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«International Journal of Doctoral Studies Volume 5, 2010 Motives and Aspirations for Doctoral Study: Career, Personal, and Inter-personal Factors in ...»

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International Journal of Doctoral Studies Volume 5, 2010

Motives and Aspirations for Doctoral Study:

Career, Personal, and Inter-personal Factors in

the Decision to Embark on a History PhD

Ian Brailsford

Centre for Academic Development, University of Auckland,

Auckland, New Zealand



While extensive research exists for both the doctoral experience and career paths after the doctorate, less is known about the initial motives for starting a PhD. In this study, 11 History PhD holders from an Australasian university were interviewed about their reasons for embarking on the doctorate. The motives and aspirations cited by the participants validate several of the categories identified in the limited existing literature, such as improving career prospects, personal development, and intrinsic interest in their discipline. Moreover, the data support the contention that candidates enter the doctorate with multiple motives. From this History sample, however, there were no overt motives relating to the participants’ sense of their own identity and pressing social justice concerns or ‘research as politics’. The data reveal that third parties (friends, colleagues, family members, and academics) when consulted prior to enrolment did play a generally encouraging role in the decision to start a doctorate. A recommendation emanating from this research is that universities consider offering workshops for would-be candidates before enrolment so that initial motives for doctoral study can be explored and reflected upon before a candidate embarks.

Keywords: motives for doctoral study; admission into doctoral programmes; doctoral advising;

doctoral supervision; graduate recruitment.

Introduction Why would a mature person decide to do a PhD? It is not urban myth that a significant number of doctoral students fail in completing their degrees, nor is the stereotype of the lonely dissertation student toiling away for years and years to finally stagger over the finishing line, exhausted and disillusioned. There is a body of quantitative and qualitative research proving that deciding to do a PhD is a high-risk strategy (Golde, 2005; Lovitts, 2001; Powell & Green, 2007). Why would someone commit several years of his or her life studying for a degree when there was no guarantee of success at the end? These were the questions posed in this study to 11 Material published as part of this publication, either on-line or individuals in

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concern over student isolation as a cause of attrition in doctoral programmes (Ali & Kohun, 2007;

Lovitts, 2008). Successfully embedding or socialising doctoral students within their departments has been identified as a key factor in supporting persistence (Austin, 2009). Major studies are also tracking candidates’ career paths beyond the doctorate (Aanerud, Homer, Nerad, & Cerry, 2006;

Denholm & Evans, 2009). While our knowledge of doctoral students staying in and then exiting the ‘ivory tower’ is advancing, less is known about the entering phase (Gill & Hoppe, 2009; Leonard, Becker, & Coate, 2005).

This paper, therefore, deals with this less understood aspect of the doctorate: the initial journey taken by students to enrolment. It takes its cue from Tatham and Denholm’s provocative question in Supervising doctorates downunder: “If a doctorate is the answer, then what was the question in relation to career development?” (Tatham & Denholm, 2007, p. 262) This study is premised on the conjecture that PhD candidates (and their academic institutions) might avoid (or at least alleviate) the difficulties that the existing research indicates are likely to be encountered during the doctorate if both parties clearly understand the candidate’s motives and aspirations from the outset.

There are a few British studies that touch upon the issue of initial motivation. Salmon’s (1992) Achieving a PhD interwove narratives of 10 mature social science candidates recounting their own doctoral journeys in the late 1980s, several of whom were motivated by social justice concerns and their own sense of identity. From their discussions with successful candidates, Churchill and Sanders (2007) in Getting your PhD established five generic headings to categorise motives or reasons for embarking on a PhD: career development; lack of current job satisfaction; a personal agenda; research as politics; and drifting in. Leonard, Becker and Coate’s (2005) study, ‘To prove myself at the highest level’, using the Education doctorate as a case study, discerned from their interview data the “powerful aspirational value of the doctorate” (p. 139). This desire of Education doctoral holders to prove themselves underscored both ‘personal growth’ and ‘training and qualification’ motives.

In addition to these British studies, a recent discussion on business professional doctorates (Gill & Hoppe, 2009, p. 31) proposes five motivational ‘profiles’ (and an associated personal objective) that could lead an individual to doctoral study: ‘traditional’ (entry into academia); ‘advanced entry’ (professional development); ‘continuing development’ (professional advancement); ‘transition’ (entry to a new career); and ‘personal fulfilment’ (self-enhancement). They also suggest that the first four profiles accord with different career stages; ‘traditional’ and ‘advanced entry’ relate to early-career candidates while ‘continuing development’ and ‘transition’ relate more to mid- to late-career candidates. The final profile, ‘personal fulfilment’, could apply to individuals at different stages of their career. Finally, they note that more than one profile could motivate an individual candidate. The empirical research in this paper builds from these earlier studies’ exploratory insights to better understand the motives for doctoral study and the decision-making process (such as seeking independent advice or exploring alternative options) using the History PhD as a case study.

Publicity materials on university websites offer prospective students multiple reasons for doing postgraduate research. They represent the official inducements to attract would-be graduate students and act as a useful digest of how universities envision the benefits of graduate education for the student, in contrast to the research literature cited above. A sample from four leading Australasian research-led universities gives a flavour of the marketing messages in circulation. The University of Otago (2009) promises: “Studying at New Zealand’s top-ranked university for research quality is a great career move. Your Otago postgraduate experience will equip you with the skills and knowledge to be successful anywhere in the world.” Victoria University of Wellington (2009) proclaims: “Victoria University has a huge reputation internationally for academic excellence and calibre of its research and postgraduate study. Our graduate programmes are flexible


and continually changing to meet your needs, developments in the research community and the demands of the workplace.” The University of Melbourne (2009) poses the question “Why do graduate research at Melbourne?” One of the reasons is that it “enrols and graduates more research students than any other Australian university”. Under the heading ‘Prepare for an engaging career’ the website states: “Graduate research does a lot more than create specialist knowledge.

Research students develop valuable professional skills for the research environment and beyond.

In Australia, the majority of research graduates take on professional roles in business, government and other organisations, while about one third go on to careers in academia.” The University of New South Wales (2009), under the strap-line ‘Make the leap into postgraduate study’ proclaims: “Upgrade your qualifications and progress your career development with a postgraduate program by coursework or research.” Ali and Kohun (2007) have noted that these publicity materials rarely mention the challenges of graduate study, as their purpose is to attract new students.

However, they do provide a set of extrinsic motives (better career prospects and access to a highquality research culture) for study in contrast to the some of the intrinsic factors identified in the British studies mentioned above.

Unlike the North American PhD with its structured programme of study with taught courses, comprehensive exams, and eventual candidacy, admission to a humanities doctorate in Australasia is generally based on a would-be candidate applying for admission with a good Bachelors or Masters degree coupled with an original research topic that has the support of an academic department. While many Australasian universities will have a provisional year of candidacy to ensure that doctorates are progressing in a timely fashion, it is fair to characterise admittance to the Australasian doctorate as having fewer formal stages to pass through than the North American one. The doctorate is awarded solely on the merits of (and, in some instances, a defence of) the PhD thesis (dissertation). This state of affairs means that would-be candidates have potentially more ownership or attachment to their research topics from an earlier stage; however, they may miss opportunities to socialise without formal courses. The History PhD itself has been generally categorised a riskier undertaking due to the solitary nature of the research compared to doctoral candidates in other disciplines (Gardner, 2008). History doctoral candidates in Australasian universities are likely to be lone scholars.

Method This research uses qualitative data from 11 semi-structured interviews. Participants in the study had all completed a doctorate in History at a university in Australasia in the early 2000s. All had significant career experience – most were in their thirties or forties – before enrolling and starting a doctorate and did not fit the traditional path of the early-career would-be academic (Austin, 2002). A local professional historical journal each year lists doctorates in progress and completed, allowing identification of the sample. Approaches were made by the researcher to those meeting the criteria asking if they were willing to take part in the research. All 11 responded positively.

Ethics permission was obtained to ask questions about the doctoral experience in a 40-50 minute recorded interview that was then professionally transcribed. Participants were then sent copies of the transcripts, giving them the chance to review and if required make changes to the final version. No reference to their specific research topics is made in this paper. Academia in Australasia is an exemplar of the two-degrees-of-separation truism and revealing too much detail could unintentionally provide clues about the participants’ identities.

The research has a phenomenological character as the participants were drawing from their own lives, allowing them to describe their experiences. Data of this kind has the potential to be anecdotal (Silverman, 1989) with researchers homing in on interview extracts that fit existing understandings of the phenomenon or those comments that appear to the researcher exotic and quotable (Fielding & Fielding, 1986). Nonetheless, the presentation of the data is premised on the principle

Motives and Aspirations for Doctoral Study

that what the participants said in the interviews is what they meant and what they remembered, especially as they had the right to review transcript data in the cold light of day. The extracts quoted focus on the line of questioning in the interviews relating to the entry into the PhD: why and how they decided to pursue a History PhD. The paper cites comments that either responded directly or made reference to the following aspects of the interview: employment and career factors; personal motivations and aspirations; and the influence of friends, existing colleagues, family members, and academics. Minor textual edits have been made to exclude ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ from the original transcripts. Personal pronouns and other potential identifiers have been removed, elided, or made gender-neutral to further ensure the comments remain anonymous. Kenneth Plummer’s (1983) ethical reminder to researchers using this type of qualitative data to reproduce findings in good faith has been adhered to.

The cohort in this study represents 11 of a potential pool of 14 graduates from the university in question: seven women and four men. The remaining three graduates from the group of 14 were overseas when the research interviews were conducted during late 2008 and early 2009. Participants also agreed to complete a simple paper questionnaire prior to the recorded interview asking about their past educational qualifications, age at entry into the doctorate, time to completion, enrolment status, and current occupation. The average age at starting the doctorate was 48. Every person interviewed had significant work experience, including professions and careers such as school teaching, government service, business administration, creative industries, advertising, archaeology, running a small business, public relations, nursing, banking, and accountancy.

While the age of the group might appear at first glance atypical, it is worth noting that almost one-third of new doctoral candidates at the university in question are aged over 40 and 60% aged over 30. So while the group had some interesting characteristics in the sense that none fit the profile of the aspiring early-career academic moving seamlessly from undergraduate to postgraduate research, several were making a high-stakes decision to embark on a doctorate.

Results The transcripts were analysed using the categories identified in the existing literature. These were broadly the employment and career factors on one side and the personal motives on the other. A third category – the influence of friends, family, colleagues, and academics – was mentioned in all the accounts as a contributing factor in the decision to embark on the History PhD. However, it needs stressing that this tripartite division does not imply the motives were self-contained entities. Participants in this research revealed complex, overlapping reasons for the doctorate.

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