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Doctoral student engagement

The dynamic interplay between students and scholarly communities

Vekkaila Jenna

This dissertation study explored students’ engagement in the doctoral process and factors associated with it. Doctoral students’ experiences of engagement were investigated in three studies, while the associated factors were analysed in a further two. The dissertation used a mixed-methods approach; accordingly, the data were collected through interviews and surveys, and were analysed by combining qualitative and quantitative methods. Study I investigated the key learning experiences that the students perceived to be either inspiring or challenging in their doctoral process. Altogether 19 natural sciences doctoral students were interviewed. The majority of the key learning experiences identified by the students were positive. Most of the experiences were related to the students’ participation in the scholarly community, developing as a scholar, and developing specific research competencies. The students situated such experiences typically in various scholarly activities including research work, courses, and academic meetings. Study II focused on analysing students’ engagement by exploring the main experiences and sources, as well as the qualitatively different forms of engagement in the doctoral process. Altogether 21 behavioural sciences doctoral students were interviewed. The students described their engagement in terms of experiences of dedication, efficiency, and sometimes absorption. They typically emphasized their sense of competence and relatedness as the main sources of engagement. In the students’ descriptions three qualitatively different forms of engagement in doctoral work were also identified: an adaptive form of engagement, an agentic form of engagement, and a work-life inspired form of engagement. Further, there was variation among the students in terms of what forms of engagement they emphasised in different phases of their doctoral studies.<!–more–> Study III focused on students’ disengagement by exploring the main experiences and sources of disengagement from the doctoral process. Also, the students’ perceptions of the dynamic interplay between themselves and their environments with respect to disengaging experiences were explored by analysing the perceived misfits between the students and their environments. Altogether 16 behavioural sciences doctoral students were interviewed. The students described their disengagement in terms of experiences of inefficacy, cynicism, and sometimes exhaustion. They typically emphasised their struggles and conflicts within the scholarly community as the main source of disengagement. The students typically attributed their disengagement to the perceived misfit between themselves and their environments, and in particular often associated the problem with the scholarly community rather than themselves. Study IV focused on the collective fit between doctoral students and their environments that had contributed to their engagement. Altogether 1 184 doctoral students and 431 supervisors from different disciplines participated in the surveys. The collective fit was explored at the faculty level in terms of similarities and differences in the students’ and supervisors’ perceptions of the main resources and challenges with respect to the doctoral process. The relation between the perceived fit and the doctoral students’ satisfaction with their study process and supervision was explored. The results showed that either a fit, a partial fit, or a misfit existed between the students’ and supervisors’ perceptions in the different faculties. A relation was also found between the collective fit and students’ satisfaction with their overall study process and supervisory support. This dissertation contributes to the literature on doctoral student engagement by breaking down the complexity of engagement; it does this by identifying the qualitatively different experiences, sources, and forms of engagement. Moreover, the study reveals the nature of engagement at the interface of study and work by shedding light on the dual role of doctoral students as both students and professional researchers. Further, the results provide a new understanding of the perceived student–learning environment fit as a primary determinant of doctoral student engagement. The results encourage viewing doctoral student engagement as a complex, multidimensional phenomenon supported by the constructive interplay between doctoral students and their learning environments that fosters students’ meaningful participation and a sense of belonging in their scholarly communities.


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  • Julkaisija Opettajankoulutuslaitos (Helsingin yliopisto)
    Julkaisuvuosi 2014
    Sivumäärä 214
    Kieli Englanti
    Sarjat Department of Teacher Education,Research Report
    Ulkoasu B5,pehmeäkantinen
    ISBN 9789521095238
    ISSN 1799-2508