Education Doctoral Students’ Self-Study of Their Identity Development: A Thematic Review

Xingya Xu, Margret Hjalmarson
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 17  •  2022  •  pp. 201-225

Doctoral students’ experiences in PhD programs could be a journey of identity evolution. Existing research on doctoral students’ identities has typically been conducted by faculties. As the main character in the identity evolution process, it is critical to understand doctoral students’ interpretation of their own identities and identity development in PhD programs. The purpose of this paper is to examine how and what education doctoral students discovered when they used self-study and relevant qualitative methodologies (e.g., auto-ethnography) to investigate their identities and identity development through their own practices in PhD programs.

This research began as part of a larger project to synthesize studies on doctoral students’ identities. A cluster of articles was identified in which students were examining their experiences as developing individuals from the perspective of identities and identity development. In contrast to most of the previous research on doctoral education, this collection of articles was written by doctoral students as part of their academic and professional practice.

The larger qualitative systematic review (i.e., qualitative evidence synthesis) of doctoral students’ identity development began with database searches that were not restricted by year (e.g., PsycINFO, Education Research Complete, and Education Resources Information Center). Thirteen articles written by doctoral students discussing their identities and identity development in PhD programs were further identified from selected articles ranging from 2009 to 2021. These articles and their implications were analyzed using a qualitative research synthesis approach.

Although scholars have looked at doctoral students’ identities and identity development from various viewpoints, the current investigation deepens the understanding of this focus from doctoral students’ own perspectives. Doctoral students are trained investigators with research skills and mindsets. As novice researchers and educators, their open and honest reflections about their challenges, opportunities, and development are worthwhile to identify significant aspects of their identities and identity development in PhD programs.

There are two dimensions to the findings: the Approach Dimension and the Content Dimension. The Approach Dimension is concerned with how doctoral students investigated their identities and identity development, whereas the Content Dimension is concerned with what they found. Findings in the Approach Dimension show that doctoral students applied the self-study inquiry approach or used the notion of self-study inquiry to interpret their identity and identity development. The self-study inquiry encompasses five main features, including (1) Self-Initiated and Focused, (2) Improvement-Aimed, (3) Collaborative/Interactive, (4) Reflective Data Collection, and (5) Exemplar-Based Validation. Doctoral students examined the five self-study features both directly and indirectly in their studies. The investigation revealed four major themes in the Content Dimension, including (1) Identity Development as a Dynamic Process, (2) Multiple Identities, (3) Learning Contexts, and (4) Socialization.

The findings suggest that practitioners in PhD programs should be aware of the existence, process, and dynamics of identity evolution in doctoral programs. The best possible way for PhD program administrators, faculties, and advisors to support doctoral students’ growth and identity development is to incorporate doctoral students’ own insights into practice. Given the unprecedented influence of the COVID-19 pandemic on the educational environment and the diversity of doctoral students, it is crucial to discover how doctoral students use structured research methods to reflect, learn, and self-support their identity development during their PhD programs. The self-study inquiry process would be a helpful and effective approach to support doctoral students’ advancement. For instance, PhD programs could create self-evaluation assignments or courses that incorporate both self-study and identity development concepts.

When studying doctoral students’ identity development, it is critical to emphasize the essence of identity, which is people’s perceptions of who they are. We recommend that researchers who study doctoral students could further integrate doctoral students’ insights about their own identity status (e.g., multiple identities) into research.

Successful completion of PhD programs is a critical foundation for doctoral students to serve society as expert researchers and educators. Support for the growth and development of doctoral students could facilitate the completion of their doctoral programs and strengthen their sense of agency through the lens of identity.

Future research could go beyond the field of education and expand to more disciplines to identify common and diverse factors influencing doctoral students’ identity and identity development across domains. Future research on the post-COVID-19 era and its implications for online programs must also be studied in connection with doctoral students’ identities and identity development.

doctoral students, identity, identity development, self-study, first-person perspective
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