Validation in Doctoral Education: Exploring PhD Students’ Perceptions of Belonging to Scaffold Doctoral Identity Work

Jo Collins
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 16  •  2021  •  pp. 715-735

The aim of this article is to make a case of the role of validation in doctoral education. The purpose is to detail findings from three studies which explore PhD students’ experiences and perceptions of belonging in one UK university-ty, in order to hypothesise how validation and self-validation could make a difference in doctoral education, and what practices might support this.

The article draws on research into doctoral identity and work on ‘doctoral capital’ to explore how PhD students’ perceptions and experiences of not belonging to doctoral communities negatively impacts on their wellbeing. It extends this research by incorporating theories from Education and Psychology to build a theory of validation in doctoral education.

The article reports on three studies on PhD journeys and communities undertaken at one UK university. It draws on interview data from thirty doctoral candidates, which was thematically analysed using NVivo 12. Taking a qualitative approach to provide a rich and holistic focus on participant ‘meaning making’, the studies explore how PhD students understand belonging, where they receive validation and feel they need validation, and where self-validation can make a difference to their positivity about the PhD. Taking this approach to understand processes of ‘meaning-making’ paves the way to scaffold solutions through ‘reframing’ processes such as coaching and mentoring.

Thinking about PhD students’ belonging through the dimension of validation allows for practical support for developing belonging to be scaffolded, specifically through creating spaces to draw coaching skills into supervisory training and PhD student support (e.g., peer mentoring). This is significant as scholarship has shown that coaching has positive effects on wellbeing. This article contributes to understanding of where and how validation and self-validation manifest in doctoral education for PhD students. This contribution identifies ways in which external validation can help to scaffold internal self-validation; thus, offering a way of potentially mitigating risk factors to PhD students’ wellbeing. Specifically, validation can be understood as a ‘reserve’ that can be drawn on for ‘self-validation’. Validation is a solutions-focused theory. As a conceptual apparatus to understand doctoral students’ perceptions, validation theory also provides a frame for scaffolding practical ways for PhD students to build doctoral identity.

The article focuses on challenges to PhD students building communities, supervisory relations and self-validation. It finds that supervisory feedback is a key area where PhD students seek validation. Two arguments are offered. First, that validation is a crucial process in (positive) doctoral identity work. Second, the argument is offered that making spaces for coaching skills to support PhD students can increase opportunities for validation (e.g., via supervisory training) and self-validation (e.g., via peer mentoring).

Those who support doctoral researchers can potentially support the development of validation skills and self-validation skills. Some recommendations are included around supporting supervisory training in feedback and listening skills, peer mentoring as a way to foster a transition between external validation and internal self-validation for PhD students, and a worksheet for students’ self-validation is included as an appendix.

This article extends existing literature on PhD students’ emotion work by offering a new dimension to understand how belonging is developed amongst PhD students. Thinking about belonging through the dimension of validation shifts work on belonging towards possibilities of practical support.

Whilst the term ‘validation’ has been used in undergraduate educational research, and in Psychology (in theory and in clinical contexts) drawing these terms together to create a theory to understand doctoral identity work in higher education has larger potential applications. ‘Validation’ could potentially prove useful within doctoral education context to understand and scaffold PhD students’ development as they navigate transitioning identity positions during candidature. Thus, although the studies are limited in scope to the UK context, the findings could be more widely applied to other higher education contexts.

Two areas for future research are identified. First, to understand whether and how different groups of doctoral candidates (e.g., such as international students, LGBTQ+ students, etc.) have different validation needs and priorities in their doctoral identity work. The second is to understand the possible impact of using coaching with PhDs in different contexts (e.g., through peer mentoring schemes, supervision, and self-validation).

validation, self-validation, doctoral identity work, belonging, PhD students, graduate teaching assistants
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