26 January 2022

How professors in New Zealand become mentors

Hui Xiao
Chinese Ph.D. student

Students in New Zealand often have a more personal relationship with their teachers and lecturers than they would in other countries. Here, Chinese PhD student Hui Xiao and his supervisor, Professor David Baxter, talk about how they work together.

Hui Xiao

What is it like to be supervised by Professor David Baxter?

I am looking into the factors influencing ageing well amongst older New Zealand men for my PhD, and Dave is an internationally recognised expert on men’s health. 

He was previously the Dean of our school for more than 10 years and has supervised many students, so he knows how to engage with us very well. 

Every supervisor meeting is in either a cafe or a restaurant. As well as the academic work, Dave shares his life experience and talks about the cultures, festivals, food and customs of New Zealand. He is always kind and patient. 

Dave has invited me to his house several times – not to do academic work; just to enjoy the day. 

I spend my spare time hiking, fishing, surfing, camping and doing extreme sports. My supervisors encourage and support me to explore this beautiful country. 

Is the style of education you have experienced in New Zealand different?

In China, supervisors will fully guide you about what you should and shouldn’t do. In New Zealand, we work more creatively and independently. 

What skills have you gained in New Zealand?

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” This summarises what I’ve gained in New Zealand. 

I also feel I’ve become more self-disciplined, made more friends and have more creative ideas. 

What are your ambitions for the future?

I haven’t decided where to go after I graduate, but after having a chat with Professor Alan White (an adviser for my project, and the world’s first professor in men’s health, and a visiting fellow at the University of Otago in 2019), I know I want to focus on men’s health.

Men face serious health problems and die earlier than women. It’s of great significance to promote positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man. 

I want to read more, publish more and become a specialist in this field. 

Professor David Baxter

What do you enjoy about supervising international students? 

International students make a unique contribution to the international culture in any research group or department. For me, it’s always fascinating to learn about different countries and cultures from my students. 

My international students become friends and colleagues for life. I have former students across the globe, and frequent offers to visit!

Is having a more informal relationship with students typical of the New Zealand style of teaching?

An informal approach is part of what makes the New Zealand experience so enjoyable for students.

For me, part of being a good supervisor is being a good mentor, and being approachable and engaged with what my students are doing outside of the lab. 

Their research studies will be a transformative experience for them, and the relationships they develop will frequently be for life.

Coming to New Zealand may be daunting for students, as the culture and ways of doing things may be different. Having a ‘go to’ mentor for friendly advice can make a huge difference to their experience of settling in and enjoying their new home.

What do you think international students gain from studying in New Zealand? 

Many of our international students are used to a more formal and hierarchical form of engagement with faculty and lecturers.

Research students studying in New Zealand are supported to take a more active lead in their work. It’s very much focused on learning by doing.

Do you think studying in New Zealand can make international students more employable?

My former students have found their training in New Zealand invaluable and are employed in New Zealand, Australia, the US, Singapore and elsewhere.

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About the contributors
Hui Xiao
Chinese Ph.D. student