Reflecting on Motivations for Doctoral Study

It’s exactly a year to the day since I interviewed for my PhD. It is a path I’d never really imagined taking. After graduating, I had no immediate desire to study any further, and unlike friends who longed to do a Master’s and took a year or two out in order to save for the tuition fees, I just wanted to find a job that was interesting and would pay well. Yet three years after graduating, I enrolled on a part-time MRes as part of my professional development after getting a new job, never dreaming that it would lead me towards a PhD.

Existing research focuses mostly on categorising the different motivations for undertaking doctoral study- for example personal interest in a subject area, or career development (Churchill & Sanders 2007; Gill and Hoppe 2009). Yet Brailsford (2010: 25) highlights a practical purpose in identifying individual motivations. He argues that for those commencing a doctorate, regularly reflecting on their original motivations ‘may be a valuable motivational tool itself’, helping to sustain individuals through more challenging periods.

There is a wealth of literature which highlights the difficulty in maintaining motivation throughout a doctoral degree (Golde 2005; Lovitts 2001; Powell & Green 2007). Issues such as isolation and poor relationships with supervisors can de-motivate individuals, despite their academic potential and original enthusiasm.

Taking up Brailsford’s challenge, I decided to take some time to reflect on my own motivations, re-visiting my personal e-mails and diary from the time for inspiration. I hadn’t realised how influential some of my friends had been in indirectly encouraging me to apply for a PhD.

One of my colleagues had completed a PhD some months before we started working together. I had always assumed that anyone doing a doctorate wanted to become an academic, and so was curious to understand why she had chosen a different career instead. I wanted to know if her decision was unusual, and whether the experience of doing a doctorate had made academia less attractive as a career option. This curiosity didn’t go away, and it eventually took shape as my PhD proposal. My personal interest in this topic was my main motivation for applying for a PhD.

Another of my friends who I studied with on the MRes had always planned on applying for a PhD afterwards. I envied his certainty, and was impressed at his unwavering determination to achieve his goal- to become an academic. When he began applying for PhD scholarships, I realised how jealous I was. Looking back at our e-mails from the time, I discovered that I the idea of doing a doctorate had been in my mind much earlier than I’d previously thought. However, I had felt that I didn’t have the necessary academic credentials and wouldn’t be eligible to apply:

‘How are your PhD applications going? I am majorly jealous, would love to be in the position to apply but alas I am not.’

When he said that he had seen an advertised PhD about feminist research and had thought of me, he asked me why I thought I wasn’t able to apply. I replied:

‘I can’t apply because it’s too soon, would be this time next year if I wanted to apply as I won’t finish the MRes til September ’15. Do you remember where the one you saw and nearly sent me was though? Might have a look just out of interest!’

In my diary from the time, I wrote about my experiences of studying part-time on the MRes and how much I enjoyed the time I spent working on my assignments at the weekend:

Just sitting in that office in Collegiate getting on with my work, I had one of the best days I’ve had in a really long time. Maybe this is what I want to do.

In undertaking this process of reflection, I discovered that my motivations were more wide-ranging than I had previously thought. I was motivated by the intellectual challenge of further study, and the idea of developing a career which allowed me to research what I was interested in full-time.

Thinking back to Brailsford’s proposition that doctoral students should regularly reflect on their motivations for studying, I have found it a useful and productive exercise. It’s easy to become de-motivated during the PhD, and I know that I get bogged down in the minutiae- whether it’s not being able to understand a certain theory, or feeling daunted about the upgrade process.

The way I’ve chosen to reflect on my own motivations is to physically look back at personal material from the last two years which shed light on my thoughts and feelings about doctoral study. Other ways of doing this could include re-reading your original research proposal to rediscover your interest in the subject area, or talking to your peers about what it was the motivated you to apply for a doctorate in the first place.

I would be really interested to hear what your original motivations for undertaking a PhD were, whether or not you reflect on them and whether you find doing this a motivational tool in itself. Feel free to get in touch!