by Mark Bennett
, posted on 9 Oct '19

What do International PhD Students Want? – Insights from the 2019 PhD Study Survey

Our 2019 PhD Study Survey includes the views of over 1,000 prospective doctoral students from across our unique FindAPhD audience. In this teaser blog we're looking specifically at people who may be considering a PhD abroad.

The best PhD work is made possible by a unique combination of resources, facilities and expertise. And, sometimes, the right mix simply isn't available in a student's home country.

This helps explain why a far greater proportion of people opt to study abroad at PhD level, with the latest OECD figures indicating that 22% of enrolments in doctoral programmes are international students (vs just 4% at undergraduate level).

Our 2019 PhD Study Survey can help you understand what those students are looking for – and how. By examining international students' responses and comparing them to those of UK students looking to study domestically we can gain an insight into the views of mobile PhD students.

Who are international PhD students?

It makes sense for prospective PhD students to be older, but this is particularly true for internationally mobile students. More than 80% of those looking for a PhD abroad are aged 25 or older (that's compared to only 66% for domestic students in the UK).

These potentially mobile PhD students are also more likely to be returners, with only 37% currently studying a Bachelors or Masters (vs 47% for domestic UK students).

One rather obvious takeaway from this is that international marketing for graduate schools and PhD programmes shouldn't be restricted to current 'undergraduate age' students. Inbound marketing via platforms such as FindAPhD may appeal to more pro-active information seekers and considerers.

What motivates people to study a PhD abroad?

The strongest motivation for PhD study overall is a student's interest in their subject and topic – there's little distinction between 'mobile' and 'domestic' students here.

Other factors do stand out for international students, however. These include the desire for an academic career, which is a 'very influential' motivation for 61% of international students (vs 41% of domestic UK students). Those considering a PhD abroad are also much more interested in transferable skills and in improving their earnings; these are 'very influential' motivations for 71% and 49% respectively.

The logical takeaway from this is that prospective international students are highly motivated by more specific outcomes. This makes sense for students who are literally willing to go the extra mile for their PhD. Universities can appeal to this interest by focussing on specific opportunities and outcomes within their doctoral programmes – and identifying these as differentiating factors.

What do international PhD students expect?

People considering a PhD abroad have relatively high expectations of universities. In particular, they are much more likely to desire regular supervision, with 59% of potentially mobile students expecting weekly meetings with their supervisor (vs 32% for domestic UK students).

This audience is also more sensitive to potential supervisors' reputation and experience. Roughly 75% rate a supervisor's academic expertise as 'very important' whilst 70% are equally concerned with academics' previous supervisory experience. Both of these proportions are ten percentage points higher than for domestic UK students.

Finally, international students are more likely to consult rankings when choosing a university for PhD study: 46% regard these as 'very important' and only 14% would discount rankings alltogether.

These findings make sense for students who are willing to explore a global marketplace for PhD research. The obvious takeaway is that universities will need to highlight the quality of their programmes and academic staff in order to compete for more discerning international research students.

Watch this space

As an attempt to really understand the motivations, expectations and concerns of prospective doctoral students, our PhD Study Survey is the first of its kind. We'll be producing more useful content based on the results, with additional insights for institutions seeking to enhance their postgraduate recruitment.

If you want to be among the first to hear about our full report, simply drop us an email.