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From readjustment to performativity: A study of the experiences of returning international doctoral program graduates from Kazakhstan

Wed, April 17, 10:00 to 11:30am, Hyatt Regency, Floor: Pacific Concourse (Level -1), Pacific C


This paper explores the experiences of international Ph.D. holders from Kazakhstan, who were educated abroad and who are currently employed as faculty/researchers in universities at home. We try to understand how the individuals adapt to the life in Kazakhstan after an international stay. More specifically, we are looking at the process of their adaptation to the research environment in Kazakhstan as it relates to research capacity, defined as the ability of individuals to conduct meaningful, satisfying, productive, and impactful research. Two central research question of our paper are (1) How do returning scholars transition to the home-country context as scholars? and (2) Which factors shape the transition experience?

The study will enhance existing knowledge in the field of international higher education and research on the development of faculty research capacity in transitional contexts. Within research on internationalization, most attention is given to the analysis of the transition experiences of students, mostly undergraduates, who studied abroad (Szkudlarek, 2009). To a lesser extent the literature is concerned with the experiences of faculty (Szkudlarek, 2009). Studies of both types of population tend to be restricted to the Western context (Szkudlarek, 2009), where they represent the field of research on the short-term and long-term impact of study abroad. Much less attention is paid to the transition of students and faculty returning to home countries in the non-Western settings, post-Soviet settings in particular. Furthermore, little is known in the global inquiry about how the process of adaptation of returning scholars is related to research capacity.

Our study starts with an overview of the existing literature and a summary of key theories explaining transition experiences. These theories come from a variety of fields, including human resource management, international business, intercultural communication and organizational management. All view the process of adaptation as re-adjustment and assume that a returnee changes while being abroad and is focused on fitting interpersonal, organizational, professional and cultural context at home. Examples of relevant theoretical frameworks include: (1) Black et al.’s (1991) Expectancy Theory, which tries to explain how readjustment happens and what are the classes of factors that affect it; (2) Cox’s (2004) Cultural Identity model, which suggests outcomes of cultural re-adjustment; (3) Acker’s (2005) Highly Skills Workers Migration Model, which helps to explain how re-adjustment of scholars might be different from re-adjustment of other types of workers; (4) a variety of organizational socialization models, which may help to identify organizational factors of re-adjustment, and (5) Baumeister and Leary’s (1995) Belongingness Theory, which explains the role of relations with other scholars.

These theories are used to interpret data from 25 semi-structured interviews conducted in Kazakhstan. The participants were selected using maximal variation sampling out of recent returnees within five years of graduation, who have been employed for over six months in a research or teaching role at a university. The characteristics for variation included (1) country of study, (2) gender, (3) discipline, (4) funding source, (5) nature of pre-doctorate experience, (6) type of employing institution. The resulting group of participants represents a broad array of experiences with some individuals educated in the West and others in the former Soviet Union; some being funded by international funding agencies, the government of Kazakhstan, or their employing institution, while others paying for education themselves; some working at research-intensive Western-style universities, while others - at public national and regional institutions.

The findings from our study are expected in some ways and surprising in others. Theories of adjustment help to explain why some of the scholars become successful in research, while others abandon a research-focused career. They also allow to enlist various individual, organizational and institutional factors, which determine the success of transition. We clearly see that individuals who start their studies as members of active research teams in Kazakhstan and who maintain the connections at home, while being abroad, transition smoothly, especially, if they are hired in research universities, which are better integrated with the global research community and have the research environment and research support systems, which are more similar with the systems, where the scholars were educated.

However, what the existing adjustment theories fail to explain is the very prominent manifestations of agency of the scholars in the process of reshaping their professional contexts. One of the most surprising findings was the emergence in the context of Kazakhstan, where local professional societies have transformed into informal networks of post-Soviet academics, who control distribution of research resources and exercise influence on policy decisions, an alternative informal network of young researchers. In the absence of professional societies (due to the small size of disciplinary communities), this network is used for power mobilization of young researchers. To explain the finding we used critical Performative Systems Theory (Rose, 2001).

Our paper concludes with the critique of the adjustment theories. We suggest Performativity Systems Theory as an alternative in interpreting the experiences of returning scholars arguing, consistently with this theory, that transition of returning scholars cannot be equated to fitting to the existing research communities and learning to perform a fixed set of roles within the existing power structures. Rather, we should view returning scholars as role performers, where roles are subject to interpretation and are constantly renegotiated in the process of performance contributing to the emergence of new power configurations.


Ackers, L. (2005). Moving people and knowledge: Scientific mobility in the European Union1. International migration, 43(5), 99-131.

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological bulletin, 117(3), 497.

Black, J. S., Mendenhall, M., & Oddou, G. (1991). Toward a comprehensive model of international adjustment: An integration of multiple theoretical perspectives. Academy of management review, 16(2), 291

Cox, J. B. (2004). The role of communication, technology, and cultural identity in repatriation adjustment. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 28(3), 201-219.

Rose, M. (2002). The seductions of resistance: power, politics, and a performative style of systems. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 20(4), 383-400.

Szkudlarek, B. (2010). Reentry—A review of the literature. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 34(1), 1-21.