Conceptualising manifestations and shapers of doctoral student agency : A subject-centered approach

Xiujuan SUN*, Michelle W.T. CHENG

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


The growing complexity of doing a PhD necessarily demands candidates to robustly exercise their agency in navigating the doctoral journey. However, the conceptualisation of how students use their agency across multiple facets of their studies has yet to receive due scholarly attention. Drawing on the subject-centred sociocultural view on agency, this study analysed life story interviews conducted with 16 doctoral students in Hong Kong. Findings show that participants’ agency was manifested both in socially and collectively organised enterprises (proactive engagement in a wide array of developmental opportunities, responsiveness to situational research problems, contestation against unsupportive institutional cultures) and as individual-level strategic perspectives and actions (self-management of everyday emotions, imaginative construction of post-graduation prospects). Concurrently, the results shed light on the inextricable and complex linkages between the enactment of agency and the personal, relational, institutional, and broader higher education conditions delimiting students’ lived experiences of candidature. Implications for educational practices and future research beneficial to develop doctoral agency are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)898-912
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Further and Higher Education
Issue number7
Early online date1 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - 2022
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We wish to thank the editor and the anonymous referees for their constructive comments dedicated to improving the quality of this manuscript. Our thanks also go to Prof. John Trent and Mr. Justin C. H. Lau for thoroughly reading the earlier drafts and providing useful feedback.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 UCU.


  • agency
  • agentic manifestations
  • Doctoral education
  • experiences of candidature
  • subject-centred approach


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