2012. Vol.3, No.12A, 1231-1237
Published Online December 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1231
What Engages Doctoral Students in Biosciences in Doctoral
Viivi Virtanen1, Kirsi Pyhältö2
1Faculty of Bio- and Environmental Sciences, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland
2Centre for Research and Development in Higher Education, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland
Received September 7th, 2012; revised October 3rd, 2012; accepted November 5th, 2012
Reduced levels of engagement and dropping out have been identified as a major problem in doctoral edu-
cation worldwide, including in the biosciences. Research suggests that engagement predict student satis-
faction, degree completion, and persistence in studies. To explore the anatomy of engaging experiences
altogether 40 doctoral students’ theme interviews were analyzed by using abductive strategy. Accordingly,
we were able to identify factors that promoted doctoral students’ engagement in their work. In general,
the students described many experiences of satisfaction, inspiration, joy, positive work drive, meaning-
fulness, and fulfillment in terms of their doctoral studies. The doctoral students’ engagement in their work
originated from various contexts of academic work, including research, scholarly communities, the super-
visory relationship, and formal studies. The results indicate that although the interrelationship between
individuals and the environment is complex and it is difficult to predict the outcome at an individual level,
the central ingredients of engaging experiences among biosciences can be identified. Accordingly, activi-
ties that contribute to the doctoral students’ sense of competence, autonomy, belonging, and contribution
ought to be considered when trying to develop engaging learning environments for doctoral students. The
results provide evidence-based tools for developing doctoral education in an academic environment.
Keywords: Doctoral Students; Positive Experiences; Engagement; Satisfaction
Doctoral students form a highly skillful group based on their
academic backgrounds. However, pursuing a PhD is a chal-
lenging journey. Previous research suggests that while some
students find doctoral studies to be highly engaging there are
number of doctoral students who never finish their thesis
(Gardner, 2007; Nettles & Millet, 2006). Attrition rates among
doctoral students are suggested to range from 30% to up to 50%,
depending on the discipline and country (Bair & Haworth, 2004;
Golde, 2005; McAlpine & Norton, 2006). Accordingly, reduced
levels of engagement and dropping out have been identified as
a major problem in doctoral education, including in biosciences
(Pyhltö, Stubb, & Tuomainen, 2011). Hence, there is a need to
gain a better understanding about the anatomy of engaging
doctoral experience to be able to develop more engaging learn-
ing environments for doctoral students. However, little is
known about the factors and events that engage doctoral stu-
dents in doctoral studies and contribute to resilience in facing
challenges. The present study focuses on exploring episodes
that promote doctoral student engagement in doctoral studies in
the context of biosciences by studying the students’ positive
experiences. Thus, the study comes from a general framework
of the positive psychology (e.g., Lopez & Snyder, 2011;
Marques, Pais-Ribeiro, & Lopez, 2011; Myers, 2000; Rich,
Theoretical Background
Conducting doctoral research can be considered academic
work. In carrying out doctoral research, doctoral students are
taking their first steps as professional researchers in the aca-
demic field (Golde, 2005; Stubb, Pyhältö, & Lonka, 2011).
This is especially true in biosciences where doctoral studies are
typically conducted in research groups.
Work Engagement among Doctoral Stud e nts
Work engagement refers to a positive, fulfilling, workrelated
experience (Schaufeli, Martinez, Pinto, & Bakker, 2002a) cha-
racterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption. It as character-
istic of work engagement that engaged individuals feel ener-
getic, effective, and focused on their work (Bakker, Schaufeli,
Leiter, & Taris, 2008). Absorption refers specifically to total
concentration on and immersion in work characterized by the
feeling of time passing quickly and difficulty detaching oneself
from one’s work (González-Romá, Schaufeli, Bakker, & Lloret,
2006; Langelaan et al., 2006). Vigor refers to high levels of
energy and mental resilience while working, the willingness to
put considerable effort into the task, and persistence when fac-
ing difficulties (Schaufeli et al., 2002a). Thus, doctoral stu-
dents who feel very vigorous when working on their doctoral
project are highly motivated by the project and are also likely to
show high persistence when encountering challenges and diffi-
culties. A third dimension of work engagement, dedication, is
characterized by a strong psychological involvement in one’s
work, combined with a sense of significance, enthusiasm, in-
spiration, pride, and challenge (Schaufeli et al., 2002a; Cooper-
Hakim & Viswesvaran, 2005).
Accordingly, engaged individuals have been found to ex-
perience their work as satisfying and meaningful. This pro-
motes work engagement and further protects individuals from
negative states, such as exhaustion, that might lead to burnout
(González-Romá et al., 2006; Hakanen, Bakker, & Williams,
2006). Moreover, engaged persons are willing to invest their
time and effort in their work, are efficient in dealing with the
demands of their jobs, and have persistence even in the face of
difficulties (Bakker et al., 2008; Schaufeli et al., 2002a; Schau-
feli, Salanova, González-Romá, & Bakker, 2002b). Hence,
engaged doctoral students are likely to experience a high level
of energy, to find their research work meaningful, and to re-
main very persistent when encountering problems during the
doctoral journey than students who suffer from disengagement
in their doctoral studies.
The Working Environment Fit for Doctoral Students
Research on work engagement has shown that various envi-
ronmental as well as individual factors contribute to doctoral
student engagement. For example, social support, constructive
feedback, as well as a good supervisory relationship have been
identified as predictors for doctoral students’ satisfaction,
studying persistence, and experienced well-being (Gardner,
2007, 2008; Golde, 2005; Ives & Rowley, 2005; Pyhältö, Stubb,
& Lonka, 2009). The findings suggest that a doctoral students’
engagement is regulated by the complex dynamic between the
students and their working environment rather than a single
personal or environmental attribute.
The dynamic interplay between doctoral students and their
working environment can be explored in terms of personenvi-
ronment fit. Fit refers to the congruence between individuals
and their environment (Edwards, 2008). Previous studies on
work engagement suggest that perceived fit between the indi-
viduals and their working environment affects job satisfaction,
turnover intensions, and well-being (Verquer, Beehr, & Wagner,
2003). Further, research on doctoral experience indicates that
the perceived fit or misfit between doctoral students and their
working environment influences the students’ doctoral experi-
ence and the completion of the process (Gardner, 2007). Golde
(2005), for instance, found that a misfit between doctoral stu-
dents’ goals and expectations and the norms and practices of
the scholarly community affected students’ persistence.
However, the scholarly community is a complex and dy-
namic working environment that provides various arenas and
forms of participation for doctoral students. This complexity is
also reflected in doctoral students’ experiences of their school-
arly communities. Pyhältö et al. (2009) found out that both the
definitions of “scholarly community” given by the students and
their experience of membership in this community varied con-
siderably: about one third of PhD students felt isolated from
their academic community or experienced the relation between
themselves and the community as somehow problematic. Hence,
sources of student engagement or the lack of it may vary, not
only between scholarly communities but also between the
working contexts provided by a single community. In terms of
exploring the engagement of doctoral students, this suggests
that different scholarly environment variables should not be
summarized into a single measure.
Both the quantity and the quality of working environment-
doctoral student interaction are likely to contribute to experi-
enced engagement (Bair & Haworth, 2004; Pyhältö et al., 2011).
Relationships between the student and the working environ-
ment that contribute to their sense of autonomy, competence,
relatedness (SDT theory) (Deci & Ryan, 1990, 2008) as well as
a sense of contribution (Eccles, 2008) are suggested for pro-
moting student engagement. This is partly in line with previous
findings on doctoral experience indicating that a sense of be-
longing plays a central role in doctoral students’ well-being and
engagement in their studies (Austin, 2002; Pyhältö et al., 2009).
Moreover, there is some evidence that an internal locus of con-
trol and self-direction is central to making the most of doctoral
education (Anderson, 2011). Accordingly, it can be hypothe-
sized that if doctoral student active agency (autonomy) in terms
of their doctoral research, sense of belonging in the scholarly
community (relatedness), perceived proficiency as a scholar
(competence), as well as their sense of mattering (contribution)
are facilitated, this may promote their engagement in their doc-
toral work. However, we do not really know much about what
the central ingredients of an engaging doctoral experience are
and what contributes to student engagement.
This Study
In the present study we focus on exploring the engaging ex-
periences that may contribute to the development of the eng-
agement of doctoral students in their thesis work in the various
working contexts afforded by the scholarly community. More
specifically, we focus on analyzing the episodes that affect and
reshape the relationship between the doctoral students and their
working environment and promote the students’ engagement in
their doctoral studies. The context of the investigation is bio-
sciences. Our research hypothesis is that doctoral students’
engaging experiences are embedded in various academic activi-
ties. By identifying the engaging experiences, scholarly com-
munities can be facilitated in creating meaningful and engaging
learning environments for their doctoral students.
Thus, the aim is to explore: What engaging experiences did
the participants report? What factors contribute to student en-
gagement in their doctoral project? How are the events and
episodes situated in academic activities?
This study included interview data collected from doctoral
students in biosciences at a major, research intensive university
in Finland. Altogether 40 doctoral students were interviewed
(male = 15, female = 25). The participants were either just fin-
ished (n = 20; mode 31 years) or were finishing their studies (n
= 20; mode 26 years), and hence had the most recent experi-
ence of the doctoral path. All majors were represented by the
participants, namely, Aquatic Sciences (n = 5), Biochemistry (n
= 3), Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (n = 9), Environmental
Sciences (n = 10), General Microbiology (n = 2), Genetics (n =
4), Physiology (n = 4), and Plant Biology (n = 3). All the par-
ticipants pursued their doctoral dissertation in English as a
summary of articles, which includes four to five international
refereed journal articles, an introduction, and a summary.
Measurements and Data Collection
The data was collected in 2009. The semi-structured theme
interview included questions on the participants’ reasons for
entering doctoral training, their motivation and experiences, the
practices of doctoral training and supervision, the problems and
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
challenges encountered, their personal and collective resources,
as well as ideas concerning how doctoral training should be
organized. The interviews were tape-recorded digitally and
transcribed into text files by a trained research assistant.
The Procedure of the Interviews
Firstly, the respondents were asked some background ques-
tions, such as their major and the topic of the thesis. Next, the
respondents were asked to describe their PhD process, and to
clarify, what are the key events or turning points that have had
significant effect on the process, in their opinion. Then, the
respondents were asked a number of questions to capture their
positive experiences, such as: What do you find most rewarding
about the doctoral thesis process? Please, describe one situation
during your thesis process when you were inspired. What hap-
pened? Why? What were your reactions? What did you think
and feel? Finally, the last question allowed the respondents to
provide any other information they preferred to add, or to give
any comments, e.g., about the interview.
The data were analyzed using an abductive strategy. At the
beginning of the analysis, a functional coding procedure was
developed. The data analysis had features of the grounded the-
ory approach, which emphasized the constant comparative
method for assuring the accuracy of incident codes within each
category and the purpose of generating theoretical properties
for each category (Harry, Sturges, & Klingner, 2005). At first,
all the text segments in which doctoral students referred to en-
gaging experiences, including positive emotions, satisfaction,
work drive, and motivational boosts were coded into the same
hermeneutic category. After this, the data were coded into four
exclusive main categories: 1) a sense of competence including
experiences of developing academic expertise; 2) a sense of
contribution including experiences of producing significant
scientific knowledge; 3) a sense of belonging, including ex-
periences of being a member of a scholarly community; and 4)
a sense of autonomy, including experiences of making one’s
own decisions, having an intrinsic motivation to study the topic,
and being in control of one’s own working life. The main cate-
gories reflected the sources of engagement reported by doc-
toral students. Finally, these four main categories were classi-
fied into five basic categories that constituted the primary con-
text in which the engaging events were situated: 1) research
activities, 2) the scholarly community, 3) the supervisory re-
lationship, 4) doctoral course work, and 5) resources.
The categories resulting from the content analysis were vali-
dated by the research group at the end of each analysis phase
(Miles & Huberman, 1994). In the few cases of disagreement,
consensus on the final categorization was reached in discus-
sions between the researchers. The ecological validity of the
findings was tested and verified in pedagogical training for
supervisors in the university.
The Primary S ou r c es of the Eng a g ing Experience s
The doctoral students reported a variety of engaging ex-
periences (f = 314) ranging from short events to extensive se-
ries of episodes. The students described many experiences of
satisfaction, inspiration, joy, positive work drive, meaning-
fulness, and fulfillment in terms of their doctoral studies. The
engaging episodes were situated along the entire timeline of
their doctoral journey. Further investigation showed that
sources of the engaging experiences varied. The primary
sources of the engaging experiences, described by the doctoral
students were 1) a sense of belonging, 2) a sense of competence,
3) a sense of contribution, and 4) sense of autonomy.
Figure 1 shows that the participants often emphasized a
sense of belonging as a primary source of studying engagement
(36%). They, for instance, described the importance of be-
coming and being a member of the scholarly community as a
central resource in their work. Perceiving oneself as competent
(31%) as a junior researcher and developing one’s expertise
was regarded as satisfying by the participants. The participants
also perceived a sense of contribution (17%) as an ingredient in
finding one’s work meaningful, significant, and satisfying.
Some participants’ considered autonomy (16%), including aca-
demic freedom and the possibility to be given responsibility
and make their own choices in terms of their doctoral studies as
an important asset in their work.
A Sense of Belonging
Characteristic of the situations in which the participants’
sense of belonging was promoted was that interest, knowledge,
expertise, practices, and challenges were shared with other
researchers and that relatedness was experienced within the
academic community. The participants also described various
arenas of participation and collaborative learning, such as shar-
ing research interests and receiving support with peers, and in
supervisory relationships, research groups, and the international
researcher community. One participant, for example, valued the
interest that a senior researcher showed in that participant’s
doctoral project:
I met in a congress a women who had just the same, so, she
puzzled over the same themes, the same problems, and the same
questions Then I wrote to her, and she was really kind and
sent all her publications and much material to me, and almost
without asking she sent all that to me. And then she also wished
me good luck on my own research. It was such a first experi-
ence that then, I thought that people are really kind. So it really
felt good then. (Student B6)
The students also regarded showing understanding and giv-
ing and receiving support and constructive feedback as central
resources in conducting research. The participants, for example,
reported the supervisor’s contribution to their doctoral projects,
such as helping to apply for grants, supporting international
networking, giving constructive feedback on manuscripts, or
Beloging Competence Contribution Autonom
Figure 1.
The percentages (%) of the sources of the doctoral candidates’ engage-
ing experiences (f = 314).
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1233
sharing the same research interests, to be often highly engaging.
Also, the supervisor’s ability to be pleasant, to encourage, or to
show understanding were important to the students:
My supervisor dropped in once a week or so to help me with
(experiments)…, and we really discussed how it is going and
what the results are of that day…, so, there really was constant
support and interaction. (Student A2)
Support and constructive feedback from members of the
scholarly community were considered especially significant
when facing problems, failures, and disappointments. However,
sharing everyday experiences and work with peers and other
members of the research group were considered source of en-
gagement. The students, for example, described the impor-
tance of dialog with someone who understood their methods,
objectives, and the whole research process, as the following
excerpt shows:
We had a habit of wandering around with the printouts.
Everyone always printed their own results and then wandered
around with the printouts or took them to the coffee table say-
ing, Hey guys, look at this. Is there any sense in these?” The
habit was really nice. (Student A20)
A Sense of Competence
The participants’ sense of competence often emerged as their
knowledge increased, or as they acquired other academic skills.
Hence, in these events, engagement and satisfaction stemmed
from the creation of new ideas and findings, learning, and de-
velopment as a scholar. Accordingly, the students reported a
variety of learning experiences that increased their efficacy as a
researcher. They, for instance, described learning methods, new
material, and coping strategies for dealing with the academic
community. Many students especially seemed to enjoy the
process of problem solving:
That it was really like shaking your own brains, so that one
had to think from many perspectives, and then, when one real-
izes the relationship between things, it is really great. I think it
is such an experience that one is unable to have if the process is
predesigned. (Student A15)
Some students reflected on the whole of the doctoral ex-
perience in terms of learning. They often perceived doctoral
studies as a personal development process in which they des-
cribed acquiring academic scholarship step by step:
Then suddenly, you notice that making a presentation is not
so difficult any longer, and you can use an old file to complete
your new application for a grant. Also, that you in a way have
knowledge. Then, you are not so sensitive anymore to review-
ersbad comments that you cry. You just curse, and start writ-
ing a response and defending your arguments. Thus, an all-
inclusive progress. (Student A5)
However, the students also described the development of
more specific research skills and the satisfaction they gained
from being good at the task at hand:
Of course, fieldwork has been in a way really enjoyable…
fieldwork is something that I really can, I am able to do it, and
afterwards it is a great feeling that one has come through
something one knows that not so many could have been able to
do. (Student B4)
Moreover, the participants described time periods, short
events, “eureka moments”, and specific episodes that contri-
buted to their engagement. For example, satisfaction and joy
caused by new discoveries were often reported. Getting good
results were often perceived as one of the highlights of research.
A student described the significance of the moments of actually
receiving the results as one of the most important factors that
kept that student engaged, although the everyday work was
sometimes frustrating, as the following extract shows:
Well, there really goes a couple of weeks if you get really
good results, you’ll go bananas, and that keeps you going for-
ward, but when you have done more research you learn that
90% of experiments fail, and that is just reality to live with, and
you have to enjoy the successful moments (Student B11)
A Sense of Contribution
The experience of being a scientist and producing original
scientific knowledge with significance was characteristic of the
students’ sense of contribution. Accordingly, a sense of con-
tribution was highly embedded in conducting research. How-
ever, the focus of the contributions described by the students
varied. Some of the students emphasized the contribution of
their research to society, while others highlighted their contri-
bution to the academic community. Being able to contribute to
the academic community was considered especially rewarding
by the students. Most often, the students described the possi-
bility of contributing to academic research by producing new
scientific knowledge that was often based on the students’ own
original idea, as the following extract shows:
In principle, the theme is really interesting in my opinion,
and it is a good starting point. So one can get out of it such
knowledge which has not been gotten so far, but it is quite
challenging also. (Student B9)
Some students described dialogues between the members of
academia from which collaborative learning emerged. The fol-
lowing extract shows an experience of contribution related to
My supervisor has the habit of getting excited about the topic,
which gets me excited too, and then, when we both are in the
mode of getting excited discussing the topic, it also feels that it
is my thing. And not only the way that I contribute to the topic,
but that I also have input in our discussion. (Student B19)
The scholarly community seemed to mean a great deal to
doctoral students by offering opportunities to communicate
about the topic. The interest that the experts, and sometimes
peers, showed in the students’ research theme seemed to pro-
mote doctoral students’ experiences of contribution, if the stu-
dent felt that his/her own input was meaningful to others as
well. Also, the experiences where all the colleagues in one’s
own research group were putting effort towards the same goal,
promoted engagement, as the following extract shows:
The most (rewarding) were the moments on a good team.
Sometimes there emerged discussions where one felt that one
was part of a bigger entity and research area. These (moments)
were good and meaningful. And somehow there emerged: we do
this together, and I am an important part of it. (Student A8)
A Sense of Autonomy
Further investigation showed that a sense of autonomy was
also perceived as an ingredient in finding the doctoral journey
engaging. A number of the students reported that they prefer to
work as a researcher because that work is independent in nature
or (and) the students expressed fascination with their research
theme. The participants also reported that they liked having the
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
academic freedom to organize their work on their own. These
students mostly emphasized the independence to design the
research process, including both contents and practices. Many
students used the phrase “to have a free hand”, meaning that
they can decide how they use their time, as well as how they
plan and do the research:
Well, the most rewarding has really been, which is good and
bad, that I have had quite a free hand. I have been given space
to lead myself, and there has been space for my own ideas and
practices. I have never had difficulties in getting my voice
heard, to do what I want to do. In that sense, it has really been
rewarding that I have been allowed to do various things. I have
seen (students) doing what many others have done before, us-
ing the same methods all the time. It is not as fun as when You
can test and make mistakes. (Student B18)
Moreover, the opportunity to freely fulfill one’s interests and
ideas was perceived as a source of engagement. Some of the
students described that they had applied for the project because
the theme inspired them. They also seemed to be widely enthu-
siastic about their own research theme, which sometimes origi-
nated from their own ideas:
Mainly, one is actuated by ones own interest, which is re-
warding. This does not feel like work. It is more like a hobby. I
never feel like I am going to work. Every morning I feel really
happy that I can come here, that one can choose such a profes-
sion. One does not have to choose a profession only to maxi-
mize income, but one can do what one really wants to. (Stu-
dent B3).
The Contexts of the Engaging Experiences
The engaging episodes took place both in formal and infor-
mal events, ranging from presenting a paper at a congress to
discussions during lunch breaks. The Figure 2 shows that the
engaging experiences reported were often situated in research
activities (40%), the scholarly community (35%), and within
the supervisory relationship (22%). Engaging episodes were
less often situated in the formal course work (3%) included in
doctoral studies. Moreover, resources (1%) were rarely em-
phasized in terms of experienced engagement in doctoral stud-
The participants described engaging experiences related to
conducting research, for instance, making new discoveries and
carrying out fieldwork. They also described their participation
in various activities of scholarly communities, ranging from
Research Scholarl
Super v isor
Course work
co mmu ni t
Figure 2.
The percentages of the engaging experiences (f = 314) situated in vari-
ous activities of academic life.
daily meetings and discussions with academics to giving con-
ference papers. Also, the supervisory relationship, for example
receiving constructive feedback, emotional support, and en-
couragement from the supervisor was reported to be important.
Some of the students described engaging experiences situated
in the formal course work included in doctoral studies. Only a
few of the participants regarded financial resources and struc-
tures as significant in terms of their engagement. These students
often reported to feel lucky that they did not have to worry
about resources.
To our knowledge, no previous studies have been conducted
on the factors and episodes that contribute to the engagement of
doctoral students in their thesis work in the context of biosci-
ences. Hence, this study aimed at contributing to the advance-
ment of the understanding of the basic ingredients of engaging
doctoral experiences in this domain by exploring the episodes
that contributed to the doctoral students’ engagement in their
thesis work. Our results showed that the doctoral students’ sat-
isfying and meaningful experiences in terms of their doctoral
research were characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorp-
tion. Accordingly, work engagement literature seemed to pro-
vide a functional grounding for exploring doctoral students’
engagement in their thesis work (Schaufeli et al., 2002a).
The study suggested that perceived autonomy, belonging,
competence, and contribution were central ingredients in doc-
toral students’ engagement in their doctoral work and that these
ingredients may predict doctoral students’ further satisfaction,
studying persistence, and experienced well-being. A sense of
belonging and competence in particular were emphasized as
engaging experiences, whereas episodes promoting a sense of
autonomy and contribution were less often reported. Doctoral
students, for example, perceived supervisory support, construc-
tive feedback as well as discussions with peers and senior re-
searchers to be extremely important and inspiring. However,
they also reported a variety of significant learning experiences
that increased their expertise and efficacy as a researcher.
Hence, both the context and content of the engaging experi-
ences varied.
The findings are in line with self-determination theory (Deci
& Ryan, 2008), which suggests that students’ intrinsic motiva-
tion, better achievement, and psychological well-being are fa-
cilitated when their senses of autonomy, competence, related-
ness (Deci & Ryan, 1990), and contribution (Eccles, 2008) are
promoted. Moreover, the results indicate that, although the
interrelationship between individuals and the environment is
complex and it is difficult to predict outcomes at an individual
level, the central ingredients of engaging doctoral experience
among doctoral students in biosciences can be identified and
hence promoted. Accordingly, we argue that such activities that
contribute to the doctoral students’ sense of competence, auto-
nomy, belonging, and contribution ought to be considered in
developing engaging learning environments for doctoral stu-
Further investigation showed that the doctoral students’ en-
gagement in their work originated from various contexts of
academic work, including research, scholarly communities, the
supervisory relationship, and formal studies. Doctoral students,
for instance, emphasized belonging to a scholarly community, a
good supervisory relationship, meaningful courses, and re-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1235
search that mattered both personally and in terms of the school-
arly community as the key factors contributing to engagement
in their studies. Moreover, variation was seen between the en-
gaging episodes reported by the students in terms of the per-
ceived significance, duration, and the point of the doctoral
studies at which the episodes were situated. Conducting doctor-
ral research, however, proved to be the primary context for the
engaging experiences. The doctoral students, for instance, de-
scribed absorption and even experiences of flow in research
activities, including testing a hypothesis and making new dis-
coveries that promoted their intrinsic motivation. However, the
sources for student engagement varied between the working
contexts provided by the scholarly community. The findings
support previous research on doctoral experience (Gardner,
2007, 2008; Golde, 2005; Ives & Rowley, 2005; Pyhältö et al.,
2009; Stubb et al., 2011) suggesting that various environmental
as well as individual factors contribute to doctoral students’
A high level of satisfaction is suggested to be an indicator of
a good fit (Verquer et al., 2003) between the student and the
academic working environment, which further contributes to
learning outcomes and resilience when facing problems (Golde,
2005; Stubb et al., 2011). Accordingly, by studying the anat-
omy of doctoral students’ engaging experiences, we are able to
identify factors that predict student satisfaction, degree comple-
tion, and persistence in studies. Through these findings, we
hope to provide evidence-based tools for the development of
doctoral education. Future studies could investigate the rela-
tionship between doctoral students’ engagement and their aca-
demic career development. We conclude that is worth focusing
on if doctoral students’ engagement predicts favorable out-
comes, such as productivity.
Methodological Reflections
In this study, semi-structured interview data was collected to
capture the narratives of episodes that promoted doctoral stu-
dents’ experiences of engagement. Hence, the aim was to ex-
plore the kinds of events that promoted student engagement.
However, the individual doctoral students were not character-
ized in terms of their engagement experience, since the focus of
this study was to explore events that contribute to student en-
gagement rather than to identify students who are experiencing
engagement. The reflective and process-oriented research de-
sign gave the doctoral students opportunity to reflect on various
aspects of their work and thus the opportunity to study the per-
ceived engagement. However, further research, especially with
a longitudinal design, is needed to examine the development of
engagement across an extended period of time.
The interview data was collected from 40 bioscience doctoral
students from a large research intensive Finnish University.
Because of the distinctive features of the discipline (McCune &
Hounsell, 2005; Lindblom-Ylänne, Trigwell, Nevgi, & Ashwin,
2006) and the limited sample size, generalizing the results to
other disciplines and in other countries should be done with
caution. On the other hand, the semi-structured interviews pro-
vided rich data to identify and analyze the narratives of epi-
sodes that promoted doctoral student engagement in their thesis
work. Accordingly, it allowed the exploration of engaging epi-
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