The Challenges and Stressors of Female Doctoral Students

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The following section presents the findings highlighting the experiences of the five doctoral students in their doctoral journey. The results were presented in the following thematic areas: academic, psychological, physiological, and relationship with faculty. 

Most of them described their doctoral experience as positive though it was a little stressful. The nature of the doctoral program at the department of Workforce Education and Development shared some good and bad experiences. The lack of important academic skills were the main concern.

Of most common skill they wanted to improve and needed support with is time management.

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The nature of doctoral education, requires a lot of time management as the courses are too heavy with assignments, content development, reading activities, and other writing activities. The other concerns were balancing school and family and as English is the second language, the international students will have to spend more time in reading and writing.

These are concerns about emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing reported by the participants. Such concerns involve stress, lack of motivation isolation, or strains on social relationships. The most common psychological problem participants raised was stress that comes from financial issues, workload, time pressures, and being a mother. Lack of adequate funding to support their family and research was a major source of stress.

The most prevalent physiological symptoms expressed were anxiety, worry, irritable, sleep deprived, feeling edgy, and specifically lack of social support. Almost everyone answered lack of social support because they do not have their immediate family or friends here.

All the participants reported that their unique role at home is a problem and consumes a lot of their time. These women also believe that they have equal rights and capacity as those of men. However, women are culturally bounded to assume additional responsibilities that are not done by men. These include every household responsibility, such as shopping, taking care of children and even producing money for additional expenses.

Besides, women are expected to attend different social activities even if they are a student or worker. Even though their husbands are supportive, they do not share these tasks or have the skills to do so. In addition, the cultural role assigned to women by society is also raised as a challenge, where women are predominantly considered as care givers and handlers of every home chore.

One of the participants was also concerned about adequately supporting her children financially and emotionally, as her doctoral journey required a lot of sacrifice on her and family time. Although having children and a spouse at home brought joy to these female students, they also felt torn at times between wanting to be with their families and feeling the need to work on their doctoral studies. One respondent went even further to suggest that university environments could be made more women friendly and the demand of parenting should not be ignored. One student clearly described the challenge of being a woman doctoral student as follows:

They can go to their office whenever they want to work on their dissertations. They don’t worry about the chores and children and other home related activities. When I try to compare myself, even though I have the capacity to do many things, I refrain from them as I have limited time to concentrate on my study. Even if I limited myself from other works which could have helped me get some more money, the time I have for my study is very much limited when compared to that of males.

All participants considered their advisor and faculty members as one of the most important factors shaping their experiences as doctoral students. Most students seemed satisfied with their advisors overall. Nonetheless, some noted concerns in the supervision process, which include: delay of feedback, unclear/unreadable feedback, inadequate guidance, and communication problems were among the common ones. Other concerns had to do with was the absence of supervision for a year which lead to no one being available to resolving concern. It became so severe that there was an issue that emerged in the team and they had to seek the help from outside the department.

Another concern regarding advisor and faculty was lack of appropriate guidance, reduction in the size of faculty, encouragement, and monitoring. One student had a supervisor that does not communicate regularly and did not show any interest in the work she was doing. In fact she was told that she is not having an assistantship for the following semester and she was hired on someone’s suggestion. In terms of similar kinds of support from their advisors and faculty, female doctoral students reported lower levels of support for such things as help with funding the research, encouragement and support for their career goals.

In summary, although there were some challenges, most students were satisfied with their advisors and faculty. All students desired a supervisor who facilitated their professional development, who took interest in them and their work, who was considerate of their time and personal lives and who helped to keep them on track.


The study identified several areas of concern experienced by female international doctoral students and illuminated specific areas where change is needed. Accordingly, this study identified concerns surrounding: inadequate academic skills, psychological challenges and stress, physiological challenges and stress, and issues related to relationship with faculty, supervisor, and advisors. Moreover, being a mother, relationship problems, multiple roles at home and lack and lack of encouragement were raised as challenges specific to woman. raised as challenges specific to being a woman.

The participants considered their supervisors as one of the most important factors shaping their experiences as doctoral students and they seemed to be satisfied with their supervisors’ overall support. However, they raised important concerns with the quality and timeliness of feedback, guidance, encouragement and motivation on the side of their supervisor.

Though there are a number of factors that facilitate successful completion of a doctoral study, most researchers agree that completing a doctoral study is a process that mainly depends on a close, working relationship between students and supervisors, in other words on the quality of research supervision (Grevholm, Persson & Wall, 2005; Lovitts, 2001; Styles & Radloff, 2001; Zainal, 2007). Thus, the effectiveness and quality of research supervision support doctoral students get from the supervisors is critical to their doctoral journey.

In line with many previous research (Brauer et al., 2003; Oswalt & Riddock, 2007; Toews et al.,1997) this study also pointed out stress, lack of motivation, feeling of isolation and lack of self-confidence as the most common psychological problems among all female doctoral students. Some research (Hodgson & Simoni, 1995; Mallinckrodt & Leong, 1992) has identified work and home related stress as a particular difficulty for women and female graduate students compared to their males. It appears clear that balancing personal and professional life is one in which students want and need more support and help.

Female doctoral students also reported specific challenges to women that relate with their multiple roles and cultural aspects that reduce females simply to care givers and responsible for handling all home chores, though they reported their husbands as supportive. Understanding and considering the varied mix of female doctoral students’ background with the goal of reducing anxiety and stress would likely result in improved doctoral student performance, as well as decrease attrition. Research (Castro et al., 2011; Johnson, Batia & Haun, 2008; Mouton, 2001; Stratton et al., 2006) has suggested that graduate students need adequate social support or networks to overcome the different academic and psychological problems they encounter in the course of their study.

Limitations and Implications

There are some limitations of the study. This study does not include the comparisons between the international students from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, as all the participants of the study are perceived as members of the international student community as a whole. In addition, the male is not explored for the same reason. Because the purpose of this research is to document and analyze the challenges and stressors experienced by female doctoral students, it focuses on the reflective stories gathered through the interview of a small sample of female international students.

The sample of this study is not representative of all international graduate students in the United States, as convenient sampling technique was used. This, the results of the study are not intended to be generalized to the whole population of international students, even though the study may reveal some commonalities in experience. A further goal of this research could be conducing follow-up interviews in order to gain more insight about the international student experience on other topics related to challenges and stress, with the passage of time.

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The Challenges and Stressors of Female Doctoral Students. (2020, Apr 17). Retrieved from