This paper aims at investigating how the doctoral journey unfolds, by following a small cohort of PhD students from their first to the third year of doctorate. The focus is on how individual decision-making processes develop along the PhD. The broader objective is to understand which processes support such decision-making and help PhD students to find their way throughout the doctoral journey. Theoretically, we aim to contribute to the literature on higher education, career choices, and identity.
Representing the doctorate as a journey is quite a widespread metaphor (Wisker et al., 2010). It well depicts that a doctorate is mostly an individual challenge, a complex learning process characterised by more steps and unpredictable events. More scholars are worried that completion rates are low, and often data regarding doctoral attrition and completion are not even regularly collected by universities (Elgar & Klein, 2004; Green & Powell, 2005). A HEFCE (2007) report shows that in the UK the completion rate is higher for full-time when compared to part-time students (76% vs. 48%). Moreover, there is a difference among disciplines: in the UK the completion rate goes from 62% in architecture to 85% in biology. Consequently, more scholars and institutions have called for a better structuring of PhD programmes (Bitusikova, 2009; Kehm, 2007).
We contend that an in-depth understanding of the individual experiences of doctoral students is paramount to study issues of attrition and completion, and also, to comprehend how the doctoral journey is impacting on PhD students’ personal development. In the literature there is a paucity of studies focusing on the lived experiences of individual PhD students from a longitudinal perspective.
Literature on PhD students’ experiences has developed recently, initially in the US and subsequently in Europe. More US literature is focused on the study of attrition and completion, but the focus is especially on understanding the process of socialisation, i.e. how students learn to fit into the new environment, than on how they actively interpret their situation and act on themselves and on others (Austin, 2002; Boyle & Boice, 1998; Gardner, 2010: Golde, 1998). These studies usually rely on big samples, and their theoretical grounding is quite poor. Remarkably, even literature grounded in a different epistemological perspective, i.e. Lave and Wenger’s (1989) communities of practice framework, conceptualises the doctoral journey as a process of getting socialised into a group or department (Meschitti & Carassa, 2014; Teeuwsen, Ratković, & Tilley, 2012).
The studies by McAlpine and Akerlind (2010), and McAlpine, Amundsen and Turner (2014), represent an exception: their research undertakes a longitudinal and biographical approach to study the experiences of PhD students, post-doc, and junior lecturers, in the UK and Canada. They stress the active role played by individuals in designing their own path, and underline how the doctoral journey is a process of identity construction. Their approach is close to our standpoint: because our focus is on individuals and their decision-making practices, it is much more consistent to look at our data through the concept of identity work (Brown, 2015): this is a useful metaphor for analysing professional identity. It underlines how individuals are constantly engaged in a process of interpretation, sensemaking, enactment and change. This metaphor can inspire the analysis of the complexities of an individual’s doctoral journey: this is a process of building one’s own identity, and it is characterised by continuous movements of interpretation and action. By focusing on identity work, we aim also to add to the literature in the area of career studies, by possibly looking at new ways to conceptualise careers.
Austin, A. E. (2002). Preparing the next generation of faculty: graduate school as socialization to the academic career. The Journal of Higher Education, 73(1), 94-122. Bitusikova, A. (2009). New challenges in doctoral education in Europe. In D. Boud & A. Lee (Eds.), Changing Practices of Doctoral Education (pp. 200-210). London & New York: Routledge. Boyle, P., & Boice, B. (1998). Best practices for enculturation: collegiality, mentoring, and structure. In M. S. Anderson (Ed.), The experience of being in graduate school: an exploration. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. Brown, A. D. (2015). Identities and identity work in organizations. International Journal of Management Reviews, 17(1), 20-40. Elgar, F. J., & Klein, R. M. (2004). What You Don't Know: Graduate Deans' Knowledge of Doctoral Completion Rates. Higher Education Policy, 17(3), 325-336. Gardner, S. K. (2010). Contrasting the socialization experiences of doctoral students in high-and low-completing departments: A qualitative analysis of disciplinary contexts at one institution. The Journal of Higher Education, 81(1), 61-81. Golde, C. M. (1998). Beginning graduate school: explaining first-year doctoral attrition. In M. S. Anderson (Ed.), The experience of being in graduate school: an exploration (pp. 55-64). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. Green, H., & Powell, S. (2005). Doctoral study in contemporary higher education: McGraw-Hill Education (UK). HEFCE. (2007). PhD research degree: update. Entry and completion. Kehm, B. M. (2007). Quo vadis doctoral education? New European approaches in the context of global changes. European Journal of Education, 42(3), 307-319. Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1989). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Palo Alto, CA: Institute for Research on Learning. McAlpine, L., & Akerlind, G. (2010). Becoming an academic: Palgrave Macmillan. McAlpine, L., Amundsen, C., & Turner, G. (2014). Identity‐trajectory: Reframing early career academic experience. British Educational Research Journal, 40(6), 952-969. Meschitti, V., & Carassa, A. (2014). Participation as a form of socialization. How a research team can support PhD students in their academic path. In J. Brankovic, M. Klemencic, P. Lazetic & P. Zgaga (Eds.), Global Challenges, Local Responses in Higher Education. The Contemporary Issues in National and Comparative Perspective (pp. 149-170). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. Teeuwsen, P., Ratković, S., & Tilley, S. A. (2012). Becoming academics: experiencing legitimate peripheral participation in part-time doctoral studies. Studies in Higher Education. Wisker, G., Morris, C., Cheng, M., Masika, R., Warnes, M., Trafford, V., et al. (2010). Doctoral learning journeys: Final report. Higher Education Academy.
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