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Student reflections on doctoral learning: Challenges and breakthroughs

journal contribution
posted on 2020-07-28, 00:00 authored by Alison Owens, Donna BrienDonna Brien, Elizabeth EllisonElizabeth Ellison, Craig BattyCraig Batty
Purpose: There has been sustained interest in how to support doctoral students through the often-gruelling journey they undertake from enrolment to graduation. Although doctoral numbers and successful completions have been steadily increasing globally as well as in Australia, the quality of student progression and outcomes has been widely interrogated and criticised in the literature that is reported in this paper. The authors’ interest as experienced research higher degree supervisors and research leaders in the creative arts and humanities prompted a research project that aimed to better understand the challenges and breakthroughs involved in completing a doctorate from the perspective of candidates themselves. Design/methodology/approach: This was implemented through an action learning collaboration with 18 students from three Australian universities facilitated by four research supervisors. Findings: The main findings presented in this paper include the necessity for maintaining, brokering and supporting a range of relationships; understanding expectations of research study and embracing the need for agility in managing these; and finally, using techniques to improve personal agency and ownership of the transformative journey of research higher degree candidature. The importance of establishing an understanding of the multidimensional human experience of doing a doctorate and providing appropriate support through enhanced forms of research training emerged as a core finding from this research project. Research limitations/implications: The relatively small number of research participants in this study and the discipline-specific focus prohibits generalizability of findings; however, the collaborative, action learning method adopted represents an approach that is both productive and transferable to other contexts and disciplines. Practical implications: Further research might investigate the relevance of the findings from this research to doctoral students in other disciplines and/or institutions or apply the collaborative action learning approach to doctoral training presented here to a range of contexts and cohorts. Social implications: Improving doctoral training options to support the multidimensional needs of candidates can better assure the mental and emotional well-being of doctoral students (essential to their continuing intellectual development and sense of agency) through developing sustainable relationships and realistic expectations. This in turn has the potential to address the consistently high attrition rates in doctoral programmes. Originality/value: This research contributes new insights from doctoral students on the challenges and breakthroughs experienced by them as they pursue original research through formal study and present a novel, collaborative and empowering approach to doctoral training that can be applied in diverse setting.








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Peer Reviewed

  • Yes

Open Access

  • No

Acceptance Date


External Author Affiliations

University of Technology Sydney, Australian Catholic University

Author Research Institute

  • Centre for Regional Advancement of Learning, Equity, Access and Participation (LEAP)

Era Eligible

  • Yes


Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education