By Ly Pham (2014)

I was invited to attend a Ph.D. conference which was held at Southern Cross University in Australia on July 17, 2014 which included participants from three universities: University of Melbourne, Queensland University of Technology and Southern Cross University.  Most of the Ph.D. students attending were Vietnamese and one was from Laos and another was from Indonesia. All of the students are pursuing higher education studies. They were requested to present their initial research findings and share their experiences while studying in Australia.

The students chose topics for research that were quite diverse. They ranged from teaching English, educational history, assessment, university management, etc. These are familiar themes, however, they are also new topics not widely known in a country with such as disciplinary culture or academic identity of the professionals. All presenters addressed their research questions, conceptual framework, methodologies, and initial findings. Several students had just begun their journey in the last few months, others had studied one, two, or three years and one had just completed his/her studies. Although the total of their experiences varied and many of the students were still struggling with adapting to living abroad, especially the ones with family, all of them were excited to present the work they were pursuing.

There was a high consensus on one subject between all the professors and Ph. D. students attending the conference which was pursuing a Ph.D. training program and completing a thesis. That is indeed challenging work, however, it is also an enjoyable period of life. Lan Hương, who had just completed her Ph. D. studies and her thesis on research-capacity building in Vietnamese leading universities, shared the two things that challenged her the most; they understanding the nature of doing research and being able to understand and apply the concept of critical thinking in a Western academic environment. These are also the same challenges most Vietnamese Ph.D. students experience when entering an environment much different from the one in their home country.

There may be a consensus in terms of the quality of Ph.D. training programs in Vietnam which are seen as lagging far behind developed countries. The ability of mastering a foreign language to be able to access updated knowledge is a crucial factor, however, it is a determinant. Nowadays with an internet-connected computer one can easily learn a foreign language and have access to such resources without physically existence abroad.

The ;most important aspect, which makes a difference, is the research environment.  Research environment in a broad sense includes several factors such as government policies, a legal framework to the research activities, civil society maturity, social capital, financial and physical resources, infrastructure such as laboratories and libraries; quality assurances schemes, accreditation and accountability; funding and collaboration v.v. (Altbach and Salmi, 2013).. In a narrower sense, a research environment is the climate of the relationships in which research activities are undertaken, including collaboration and connections with colleagues, peer review, academic leadership and management, mentors support, and the level of autonomy of the researchers.

A Ph.D. conference to be held by Southern Cross University (SCU) is a kind of academic activity reflecting the characteristics of the research academic environment in Australia. The conference will show how important maintaining of a supportive environment is such as opening toward differences, tolerance towards experimental efforts, but being strict in terms of academic norms and standards, and having a sense of challenging the existing knowledge, ready to be challenged toward our own arguments, available for discussion and participating discussion constructively.

Luong Thi Hong Gam, who is funded by a 322 program and has spent 3 years in Ph.D. training in Australia, said that she was very fortunate to be in SCU, where she is well-instructed to  the research methodology knowledge in developed countries. From that she got to know about various research approaches and about the Ontology, epistemology, Theoretical perspective, methodology and methods, and these things must be aligned and be clarified in her research investigation which is absolutely different with what she did before in Vietnam. She also understand that doing research means to build your argument. Furthermore, her supervisors inspire her the love of doing research and help her to understand the real values of what she is doing. Sometimes, Gam was in hard situations and want to give up; however, her supervisors are always beside her, believe in her and give her positive feedback. Their positive and constructive feedback keep Gam doing research in a right track and building her confidence

For Vu Thị Phuong Thao, her most interesting experience was to participate in a high level of academic work, that was preparing a book that will be published this coming September (Higher education in Vietnam: Flexibility, mobility and practicality in the global knowledge economy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan). During a year, the team led by Prof. Simon Marginsonhave met every month to discuss and review each chapter. Participating in writing a book from the beginning stages until it is done, is a valuable experience for Thao.

Thao was able to do that, because she is immersing in a research environment in which intellectual activities are constantly challenged in order to survive. The Center for Higher Education Study at the University of Melbourne where she has been undertaken a Ph.D. training program holds a conference every six months for Ph.D. students to present their studies and having them reviewed by others. The Center also invites well-known scholars or well-established faculty members to give lectures every month for Ph.D. students. Every two weeks, Ph.D. students are required to meet to present their research or to discuss any matter of concern. It is easy for them to ask for advice from faculty members about problems they are facing during research.

The Ph.D. conference is held as a way to build up the network between Vietnamese Ph.D. students who share the same cultural origin, the same educational background, and share a dream for the future.  Challenges they are facing are also the same, so they are able to support each other to overcome the hardships.

Talking to the students, Professor Lynn Meek advised them to enjoy the pleasantries of this stage of life, as it would be an invaluable experience in their lifetime. Associate Professor Sharon Parry also pointed out that pursuing Ph.D. training program only for a degree would be not as worthy because without a passion for doing research, this journey would be so hard to bear.

The research environment in Australia, reflecting in formal or informal norms and procedures, in leadership and faculty members behaviors, is the one providing sufficient conditions for doing research, but it is highly demanding, through which it supports excellence, creates progress, and helps people in moving forward.

Several researchers (e.g. Long and McGinnis, 1981, McGee and Ford, 1987, Perkoff, 1986, Bland, Hitchkock, Anderson and Stritter, 1987) pointed out that the characteristics of a research environment is the most important predictor for research productivity undertaken within an organization.

Research environment is determined by characteristics of the leadership and management (development strategies, using resources and evaluation the outcomes…); governing and operation structure (level of decentralization and empowerment, the autonomy of research team or individuals…); the micro climate within research group (designation, collaboration, the openness and ready for constructive discussion, etc.), and characteristics of individuals who make up the organization.

This is a crucial element if not to say the most important factor of a Ph.D. training program which determines that qualified Ph.D. training programs are not able to deliver by only online or off campus study. It shows the fact that if we wish to improve the quality of Ph.D. training in Vietnam, building up a constructive, encouraged, supportive and demanding research environment would be the greatest concern. With a digital library, nowadays many Vietnamese universities are able to provide faculty members and students access to updated knowledge in the world. Library, material resources are crucial, but they cannot create new knowledge by themselves. How to use such resources, what to create, and what it means to society, are the things that matter. It is difficult to improve the quality of research and Ph.D. training programs without a positive research environment.