Research stories: the struggle to recognize yourself as a ‘researcher’

lilia-mantaiInadequate, isolated, and intellectually disorientated: just some of the feelings described by doctoral candidates in a recent study of their journey from student to early career researcher.

In this research story, the study’s author, Lilia Mantai, highlights key events which help PhD students begin to recognize themselves as ‘researchers’, and how important it is to have their identity validated.

Why do students struggle to call themselves ‘researchers’?

Many PhD students experience feeling like an imposter or inadequate, being ‘stuck’, disoriented, and intellectually as well as socially isolated. They may not feel like capable and independent researchers at all PhD stages and struggle to legitimately call themselves ‘researchers’. Students are able, however, to pinpoint various events or activities in their PhD when they gain a sense of researcher identity.

At what point do students gain a sense of researcher identity?

Such experiences occur early on in the PhD, can be personal and public, but the majority is of an informal and social nature. These events and activities can be broadly categorized into research outputs (formal activities such as publishing and presenting at conferences), hands-on research activities (semi-formal such as data collection and analysis) and informal conversations (with peers, colleagues etc.) about research. In this study, candidates highlight that their internal sense of feeling like a researcher and external recognition from others are instrumental in promoting their researcher identity.

Why is validation important?

Receiving constructive feedback and recognition for one’s work from others is critical to candidates’ beliefs in their capabilities and validation of their researcher identities. Feeling validated means to be seen as knowledgeable and capable of doing (good) research. Students’ internal validation is highly influenced by recognition from others, who are often superior or more knowledgeable members of the wider academic community.

What can be done to support students before they transition?

A growing focus on publishing and the increasing popularity of thesis writing by publication seems to move doctoral candidates into the public (published) space early on in their researcher journeys, well before they earn the formal recognition and status as a Doctor of Philosophy. This suggests a pressing need for academic cultures that support doctoral students’ engagement in diverse academic researcher practices from the beginning of a PhD, present ample opportunities to develop identities, and explicitly communicate what it means to be a researcher or academic worker. This may also help candidates understand their capabilities and assess their personal fit with academic employment before they transition to academic, researcher or non-university careers.


Read Lilia’s full research paper, published in Studies in Higher Education: “Feeling like a researcher: experiences of early doctoral students in Australia”.

Do any of Lilia’s findings ring true with your own personal experiences? If you have a story to share, email communications@tandf.co.uk.