More than a degree: Student reasons for undertaking PhD study

Year: 2016

Author: Fairbairn, Hedy, Holbrook, Allyson, Scevak, Jill, Shaw, Kylie, Budd, Janene

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Interest in student motivation for doing a doctorate, and reasons for undertaking a PhD constitute an established strand in the literature (Guerin et al., 2014) but rarely is such work set in the context of student learning. Candidates enrolled in a PhD were invited to complete an online survey encompassing demographic and candidature attributes and a suite of metacognitive questionnaires indicating management of affective, intellectual and contingency demands in learning (Cantwell et al., 2015). One of the candidature questions asked: What were the main reasons you enrolled in a PhD? Respondents were asked to rank up to five options – ‘Career advancement’, ‘Employer expectation’, ‘Interest in the field of study’, ‘The intellectual challenge’, and ‘Other’. Candidates from 33 Australian and 23 overseas universities responded, 1710 completing this question. The sample was biased towards Australian universities (80%), females (69%) and two thirds (66%) were under 40 years of age. This paper reports on the reasons given by students for undertaking PhD study. Additional questions posed are: whether the reasons given are intrinsic or extrinsic; their relative importance; how they are linked to other demographic factors and learning characteristics.‘Interest in the field’ was considered the most important reason with the highest mean response rank and the highest number of rankings overall. This was significantly higher than ‘Career advancement’, ‘Intellectual challenge’, and ‘Employer expectation’ which was ranked lowest. Grouping the reasons into extrinsic (‘Career advancement’ plus ‘Employer expectation’) and intrinsic (‘Interest in the field’ plus ‘Intellectual challenge’), the mean rank for intrinsic was significantly higher than for extrinsic. ‘Other’ reasons were added by 274 respondents. Intrinsic motives included Self-improvement (ranked the highest), Altruism, Love of Learning, Dream/Goal/Ambition and extrinsic, Career change, Funding, Credentials/Status. Demographic factors impacting on the reasons for enrolment included age, marital status, country of residence, and first language. The candidature elements included part-time or full-time enrolment, entry qualification and scholarship support. There was a significant positive relationship between the metacognitive construct, ‘Need for Cognition’, and ‘Intellectual challenge’ but a negative one with the extrinsic factors – ‘Career advancement’ and ‘Employer expectation’.The study supports previous findings (e.g., Litalien et al., 2015; Stiber, 2000; Leonard, 2005) that, for many prospective PhD candidates, intrinsic motives such as Interest in the Field and the Intellectual challenge it offers are more important than extrinsic ones. The findings raise some pertinent questions about the contemporary emphasis on industry engagement.