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‘I just think it’s really awkward’: transitioning to higher education and the implications for student retention


New first-year students are vulnerable to dropping out of university because the transition into higher education (HE) is difficult to navigate. Using thematic analysis, we analysed focus groups/interview, exit interviews and qualitative survey data with university students during their first year as criminology undergraduates to explore how they transitioned into HE. Findings show that the transition to a new identity of ‘university student’ was hampered by feelings of awkwardness, which prevented students from fully integrating into student life. However, the subject of criminology was a protective factor because interest in the topic and wanting a degree for betterment, including for future career plans, buffered students against dropping out. We argue that subject-specific interventions may be better in supporting the retention of students and that addressing physical, social and academic awkwardness is key.

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 Data availability

Our data supports the claims we make. It is not appropriate to share the data as it contains non-anonymised data—participants and the location of the study are to remain anonymous.

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Not applicable.

As the research involves human participants, the study progressed through the ethics procedure at the university and was approved. Informed consent to participate in the study was obtained from participants.


  1. There are 2 non-responses.

  2. Mature students are defined as aged 21 or over at the start of their programme of study (UCAS, 2022).

  3. There is 1 non-response for gender and 2 non-responses for the variables ethnicity, age and ‘moved to study’.

  4. Social class is missing because of non-response.

  5. Social class is missing because of non-response.


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We would like to thank Dr Matthew Durey for conducting the initial focus groups.

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While the second author has designed the study and gathered the data, the lead author has led the qualitative data analysis and writing of the manuscript, with the second author also contributing to these processes.

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Correspondence to Helen Williams.

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Not applicable—the authors have no conflicts of interests to declare that are relevant to the content of this article. The site of research and participants therein are anonymised.

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Williams, H., Roberts, N. ‘I just think it’s really awkward’: transitioning to higher education and the implications for student retention. High Educ (2022).

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  • Retention
  • Undergraduate
  • Criminology
  • Awkwardness
  • Transition