From Imposter Syndrome to Heroic Tales: Doctoral Students’ Backgrounds, Study Aims, and Experiences

Hanna Nori, Marja H Peura, Arto Jauhiainen
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 15  •  2020  •  pp. 517-539

The aim of this study is to provide a comprehensive picture of doctoral students’ dissertation journeys using Finland as a case country. More specifically, the article examines (1) the students’ backgrounds, (2) their study motives and experiences, and (3) whether or not these elements are related.

Despite the massification of higher education (HE), there is a shortage of detailed mixed-methods studies about PhD students’ backgrounds and their experiences of doctoral study. Existing research does not give a clear indication of the extent to which home background is reflected in PhD applications and whether or not that background is related to the subsequent experience of doctoral students.

This paper is based on both quantitative and qualitative data. We utilize a person-based register (N = 18,585) and a survey (n = 1,651). Our main methods are k-means cluster analysis, t-test, and directed content analysis. Our theoretical approach is Bourdieuian. We use the concept of doctoral capital when evaluating the backgrounds, resources, and success of PhD students through the dissertation process.

This study uses a mixed-methods approach and is the first to incorporate quantitative data about the entire doctoral student population in Finland. In addition, open-ended responses in the survey make the PhD students’ own experiences visible. By approaching our research subject through a mixed methods lens, we aim to create a comprehensive understanding about their dissertation journeys.
With this study, we also contribute to the debate initiated by Falconer and Djokic (2019). They found that age, race, and socioeconomic status (SES) do not influence academic self-efficacy and academic self-handicapping behaviors in doctoral students. However, in this study, a link was found between the PhD students’ backgrounds (age and parents’ SES), and their study aims and experiences.

Cluster analysis revealed three different groups of PhD students: Status Raisers, Educational Inheritors, and Long-term Plodders. PhD students in these groups have different resources, experiences, and chances to survive in the academic community. There are two main findings. First, the influence of the childhood family extends all the way to doctoral education, even in Finland, which is considered to have one of the most equal HE systems in the world. Some PhD students from low-educated families even experienced so-called imposter syndrome. They described experiences of inadequacy, incompetence, and inferiority in relation to doctoral studies and fellow students. Second, the influence of family background may diminish with age and life experiences. In our study, many mature doctoral students had become empowered and emancipated to such an extent that they relied more on their own abilities and skills than on their family backgrounds. Many felt that their own persistence and resilience have played an important role in their doctoral studies. There were also a few ‘heroic tales’ about hard work and survival in spite of all the hurdles and distresses.

PhD students are a very heterogeneous group. Their motives and goals for applying for doctoral studies vary, and their backgrounds and life situations affect their studies. There are three critical points educational practitioners should pay special attention to (1) supervision and support (mentoring), (2) length of funding, and (3) granted research periods.

Because Finland and the other Nordic countries have a long tradition of equal educational opportunities, we need comparative studies on the same topic from countries with higher educational disparities.

Inequalities in educational opportunities and experiences originate at the very beginning of the educational path, and they usually cumulate over the years. For this reason, the achievement of educational equality should be promoted not only through education policy but also through family, regional, and social policy decisions.

The Bourdieuian concepts of cultural, social, and economic capitals are also relevant in doctoral education. PhD students’ family backgrounds are reflected in their motives, experiences, and interpretations in the academic community. Future research should explore how to best support and reinforce the self-confidence of doctoral students from lower SES backgrounds.

doctoral students, doctoral education, doctoral capital, cluster analysis, content analysis
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