Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Lived Experience of a Doctoral Student: The Process of Learning and Becoming

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Lived Experience of a Doctoral Student: The Process of Learning and Becoming

Article excerpt

The doctoral experience is a period of time when students learn about research, submit a dissertation with a rigorous methodology, and contribute to the literature in the field (Hockey, 2004). However, there is arguably more that is accomplished in this time. Doctoral students' experiences have often been researched in light of their transition into an academic career as a professor. However, not all students have such defined goals within their first year. The first year of the PhD has been described as the stage in which the students begin to identify with a new role (Braxton & Baird, 2001; Hockey, 2004; Viczko & Wright, 2010). Hockey (2004) notes that during the first year, students undergo unexpected difficulty due to major changes in their educational understandings and status. There are differences in academic demands, peer support, and social interactions with faculty. Some of the changes that have been noted as potentially problematic for doctoral students include: social isolation, time constraints, the need to take individual responsibility for work, the need to feel a sense of intellectual self-worth, and the need to have a solid relationship with their supervisor, particularly in terms of mutually shared expectations (Hockey, 2004). While reading about these difficulties may help other doctoral students feel a sense of relief and communion, these issues must all be understood as differing in importance depending on the personal context of the student, which plays a major role in how well the student adjusts to the new status. The level of adjustment is also dependent on the student's biography when entering the PhD process, which, according to Hockey (2004), is idiosyncratic and complex.

Not all students necessarily start their doctorate program with the intent of becoming a professor. Sweitzer (2009) describes two types of students. There are those who enter the program knowing that they want to get jobs as professors and publish in top-tier journals. They often describe academic relationships as the only important aspect of success. There are also those students who are more interested in individual development and learning. They may begin to develop professional identities as future faculty members but do not necessarily fit the typical prototype of a graduate student striving towards becoming a professor by the end of their first year. The latter students identify relationships with faculty, peers, family, friends, and prior business associates as important to their learning and success (Sweitzer, 2009). Other research on doctoral students indicates that social contexts within and outside of the university environment, including relationships with supervisors, peers, family, friends, and business associates, may play an important part in their development (Devenish et al., 2009; Sweitzer, 2009). Therefore, it appears that students enter their PhD programs with varied expectations, and they experience personal development through their social experiences while in the PhD programs. Indeed, Glaze (2002) suggests that the PhD experience is a period of considerable development and learning. However, it cannot be discounted that students' past experiences as well as their social context influence their development and learning during the PhD.

Jarvis (2006) proposes a theory of human learning as part of lifelong learning where individuals become more experienced as a result of engaging in social situations throughout life, the perceived content of which is integrated into their biographies. Using Jarvis' theory as a conceptual framework can help to understand how the social context and an individual's past experiences over the course of his or her lifetime influence the learning that occurs during the timeframe of the PhD.

The concept of biography is important for Jarvis (2006, 2009) and he defines it as "the outcome of a lifetime" (Jarvis, 2006, p. 73). He further explains that:

We are constructing our own biography whenever we learn--whilst we live our biography is an unfinished product constantly undergoing change and development--either through experiences that we self-initiate or else through experiences which are initiated by others. …

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