Doctoral Students’ Identity Development as Scholars in the Education Sciences: Literature Review and Implications

Yoon Ha Choi, Jana Bouwma-Gearhart, Grant Ermis
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 16  •  2021  •  pp. 089-125

The purpose of this paper is to offer a systematic review of empirical literature examining doctoral students’ identity development as scholars in the education sciences. We frame our analysis through a constructivist sociocultural perspective to organize our findings and discuss implications for multiple actors and components that constitute the system of doctoral education, with doctoral students as the central actors of the system.

Despite increasing interest in the professional identity development of postsecondary students via their experiences in educational programs, relatively little is known about how doctoral students develop their identity as professionals who engage in scholarship. We focus specifically on the experiences of education sciences doctoral students, given their unique experiences (e.g., typically older in age, more professional experiences prior to starting doctoral program) and the potential of education sciences doctoral programs contributing to the diversification of academia and future generations of students and scholars.

Our systematic literature search process entailed reviewing the titles, abstracts, and methods sections of the first 1,000 records yielded via a Google Scholar search. This process, combined with backwards and forwards citation snowballing, yielded a total of 62 articles, which were read in their entirety. These 62 articles were further reduced to 36 final articles, which were coded according to an inductively created codebook. Based on themes derived from our coding process, we organized our findings according to a framework that illuminates individual identity development in relation to a larger activity system.

This systematic review presents the current body of scholarship regarding the identity development of education sciences doctoral students via a constructivist sociocultural framework. We contribute to the study of doctoral education and education research more broadly by focusing on an area that has received relatively little attention. A focus on the identity development of doctoral students pursuing the education sciences is warranted given the field’s promise for preparing a diverse group of future educators and education scholars. Furthermore, this analysis broadens the conversation regarding scholarship on this topic as we present doctoral student identity development as occurring at the intersection of student, faculty, program, disciplinary, institutional, and larger sociocultural contexts, rather than as individualized and local endeavors.

Looking across our reviewed articles, identity as scholar emerged as recognition by self and others of possessing and exhibiting adequate levels of competence, confidence, autonomy, and agency with respect to scholarly activities, products, and communities. Students often experience tensions on their journey towards becoming and being scholars, in contending with multiple identities (e.g., student, professional) and due to the perceived mismatch between students’ idealized notion of scholar and what is attainable for them. Tensions may serve as catalysts for development of identity as scholar for students, especially when student agency is supported via formal and less ubiquitous subsidiary experiences of students’ doctoral programs.

We recommend that actors within the broader system of doctoral student identity development (e.g., doctoral students, faculty, organizational/institutional leaders) explicitly acknowledge students’ identity development and intentionally incorporate opportunities for reflection and growth as part of the doctoral curriculum, rather than assume that identity development occurs “naturally.” In this paper, we provide specific recommendations for different stakeholders.

Our literature review focused on studies that examined the identity development of doctoral students in the education sciences. We recommend further discipline-specific research and synthesis of such research to uncover similarities and differences across various disciplines and contexts.

Doctoral students have the potential to become and lead future generations of educators and scholars. Taking a sociocultural and system-level approach regarding the successful identity development of doctoral students is necessary to better support and cultivate a diverse group of future scholars who are well-equipped to lead innovations and solve problems both within and outside academia.

Possible areas of future research include focusing on the experiences of students who leave their programs prior to completion (and thus not developing their identity as scholars), investigating specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes associated with activities that studies have claimed contribute to identity development, and examining phenomena or traits that are seen as more biologically determined and less modifiable (e.g., attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and mental health differences) in relation to doctoral students’ identity development. Finally, we recommend that future research should look into the underlying norms and nuances of ontological, epistemological, and methodological roots of programs and disciplines as part of the “story” of developing identity as scholar. Norms, and related philosophical underpinnings of typical doctoral education (and the tasks these translate into) were not explored in the reviewed literature.

identity development, identity as scholar, doctoral students, education sciences, cultural-historical activity theory, systematic review
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