Individual and Structural Challenges in Doctoral Education: An Ethical Perspective

Liana Roos, Erika Löfström, Marvi Remmik
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 16  •  2021  •  pp. 211-236

The study set out to understand the challenges doctoral students experience at different systemic levels of doctoral education through the perspective of ethical principles.

Doctoral students experience various challenges on their journey to the degree, and as high dropout rates indicate, these challenges become critical for many students. Several individual and structural level aspects, such as student characteristics, supervisory relationship, the academic community as well national policies and international trends, influence doctoral studies, and students’ experiences have been researched quite extensively. Although some of the challenges doctoral students experience may be ethical in nature, few studies have investigated these challenges specifically from an ethics perspective.

The study drew on qualitative descriptions of significant negative incidents from 90 doctoral students from an online survey. The data were first analyzed using a reflexive thematic analysis, and then the themes were located within different systemic levels of doctoral studies: individual (e.g., doctoral student, the individual relationship with supervisor) and structural (e.g., the institution, faculty, academic community). Finally, the ethical principles at stake were identified, applying the framework of five common ethical principles: respect for autonomy, benefiting others (beneficence), doing no harm (non-maleficence), being just (justice), and being faithful (fidelity).

Understanding doctoral students’ experiences from an ethical perspective and locating these among the systemic levels of doctoral studies contributes to a better understanding of the doctoral experience’s complexities. Ethical considerations should be integrated when creating and implementing procedures, rules, and policies for doctoral education. Making the ethical aspects visible will also allow universities to develop supervisor and faculty training by concretely targeting doctoral studies aspects highlighted as ethically challenging.

In doctoral students’ experiences, structural level ethical challenges out-weighed breaches of common ethical principles at the individual level of doctoral studies. In the critical experiences, the principle of beneficence was at risk in the form of a lack of support by the academic community, a lack of financial support, and bureaucracy. Here, the system and the community were unsuccessful in contributing positively to doctoral students’ welfare and fostering their growth. At the individual level, supervision abandonment experiences, inadequate supervision, and students’ struggle to keep study-related commitments breached fidelity, which was another frequently compromised principle. Although located at the individual level of studies, these themes are rooted in the structural level. Additionally, the progress review reporting and assessment process was a recurrent topic in experiences in which the principles of non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice were at stake.

Going beyond the dyadic student-supervisor relationship and applying the ethics of responsibility, where university, faculty, supervisors, and students share a mutual responsibility, could alleviate ethically problematic experiences.

We recommend that further research focus on experiences around the ethics in the progress reporting and assessment process through in-depth interviews with doctoral students and assessment committee members.

Dropout rates are high and time to degree completion is long. An ethical perspective may shed light on why doctoral studies fail in efficiency. Ethical aspects should be considered when defining the quality of doctoral education.

A follow-up study with supervisors and members of the academic community could contribute to developing a conceptual framework combining systemic levels and ethics in doctoral education.

doctoral students’ experiences, ethical principles, ethical challenges, doctoral education, systemic perspective
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