How did I develop social capital as a tool to support my career progression?
Social networks played a significant part in pursuing my career, both in home and in host countries. As discussed above, the first relationship that enabled me to succeed in my immediate employment as an academic was with my lecturer. She assisted me to learn about the university’s working culture and the art of teaching with practical and applicable insights. These insights made me stand out compared to other candidates - a strategy that, according to Brown and Heskcth and Brown (2004), tends to help the candidate win the employment battle. As Li (2013) and Pham and Saito (2019) reported, relationships with authorities and relatives were important to graduates’ positive employment outcomes in Asian countries. In my case, such a relationship was even more significant because I migrated to Ho Chi Minh from a remote province. For a migrant like me, support offered by academics and professional staff within the university were invaluable. Popadiuk and Arthur (2014)’s claim about potential employment opportunities being brought about by ‘significant other’ relationships was true in my case.
I would never have succeeded in a lecturing position without the mentoring of my lecturer. International students have been found to often cope with more challenges in developing personal relationships in the host country because, as Pham et al. (2019) claim, they do not have contextual backgrounds (i.e. family, education, friendships) as evidence to support the development of social networks. The solution, according to these authors, was that they should develop a package of good personal qualities that in many cases could be used as alternative evidence in building relationships with ‘significant others’. This was exactly what my lecturer later revealed to me. She stated that she had gained a special impression about me as a dedicated, supportive, and team-oriented student -key qualities of many Asian students (Pham, 2014). I could say the success of my immediate employment resulted from the combination of what Tomlinson (2017) calls ‘social, identity and human capital’ because my human and identity capital (i.e. my teamwork skills, my image as a studious student) served as the background to expand my social capital.
Later when I went to the University of Queensland, I did not receive support from my MA and PhD supervisor. This was mainly because of my insufficient communication competencies. I faced a range of communication weaknesses as noted by Celce-Murcia, Dornyei, and Thurrell (1995), including linguistic and grammatical (capacity to speak and write), discourse (capacity to speak and write in a suitable context), actional (capacity to convey communicative intent), sociocultural (capacity to use the language in the appropriate social and cultural setting), and strategic (capacity to recognize and paraphrase to compensate for gaps in one’s knowledge of the language and how to learn more about the language and in the context). It was extremely hard for me to improve these competencies due to limited interactions between international and local students at Australian universities (Volet & Ang, 1998; Pham & Pham, 2020). It was worse in my case because I came to Australia as a research student, meaning my social network was significantly restricted within the laps and with my supervisors.
As an international student, when facing difficulties in socializing with local people, I found it safe and comfortable to cluster with co-ethnic friends. This truly reflected what Pham (2011) and Pham et al. (2019) insofar as migrants find it easy to befriend each other because they share common motivation and interests. I then ended up socializing mainly with students and people in co- or similar-ethnic groups. I felt safe and relaxed within this space although I understood there were limited opportunities to improve communication competencies. I chose well-being but not improvements in soft skills at this stage because, as Sen (2005) explains, I perceived the value of being safe and healthy to be more important than any other personal quality. Surprisingly, participating in student clubs brought about an unexpected opportunity changing my life and career pathways completely. Through friendship networks, I came to learn about the university’s great interest in further exploring and developing collaborations with my home country. This was also what I was interested in doing while studying in Australia. According to Ryan and Mulholland (2014), having shared interest is important for flourishing social networks and this was true in my case.
I developed good relationships with key staff in the University’s International Relations Department after I volunteered to help them approach potential universities and organize events. My support was rewarded when the Department offered me a special scholarship to upgrade my MA degree to the PhD degree - a privilege that had never happened to any international student at the University.
During my PhD programme, I met my wife who subsequently made a significant impact on almost all aspects of my life and career. She is a determined and independent person who could easily adapt to any new environment quickly and independently. She became not only my intimate partner but workplace friend with whom I could share everything. I therefore did not have a strong need to spend time maintaining and networking with new people which led to my social network narrowing down as a consequence of less effort connecting with others (Shortland, 2011; Pham & Pham, 2017). However, I started developing friendships with local people based on my wife’s networks, opening fantastic opportunities to improve my personal qualities as well as new career opportunities. This was a real learning curve because I needed to step out of the comfort zone in the co-ethnic group community. An important reason enabling me to quickly integrate in mainstream social networks was my clear intention of settling in Australia. Before meeting my wife, I was indecisive about where I should reside, but my wife’s prospective career opportunities required me to decide that I had to stay in Australia to accompany her. Such a decision, according to Li (2013) and Pham ct al., (2019), could enable international students [me] to overcome and improve personal qualities (i.e. communication competencies, new social networks). Within a short period of time I surprised myself when discovering that I could change many practices that I thought I would never be able to change. For example, I could eat various types of foods instead of only my traditional food. Importantly, I learned dialects and humours instead of always using formal language and behaviours - a remarkable change which eased my communication with local people immensely because using humour is very important to informal social interactions and a strong cultural feature in Australia (Westcott & Maggio, 2016).
I then realized how limited my cultural capital (Tomlinson, 2017) had been. It was an iceberg demotivating me to make efforts to improve other personal qualities. Pham et al., (2019) reported a similar finding when they found that the limitation in cultural capitals was the most paramount obstacle causing well-being problems and slowing career progression of international graduates. Experiences I went through and findings arc akin to that reported in the Pham et al. (2019) research which evidenced that the borderline between human capital, especially generic skills (i.e. communication, flexibility, adaptability), and cultural capital was very blurred. International students including myself tended to work on generic skills as a priority because these skills are always visibly presented and discussed in study programmes and on media. By contrast, knowledge about social interactions and daily-life practices is insufficiently integrated and brought into teaching and learning programmes. Pham et al. (2019) claimed that it was doubly hard for international students to improve this aspect due to limited opportunities on public channels in Australia that international students could use to enhance their knowledge about Australian culture. Such findings well echoed my experiences because I surprised myself when realizing that I almost never read Australia’s newspapers and rarely joined sport activities while Australians are obsessed to outdoor activities.
Within five years after engaging in the networks with mainstream people, although I did face difficulties and stress when failing to develop relationships with some key people, I found benefits overweighing difficulties. I have now had a few but very strong relationships with people whom I can approach for help anytime and for any matter. Since I did two PhD degrees, my employment opportunities were heavily influenced by the support of my two PhD supervisors. As discussed above, it was unfortunate that I did not develop a good relationship with my first supervisor and now when I reflected on misunderstandings that made him upset, I realized many came from my limited understanding about Australian working culture. There are various ‘gaps’ between what we are taught at university and what is expected at the workplace. For instance, I learnt about freedom and equality as core values of Australian society and education - values that I had rarely been taught in my country but admired. I thought these values were principles for the workplace as well but in reality, hierarchical management culture was a common feature of institutions including those in Australia (Bissctt, 2004) - a trap that international students are not often taught to be aware of, leading to misunderstandings, problems and stress in the workplace.
When I did my second PhD degree in science education, it was true that many employment opportunities came to me due to the low enrolments in science fields of study and high demand of skilled workers in STEM in Australia over the past two decades (Australia’s chief scientist). However, an important factor enabling me to have these opportunities was the good relationship I developed with both of my supervisors. Of course, I still needed to show them my true capacity in conducting research and fulfilling associated tasks assigned by my supervisors; however, I found I became much more skilful in communicating and adapting to their requirements and expectations. Hence our research and teaching collaborations went smoothly. The supervisors then supported me in the capacity of referees, introductory people, and mentors for several job positions I applied for. More importantly, I perceived I have achieved what Li (2013) calls ‘SuZhi’ - a concept implying the whole-person development. Li (2013) claims that once one achieves ‘SuZhi’, he or she tends to be positioned as being advantaged in all aspects of social and economic life but not limited to the employment market.
I perceived huge growth in myself since I went through this learning curve. Successful and unsuccessful social relationships that I developed have played a significant role in shaping who I am now.