The Doctoral Experience: Success and Failure in Graduate School

The Doctoral Experience: Success and Failure in Graduate School

The Doctoral Experience: Success and Failure in Graduate School

The Doctoral Experience: Success and Failure in Graduate School


This book presents a vivid picture of the experiences of PhD students and their academic mentors in a variety of different disciplines. It shows how younger academics are socialized into the distinctive sub-culture of their chosen academic discipline, displaying how different disciplines and departments reproduce their specialized ways of conducting research.

Based on two projects funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the research involved in-depth interviews with over 200 postgraduates students and academics across the United Kingdom. The issues explored include: how the students deal with the uncertainties of their own research; how they cope with frustration, failure and the intellectual isolation they experience; how research groups can act as socialising environments; and how academic supervisors handle the tensions between the intellectual autonomy of the research student and their responsibilities as intellectual mentors.


Seeking in the social structures of the academic world the sources of the categories of professional understanding.

(Bourdieu, 1988:xii)

How does one become a scientist? Obviously there are many answers to that question. We focus on just one crucial step in the process-the work and experiences that go into the period of doctoral research. We look at the experiences of PhD students and their academic supervisors in a variety of sciences-social and natural science subjects-in order to understand how novices are socialized into their respective academic disciplines and cultures. Becoming a scientist-indeed, becoming an academic in any field-is not just a matter of formal learning and assessment in specific domains of knowledge. To become a biochemist, say, involves more than just learning biochemistry. It also involves the acquisition of more general cultural knowledge and personal experience. One must learn not merely about biochemistry, one must also learn what it is to do the science, and what it means to be a biochemist. This depends on socialization into the culture of the discipline. It also rests on a crucial shift from the kind of learning that is characteristic of secondary schooling and undergraduate education.

Academics in higher education rightly make much of the relationship between teaching and research. Research-led universities insist that the quality of their undergraduate education rests on the research activities of their teaching staff. They insist that the most significant feature of their undergraduates' education is the fact that they are being taught by those people who are themselves creating the knowledge. They are probably right to affirm the relationship between research and teaching. Nevertheless, most of the knowledge that undergraduate students are exposed to is pedagogically processed, packaged and controlled in various ways. Knowledge is carefully doled out in the form of courses or modules, course outlines and reading lists, lecture topics and assessment tasks. Students' practical work in

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