of practice, education mobilities and inequalities, as well as China studies. She can be reached at, via Twitter @CoraLingling Xu, on and ResearchGate.

中文摘要-Church Participation as Intercultural Encounter in the Experiences of Chinese International Students in the UK

随着国际学生的不断增加,学生流动方面的研究主要集中于跨文化教育以及社会融入。本研究探索了在英中国留学生(非基督徒)参与教堂文化活动的社会现象。该研究采用多种研究方法,包括:问卷,半结构式深入访谈,参与观察以及文献分析,深入分析了基督教堂与中国留学生互动交流的原因,目的,以及影响。该研究还探索了西方基督教文化和中国学生的宗教文化背景,揭露了英国基督教堂对中国学生战略性传教活动以及拓展中国基督教市场的愿景。研究分析指出,国际学生与当地环境的社会联结以及互动平台的性质对学生跨文化适应以及个人成长发挥重要影响。 除了解释学生参与教堂活动背后的动态机制,该研究认为,大量中国学生涌入英国校园(特别是商学院)限制了学生多元文化交流。从某种意义上来说,教堂的一系列针对中国学生的文化活动提供了更多(相较于大学校园)的社会融入与垮文化参与的机会,大学需采取措施在多元文化的校园环境下推动切实有效的跨文化融合与交流。

Church Participation as Intercultural Encounter in the Experiences of Chinese International Students in the UK

Yu, Y., & Moskal, M. (2018). Missing intercultural engagements in the university experiences of Chinese international students in the UK. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education. doi: 10.1080/03057925.2018.1448259

Yun Yu

Dr Yun Yu


East China Normal University, China


Abstract 中文摘要

The recent flourishing of student mobility has seeded a booming research area in intercultural education and integration, as more and more students engage in this migratory trend. This project is a mixed-method analysis of church participation as a direct intercultural encounter in the experiences of non-Christian Chinese international students in the UK. The study employs survey, semi-structured in-depth interviews, participant observation, and document analysis as research methods to investigate the intentions behind and purposes of the intercultural engagement between churches and non-Christian Chinese students. The study also presents the western culture, Christianity, as well as the cultural/religious background of Chinese students, and highlights Christian ambitions and missionary strategies (working model) towards non-Christian international students. The findings indicate that social connections with the host environment and the nature of organisation play a significant role in the cross-cultural adaptation and individual development of international students. Besides offering an explanation for the mechanism behind the students’ church participation, the findings also indicate that the overwhelming Chinese students (especially in Business Schools) constrain their intercultural communication within the campus. Therefore, to some extent, it is the churches rather than the university facilitates the intercultural engagement for international students.


随着国际学生的不断增加,学生流动方面的研究主要集中于跨文化教育以及社会融入。本研究探索了在英中国留学生(非基督徒)参与教堂文化活动的社会现象。该研究采用多种研究方法,包括:问卷,半结构式深入访谈,参与观察以及文献分析,深入分析了基督教堂与中国留学生互动交流的原因,目的,以及影响。该研究还探索了西方基督教文化和中国学生的宗教文化背景,揭露了英国基督教堂对中国学生战略性传教活动以及拓展中国基督教市场的愿景。研究分析指出,国际学生与当地环境的社会联结以及互动平台的性质对学生跨文化适应以及个人成长发挥重要影响。 除了解释学生参与教堂活动背后的动态机制,该研究认为,大量中国学生涌入英国校园(特别是商学院)限制了学生多元文化交流。从某种意义上来说,教堂的一系列针对中国学生的文化活动提供了更多(相较于大学校园)的社会融入与垮文化参与的机会,大学需采取措施在多元文化的校园环境下推动切实有效的跨文化融合与交流。

This study focuses on intercultural encounters and engagement in the cross-cultural experience of international students. It investigates the cultural experience of Chinese students in and around religious organisations in the UK. At a general level, it explores the role of intercultural encounters and interaction in students’ overseas experiences; at an individual level, it examines in detail the intentions, the processes, and the influences of church participation on Chinese international students; and at the organisational level, the study analyses the motivations and missionary model of faith-based organisations through the social support they offer to the international Christian community.

The study aims to address the overarching research question: What is the role of Christian churches in the intercultural experiences of Chinese international students in the UK?  There are five sub-questions further developed from both student and church perspectives to comprehensively explore the main issue: 1) Why do non-Christian Chinese students choose to go to churches after they arrive in the UK? 2) Do Christian churches serve as a medium of intercultural encounter for Chinese international students?  How do they serve? 3) What is the institutional motivation of the Christian community for attracting international students, especially Chinese students? 4) What are the Christian churches’ strategies in working with Chinese international students? 5) What and why is more important for students, religious or intercultural experience?

In order to answer the above questions, the present study used a combination of survey, participant observation, semi-structured in-depth interview, and document analysis methods. The fieldwork took place in two Christian churches located in the area of an established university campus in the UK. In total, 501 Chinese Master’s students of the university completed the survey, of whom 15 students who were frequent churchgoers were invited to take part in semi-structured in-depth interviews. In addition, five Christian church representatives were interviewed, including group leaders and volunteers with different responsibilities in the international groups.

The study finds that, church participation as a form of cultural engagement was not an accidental choice for the Chinese international students. Instead, it is related to the students’ considerations of and negotiations with the challenging host environment. Expectation gaps (such as the language barrier), constrained intercultural communication within universities, public discrimination, and loneliness, all occurred simultaneously at the beginning of their intercultural interaction in the campus-based university. The students’ need for language practice, a social network, and cultural knowledge, together with their motivation to engage with the local community pushed them to seek broader social contact to obtain the resources required to complete the adaptation process. Church participation for Chinese students seemed to be a mark of desperation in their pursuit of interaction with natives outside of the university, since their courses and the university provided so little opportunity due to the high numbers of students there from China. Therefore, the cultural interactions around the Christian churches responded in a supportive way to fill the gaps and meet the needs of Chinese students.

Interaction between the churches and the non-Christian Chinese students took place on common ground but with divergent ultimate goals. Showing mutual understanding of and tolerance towards each other, both sides worked together and actively communicated in the Christian community. In terms of their divergent ultimate goals yet clear mutual understanding, on the one hand, the needs of the Chinese students in the adaptation process made it possible for the churches to organise social events in order to attract students. However, on the other hand, most Chinese students tended to be indifferent to the mission orientation of the churches and instead concentrated on the social support that was helpful to them. Therefore, for the Chinese students, church participation had more of an intercultural than a religious meaning. Nevertheless, although it was simply a kind of intercultural experience for the majority, for a few of them it brought religious transformation.

This study establishes that the nature of the organisation in the host country has a profound influence on intercultural interaction and engagement for international students, and highlights the potential effects on behaviours and values after religious communication and interaction have taken place. It identifies the social connections with the host environment and organisational factors that play a significant role in the cross-cultural adaptation of international students. It contributes to an understanding about the diversity of intercultural encounters in a meaningful sense, and uncovers the essence of individual interactions and social integration in the cross-cultural interaction.

On a practical level, the study reveals the problem of university involvement for international students. The findings emphasise the needs of international students particularly in terms of cultural engagement and involvement within the campus-based university and calls for UK universities to consider ways to establish an inclusive atmosphere in the international education they claim to be offering. It also emphasises how the acceptance of host nationals and inclusion in social activities bring a sense of belonging for international students in the host country. Meaningful intercultural contact and learning depends on a multicultural environment, the facilitation by institutions, and the students’ motivation to engage. Facilitating intercultural communication requires considerable effort to nurture intercultural competency and provide sufficient and meaningful intercultural encounters.



Dr. Yun Yu is Post-doc researcher in Faculty of Education, East China Normal University (ECNU), China. Her research interest is around international and comparative education, social mobility, cross-cultural adaptation, intercultural engagement and inclusion. She is the author of Missing Intercultural Engagements in the University Experiences of Chinese International Students in the UK (Yu and Moskal, 2018).

Her prior research in doctorate study was Church Participation as Intercultural Encounter in the Experiences of Chinese International Students in the UK. If you have any enquires, please contact

Author Guidelines for Research Highlights Reports

Interested in publishing your research in our Research Highlights section? Here are a few guidelines.

The editorial team

This section is managed by a team of scholars based in different parts of the world.

Dr Cora Lingling Xu (Keele University, UK) Editor-in-Chief

Dr Jean Michel Montsion, (York University, Canada) Editor

Dr Mengwei Tu (East China University of Science and Technology, China) Editor

Ms Kris Lee (University of Oxford, UK) Editor


Submission policy

Both emerging and established researchers working the field of Chinese education mobilities are welcome to make a submission. The editors will occasionally consider guests post from other members of the public.

The editorial team invites submissions of around 800-1,200 words on latest research publications and projects in any area of Chinese education mobilities. Proposals and outlines for possible reports are particularly welcome; the role of the editorial team is to provide support and feedback for ideas in any stage of development.

Articles should be well informed, accessible and written in a natural tone.  Submissions must use inclusive and non-derogatory language and may not contain profane, obscene, rude, or illegal material. Authors are responsible for ensuring their work does not violate intellectual property rights. Promotions of goods, services, or financial appeals will not be considered.

Other forms of media such as photos, drawings, or videos are also welcome. In such cases, the editors may recommend including written descriptions or explanations to increase accessibility of the content.


Contributing to the Research Highlights section

Those wishing to submit a report to the Network should contact the editors at with a proposal or a completed article. Complete submissions should be about 800 – 1,200 words long and should be sent in Microsoft Word format, with your name in document name. Documents should follow basic APAformatting (i.e. Times New Roman typeface, size 12, 1.5 spacing). A picture of the author, institutional and/or research profile links should be included. Author’s short bios of no more than 100 words should be attached too. Links to other sources such as reports, research, resources, news, academic groups may be included.

Following submission, the editorial team aims to provide prompt feedback and revisions, usually within a fortnight. Authors then have the opportunity to make revisions before agreeing on a final version with an editor.

The editors will keep the author informed about the estimated date of publication. After publication, the author may make additional minor changes if warranted. Unless otherwise noted, articles remain sole copyright of their respective author(s).

中文摘要 Compromise and complicity in international student mobility: the ethnographic case of Indian medical students at a Chinese university


目前关于国际学生流动的学术文献通常透过社会学家布迪厄的理论视角,将流动阐释为社会优势阶层通过资本转化从而达到优势再生的一种手段。这个分析视角既是基于对学生流动的一种理性化阐释,同时也强化了这种理性阐释的主流地位。然而,若将视线转移至当前亚洲区域内的非”精英”学生流动趋势,主流分析视角所不能解释的一些教育相关的社会行为逻辑则被凸显了出来,从而成为推动国际学生流动理论的契机。本文对家境并非优越的印度学生在中国某高校攻读英文授课临床医学的案例进行观察。通过民族志方法,本文描述并分析此案例中不同角色 ——个人、机构、制度——是如何在社会劣势与资源不足的情况下,通过“妥协”与“共识”两种行为逻辑来尽可能实现他们各自的个人以及机构目的。


Yang, P. (2018). Compromise and complicity in international student mobility: the ethnographic case of Indian medical students at a Chinese university. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education.

Compromise and complicity in international student mobility: the ethnographic case of Indian medical students at a Chinese university

Yang, P. (2018). Compromise and complicity in international student mobility: the ethnographic case of Indian medical students at a Chinese university. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education.

PD Yang

Author during field trip in India, January 2016


Peidong Yang

National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore


Abstract (中文摘要

Existing scholarship on international student mobility (ISM) often draws on Bourdieu to interpret such mobility as a strategy of capital conversion used by privileged classes to reproduce their social advantage. This perspective stems from and also reinforces a rationalistic interpretation of student mobility. A shift of focus to interAsian educational mobilities involving non-elite individuals and institutions can reveal logics of behavior and of social interaction that are at discrepancy with the dominant perspective, thereby advancing the theorization of educational mobilities. This paper examines a case of Indian youths of less affluent backgrounds pursuing English-medium medical degrees (MBBS) at a provincial university in China. Through ethnography, the paper illustrates how various parties – individual, organizational and institutional – to this somewhat ‘unlikely’ project of knowledge mobility follow the discrepant logics of compromise and complicity to seek to realize their educational desires, social aspirations, and organizational objectives amidst realities of class disadvantage and resource inadequacy.



目前关于国际学生流动的学术文献通常透过社会学家布迪厄的理论视角,将流动阐释为社会优势阶层通过资本转化从而达到优势再生的一种手段。这个分析视角既是基于对学生流动的一种理性化阐释,同时也强化了这种理性阐释的主流地位。然而,若将视线转移至当前亚洲区域内的非”精英”学生流动趋势,主流分析视角所不能解释的一些教育相关的社会行为逻辑则被凸显了出来,从而成为推动国际学生流动理论的契机。本文对家境并非优越的印度学生在中国某高校攻读英文授课临床医学的案例进行观察。通过民族志方法,本文描述并分析此案例中不同角色 ——个人、机构、制度——是如何在社会劣势与资源不足的情况下,通过“妥协”与“共识”两种行为逻辑来尽可能实现他们各自的个人以及机构目的。


This article examines a thus-far little-known and arguably ‘unlikely’ case of international student mobility (ISM): Indian youths of less affluent backgrounds pursuing English-medium undergraduate medical education (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery, or MBBS) in China.

Indian students started heading to China for MBBS in their ‘hundreds’ since early 2000s (Aiyar, 2006). As of 2015, the majority of the 16,694 Indian students in China (CAFSA, 2016) can be assumed to be on MBBS programmes, although no precise statistics seems available. Students from India are very likely the largest single-nationality group among foreign students pursuing English-medium MBBS in China. In recent years, China has also become the top destination for Indian students seeking medical training abroad (Mishra, 2012).

Prevailing theorization of ISM tends to employ a Bourdieusian theoretical framework and assumes mobility to be ‘overwhelmingly pursued by privileged individuals’ (Waters, Brooks, & Pimlott-Wilson, 2011, p. 460). The underlying logic of ISM, according to this dominant perspective, is about using study-abroad as a ‘social alchemy’ to realize the conversion between economic, social and cultural capitals, thus ultimately to reproduce class advantage.

The case of Indian MBBS students in China raises numerous points of discrepancy with this prevailing narrative. Most Indian students I encountered during my fieldwork at a provincial university (pseudonym ‘CNU’) in southeastern China came from non-affluent families in small-town or rural India. They belong to the emergent lower middle classes in India, with little true class advantage or ‘eliteness’ to speak of. Their destination – Chinese provincial capital city ‘CN’ – lies outside the coveted global spheres of elite knowledge production and circulation. There was also limited evidence that their India-to-China mobility would eventually generate any meaningful ‘cultural capital’ for them.

Thus, my paper sets out to understand and articulate the logics or rationalities underpinning such a ‘discrepant’ case of ISM. In a nutshell, I argue that the mundane thought processes, decision making, behavioral patterns, and social interactions of the various parties to this case can be understood in terms of what I call the logics of compromise and complicity.

The study is based on three short but intensive ethnographic fieldtrips conducted in China and Indian over 2014-2016.



The term ‘compromise’ captures the very preconditions of this case of ISM, which in turn underpin various actors’ behaviours.

With government-subsidized public medical schools being extremely competitive while the private alternative extremely expensive, coming to CNU, China for MBBS could be understood primarily as a compromise made by a group of Indian doctor-aspirants who are academically as well as financially excluded from medical education in India.

One manifestation of this state of compromise was the manner in which my Indian informants and their parents settled upon the destination country and institution for study. Contrary to an informed, calculative and careful decision-making process that a rationalistic interpretation of ISM tends to portray, my informants’ choices were often made in a haphazard way, shaped by elements of chance and contingency. Many of them admitted to having, to greater or lesser extent, made ‘blind choices’ when deciding upon coming to China for MBBS, and in choosing institutions.

On the other hand, it was found that CNU’s international MBBS programme suffered from serious issues with regard to admission screening and programme quality. In my ethnographic field trips and interactions with the Indian students, I encountered multiple instances – some of which rather unsettling – that indicate this provincial Chinese university’s own compromised situation as an educational provider.

In short, for tuition fee revenue and supposed prestige of ‘internationalization’, CNU compromised its admission standards to accept Indian students (among other nationalities) who were themselves operating on a logic of compromise due to their own lack of choice. Meanwhile, owing to resource inadequacy and lack of preparedness, CNU was only able to offer an education of clearly compromised quality.



In his work on rural China, social anthropologist Steinmüller’s (2010) defines a ‘community of complicity’ as one characterized by shared embarrassing (self-)knowledge. He argues that the sharing of embarrassing (self-)knowledge reaffirms a sense of community membership and sociality amidst contradictions and social tensions.

Borrowing this anthropological notion of complicity, I argue that the various parties to the India-to-China MBBS project at CNU can be regarded as forming a community of complicity of sorts. Here, complicity entails embarrassment that is mutually known, but unspoken to preserve the veneer of normalcy and respectability. Its ultimate aim is mutual accommodation and conflict avoidance.

Ethnographically, I show how complicity exists between the Indian students and CNU; between the students and their parents; and between the students and the educational intermediaries that facilitated their mobility.

Between the Indian MBBS students and CNU, complicity manifests in a mutual silence about each other’s compromises, which serves to sustain this otherwise precarious educational project. Put bluntly, the Indian students refrain from complaining about CNU’s problematic programme because they are acutely aware of their own lack of choice. On the other hand, equally conscious of their mediocre institutional standing and resources and the lack of readiness in running medical education in English, CNU sometimes uses measures such as leaking exam questions to help students progress in their studies instead of insisting on academic rigour. Maintaining this mutual complicitous silence helped both parties avoid situations of awkwardness and potential conflict where both parties could be greatly embarrassed or indeed provoked should their respective compromises be exposed.

Between the students and their parents, complicity manifests in a mutual silence and a lack of communication about the problematic realities of their MBBS programme in CNU China. Such a silence or lack of communication is difficult to comprehend considering that parents have invested heavily into the students’ education despite humble family socioeconomic circumstances. Drawing on Jakimow (2016), my interpretation in this paper is that the Indian students and their parents are locked in a complicitous relationship vis-à-vis each other so as to preserve the appearance that each is fulfilling their moral obligations to the other. This precarious mutual performances of moral duties – for parents to give their children a chance at social mobility by sponsoring their education and for children to study hard to realize that social mobility by becoming doctors – could only be preserved in this case through a complicitous silence about what actual went on in the programmes at CNU.

Finally, between the students and the educational intermediaries, complicity manifests in the otherwise surprising ways in which the problematic reality of the India-to-China MBBS programme never seemed to affect a cordial – sometimes even familial – relationship between the two parties. Their relationship seems far from a legalistic one between the customer and the service provider where the paying customer supposedly has the upper hand. It is argued, the students (and their parents) can be regarded as somewhat complicitous in their weak position vis-à-vis the intermediaries, thus allowing the latter to profit from their compromises.



The paper does not suggest that compromise and complicity are logics unique or exclusive to this case study. Arguably, elements of compromise and complicity are present in all forms of educational choices. In this account, however, they are so central as to warrant theorization on their own. Compromise and complicity may seem nothing more than matters of pragmatism. However, in this paper, I have chosen to interpret them as ingenious solutions devised by social actors who try to materialize their educational desires, social aspirations and organizational objectives amidst realities of class disadvantage and resource inadequacy.



Aiyar, P. (2006). Made in China Indian doctors.   Retrieved from

CAFSA. (China Association for International Education). (2016). Statistics for international students in China 2015.   Retrieved from

Jakimow, T. (2016). Clinging to hope through education: The consequences of hope for rural labourers in Telangana, India. ETHOS, 44(1), 11–31.

Mishra, A. (2012). China has become preferred destination for medical education.   Retrieved from

Steinmüller, H. (2010). Communities of complicity: Notes on state formation and local sociality in rural China. American Ethnologist, 37(3), 539–549.

Waters, J., Brooks, R., & Pimlott-Wilson, H. (2011). Youthful escapes? British students, overseas education and the pursuit of happiness. Social & Cultural Geography, 12(5), 455–469.



Peidong Yang (DPhil, Oxford) is a Lecturer in Humanities and Social Studies Education at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore. His research interests are located at the intersections between education, migration/mobility, and media. Past and present research projects include Singapore’s “foreign talent” policy in relation to Chinese students’ international mobility; immigration tensions and immigrant integration in Singapore; Indian medical students in China; and cultural analysis of (online) media memes in contemporary China. He is the author of International Mobility and Educational Desire: Chinese Foreign Talent Students in Singapore (Palgrave, 2016) and more than a dozen international peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters. At NIE Singapore, he teaches courses on identity, globalization, and sociology of education to student teachers.