Recontextualising "Doing a doctoral degree" as a social practice complex: Evidence from Malaysia

Discourse and Interaction


The current study is part of a longitudinal research project into the relationship between students’ ways of recontextualising their doctoral degree experience and eventual programme completion. Building on earlier findings reported in De Rycker (2014, 2022), the objective is to examine the hidden ontology of “doing a doctoral degree”. The primary data consist in structured interviews conducted with 20 doctoral students at the Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Using Van Leeuwen’s (2008) socio-semantic model for the critical study of discourse, the analysis of the interviews produced two major empirical findings. First, doctoral students’ discourse is characterised by a strong sense of personal agency but also a lack of specificity and a simplification of the overall practice complex, in which doing research seems to be reduced to mere semiotic actions. Secondly, students construe “doing a doctoral degree” as a mystifying process replete with paradoxes. Further interpretative analysis suggests that semiotic action representations play a significant role as self-enhancing metonyms for “doing research”, helping students to demystify the academic practice and resolve some of its inherent contradictions. Implications for supervisory practice as well as the larger research project will be discussed.

doctoral research; social practice complex; recontextualisation; discourse; Malaysia
Author biography

Teun De Rycker

UCSI University

Teun De Rycker was until recently employed as Assistant Professor in the Education Department at UCSI University, Malaysia. His research is situated at the nexus of discourse and society, focussing on social phenomena and their discursive representations. One of his pioneering achievements is Discourse and Crisis (2013), published by John Benjamins.

Address: Teun De Rycker, UCSI University, Faculty of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts, No. 1, Jalan Menara Gading, UCSI Heights (Taman Connaught), Cheras, 56000 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. [e-mail:]


Anderson, T. (2017) ‘The doctoral gaze: Foreign PhD students’ internal and external academic discourse socialization.’ Linguistics and Education 37, 1-10.

Bartesaghi, M. and Pantelides, K. (2018) ‘Why critique should not run out of steam: A proposal for the critical study of discourse.’ Review of Communication 18(3), 158-177.

Bastalich, W. (2017) ‘Content and context in knowledge production: A critical review of doctoral supervision literature doctoral supervision literature.’ Studies in Higher Education 42(7), 1145-1157.

Baydarova, I., Collins, H. and Ait Saadi, I. (2021) ‘Alignment of doctoral student and supervisor ex- pectations in Malaysia.’ International Journal of Doctoral Studies 16, 1-29.

Bekkouche, N., Schmid, R. and Carliner, S. (2021) ‘“Simmering pressure”: How systemic stress impacts graduate student mental health.’ Performance Improvement Quarterly 34(4), 547-572.

Bieber, J. and Worley, L. (2006) ‘Conceptualizing the academic life: Graduate students’ perspectives.’ The Journal of Higher Education 77(6), 1009-1035.

Brazill, S. (2021) ‘Narrative inquiry into Chinese international doctoral students’ journey: A strength-based perspective.’ International Journal of Doctoral Studies 16, 395-428.

Breeze, R. (2011) ‘Critical Discourse Analysis and its critics.’ Pragmatics 21(4), 493-525.

Ching, G., Hu,Y.-L. and Roberts, A. (2021) ‘The part and parcel of doctoral education: A gap analysis between the importance and satisfaction of the experience.’ Education Sciences 11, 481.

Churchill, M., Lindsay, D., Mendez, D., Crowe, M., Emtage, N. and Jones, R. (2021) ‘Does publishing during the doctorate influence completion time? A quantitative study of doctoral candidates in Australia.’ International Journal of Doctoral Studies 16, 689-713.

Cosgrove, P. (2022) ‘The nature of success in doctoral education: The roles of the student, the advisor, and goals.’ In: Khosrow-Pour, M. (ed.) Research Anthology on Doctoral Student Professional Development. Hershey, PA: IGI Global. 1-15.

Crain-Dorough, M. and Elder, A. (2022) ‘Discipline-focused revision practices: A context-specific example of revising dissertation writing.’ In: Khosrow-Pour, M. (ed.) Research Anthology on Doctoral Student Professional Development. Hershey, PA: IGI Global. 515-537.

De Rycker, A. (2013, May) ‘Deception and disempowerment in the recontextualisation of research activities: A corpus-based critical discourse analysis.’ [Paper presentation]. 3rd International SEARCH Conference, Taylor’s University, Subang Jaya, Malaysia.

De Rycker, A. (2014) ‘How do postgraduate students recontextualise “doing research” as a social practice? A critical analysis using Van Leeuwen’s socio-semantic model.’ Journal of Academic Language & Learning 8(1), A48-A61.

De Rycker, T. (2022) ‘Discursive mingling and agentiveness in recontextualising “doing HDR research” as a social practice complex: A self-critical sequel to De Rycker (2014).’ Journal of Academic Language & Learning 16(1), L1-L15.

De Rycker, A., Dupree Fine, Z. and Mahdizadegan Attar, M. (2019, August) “Doing research” as a social practice: How do master’s and PhD students talk about their theses. [Paper presentation]. 7th University of Malaya Conference on Discourse & Society, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Devos, C., Boudrenghien, G., Van der Linden, N., Azzi, A., Frenay, M., Galand, B. and Klein, O. (2017) ‘Doctoral students’ experiences leading to completion or attrition: A matter of sense, progress and distress.’ European Journal of Psychological Education 32, 61-77.

Fulgence, K. (2019) ‘A theoretical perspective on how doctoral supervisors develop supervision skills.’ International Journal of Doctoral Studies 14, 721-739.

Grant-Smith, D. and Winter, A. (2022) ‘The temporal disciplining the neoliberal academy: Winners and losers in the timely completion.’ In: Khosrow-Pour, M. (ed.) Research Anthology on Doctoral Student Professional Development. Hershey, PA: IGI Global. 238-258. 10.4018/978-1-7998-7379-2.ch011

Grice, H. (1975) ‘Logic and conversation.’ In: Cole, P. and Morgan, J. (eds) Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts. New York: Academic Press. 26-40.

Jones, M. (2013) ‘Issues in doctoral studies – Forty years of journal discussion: Where have we been and where are we going?’ International Journal of Doctoral Studies 8(6), 83-104.

Johnston, L., Sampson, K., Comer, K. and Brogt, E. (2016) ‘Using doctoral experience survey data to support developments in postgraduate supervision and support.’ International Journal of Doctoral Studies 11, 185-203.

Kis, A., Tur, E., Lakens, D., Vaesen, K. and Houkes, W. (2022, January 28) ‘Leaving academia: PhD attrition and unhealthy research environments.’ Preprint.

Lee, A. (2012) Successful Research Supervision: Advising Students Doing Research. London: Routledge.

Lee, A. (2018) ‘How can we develop supervisors for the modern doctorate?’ Studies in Higher Education 43(5), 878-890.

Lee, A. and Murray, R (2015) ‘Supervising writing: Helping postgraduate students develop as researchers.’ Innovations in Education and Teaching International 52(5), 558-570.

Lemke, J. (1998) ‘Multiplying meaning: Visual and verbal semiotics in scientific text.’ In: Martin, J. and Veel, R. (eds) Reading Science: Critical and Functional Perspectives on Discourses of Science. London: Routledge. 87-113.

Malaysian Qualifications Agency. (2017) Malaysian Qualifications Framework (MQF) (2nd ed.).

Mathieson, S. (2019) ‘Integrating research, teaching and practice in the context of new institutional policies: A social practice approach.’ Higher Education 78(5), 799-815.

Matthews, A. (2021) ‘Adapting to the transitional stage of the doctoral environment: An autoethnography of socialization.’ International Journal of Doctoral Studies 16, 71-87.

McCormack, C. (2004) ‘Tensions between student and institutional conceptions of postgraduate research.’ Studies in Higher Education 29(3), 319-334.

McCray, J. and Joseph-Richard, P. (2021) ‘Doctoral students’ well-being in United Kingdom business schools: A survey of personal experience and support mechanisms.’ The International Journal of Management Education 19(2), 100490.

Nokkala, T. and Saarinen, T. (2018) ‘Discourse analysis in higher education research: Theory and method.’ In: Pekkola, E., Kivistö, J., Kohtamäki, V., Cai, Y. and Lyytinen, A. (eds) Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives on Higher Education Management and Transformation: An Advanced Reader for PhD Students. Tampere: Tampere University Press. 13-28.

Nutov, L. and Hazzan, O. (2011) ‘Feeling the doctorate: Is doctoral research that studies the emotional labor of doctoral students possible?’ International Journal of Doctoral Studies 6, 19-32.

Orellana, M., Darder, A., Pérez, A. and Salinas, J. (2016) ‘Improving doctoral success by matching PhD students with supervisors.’ International Journal of Doctoral Studies 11, 87-103.

Reed, S. (2012) Cognition: Theories and Applications. Wadsworth: Cengage Learning.

Rivera, G. (2022) ‘Making sense of the new PhD student experience: Adapting to the first year of doctoral studies program.’ Journal of Management Inquiry 31(3), 331-334.

Ross, K., Dennis, B., Zhao, P. and Li, P. (2017) ‘Exploring graduate students’ understanding of research: Links between identity and research conceptions.’ International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 29(1), 73-86.

Schmidt, M. and Hansson, E. (2018) ‘Doctoral students’ well-being: A literature review.’ International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being 13(1), Article 1508171.

Shove, E., Pantzar, M. and Watson, M. (2012) The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday Life and How It Changes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Spronken-Smith, R., Cameron, C. and Quigg, R. (2018) ‘Factors contributing to high PhD completion rates: A case study in a research-intensive university in New Zealand. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 43(1), 94-109.

Starke-Meyerring, D., Paré, A., Sun, K. and El-Bezre, N. (2014) ‘Probing normalized institutional discourses about writing: The case of the doctoral thesis.’ Journal of Academic Language and Learning 8(2), A13-A27.

Terentev, E., Bekova, S. and Maloshonok, N. (2021) ‘Three challenges to Russian system of doctoral education: Why only one out of ten doctoral students defends thesis?’ International Journal of Chinese Education 10(1), 1-10.

Tinto, V. (1994) Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Trowler, P. (2021) ‘Doctoral supervision: Sharpening the focus of the practice lens.’ Higher Education Research & Development 41(5), 1743-1756.

Van Leeuwen, T. (2008) Discourse and Practice: New Tools for Critical Discourse Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van Leeuwen, T. (2009) ‘Discourse as the recontextualisation of social practice: A guide.’ In: Wodak, R. and Meyer, M. (eds) Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage Publications. 144-181.

Vogt, W., Gardner, D. and Haeffele, L. (2012) “When” to Use “What” Research Design. New York: The Guilford Press.

Wilson, K. and Devereux, L. (2014) ‘Scaffolding theory: High challenge, high support in Academic Language and Learning (ALL) contexts.’ Journal of Academic Language and Learning 8(3), A91-A100.

Wood, D., Bruner, J. and Ross, G. (1976) ‘The role of tutoring in problem-solving.’ Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 17(2), 89-100.

Wrigley, C., Wolifson, P. and Matthews, J. (2021) ‘Supervising cohorts of higher degree research students: Design catalysts for industry and innovation.’ Higher Education 81(6), 1177-1196.






PDF views