Career focus more engaging for PhD than passion for research? Finland study also finds foreign students more satisfied with studies

September 22, 2017

© 2017 Yusuke Sakurai.A word cloud created from words used in this study's journal article represented in the shape of a world map. Larger size indicates higher usage frequency.

Word cloud formed from words appearing in journal article
A word cloud created from words used in this study's journal article represented in the shape of a world map. Larger size indicates higher usage frequency.
© 2017 Yusuke Sakurai.

Researchers at the University of Tokyo and the University of Helsinki studied the relationship between doctoral students' motivations for pursuing their degree and the satisfaction they derive from their studies, in a study of PhD students in Finland, and found that those with moderate interest in their research but weak career development intentions showed significantly lower levels of academic satisfaction. Moreover, by comparing differences between domestic and international students, the researchers observed that this tendency was higher among Finnish students. The current outcome may help to design a prescription for elevating the educational experience of doctoral students by improving supervision of their research, and nurturing their goals and expectations as highly skilled professionals.

Research on doctoral students' experiences is relatively scarce compared to that of other commonly awarded university degrees. Many of us can easily conceive that students' motivation may play a critical role in achieving academic success, as suggested by some previous studies; but much is unknown about how different personal motivations affect students' learning experiences. Moreover, in spite of the relatively high ratio of international students among doctoral degree-seekers, compared to that of students studying for bachelor's and master's degrees, the amount of knowledge available on the similarities and differences—not taking into account language and culture—of experiences between local and international doctoral students is limited.

In the current study, the research group led by Project Lecturer Yusuke Sakurai at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo surveyed roughly 1,200 doctoral students at the University of Helsinki, including local and international students. The group found that, even with moderate levels of interest in their research, students who lacked a desire to develop their career prospects through their doctoral studies showed low levels of satisfaction with their program. The researchers also discovered that this trend was more common among Finnish students. In contrast, a greater share of international students showed a higher orientation toward career development through their studies.

These findings raise an important issue for Japanese higher education, which is undergoing rapid internationalization: While support for international students is a growing concern among universities worldwide, a need for a common support system for all students needing help, regardless of whether they are domestic or foreign, through individual supervision and institutional structures, should not be forgotten.

"Although it may be difficult to readily apply the current outcome within the context of Japanese higher education, the compounding problems facing doctoral education, be they unstable career paths for early-career researchers or academic career supremacy pervading tertiary education, may be universal," says Sakurai. He continues, "I would like to continue to further my understanding of the learning experiences of doctoral students, whose communities are continuously diversifying, to improve pedagogical practices."


Yusuke Sakurai, Jenna Vekkaila, & Kirsi Pyhältö, "More or less engaged in doctoral studies? Domestic and international students' satisfaction and motivation for doctoral studies in Finland", Research in Comparative and International Education Online Edition: 2017/06/18 (Japan time), doi: 10.1177/1745499917711543.
Article link (Publication)


Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Globalization Office, Center for International Exchange, College of Arts and Sciences, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Research Group “Research on Doctoral Education”

Yusuke Sakurai’s research webpage

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