PhDchat

I found my PhD journey extremely stressful and mentally exhausting

The secret lives of doctoral students and how academics can help

Every year, thousands of students enrol into doctoral programs across Australia and around the world. New PhD students enter an environment characterised by the persistent pursuit for knowledge – there is always something more to learn.

They also hear advice about academia from all and sundry. When we spoke to students in 2021, one final year PhD student noted, 

“There are so many different aspects to learn about and it’s difficult to know what you don’t know. This leaves you always wondering whether you are missing something. There are also many different perspectives offered by others – everyone’s experience is so different that it’s hard to work out what advice applies to you and what does not.”1

Given that each person’s experience in a PhD program is unique, how does a PhD student come to know what their identity as a researcher is?

When someone asks you to describe yourself, on which area of your life do you focus? Perhaps you highlight your job or education, listing your interests and achievements. Maybe you highlight your religion and/or ethnicity, highlighting how these shape your approach to life. You may explore your family and personal life, showcasing the impact these areas have on your life satisfaction. The stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are, who we are not, and who we ‘should’ be in our context, can be defined as our identity

Identity is multifaceted and continuously shaped through our experiences. It is also significantly influenced by the context in which we find ourselves – the implicit practices within our context tell us what is expected of us.  As researchers, we are particularly interested in the concept of academic identity – the stories people tell themselves and others about who they are or are not within the context of academia. A PhD student’s academic identity is, therefore, largely shaped through the narratives and practices they experience within academia as they conduct their research.

An area of special interest for us is the doctoral education environment in higher education institutions. As higher education researchers, we experience the daily influence of academia on our own sense of who we are. We have seen PhD students try to navigate the often implicit knowledges and practices of academia during their studies. These implicit knowledges and practices are rarely taught and can cause an environment of exclusiveness – a space where some are privileged while others are marginalised. We were interested in exploring how PhD students’ experiences influence their perception of their place within the context of academia.

We believe that, to understand the experiences of PhD students as they navigate this complex environment, you have to highlight their voices. By listening to their stories, we believe we can better understand their journeys and, consequently, design improved educational experiences. We have used this approach in the past, which allowed us to explore the personal journeys of several doctoral students as they reflected on their own studies.2 The autobiographical narratives that the PhD students wrote highlighted that the PhD significantly influenced their wellbeing, sense of identity, and intercultural competence. For example, one student noted:

“I understand the PhD as an office-like job; however, your job has a lack of clarity regarding how you are supposed to achieve your goals. You get to decide what you need to do each day, but your plans change all the time as your research results take your study in a new direction. This of course means that you have a great deal of flexibility, but it also means there is a lot of uncertainty during your PhD journey. Personally, this meant that I found my PhD journey extremely stressful and mentally exhausting.”3

To explore PhD students’ academic identity development, we conducted a large-scale research project exploring the experiences and lived realities of 29 PhD students at an Australian university. We used a creative approach that was designed to highlight the voices of the students through narratives and poems, allowing us to explore academic identity development from their points of view. The first findings from this project was recently published in The Journal of Higher Education and has since received significant attention from the academic community. An open access post-print version of this article is available here.

To start our research, we wanted to know why students committed the time and energy to pursue a PhD degree. We found our participants pursued a PhD as a stepping stone for future career success, to learn more about themselves or a particular academic topic, and to solve a problem in their local context. The students believed that the PhD was an all-consuming endeavour, something that should only be attempted by someone if they could fully dedicate themselves to the pursuit.

Further exploration of our participants’ experiences helped us to discover that PhD students experience significant pressure to build their personal brand. They felt that there was considerable tension between developing disciplinary knowledge and building professional skills (also sometimes termed “soft skills” or “transferable skills”). Yet they also felt that both these forms of personal knowledge were essential for later career success. Importantly, our study showed that several of our participants felt marginalised in their ability to develop these different forms of personal knowledge. They felt that their agency to take control of their own learning was hindered by various institutions that influenced the context of academia including the universities themselves, government agencies, and scholarship funding agencies. As a result, several students felt disempowered during their educational journey which adversely affected their academic identity.

As noted by one participant,

“This has been taxing intellectually but VERY taxing on my sense of self and my sense of self worth as a scholar.”1

The tension students experience highlights that the links between disciplinary knowledge and professional skills are not made clear to students. We believe that professional skills actually increase the applicability of disciplinary knowledge. For example, if PhD students do not have the ability to communicate their research to a wider audience, it is likely that their disciplinary knowledge will linger in relative obscurity. We also believe that the act of doing disciplinary research teaches a range of professional skills as a consequence. For example, conducting literature research to identify a research project for study necessitates the use of a variety of analytical skills. It is, therefore, our responsibility as educators to help PhD students reflect on the knowledge and skills they already possess. This reflective approach can help students develop an understanding of the variety of skills they have already developed during their studies, giving them the agency to seek targeted professional development approaches for future career success.

Importantly, our research should act as a clarion call for those in academia. We implore educators to value different forms of knowledge and skills. This approach will help the scholars and problem-solvers of the future develop a strong sense of who they are and where they fit within their respective fields.

Dr Lynette Pretorius works with undergraduate, postgraduate, and graduate research students to improve their academic language and literacy skills in the Academic Language, Literacy and Numeracy Development Team at Monash University.

Dr Luke Macaulay is a research fellow at Deakin University’s Centre for Refugee Employment, Advocacy, Training, and Education (CREATE), researching the education and employment experiences of people from refugee and asylum seeking backgrounds.

References

1.     Pretorius, L., & Macaulay, L. (2021). Notions of human capital and academic identity in the PhD: Narratives of the disempowered. Journal of Higher Education, 1-25. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2020.1854605

2.     Pretorius, L., Macaulay, L., & Cahusac de Caux, B. (2019). Wellbeing in doctoral education: Insights and guidance from the student experience. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-9302-0

3.     Lau, R. W. K., & Pretorius, L. (2019). Intrapersonal wellbeing and the academic mental health crisis. In L. Pretorius, L. Macaulay, & B. Cahusac de Caux (Eds.), Wellbeing in doctoral education: Insights and guidance from the student experience (pp. 37-45). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-9302-0_5