Academic journal article International Journal of Doctoral Studies

Becoming a Scientist: PhD Workplaces and Other Sites of Learning

Academic journal article International Journal of Doctoral Studies

Becoming a Scientist: PhD Workplaces and Other Sites of Learning

Article excerpt

Context: Learning Science

In the literature, doctoral students have often been described as apprentices (Enders, 2005) learning research-related practices through observation, experience and interaction (aside from any required course work) in institutionally constituted workplaces. In this paper, research-related practices are conceptualized as the activities and interactions that support the conduct of doctoral research from initial thinking through to dissemination. These practices have been characterized in various ways (Pole, 2000; Morrison, Rudd, & Nerad, 2011; Timmerman, Feldon, Maher, Strickland, & Gilmour, 2013), but include reading, interaction with others to advance projects, feedback on work, thinking, in some cases collecting and maintaining samples of different kinds, analyzing, ethical decision-making--with the understanding that being a productive researcher and scholar requires different skills in different disciplines (Golde, 2005).

In this literature, assumptions are also frequently made about the common nature of such learning experiences, and how absence from these research cultures can circumscribe student learning (Deem & Brehony, 2000). In the sciences in particular, the research team is characterized as a mutually supportive environment which meets daily so there may be more distributed problemsolving to deal with challenges; students spend the day at the bench to produce consistent useable results; the student's project is part of the supervisor's research program; the result of this workplace learning is stability and intellectual and pedagogic continuity (Delamont & Atkinson, 2001; Hakala, 2009). Such descriptions reinforce assumptions about the common nature of doctoral research-related practices in the sciences, and their predominance in the literature speaks to their being of some value. However, Bowen and Roth (2007) and Cumming (2009) argue the need to capture more nuanced representations of science research-related practices (also see Gardner & Gopaul, 2012). This suggests the value of looking at the day-to-day experiences of science doctoral students as they learn to do research, and provides the context for the present study.


This qualitative study reports an analysis of the research-related practices described by 12 science doctoral students in the UK. It examines their weekly patterns of work as well as their retrospective accounts of these over a period of 18 months as they learned, through their research-related practices, how to become independent researchers (Golde, 2005). The questions asked are:

1. What were students' overall experiences of learning to conduct doctoral research?

2. Where were they learning; specifically, in which places did they advance their research-related practices?

3. In what ways, if any, did the students demonstrate agency in choosing where to engage in and learn particular practices? And what practices were they engaging in?

4. What was the relationship, if any, between their research-related practices and their discipline/field?

Conceptualizing Doctoral Work: Learning and Agency


The starting point for this study is that doctoral-academic work can be conceptualized as a form of workplace learning, which it has been argued can shift the focus from the supervisor to other forms of pedagogic interaction (Malfroy, 2005). From this perspective, aside from coursework, doctoral-academic learning occurs through observation, experience, trial and error, and interaction with others, since we argue that "there is no separation between engaging in conscious thought--such as when participating in socially derived activities and interactions--and learning" (Billett, 2002, p.457). Generally, doctoral learning is characterized as taking place in institutional workplaces such as offices, labs and libraries (Middleton, 2010). If one accepts that "the socially shaped physical world . …

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