An exploratory study of timely PhD completion at a university in the United Kingdom

  • James Whitehouse

Student thesis: Doctor of Counselling Psychology


Background and aims: Time to PhD completion is a pressing concern for universities in the United Kingdom and internationally, including the United States and Australia. It impacts students, universities and economies through resource use and students' psychological wellbeing. Therefore, this study aims to identify, and determine the interaction between, the psychological influences on timely PhD completion by building a conceptual model of the process. Method: 10 current or former PhD students from a Russell Group university in the United Kingdom participated in one hour unstructured interviews about their PhD journeys. Interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed verbatim and analysed in CAQDAS (computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software) using a grounded theory approach. Findings: All students reported intending to complete on time, yet more than half either had not completed or expected to complete in the time specified by their programmes. A core category, making progress towards goals was identified as a central concern to participants. Four sub-core categories of the core category were generated: goals and expectations, motivation, engagement and managing wellbeing. Goals set direction, yet may shift over time and are influenced by students' expectations of timely completion through departmental normalisation of longer completion. From the structural conditions around the student, the most significant category identified as influencing timely completion was effectively meeting the needs of the student through a supportive supervisory relationship. Across the model, affective connections to the PhD experiences impact on students' wellbeing and timely PhD completion. Conclusions and implications: The research indicated the degree of internalisation of the institutional goal of timely PhD completion varies, not just for the student but also in the departmental culture around the student, including the supervisory relationship. Encouraging timely completion may be achieved through autonomous motivation support, particularly in the supervisory relationship, to encourage passion for the research project, minimise students' negative affective associations with PhD completion and promote wellbeing. Counselling psychology is well-positioned to contribute to the development of autonomy support interventions in universities through coaching programmes, supervisor training and psychological interventions for doctoral students. Suggestions for future research are to explore in greater depth connections between areas of the model through qualitative and quantitative research, using data from students and other university actors, in the UK and other PhD systems.
Date of Award1 Aug 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorAlison Alborz (Supervisor) & Terry Hanley (Supervisor)


  • autonomy
  • doctoral education
  • graduate student wellbeing
  • timely PhD completion
  • counselling psychology

Cite this