Zhihan Wu

Email: z.wu.1@research.gla.ac.uk

Research title: A Phenomenological Exploration of Chinese PGRs' Research Self-Efficacy Throughout Three Different Stages of Their Research Journeys in the UK.

Research Summary

Current Research

        A phenomenological exploration of research self-efficacy across the pre-, mid-, and post-stages in Chinese international PGRs’ journeys in the UK.


Brief Description of the Research Project

        My current research project aims to address the problem of limited understanding of Chinese international PGRs' research development in the UK, especially the role research self-efficacy plays in the entire journey.

        Research self-efficacy refers to individuals’ belief in their ability to successfully complete research tasks and achieve research-related goals (Akçöltekin, 2019; Bieschke et al., 1996; Bieschke, 2006; Jones et al., 2022; O’Brien et al., 1998; Petko et al., 2020; Phillips & Russell, 1994). Previous studies suggest that research self-efficacy could help PGRs initiate, continue, and complete their degrees (Carpi et al., 2017; Maton et al., 2016). However, previous research on international PGRs has primarily focused on the challenges they may confront during their research development. For example, Chinese international PGRs were frequently judged to have poor critical and creative thinking skills in their academic pursuits (Lucas, 2019; Zhao & Meyer, 2013; Sit, 2013). The current research study challenges the deficient discourse of Chinese international PGRs, advocating for a vision of them as capable agents in navigating their candidature in British universities.

        This project seeks to address this by phenomenological exploring Chinese international PGRs' research development ranging from their application to completion of a PhD programme in British universities, providing robust and longitudinal evidence of their growth. By doing so, I will benefit from their unique first-hand experiences, which will help me understand how to better support PGRs to have a smoother voyage from preparation towards completion. There is, however, limited evidence about whether PGRs' progresses in the way that many universities intend.

        Three qualitative studies are designed to be conducted simultaneously with one another to investigate three samples of the Chinese international cohort's whole PGR journey in British universities: each focuses on a distinct stage of their research development, including pre- (Study 1), mid- (Study 2), and post-stages (Study 3). This enables me to explore the full process (from preparation to completion) in-depth, thus depicting a comprehensive picture of Chinese international PGRs’ research development by combining and discussing the three studies’ findings. This project has been considered and approved by the College Research Ethics Committee of CoSS. Participants are now being sought from universities throughout the UK.


Research Methods

        To investigate Chinese international PGRs’ research experiences, three individual qualitative studies will be conducted, each focusing on a different sample at different stages of their PGR journeys. Study 1 explores Chinese international applicants' understanding and their sense of readiness for an intended PhD programme in British universities. Study 2 focuses on current Chinese international PGRs, and their research self-efficacy will be studied longitudinally for one year in order to understand the changing progress. Study 3 aims to reveal and refine beneficial experiences and critical milestones by reflecting on successful graduates' entire process of research development.

        Data Collection

        The three studies will combine focus groups and individual interviews with mixed creative data collection methods to investigate the research topic. The schedules of each study will be developed based on the research questions, with participants' lived experiences as the starting point rather than theories. To get their perspectives, all focus groups and individual interviews will be conducted online via Zoom to facilitate gathering participants from various locations and time zones. A pilot study for each with one or two participants who share similar characteristics with the research samples is planned to improve the validity of schedules.

        Study 1

        In Study 1, a video vignette will be used during online focus groups to help collect data. The video vignette consists of a short video, available in the public domain, that depicts what a PhD involves in British universities. This will be shown at the start of the focus group, and then this will be followed with questions to the group. Given that participants are all applicants who have never conducted PhD-level research, video vignettes that simulate how PhD students grow may aid in the collection of data on their responses in terms of generating critical and creative research outcomes. Apart from that, since vignettes frequently simplify complex situations, limiting their ability to capture the full range of experiences and perspectives, using them with a focus group will provide a more comprehensive picture of the phenomenon. I intend to hold 3-5 focus groups with 5-8 participants each so a total of 15-40 participants aimed to be recruited.

        Study 2

        In Study 2, the usage of video diaries and a simplified scale of research self-efficacy, as well as follow-up interviews, will be employed to generate data. Video diary is a novel diary-based method that creates audio data while allowing for the visualisation of events via filming video entries. This method was chosen because of its ability to capture real-time thoughts, feelings, and actions associated with research activities. Since research self-efficacy tends to be sensitive to contextual change and easily influenced by occurring events, capturing thoughts in time is essential for recording the shift, which is more beneficial to generate precise and rich data for the current study than hindsight (e.g., discussing in interviews after one or two years).

        Participants need to make video diaries of their research self-efficacy and relevant events every month for a year. A simplified Likert scale will be provided together with clear instructions on what to record and how to record it before data collection begins to assist them in recording and describing their current research self-efficacy beliefs and lived incidents. Participants are expected to complete the brief scale every time before their filming. After completing all video entries, each participant will be interviewed to further discuss important topics that emerge in their video diaries. There will be 12-16 participants aimed to be recruited.

        Study 3

        In Study 3, the River of Experiences drawing with individual interviews will be used to investigate participants' experiences and perspectives. The River of Experiences is a creative research method that asks participants to visually represent their life journey using a river as a metaphor (Denov & Shevell, 2021). As successful PGR graduates, it is worthwhile to recap and reflect on their entire PGR journey; the River of Experiences drawing is arguably ideal for them to create pictures representing their development process and highlighting any milestones in the form of a meander belt. By visually depicting their lived experiences and perspectives in a unique and personal way, it may help generate richer data for a deeper understanding of how people perceive and interpret their experiences than traditional storytelling (e.g., standard interviews).

        Before the interviews, participants need to sketch a river that represents their entire PGR experience and submit a copy of their drawing. In interviews, I may ask participants to label or explain specific elements, such as significant life events or transitions. There will be 12-16 participants aimed to be recruited.

        Data Analysis

        Study 1 will use Thematic Analysis (TA) to analyse data. TA is a qualitative research method that involves identifying, analysing, and interpreting patterns or themes within textual or visual data (Clarke et al., 2015). Since TA involves a systematic and iterative process of organizing and categorizing data into meaningful themes, it allows me to uncover patterns and variations in data, facilitating the identification of key findings. Furthermore, as Study 1 aims to investigate participants' perspectives rather than experiences, TA is arguably appropriate to help recognise and understand the underlying meaning conveyed by them, which is then beneficial for acquiring deeper insights.

        Study 2 and Study 3 will employ Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) to make sense of the collected research data. IPA is an inductive qualitative research method used to explore people's subjective experiences (Eatough & Smith, 2017). As Studies 2 and 3 seek to investigate the lived experiences of a specific group and understand the mechanisms underlying phenomena from an interpretivist perspective, using an inductive qualitative method - IPA enables me to examine and discuss the complex role of Chinese international PGRs' research self-efficacy in their research journeys.

        Furthermore, as the primary goal of IPA is to understand the meaning and significance that people place on their experiences, I argue that it can be ideal for creating a comprehensive and in-depth picture of the participants in Studies 2 and 3 compared to other qualitative data analysis methods, such as TA (Eatough & Smith, 2017). More specifically, since IPA employs a 'double hermeneutic' that combines both empathic and questioning interpretive stances, I can construct participants' initial experiences through their lens while also using theoretical points of view from the outside to shed light on the phenomenon (Alase, 2017; Eatough & Smith, 2017). By establishing connections between personal experiences and theoretical concepts, there is potential to contribute to a deeper understanding of participants' experiences and advance existing knowledge.

        To improve the trustworthiness of this study, I will organise the current research project according to Yardley's (2017) validity criterion of qualitative research. I will also follow Clarke et al.’s (2015) TA guidance and Smith and Osborn's (2015) IPA guidelines to analyse data.


Significance of this research project to the wider community

        The project will have benefits for participants in all three studies. In Study 1, participants will gain an increased knowledge of what is expected for a PhD and benefit from the brainstorming in a focus group on how to better prepare for their future studies. This can also serve as a network for them to support each other in their applications and studies after participating. In Study 2, participants will benefit from regular self-reflection on their research progress. They will potentially better understand their coping patterns to certain incidents during the course and find more adaptive and flexible coping mechanisms for themselves. In Study 3, participants will benefit from reflecting on their whole PGR journey. Looking back on milestones and achievements during their journey may allow them to reflect on their professional path and boost their confidence in their academic pursuits.

        The project will have benefits for universities, including PGRs, supervisors, programme designers and policymakers in British universities. One outcome is a form of research development for PGRs. A second outcome is the advancement of knowledge for supervisors to provide supervisees with proper and targeted mentorship, guidance, and resources to better develop their potential. A third outcome is feedback to programme designers and policymakers on PGRs' progression in British universities to inform current training programmes and support policy. PGRs will also eventually benefit from continual improvement training and support from universities.

        The project will also have benefits for the research field. One outcome is increased knowledge of how PGRs progress in three stages of their research development across different disciplines in British universities. The second academic outcome is a methodological contribution by developing a novel diary-based research method for understanding PGRs’ research progressions at different years of their study and a set of associated data-gathering instruments. These two outcomes should be of great interest to researchers in doctoral education and visual research methods.


Research Interests

        My research interests are mostly in psychology in higher education contexts, with a focus on the agency of international PGRs, particularly in their professional and personal growth. From a Phenomenological and Interpretivist epistemology standpoint, I employ creative and visual research methods to explore and reflect on the uniqueness of human consciousness and experiences. This allows me to understand how people see and act in the human world, as well as to investigate the environment that fosters such views and actions to form.

  • Human agency
  • Creative, critical thinking and metacognition
  • Creative and visual methods in Psychology
  • The hidden curriculum
  • Positive psychology
  • Clinical and health psychology


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Jump to: 2023
Number of items: 2.


Makara, K. A. , Balgabekova, D., Gordon, K., Meng, F., Tripornchaisak, N. , WU, Z. and Elliot, D. L. (2023) ‘It is a nice way to end the week’: Journal Club as an authentic and safe learning space. In: Elliot, D. L., Bengtsen, S. S. E. and Guccione, K. (eds.) Developing Researcher Independence Through the Hidden Curriculum. Palgrave Macmillan: London. ISBN 9783031428746 (doi: 10.1007/978-3-031-42875-3_6)

Elliot, D. L. , Makara Fuller, K. A. , WU, Z., Tripornchaisak, N. , Meng, F., Gordon, K. and Balgabekova, D. (2023) We even got snacks’: journal club as an authentic and safe space for engaging in scholarly debates and arguments. Higher Education Reform Conference (HER), Glasgow, UK, 21-23 June 2023. (Unpublished)

This list was generated on Mon Jun 24 09:33:01 2024 BST.
Number of items: 2.

Book Sections

Makara, K. A. , Balgabekova, D., Gordon, K., Meng, F., Tripornchaisak, N. , WU, Z. and Elliot, D. L. (2023) ‘It is a nice way to end the week’: Journal Club as an authentic and safe learning space. In: Elliot, D. L., Bengtsen, S. S. E. and Guccione, K. (eds.) Developing Researcher Independence Through the Hidden Curriculum. Palgrave Macmillan: London. ISBN 9783031428746 (doi: 10.1007/978-3-031-42875-3_6)

Conference or Workshop Item

Elliot, D. L. , Makara Fuller, K. A. , WU, Z., Tripornchaisak, N. , Meng, F., Gordon, K. and Balgabekova, D. (2023) We even got snacks’: journal club as an authentic and safe space for engaging in scholarly debates and arguments. Higher Education Reform Conference (HER), Glasgow, UK, 21-23 June 2023. (Unpublished)

This list was generated on Mon Jun 24 09:33:01 2024 BST.

Additional Information

Academic and Professional Body Memberships

  • British Psychological Society, GMBPsS (2022 - ongoing)