Pretty happy this morning. First email I read is from Routledge saying my paper “A sociocultural view of doctoral students’ relationships and agency’ is among the Top Cited Articles in Higher Education worldwide! Full list here. Journal link here.
This was one of the most fun papers to write. After following PhD students longitudinally, I started to think about what kinds of relationships were important in doctoral life and work, how they come about, what their pedagogic function might be, and how the creation and maintenance of these relationships might be theorised. The range of relationships took me by surprise – not just supervisors and peers on campus, but also people thousands of miles away, dead people, and cartoon characters (one student piloted her survey with Wile E Coyote!).
There was no recipe for what makes a good set of relationships to support students through their doctoral experience. But what did emerge was that there seems to be a real knack in managing changes to existing relationships when you start a PhD, as well as cultivating new ones during that period. Being creative, imaginative and flexible can turn something solitary and lonely into something infused with interaction. Some students have highly diverse relationship networks, others focus more intensely on a core set of characters. The number isn’t important, what matters is the energy and agency required to keep them going, and cleverness in accessing and mobilising relationships for the right reasons and the right time.
One student, Lucy, had just found out the data she’d been waiting for for ages in order to do an economic history analysis, wasn’t going to work for her. Gutted, she called her friend doing a chemistry PhD. Why? Because that person was a close friend and she felt comfortable having a cry, but also because she knew chemists fail all the time, and could be reassured that setbacks are just part of the process. Genius.
Here’s the abstract:
Existing literature suggests that doctoral students’ learning and experience are significantly influenced by their relationships with a wide range of people within and beyond academic settings. However, there has been little theoretical work focused on these issues, and questions of agency in doctoral study are in need of further attention. This paper draws on sociocultural theory in the analysis of interviews conducted with 33 doctoral students across four UK research-intensive universities. It focuses on agency and frames others as mediating students’ experiences whether as embodied or represented in material, or imaginary form.