Academic journal article International Journal of Doctoral Studies

Layers of Consciousness: An Autoethnographic Study of the Comprehensive Exam Process

Academic journal article International Journal of Doctoral Studies

Layers of Consciousness: An Autoethnographic Study of the Comprehensive Exam Process

Article excerpt


Autoethnography is a qualitative research method based on writing and reflection that allows researchers to explore personal experiences through social, cultural or political contexts. It works best when the researcher seeks to gain a cultural understanding of self and others (Chang, 2008). In this approach, the researcher is both the subject and the researcher. Autoethnographic research methods help answer research questions relating to an experience that is not well understood or lived by others. In the past, autoethnography was mainly used by disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, and education; yet today autoethnographic research approaches are emerging as a valid and meaningful research method by other disciplines including psychology, health sciences, and political science (Creswell, 2007; McIlveen, 2008). However, researchers from more positivist and empirical orientations feel autoethnographic approaches are not valid and therefore not an appropriate method for research within the academic institutions. Thus, the purpose of this paper is to demonstrate the use of autoethnography as a valid research method within the academy. The author uses feminist and constructivist perspectives to situate the meaning of the experience within a broader body of literature and through this, discovers the meaning of the doctoral comprehensive exam process.

This paper provides an overview of autoethnography as a valid qualitative research method and takes the reader through a step-by-step process of the autoethnographic process. A reflexive narrative approach is used to construct and describe the doctoral comprehensive exam process. This creates a story. The author describes and interprets her experience, emotions, and encounters with self and with others during the exams. It is through this process the author finds meaning, history, and reflections for the future. This paper concludes with recommendations, both how doctoral committees can best support students, and the need for additional flexibility and supports for doctoral students with family responsibilities.

Forms of Autoethnographies

Autoethnography is based in theory and practice through various forms of critical inquiry (McIlveen, 2008). Multiple forms of autoethnography exist, for example, analytic, community, personal narratives, co-constructed narratives, and evocative (Ellis, Adams, & Bochner, 2011). Like other qualitative research methods (Carter & Little, 2007), autoethnographic forms serve different purposes. For example, the analytic form of autoethnography often seeks to establish objectivity whereas the evocative form aims to generate empathy from the reader (McIlveen, 2008). In comparison, community autoethnographies use the experiences of researchers working in partnership with a community to describe social and cultural context (Vande Berg & Trujillo, 2008). Of all autoethnographic forms, personal narratives are the most controversial. Some feel that researchers who write about themselves (personal narratives) are arrogant, self-absorbed, full of emotion, and lacking understanding about what constitutes research. However, others feel that personal narratives serve an important purpose because they allow researchers to be both authentic and vulnerable while connecting with others to share their reflection and experiences (Ellis, 1999).

Similarities and differences between autoethnography, ethnography, biography, and autobiography must be recognized to fully realize the potential of autoethnography as a research method. Unlike ethnographic research, where researchers use observations and interviews to gain understanding of others, autoethnographic research uses the researcher's own experiences to gain understanding and make meaning of experiences (Polkinghorne, 1991). There are differences between each approach that can be answered by these questions: 'Who is the subject of research? …

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