Sunday, August 12, 2012

Tips for new Indonesian scholars/students heading to Australia (or other developed countries)

 About two weeks ago, I was invited by AusAID Indonesia to give a talk to about 50 Indonesian scholars who would head to Australia in a few months’ time for their study under the AusAID awards schemes. I had fun with them, exchanging quite a lot of information and discussing many things, such that I think I should write down the main points of our discussions for future Indonesian scholars. 

Being a former student under the Australian Development Scholarship (Masters) and Australian Leadership Awards (PhD), I do have some tips to share. The tips particularly apply to studying in Australia, but I believe it is also applicable for studying in other developed countries (e.g. USA, UK, New Zealand, Canada and European countries). The tips are meant for general life as a student, and not as a pre-departure package (for that, contact your AusAID officer or other liaison officer). The tips are as follows:

General study

With all due respect to tertiary education in Indonesia in general, many potential students received a cultural shock when they arrived in an Australian university. Students of masters by coursework will have much more home works to do every week, such that they have to juggle their social life and study obligations skilfully lest they fail in the assignments and exams. Indonesian students might feel overwhelmed by the level of activities during classroom discussions. It can be very active, almost akin to watching a Wimbledon tennis match at times, and shy students will feel like they’re sinking deeper into their chairs as they found no strength to utter a word, let alone their opinions in entirety. The problem can be exaggerated by the fact that Australian students don’t usually raise their hands to seek permission to talk. No, they just jump into the conversation wagon, picking up from what was left behind by another student two seconds ago, or even interjecting it in the middle. I used to feel so stupid for not being able to offer some thoughts in the discussions, until I braved myself and just jumped on the speeding wagon and fired up my points. 

Be active, and expect to work hard and smart. Like, also using half of your weekends (if you’re lucky) to study or work on assignments. In my opinion, students of masters by coursework are better off by taking a maximum of three full-semester mode subjects during the semester and one block mode subject during the semester break. More than that, you’re more than likely to break yourself. Work hard, but don’t ruin your health because of it.

Speaking of which, I think every university in Australia is equipped with its own counselling team. Visit them whenever you feel like you need objective but compassionate opinions and supports regarding your study, general life and even romantic life! These counsellors take relationships seriously.  I once met a student who opted to defer her exam because she had just broken her long term relationship and had to move out of their shared house. Her request was granted, and she looked better during the second exam.

Research & publication

Research students (Masters and – particularly – PhD) must organise their time in Australia meticulously. Generally, a research student will need to do at least two seminars in the course of their Masters/PhD life: 1) confirmation seminar, about six month into the candidature for PhD and 4 months for Masters; 2) exit seminar. Each university is different, so seek advice as soon as you are settled in your designated city. For James Cook University, it is advisable to conduct the exit seminar at least six months before you plan to submit the thesis. I know other universities like University of Queensland has three seminars before thesis submission. Again, check with your university and (most importantly) supervisor to know your detailed time table. The earlier, the better. 

If possible, write the chapters of your thesis in the form of papers. It took me only a day’s work to convert one paper to a chapter, and it saved me a lot of time to publish the results of my thesis in peer reviewed journals. Converting a paper into a chapter generally revolves around replacing ‘we’ with ‘I’, ‘paper’ with ‘thesis’ or ‘chapter’, moving the general introduction of the paper to the thesis’ introduction, etc. Contact me if you want more tips of how to convert a paper into a chapter.

Attempt to submit your thesis (be it Masters by coursework minor project, Masters by research, or PhD) before you return to your home country. Too many obstacles are there waiting for you once you arrive home; social, financial, etc. I submitted my masters thesis from Indonesia, about three months after I returned home, and it was not an easy journey. I tried much harder for my PhD, but still had to submit the thesis three weeks (instead of three months) after I returned home. However, the delay was to give me more time for the final layout and final English editing, instead of the content, so I wasn't beating myself because of it. See 'working' section below as well.

Also, attend general research skill seminars in your universities, as many as possible. My university has general seminars for the application of GIS in research, general statistics, general editing techniques and even how to optimise the use of your Microsoft Word. I’m certain other universities also have similar agenda. Visit your postgraduate research office or the like for further information.

Working or not working?

I won’t be Miss Popularity by suggesting this, but I sincerely and truly believe that an Indonesian student better use her/his time in Australia to study instead of gaining some monetary profit. I am not against students who work for extra money during their free time. I do, however, emphasize that ‘free’ is the operative word here. I believe one must not sacrifice their study time in the altar of personal (or familial) micro-finance. I’ve heard so many stories about international students not finishing on time (as in, handling the last assignment or thesis before they return to home country) because they are too busy improving their micro-finance situations. 

Here I have to reiterate that I, too, did not submit my thesis before I returned to Indonesia. I handed in the thesis three weeks after I arrived home. But the only thing that I still had to do was to clean up the layout and wait for the final (and I mean, really final) English proof, something that can be done in Indonesia and will not affect the essence of my work. I believe my supervisors would not allow me to submit my thesis from Indonesia had I not reached such a finishing state. So, I also handed in the thesis when I was already back home. But I did that not from the lack of trying to finish on time, nor because I was too busy working.

I’m not saying that improving the health of our bank account is not important. Having more money is certainly a plus, particularly when you’re a studying parent with two kids towed into Australia. But you’re sent to Australia to study and to return home with that piece of paper that stated that you are now ‘certified’. You’re not sent to Australia to improve your bank account. It would be great to have a healthy bank account while you’re in Australia, but please do that during holidays. Or if you really must work during the semester, please make sure that you don’t sacrifice your assignments, research or thesis for more income. Many Indonesians bring their spouse into the country; and the spouses are usually working for extra income. Let them do that for you; let them show their support by doing so. You stay in your library/lab/office/field work, doing exactly what you must do: writing assignments, collecting data, analysing data, and writing up your thesis/publications. Later, when you have completed your degree and return home, you can support your spouse in return. 

To me, by the end of the day, the presence of that piece of paper that stated that I am now truly certified, that I’m now Dr Mustika, is much more important than how much money I had when I returned home last year. Of course, I have to start beefing up my bank account as I arrive in Indonesia, but I do that gladly, knowing that I’ve completed my mission in Australia. Oh, and I have published two papers. Certainly not enough for an ARC standard, but at least I’m heading there (note to self: finish the boat paper).

General life in Australia

After living in North Queensland for more than seven years, I find that North Queenslanders are relaxed, rather laid back (but not lazy) people. They can be fun to hang around. Try to befriend more and more Australians during your stay there. If possible, reach out to the Aborigines and Torres Strait islanders too. After all, they are the native owners of the land.
My university has more than 5,800 international students (almost 30% of total JCU students), enough to make one realise of the cultural diversity on this planet. If possible, try not to share a house with another Indonesia. The advice has nothing to do with nationalism; it has all the things to do with learning new cultures and sharpening your English. Indonesians in Australia tend to flock together; there will be a gathering at least every semester (or even every three months), and you can always meet them at the university cafes if you want to curhat or vent out.

Do I have to bring [clothing iron /instant noodles/rice cooker?] 

No, no, and no. You can buy clothing iron, rice cooker and other household appliances at weekly garage sales, Lifeline, Salvation Army and others. Instant noodles are plentiful in any Australian supermarkets (particularly Woolworth and Coles). Don’t bother stocking them. Many cities/towns in Australia also have at least one Asian shop where bumbu pecel, sambal bajak etc can be bought at reasonable price. I’d say leave the precious room inside your luggage for very important books you might not be able to live without during your study.
On that subject, Fresh herbs/food is a big NO for the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS). Check their websites for further info. Better declare than getting caught and fined.


Australia is increasingly becoming a diverse country with diverse cultures. Entailed in this trend is increased places where you can dine or buy exotic (non Western) food. Those living in large or politically important cities (e.g., Brisbane, Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth…) can rest assure that there will always be at least a Malaysian or Thai restaurant in the central business district. As I said earlier, getting traditional Asian herbs is increasingly becoming an easy endeavour down under. The only thing I cannot find afresh in Townsville (or at least readily available) is tempe. That was why I became a tempe-monster during my data collection months in Indonesia…


Be grateful that you’re going down under! Not many people in Indonesia have the chance to do so. Be excited about new things that you’re going to learn there. And return home to Indonesia bringing new friendships and understanding that hopefully will shape this region into a better place to live. 

Pic: Myself in front of the Cairns campus of James Cook University, mid 2005

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