The learning experience is a unique combination of factors that depend on the goal of the program, the specificities of the chosen area, and numerous confounding factors such as the regulations and curricular differences. However, it is possible to outline a trend suggesting the connection between the doctorate learning experience and those faced before it. Simply put, the student is usually familiarized with all major components of the learning experience associated with the doctorate program (e.g. writing and independent research) before enrollment. However, the increased significance of these components, as well as the autonomy characteristic of the learning experience, create additional challenges for the students (Willison, Sabir, & Thomas, 2017). The following paper explores the effects of the autonomous nature of doctoral learning, identifies the most significant activities, and provides recommendations intended to enhance the academic performance of the students.
The most notable characteristic of doctorate learning is the increase in the autonomy of academic activities. This is especially evident in comparison with prior learning experiences that rely more on the guidance and supervision of the tutors. Notably, neither of the activities associated with the programs is fundamentally unique and will likely be familiar to the students from their previous experience. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify a range of persistent issues that need to be addressed.
The available academic literature highlights several aspects of doctoral learning that can be roughly grouped into two broad categories. First, the scholars point to the fact that a significant portion of engaging in a doctoral program consists of writing and publishing scholarly artefacts. For instance, Collins (2015) argues that writing skills are essential for succeeding as a doctoral student and provides several strategies that are considered helpful in achieving the said goal. Specifically, the author suggests introducing the element of self-motivation by planning rewards and tying them to intermediary objectives, exercising mindfulness in the working process by identifying the attempts of making up excuses for underachievement, and selecting a topic that would resonate with personal interests and values in order to ensure productivity and commitment (Collins, 2015). Collins (2015) also provides several psychological tactics that are expected to improve self-esteem, such as maintaining realistic expectations, objective assessment of criticism, recognizing the writer’s authoritative role, and preparing the responses to potentially disruptive situations in order to respond to them appropriately upon encounter.
A study by Dowling, Savrin, and Graham (2013) presented the findings of the analysis of a survey administered to the faculty and students involved in doctorate programs. The results identified several important barriers to the facilitation of writing process, such as the lack of a clear vision and the sense of direction that prevented the students from starting the work on an article (Dowling et al., 2013). Another commonly reported drawback was the inability to find sufficient time for research. On the other hand, the majority of respondents agreed that collaboration between mentors and the faculty created the greatest support for the academic process (Dowling et al., 2013). The authors suggested several systemic adjustments contributing to the collaborative component of the academic process that can be successfully utilized at the personal level.
The importance of scholarly writing skills is further explored in the article by McDougall, Ornelles, and Rao (2015). The research team outlines several quantifiable errors common among beginning writers, including the overuse of nominalization, excessive prevalence of passive over active voice, inappropriate use of the first and third person, unclear pronoun referents, and the use of overly complicated phrasing McDougall et al., 2015). Based on their findings, the authors provide several recommendations that include responsible self-reflection and seeking peer support to review and validate the scholarly artefacts.
The second aspect of doctoral learning is the significant shift in sociocultural and conceptual domains associated with the transition to the new stage of learning. According to the results of the interview conducted by Petty, Cross, and Stew (2012), the onset of the doctorate program created a significantly traumatic experience for the students who entered the field with the preconceived perception of an exciting adventure. In addition, some of the respondents reported encountering conflicts between their existing values and the information obtained during the course. The authors also pointed to the fact that over time and with the help of simple coping strategies, the students were successful in reducing the discomfort and increase their academic performance (Petty et al., 2012). A study by Willison et al. (2017) suggested a research skill development framework built upon the similar findings. The framework was expected to improve the learning environment by articulating the new responsibilities and objectives more clearly and communicate the new degree of freedom associated with the research-based learning characteristic of the doctorate programs (Willison et al., 2017).
Several strategies can be suggested based on the information obtained from the literature review. First, a set of routine practices can be recommended that combine discipline, time management, mindfulness, and responsible peer-review. Second, activities aimed at preservation of the emotional climate must be introduced in order to mitigate the disruptive effects of the transition towards greater autonomy. Since both areas are expected to be familiar to the doctorate student, the emphasis should be made on their consistent application. The suggested strategies are expected to increase academic performance both directly (by optimizing the process) and indirectly (by minimizing the adverse psychological effects).
Collins, J. C. (2015). Writing for publication while in graduate school: An accessible reality. New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, 27(1), 51-55.
Dowling, D. A., Savrin, C., & Graham, G. C. (2013). Writing for publication: Perspectives of graduate nursing students and doctorally prepared faculty. Journal of Nursing Education, 52(7), 371-375.
McDougall, D., Ornelles, C., & Rao, K. (2015). A primer on the pathway to scholarly writing: Helping nascent writers to unlearn conditioned habits. College Student Journal, 49(2), 262-270.
Petty, N., Cross, V., & Stew, G. (2012). Professional doctorate level study: The experience of health professional practitioners in their first year. Work Based Learning e-Journal, 2(2), 1-28.
Willison, J., Sabir, F., & Thomas, J. (2017). Shifting dimensions of autonomy in students’ research and employment. Higher Education Research & Development, 36(2), 430-443.