Women in Distance Doctoral Programs: How They Negotiate Their Identities As Mothers, Professionals, and Academics In Order to Persist

Amanda Rockinson-Szapkiw, Lucinda S. Spaulding, Rebecca Lunde
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 12  •  2017  •  pp. 049-072
Aim/Purpose: The purpose of this study was to explain how Distance Education women EdD students who are mothers balanced and integrated their multiple identities (e.g., mother, student, professional) to persist.

Background: It is well documented that parenting students experience higher levels of stress and pressure during their degree pursuit than their non-parenting counterparts. It is also well documented that doctoral attrition is a persistent problem across decades and disciplines, and examination of specific populations was necessary to better understand how to foster doctoral persistence.

Methodology : Data were collected from 17 women via questionnaires, life maps, and interviews and were analyzed in accordance with grounded theory procedures.

Contribution: This study generated a novel theoretical model to explain women EdD students’ academic identity progression from students to scholars and its intersection with other salient identities, especially mother, and the core sense of self in alignment with other identity theories.

Findings: Academic identity development from student to research scholar is complex and challenging, but follows a unique progression that begins with gaining competence in research, followed by a confidence to conduct research. This positive attitude toward research is often shaped by an influential advisor or mentor, a relationship that enables a student mother to envision herself as a scholar and mother. However, it is a woman’s social conditions (e.g., supportive spouse, friends, or employer) that provide her the confidence and space to differentiate, develop, and intersect multiple identities, a process that allows for successful negotiation and integration of identities, and ultimately, persistence and attainment of the doctorate.

Recommendations for Practitioners : Findings highlight the need for more women faculty role models in higher education. To increase the number of women faculty mentors in academia, program administrators can recruit, retain, and support and encourage parental visibility through developing structures and supports for faculty with families. Given the women candidates’ emphasis on stewardship, faculty should design coursework to allow students to intersect assignments with professional goals and practices, and support empirically and theoretically grounded dissertations aimed at not only solving problems of practice but also aimed at advocacy.

Recommendation for Researchers: Research is needed with women doctoral candidates in other disciplines from other institutions and regions of the country, including those without children and individuals in non-heterosexual relationships.

Impact on Society: This study is an important first step in better understanding female identity development through the doctoral process.

Future Research: Themes uncovered in this research need further investigation. Ruptures in relationships were uncovered but not fully explored or saturated. More research is needed to understand the specific contexts and factors leading to both relationship fractures and the disruption in the academic identity trajectory.
doctoral education, persistence, female identity, academic identity, distance education
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