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Insights from a survey “comments” section: extending research on doctoral well-being

Anna Sverdlik (Faculté des Sciences Humaines, Université du Québec à Montréal, Montreal, Canada)
Lynn Mcalpine (McGill University, Montreal, Canada)
Nathan Hall (McGill University, Montreal, Canada)

Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education

ISSN: 2398-4686

Article publication date: 4 June 2021

Issue publication date: 2 August 2021




The purpose of this study is to better understand the declines in doctoral students’ mental and physical health while pursuing their doctoral degrees, by revealing the major themes of students’ voluntary comments following a survey that primed students to reflect on these topics.


The present study used qualitative thematic analysis to uncover themes in doctoral students’ voluntary comments on a large-scale, web-based survey of graduate students’ motivation and well-being.


A thematic analysis revealed six major emerging themes: timing in the degree process, work-life balance, health/well-being changes, impostor syndrome, the supervisor and hopelessness.

Research limitations/implications

The themes uncovered in the present study contribute to the literature by highlighting important underexplored topics (e.g. timing in the degree process, hopelessness) in doctoral education research and they are discussed and situated in the context of existing literature.

Practical implications

Implications for doctoral supervisors and departments are discussed.

Social implications

The present study highlights some pressing concerns among doctoral students, as articulated by the students themselves and can contribute to the betterment of doctoral education, thereby reducing attrition, improving the experiences of doctoral students and possibly affording more candidates to achieve a doctoral degree.


The present study makes the above-mentioned contributions by taking a novel approach and analyzing doctoral students’ voluntary comments (n = 607) on a large-scale, web-based survey. Thus, while some of the themes were primed by the survey itself, the data represent issues/concerns that students perceived as important enough to comment about after already having completed a lengthy questionnaire.



Funding: Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Société et Culture (FRQSC): 284784.


Sverdlik, A., Mcalpine, L. and Hall, N. (2021), "Insights from a survey “comments” section: extending research on doctoral well-being", Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, Vol. 12 No. 2, pp. 262-282.



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