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Prior studies have reported high levels of PhD stress resulting in exhaustion and cynicism related to negative institutional factors. Yet, we know little of the possible influence of personal lives on exhaustion/ cynicism. This mixed-methods study examines the interrelation. We drew on exhaustion, cynicism, life-work relation scales and free-write responses about managing life and work of 123 Swiss PhD students. Respondents typically reported positive life-work relations, with this experience particularly buffering exhaustion, which can lead to cynicism and possibly burnout. The analysis of free-write responses supported this view. Respondents reported they largely balanced/managed to balance life and work, with family most frequently referenced in this regard. Finally, we combined the scaled and free-write responses. Individuals, even if reporting exhaustion and negative aspects in their life-work relations, consistently reported being able to combine their career and life goals. This alignment may serve as a mechanism for buffering other life-work and institutional challenges.
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Studies in Higher Education
ISSN: 0307-5079 (Print) 1470-174X (Online) Journal homepage:
PhD experience (and progress) is more than work:
life-work relations and reducing exhaustion (and
Lynn McAlpine, Isabelle Skakni & Kirsi Pyhältö
To cite this article: Lynn McAlpine, Isabelle Skakni & Kirsi Pyhältö (2020): PhD experience (and
progress) is more than work: life-work relations and reducing exhaustion (and cynicism), Studies in
Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2020.1744128
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Published online: 25 Mar 2020.
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PhD experience (and progress) is more than work: life-work
relations and reducing exhaustion (and cynicism)
Lynn McAlpine
, Isabelle Skakni
and Kirsi Pyhältö
Department of Education, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK;
Department of Educational and Counselling
Psychology, McGill University, Montreal, Canada;
Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University,
Lancaster, UK;
University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Western Switzerland, Lausanne, Switzerland;
Center for
University Teaching and Learning, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland;
Faculty of Educational Sciences,
University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland;
Department of Curriculum Studies, University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch,
Prior studies have reported high levels of PhD stress resulting in
exhaustion and cynicism related to negative institutional factors. Yet, we
know little of the possible inuence of personal lives on exhaustion/
cynicism. This mixed-methods study examines the interrelation. We
drew on exhaustion, cynicism, life-work relation scales and free-write
responses about managing life and work of 123 Swiss PhD students.
Respondents typically reported positive life-work relations, with this
experience particularly buering exhaustion, which can lead to cynicism
and possibly burnout. The analysis of free-write responses supported
this view. Respondents reported they largely balanced/managed to
balance life and work, with family most frequently referenced in this
regard. Finally, we combined the scaled and free-write responses.
Individuals, even if reporting exhaustion and negative aspects in their
life-work relations, consistently reported being able to combine their
career and life goals. This alignment may serve as a mechanism for
buering other life-work and institutional challenges.
Doctoral education;
exhaustion; cynicism; life-
work relation; mixed
Traditionally, eorts to understand PhD experience have focused on experiences related to contex-
tual factors within academia. Qualitative studies have tended to examine how supervision, peer inter-
action, writing support, and cultural diversity inuence PhD student satisfaction and progress, but
due to their small scale, and often exploratory, nature they do not specically link to (lack of) well-
being (Ives and Rowley 2005)an issue of increasing concern institutionally (The Graduate Assembly
2014). Quantitative studies, on the other hand, have made more direct links to the inuence of insti-
tutional factors on satisfaction, progress and (lack of) well-being (Holbrook et al. 2014 in Australia)
and high rates of fatigue, stress and unhappiness (Solem, Hopwood and Schlemper 2011 in the
US ).
Overall, both sets of studies have linked an accumulation of negative institutional experiences,
such as intellectual climate, funding, social support, supervisory relationship, to burnout whereas
positive experiences contribute to well-being and the absence of experienced burnout. By focusing
on the institutional context, these studies have largely leafte aside the possible inuence of personal
lives on reduced well-being, e.g. exhaustion and cynicism, and PhD progress. They have ignored how
© 2020 Society for Research into Higher Education
CONTACT Lynn McAlpine Department of Education, 15 Norham Gardens, Oxford, 0X2 6PT, UK
PhD experiences are embedded in broader life experiences (McAlpine and Amundsen 2011). In this
mixed-methods study, we examined this possible interaction drawing on scaled-item and free-write
survey responses of 123 Swiss PhD students.
Previous research
PhD program inuences
For some time, retention, satisfaction and completion have been key reference points for universities
and for research on doctoral experience. Retention often measured in share of those students who do
complete their doctoral degree incorporates the notion of persistence, the ability to experience sat-
isfaction, since satisfaction is linked to engagement in research, greater well-being and more timely
completion with the reverse eects being burnout and lack of completion risk. Prior research shows
that retention rates in doctoral education are far from optimal; depending on the discipline, 30% to
70% of doctoral students never to complete their PhD degree (Gardner and Gopaul 2012; Ivankova
and Stick 2007). Those who do complete their degree show consistent determination i.e. persistence
in their studies by facing and overcoming long line of challenges that may without sucient support
turn into stressors (Barry et al. 2018; Cotterall 2013).
Unfortunately, there is plentiful evidence that globally PhD students do experience prolonged stress
during their programs. For instance, approximately 40% of PhD students in the University of California
(US) reported feeling under constant strain, while 30% reported feeling unhappy (University of California
Graduate Student Well-Being Survey 2017). Similarly, at the University of Berkeley (US) about a fourth of
the PhD students reported reduced levels of life satisfaction (The Graduate Assembly Graduate Student
2014). In the Netherlands, comparable high levels of anxiety experienced by PhD students have been
reported (van der Weijden et al. 2017). Given the growing reports on PhD student distress, it is clear that
aspects of PhD work do not necessarily provide an optimal environment for sustaining well-being (Levecque
et al. 2017; Reevy and Deason 2014). In one such study in Finland, 56% considered dropping out at some point
during the PhD process, and that decision was inuenced by experiences of stress, anxiety, exhaustion, and
lack of interest (Anttila et al. 2015). Experiences of exhaustion and cynicism increased the risk of dropping out,
while receiving supervision from several supervisors decreased this risk (Cornér, Löfström, and Pyhältö 2017).
Burnout syndrome results from chronic work-related stress (Maslach and Jackson 1981). It has two
distinctive symptoms: exhaustion that is characterized by feelings of strain, chronic fatigue and lack of
emotional energy (Maslach, Schaufeli, and Leiter 2001), and cynicism by loss of interest in oneswork
and feeling that it has lost its meaning, and distancing oneself from work (Maslach 2003; Maslach and
Leiter 2008). A strong relationship between exhaustion and cynicism has been identied: in general,
both tend to emerge from overload at work, heavy job demands, and social conict (Maslach 2003).
Exhaustion is the initial component of burnout leading to the development of cynicism, an ineective
coping strategy which eventually cumulates in feelings of inadequacy (Leiter 1989; Moneta 2011).
Prolonged extensive stress amongst doctoral students can lead to exhaustion and feelings of cyni-
cism that are separately precursors of burnout syndrome which is, for instance, the case for Swiss lec-
turers (Lewis 2016). It can also lead to depression as reported in Dutch PhD students (van der Weijden
et al. 2017) and in Flemish PhD students (Levecque et al. 2017). In fact, it has been suggested that up to a
third of PhD students have suered from exhaustion (Danish students: Hermann, Wichmann-Hansen,
and Jensen 2014; multi-national study: Hunter and Devine 2016)and up to 47% have displayed some
depressive symptoms in a US study (The Graduate Assembly Graduate Student 2014). Results of prior
studies on gendered dierences in experienced well-being are inconsistent. While some studies
suggest that gendered dierences do exist, for instance, women being more likely to suer from
exhaustion, men are found to suer from lower levels of stress and sleeping problems (see review
by Schmidt and Hansson 2018). Yet in other studies, there are no statistically signicant dierences
between female and male doctoral candidates, for instance, in depression symptoms or life-satisfaction
(The Graduate Assembly Graduate Student 2014; van der Weijden et al. 2017).
Previous research has shown that academic social support, sense of belonging, good work-
environment t, and employing active strategies can buer exhaustion and cynicism among PhD stu-
dents (Hunter and Devine 2016). In turn, supervisory problems and lack of faculty support are related
to increased risk for developing burnout (Peluso, Carleton, and Asmundson 2011). Our cross-national
team has been working for some time examining these factors. For instance, Pyhältö, Stubb, and
Lonka (2009) and Castelló et al. (2017) have both reported that engaging intellectually and socially
with other students promotes greater satisfaction and reduces risk for experiencing exhaustion
and cynicism and study abandonment. Similarly, students in research teams can display experienced
support, reduced stress levels, fewer emotional problems, and enhanced success rates (Stubb,
Pyhältö, and Lonka 2011). Cornér, Löfström, and Pyhältö (2017) and Stubb, Pyhältö, and Lonka
(2011) showed that academic social support, sense of belonging, good work-environment t, and
employing active strategies can buer exhaustion and cynicism. Lastly, Pyhältö et al. (2019)
showed experiencing high levels of interest, particularly research interest may reduce the risk of
experiencing exhaustion, cynicism and study drop-out, as well as increase satisfaction with doctoral
Identity-trajectory and life-work relation
The conception of identity-trajectory (McAlpine and Amundsen 2011), which draws on longitudinal
data, identied individualslives outside of work as a powerful ongoing source of both resources and
constraints in relation to work experiences. In other words, this personal, non-work, element of indi-
vidualslives was in relatively constant interaction with PhD/ work experiences in both positive and
negative ways. For instance, family could provide emotional support for PhD work and/or take time
away from the PhD.
This interaction, often characterized negatively in the literature as interference or intrusion, is typi-
cally high in academia (Fox, Fonseca, and Bao 2011; Sun, Wu, and Wang 2011). PhD students, for
instance, commonly work evenings and weekends (El-Ghoroury et al. 2012; Kinman 2001) which
may increase the risk of home-work conict (e.g. with researchers, Woehrer 2014; with PhD students,
Mason, Goulden, and Frasch 2009). PhD students have reported struggling to reconcile their personal
values with the requirements of their programs to sacrice animals(Holley 2009), leaving early if
they experience a poor t (Golde 1998), turning away from a desire for an academic career given
the negative eects of work on personal life in faculty careers (Mason, Goulden, and Frasch 2009).
As well, de Welde and Laursen (2011), among others, have reported conicts between childbearing
and an academic career. A number of qualitative studies have more directly explored this life-work
interaction (e.g. Brown and Watson 2010; Martinez et al. 2018)broadening our understanding of
factors outside the program that inuence PhD investment and progress though not a connection
to (lack of) well-being or exhaustion. Yet, life-work conicts among academic employees have shown
particularly strong relations with psychological distress (Kinman and Jones 2003; Kinman, Jones, and
Kinman 2006), implying that in turn good life-work relations may function as a buer for experiencing
exhaustion and cynicism among PhD students, though empirical evidence is scarce.
Our own work in this regard dates to McAlpine, Amundsen, and Jazvac-Martek (2010) in which
qualitative analysis of PhD characterizations of life-work relation were bi-directional and dynamic.
A later analysis (McAlpine and Amundsen 2017) demonstrated a constellation of life-work relation
factors contributing to disengagement from the PhD, again not linked to exhaustion personal
values not aligned to work, lack of well-being, lack of work-life balance, tensions between family pri-
orities and responsibilities and work, and poor alignment with life goals. In Mitra and McAlpine (2017),
negotiating work and family life was the strongest of the life-work concerns amongst post-PhD
researchers. While the relation was bi-directional and could be positive or negative, the primary inter-
action pattern was family to work. Finally, in a mixed methods study of post-PhD researchers, we
concluded that work-related factors were insucient to explain intention to remain and that
further quantitative work was required to understand the interaction of life-work relation and
work-related factors (McAlpine, Pyhältö, and Castelló 2018). The conjunction of these studies, both
qualitative and mixed-methods, led to this study exploring the potential intersection of exhaustion
and cynicism related to program factors and life-work relation in a mixed-methods study.
The study aimed to understand better the interaction of life-work relation with PhD studentsexhaus-
tion, cynicism and progress. We used a concurrent nested mixed-method design (Creswell and Clark
2017). Accordingly, the quantitative and qualitative data were collected in a single phase from the
same participants in order to obtain a more developed understanding of the interrelation
between the life-work relation, and exhaustion and cynicism among the PhD. students. We then
used the dierent but complementary data in a nested analysis to seek information from dierent
perspectives on the research problem and to ensure the overall results were robust (Creswell et al.
2003). We looked rst at the quantitative data, before the qualitative data with the aim of comparing
and explaining the two sets of results. While the quantitative data and results oer a general picture,
the qualitative phase provides a rened explanation of the statistical results by highlighting the sub-
jective dimension of the experiences (Creswell and Clark 2017). In this study, we used a three-phase
Quantitative analysis (scaled survey items)
.Does the experienced life-work relation scale predict experienced exhaustion and cynicism
towards doctoral studies and study abandonment intentions among PhD students?
.What dierences in experienced life-work relation, exhaustion and cynicism can be detected (a)
between women and men, and (b) doctoral students with and without children?
Qualitative analysis (free-write survey items)
.How do PhD students characterize the inuence of their personal lives (positively and nega-
tively) on work and why?
Combined analysis (both sets of data)
.Are there patterns in the responses to the scaled and free-write responses that oer insight into
the interaction of life-work issues and experience of exhaustion and cynicism?
There are two main drawbacks of the concurrent design: rstly, it does not entail follow-up on any
interesting or confusing issues that may arise as analysis unfolds, and secondly the data integration
may become challenging if the results are divergent (Creswell et al. 2003; Warfa 2016). It may also be
dicult to compare and contrast qualitative and quantitative data without transforming them to a
common scale though such transformation may sacrice the depth and the contextual data associ-
ated with the qualitative research (Warfa 2016). To avoid these pitfalls we carried out the analysis in
the three phases described above.
Method and results
Data collection
The data were collected through an online Cross-Country Doctoral Experience (abbreviation C-DES)
survey during 2017 (see C-DES manual Pyhältö et al. 2018; Castelló, Pyhältö, and McAlpine 2018).
The survey included both scaled items and free-write questions. The C-DES survey is a multidimen-
sional self-report instrument designed to measure PhD students study experience across countries
and disciplines. The scale and item development of the C-DES was based on PhD student reports
gained in qualitative, exploratory studies on PhD studentsstudy experiences across the disciplines
and countries. The survey was originally developed and used for exploring doctoral experience
among Finnish PhD students (e.g. Pyhältö, Stubb, and Lonka 2009; Pyhältö, Vekkaila, and Keskinen
2015; Sakurai, Vekkaila, and Pyhältö 2017; Löfström and Pyhältö 2019). The present version of C-
DES has been further developed and validated in across seven European countries, including
Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Estonia, UK and Switzerland. The validation procedures have
included cross-country validation by using expert judgement (researcher from each country) and
forwardbackward translation procedure, pilot studies in each participating country (before data col-
lection) to conrm the appropriateness of the wording both linguistically and culturally and the
overall structure of the questionnaire, and conrmatory factor analysis on the scales (see C-DES
manual Pyhältö et al. 2018). In this study, the following C-DES-scales were used: (1) cynicism and
exhaustion and (2) life-work relation. The qualitative data were open-ended questions that asked
individuals to characterize how well they balanced their work and personal lives and why.
Quantitative analysis
Respondents (N= 123) were doctoral students enrolled in four research-oriented universities, each
equally representative of the Western Switzerland context. The universities vary as regards the size
of their PhD population from 600 to 2300. The doctoral students of these universities were con-
tacted via their graduate schoolslistservs
in 2017. Amongst the 123 who completed the survey,
the majority were females (58.3%), and their average age was 31.50 (SD = 4.75) years. Forty
percent of them had considered dropping out at some point. Furthermore, 58.3% were full-time doc-
toral students, and 41.7% were part-time students. A minority (22.0%) had children.
For this analysis, we used items from three of the scales: cynicism, exhaustion and life-work relation
the rst two collectively representing burnout (Cornér, Löfström, and Pyhältö 2017; Stubb, Pyhältö, and
Lonka 2011). The cynicism towards studies scale (5 items) and exhaustion in studies scale (6 items) draw
on the burnout scale originally developed by Maslach and Jackson (1981). They have been validated
with dierent professionals and across socio-cultural contexts. Cynicism refers to losing interest in
ones work and feeling that ones research has lost its meaning, with often reduced work involvement,
while exhaustion is characterized by a lack of emotional energy and feeling strained and tired at
research work. The scales measuring the doctoral studentscynicism towards doctoral studies and
exhaustion resulted from studies piloted in seven European countries, including forwardbackward
translation procedure. Moreover, the scales have been validated in prior studies by using dierent
national contexts with dierent sub-samples of doctoral students and dierent disciplinary back-
grounds have consistently showed good reliability (see e.g. Cornér, Löfström, and Pyhältö 2017; Pelto-
nen et al. 2017). The life-work relation scale (3 items) characterizes three dimensions of life-work-
relation developed from our qualitative studies (for instance, McAlpine, Amundsen, and Jazvac-
Martek 2010; McAlpine and Amundsen 2017), summarized in McAlpine and Amundsen (2018). The
three were all positively stated: (a) satisfaction with the balance between work and personal life, i.e.
work-life balance not an issue; (b) career and life goals can be combined, i.e. life goals supported in
work, and (c) PhD work in line with personal values, i.e. personal values relevant in work. The items
were rst formulated in English and then a translation-back-translation procedure was applied. The
life-work-relation scale was piloted in an Estonian university before collecting the data from Switzer-
land. Moreover, the French scale was piloted in Swiss contexts before actual data collection. All the
scale items were measured using a 7-point scale (1 = strongly disagree, 7 = fully agree). The conrma-
tory analysis on all the scales used in this study has been conducted (see Pyhältö et al. 2018 C-DES
manual). The items and the results of the explorative factor analyses with the Swiss data are presented
in Table 1. In addition, the number of children and gender were also surveyed. It took 1520 min to
complete the survey. All the participants received written information about the project and gave
their consent to participate according to the research ethics procedures in the respective jurisdictions.
Quantitative analysis
We rst screened all the data for missing values, outliers, and distribution, using procedures designed
to ensure that the assumptions for exploratory factor analysis and t-tests were met. This was followed
by exploratory factor analyses (EFA) with Maximum Likelihood extraction and Promax rotation to
investigate the factorial structure of the measures of Burnout -scale and Life-work relation-scale.
The decision as to the number of factors to retain was based on the eigenvalues of the factors,
the screen test criterion, and the theoretical salience of the rotated factors. A two-factor solution
for the Burnout -scale explaining 51.6% of the variance of the empirical variables and a one-factor
solution explaining 41.3% of the variance of the empirical variables for the Life-work relation-scale
(see Table 1) seemed most plausible. Compound variables representing the factors were created
by calculating the arithmetic mean of the variables with the highest loading on a given factor. The
reliability of the scales ranged from good to satisfactory. Set of t-test were utilized in order to test
the dierences between females and males, those with children and those without in experienced
cynicism, exhaustion and life-work relation.
Finally, simple linear regressions were performed to
predict exhaustion, cynicism and drop-out intentions based on life-work relation.
We asked:
.Does the experienced life-work relation scale predict experienced exhaustion and cynicism
towards doctoral studies and study abandonment intentions among PhD students?
.What dierences in experienced life-work relation, exhaustion and cynicism can be detected (a)
between women and men, and (b) doctoral students with and without children?
Overall, doctoral students experienced moderate levels of cynicism (M= 3.31, S.D. = 1.50) and
exhaustion (M= 3.54, S.D. = 1.30). At the same time, they typically reported a good life-work relation
(M= 4.98, S.D. = 1.19), that is, individuals were satised with balance, able to combine career and life
goals, and PhD work aligned with personal values.
Further investigation showed that female doctoral students (M= 3.86, SD = 1.29) experienced
more (t(124) = 2.344.16, p> .05) exhaustion than male students (M= 3.31, SD = 1.31). There were no
gender dierences in cynicism and life-work relation nor did we found statistically signicant
Table 1. Items included in Burnout and Life-work relation scales.
Scales Factor 1 Factor 2
Burnout (*two-factor solution, KMO = .87; Bartletts test p< .001)
F1: Cynicism (7 items; eigenvalue = 5.39; alpha = .91)
I have diculties in nding any meaning to my doctoral dissertation.
I feel that I am losing interest in my doctoral research.
I feel my doctoral dissertation is useless.
I often have feelings of inadequacy in my doctoral research.
I brood over matters related to doctoral research a lot during my free time.
I used to have higher expectations of my doctoral research than I do now.
I often feel that I fail at my doctoral research.
F2: Exhaustion (4 items; eigenvalue = 1.77; alpha = .76)
I feel burned out.
The pressure of my doctoral dissertation causes me problems in my close relationships with others.
I often sleep badly because of matters related to my doctoral research.
I feel overwhelmed by the workload of my doctoral research.
Life-Work-Relation (**one-factor solution, KMO = .61; Bartletts test p< .001)
F1: Balance and values (3 items; eigenvalue = 1.91; alpha = .71)
I am satised with my work-life balance.
I am able to combine my career and life goals such as the desire for children
My work as a researcher is in line with my personal values
*ML factoring with Promax rotation was used.
**PA factoring was used.
dierences between those PhD students who had children and who had no children on exhaustion
and cynicism or life-work relation score.
A simple linear regression was carried out to predict exhaustion, cynicism and drop-out intentions
based on life-work relation. For all three predicted variables, we found signicant regression
equations (see Table 2).
As seen from Table 2, poor life-work relation predicted both exhaustion and cynicism negatively
and explained 21% and 9% of the variance of the variables, respectively. However, life-work relation
was not a statistically signicant predictor of drop-out intentions. Accordingly, the results showed
that positive experienced life-work relation plays a central role in buering experienced cynicism
and, particularly exhaustion.
Free-write analysis
Our purpose was to explain the subjective individual experiences underlying the quantitative
responses (Creswell and Clark 2017) by analyzing the free-write responses at the end of the
survey. These responses were not based on the scaled items about life-work relation, rather asked
individuals to characterize how well they balanced their work and personal lives and why.
We set aside any of the 123 surveys in which the free-write responses were missing, resulting in 87
responses, 70.7% of the total sample. This group was representative of the larger group: 60.1% were
female, average age was 31.90 (SD = 5.08) years, 41.4% had considered dropping-out at some point,
54.0% were full-time doctoral students and 22.9% had children.
For this analysis, we used the responses from three of the four free-response items setting aside the
last question that was not central to the study:
Q1. In general, how well do you balance your work and personal lives?
Q2. What elements of your personal life have an inuence on your work achievement?
Q3. Why?
Q4. What strategies enable you to create a balance in your personal and work life or challenges prevent you from
creating this balance?
We used a narrative approach (Reissman 2008), which meant we focused at the level of the individual
interpreting each individuals free-write responses within the context of all information we had
about that individual, specically, gender, discipline, whether in partnership, with or without children,
as well as their coded scores on the exhaustion and life-work relation scales.
All these data were imported into MaxQDA. The exhaustion items represent negative statements
about life-work relation, so the expectation was that high scores on exhaustion would tend to be
associated with negative free-write responses for Q.1. The reverse was true for the life-work relation
Table 2. Results of simple regression analyses using Life-work relationas predictor
Predicted variable tPBFdfPadj. R
Exhaustion 5.81 <.001 .51 33.79 1,125 <.001 .21
Cynicism 3.69 <.001 .39 13.61 1,125 <.001 .09
Study abandonment intentions* 1.59 .114 .06 2.53 1,125 .114 .02
*Used as a dummy variable where 0 = no and 1 = yes.
items: high scores on life-work relation would tend to be associated with positive free-write
responses to Q.1 as well as to Q.2 and Q. 3 that were understood to provide rationales for the
answer to Q.1. As noted above, we do not examine Q.4 but report some of the responses in the
respondent examples below.
We used emergent thematic coding (Schreier 2012) in which we looked at the rst 20 responses
together discussing possible codes, then coded these individually followed by discussion to rene
codes and code denitions. We continued in this fashion, coding and then discussing another 20
30 at a time and making adjustments as needed.
We generated the following codes for the free-responses; they represent the more recurrent
themes that emerged from the respondentsanswers to the three questions:
Q.1: balancing life and work (unequivocally positive), managing to balance (may include some hedging), not bal-
ancing (unequivocally negative)
Q.2: family (nuclear and extended), partner, sports, personal life broadly, other (nances, job security); note that
individuals often named more than one element
Q.3: life inuencing work, work inuencing life, maintaining a balance, other; again, respondents sometimes gave a
number of reasons
For the scales, we coded each scale as a unit, assigning a code that represented the overall prole of
the responses to the individual items (explained in more detail later). We proceeded in this way for
each of the 87 respondents.
We asked the question: How do PhD students characterize the inuence of their personal lives (posi-
tively and negatively) on work and why?
In reporting the results, we provide examples, brief cameos, to give a sense of what individ-
uals actually said situated within their individual contexts (demographic information and their
coded scale items). These respondents are representative of the group as a whole: mostly
female, mostly without children, around average age, so roughly in the same life phase (Levinson
Four-fths of participants reported either maintaining a balance (about 2/5) or managing to
balance (about 2/5) life and work, with the remaining 1/5 reporting not balancing. Their responses
support the statistical conclusion that respondents were generally positive about their ability to main-
tain balance.
Marias answer is representative. A social scientist, aged 31, in a couple, no child had a low exhaus-
tion score and medium-high life-work score. Maria describes herself as currently balancing life and
work (though not in the past) due to the encouragement of her family and the well-being provided
by her lover. She recognized multiple factors in this regard and had clear strategies for separating life
and work. Here are her detailed answers:
Q1. In general, how well do you balance your work and personal lives?
At the moment, Im quite satised and condent in my capacity to maintain a balance between my work and personal lives
(but this has not always been the case!)
Q2. What elements of your personal life have an inuence on your work achievement?
My family and my relationship with my partner (both positively and negatively).
Q3. Why?
My family is a great source of encouragement.
My relationship with my partner has an impact on both my pace of work and my work commitment as well as on how I
anticipate my future (mobility, level of responsibilities, working hours, etc.). But the opposite is also true; my family and my
love relationship are impacted by my work (both positively and negatively)
Q4. What strategies enable you to create a balance in your personal and work life or challenges prevent you from
creating this balance?
Not working on weekends and not answering emails outside of oce hours
As seen in Marias example, most reported more than one aspect of their lives which
inuenced their sense of balance (or lack thereof). The most frequent responses (close to half)
were family; followed closely by partner; then sports with close to a quarter; personal life one-
sixth (social life, rest, holidays, hobbies, well-being) and other(nances, lack of job security,
my otherwork) less than 10%. These results conrm previous qualitative studies of life factors
as inuential, and goes beyond them in linking these perceptions to balancing (or not) personal
life and work.
Examining the responses to why?(Q.3) began to provide insight into responses to Q.1 and Q.2 as
can be seen in Marias answers above. Here we see something of the bi-directionality of the relation
between work and personal life, i.e. that sometimes work inuenced personal life and other times
personal life inuenced work.
The most frequent response, close to half, could be characterized as life inuencing workand
these were generally positive.
Diane (social sciences, aged 30, in a couple, no child with exhaustion score medium-low and life-
work score medium-high) is a good example. Her answer to Q.1 represents a particularly clear
response and rationale (italicized):
I dont want to put my work rst and foremost. My personal life is my priority. Balancing my personal and work lives
is essential and I do everything I can to ensure that my work doesnt impinge my personal life.
As to why this was (Q.3): My partner is an academic too, so we have enriching and supportive dis-
cussions when I face diculties[] having a social life and hobbies along with physical exercise
really is a real change from sitting behind a desk.
Greg (social sciences, aged 29, single with no child, with low exhaustion and high life-work scores)
reported the following: Being a sports trainer and doing loads of other activities outside university
lets me, in fact, forces me to leave the oce and think about other things.
Elsa (social sciences, aged 31, married, no child, with medium-low exhaustion and medium life-
work scores) noted the inuence of life on limiting mobility though not necessarily in a negative
sense but as a reality: A postdoc abroad would imply moving with my [partner], so this is not just
about me.Others made similar comments in relation to children.
While most reported life impacting work, 1/5 reported work impacting life. For instance, Annabel
(natural sciences, aged 36, in a couple with one child, with high exhaustion and mixed life-work
scores) reported the following: I must comply with strict schedules to be able to spend time with
my daughter and, often, I have to work again once she is in bed.
Less than 10% reported that the relationship between their work and life was bi-directional, as
James (social sciences, aged 40, married, no child, with medium-low exhaustion and high life-work
scores) explains here: My [doctoral] research is part of my life plan. It helps me reconcile my personal
and professional lives and it enables me to grow professionally in my eld of expertise.
In contrast, descriptions of work inuencing lifetended more to the negative, for instance,
Evelyna (social sciences, aged 35, single, no child, with medium exhaustion and medium-high life-
work scores) reported her struggles as follows: To be ecient, I must engage myself body and
soul in my work [and] sometimes Im unavailable for those around me.
These ndings are intriguing in that they suggest individuals are setting clear priorities in mana-
ging their life-work decisions with in many cases life trumping work and that doing so buers
experienced burnout (quantitative results). In other words, these results support the quantitative
analysis and provide a basis for interpreting the results of the combined analysis.
Combined analysis
Again, the question we asked was: How do PhD students characterize the inuence of their personal
lives (positively and negatively) on work and why? But this time we combined the qualitative and
quantitative coded data and asked a more pointed question: Are there patterns in the responses
to the scaled and free-write responses that oer insight into the interaction of life-work issues and
experience of exhaustion?
To combine the two scaled items (Exhaustion and Life-work relation) into our analysis of the 87 free-
write responses, we coded each scale as a unit, assigning a code that represented an overall response
pattern to the individual items, for each respondent (based on the 7-point scale: 1 = strongly dis-
agree, 7 = fully agree). Table 3 shows these dierent response patterns.
We were quite surprised at the number of mixed codes that emerged in the life-work scale. Thus,
we looked more closely at the response patterns and noticed that one item was consistently rated
high regardless of the scores on the other two items:I am able to combine my career and life
goals such as the desire for children.As a result, we set aside this item and re-coded the life-work
scale responses.
The result was a much clearer distribution of responses. (We are mindful that
this item directs attention to having children and not the range of other career and life goals align-
ments possible, e.g. co-locating with partner, caring for elderly parents).
Then, we did a series of analyses. These incorporated both our shared understanding of the data
and MaxQDA analysis tools, e.g. complex coding queries, to create proles of respondents as regards
the relationship between their dierent free-write comments and the survey responses, for instance,
intersection of balancing(Q1) and low exhaustion (exhaustion scale); intersection of managing to
balance (Q1) and work impacts life(Q3).
The rst nding relates specically to the life-work scale: the consistency with which respondents had
high scores on the item about combining their career and life goals. This was regardless of their
responses related to the other two items, which could be extremely low. This consistency suggests
PhD students may generally seek to engage in PhD programs and research that avoid such a mis-
Second, what was particularly striking was that a small portion of individuals (14%) showed pat-
terns that were somewhat contradictory. The rst pattern was reporting managing to balancelife
and work in their free-write responses, alongside mediumor mixed exhaustionand medium
life-workscores. A second pattern was reporting balancinglife and work in their free-write responses
but reporting mixed exhaustionand highor medium-high life-workscores. Further, there was one
instance of reporting balancingin the free-write response alongside high exhaustionand medium-
high life-workscores. This suggests to us that while individuals may be balancing or managing to
balance, this was sometimes a precarious situation with the presence of dierent aspects of exhaus-
tion (e.g. sleep disruption) potentially having long-term eects that could contribute to burnout. The
examples below make concrete these patterns of precariously balancing life and work.
Jeanne, 27, and a social scientist is single with no child. She reported balancing life and work was
no problem because schedules are exible.What helped her maintain a balance was that physical
activity is paramountsince health must take precedence over work.She also noted that exible
hourswere helpful, though working 42 h/weekwas not. As to her scores, while her life-work
Table 3. Response patterns to the scaled items and related codes.
CODE Response pattern
Low Scores 1 or 2 on all the items of the same scale
Medium Scores 35 on all the items of the same scale
High Scores 6 or 7 on all the items of the same scale
A mix of high and medium scores on the items of the same scale
Medium-low A mix of medium and low scores on the items of the same scale
Mixed A mix of opposite scores (high and low) or a mix of low, medium and high scores on the items of the same scale
score was high, her exhaustion score was also high. In other words, she appeared to be experiencing
a potential contributor to burnout (long work week in addition to doing PhD) though was still posi-
tive overall.
Julia, 30, and a natural scientist is single with no child. She found balancing life and work quite
manageable from my point of view.She added: I reserve one night a week for sports and
another night and weekends for my partner and my friends. Its the minimum for my emotional
and physical balance.Further, she said it was important to know how to say no / stop.Still, while
her life-work score was medium-high, her burnout score was mixed (both high and low scores)
reporting, for instance, often sleeping badly because of matters related to her PhD while not
feeling overwhelmed by the workload.
Here is an example of managing to balance life and work. Ghiselle, is 41, a social scientist and
married with no child. She noted I manage to balance my professional and personal lifehelped
by my partner and physical activity.She added that her well-dened work scheduleshelped as
regards time set aside my doctorate.While her life-work score was high, her exhaustion score
was medium-high making clear that managing to balancewas taking a toll.
As researchers investigating the academic context, we are aware that our personal beliefs about and
perceptions of this context were likely to induce biases at every step of the research process, includ-
ing when developing the survey items and formulating the open-ended questions (Onwuegbuzie
and Johnson 2006). To minimize such potential biases, at every stage of the development of the
survey, the three senior researchers who led the project were engaged in discussions aimed at chal-
lenging their respective perceptions. Further, while the sample size is small, the results of the analyses
showed sucient statistical power for identifying signicant eects. Lastly, the respondents were
recruited from one delimited region of a specic national context, which limits the generalizability
of the ndings. Thus, further research should be conducted with larger samples across a more
diverse set of institutional and national contexts.
We argued initially that PhD stress is a growing concern in doctoral education. Most research seeking
explanations for how exhaustion and burnout impact retention, satisfaction and completion have
focused on institutional factors. Alongside these studies, a number of qualitative studies have
reported personal life factors are also inuencing PhD experiences though not directly linked to
exhaustion and burnout. Thus, we undertook this study for two reasons. First, the notion of iden-
tity-trajectory (McAlpine, Amundsen, and Jazvac-Martek 2010) urged us to look more holistically at
how personal lives and PhD/work experience interacted in studentslives. Second, we wanted to
follow-up on McAlpine, Pyhältö, and Castelló (2018) in which we concluded that structural factors
were insucient to address retention. We realized that further work was required to understand
quantitatively the interaction of life-work relation and work-related factors on experienced exhaus-
tion and cynicism (constituting the main burnout symptoms) and further examine life-work relations
qualitatively. The outcome is tentative evidence that a fundamental mechanism for buering such
symptoms may be life-work relation, in particular, the ability to achieve both life and career goals.
Specically, the initial quantitative analysis suggested positive life-work relation reduces risk for
exhaustion and cynicism. The results point to positive life-work relation buering both exhaustion
and cynicism, but particularly the former one. This could be since exhaustion typically results from
work overload, so life-work balance would be more powerful in this regard. In contrast, cynicism typi-
cally is more specically manifest in relation to work and social relations within it (Hunter and Devine
2016; Maslach 2003), and individualspersonal lives would have little to do with this. As a result, it
does not have the same power to buer.
The subsequent two qualitative analyses, using a narrative approach, examined individuals
responses in relation to their personal contexts. These analyses conrmed the quantitative
ndings, while also oering a more nuanced picture, one complementary to previous qualitative
studies (e.g. Brown and Watson 2010; Martinez et al.2018). First, one particular life-work scale item
–‘I am able to combine my career and life goals such as the desire for childrenremained overwhel-
mingly high across participants. This was true even when the other two life-work items were low (Iam
satised with my work-life balance and My work as a researcher is in line with my personal values). The
consistency of this nding suggests that PhD students may generally seek to avoid such a mis-align-
ment. Our supposition is that even in choosing a program to apply to PhD students may rule out
options they perceive as potentially creating such a mis-alignment. This may be why there is so
little reference to lack of alignment in the literature. Overall, we conclude that when this alignment
exists, it may serve as a mechanism for buering other life-work and institutional challenges.
No study we know has expressly examined the ability to achieve both life and career goals in
relation to well-being. Nevertheless, sustaining a balance between these two may be fundamental
in buering any experiences of exhaustion and help explain the high number of individuals reporting
they were able to maintain or manage a balance between life and work, despite challenges. Still, the
fact that individuals reported balancing life and work or managing to balance but also experienced
exhaustion despite reporting relatively good life-work relation suggests incipient problems. Our pre-
vious ndings indicate that good life-work relation becomes even more important in terms of well-
being after earning the PhD (McAlpine and Amundsen 2018). A reason for this might be that PhD
graduates are even more likely than PhD students to be at the point in their lives when long-term
relationships involve issues such as managing dual careers and seeking to co-locate, alongside poss-
ibly having and raising children.
Future research and implications
In considering the inuence of these ndings on future research, we were particularly struck by the
value of this concurrent nested analysis mixed-method design (Creswell and Clark 2017). A richer
more nuanced result emerged from combining and analyzing both scales and free-write survey
responses in a three-step process. Still, we need to explore more closely the constellation of life-
work relation factors contributing to disengagement from the PhD (McAlpine and Amundsen
2018). In particular, we need to examine the wording of the life-work item about life and career
goals since it is distinct from the other life-work items in providing a specic example. Further, we
suggest future research use a similar approach in researching the experiences of post-PhD research-
ers, given dierent work conditions (often precarious) and the evidence of academic workplace
pressures leading to experienced exhaustion and burnout amongst Swiss lecturers (Lewis 2016).
As to practical implications, the results are a reminder that as supervisors or program directors we
need to be attentive to the many ways in which life experiences may be interacting with PhD experi-
ence either constructively and/or intrusively. More specically, institutional interventions should
focus on creating more optimal working environments that alleviate inuences on burnout and
help students deal with life-work relations that may contribute to exhaustion.
Our study provides a better understanding of how life-work relation, particularly the alignment of
career and life goals, functions in buering burnout symptoms, particularly exhaustion. Further, it
suggests based on respondentscomments that life has more frequent preeminence than work
and reminds us that a focus on the institutional context as regards well-being or lack of it is insu-
cient. In our view, the methods we used were critical in revealing these relationships. Still, these are
preliminary studies so more research is needed to better understand the emerging patterns.
1. As these listservs are condential, it is not possible to estimate how many people have received our recruitment
2. Also ruled out were status (full-time/part-time), funding and working in the exhaustion scores of males and
females, given earlier research suggesting these factors might be inuential.
3. The reported coded life-work scale for each individual above used this revised coding scheme.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the authors.
This work was supported by a European Erasmus + Programme under the project Researcher Identity Development:
Strengthening Science in Society Strategies[grant number 2017-1-ES01-KA203-038303] and by the Fonds de recherche
du Québec Société et culture (FRQSC) [grant number 2016-B3-193871].
Lynn McAlpine
Isabelle Skakni
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... The tension and conflicts that arise from this process might be the key reasons why many women choose to drop doctoral programs (Rockinson-Szapkiw et al., 2017). Women in academia experienced more exhaustion and family-related challenges than male academics which leads to slower progression and fewer career achievements (Fox et al., 2011;Beddoes & Pawley, 2013;Huppatz et al., 2019;McAlpine et al., 2020;Ren & Caudle, 2020). Furthermore, women in academia faced higher work pressure from publication demands (Li & Shen, 2020). ...
... In addition, when a female Ph.D. student cannot cope with her doctoral studies, family and friends often advise them to quit, saying that their life should be focused on family and the home (Carter et al., 2013). Work-life balance was a statistically significant predictor of abandoning doctoral studies for women with small children, especially for mothers who try to provide maximum support for their children's needs (Ward & Wolf-Wendel, 2004;McAlpine et al., 2020). ...
... This qualitative study is critical to highlight women's struggles in academia. As the literature review discussed above, women are more disadvantaged than men in terms of work-life balance (Wilson, 2003;Morrison et al., 2011;Beddoes & Pawley, 2013;Huppatz et al., 2019;McAlpine et al., 2020;Ren & Caudle, 2020). With the COVID-19 outbreak this balance became even more challenging to maintain. ...
Full-text available
In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, many governments introduced lockdown measures when people were presumed to work and study from their homes. Schools, daycares, and extracurricular programs were temporarily closed. All students from primary to the post-graduate level were transferred to online learning. This shift added tremendous burden and workloads for parents who were supposed to combine their own work and supervision of the online studies of their children from home. Recent research confirmed that women took more responsibilities for household chores and care of children during the pandemic. Looking at female doctoral students who usually have families by that age, pursue their graduate studies, and are often involved in full-time and part-time jobs to contribute to their family income, would be extremely important and reasonable. First, it is vital to achieving gender equality sustainable development goal in doctoral education; second, it is crucial for fertility rates growth to provide opportunities for combining academic careers with family responsibilities to women; third, according to the recent program of female empowerment, women are the crucial human resource power that could endorse knowledge-based economic development. The purpose of this study is to explore female Ph.D. students' lived experiences under the pressure of the pandemic and investigate the main strategies of coping with the multiple duties they had. This case study applies a qualitative methodology, interpretative phenomenological approach. The data source is the in-depth semi-structured interviews with six female Ph.D. students who comprised a homogenous and purposeful sample as they shared the same experience. Keywords: doctoral studies, Ph.D. students, motherhood, parenting, female, work-family balance, coping strategies, COVID-19
... Further research is needed to explore this possibility. More generally, further research is needed to better understand the ways in which High employment commitments or Family care responsibilities can detract from academic progress and persistence for some PhDRs while others evidently find it productive and rewarding to 'balance' doctoral research with family life and/or professional experiences (see McAlpine et al., 2020b). ...
... For example, PhDRs' financial stress can be addressed through the expansion of fellowships, assistantships and teaching appointments (Spaulding & Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2012) as well as improved access to education loans (Sverdlik et al., 2018). Similarly, improved social integration within departmental and disciplinary research communities is known to benefit PhDRs' mental wellbeing and persistence (Castelló et al., 2017;Ryan et al., 2021), as are flexible work arrangements that ensure positive 'life-work relations' (McAlpine et al., 2020b) and increased 'job control' (Levecque et al., 2017). Suggestions to address the supervision problems investigated here include targeted professional development for supervisors designed to foster an 'ethic of care ' (McAlpine et al., 2012) and universal adoption of panel supervision (Cornér et al., 2017). ...
Although high PhD attrition rates are a matter of international concern, the factors that lead doctoral researchers to leave their programmes are not well understood. The present study addresses that issue by exploring factors that prompted thoughts of discontinuing among 1017 PhD researchers (PhDRs) at a public, research-intensive Australian university. We analyse the prevalence, strength and clustering of the most frequently identified factors, including mental health difficulties, financial pressures, and problems with supervision. The investigated factors were all strongly associated with thoughts of discontinuing; mental health difficulties were among the strongest factors, and financial stress was the most prevalent. An exploratory cluster analysis revealed that the risk factors co-present in distinctive ways such that six discrete groups of PhDRs are identifiable with varying risk profiles and socio-demographic characteristics. We discuss the research, policy and practice implications of these findings.
... Research on doctoral students' wellbeing further shows that the students suffering from negative emotional states such as cynisism and exhaustion is high, increasing their risk of dropping out, developing depression and burnout (Stubb et al., 2011;Anttila et al., 2015;Swords and Ellis 2017;Corner et al., 2019;Pappa et al., 2020). It has been proposed that female doctoral students experience more of negative emotional states such as stress, exhaustion and isolation, as well inadecuacy than male doctoral students (Brown and Watson, 2010;McAlpine et al., 2020). In turn, there is also some evidence that positive emotions such as pride, enthusiasm and interest are associated with more timely doctoral completion, increased research productivity, and a reduced risk of attrition (Ali et al., 2007;Lambie et al., 2014;Sakurai et al., 2014;Castello et al., 2016). ...
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Even if pursuing a doctorate is both emotionally challenging and rewarding, empirical research focusing on doctoral students’ academic emotions is limited. Therefore, in this study we have contributed to bridging the gap in the research on the doctoral experience by mapping the emotional landscape of doctoral experience. In addition, we have shed light on potential invariants and socio-cultural characteristics of the emotional landscape by doing a cross-country comparison between Danish and Finnish doctoral students. A total of 272 doctoral students (Danish: 145, Finnish: 127) from the field of humanities and social sciences responded to the Cross-cultural Doctoral Experience Survey. The data were both qualitatively and quantitatively analyzed, using a mixed methods approach. The results showed that the doctoral students experienced a wide range of both positive and negative emotions embedded in various activities of the doctoral experience, including supervision, scholarly community, doctoral research, development as a scholar and structures and resources. The results revealed some associations between the emotions that were experienced as well as differences between the countries.
... Research has identified several individual and contextual antecedents of PhD candidates' well-being. For instance, gender has been shown to be associated with study well-being, yet the evidence is mixed: although there is some evidence showing that female PhD students experience more stress and exhaustion than males (Toews et al., 1997;McAlpine et al., 2020), there is also evidence of male postgraduates being more likely to experience increased levels of exhaustion than their female colleagues. Hunter and Devine (2016), on the other hand, showed that PhD students' gender was not associated with their experiences of exhaustion. ...
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This study focused on exploring individual variations in doctoral candidates’ well-being, in terms of experienced research engagement and burnout by using a person-centered approach. In addition, the associations between well-being profiles and gender, country of origin, study status (full-time or part-time), research group status and drop-out intentions were explored. The participants were 692 PhD candidates in the field of medicine. Latent profile analysis was employed to identify the well-being profiles. Four distinct profiles were identified: high engagement–low burnout, high engagement–moderate burnout, moderate engagement–moderate burnout , and moderate engagement–high burnout. Working in a clinical unit or hospital and working in a research group seemed to be related to increased engagement and reduced risk for suffering burnout, while the intentions to quit one’s doctoral studies were more frequently reported in profiles with moderate levels of engagement. The findings imply that although a significant number of PhD candidates in medicine had an increased risk for developing burnout, for most of the PhD candidates research education is an engaging experience.
... Graduate students, including international graduate students, cope with feelings of social isolation and are prone to more stress than the general public and report that their stress is attributed to their graduate programs (Ali & Kohun, 2006;Cahir & Morris, 1991;Jairam & Kahl, 2012;McAlpine et al., 2020;Natriello, 2002;Stubb et al., 2011;van Rooij et al., 2019). Particularly international graduate students find it difficult to maintain and build new relationships, create a professional identity, and manage their socialization process into their new roles (Jairam & Kahl, 2012;Lee, 2009). ...
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Based on 15 in-depth interviews, the present study aims to understand the common challenges international graduate students face and the coping strategies they employed, types of SNS used, and social support sought from their relationship during graduate school. Common challenges faced are loneliness, stress, feeling overwhelmed with graduate school, and difficulties adjusting to a new culture. Coping strategies include sharing experiences with relations whom they trust and understand their situation, and joining online communities via SNS. The participants use both public and private SNS to seek social support depending on the various functionalities offered. SNS use depends on the affordances such as convenience, affordability, trust issues, and privacy. Most sought-after type of social support are emotional and informational via SNS.
... Moreover, the requirements for successful outcomes remain high (Angervall 2016;Lovitts 2005). The entire doctoral experience is expected to yield not just a doctoral qualification, but to develop a scholarly identity (if aspiring to work in academia) and to acquire transferable skills (if transitioning to industry post-PhD) (Cotterall 2013;McAlpine, Skakni, and Pyhalto 2020). Additionally, an overall transformative learning experience, while maintaining a healthy work-life balance and sustaining sound psychological wellbeing during a PhD, are unspoken goals (Elliot et al. 2020). ...
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This conceptual paper contributes to a broader perspective on doctoral experience via a synthesis of several crucial concepts during the doctoral journey. The first part discusses the core challenges customarily confronting doctoral scholars due to the distinct PhD genre leading to introducing the main conceptual base. Metacognition, being central to doctoral knowledge creation, is explored through the stages of competence development and against the competing notions often faced by PhD scholars: the Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Drawing upon these metacognitive concepts, the implications of crossing competence stages during lengthy, non-linear doctoral trajectories in a high-performance academic culture are further explored. While recognising associated challenges, this paper also highlights a range of available tools, resources, and skillsets useful for the transitional period, doctoral learning progression and eventual completion. This paper has, therefore, interwoven and unified key doctoral experience concepts with a view to proposing a conceptual framework for a doctoral self-management strategy. This holistic framework, a form of metacognitive scaffolding for navigating the PhD experience, is likened to a ‘compass’ for trekking both the research landscape and the doctoral development landscape. In the absence of a doctoral ‘map’, employing one’s personal metacognitive ‘compass’ can empower doctoral scholars to manage a potentially complex experience – by identifying essential praxes to scaffold the entire doctoral process through iterative cycles of reflection, calibration and recalibration of strategic reflection and personal evaluation of one’s progression.
Purpose Doctoral students’ ill-being in terms of stress, exhaustion and high levels of mental health problems has been well documented. Yet, the well-being of doctoral students is more than the absence of these negative symptoms. The number of studies exploring the combination of positive and negative attributes of doctoral students’ well-being is limited. Therefore, this study aims to focus on exploring individual variation in doctoral students’ experienced engagement and burnout across two distinct socio-cultural contexts in Finland and in South Africa. Design/methodology/approach A total of 884 doctoral students from Finland ( n = 391) and South Africa ( n = 493) responded to the cross-cultural Doctoral Experience Survey. The data were quantitatively analyzed. Findings Altogether four distinctive engagement–burnout profiles were detected, including engaged, engaged–exhausted, moderately engaged–burnout and burnout profiles. Differences between the Finnish and South African students were identified in profile emphasis. The profiles were also related to several study progress attributes such as drop-out intentions, time-to-candidacy and satisfaction with study. Originality/value This study provides new understanding on doctoral students’ well-being by focusing on both positive and negative attributes and exploring doctoral students’ discrepant profiles with a cross-country design.
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Purpose: Concerns about psychological wellbeing in doctoral students has grown in recent years. The aim of this study was to explore qualitatively doctoral students’ perceptions of factors that promoted their psychological wellbeing during the doctoral journey. Design: Nine recent doctoral graduates at an English university participated in the study. Participants recalled their experience and psychological wellbeing during the doctoral journey via a life grid and semi-structured interview. The life grids were visually inspected to identify high points in psychological wellbeing, while the interview data were analysed thematically. Findings: Our analysis produced seven themes representing factors that participants described during periods of better psychological wellbeing: accomplishments; intrinsic rewards; self-efficacy; comprehension and understanding; supervisor support; wider support network; and self-care and lifestyle. Originality/value: By adopting a positive psychology approach and exploring qualitatively factors that promoted psychological wellbeing in doctoral students, this article demonstrates the utility of approaching research on doctoral students’ psychological wellbeing from a positive psychology perspective. Findings are discussed in relation to the extant literature, and future directions for research are outlined.
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Purpose: Doctoral student well-being is an important matter that shapes the well-being of academics throughout their careers. Given that well-being has been found to be closely related to employee productivity and efficiency, strategies associated with maintaining well-being during PhD studies might be crucial for higher education, its outcomes and—just as importantly—for a balanced life of PhD students. Method: Based on 17 studies, this literature review critically assesses the literature on doctoral student well-being. Results: Theoretical models, concepts of well-being, and methods applied are discussed, as are the results of the articles. The reviewed studies are then discussed based on a SWOT analysis addressing the strengths and weaknesses of the reviewed research as well as the identified opportunities and threats, which can be used as a basis for future research. Based on the review findings and the SWOT analysis, a multidimensional view of the well-being of doctoral students is proposed. Conclusions: The study proposes a more student-centred approach to meeting doctoral students’ needs, and the enhancement of doctoral student well-being in order, as a long-term goal, to improve academics’ well-being and productivity.
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This paper identifies the nature of initial expectations of PhD candidates, the prevalence and type of mismatch between expectations and experience, and to what extent mismatch is reflected in satisfaction with candidature. The data were drawn from telephone interviews with a sub-sample of 104 PhD candidates from an initial online national survey of 1,374 candidates at Australian universities. Based on the interviews, eight categories of initial expectations coalesced into three dimensions: the doctoral ‘Task’, the ‘University’ (including supervision), and ‘Personal’ factors. The relationships between candidates’ initial expectations and subsequent experience were examined, with specific reference to mismatches that were positive, neutral, or negative (most being negative). Where there was mismatch, this was primarily in relation to what was involved in the ‘Task’ and the associated emotions. The negative mismatch codes were consistently related to candidate satisfaction with supervision, with department/university provision, and with their own preparation for the degree. Further analyses of experience indicated that negative mismatch caused candidates to question, not necessarily productively, their preparation, purpose, fit, and persona.
The purpose of this study was to examine ethics in doctoral supervision, and to analyse whether ethical issues in doctoral supervision relate to doctoral experience, and if they do, how. It focused on doctoral students and explored the relationships between ethical issues in doctoral supervision and attrition intentions, research engagement, satisfaction with supervision and with doctoral studies, and burnout. The study provides a tool for analyzing ethical issues in doctoral supervision. The respondents were 236 doctoral students in behavioral sciences. Ethics in supervision predicted both positive outcome variables (engagement, satisfaction with doctoral studies and supervision) and negative ones (burnout, attrition intentions). Autonomy and beneficence were essential components for engagement, while fidelity, justice, and non-maleficence were vital for satisfaction.
Interest plays a major role in the doctoral experience. However, previous research has not considered how the national context might influence interest. This study focused on exploring cross-national variation in doctoral students’ experiences by comparing Finnish, UK and Spanish doctoral students’ research interests. Participants (n = 2.426) responded to the Doctoral Experience survey. Spanish students sustained higher levels of researcher and instrumental interest compared to both UK and Finnish students. Finnish students displayed the lowest levels of instrumental interest while UK students combined the lowest level of development interest with the highest level of cynicism. Interest was determinant for experienced exhaustion, cynicism, study satisfaction and reducing risk of abandonment across the three contexts. Results suggest that national differences in labour market, career expectations or programme structure can be powerful enough to overcome the incredible variation that has been proven to exist at the more local levels of doctoral nested contexts.
This qualitative analysis draws upon data from a broader research study that sought to understand early career researchers’ (ECRs) experiences of journeying from post-PhD researcher to independent PI status. A number of unprompted references made by interviewees to their broader lives (i.e., aspects beyond work) when charting their academic trajectories led us to examine this issue more closely. Contrary to existing work, we found that work and family life negotiation is an important concern of both female and male ECRs, although they conceive of it somewhat differently. Our results indicate that there is a need for academic institutions, policymakers, and academe leaders to be attentive to the life issues of both men and women when designing provision for reconciling work and family life in the academic work space.
Psychological distress is prevalent in doctoral degree training and affects students' completion time. It is crucial to monitor the amount of distress experienced and understand the causes for it to inform the type of support most needed. This mixed method study explored challenges related to candidature, self-reported progress and measures of perceived and actual psychological distress with a convenience sample of 81 doctoral candidates in an Australian university. Using validated survey instruments, participants reported higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress than age-matched general population normative data. Additionally, those who self-reported being behind or exceeding their study schedule had significantly higher scores for depression, anxiety and stress than those who reported they were meeting schedule. Conversely, stage of candidature did not affect any of these attribute scores. The responses to open-ended questions about challenges associated with doctoral study were coded and explored with an existing typology. The most frequent challenge reported in doctoral study is related to the development of generic skills, followed by management of self, including motivation. Given that not all challenges could be included in the existing typology, we recommend expansion to the typology.
There is life after earning a PhD and, although research has not devoted great attention to it, this is a complex life, especially for those in a post-PhD research position at a university. While internationally there are many similarities in postdoc experience, in European countries the national policy contexts combined with the European Higher Education Area policies influence postdoc experience. After contrasting the European context with the North American one, we describe our mixed-method European cross-national research program (Spain, the United Kingdom, Finland, and Switzerland) in which the aim is to better understand the challenges postdocs confront in developing their career trajectories. With this as the background, we focus on a specific analysis of how different writing profiles (identified in the survey) relate to how participants deal with common or typical experiences involving written research communication (analyzed through multimodal interviews). We finish by discussing the strengths and limitations of the research approach.
Two decades of research into early career researchers has highlighted the interaction of a constellation of influences in making sense of their experiences. Such research largely draws on either quantitative or qualitative traditions. While both traditions explore similar phenomena, research questions are often framed differently and use different methods. Interestingly, there are few studies in which design integrates quantitative and qualitative processes. In this paper, we describe such a design in which we examined post-PhD researcher agency, social support and intention to remain in or leave the academy. The quantitative analysis highlighted two profiles representing variation in intention to remain based on the interaction of community and supervisory support. The qualitative analysis, while supporting this finding, suggested other influences as well. Examining these other influences in-depth led to a more robust representation of the interplay of personal life and work in relation to intention to remain. We concluded work-related factors are insufficient to explain intention to remain. We suggest future research in this area should explore what other factors may be overlooked in understanding (a) intention to remain and (b) early career researcher experience more broadly. Finally, we propose research designs integrating both quantitative and qualitative processes may prove fruitful in future research, not just in this area but more broadly.
Aim/Purpose: The primary aim of this study was to better understand the individual variations in supervisory and researcher community support among doctoral students by analyzing the social support profiles of Finnish doctoral students. The differences among the profiles, in terms of satisfaction with supervision, experienced burnout, time to candidacy and disciplinary background were also examined. Background: This study explores social support profiles and their association with the experienced burnout, satisfaction with supervision, drop-out intentions, disciplinary background, and form of dissertation among doctoral students by employing a person-oriented approach. Methodology: In total, 402 doctoral students from a Finnish university completed a Doctoral Experience survey. Latent Profile Analysis (LPA) was used to group doctoral students according to social support from supervisors and the researcher community. Contribution: The present study is among the first quantitative studies to explore doctoral student social support profiles and their association with burnout, drop-out intentions, and time to candidacy. It brings into focus the importance of supervisory and researcher community support as one of the most crucial assets of doctoral education in researcher communities. Findings: Two social support profiles, a) sufficient support from supervisor and researched community, and b) insufficient support from both of these, were identified. Further investigation suggested that the doctoral students who received sufficient support were less likely to suffer from burnout and were less likely to develop drop-out intentions than students who received insufficient support from their supervisor and the researcher community. Recommendations for Practitioners: A recommendation deriving from this research is to identify students at risk as early as possible and assist them with sufficient support.
Aim/Purpose: Both the quality and the quantity of doctoral supervision have been identified as central determinants of the doctoral journey. However, there is a gap in our understanding of how supervision activities are associated with lack of wellbeing, such as burnout, and also to completion of the studies among doctoral students. Background: The study explored doctoral students’ perceptions of different aspects of supervision including the primary sources, frequency, expressed satisfaction and their interrelation with experienced stress, exhaustion and cynicism. Methodology: Altogether 248 doctoral students from three Finnish universities representing social sciences, arts and humanities, and natural and life sciences responded to an adapted version of a Doctoral Experience Survey. A combination of several measures was used to investigate the students’ experiences of supervision and burnout. Contribution: The results showed that students benefit from having several and different kinds of supervision activities. Various sources contribute not only to experiences of the doctoral journey and burnout, but also to the completion of the studies. Findings: Experienced lack of satisfaction with supervision and equality within the researcher community and a low frequency of supervision were related to experiences of burnout. Experiences of burnout were connected to students’ attrition intentions. Attrition intentions were related to source of supervision, the form of thesis, and inadequate supervision frequency. Frequency was related to both experience of burnout and likelihood of attrition. Recommendations for Practitioners: A recommendation developed from this research is to assist doctoral students with sufficient support, especially equality within the scholarly community and frequency of supervision. Further, greater emphasis could be put on group supervision and other collective forms of supervision. It is important that doctoral students develop networks both nationally and internationally. Recommendation for Researchers: A recommendation emanating from this research is to put greater emphasis on further investigation of the role of other predictors in burnout in order to enhance doctoral students’ well-being. Impact on Society: A better understanding of factors that promote lower attrition rates and enhance well-being for doctoral students is likely to lead to more efficient use of finacial and intellectual resources in academia and society more broadly. Future Research: Given the results of this study, qualitative interviews might be helpful in mapping out the dynamics that lead to attrition and to identify the mechanisms in the researcher community that support the doctoral students and enhance well-being in their doctoral journey.