Academic journal article International Journal of Doctoral Studies

Crises in a Doctoral Research Project: A Comparative Study

Academic journal article International Journal of Doctoral Studies

Crises in a Doctoral Research Project: A Comparative Study

Article excerpt


A crisis is defined as an emotionally significant event or radical change of status in a person's life ("Crisis," n.d.). A crisis in a doctoral project has several characteristics that must be understood in order to identify it and, if possible, take corrective actions. A severe crisis is one that leads to failure to complete the doctoral program. Many other crises may, however, be recoverable, if they are recognized at an early stage and addressed by the candidate or the adviser. Delamont, Atkinson, and Parry (1997, p. 12), who interviewed scientists and social scientists on the topic of supervising a PhD, quote Dr. Gastineau, faculty member in development studies at Gossingham University (both names being pseudonyms):

"DPhils are terrible things, and I don't yet know a DPhil student
who didn't go through a financial crisis, a mental crisis, a
supervisor crisis or an emotional crisis, that's why it's such an
appalling system."

In this paper we use the term crisis similarly to its meaning in the above citation. Other researchers prefer to use different terms to express emotionally significant events. For example, Vekkaila, Pyhalto, and Lonka (2013) explored doctoral students' experiences of disengagement from their doctoral processes. They found that activities that trigger disengagement typically include struggles and conflicts within the scholarly community and reported that problems in the research itself were less frequently found to be the main source of disengagement. Katz (2009) classified crises that may occur during a doctoral research project: adviser crises, professional crises, expectations crises, emotional crises, survival crises, and international student crises. In the next section we will review the literature related to each of these crises.

We distributed a uniform questionnaire to doctoral candidates at five Israeli research universities and three universities in Western European countries--Italy, Portugal, and Switzerland. We first compared opinions of Israeli students from different academic disciplines, i.e., social sciences and humanities (SS&H) vs. natural sciences and engineering (S&E). Disciplinary differences in opinions within universities were previously studied by Becher (1994). He explained that academic disciplines have their own particular cultures, codes of conduct, and intellectual tasks that influence the experiences of the students. We also compared opinions of S&E doctoral students from Israel and from Western Europe. Since Israeli universities have been participating in the EU Programs for Research and Innovation (Horizon 2020), it was interesting to compare the opinions of S&E candidates from both regions. In these collaborative European projects, teams of scientists from Europe and Israel collaborate on interdisciplinary projects, working in joint research teams.

According to Gardner and Gopaul (2012), attrition rates for full time doctoral students are in the range of 40-50%. Jones (2103) reported that attrition rates may be even higher, from 33% to 70%. Stress and isolation were found to be prime contributors to the phenomenon of attrition (Ali & Kohun, 2007). Stress and isolation, as well as economic pressure and poor relations with the adviser, are also the key factors leading to crises among doctoral students. Better understanding of crises' sources and of their patterns may assist in reducing students' dropout rate from doctoral programs. The main objective of this study was to identify patterns of crises in doctoral research projects and investigate parameters that may affect such crises. By analyzing candidates' responses to our questionnaire, we may learn whether doctoral students are aware of potential crises, whether they used professional support when needed, and how those crises affected their doctoral research. We also conducted a statistical investigation of four research questions: Do external, part time students report more crises than internal students? …

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