Humanities students’ shifting identities throughout their postgraduate research studies

  • Regina Osterauer

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Two prevalent trends in the literature regarding postgraduate research education seem somewhat in opposition; doctoral students complete their studies at the lowest rate, in comparison to all other degrees, yet the assumption of expertise presumes postgraduate students are experts, based on their previous academic success. A further noticeable aspect of the literature is its scarcity regarding master’s by research students, compared to doctoral students. Although little of the reviewed literature is socio-culturally underpinned, the extant findings support the suitability of such a lens to understand learning on the postgraduate research level, which is how it is conceived within this project. Namely, it is mainly drawn upon Wenger’s (1998) Communities of Practice, while also employing Bronfenbrenner’s (1979b, 2005) Process-Person-Context-Time model as well as Vygotsky’s (1978) Zone of Proximal Development which was integrated with Tobbell and O’Donnell’s (2013a) emphasis on relationships. Ethnographic methods were employed at a post-1992 university in the North of England, which entailed collecting data in the form of non-participant observations; fieldnotes were produced in several settings: the postgraduate study space, supervision sessions and departmental seminars. Local documents were included in the analysis, and semi-structured interviews were conducted, with 12 postgraduate researchers, eight of whom were interviewed twice, and with two staff members, who were responsible for postgraduate education on the disciplinal and institutional level. The data was analysed in three ways: via a qualitative content analysis, the construction of participant stories, and a reflexive thematic analysis. The findings elucidate that attendant practices influence students’ participation, which are individually negotiated. Thus, practices which enable some postgraduate researchers to participate, may hinder others. It is recommended to construct institutional and departmental opportunities which facilitate peer interaction, as this likely enables postgraduate researchers’ participation. Further, relationships with fellow PGRs and supervisors are conceptualised as successful when they facilitate the negotiation of meaning and of the self, which may be through providing insight into the academic community of practice, or through allowing the PGR to conceive themselves as such. It is recommended to explore if PGRs’ non-academic relationships, such as to their family, partner, or non-academic friends, contribute to PGRs’ identity development in a similar, or dissimilar, facilitative manner.
Date of Award15 Aug 2022
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorElizabeth Tobbell (Main Supervisor) & Lynda Turner (Co-Supervisor)

Cite this