Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

"What's Too Much and What's Too Little?": The Process of Becoming an Independent Researcher in Doctoral Education

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

"What's Too Much and What's Too Little?": The Process of Becoming an Independent Researcher in Doctoral Education

Article excerpt

  The student is urged to be independent in scholarly endeavor. Training
  an individual to be independent in an authoritarian social structure
  has a potential paradoxical quality that is not always recognized by
  the agent. In effect, professors say to students, "Become an
  independent thinker; be critical, innovate, and question the
  established body of knowledge; but remember, we will be the sole
  arbiters of what you must do and how well you go about it."
  --Rosen & Bates, 1967, p. 81

The transition to independent scholar is part and parcel of the doctoral education process (Council of Graduate Schools, 2005) as well as an integral part of the socialization process that occurs while in graduate school (Weidman, Twale, & Stein, 2001). This article details the journey toward independence, rooted in the socialization process of graduate school, as experienced by 40 doctoral students in the disciplines of chemistry and history at two institutions. I begin with an overview of the process of independence as experienced by students, including a discussion of socialization in graduate school, the guiding framework for the study and its analysis. I then discuss the methods of the study, followed by the study's findings, conclusions, and implications for policy, practice, and research.

Independence in Doctoral Education

Brenda, a doctoral student in history, has finally completed and defended her dissertation. She is happy to be done, but she is also exhausted. It has been a long and difficult 4 years, she says, and it seems to her that the dissertation process was what made it most difficult. Brenda struggled greatly with the transition that she made during the dissertation stage of her program--in particular, the transition to an independent researcher. In her mind, this was a drastic change from the experience she had throughout her years of previous schooling, and her struggle toward independence was magnified by the lack of assistance she felt she received from her advisor. Brenda describes the process involved in this transition from being a student largely dependent on the professor for guidance to one that is almost entirely independent. She explains what may be considered the ultimate paradox involved in doctoral education: "If someone holds your hand too much you'll never learn to think for yourself, and if someone doesn't hold your hand enough you'll fall flat on your face."

Michael is near completion of his dissertation research in chemistry. He explains the frustration that he has felt trying to find his independence within his doctoral program. At times he has felt abandoned by his dissertation advisor en route to completion. Michael advises new, incoming students, "If you are a very independent, self-starting person and you really, really think you can do things on your own, then that's fine. But most people need a little bit of guidance from their advisors. So I guess there's a fine line--what's too much and what's too little?"

The transition necessary to become an independent scholar and researcher, while not an easy one for Brenda or Michael, is nevertheless an inherent part of doctoral education in the United States. Indeed, the Council of Graduate Schools clearly delineated the independent nature of doctoral education:

  Beyond some beginning course work, the experience of each Ph.D.
  student is individualized and varied. Ph.D. students bear a greater
  responsibility for defining the scope of their educational experience
  than do other students. Further, the degree requires initiative and
  creativity, and the award of the degree depends upon the individual
  performance of a student in completing original research in the area
  of study. (2004, p. 4)

The individualized nature of doctoral study and the need for greater responsibility and creativity on the part of the student are factors that may lead to much of the frustration involved in the doctoral process. …

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