About Doc Work


Our research is situated in and motivated by the well-documented changes in higher education internationally and the impact of these changes on academic work. Increasingly, higher education policies are conceived as vehicles for national social and economic growth and international competitiveness. There are also increasing demands for accountability, for instance, higher rates of research productivity and doctoral student completion, and demonstrations that research has an international impact. Concurrently, there is a trend toward declining academic salaries and an increase in contract positions.

Changes such as these have profound implications for both doctoral students who seek academic careers and new appointees building their careers. Doctoral students report tensions and challenges due to a sense of isolation, unclear expectations, incomplete understandings of academic life, and uncertainty as to whether their own values can be aligned with those of academia. Similarly, those able to find academic positions report frequent isolation, high stress, low satisfaction, a lack of role definition, tension between the intrinsic motivators in the vocation of the work itself and extrinsic motivators in the conditions under which the work is done. Striking is the similarity in the experiences of intention (e.g., wanting to understand academic work, trying to reconcile different values) and emotion (often reportedly negative) as individuals in both roles navigate their identities and potential careers; too many such conflicts or tensions can contribute to disillusionment with academic work. We argue understanding their experiences is important if we are to best support them in engaging in academic careers in personally satisfying ways – and thus influencing academia for years to come.

Our research

The initial research (McAlpine et al, 2006-2010) incorporated a range of studies using, for instance, focus groups, interviews, weekly logs, academic documents written by participants, and participant observation. These different ways of documenting doctoral experience provided insight into the invisible activities students engaged in and how these influenced their feelings of being or becoming an academic and belonging to an academic community. The research also offered opportunities to understand new supervisor experiences, situating this role within their broader academic work and their hopes of becoming tenured.

Overall, these findings made us more attentive to the influence of day-to-day constraints and affordances on the experience of academic work. Further, it led to conceptualizing experience longitudinally and biographically as the construction of an identity-trajectory. While this research began in Canada, in two universities, parallel studies in the social sciences have also been conducted in two universities in the UK by McAlpine and a research team there. These studies also included the experiences of research-only appointees (e.g., post-docs). These studies have shown similar patterns and suggest to us that the findings are relevant to those in universities in other countries. Nevertheless, the research was largely situated in the social sciences.

This led to the most recent grant (McAlpine & Amundsen, 2010-2013) which is documenting the experiences of early career academics in the sciences building on the concepts, methods and findings from the previous grant. By early career academic we mean doctoral candidates and new appointees; the latter includes pre-tenure professors, postdoctoral fellows and other research-only and teaching-only appointees with recently earned PhDs, given the growing numbers of new PhDs in such job classifications. Our overall goal remains to contribute to a richer understanding and conceptualization of early career academic experience in today’s increasingly pressured academic landscape. No previous studies have bridged the roles of doctoral candidate and new appointee longitudinally and addressed the day-to-day experience of individual intention and affect on identity construction.

Research grants

McAlpine, L., & Amundsen, C. (2010-2013). Developmental trajectories of doctoral candidate through new appointee: A longitudinal study of academic identity construction. Source of funding:  Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada $171,270.

Mills, D., Spencer, D., & McAlpine, L. (2009-2010). Professional Socialisation and Interdisciplinary Collaborations in Doctoral Training: A pilot study of Life Sciences Doctoral Training Centres in the UK. Source of funding: John Fell Foundation: £5000.

McAlpine, L., Hopwood, N., & Mills, D. (2008-2009). The next generation of social scientists: Developing concepts and methods to investigate early career academics’ experiences. Source of funding: John Fell Foundation: £10,000.
Mills, D., McAlpine, L., & Hopwood, N. (2008-2009). Internationalisation and the next generation of social scientists: Experiences of early career academics from the post-colonial South. Source of funding: CETL Network Fund: £14,500.

McAlpine, L., & Hopwood, N. (2008-2009). The next generation of social scientists: Navigating the shifting academic landscape. Source of funding: CETL Network Fund: £12,000.

McAlpine, L., Pare., A., Amundsen, C., & Starke-Meyerring, D. (2006-2009). Reframing social sciences and humanities doctoral programs: A learning perspective. Source of funding: Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada $156,858.


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