The Academic Identity Development of International Doctoral Students

An Exploration from a Sociocultural Perspective




academic identity, international doctoral student, Denmark, Vietnam, sociocultural theory


This qualitative study examines the factors that facilitate or inhibit the academic identity development of four Vietnamese doctoral students in Denmark. Using the combination of Genetic method and Activity theory, the paper provides insights into the participants’ experiences of becoming and being an academic, which is context-dependent and personal. The findings suggest that the sense of being academics was strengthened when doctoral students were empowered by their supervisors, and other members of the academic community validated their membership. The students also enacted their agency to move beyond the student role and establish a confirmed academic identity, though there were situations when their agency did not lead to desirable outcomes. The study is one among a few that incorporated the personal life history of doctoral students to examine their academic identity development, arguing for its inclusion to have a comprehensive picture of students’ learning and the process of becoming an academic.

Author Biography

Anh Phan, University of Auckland

ANH NGOC QUYNH PHAN has completed her PhD project at The University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her major research interests focus inter alia on transnationalism, migration, mobility, diaspora, identity, doctoral education, teacher education, and researcher development. She has published on many prestigious journals, including Journal of Gender Studies, Journal of Diaspora Studies, Studies in Continuing Education, Journal of International Students, among others.


Amundsen, C., & McAlpine, L. (2011). New academics as supervisors: A steep learning curve with challenges, tensions and pleasures. In L. McAlpine & C. Amundsen. (Eds.), Doctoral Education: Research-Based Strategies for Doctoral Students, Supervisors, and Administrators. Springer Dordrecht Heidelberg London New York. DOI:

Baker, V., & Lattuca, L. (2010). Developmental networks and learning: toward an interdisciplinary perspective on identity development during doctoral study. Studies in Higher Education, 35(7), 807-827. DOI:

Beauchamp, C., Jazvac-Martek, M., & McAlpine, L. (2009). Studying doctoral education: using Activity Theory to shape methodological tools. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 46(3), 265-277. DOI:

Brew, A., Boud, D., & Namgung, S. U. (2011). Influences on the formation of academics: The role of the doctorate and structured development opportunities. Studies in Continuing Education, 33(1), 51-66. DOI:

Chang, P., & Schleppegrell, M. (2016). Explicit learning of authorial stance-taking by L2 doctoral students. Journal of Writing Research, 8(1), 49-79. http://doi/org/10.17239/jowr-2016.08.01.02 DOI:

Choi, Y. H., Bouwma-Gearhart, J., & Ermis, G. (2021). Doctoral students’ identity development as scholars in the education sciences: Literature review and implications. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 16, 89- 125. DOI:

Cole, M., & Engeström, Y. (1993). A cultural-historical approach to distributed cognition. In G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations (pp. 1-46). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Emmioglu, E., McAlpine, L., & Amundsen, C. (2017). Doctoral students’ experiences of feeling (or not) like an academic. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 12, 73–90. DOI:

Engeström, Y. (1987), Learning by expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research. Retrieved October, 2015, from

Filipovic, J., & Jovanovic, A. (2016). Academic maturation and metacognitive strategies in academic research and production. Universal Journal of Educational Research, 4(6), 1442–1451. DOI:

Fuller, A., Hodkinson, H., Hodkinson, P., & Unwin, L. (2005). Learning as peripheral participation in communities of practice: a reassessment of key concepts in workplace learning British Educational Research Journal, 31(1), 49-68. DOI:

Golde, C. M. (1998). Beginning graduate school: Explaining first-year doctoral attrition New Directions for Higher Education, 101. New York: Jossey-Bass Publishers. DOI:

Green, B. (2005). Unfinished business: subjectivity and supervision. Higher Education Research & Development, 24(2), 151–163. DOI:

Gomes, C. (2015). Negotiating everyday life in Australia: Unpacking the parallel society inhabited by Asian international students through their social networks and entertainment media use. Journal of Youth Studies, 18(4), 515–536. DOI:

Gomes, C. (2017). Transient mobility and middle class identity: Media and migration in Australia and Singapore. Palgrave Macmillan DOI:

Henkel, M. (2002). Academic identity in transformation?: The case of the United Kingdom. Higher Education Management and Policy, 14(3), 137-147. DOI:

Higenell, G. J. (2009). An exploration into doctoral students’ sense of community and its influence on the formation of informal mentoring relationship. Master thesis, Brock University, Canada.

Hopwood, N. (2010). Doctoral experience and learning from a sociocultural perspective. Studies in Higher Education, (35)7, 829-843. DOI:

Huang, S. L. (2009). Professional socialization of international doctoral students in differing disciplinary contexts in the U.S.: A mixed-methods study. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Washington, The United States.

Inouye, K. S., & McAlpine, L. (2017). Developing scholarly identity: variation in agentive responses to supervisor feedback. Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, 14(2), Article 3, 1-23. Retrieved from DOI:

Inouye, K. S., & McAlpine, L. (2018). Developing academic identity: A review of the literature on doctoral writing and feedback. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 14, 1-31. DOI:

Jawitz, J. (2009). Academic identities and communities of practice in a professional discipline. Teaching in Higher Education, 14(3), 241-251. DOI:

Jazvac-Martek, M. (2008). Emerging academic identities: How Education PhD students experience the Doctorate. Doctoral Dissertation, McGill University, Montréal, Canada.

Jazvac-Martek, M. (2009). Oscillating role identities: the academic experiences of education doctoral students. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 46(3), 253-264. DOI:

Jazvac-Martek, M., Chen, S., & McAlpine, L. (2011). Tracking doctoral student experience over time: cultivating agency in diverse spaces. In L. McAlpine and C. Amundsen (Eds), Doctoral Education: Research-based Strategies for Doctoral Students, Supervisors and Administrators (pp. 17-36). Springer Science+Business Media B.V. DOI:

Kumar, V., & Stracke, E. (2007). An analysis of written feedback on a PhD thesis. Teaching in Higher Education, 12(4), 461–470. DOI:

Leibowitz, B., Ndebele, C., & Winberg, C. (2014). ”It’s an amazing learning curve to be part of the project”: Exploring academic identity in collaborative research. Studies in Higher Education, 39(7), 1256-1269. DOI:

Lepp, L., Remmik, M,. Leijen, A., & Leijen, D. A. J. (2016). Doctoral students’ research tall: Supervisors’ perceptions and intervention strategies. SAGE Open, 6(3), 1-12. DOI:

Leshem, S. (2016). Doctoral students identity: Does it matter?. In L. Frick, V. Trafford and M. Fourie-Malherbe (Eds.), Being scholarly: Festschrift in honour of the work of Eli M Bitzer (pp.135-143). Stellenbosch: SUN MeDIA. DOI:

Leshem, S. (2017). Dancing identities on the route to becoming ‘doctor’. Presentation at European Conference on Educational Research (ECER), Copenhagen, Denmark.

MacLure, M. (1993). Arguing for your self: Identity as an organising principle in teachers’ jobs and lives. British Educational Research Journal, 19(4), 311–322. DOI:

Leshem, S. (2020). Identity formations of doctoral students on the route to achieving their doctorate. Issues in Educational Research, 30(1), 169-186.

Mahlomaholo, S. (2009). Critical emancipatory research and academic identity. Africa Education Review, 6(2), 224-237. DOI:

McAlpine, L., & Asghar, A. (2010). Enhancing academic climate: doctoral students as their own developers. International Journal for Academic Development, 15(2), 167-178. DOI:

McAlpine, L. (2012a). Identity-trajectories: Doctoral journeys from past to present to future. Australian Universities’ Review, 54(1), 38-48.

McAlpine, L. (2012b). Shining a light on doctoral reading: implications for doctoral identities and pedagogies. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 49(4), 351-361. DOI:

McAlpine, L., Amundsen, C., & Turner, G. (2014). Identity-trajectory: Reframing early career academic experience. International Journal for Researcher Development, 1(1), 97-109. DOI:

Odena, O., & Burgess, H. (2017). How doctoral students and graduates describe facilitating experiences and strategies for their thesis writing learning process: a qualitative approach. Studies in Higher Education, 42(3), 572-590, doi: 10.1080/03075079.2015.1063598 DOI:

Parker, R. (2009). A learning community approach to doctoral education in the social sciences. Teaching in Higher Education, 14(1), 43-54. DOI:

Phan, A. N. Q. (2022). On space, on place: A poetic self-study of the emerging academic identity of an international doctoral student. Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal, 7(1), 186-209. DOI: DOI:

Pifer, M. J., & L. Baker, V. (2016). Stage-based challenges and strategies for support in doctoral education: A practical guide for students, faculty members, and program administrators. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 11, 15–34. DOI:

Ryan, J., & Viete, R. (2009). Respectful interactions: Learning with international students in the English-speaking academy. Teaching in Higher Education, 14(3), 303-314. DOI:

Strandler, O., Johansson, T., Wisker, G., & Claesson, S. (2014). Supervisor or counsellor? - Emotional boundary work in supervision. International Journal for Researcher Development, 5(2), 70-82. DOI:

Vygotsky, L. S. (1981). The genesis of higher mental functions. J. Wertsch (Ed.)., The concept of activity in Soviet psychology (pp. 144–188). Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.

Weidman, J. C., & Stein, E. L. (2003). Socialization of doctoral students to academic norms. Research in Higher Education, 44(6), 641-656. DOI:



How to Cite

Phan, A. (2022). The Academic Identity Development of International Doctoral Students: An Exploration from a Sociocultural Perspective. Journal of International Students, 13(4).



Research Articles