How Do Mixed Methods Work for Researching Doctoral Experiences? Life-Work Relations and Reducing Exhaustion

Chi Wui NG, Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong

My doctoral research project studies the influence of social class on educational aims of PhD students in Hong Kong. I came across McAlpine et al.’s (2022) article on Interconnection Among Life-Work Relations, Exhaustion, and Cynicism of Ph.D. Students. I found it methodologically insightful to me and perhaps other researchers or postgraduate students. Antecedent research on doctoral education has predominantly been conducted from a top-down policy-based perspective whilst bottom-up research from students’ perspectives has been a minority (Hughes & Tight, 2013; Shin et al., 2018). With a focus on doctoral students’ learning experiences, McAlpine et al. (2022) is a mixed-methods study investigating the interconnection between Ph.D. students’ life-work relations, their exhaustion and cynicism. Incorporating qualitative components into quantitative research potentially combines strengths of positivist and interpretivist ontological assumptions.

In light of exhaustion and cynicism emerging from negative institutional factors as well as impacts of doctoral students’ life-work relations, McAlpine et al. (2022) examined the relationship between life-work relations, exhaustion and cynicism via a concurrent nested mixed-method research design. In the quantitative strand, it was discovered from the Cross-Country Doctoral Experience survey (Pyhältö et al., 2019) that positive life-work relations buffered exhaustion as well as cynicism, albeit statistical differences between women and men and between doctoral students with and without children were absent. Participants’ open-ended responses in the qualitative strand suggested that even Ph.D. students with positive life-work relations might experience a certain level of exhaustion and cynicism during their studies.

McAlpine et al.’s (2022) ontological assumption is pragmatism, characterized by the use of judgment and plausible adaption to principles in response to peculiarities of situations (Bredo, 2006). Construing the interrelation amongst life-work relations, exhaustion, and cynicism of doctoral students is seen as a practical problem that cannot be resolved by one single approach, so the researchers contended that pragmatism is appropriate. Positivism might fail to take sufficient consideration of individual variations across students, whereas interpretivism pinpoints intersubjective meanings conveyed by individuals’ experience without perhaps fully taking heed of a more comprehensive picture of doctoral students as a community of practice (Kelly, 2006; Merriam & Tisdell, 2016; Soltis, 1984). For such a reason, it was appropriate to combine the strengths of both positivism and interpretivism to complement limitations of the two.

For all its rigorous research design, McAlpine et al. (2022) might benefit from clearer definitions of key terminologies. Significant concepts, such as ‘life-work relations’, ‘exhaustion’, and ‘cynicism’, might be defined more explicitly and in relation to broader literature in order to orient readers who are less familiar with educational psychology. Cynicism denotes “losing interest in one’s work and feeling that one’s research has lost its meaning” whilst exhaustion entails “a lack of emotional energy and feeling strained and tired at research work” (McAlpine et al., 2022, p.356). Through providing more intertextual linkage to these definitions, this article could help readers develop a better idea of how these notions are conceptualized in other works as well.

Situated in the field of higher education, in particular doctoral education, McAlpine et al. (2022) capitalized upon a mixed-methods research design. Not only does the study possess the theoretical significance of enriching the literature of doctoral students’ learning experience, but it also possesses the practical significance of improving doctoral students’ experiences by illuminating avenues for buffering exhaustion and cynicism. Methodologically, it corroborates the plausibility of a concurrent nested mixed-method research design with a concurrent collection of quantitative and qualitative data followed by sequential analysis of the two sets of data in advance of a combined analysis.

Despite the plausibility of merging distinct approaches in one single research study, it is vital to enhance researchers’ awareness of potential conflicts amongst paradigms. Whereas both qualitative and quantitative research involve systematic processes and methodology in data collection and analysis, qualitative research possesses more variation than quantitative research in terms of its interpretative nature (Kelly & Kaczynski, 2006). It is useful and highly recommended for research postgraduate students and novice researchers to reflect on such methodological conflicts in our early attempts to conduct mixed-methods research projects.


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Hughes, C., & Tight, M. (2013). The metaphors we study by: The doctorate as a journey and/or as work. Higher Education Research & Development, 32 (5), 765-775.

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McAlpine, L., Skakni, I., & Pyhalto, K. (2022). PhD experience (and progress) is more than work: Life-work relations and reducing exhaustion (and cynicism). Studies in Higher Education, 47 (2), 352-366.

Merriam, S. B., & Tisdell, E. J. (2016). Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation. (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pyhältö, K., Castelló, M., McAlpine, L., & Peltonen, J. (2019). The Cross-country Doctoral Experience Survey (C-DES) User’s Manual.

Shin, J. C., Postiglione, G. A., & Ho, K. C. (2018). Challenges for doctoral education in East Asia: a global and comparative perspective. Asia Pacific Education Review, 19 (2), 141-155.

Soltis, J. F. (1984). On the nature of educational research. Educational Researcher, 13 (10), 5-10.

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