Australia’s border closure has been tough on this PhD candidate, but he’s soldiering on

University of Queensland
Aslam Abd Jalil wants to play a role in tackling refugee issues in Malaysia.

Aslam Abd Jalil is one of the thousands of international students currently locked out of Australia due to the country’s hard border closures. The PhD candidate at The University of Queensland is currently researching refugee work rights.

The impact of the border closure, along with the challenges of pursuing a PhD, hasn’t been easy on the Malaysian, but he’s soldiering on.

“The main reason why I came back to Australia for the PhD was because I wanted to be guided by prominent scholars in refugee studies and policy studies,” he tells Study International.

The scholarship recipient is under the stellar supervision of a refugee policy expert at The University of Queensland and is grateful for the opportunity to conduct research in an area close to his heart.

He shares his thoughts on pursuing a PhD in Australia below:

The University of Queensland

Aslam Abd Jalil finds time to enjoy Australia’s beauty and sights amidst his busy PhD schedule at The University of Queensland.

Hi Aslam! Tell us about yourself.

I am a PhD candidate at The University of Queensland, Australia researching refugee work rights by combining my academic background in business studies, public policy and anthropology.

How has the pandemic affected your PhD study at The University of Queensland, especially since this is your final year?

In November 2019, I came back to Malaysia to do my fieldwork. Unfortunately, I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, a mental health issue due to many factors related to my studies and life. Doing a PhD can be overwhelming because sometimes my imposter syndrome undermines my confidence.

Furthermore, working with the marginalised refugee communities who have endured so many challenges, has also impacted me. The multiple lockdowns during the pandemic created a major hindrance to visiting the field sites and getting to know my research participants.

Despite that, I still managed to conduct my ethnography and interviews both online and offline which led to rich data collection from the ground.

Currently, I am still unable to return to Brisbane due to Australia’s border closures. It is a real struggle for me to be away from campus with the absence of face-to-face interaction with supervisors and academic peers.

Thanks to the support system that I have, I have managed to progress and fulfil the PhD milestones. I aim to graduate by the end of next year.

We hope things will get better for you soon! Why did you decide to pursue your PhD abroad?

When I was seven years old, I always saw some “foreign” kids roaming around the city of Kota Bharu selling different stuff. I sympathised with them but little did I know about their unfortunate circumstances.

Thirteen years later when I pursued my studies at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, I got exposed to the issues of (in)voluntary migration. Only then I discovered that those resilient children were forced to flee their homes and become refugees.

It was ironic that I had to travel far to the Land Down Under to realise that there were thousands of refugees living in limbo in Malaysia. I felt responsible to help them thrive, not just survive. Hence, for my master’s degree at INPUMA, Universiti Malaya (UM), I focused on the policy aspect of the refugee issue in Malaysia.

The main reason why I came back to Australia for the PhD was because I wanted to be guided by prominent scholars in refugee studies and policy studies. My supervisor, Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter, is an expert in the field of refugee policy and has become my mentor even before embarking on my PhD journey.

Furthermore, this is a good opportunity to network with stakeholders in academia, civil society groups and government agencies for meaningful collaboration.

Besides that, as an immigration nation, Australia is a gateway for me to make friends coming from various nationalities and backgrounds.

That’s an interesting story! Have there been any challenges in doing your PhD abroad?

  1. Funding — Studying overseas involves exorbitant costs for tuition fees and living allowance. I was constantly keeping updated with the scholarship offers and the application processes. Finally, I was privileged to be awarded a scholarship by the Government of Malaysia. I need to be responsible with my spending as a big portion of taxpayers’ money has been invested in my education.
  2. New environment — It was my first time being in Brisbane. However, having lived in Australia previously, I could adapt to the new environment well. Getting to know new local and overseas friends definitely provided me with the necessary support system. I believe that forging friendships with people from different backgrounds is the key to peaceful coexistence in today’s world.

If you were given a chance to pursue your PhD in Malaysia, would you want to do it, and why/why not?

Yes. Malaysia has several internationally reputable higher institutions that have attracted many students and scholars from all around the world.

The global environment in the local universities enables a healthy exchange of ideas. The universities’ cutting-edge research means that you are prepared to compete in the real world.

However, academic freedom in Malaysia needs to be improved. Scholars and students should not be discouraged or even prosecuted for their constructive criticisms because thinking critically are integral to a civilised society.

Is it worth doing your PhD study abroad?

Definitely yes if you have funding because many people cannot afford overseas education.

I use this golden opportunity to get involved in various activities outside academia too, such as volunteer work, to equip myself with soft skills. I used to volunteer with Amnesty International Australia and Multicultural Australia to champion human rights particularly for refugees and migrants.

With the knowledge and experience that I have gained during my studies, I hope to contribute back to the world. by shaping better and more humane asylum and migration policies.

Do you have any advice for future PhD applicants?

Find your research interests. Then, explore the disciplines that are related to your research interests.

Get to know the scholars in the fields — through their writings and in person, if possible. It will be easier for you to find the right supervisors for your PhD studies.

Finally, what should people know about you, besides being a PhD candidate?

I am still unable to provide a specific answer if people ask me where I come from in Malaysia. I grew up in different places and I am still constantly on the move.

This affirms my belief that “everyone is a migrant” and therefore we need to embrace diversity in our society.