Phases of doctoral studies

Phases of doctoral studies

This is a Research Highlight, where I present published research on doctoral student wellbeing.

In this Research Highlight I will dive into a recent article by Sverdlik and Hall (2020) on the different phases of doctoral studies and their impact on doctoral student wellbeing and motivation.

The article builds on work by Weidman and Stein (2003) and Gardner (2008), who propose that the development of scholarly identity and the integration into the scholarly community occur in stages.

During your doctoral studies, you are supposed to develop the skills, knowledge and networks needed as a researcher.

Side note. I often have to emphasize this to the doctoral students I talk to, since they have this (false) notion that they should already be experts in their field. It’s called doctoral studies for a reason – you are supposed to learn how to be a scholar and the expertise will follow. Trust the process. Now back to the real stuff.

You will also be confronted with different demands and responsibilities, depending on which point of your doctoral journey you have reached. The journey might look different for different people and it might differ a bit depending on how the doctoral program is constructed in your country. But on the whole, the following description of the phases is quite universal.

The first phase starts at the admission into to doctoral program and continues through the first year of coursework. During this phase, the doctoral student begins to form relationships with peers and faculty members. During remote work, this socialization experience has been more difficult to obtain than before. The second phase of the doctoral program includes the time spent mainly on coursework until the examination period. The third phase marks the culmination of course work through the dissertation research, or the period generally referred to as candidacy.

It’s important to note that these stages are not only a depiction of programmatic turning points (which would make them specific for specific programs and countries). They focus on the socialization experience of the students in regard to relationships and personal growth. A recent study found that doctoral students often perceive an insufficient amount of institutional support to meet their candidature needs (Beasy et al., 2019). Yet, social support from the academic community is an important part of the doctoral experience and has an impact on motivation and wellbeing. For example, students who experience their own scholarly community as empowering and inspiring, also experience less stress, exhaustion, and anxiety (Stubb, Pyhältö & Lonka, 2011).

Sverdlik and Hall (2020) found in their study that stress was highest in the second stage and lowest in the first. They also found that satisfaction with the program was highest in the first phase and lower for each progressive program phase. These results can be explained by the decreasing level of structure and definition in the program as it moves on from the highly structured coursework stage. Greater ambiguity and potential for misinterpretation in the later stages may contribute to lower satisfaction. In addition, when program demands become more illdefined and unstructured, student wellbeing tends to decrease (Lovitts, 2008).

“Thus, the present findings show doctoral students’ well-being to be highest when they begin their programs and to deteriorate as they progress in their doctoral studies.”

Sverdlik & Hall (2020), page 115

The source of motivation also differed depending on the doctoral program phase. Those in the first phase found their work more personally valuable than students in the other phases. In addition, students in the third phase were more motivated by avoiding shame and guilt, keeping commitments, and satisfying their supervisors.

Another interesting finding was that doctoral students became more efficacious as they progressed through their programs. Successful navigation through the tasks and demands of the doctoral journey can subsequently increase students’ self-efficacy as they come to trust their judgement and ability to complete the requirements of their programs.

Navigating through the doctoral journey can be like navigating through the creative process.

“Taken together, these results suggest that as students progress through their programs, they become more motivated by self-aggrandizement and avoiding shame and guilt, as opposed to their personal goals, interest, and values. Although students become more self-efficacious in the later phases of their studies, it is possible that they also become personally detached from their academic work (possibly due to the adverse effects of the isolation experienced during this phase; Ali & Kohun, 2006, 2007), and more focused on the practical aspects of their degree (e.g. finishing their dissertation, graduating, finding a job).”

Sverdlik & Hall (2020), page 116

The take home message is that research institution should:

  • Acknowledge the different experiences and challenges during each stage of the doctoral education (and to acknowledge individual variation in these experiences).
  • Support doctoral students during these transitions.
  • Provide extra support for new doctoral students so that they become included into the academic community. This is especially important during remote studies and work.
  • Provide access to mental health resources at all stages, but especially during the final dissertation stage. Normalize taking care of one’s mental health.

The reference to the full article is below.

Sverdlik & Hall (2020) Not just a phase: Exploring the role of program stage on well-being and motivation in doctoral students. Journal of Adult and Continuing Education, 26(1), 97-104.


Beasy, K., Emery, S., & Crawford, J. (2019). Drowning in the shallows: An Australian study of the PhD experience of wellbeing. Teaching in Higher Education.

Lambie, G. W., & Vaccaro, N. (2011). Doctoral counselor education students’ levels of research self-efficacy, perceptions of the research training environment, and interest in research. Counselor Education and Supervision, 50, 243–258. doi:10.1002/j.1556-6978.2011.tb00122.x

Lovitts, B. E. (2008). The transition to independent research: Who makes it, who doesn’t, and why. The Journal of Higher Education, 79, 296–325. doi:10.1353/jhe.0.0006

Stubb , Pyhältö & Lonka (2011). Balancing between inspiration and exhaustion: PhD students’ experienced socio-psychological well-being, Studies in Continuing Education, 33(1), 33-50, doi:10.1080/0158037X.2010.515572

Weidman, J. C., & Stein, E. L. (2003). Socialization of doctoral students to academic norms. Research in Higher Education, 44, 641–656. doi:10.1023/A:1026123508335


2 thoughts on “Phases of doctoral studies

  1. Co-writing – creating shared experiences and supportive environments – PhD Pathfinder

    […] is already so unstructured (at least in the dissertation writing phase, which I wrote about in an earlier post), that trying to figure out what needs to be done next, is almost an impossible task when left […]

  2. Co-writing - creating shared experiences and supportive environments - PhD Pathfinder

    […] is already so unstructured (at least in the dissertation writing phase, which I wrote about in an earlier post), that trying to figure out what needs to be done next, is almost an impossible task when left […]

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