‘A Source of Sanity’: The Role of Social Support for Doctoral Candidates’ Belonging and Becoming

Lilia Mantai
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 14  •  2019  •  pp. 367-382

This paper investigates the role of social support in the PhD. Despite universities’ efforts to provide a collegial PhD experience, candidates report isolation and loneliness in doctoral education – a factor contributing to attrition.

Previous research (Mantai & Dowling, 2015) defined social support in four categories: moral, emotional, guiding and mentoring, companionship, and collegiality. Social support is facilitated in various formal and informal groupings. Socialisation into scholarly communities promotes researcher identities through a sense of belonging. Developing a strong researcher identity through social connections benefits a student’s physical and emotional well-being, PhD progress, and investment in researcher careers.

This paper is based on thematic analysis of focus groups and one-on-one interviews with 64 PhD candidates from two Australian metropolitan universities.

Students’ perspectives on social support during PhD study are largely missing in the literature, as more importance is placed on academic support. This paper provides rich empirical evidence to show that support afforded by candidates’ personal, social, and professional relationships is critical in doctoral candidates’ identity development.

First, investigating social support from the student perspective shows that it promotes students’ researcher identity development, sense of belonging, and community. Second, the paper extends our understanding of what social support means as it examines this concept in the context of student diversity. This paper confirms social support in the PhD extends beyond the institutional higher degree research environment and includes outside support by family, friends as well as online communities.

Promote and improve support services, networking opportunities, and social connections within academia and beyond. Invest in understanding students’ diverse backgrounds and individual circumstances as well as goals.

Evaluate existing social support structures in place and identify social support needs of doctoral candidates at your particular institution.

Institutions, governments, and individuals heavily invest in PhD degrees financially and psychologically. This research aims to improve outcomes for society by developing skilled and confident graduates.

Future research ought to focus on the issues experienced by students of particular demographic backgrounds and on how to best support them.

social support, relationships, PhD, doctoral experience, researcher development, student diversity, belonging
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