About the Author(s)

Nurudeen Abdul-Rahaman Email symbol
Department of Education, Faculty of Education, The National Research University, Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia

Evgeniy Terentev symbol
Department of Education, Faculty of Education, The National Research University, Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia

Issah Iddrisu symbol
Department of Education, Faculty of Education, University for Development Studies, Tamale, Ghana


Abdul-Rahaman, N., Terentev, E. & Iddrisu, I., 2022, ‘The social integration experiences of international doctoral students at Russian universities’, Transformation in Higher Education 7(0), a206. https://doi.org/10.4102/the.v7i0.206

Original Research

The social integration experiences of international doctoral students at Russian universities

Nurudeen Abdul-Rahaman, Evgeniy Terentev, Issah Iddrisu

Received: 19 Apr. 2022; Accepted: 05 Sept. 2022; Published: 08 Nov. 2022

Copyright: © 2022. The Author(s). Licensee: AOSIS.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Social integration (SI) plays a critical role in doctoral students’ success. However, SI experiences could differ depending on the characteristics of students and their programmes. The study investigates differences in the SI of doctoral students at Russian universities and identifies the main groups at risk who have more difficulties with SI. To achieve this, the study utilized data from a cross-institutional online survey of doctoral students conducted in 2021 on behalf of the Russian Ministry of Science and Higher Education. A total of 4,454 doctoral students from 249 universities responded to the survey. Findings from the study indicate international students were less socially integrated in terms of having more friends and having problems interacting with others, either in person or remotely. Generally, no clear and significant difference was observed between their experiences and all aspects of social integration analysed in the study. Secondly, international doctoral students (IDS) are divided into groups (groups with low SI scores and groups with high SI scores) and compared them in terms of their subjective assessment of their chances for defence during the normative period of their studies and their overall satisfaction with the doctoral programme. The results for both variables revealed significant differences between IDS and varying degrees of SI. Significantly, the IDS group with a higher SI score reported high chances of defending their dissertation within the normative period of five years. The study concludes by suggesting that that activities that foster informal communication should be implemented and standardized within all departments in Russian universities to properly absorb all doctoral students into the social and academic cultures of their universities.

Keywords: social integration; department; international student; domestic student; attrition persistence.


International students’ persistence in doctoral studies is greatly increased when they are fully incorporated into the social structure of their institutions and programmes (Ruud et al. 2018). It is widely acknowledged that the compatibility between doctoral students and their various departments is critical in helping students integrate socially at their institution, further boosting their perseverance and success (Hixenbaugh, Dewart & Towell 2012; Settle 2011; Hixenbaugh et al., 2012). However, doctoral students’ social integration (SI) experiences are viewed generally rather than regarding various departments, despite the importance of the university department in ensuring that doctoral students are socially integrated (Gardner 2010). Furthermore, most of the research on SI in doctoral education focuses on students in higher education without distinguishing between international and domestic students, as evidenced in studies by Rockinson-Szapkiw et al. (2014), Rigler et al. (2017), Sverdlik et al. (2018), Holmes and Rockinson-Szapkiw (2020) and Piepenburg and Beckmann (2021). Also, no such study investigates SI between international and domestic doctoral students in the Russian context. However, Russia has a large doctoral education system and a significant share of international doctoral students (IDS), making it interesting and important for the current analysis.

This study explores the SI experiences of doctoral students in Russian university departments. The authors postulate that IDS may find it challenging to integrate socially into their university departments in Russia because of the diverse educational cultures of their home countries. The findings of this study will add vital knowledge and understanding of the elements inside university departments that promote SI among doctoral students in the Russian setting, which will influence departmental procedures at universities across the country.

The following two research questions guided the study:

  • Is there a difference in the level of social integration between international and domestic doctoral students?
  • Does the lower level of social integration among IDS relate to lower satisfaction with the doctoral programme and lower expectations regarding the time to degree?

Doctoral education in Russia

The Russian doctoral education system is among the world’s top 10 biggest. In 2021, 90 156 doctorates studied at Russian universities and research institutes, 27 992 new doctoral students entered doctoral programmes and 14 326 graduated from doctoral programmes.1 During the 1990s and 2000s, doctoral education in Russia experienced dramatic massification, almost tripling the number of doctoral students (from 53 541 in 1994 to 157 437 in 2010). However, in the 2010s, it faced massive criticism regarding the quality of research produced by doctoral candidates and corruption (Terentiev, Bekova & Maloshonok 2018). These critics laid the foundation for a list of reforms that dramatically changed the status and content of doctoral programmes and the structure of doctoral students’ bodies (Maloshonok & Terentev 2019). Among the most prominent changes was the dramatic decrease in the number of doctorates.

Traditionally rooted in the master-apprentice model, before 2012, the doctoral education system in Russia had a research training programme with very few educational activities and focused primarily on preparing a thesis. To obtain a candidate of science degree, the applicant had to pass through three qualification exams, publish at least one or two papers (depending on the area of research) in the approved list of journals and prepare and defend a text of a thesis (to see more: Maloshonok & Terentev 2019).

After adopting the new Federal Law ‘On Education in the Russian Federation’, doctoral programmes became the third higher education level. This resulted in substantial changes, which were made to the system of doctoral education. Firstly, it significantly increased the volume of coursework. Under the new model, doctoral students must take classes for 30 credits (mostly in their area of specialization) and complete research and teaching internships during their studies (Terentev, Bekova & Maloshonok 2021). After the completion of the educational programme (in three or five years, depending on the area and mode of study), the doctoral candidate must pass through the comprehensive exam consisting of two parts – presentation of educational and methodological materials based on the results of the thesis and presentation of the research report with main results of the thesis study. Completing the comprehensive exam enables one to receive the diploma with the qualification of ‘Researcher. Lecturer’ (which allows teaching in master programmes) and opens the way towards the defence. Oral defence before the dissertation council is mandatory to obtain a degree. Also, new requirements on publications for doctoral candidates were adopted, which increased the minimum number of papers published before the defence to two or three, depending on the study area.

In the 2010s, many efforts were made for the internationalization of doctoral education in Russia. The government and certain (especially leading) universities introduced special programmes aimed at financial support of incoming mobility for international students (Woodman et al. 2022). As a result, there was a significant increase in IDS at Russian universities and research institutes – from 3471 in 2010 to 7871 in 2019. In 2019, the IDS shared among all doctoral students were 9%. The main donors of IDS for the Russian system of doctoral education are post-Soviet countries (about 40% out of all IDS) and Asia and the Middle East region (about half out of all IDS).

Despite many efforts made on the national and institutional levels, the quality of doctoral education is yet questionable and receives many critics (see Terentev et al. 2021). Among the main points of critics is the low completion rate of doctoral programmes. In 2021, only 1500 graduates of doctoral programmes defended their theses during the formative period, which equals 11% out of all graduates. Another problem is the absence of financial aid. The government subsidizes doctoral studies, and doctoral students receive scholarships, but these are insufficient to be considered a principal source of income. As a result, many doctoral students seek full-time work elsewhere (Bekova & Dzhafarova 2019). Other systematic issues discussed in the literature include poor supervision, incompleteness of reforms, ineffective mechanisms of doctoral students’ selection and unpreparedness of universities and research institutes for the massification of doctoral programmes (see Maloshonok & Terentev 2019). Effective responses to these issues require further empirical studies on different aspects of doctoral education. This study aims to contribute to this task and focus on the SI of doctoral students at Russian universities (with a special focus on IDS).

Literature review

The concept of social integration

Social integration can be understood as the frequency and quality of interactions with colleagues (other doctoral students or faculty members) from the student’s department outside of the workplace and about matters other than academic ones (Golde 2000; Meeuwisse et al. 2010; Van Rooij, Fokkens-Bruinsma & Jansen 2019). Holmes and Rockinson-Szapkiw (2020) defined SI as the student’s satisfaction with the nature and quality of non-academic interactions between students and professors inside the programme.

The role of the department in the social integration of doctoral students

International doctoral students’ first contact with their university department and its staff happens at admission, upon arrival at the institution and the commencement of their educational programme. This interaction continues throughout their studies (Brooman & Darwent 2014; Hughes & Smail 2015). It was discovered that positive interactions with departmental members and peers increase the likelihood that IDS will persevere and succeed in their doctoral projects, demonstrating that departments significantly impact student integration into the social environment of universities (Zhou & Okahana 2019). Scholars assert that positive student–department interactions facilitated students’ integration into academic disciplines and departments, a crucial factor for doctoral retention and completion (Cockrell & Shelley 2011; Zhou & Okahana 2019). Researchers argued that doctoral student retention required integration and participation in disciplines (Golde 2005) and academic departments (Herzig 2002). Other researchers found close relationships among departmental members and doctoral students were productive in helping students select dissertation committee members, which is crucial for the timely completion of doctoral programmes (Wao & Onwuegbuzie 2011). Thus, it is unsurprising that departmental academic support, such as foundation language courses for IDS, was associated with their success (Gardner 2008; Greene 2015).

Furthermore, doctoral completion was positively correlated with departmental activities and attitudes towards students (De Valero 2001). In addition, IDS who participated in engagement activities within the department, such as student groups and associations, experienced stress reduction and improved completion rates (Kearns, Gardiner & Marshall 2008). Other stream studies revealed high adaptability to the social systems of the university in which IDS are enrolled reduces attrition (Ellis 2001; Gardner 2007; Lovitts 2001).

Social integration in doctoral studies

Studies have found a high correlation between SI and success, development and contentment (Bair & Haworth 2004; Lovitts 2001; Shin et al. 2018). Individual factors, the microenvironment (such as the department, programme, classmates and professors) and the microenvironment influence the completion of doctoral degrees (Lovitts 2005). Researchers discovered that contacts with other faculty members and quality mentoring, encouragement and constructive criticism are among the most significant predictors of doctoral students’ satisfaction, persistence and general welfare (Gardner 2007; Lovitts 2001; Vekkaila, Pyhältö & Lonka 2014). For instance, Weidman and Stein (2013) discovered an association between the number of interactions between faculty and students and their involvement in research initiatives. Cockrell and Shelley (2011) revealed a substantial association between support systems and student happiness, indicating that doctoral programmes should improve support systems to reduce student attrition. Espino (2014) discovered in a study of minority graduate students that doctorate students benefited from socialization in academic contexts and support from their families, communities and graduate environments. Vekkaila et al. (2014) found that doctoral students’ perceptions of participation in and belonging to academic communities affected their positive experiences, well-being, contentment and persistence in doctorate studies. According to Piepenburg and Beckmann (2021), IDS who are not properly absorbed into their university’s social and intellectual culture will abandon their chosen field of study. According to reports, a lack of social interaction is one of the primary reasons German IDS drop out (Isleib, Woisch & Heublein 2019; Piepenburg & Beckmann 2021).

Considering the numerous positive effects of SI on the success of IDS, the literature has emphasized the department’s and faculty’s role in enhancing SI. Rigler et al. (2017) reported that isolation was a major factor in the attrition of doctoral students. Through their departments, doctoral programmes must create effective offline and online socialization opportunities for students to combat student isolation. According to the best practices within departments in institutions, Rockinson-Szapkiw et al. (2014) and Stallone (2011) reaffirmed that cohort models, social networking technologies and study or collaboration groups were effective ways to increase socialization among doctoral students. Janta, Lugosi and Brown (2014) focused on how departments can enhance doctoral students’ SI. Among the interaction opportunities cited by the researchers are welcome parties for new participants, social gatherings to commemorate the achievement of significant milestones, lunchtime seminars that combine food and academic discussion and other social gatherings. According to Merola et al. (2019), institutions should prioritize enhancing the social capital of students through techniques such as small-group instruction, which promotes interaction and academic performance. They further indicated that interventions that can improve students’ social capital and academic integration include working in groups or pairs during class and promoting peer tutoring.

International doctoral students’ SI is also unique to the discipline of study and research group status. The discipline, and its organizational structure in the university via a department, serves as the focal point for the student experience (Golde 2005). Vekkaila et al.’s (2014) research revealed that behavioural science doctoral students had a low sense of community involvement. The authors attributed this to the study style followed in their field. They underlined that the behavioural sciences are a subset of the soft sciences and are occasionally characterized by solitary research in libraries, archives or the field. Golde (2005) found that doctoral students in the natural sciences have high SI, which is in line with an earlier study by Chiang (2003). Walsh (2010) reported that IDS in engineering and science had difficulty integrating with the student body because of their rigorous schedules and cultural and communication differences. A subsequent study (Gardner 2010) discovered that doctoral students in English and oceanography were more socially integrated.

A recent study by Antilla, Sullanmaa and Pyhältö (2021) found that full-time domestic students felt lonelier and more insecure than domestic part-time students. They underlined that in contrast to full-time doctoral students who largely rely on the researcher community, having many responsibilities at once may shield part-time students from the social isolation or solitariness that has frequently been reported in related doctoral studies. Antilla et al. (2021) also pointed out that doctoral students who worked primarily or partially in a research group experienced loneliness more frequently than those who worked alone. This resulted in students working in research groups having higher expectations for social support and a sense of belonging than students working alone.

Other studies comparing SI between domestic and international students include Cena, Burns and Wilson (2021) and Spencer-Oatey et al. (2017). Only a few have examined these differences using large sample size, like this study. The study of Terentev et al. (2021) indicated a high attrition rate among Russian doctoral students. Yet, the preceding literature demonstrates a few studies identified in the broader context investigating SI among doctoral students based on nationality (domestic and international), the discipline of study and several years of study. There is a general lack of studies in the Russian context on this research topic.

Theoretical framework

Tinto (1993) used the lens of integration to describe the phenomenon of doctoral student attrition. He emphasizes the importance of students’ social and intellectual integration within their universities for determining their perseverance in doctoral programmes (Tinto 1993:50). He distinguished two unique integration systems: academic and SI, and described both. Academic integration is defined as students’ exposure to the research world and academic environment, whereas SI is defined as students’ interactions within the university’s social structures (Tinto 1993). He indicated that students enter university with various personal characteristics, including nationality, prior educational background and personal goal commitments. The successful interaction of these characteristics and university characteristics results in adequate integration. According to him, when students are thoroughly incorporated into the social systems of their host universities, their retention and perseverance in higher education improve significantly. He asserted that students who positively interact with their university environment are more likely to stay and eventually succeed in their studies and vice versa. This means that university structures must-have features that immediately make students feel accepted, engage them in university activities and provide a supportive environment for students to speak to one another, supervisors and other university employees.

Tinto’s theory was used to understand how various parts of interactive experiences within university departments vary between domestic and international doctoral students in various years of study and students in different fields. In this study, the nationality of students (domestic and international), field and year of study are considered individual attributes. In the departmental environment, which consists of other students, staff are the institutional attributes. The theory is used to analyse the effect of the interplay of these institutional and individual attributes on students’ social well-being. Students perform better in situations that: (1) promote student-to-student connection; (2) promote student-to-staff engagement; (3) treat all students fairly; (4) promote a sense of belonging; and (5) actively engage students. While this theory was developed at the institutional level, the authors believe it is worthwhile to apply it at the departmental level to increase the understanding of what institutions can do to improve student retention and reduce dropout rates among doctoral students and what individual departments can do.

Research Methods and design

General overview

A cross-institutional online survey was used to analyse doctoral students’ views on SI experiences during their studies at Russian universities. This survey was conducted in May – June 2021 on behalf of the Russian Ministry of Science and Higher Education under the project ‘Scientific and methodological support for the development of quality management system of higher education in the conditions of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and after’.2 The survey’s main goal was to analyse the challenges and opportunities for developing doctoral education quality at Russian universities during the pandemic. The questionnaire covered the following topics: (1) satisfaction with the university learning conditions and services, (2) characteristics of interaction with a supervisor and other university staff and satisfaction with this interaction, (3) main obstacles during the doctoral study and (4) professional goals and plans. Questions about SI and its different dimensions were at the core of the second series of questions (interactions with a supervisor and university staff).

Study population and sampling strategy

The targeted sample for the survey was all doctoral students who had studied at Russian universities at the time of the survey. To access the respondents, the authors used letters of support from the Russian Ministry of Science and Higher Education, which were delivered to all Russian universities via the Ministry’s electronic system. Letters were addressed to rectors of universities and asked to share the link with their students. Participation in the survey was voluntary.

A total of 4454 doctoral students from 249 universities participated in the survey, which equals 9.0% of all doctoral students at Russian universities. The main characteristics of the sample are presented in Table 1: 91.2% of respondents are domestic students and 52.6% are male. Most of the doctoral students were in their first year of study (38.7%).

TABLE 1: Socio-demographics of the respondents.
Data collection

To measure the SI experiences of doctoral students, the authors used six the following questions, which were formulated in the form of statements: (1) ‘I have friends in my department’, (2) ‘I feel like I belong to the department’, (3) ‘I am proud to be a doctoral student of my department’, (4) ‘My department creates a welcoming and supportive environment’, (5) ‘I can always talk (in person or remotely) with my department’, and (6) ‘Faculty of my department/school/institute treat me fairly’. All questions were measured on a five-point Likert scale (ranging from 1 – strongly disagree to 5 – strongly agree). The authors used a four-point Likert scale (ranging from 1– my chances are high to 4 – I don’t think I will be able to defend my dissertation in five years) to evaluate international students’ expectations about the defence period. Lastly, the authors measured international students’ satisfaction with the quality of their programmes using a four-point Likert scale (ranging from 1– satisfied to 4 – dissatisfied).

Data analysis

After attaining the desired response threshold, the survey data were analysed separately based on six dimensions of SI. A five-point Likert scale (ranging from 1 – strongly disagree to 5 – strongly agree) was used to assess the themes of this research. The number of items used to measure each of the themes is presented in Table 2. The chi-square analysis method was used to analyse the experiences of domestic and IDS regarding the various aspects of social interaction within their university departments. The mean SI scores were then compared between domestic and IDS.

TABLE 2: Doctoral students’ experiences with aspects of social integration.
TABLE 3: Social integration score by nationality of respondents.


Survey results show the generally high subjective evaluation of doctoral students’ SI at Russian universities (Figure 1). More than 75% of doctoral students, who participated in the survey, somewhat or strongly agreed with all statements. Bigger shares of those who responded with options ‘Somewhat disagree’ and ‘Disagree’ were observed for the statements about having friends and a sense of belonging to the department (19% and 18%, respectively). Almost all participants agreed that the faculty of their department treated them fairly (91%) and that they could always talk with the faculty of their department (89%).

FIGURE 1: Agreement of respondents with statements about the social integration.

The results showed that 45% and 41% of the domestic and international students strongly agreed that they have friends in their department/school/institute (χ2 = 11.5, p = 0.022). In comparison, similar proportions of 40% and 45% of domestic and international students respectively felt like they belong to their department/school/institute (χ2 = 6.1, p = 0.192). At least half of the respondents, irrespective of nationality, strongly agreed with the other four questions on SI, as summarized in Table 2.

The domestic students had a mean (+ standard deviation) SI score of 25.200 + 4.800 compared with a mean SI score of 25.400 + 4.800 among the international students (t = 0.600, p = 0.549). This indicates that SI among domestic and international students in Russian universities has little difference (Table 2).

In the next step, the authors analysed the experience of IDS with different levels of SI. To clarify the analysis, all IDS were divided into two groups depending on their value of SI score, using 24 points as a cutoff. The authors compared these two groups concerning their subjective evaluation of chances for the defence during the normative period (Figure 1) and students’ general satisfaction with their doctoral programmes (Figure 2). The results showed significant differences between IDS with different levels of SI for both variables. International doctoral students with lower SI score significantly rarely responded about high chances for their defence in five years – 49% compared with 65% for the group of IDS with higher SI score (χ2 = 11.275, p = 0.010). Similarly, among IDS with lower SI scores, almost 30% reported that they are dissatisfied with the doctoral programme compared with only 6% among IDS with higher SI scores (χ2 = 55.706, p < 0.001).

FIGURE 2: Subjective evaluation of chances to defend a thesis during the normative period depending on the value of the social integration score.

FIGURE 3: Satisfaction with the quality of the doctoral programme, depending on the value of the social integration score.


Poor SI into university departments is a big issue for doctoral education, resulting in students leaving their programmes and having lower academic achievements (Ellis 2001; Gardner 2007; Lovitts 2001). Previous studies showed that the level of SI could differ depending on the individual characteristics of doctoral students as well as characteristics of the educational environment (for instance, Antilla et al. 2021; Cena et al. 2021; Spencer-Oatey et al. 2017).

This study’s main goal was to investigate differences in the SI of doctoral students at Russian universities. It was focused mainly on the comparison of SI between international and domestic doctoral students, as IDS are traditionally seen as one of the main groups at risk for SI because of language barriers, cultural specifics and other factors of their educational and social experience (Gao 2021). The results of the study demonstrated that there is no significant difference in SI between international and domestic doctoral students. In the educational departments, the only difference found between domestic and IDS is that domestic students are more likely to make friends and talk with the department staff in person or online. This friendship networks within the departments promote interactions between domestic students and staff, which could help enhance knowledge transfer and improve their social well-being compared with IDS. It could also get more domestic doctoral students to get involved in research initiatives (see Weidman & Stein 2013), which makes it more likely that they will finish their programmes in the normative time of five years before their international colleagues.

The study also found that IDS with lower SI scores have limited chances of defending their dissertation within the normative period. This is a clear indication that SI contributes a lot to improving the progress of IDS, reducing dropout rates among IDS within their programmes. Isleib et al. (2019) found a lack of SI as one of the key reasons why German international students drop out of their programmes. This necessitates that parties in higher education ought to execute reforms to help IDS quickly and easily navigate their doctoral journeys. This study also revealed that IDS with lower SI scores are the group with less satisfaction with their doctoral programmes. This, again, adds up to the argument that SI is crucial to students’ happiness in their programmes and universities (Bair & Haworth 2004; Lovitts 2001; Shin et al. 2018).

The above-discussed results greatly improve the discussions on transformation in higher education by suggesting that activities that foster informal communication between domestic and international students, students and faculty should be standardized and implemented across every department of the various universities in Russia. As doctoral students, they derive substantial benefit from these interactions through these informal activities (Espino 2014; Shelly 2011). These activities may include clubs, extracurricular events, cultural festivals and the addition of extra-group events to doctoral programmes, which increases the chance that IDS will make friends in their departments and makes them more involved and less lonely (see Janta et al. 2014; Rockinson-Szapkiw et al. 2014; Merola et al. 2019; Stallone 2011). Rigler et al. (2017) found that one of the main reasons why so many doctoral students drop out is that they feel isolated. These suggested activities, if successfully implemented in Russian universities, would ensure that IDS are properly absorbed into the university’s social and academic culture, which will improve retention and persistence (Piepenburg & Beckmann 2021). This relates well with Tinto’s theory, which argues that all students attend universities with previous experience. The experiences shape how students experience the selection of different societies and their educational departments. He also stated that departmental practices that foster informal communication improve students’ sense of belonging, which enhances their commitment to their department and nurtures their inspiration to persevere in the doctoral programme.


The study investigates differences in the SI of doctoral students in Russian university departments. It provided a comprehensive understanding and knowledge of the factors in Russian university departments that foster SI among doctoral students in the Russian context, with implications for departmental measures in all national institutions. The study found no significant difference in SI, and IDS were more likely to be socially isolated, less satisfied with their programmes and therefore had fewer chances of graduating within the required time frame of five years. The study suggested that activities that foster informal communication should be implemented and standardized within all departments in Russian universities to properly absorb all doctoral students into the social and academic cultures of their universities.


Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Authors’ contributions

N.A.-R. analysed the data, interpreted the data and wrote the entire manuscript. E.T. supervised the entire research. I.I. contributed to the editing of the manuscript.

Ethical considerations

This article followed all ethical standards for research without direct contact with human or animal subjects.

Funding information

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

Data availability

The authors confirm that the data supporting the findings of this study are available within the article.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any affiliated agency of the authors.


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1. See https://rosstat.gov.ru/statistics/education.

2. For more information, see https://high-edu-quality.ru/research_project.

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