Focusing the Lens to Share the Story: Using Photographs and Interviews to Explore Doctoral Students’ Sense of Well-being

Stefanie Benjamin, James Williams , Michelle A Maher
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 12  •  2017  •  pp. 197-217

This study explores PhD students’ transition into graduate school, which can be a challenging experience for many.

Using photographs and in-depth interviews, this study provides nuanced insight into influences on first-year PhD students’ lived experiences, with a specific focus on these students’ perceptions of doctoral student well-being.

Twenty-nine first-year biomedical science PhD students from 15 research institutions were asked to take photographs (Participant Produced Images) to illuminate significant influences on their research skill acquisition. The participant-produced photographs were discussed within in-depth phone interviews allowing for a deeper understanding of their lived experiences.

While students were asked to identify factors influencing their research skill acquisition, unexpectedly, what emerged from these data was students’ clear focus on their concern for their physical and mental well-being. The researchers posit that students’ ability to create a “work-life balance” is the foundation of doctoral student success, especially in the early years of doctoral training.

Findings suggest that it is essential to create a PhD culture in which students feel valued, supported, and nourished, both physically and mentally, for them to develop into successful researchers, teachers, and mentors.

Findings suggest that doctoral programs must support a more collaborative work environment for students and help novice students create a work life balance, perhaps by encouraging them to pursue stimulating or fun activities outside their school environment. It is imperative for doctoral students to be confident during their doctoral studies, as a lack of confidence tends to breathe life into poor work habits that stymie well-being and happiness.

If doctoral programs support a culture that facilitates student well-being, those programs will likely produce happier researchers and teachers who see scholarship and learning as fun. This positive mindset is likely to cascade down within their learning environments and foster positive and productive scholarship and instruction. This mindset and paradigm shift will set a significant precedence for future doctoral learners.

This study encourages and advances timely and “actionable” dialogue around how to better support doctoral students’ sense of well-being, especially in science disciplines.

Given study results, exploring mental health and well-being issues with faculty can help elevate mental health awareness in academia.

PhD students, well-being, volunteer employed photography
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