Life as a doctoral student

Recent research at Oxford exploring doctoral student experience highlights the need to attend to how non-thesis related activities, including personal lives, can contribute to the overall experience of the doctoral journey. Here a week in Sam’s diary shows him navigating a range of academic experiences while ensuring a personal life.


Many academic activities doctoral students engage in are relatively informal in nature or do not directly contribute to their thesis (note Sam’s meeting with regional representatives on Friday). Yet, they increase a student’s contacts and future opportunities and aid their skills development. For instance, doctoral students may value the opportunity to teach and appreciate the benefit it can have for them and their doctoral work:

I have an interest in teaching, and learning how to teach and lecture, and it is a very rewarding experience… I think it helps you develop as a person. You know, in trying to communicate your ideas clearly to somebody who maybe is less familiar, it helps crystallise your own thoughts, and it’s a very useful skill in any type of communication about the work that you’re doing, learn how to communicate it clearly and how to educate other people, you know, how to teach somebody if they’re interested in the same field.

When these activities involve the supervisor this can help build that relationship too. In fact, in some cases, the involvement or instigation by the supervisor can be important and also valued by students as this student noted:

My supervisor has already introduced me to a lot of people. She is very open to that – not selfish in terms of “this is my network of important people around the world – it’s just for me and for my research”. On the contrary, every time she knows that somebody will be around, she calls us and introduces us to the people.

Here is a supervisor’s view of the value of helping students to network:

I’m quite keen to take her to one of the smaller US conferences, because most of our primary collaborators that are doing work conceptually very related to hers are there. Frankly, it’s getting to know people socially so that when you do want to speak to them about something scientific, you have something to go from.

As well as developing external networks, some supervisors try to create departmental or faculty networks for students as here:

I implemented this series a couple of years ago - having all the grad students meet twice a term in a mock seminar setting – one presenting a paper and everyone else asking questions. The seminars worked well – though it was a lot more difficult to do than one would guess. They all knew each other’s work, and they hadn’t before. They helped one another; some even went on research trips together, which is exactly what we wanted to have happen. It also worked in the sense that a couple of the actual papers ended up to be very important publications down the road.

Of course, all the training and opportunities that a supervisor can encourage or arrange will not necessarily be of immediate benefit to a supervisee. Doing a doctorate is mediated by a number of different circumstances, many of which while external to doctoral work are critical to progress. As one student commented:

My wife is a support for me. Without her, I might not be here. I could have a wife who was not interested in anything related to research, or who was not willing to live in another country for three or four years without family, especially knowing that we were going to live on a scholarship and not on a salary or anything.

Similarly, the substantial proportion of Oxford's graduate research students (42%) who, according to a recent survey, undertake paid work for a college or the University may have a need to do so in order to secure financial support.

Supervisors may not consider it part of their role to explore the personal aspects of a student’s life and students are not always willing to reveal them either. However, there are places and people to whom a supervisor or a student can go for advice and support for personal issues as well as skills training, teaching, time management, project and career planning. Attending such sessions can also help students build a network of contacts and support amongst other candidates.

The doctoral journey is an emotional as well as a scholarly experience in which doctoral work is situated in a broader life and imagined future.

Here is one supervisor talking about how doctoral work intersects and is influenced by many other factors

So I work with students in terms of where they are in life, in themselves, in their personal quest for knowledge and their personal circumstances – how their academic experiences impact on other relationships and on their studies. I don’t think they can just get through the DPhil. There are so many new things on the way. So I think I’m very useful in that I recognise what blocks them and what stops them and I bring their attention to it, and then they can work themselves, or with me if they want.

  • Would you feel confident doing this?
  • To what extent do you feel aware of aspects of students' lives beyond doctoral work?
  • Is it something you feel is part of the supervisory role?

The following sections of the web site provide other ideas: Supervisory styles; Student-supervisor relationships; International students; and Avoiding potential difficulties.

Many students want to organize and develop their own learning opportunities but may lack the resources to do so.

Are there ways in which you or your department/ faculty can help students to create learning activities they can take the lead on?

To what extent are students in your department/ faculty encouraged to build their own networks, to publish or to take advantage of available training? See Presenting at seminars and conferences, Publishing during the doctorate and Identifying and developing skills.

You can listen to people talking (Apprise website) about their experiences of doctoral work and, this video (filmed at Oxford) may also help students to think about Supervisor and student rights and responsibilities.

And there is also a wide range of self-help books on navigating the journey:

Building relationships

While supervisors and relationships with them are critical, it is often the relationships with others that will assist students through their journeys, for example: fellow students, lab staff, contract researchers and librarians, not to mention family and friends.

Learning to be proactive

Many students express the desire to be intentional and take ownership of their doctoral journey, and there is considerable research to suggest that the successful student is the one who takes charge and works strategically. Nevertheless, there are some who are very competent intellectually, but not yet intentional and strategic. These students often need to be encouraged to operate in this manner.

Developing new skills and identities

Other research points to the skills and learning students acquire, and the development they undergo, for example, coming to think like a researcher, developing analytical skills and developing specific research skills. Also important in the experience are developing perseverance, maintaining motivation and determination. In sum the doctoral experience is more than the accumulation of skills - it is a process of identity formation as a scholar in the discipline.

Communicating one's research

Communicating includes oral and written communication as well as networking skills at conferences and seminars. Students may commence their research education with little in the way of skills and experience in communicating research in ways that are appropriate within the discipline. Supervisors may underestimate what is required to develop these since they have often been immersed in their discipline for so long that conventions and discourse specific to the discipline can look to them like common sense and be difficult to explain. Still, the evidence suggests students look to their supervisors (unless directed elsewhere) to provide concrete and helpful suggestions to enable them to improve.

Imagining a future beyond the doctorate

For students who have been working full-time for three or four years on one topic, the thought of moving on can be quite challenging! It's good to begin these discussions early.

Managing work-life balance

Studies consistently report many doctoral students struggle to manage a healthy work-life balance. The work of the degree can become all-consuming and developing strategies to create balance (e.g. exercise, social activities) can be helpful in maintaining motivation and a sense of progress.

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.

Delamont, S., Atkinson, P. and Parry, O. (2004) Supervising the doctorate: A guide to success, Second edition. Berkshire: SRHE and OU Press.

Denholm, C. & Evans, T. (Eds.), Doctorates downunder: Keys to successful doctoral study in Australia and New Zealand. Melbourne: ACER.

Jazvac-Martek, M., Chen, S., & McAlpine, L. (2011). "Tracking doctoral student experience over time: Cultivating agency in diverse spaces". In L. McAlpine & C. Amundsen (eds.). Doctoral education: Research-based strategies for doctoral students, supervisors and administrators. Amsterdam: Springer, 17-36.

Kamler, B. and Thomson, P. (2006) Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. London and New York: Routledge.

Trigwell, K. & Dunbar-Goddet, H. (2005) The Research Experience of Postgraduate Research Students at the University of Oxford. Oxford: Institute for the Advancement of University Learning, University of Oxford.

Statistics on Oxford graduate student employment come from graduate student responses to Student Engagement surveys piloted at Oxford in Hilary Term 2013. For more information about the surveys, contact Dr Gosia Turner.