Motivation profiles linked to perseverance during the doctorate

 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)

A study analyzes the motivations for pursuing a doctorate to determine the factors conducive to a high rate of doctoral success.

Around 50% of doctoral candidates drop out before graduation. David Litalien and Frédéric Guay, professors in the Faculty of Education at Université Laval, have identified four motivational profiles linked to perseverance in postgraduate studies.

"Often, the idea of a PhD student is someone who is driven by a passion, who is very curious about their research subject and who wants to learn more. We think that these are the reasons that motivate them to continue their studies. But when we look at the profiles, that’s not exactly what we see," reports Frédéric Guay.

Profiles and perseverance

By analyzing the career paths of 2,266 doctoral candidates, the researchers observed that motivations and reasons varied, and could be grouped into four profiles.

"Researchers who correspond to the idea of a doctoral student, driven by keen interest and personal investment, account for only 21% of our sample," notes Professor Guay. These people are part of the highly self-determined profile. There are twice as many women as men in this profile, 28% and 14% respectively, unlike the other three profiles, which are more balanced.

The second profile, referred to as identified, is made up of people who attach great importance to their studies, but are not passionate about their research.

Doctoral candidates in the third profile, introjected, will pursue their doctoral studies because of a source of internal or external pressure. "Doctoral candidates in this profile are driven by the prestige conferred by the doctoral diploma. They want to look good to those around them," emphasizes Frédéric Guay, pointing out that this profile represents 34% of the sample.

The fourth profile, weakly self-determined, corresponds to doctoral candidates who seem completely disengaged from their doctoral studies, and accounts for around 23%.

In line with the researchers’ expectations, the highly self-determined profile showed better perseverance, greater satisfaction with studies and lower dropout intentions, followed successively by the identified, introjected and weakly self-determined profiles.

The effects of the study context

The doctoral profile is not only linked to the individual, but also to the context in which he or she develops. "If a doctoral student arrives motivated in his project and finds himself in a favorable climate, the profile will be positive. But if the context is unfavorable, he or she may move from a highly self-determined profile to one with low self-determination," maintains Frédéric Guay.

What makes a context conducive or unfavorable to development? According to the researchers, three psychological needs must be met. "The doctoral student must feel competent, with adequate feedback to help him progress. They need to feel autonomous, able to make choices about their project. They must also feel a sense of belonging, by forging links with their thesis supervisor, faculty staff and other doctoral candidates," says Professor Guay.

He believes that if we create the perfect context in which all three needs are met, PhD candidates should develop to their full potential. "It’s like a tree, it needs nutrients, water and light to grow," he illustrates.

Long-term follow-up

In the study, the researchers see their results as a snapshot taken during a particular moment in a doctoral student’s career. They would now like to follow cohorts of PhD candidates over the long term. "This would enable us to determine the obstacles and difficulties faced by doctoral candidates," asserts Frédéric Guay. They could also study the "I’m-doing-it-all-my-thesis" phenomenon observed in the literature to understand why PhD candidates give up so close to the end.

What are the brakes and levers of perseverance? Is it a lack of support, a poorly adapted program? These are just some of the questions the two teachers will be asking themselves in the future.

The study was published in the scientific journal Contemporary Educational Psychology. The signatories are David Litalien, István Tóth-Király, Frédéric Guay and Alexandre J. S. Morin.