High Impact, Low Mood: An Analysis of Graduate Student Attitudes and Perceptions Through PHD Memes

Gordon W Maples
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 18  •  2023  •  pp. 001-023

Graduate students face immense pressures and challenges as part of the graduate school experience, with few avenues to express their frustrations. While the crisis of graduate student mental health is well-documented quantitatively, and the stresses of graduate school are explored on the institutional level, there are few qualitative studies of these issues.

This study aims to explore graduate student attitudes and perceptions about graduate school and academia through the analysis of niche, graduate student-focused memes. Theories of emotional selection, emotional contagion, and collective coping predict that the creation and sharing of niche-interest memes reflect dominant attitudes and perceptions within niche communities under stress.

This study utilizes content analysis to thematically categorize a sample of 208 meme images created by and posted to the social media account High-Impact PhD Memes. The data is additionally categorized to measure resonance – how well each image was received by the page audience – and visualized using bar codes.

This study offers a new method for examining the attitudes and perceptions of niche groups online by proposing the measurement of emotional resonance, presents a novel visualization for the presentation of thematic coding and offers a new means to analyze internet memes for both content and emotional resonance.

Findings indicate that the most frequently occurring themes in niche memes are not necessarily the ones that most highly emotionally resonate with the niche community of interest. The population of current and recent graduate students following High-Impact PhD Memes most highly resonated with the issues of literature access, financial/employment stresses, and overwork.

The findings of this study should encourage both researchers and higher education administrators to consider memes as reflections of the emotional states and perceptions of graduate students both collectively and individually, given how they comment on current, pressing issues. Based on the findings here, memes could feasibly be used as elicitation materials in well-being assessments or qualitative research studies to better understand and prompt reflections on the perspectives of graduate students, and ultimately improve programming and supports for the population.

Future research could apply similar methods to study other niche groups under pressure that use memes as a means of collective coping in order to better understand their attitudes and perceptions. Groups such as LGBTQ+ people, those with niche political affiliations, and neurodivergent people could all be studied with a similar approach.

graduate students, internet memes, online communities
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