Eleven IDS pursuing a research doctorate in Education participated in this case study. Their doctoral training took place within educational sciences at the universities of Eastern Finland, Jyväskylä, Lapland, Oulu, Tampere, and Turku. In the research doctorate model used by Finnish universities, the workload lies in accomplishing the doctoral research; this may be a source of stress, as university students are used to studying but have very little previous experience of conducting research. The participants were one man and ten women from China, Greece, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Namibia, Poland, Turkey, and Vietnam. Five of them were in the early (exploring the literature, designing the studies, collecting data, preparing the first manuscript), three in the middle (having submitted or published manuscripts), and three in the final stage (having submitted or published the last manuscript, preparing the dissertation, preparing for thesis defense) of their training.
Research approach and data analysis
The interviews took place from March to April 2018, in person and via Skype. The participants were reached by sending an invitation via the email list of the Finnish Multidisciplinary Doctoral Training Network on Educational Sciences (FinEd). The participants were informed of the content and aims of the study as well as their rights to anonymity, withdrawal of participation, and reading the final manuscript before its submission. Upon signing the informed consent form, the IDS participated in a semi-structured interview in English (see Appendix 1). The interview addressed the participants’ background and was based on literature on the concepts of scholarly identity and stress. The qualitative approach taken aimed to highlight how participants perceived their experiences and contextualized within social and relational dynamics at the university (Labuschagne 2003). The interviews were conducted by the first author, who at that time was a doctoral student herself, thus creating an interview climate of ease, closeness, and confidentiality. The interviews were audiorecorded (average 42.27 minutes) and transcribed (average 9.5 pages; Calibri, font 11, single-line spacing and a break between speaking turns) by the first author.
All authors became familiar with the transcripts, coded following the model of thematic analysis suggested by Braun and Clarke (2006). The first author coded the transcripts from the perspective of scholarly identity, while the second author coded them from the perspective of stress (see Tables 1, 2 and 3). This helped identify stressors and their relationship to scholarly identity negotiation, while it also enabled triangulation during the coding phase (Bogdan and Biklen 1998), as the similarities found in naming some codes were discussed with the third author. The codes were organized into themes, which were understood as abstract constructs capturing the meaning of units of textual data and identifying possible patterns at different levels of granularity (Guest et al. 2012). The main stressors were examined against the themes for scholarly identity. The recorded and transcribed data have not been altered, but repetitions in the selected excerpts are indicated by […] for easier reading.
In this section, each perceived source of stress is discussed in relation to the ways scholarly identity was involved in response to stress.
Intrapersonal regulation (10/11) involved a sense of conflict between internal and external personal and contextual demands, but also personal resources used to negotiate this conflict. Participants (6/11) referred to expectations they had of themselves concerning becoming skilled at a particular field or method and investing more time than anticipated into their doctoral studies. By examining some of these expectations, some participants tried to make sense of how they themselves might be in the future, should they continue as researchers. For instance, talking about whether stress eases at a later time, IDS2 says:
So, they do not struggle […] to grasp the basics […] they enjoy more than they struggle. This is how I want to think about it, because otherwise I think that my motivation will drop dramatically, if I think that it will always be the same, hard and stressful and struggling.
This participant negotiates stress by taking a protective stance toward her motivation and assuming that the present stress she feels, due to her current lack of expertise, will be replaced by quality and enjoyment. The negotiation that takes place may temporarily fortify her scholarly identity against defeatism by envisioning what research may be like at a more advanced stage.
Stress from intrapersonal regulation further involved trying to determine one’s own place. Nearly all (10/11) participants referring to how they saw themselves as doctoral students replied in a manner that vacillated between roles. The most self-reflective comment would be IDS10’s:
so that kind of identity question has been in my head all the time […] I’m all the time somewhere between […] I’m still kind of reluctant to say- to call myself a researcher, but I’m also reluctant to call yourself- myself a student. […] If you don’t have funding, you’re not, uh, this tohtorikoulutettava [a salaried doctoral student] either, but you are always a student or a candidate, […] it’s a continuous, um, thinking, for me, but I think I’m somewhere in between all of these, uh, yeah, definitely. Which is- which is difficult, but it is also kind of liberating [laughs] not to be just this or that.
This excerpt echoes the ambivalence in other participants’ answers, but it also highlights the in-between position doctoral candidates might feel they occupy as well as how being funded or not may affect the title or role one may decide upon for themselves. While the institution may be a safe place, participants were still unsure of how to describe themselves within their respective institutions.
A critical comparison of oneself as a scholar to others was also seen as a challenge (10/11). Despite this comparison being positive regarding their doctoral training, a few participants made an unintentional comparison between themselves and others concerning their professional values. For instance, being a researcher is not merely a job one does but a means of personal development. This value is echoed in IDS3’s understanding that research is something “maybe you can feel personally connected to and give you this kind of sense of self-actualization, self-fulfillment.” However, precisely because doing doctoral studies “is a very privileged life” (IDS3), one should remember that “teaching a bit and doing research a bit, like, together” (IDS3) as well as contributing to societal change are important aspects of research to uphold:
For me, higher goal- I mean, the purpose of all academics do is, is really to contribute to, to social justice and to positive change. So, I’ve- what I’ve learned in these years that it’s not unfortunately a goal for, for all people. Or not the major goal for all people involved in, in academia. (IDS10)
Scholarly identity may use others as reference for who one aims to become as a scholar and the purposes one identifies with doing research. The professional values doctoral candidates develop through their studies, but also through watching colleague’s behavior, influence how they esteem what they are doing and the goals they set for themselves. Comparing oneself as a scholar to others was not seen as a source of stress per se; rather, it served participants as a way to express their appreciation of their post as doctoral students and position themselves as developing scholars in relation to perceived orientations in the academic world.
Participants abated the perceived stress from challenges in intrapersonal regulation by employing personal resources, like learning and career goals, their professional values, their passion, motivation, and self-discipline. For instance, IDS11 stresses her unflinching determination to complete her doctoral training and honor the sacrifices she has made. IDS1 claims that “[s]tress is necessary for development” and reminds herself that “[she is] not doing it for… just for the money but also for [her] own meaning and also for, like, something [she] believe[s] in.” For other participants, self-regulation, sense-making, and being merciful toward oneself helped participants view stress as a motivational force in their studies. Stress was seen as “a very positive aspect” that helped identifying what is important to one’s life and one’s research and “what it means to be involved in academia” (IDS10). Furthermore, seeing stress as “a motivation by itself” urges one to “try harder” and “become more competent and more efficient” as a result of that effort (IDS2). However, because “[stress] can be very destructive” (IDS2), it is important that one concentrates on the short-term (IDS2), allow themselves to learn through trial and error (IDS1), and take a step back when “getting completely overworked” (IDS9), especially in the beginning. The participants’ stance toward stress may be a positive one, although they actively employed personal resources which came to bear on the progress of their research to manage perceived stress. By doing so, they attributed stress a positive influence on their studies and saw it as part of their scholarly identity enacted through their doctoral training and their participation in the academic environment.
Challenges in doing research
While finding participants, collecting data, publishing, and presenting one’s work were part of research practicalities, the practical challenge of funding one’s research was found to be rather stressful (8/11). Supporting oneself in a foreign country causes “financial stress” (IDS1) and receiving “a stipend that can barely […] support your living” as a doctoral student is not the same as other “people earning money, like, real money by working” (IDS1). Moreover, receiving a grant from another country or not at all decreases one’s sense of responsibility toward the Finnish institution or their positive attitude (e.g., IDS4, IDS7). These instances may create a belief that being a scholar is not as socially valid as doing other “real” jobs but also gives rise to discrepancies between those whose research is and is not financially recognized. IDS10, in particular, was vocal about funding being a pervasive concern that reflects “broader changes in society” and raises “a question of […] what kind of research is prioritized.” She adds:
that’s the major concern. I think it’s not just my concern. I see a lot of people around me also struggling with that. […] Yeah, I’ve learned how difficult it is to get money, how many people are fighting for the money, which is- which made me also give up at some point, because then I just though there’s no point, no sense to do this.
While this participant later mentioned she would “try again maybe,” other IDS might be too disheartened to do so. Funding was important for concentration on their studies, especially since they would not have to split their time among a full-time job, family, and doctoral training (e.g., IDS4, IDS5, IDS7, IDS8, IDS11). The difficulties and subsequent demotivation that occur from the stress to procure funding for one’s research can be detrimental to the development of a resilient and focused scholarly identity.
In addition to funding or lack thereof, future prospects were found to be challenging for half of the participants (7/11). Participants had to cope with stress stemming from doubts, reservations (7/11), and uncertainty (6/11), which they came to see as inherent to being a researcher. Participants felt uncertain of their future development and opportunities to work as future researchers (e.g., IDS2, IDS3, IDS4, IDS11). Moreover, they pondered the significance of their study “for the actual educational context” (IDS7) as well as the validity of what they were doing and their skillset (IDS10). Looking at the issue more broadly, IDS10 explains that:
it’s not just for doctoral students. I see also all the other academics and staff in university. […] Teachers and researchers are never certain what they- often are uncertain about their next year work and such. So this is probably the major stress, stress-related factor.
It seems that to negotiate their scholarly identity, doctoral candidates need to be aware and, indeed, face their own insecurities about the importance of their research as well as the uncertainty of a secure future in academia. Overall, the participants seemed to accept the stress coming from such uncertainty, yet the uncertainty itself can deprive scholarly identity of a positive outlook regarding future prospects and the legitimacy of one’s research interests.
From the perspective of scholarly identity, the importance of this theme lies in how the presence of stress in its negative form seems to impact the health of the participants as well as their emotional well-being. Some participants (4/11) commented on how their research is always cognitively present, making them feel so tired they “just want to completely shut down” (IDS1) or have “haunted” sleep (IDS6), because of unresolved research-related issues or the day of defending their dissertation (e.g., IDS2, IDS11). In addition, it causes feelings of “inner anxiety” for not working as efficiently, focused or self-disciplined as one might have wanted, leading one to “break down to some extent” (IDS3), and feel “emotionally agitated” (IDS3), “crazy” (IDS11), or guilty (IDS2, IDS11) when spending time on something else. Stress reaches farther, however, involving the body. IDS2 complained that her “back hurts a lot,” IDS8 mentioned weight gain, due to lack of exercise, IDS10 talked about how “[s]tress-related issues were manifesting [themselves] in a physical way,” and IDS5 described her exhaustion:
The pressure of, em, especially during the data collection period, I was so exhausted and at one point I- I- I was so burn out and, and I started crying in front of the children. I didn’t know, but my voice was gone… My voice was gone. I was- I was totally fatigued, you know, like tired, the whole body.
Not only working oneself too hard to realize a study but also pondering the reasons behind doing research in the first place can be stressful, with unanswered questions becoming “suffocating” and “stressful” questions, despite it being “important to keep asking these questions and also trying to find answers” (IDS10).
The mental and physical toll stress can take on doctoral students could intensify frustration (6/11) and feelings of inadequacy (4/11). Frustration, for example, involved the futility of preparing funding applications in the beginning of one’s doctoral training (IDS1) and past research-related experiences (IDS4). Further pressure may be applied by not feeling “competent enough for this” (IDS2) and “[i]nadequate in the concepts, in explaining the whole thing, in, uh, knowing […] all the background and to make the research question, uh, impeccable” (IDS1). The degree to which one chooses to be consciously influenced by stress may lie with lifestyle choices (IDS2), yet its subconscious effects are not always perceived in time, and its subtle nature can be detrimental to scholarly identity negotiation. The process of shaping one’s scholarly identity while completing one’s doctoral studies may become infused with insecurities and fatigue that could affect not only the here and now of the doctoral experience but also long-term commitment to a career in academia. Trying to find meaning in one’s research work and making sense of what doing research entails is part of scholarly identity negotiation. However, when this effort is a constant constraint or struggle for a doctoral student, scholarly identity itself might become too loaded with negative affect. Moreover, stress that becomes noticeable psychosomatically might render scholarly identity uncertain in terms of viability in the long run.
What seemed to counter such negative affect was participants’ view of their doctoral training as a process (8/11). They chose the words process, journey, and development to refer to their learning trajectories through doing research. This choice of words reflects the realization that learning to become a researcher is a slow and long process requiring milestones and skill development along the way. Moreover, this process involves deeper self-awareness and learning how to think like a researcher, as:
Now, slowly, I think I start building competencies that make me feel more, eh, of a young researcher than of a student, but I still have a long way to go, I think. (IDS2)
It is important to note that some participants regarded their learning trajectories as a process that can be creative (4/11) and rewarding (5/11). The conscious adoption of such an outlook on the process of learning through doctoral training is not only important for the personal growth of the individual candidate at the time of training but also for lasting professional empowerment. This is underlined by participants clearly taking ownership of their research (7/11). As IDS3 states, “I think it’s for a student to be in charge of his or her studies, like, to take charge and not think that it’s somebody else’s study.” Being “responsible and dedicated to your research” (IDS11) reflected participants’ focus and belief of their accountability in doing research, regardless of the way they saw themselves as doctoral candidates. During this learning process, however, it seems important that boundaries be drawn in order to maintain healthy progression and enhance well-being, such as balancing between personal and academic life (e.g., IDS2, IDS5).
Lack of supportive networks
Supportive social networks, discussed by all participants, involved the academic culture, and lack of social and academic support from colleagues, supervisors, and peers. While autonomy over their studies was valued by the participants (6/11), most participants (10/11) remarked the “[l]oneliness features here” (IDS1) and the lack of “community as such within which you can really learn” when, “from all the education years,” they are traversing “the most individualistic phase” (IDS2). These circumstances may give the impression that “you have to find everything on your own” (IDS2) and that “right now it seems a very lonely journey” (IDS9). More importantly, however, it detracts from the feeling that the doctoral candidate is “a part of something bigger” (IDS2) or that they could have “learned more or differently” (IDS8). Although this sense of not belonging by some participants was not viewed as a source of stress, but rather a challenge, it does shape scholarly identity in terms of beliefs. In particular, it shapes the belief that learning to be a researcher is an individualistic and lonely process, which may not necessarily be attached to a wider, meaningful view of the research field.
This loneliness and individualism may be moderated by the supervisor-candidate relationship. Supervisors become “[o]ne of [their] most important mentors” (IDS2), “a huge resource” (IDS9) providing support, trust, expert knowledge, guidance, professionalism, mediation between faculty and candidate, time to discuss conceptual and methodological topics, and motivation. However, the bond some participants shared with their supervisors went beyond a mere professional relationship, enhancing a sense of responsibility and motivation (e.g., IDS5, IDS9). The supervisor-candidate bond is not only important for doctoral students in the beginning of their doctoral training but also for the more advanced ones. However, lack of support or bad supervisor-candidate fit may accentuate candidates’ feelings of doing unsupported working by themselves.
Beyond developing a relationship with one’s supervisor, nurturing a sense of belonging involved actively seeking and providing a supportive social network. Commitment to an academic career might be enhanced by the perceived presence of an international community at the university (e.g., IDS4, IDS7, IDS9), lending participants’ scholarly identity an international character which might be “good as a trade for a researcher” later in their career (IDS2). At the same time, however, the Finnish academic communities and their potential for learning should not be discounted, while a strictly international character might also have a negative impact on scholarly identity. As IDS1 remarks, “having a good social circle is also, uh, a good thing, uh, because you can share your concern, your stress, uh, the uncertainty”; yet acquaintances and friends of international backgrounds go abroad once more, making relationships seem transitory. Social networks being “term-limited” (IDS8) and energy-intensive (IDS2) could be a source of stress for some, as the interpersonal support system needs to maintained when there is not enough time and may, at times, seem futile, but it can be countered by active involvement in building a social network of one’s own (8/11), encompassing academics and nonacademics (e.g., IDS1, IDS7, IDS9).
Especially concerning a social network of academics, communication (7/11) and collaboration (6/11) were found to be important for half of the participants, followed by connecting through research (4/11), building a researchers’ community (4/11), and sharing knowledge (3/11). Communication mostly involved people at the university; it did not only involve the exchange of ideas or feedback (IDS2, IDS6, IDS9) but also the sharing and validation of stress in doctoral studies:
it’s really nice to share my anxiety with other PhD students and then- it’s really nice to know that others also have this kind of stress and anxiety, what I also have, so it’s really nice. (IDS4)
Stress is viewed as a natural component of becoming a researcher, which can be discussed and countered by peers’ insights. However, doctoral candidates might not be good at taking initiative to organize informal gatherings, thus contributing to a lack of peer supportive networks within and beyond the university. Among others, this might obstruct the flow of information one needs (e.g., conferences, administration), as others “don’t even know what you know, so they don’t even know what they should inform you about” (IDS2). This might be problematic for scholarly identity negotiation, since not only might it make one feel excluded but also cause the loss of opportunities for this negotiation to take place. Collaboration was important for “feel[ing] the stimulus of dynamics or conversations or discussions in a project” (IDS8) and taking advantage of experienced researchers’ advice on one’s work. Like peers becoming “a sounding board” for the doctoral candidate (IDS9), established researchers become the scaffolding for their professional development:
Eh, sometimes it just helps to hear how they think and it helps me a lot to frame also, uh, the ideas in my mind. […] But, also, eh, another person with whom we have been collaborating, em, and he- his philosophical way of thinking- I mean, scientifically philosophical- It might sound contradictory, but it is not very much. (IDS2)
More experienced colleagues serve as catalysts and guides for contemplation of not only one’s work and professional relationships but also the nature and meaning of doing research. In that regard, scholarly identity negotiation draws on the deeper thinking one does on one’s own, whereby one learns to be at once a scientist and a philosopher. This deeper thinking is influenced by the ways of thinking used by expert others in close proximity as well as by international authoring partnerships that provide scholarly identity negotiation opportunities by means of conceptual and inspirational frames. Actively partaking in communication with peers and forging collaborative relationships with more knowledgeable researchers can help construct a sense of a research community that can teach how to negotiate or safeguard against stress. In the following chapter, the main issues arising from the findings are discussed.