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Longing to belong in academic culture: How research students narrate the ‘rollercoaster’ ride of finding their place in the academy

Wednesday 3 July: Conference day one, 2:00pm – 2:30pm parallel session



Room 9 – 3030-G23 MLT1



Dr Janine Delahunty
University of Wollongong, Australia

Dr Kathryn Harden-Thew
University of Wollongong



Global trends in HE have seen an increase in research student enrolments, but have also brought growing uncertainty around employment outcomes in both academia and industry (Jones, 2018). The focus of related research tends to be on the products of student work and the experience of supervision, with student voices often unacknowledged in a ‘costly’ and deeply embodied investment which requires time, professional commitment and personal sacrifice, making demands on emotional and psychological wellbeing. This paper foregrounds student voices, by exploring the impact of relationships on the experience of negotiating academic culture and preparing for life, post-graduation. We used the lens of identity theory (Whannell & Whannell, 2015) and perceptions of belonging to understand the data, with the voices of students being foregrounded through a narrative approach (Crotty, 1998). Data was gathered from an anonymous survey of research students and recent graduates across universities in 15 countries (N=425), with all stages of the postgraduate research process represented – from pre-proposal to recent graduate. Lee’s (2018) framework was used to explore the impact of supervisory and peer relationships and gain a deeper understanding of the conditions under which such relationships developed, either positive or negative. These themes, termed by Lee (2018) as the ‘essence of the modern doctorate’ (p. 882) are Functional, Enculturation, Critical thinking, Emancipation and Relationship development.

Findings highlight students’ rich experiences and perceptions across the postgraduate research process, with attention given to the relationships that enabled or constrained their identity formation and sense of belonging.  Whilst there was great diversity amongst the participants, there were surprising consistencies, particularly the significant impact of the quality of social interaction on identity and notions of belonging. While functional aspects, such as regular meetings with supervisors, were important in working towards the milestones and achieving measurable outcomes, there is far greater emphasis on the relationship development which can sustain the student through the life-cycle of their degree through to life beyond graduation.


Crotty, M. 1998. The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process. Sage Publication Ltd.
Lee, A. 2018. “How Can We Develop Supervisors for the Modern Doctorate?” Studies in Higher Education.
Whannell, R., and Whannell, P. 2015. “Identity Theory as a Theoretical Framework to Understand Attrition for University Students in Transition.” Student Success.


Presentation topic

Students – Future Graduates

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