This study asked broad questions about how and why talented individuals from around the world imagine and choose to pursue doctoral education in a particular location (the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada), their experiences as international doctoral students in constructing and navigating their lives and studies in place and space, and their imagined careers, accomplishments, responsibilities and locations as they emerge from formal education with its apex of achievement.
These trajectories into, through and beyond doctoral education were viewed through the lens of globalization theory and theories of capital with the purpose of understanding further how the phenomena associated with globalizing and networked social fields (including higher education, research, policy, work and migration) are reflected in student purposes, imaginations, choices and experiences. A case-study design focusing on a single institution and a multiple, embedded case research method which analyzed personal narratives were used.
The study found that international doctoral students pursue PhDs with many purposes in mind, some of which reflect dominant policy and institutional discourses of purpose for doctoral education (such as human capital development, career preparation and knowledge production).
However, students were also found to utilize doctoral education abroad as a mechanism for building less theorized forms of capital, for contributing to social good, and for pursuing sometimes surprising private purposes. Their experiences in first becoming and then navigating life as international graduate students demonstrated immersion and engagement in the attributes of deeply globalized societies, including networked technologies, high levels of mobility, globalized fields of education, research and work, and transnational spaces in which borders and identities become more fluid.
The growing global embrace of neoliberal, market-based ideologies infiltrated student experience and imagined careers in nuanced ways. However, while large-scale forces of globalization clearly shape international doctoral student trajectories, these forces are not homogenizing nor fully controlling of student experiences. Students navigate these forces with agency and strategy within their personal ranges of motion, and offer a multiplicity of narratives and trajectories that counter any singular notion of the “international doctoral student”. Implications for doctoral education, public policy, and further research are advanced.