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Transition points: well-being and disciplinary identity in the first years of doctoral studies

John A. Gonzalez (Rackham Graduate School, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA)
Heeyun Kim (Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA)
Allyson Flaster (Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA)

Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education

ISSN: 2398-4686

Article publication date: 4 February 2021

Issue publication date: 2 August 2021




The purpose of this study is to examine doctoral students’ developmental trajectories in well-being and disciplinary identity during the first three years of doctoral study.


This study relies on data from a longitudinal study of PhD students enrolled at a large, research-intensive university in the USA. A group-based trajectory modeling approach is used to examine varying trajectories of well-being and disciplinary identity.


The authors find that students’ physical health, mental health and disciplinary identity generally decline during the first few years of doctoral study. Despite this common downward trend, the results suggest that six different developmental trajectories exist. Students’ backgrounds and levels of stress, psychological needs satisfaction, anticipatory socialization experiences and prior academic success predict group membership.


Although there is emergent evidence of a mental health crisis in graduate education scant evidence exists about the way in which well-being changes over time as students progress through their doctoral studies. There is also little evidence of how these changes might be related to academic processes such as the development of disciplinary identity. This study reported varying baseline degrees of well-being and disciplinary identity and offers that stress and unmet psychological needs might be partially responsible for varying trajectories.



The authors wish to thank respondents to the Michigan Doctoral Experience Study for sharing their perspectives, as well as anonymous reviewers who provided very helpful feedback. All errors, however, remain their own. Funding for the project has been provided by the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan. We are grateful for their support and encouragement.


Gonzalez, J.A., Kim, H. and Flaster, A. (2021), "Transition points: well-being and disciplinary identity in the first years of doctoral studies", Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, Vol. 12 No. 1, pp. 26-41.



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