Developing Academic Identity: A Review of the Literature on Doctoral Writing and Feedback
This systematic review synthesizes the literature on doctoral writing and feedback published in peer-reviewed English-language journals between 1997 and 2017 to provide insight into how these topics have been theorized and approached. The goal was to examine how this literature characterizes the development of academic identity in doctoral students to better understand the conceptual relationships underpinning previous studies, and advance work on writing, feedback, and identity to support budding researchers.
Research on doctoral writing and identity development has been a focus of research in higher education over the past two decades, as identity development has been recognized as a key outcome of doctoral study; the PhD program is meant to transform students into independent researchers. As a site of identity development, writing—and feedback on writing—are central to doctoral growth.
The systematic search resulted in 887 citations, of which 579 abstracts were read reducing the number of relevant citations to 95. These 95 full text papers were reviewed, and 37 studies met our inclusion criteria. Frequently cited papers were identified and 3 were added to the final corpus for a total of 40 articles. (Limitations include the constraint to English-language articles and the exclusion of books, book chapters, and conference papers.) All 40 articles were open coded for definitions of academic identity, theoretical frameworks, research context, and key themes.
This paper contributes a comprehensive analysis of the theoretical perspectives on identity development underlying recent work on doctoral writing and feedback. It demonstrates that this literature takes a largely sociocultural approach to identity: conceived as shaped largely by social structures and interactions. This review also confirms a complex relationship between writing, feedback, and identity in which doctoral students draw upon feedback on their writing to learn about what it means to be a researcher in practice, and how to communicate like a researcher in their relevant discourse communities, thereby advancing their research thinking and encouraging critical reflection on writing and research practices.
The review revealed that the literature draws primarily on sociocultural perspectives, that is, examining writing and feedback through the lens of the practices of the groups in which the individual engages - with academic identity development, though rarely defined, represented as an iterative process of writing and feedback. We noted two gaps resulting from this perspective, which are highlighted by the very few studies taking different perspectives. The first is the lack of attention to individual variation in agency as regards seeking out and using feedback. The second is the potential influence of feedback on critical thinking, which is seen as central to PhD progress.
Future research may adopt varying theoretical approaches to identity development to shed light on the role of individual agency in identity construction. Future studies that focus on the process of how students respond to and are influenced (or not) by feedback would be useful in illuminating the connections between feedback, writing, and the development of research thinking—all of which contribute to identity development.