NTFS Doctoral Learning Journeys

  • Wisker, Gina (PI)
  • Masika, Rachel (CoI)
  • Cheng, Ming (CoI)
  • Robinson, Gillian (CoI)
  • Warnes, M. (PI)
  • Trafford, V. (CoI)
  • Meyer, Erik (CoI)
  • Kiley, Margaret (CoI)

Project Details


This project, funded by the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme, was led by Professor Gina Wisker with a team of colleagues from University of Brighton, Anglia Ruskin and other Higher Education Institutes (HEIs). This project set out to investigate how doctoral students (PhD and Professional Doctorates) across the disciplines of Humanities, Social Sciences, Health, Education and Arts can be best supported to make ‘learning leaps’ – to recognise and cross conceptual and skills thresholds in their research.

The project responded to national and international concerns about the nature of the doctorate, its purpose and value for different stakeholders. The research outcomes explored and conceptualised the nature of doctoral students' learning during research and skill development, and examined and enhanced the practices of supervisors and examiners in order to support and assess students' learning.

The research aimed to (a) explore and conceptualise the nature of doctoral students’ learning during research and skill development; and (b) examine and enhance the practices of supervisors and examiners in order to support and assess students’ learning.

Quantitative and qualitative approaches were combined in three research stages:

Stage A - comprised a survey of doctoral students, investigating their learning processes, experiences and development
Stage B - mapped the individual learning journeys of over 20 doctoral students through in-depth interviews and journaling and
Stage C - involved research interviews with doctoral supervisors and examiners.

University of Brighton research team: Professor Gina Wisker, Dr Rachel Masika, Dr Charlotte Morris, Dr Ming Cheng.
Partners: Dr Gillian Robinson, Anglia Ruskin; Dr Mark Warnes, Anglia Ruskin; Professor Vernon Trafford, Anglia Ruskin; Dr Jaki Lilly, Anglia Ruskin; Professor Erik Meyer, University of Queensland; Dr Margaret Kiley, Australian National University

Key findings

According to students, there are a wide range of factors which help to trigger successful learning in the form of conceptual threshold crossing, including:

> opportunities to articulate their ideas and findings through networking and presenting
> discussion, questioning and critiquing from supervisors and peers
> a good supervisory relationship, based on flexibility and trust, which enables confidence to develop
> visualisation techniques
> taking a step back from the research
> having the freedom to explore ideas and take risks
> opportunities to link learning with experience
> the process of writing
> goal setting
> life and study skills, e.g. work/life balance, time management
> familiarisation with appropriate academic language and
> the development of meta-learning (awareness of the self as a learner).

All of these factors can enable doctoral learners to move forward, to work at the levels necessary to achieve their doctorate and can stimulate transformative conceptual threshold crossing. They require the motivation and openness to learning of the individual student, a supportive supervisory relationship, and an enabling academic environment with opportunities to engage with a wider academic community.

Findings which have emerged from the supervisor and examiner interviews confirmed those of the research with students. They also added other insights into ways in which supervisors can support and enable students to move towards developing conceptual and critical levels of working, and the evidence both supervisors and examiners use to identify such levels of achievement.

Project impact

The project addressed significant gaps in professional and scholarly knowledge regarding doctoral experiences, the nature of doctorateness and supervisors’ and examiners’ understandings of doctoral students’ learning processes. It provided evidence on how appropriate conceptual understanding can be achieved by students to raise their levels of scholarship, alongside a holistic journey personal and professional development, which can be enabled by good institutional and supervisory practices.

Now that the research is complete, the final stage of the project involves the ongoing creation, development and dissemination of resources to ensure that the work is of maximum benefit to the sector. Current activities include the development of theoretical models and resource materials relating to supervisory strategies, alongside the creation of e-learning environments and written texts to support doctoral students’ learning and scholarly progression. These outcomes accompany academic presentations and publications aimed at advancing conceptual understanding of doctoral processes and student learning.

Based on this research, the project team are developing evidence-based models of good doctoral education that are sustainable and practice-orientated. These have the potential to enhance research development programmes, supervisory strategies, examining processes and communities of practice to support doctoral students in achieving conceptually robust research outcomes and skill developments and in the longer term to improve retention and completion among doctoral students and enhance postdoctoral researchers’ capabilities and skills.

Wisker, G, Morris, C, Cheng, M, Masika, R, Warnes, M, Trafford, V, Robinson, G, and Lilly, J (2010) Doctoral learning journeys: Final report, Higher Education Academy.
Effective start/end date1/09/0730/09/10


  • Higher Education Academy


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