Pastoral Care in Doctoral Education: A Collaborative Autoethnography of Belonging and Academic Identity

Danielle Hradsky, Ali Soyoof, Shaoru Zeng, Elham M Foomani, Ngo Cong-Lem, Jacky-Lou Maestre, Lynette Pretorius
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 17  •  2022  •  pp. 001-023

It is increasingly recognized that doctoral education programs should better support doctoral students. In particular, it has been noted that students experience significant isolation during their PhD, which negatively affects their educational experiences and their personal wellbeing. Doctoral writing groups are collaborative learning communities that have in recent years received increasing attention to address this issue. This collaborative autoethnography explores the affective benefits (i.e., benefits associated with emotions and feelings) of these doctoral writing groups, particularly focused on the pastorally supportive nature of these learning communities.

Writing groups have been shown to promote academic writing skills and build reflective practice, personal epistemology, and academic identity. We have found that a much more significant benefit of our writing groups has been the pastoral care we have experienced, particularly in relation to the turbulent emotions often associated with academic writing. This should, perhaps, not be surprising since it is clear that academic writing is a form of identity work. There is, therefore, a clear need to better support doctoral students, particularly with regard to the more affective components of academic writing. This prompted us to write this collaborative autoethnography to showcase what we consider to be the primary role of doctoral writing groups: pastoral care.

We employ a collaborative autoethnographic methodology to integrate our personal reflections into the existing literature in the field.

We argue that doctoral writing groups are vehicles of pastoral care as they promote wellbeing, foster resilience, provide academic care, and build social capital.

We demonstrate that doctoral writing groups foster students’ sense of belonging through self-reflection and the sharing of experiences in a safe space, which builds perceived self-efficacy and self-awareness. Furthermore, through the self-reflection and discussion that is inherent in doctoral writing groups, students also develop a better understanding of themselves and their place within the academy.

Our research highlights that writing groups may be designed to teach academic communication skills, but they provide an affective benefit that cannot yet be quantified and which should not be underestimated. Incorporating writing groups into doctoral education programs can, therefore, have a positive influence on the educational experiences of PhD students and improve their overall wellbeing. This paper concludes by providing practical suggestions to help practitioners implement writing groups into doctoral education programs, particularly focused on how these groups can be made more pastorally supportive.

This paper also extends the theoretical understanding of pastoral care by providing a framework for pastoral care within the doctoral writing group environment. We show how pastoral care can be conceptualized as the promotion of self-awareness, self-efficacy, reflection, and empowerment of doctoral students through nurturing communities where all members are valued, encouraged, guided, and supported. Our experiences, which we have integrated throughout this paper, also highlight the importance of relationship-building within the educational community, particularly when these relationships are characterized by mutual respect and shared responsibility.

The poor well-being of doctoral students has now been well-established across the world, but strategies to improve the academic environment for these students are still lacking. This paper provides evidence that implementing writing groups as a strategy to embed pastoral care in a doctoral education environment helps doctoral students flourish. Ultimately, this can lead to an improved academic research culture into the future.

Future research should explore other methods of better integrating pastoral care interventions into doctoral education programs in order to reduce isolation and promote student wellbeing.

doctoral education, writing groups, pastoral care, belonging, academic identity, autoethnography, collaborative autoethnography
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