Drowning in the shallows: An Australian study of the PhD experience of wellbeing

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Doctoral study is well known to be a challenging undertaking. There is much research evidence that reveals that the inherent complexity of discipline knowledge is only one of many factors contributing to the contemporary challenges of pursuing a PhD. To understand the broader circumstances that make doctoral study a source of poor wellbeing for so many candidates, our research published recently in Teaching in Higher Education explores how doctoral study is nested within a broader bioecological system.

The postgraduate student bioecological system presented in this paper is a model adapted from Bronfenbrenner’s (1995) bioecological model. We employ this model to show how individuals are nested in systems of support that stretch from immediate doctoral supervisor relationships, family and friends out to broader networks of university policies and governance arrangements. Each of these systemic layers interacts with other layers and ultimately impacts upon doctoral candidates at the centre.

Through this bioecological lens we sought to understand how doctoral candidates navigate their doctoral experience. To do this, we conducted an online survey with a sample of 222 PhD candidates based in Tasmania, Australia. Findings revealed that candidates often find their PhD experiences dehumanising. An emphasis on completion times, time-limited scholarships, publication outputs and amendments to policies mid-candidature create an environment where candidates reported feeling more like a resource being mined rather than a valued human being.

We describe the entangled and complex realities of doing a PhD expressed by candidates, and consider the interconnections between the various parts of the postgraduate experience. In the article, we trouble current models of doctoral study in light of findings that there are problematic aspects at all levels of the bioecological system which we discuss as the shallows of time and money and the shallows of institutional (un)support. This is contrasted against the realities of doctoral study demanding deep and sustained engagement. We advocate for the need to rehumanise the PhD experience, to better account for the ‘human’ undertaking the study and for greater ‘humanity’ in the provision of institutional supports. Candidates are not powerless in the doctoral enterprise and we consider their ability to create change, concluding the article with a provocation: What are the contributions that candidates make to the postgraduate student experience, and what legacies do candidates leave in their wake for those yet to tread the same path?

Joseph Crawford, Kim Beasy and Sherridan Emery, University of Tasmania

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