22 SES 03 C, Non-traditional Students and Diversity
A PhD degree is the highest achievement in a student’s academic career, carrying social and symbolic rewards and high expectations for social influence. The current study addresses issues of academic mobility (Holt, 2012), by comparing first generation students (FGS), both of whose parents lack academic degrees, to continuing education students (CES), whose parents hold an academic degree (Hartig & Steigerwald, 2007). Although ample research exists on social inequality in access to higher education (e.g. Parker, Jerrim., Schoon & Marsh, 2016), PhD students and especially first-generation PhD students, who demonstrate success against the odds, represent an intriguing and unique group that is understudied and warrants examination.
FGS have previously been studied mainly at the undergraduate level. Seen through a deficit lens, FGS enroll in higher education at a lower rate than CES, and when they do so they enroll in less prestigious programs and institutions (Ayalon & Mcdossi, 2016; Gardner & Holley, 2011; Pascarella et al., 2012). They experience more difficulties in selecting an area of study, are less prepared for college, demonstrate less self-assuranceand report investing greater effort in their studies. Furthermore, FGS tend to take breaks during their studies and are less involved in extracurricular activities. FGS report both academic and social difficulties: they experience confusion, frustration, loneliness and guilt. Some report a sense of non-belonging or being “on the edge” (Gardener, 2013). Their achievements are lower than those of CES and their dropout rates are higher. The source of these differences can be explained in reference to complex and multidimensional financial, social and cultural circumstances.
The current study examines academic mobility in terms of Bourdieu's notions of cultural capital and habitus, i.e. the acquired dispositions and know-how that equip a person to "play" in a certain field (Bourdieu, 1977, 1988, 1990). The possession of relevant capital within a field is crucial for an individual's success. One can assume that, compared to CES, FGS are less familiar with the expectations, rules and regularities of higher education and feel less certain about the "appropriate" ways to get along with peers and faculty or administration. In contrast, CES have been exposed continuously from an early age to a habitus that directs them to the "appropriate" values, norms and language required for academic studies (Lareau, 2003/2011).
Scholars underscore that individuals actively apply the various forms of capital they possess in accordance with their understanding of the "rules of the game" (Lareau, Evans & Yee, 2016). Since FGS lack the "well-designed" capital relevant to higher education, they may need to activate different forms of capital, as shown by recent studies in other educational contexts (Addi-Raccah & Grinshtain, 2016) and among successful Blacks and ethnic minorities (Yosso, 2005). Mobilization of aspirational capital and/or resistance capital - the first referring to the will and efforts individuals in disadvantaged groups invest in order to attain "the highest possible level" on the social ladder, the second indicating resources exerted by members of disadvantaged groups toward discriminatory relationships in order to "prove themselves" - are important examples of such alternative strategies.
Exploring the relevant resources that facilitate the success of FGS on the academic track is likely to improve our understanding of the challenges experienced by FGS and of the coping mechanisms they employ in facing such challenges and may also hold promise for future efforts to reduce social inequality.
Accordingly, the research question set out to identify students' views concerning the factors that challenge their progress towards a PhD, and the resources or forms of capital they employ to surmount barriers and overcome difficulties and challenges throughout their studies.
The study included 23 doctoral students, half of them FGS. The participants were from various faculties and academic fields at five universities in Israel. Participants, in the age range of 29 to 55, came from all stages of the PhD track: from first year of enrolment until soon after their PhD was approved. Our sampling procedures included both the "snowball" method and direct outreach to doctoral program participants who had earned scholarships based on economic need. To accomplish the study’s research goals, it was necessary to obtain extensive authentic information about the participants' perceptions and points of view, and to elicit meaningful, retrospective accounts of their personal academic paths and experiences. Accordingly, we employed semi-structured in-depth interviews, a research tool designed for exploring and understanding human actions and goals in diverse arenas. Most of the interviews, which lasted from one to two-and-a-half hours, were conducted and recorded in a quiet study room at a university library and were later fully transcribed. Following the narrative approach in qualitative research (Josselson, 2013), the interviews started with a very broad and general question: "Tell me about yourself, your background, and your academic track." During the interview we asked for clarifications required to complete the information. These questions enabled us to obtain a coherent picture of academic paths including significant figures and "key experiences", family background, academic decisions, transitions in educational institutions or degrees, and so on. In addition, we asked students about their ways of “playing the game", considering the challenges and difficulties they faced at various stages of study, and their own retrospective opinion of factors that facilitated or inhibited their academic success. We analyzed the data according to the principles of grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1990), using Strauss and Corbin's three stages of thematic analysis: first, open coding, which involves organizing information with similar and common denominators in categories; second, axial coding, the mapping of subcategories and relationships between the categories; and third, selective coding, namely the, formulation of super-categories, which entail generalization and abstraction of the relationship and the relations between the sub-categories
PhD FGS and CES share some similar experiences such as self-fulfillment and satisfaction, a sense of overload, and occasionally a complex relationship with advisers. Nevertheless, their retrospective views of their academic path were in many aspects very different. During their studies, FGS had to overcome various barriers and obstacles. They reported academic barriers (poor academic experiences in their first semester or year as undergraduates), and economic barriers (the need to work and perform occupational duties while at university; a few held blue collar jobs or more than one job at a time). Some interviewees experienced cultural shock upon entering university as undergraduates; others reported an experience of 'otherness' or 'split habitus'. In some cases, their families were ambivalent about their pursuit of a PhD. PhD FGS reported several resources that facilitated overcoming these difficulties: family capital (Gofen, 2009), families’ non-financial efforts on behalf of their children; aspirational capital (Yosso, 2005), grit (Duckworth, 2016), reflected by perseverance towards long-term aims; and resistance capital (Yosso, 2005), expressed by attempts to refute discriminatory attitudes. Different results emerged while considering CES. PhD CES expressed difficulties with self-discipline, a tendency to procrastinate, mood changes, and loneliness. They relied on resources such as self-confidence and competitiveness; the university environment felt "natural" to them, and interestingly, parents figured as an important source of direct assistance, including advice in regard to research content. The findings revealed several particular resources needed for climbing the academic ladder against the odds. This study will be followed by a survey enabling the collection and analysis of quantitative data and an attempt to explore connections between challenges on one hand and resources on the other. The results may potentially contribute to institutional awareness and program development for supporting FGS on their path to a PhD.
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