Academic Identity Development of Asian International Doctoral Students at a Public University – A Reflexive Thematic Analysis

Trang Pham
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 17  •  2022  •  pp. 323-344

This study explores the development of academic identity among a group of Asian international doctoral students at a U.S. research university in various settings, including interacting with students and faculty members and reflecting on their personal journeys.

In 2020-2021, 132, 000 international doctoral students enrolled in U.S. universities – an increase of 71% since 2000. Despite this, relatively little is known about their academic identity development and how acculturative stress affects their academic growth.

A conceptual framework was constructed to integrate the concepts of acculturative stress and academic identity development. With the premise that academic identity development comprises three strands of intellectual, network, and institutional, the current framework conceptualizes the intersection of acculturative stress in all three strands to explore the tensions of balancing home-host culture values while international doctoral students grow into a new identity. Reflexive thematic analysis was applied to study the narratives of eight Asian international doctoral students and identified four main themes characterizing the participants’ academic identity development under acculturative stress.

This study contributes to an understudied area of higher education literature, directing the attention of the academic community to a small but growing group of junior academics. When examined in the confluence with acculturative stress, the conceptualization of academic identity is extended to include academics from cultural minorities.

Acculturative stress intersects with all three strands of academic identity development, inhibiting participants’ progress in their doctoral programs. Acculturative stress also makes participants more hesitant to adopt an academic identity.

This paper informs leaders and managers at departmental and university levels about cultural inclusiveness in doctoral training programs. Cultural minority students face the challenge of acculturative stress, an issue that distinguishes them from racial or gender minority groups; therefore, simply replicating race or gender inclusion initiatives is unlikely to be an ideal model for a culturally inclusive program.

The findings of this study indicate that Asian doctoral international students deviate from the commonly accepted view of academic identity in that they do not define intellectual growth strictly in terms of paper-trailed achievements (e.g., number of publications or grants), and they view jobs within and outside academia as equally attractive.

Doctoral training programs at universities are the suppliers of doctoral-level workers for industry. However, some programs, especially in the social sciences and humanities, focus on academic job placements. To broaden the impact on society, educational leaders need to expand the professional development training elements in such programs to prepare doctoral candidates for opportunities outside of academia.

Other aspects of doctoral training programs could be explored, such as the development of instructor identity and the changes in student identity.

academic identity, acculturative stress, cultural inclusion, international doctoral students
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