Student motivation to study

Why undertake a doctorate? While there is no recent quantitative information on doctoral students' motivation to study at Oxford, qualitative information provides some insights. Whilst reasons given for studying for a doctorate are less frequently extrinsically or economically driven, e.g. getting a job or having a better salary, students often characterized the purpose for doing the degree as intrinsically meaningful – addressing personal intellectual interests or to advance in their chosen field, as these two students report.

Well, it was a…a lifelong goal to do a PhD in something… But I didn’t feel that I could start that until I really had a good project, 'til I had a good thesis project… And, when I was 22 or 25 years old, I didn’t know what a good thesis project was. When I was 45 years old, I had run across a couple of good thesis projects, and now I had an opportunity [PhD] to go solve one. (Doctoral student, STEM)
I’ve been in the industry for years… I was interested in some of the emerging areas in my field, so… I began by trying to study, you know, from books, some of the areas that I am working in, and realised, after, I don’t know, about probably nearly a year, that I should also need to go back to college [Masters and a PhD] to fill in some of the gaps because the field has expanded enormously since I originally came across it. (Doctoral student, STEM)

And, when asked how they ended up registering for a doctorate, they reported processes that were often strongly influenced by others. For instance, the decision followed on what their friends had chosen to do or on the suggestion of an academic who knew them. In these cases, the academic was perceived as someone able to assess their capabilities who had decided they could achieve a DPhil. Here a student working in social sciences reports:

I was talking with my current supervisor during my Master’s about getting some work into print and he asked if I would be interested in coming back and offered me a job - suggesting that we put in for some scholarships and things. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

Similarly, this science student describes what led to her application:

And I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to do a PhD ... trying to get work, but I was still really happy with my student life and … this project is really for me ... it would fit my background and it would really fit the kind of thing I would love to do and I really decided to do it as more like a five year contract. I was like “I don’t know what I’m going to do after but this sounds really interesting and I’m going to take the next five years to do something I really enjoy. (Doctoral student, STEM)

So, while students usually bring intrinsic interest, they may not conceive the doctoral journey as distinct from their previous educational experience. The following comment by a supervisor demonstrates the importance of differentiating the motivation to undertake the DPhil with the motivational factors required to complete the degree – passion combined with sustained diligence and determination.

I think we need to be really sure that students really, really want this. I mean, it’s not like a taught postgraduate degree, it’s not like an undergraduate degree; it’s something where they really… it’s got to be their enthusiasm that carries… carries it through at the end of the day, as much as their talent and their innate ability. I’m worried that part of this whole problem we’ve had with completion is partly that people are seeing the PhD as more just a kind of logical stepping stone rather than something they feel passionate about. (New supervisor, Social Sciences)

In some ways, differentiating the motivation to undertake the DPhil from the motivational factors required to complete the degree, should begin before the student arrives at the University. In any contacts with prospective students, you might ask the following?

  • What has led to their application?
  • What do they view as the personal characteristics that will be critical to success?
  • What differences can they articulate between their previous educational experience and the DPhil?
  • Will a DPhil help them to achieve their long-term goals?

You could also provide the prospective or beginning student with this Dublin Descriptors document, adapted from the EU Tuning Project. It characterizes the major differences between the Master’s and the DPhil degrees, and could also be used as the basis for a discussion.

Motivation is clearly a major factor in the progress, supervisory relationship and outcome of the doctorate. So, why do students enrol in a research degree? Dux (2006) describes a number of reasons why students undertake doctorates. Some do it as a stalling tactic. With no clear career direction but excellent academic results, students may take the seemingly easy option of postgraduate work supported by a scholarship. Others start the thesis with the idea that the university offers deep intellectual truths in which they might share. And, there are those who undertake postgraduate work when their supervisors (or other academics) convince them of their abilities. Thus attention to original motivation for undertaking the doctorate can be important. For instance, Gardner (2009) noted how both academics and students used motivation to explain aspects of attrition, i.e. students drifting into doctoral studies without clear motivation, students beginning in an institution without fully understanding the nature of the programme and finding it a poor fit.

All this suggests that students, while motivated to undertake the degree, may not understand the nature of the actual task.

A lot of the mistakes I've made are the result of me not asking questions and people not putting me right -- they presume I must know.... I didn't know the PhD was meant to be an argument, as Dr Durham said, it’s meant to say something. I thought it was meant to be one of those old-fashioned monographs, the collection of information. When I was an undergraduate I used to think a PhD was one of those articles you get in [Journal] or something that 10,000 word article. I used to think ‘they must be PhDs’. (Delamont et al, 2000, p. 39)

A widely read book on 'getting a PhD' is that by Phillips and Pugh (2000). They have articulated the link between initial motivation and the knowledge and ability to complete the degree as ‘How NOT to get a PhD’.

  1. Not really wanting one; rather wanting something else (such as a career change) that candidates mistake for a PhD.
  2. Not understanding the nature of a PhD.
  3. Overestimating what is required, i.e., it is a PhD, not a Nobel Prize!
  4. Underestimating what is required of a PhD.
  5. Losing contact with a supervisor.
  6. Not having a thesis, in the sense of an argument or position.
  7. Having a supervisor who does not know what is required.
  8. Taking a new job before completing the PhD.

The above text was based on:

Delamont, S., Atkinson, P. and Parry, O. (2000) The Doctoral Experience: Success and Failure in Graduate School. London and New York: Falmer Press.

Dux, M. (2006) Quitting has its own rewards. The Australian (12 April 2006). (Not available online)

Gardner, S. (2009) Student and faculty attributions of attrition in high and low-competing doctoral programsHigher Education, 58(1), 97-112.

Phillips, E., & Pugh, D. S. (2000). How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors (Third edition). Buckingham: Open University Press.