What Does It Mean To Be a Resilient Student? An Explorative Study of Doctoral Students’ Resilience and Coping Strategies Using Grounded Theory as the Analytic Lens

Dimitra Kokotsaki
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 18  •  2023  •  pp. 173-198

This study aimed to explore doctoral students’ perceived resilience and the coping strategies they choose to employ to overcome challenging circumstances during their studies.

Doctoral students often experience barriers which may include personal, professional, academic, and institutional-related challenges. The students’ ability to recover from any burdensome situations is essential for their progress, motivation, and well-being.

The data for this study were gathered utilising qualitative interviews conducted with a diverse cohort of thirteen doctoral candidates enrolled at a single higher education institution in the United Kingdom. These participants were deliberately chosen to encompass a range of backgrounds, including international and domestic students, varying study statuses and stages within their doctoral programs (full-time or part-time, and at the beginning, middle, or end of their studies), as well as differing funding situations (either funded or self-funded). The Grounded Theory methodology was employed as an appropriate analytical framework, providing a systematic set of procedures that facilitated the elucidation of the participants’ conceptualizations and the significance they attributed to the concept of resilience throughout their doctoral pursuits.

Empirical studies have explored the stressors and motivations of doctoral students’ journeys, but little is known about the in-depth investigation of the choices students make to respond to adversity and how they demonstrate resilience. This study aimed to fill this gap in the relevant literature.

Five emergent contextual conditions represented circumstances of adversity for the study participants. These were relevant to five thematic areas: (1) supervision and supervisory support; (2) key milestones and challenges inherent to the doctoral journey (i.e., self-regulation and finding a daily working routine, data collection, and analysis, the writing process); (3) personal and family-related expectations and responsibilities; (4) study status related considerations (e.g., being an international and/or a part-time student); and (5) challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings demonstrated doctoral students’ state of psychological capital, inner strength, and persistence that they considered in their attempt to employ varied strategies to tackle challenging circumstances.

The findings are transferable to different populations of doctoral students from diverse disciplines. Different students may be able to relate to the doctoral-related experiences that are reported and interpreted in this paper through the Grounded Theory analytic lens. This may enhance their sense of relatability with like-minded peers and help them realise that they are not alone in the challenges presented along the doctoral journey. Most importantly, the institutional-related challenges presented in this study will help raise awareness for institutions to employ strategies on human capital and academic identity by placing a stronger emphasis on practical solutions that would encourage, enable, and empower doctoral students to construct their identities.

The study aims to increase the scholarly knowledge of doctoral students’ resilience and coping mechanisms that they employ during the doctoral journey. Researchers can develop a resilience scale using the results of this in-depth study to understand doctoral students’ perceptions and experiences on a larger scale. The scale will enable students, supervisors, and institutions more broadly to ascertain resilience/psychological capital that students may demonstrate during the doctoral journey based on targeted interventions that can be put in place to support students’ work, progress, and overall doctoral success.

The stressors associated with the doctoral journey may cause obstacles for students to progress and can affect timely completion to the extent that dropping out may become an unavoidable outcome and an obvious decision for some students. During academic challenges, doctoral students’ well-being and mental health are likely to suffer. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated academic challenges even more. It is imperative for educational scholars and researchers to explore how doctoral students perceive and respond to adversity to strategise appropriate interventions that can be designed and put into place to offer support and guidance to facilitate progress and maximise success.

Further research can extend the study’s findings with the aim to increase transferability in other educational contexts and contents. The findings offer ground for the development of a resilience/psychological capital scale by drawing on the five thematic areas and their key components. The scale can help guide the development of targeted interventions to support doctoral students’ work.

doctoral students, resilience, psychological capital, adversity, well-being, coping strategies, interviews, grounded theory
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