Münster (upm/sr)

Between research and teaching – how doctoral students see their role

Researchers at the University of Münster discover that students doing a PhD in Psychology can identify with both roles
One of the pictures the PhD students got to see during the experiment. Here the focus is on research.<address>© Startup Stock Photos</address>
One of the pictures the PhD students got to see during the experiment. Here the focus is on research.
© Startup Stock Photos

Am I more of a researcher or a teacher? Junior researchers might well have to ask themselves this question right at the beginning of their careers, because they are often responsible for student teaching even while they are engaged on their dissertation. But which role do they actually see themselves in? Or, to put it another way: Do they identify with their role as a teacher at all? Now, for the first time, a group of psychologists at the University of Münster have studied the extent to which junior researchers in Psychology identify with their roles – both long-term and, situation-specifically, short-term.

The conclusion the researchers came to is that doctoral students basically identify to a large extent with both of their roles, although they do so more with their role as a researcher than as a teacher. The researchers found that the teaching role can be activated in the short term by certain stimuli. “These new findings could help in the future to make PhD students aware of the different roles they have and to show them the possibility of changing roles, depending on situations,” says lead author Alessa Hillbrink from the University’s Centre for Teaching in Higher Education. However, the findings relate to doctoral students in Psychology and cannot automatically be generalised to include other disciplines. The study has been published in the journal “Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education”.

Background and method:

In PhD students’ everyday lives there are many role changes which happen at short notice. “They have just held a seminar, return to their desk to continue working on an academic article, are then interrupted by an undergraduate who has an enquiry … and so on and so forth,” explains Alessa Hillbrink. When researchers study PhD students’ identification with different roles, they focus as a rule on long-term processes such as socialisation in the scientific community. There are, by contrast, hardly any studies looking at how junior researchers are able to accept certain roles at short notice as a result of cue stimuli from their surroundings.

In the first part of their study, the Münster researchers questioned 167 Psychology PhD students from twelve large universities in Germany, doing so by means of a special questionnaire – the Professional Identity Questionnaire – which they were the first to use in any German-speaking country. The doctoral students each assessed nine statements presented to them, covering both research – for example, “I feel part of the scientific community” – and teaching – e.g., “I have sufficient didactic knowledge and skills”. The scales for their responses contained five gradations, by means of which the test persons were able to indicate that they tended to agree or to disagree with the statements. This meant that the researchers were able to ascertain the long-term role identification independent from any situation – the so-called ‘trait role identity’.

The findings indicated that the test persons identified with both roles, although the role of researcher was much more strongly pronounced. But – the more experience the PhD students already had in teaching, the more they identified with the teaching role. “In comparison with the qualitative approaches used so far, this stock of questions measures more accurately, with greater differentiation and, also, less predictably for respondents. As a result, the identification values for different roles can be compared with one another better than in the past,” says the study’s lead investigator, Prof. Regina Jucks, Head of Academic Management at the Centre for Teaching in Higher Education.

In the second part of their study, the researchers looked at how quickly the PhD students were able to switch roles. For this purpose, they divided the test persons up into three groups, in which each group was shown different types of pictures – some pictures relating to research, others to teaching, or a mix from both categories. They were then asked to make a collage out of them. After this, all the test persons – regardless of the group they were in – completed sentences such as “I work as a research associate because …” or “When I think of my everyday work, what I really like is …”. The answers were allocated to the categories “research” or “teaching”. What the researchers found was that, depending on which group the test persons were in, they also differed from one another in their role identification. If they focused on teaching as a result of the pictures shown to them, this aspect cropped up more often in the responses they subsequently gave. Also, they mentioned a wider range of teaching-related topics. “So it was possible, using visual stimuli, to activate at short notice the role of the teacher, the so-called ‘state role identity’,” as Regina Jucks explains.

What was noticeable was that job identification already showed itself at an early stage in an academic career. In international research, the assumption so far had been that researchers only later developed an image of themselves as a teacher, for example during the habilitation phase. One possible explanation for this is that Psychology PhD students in Germany already take on independent teaching activities at this time and make a substantial contribution to teaching at German universities – in contrast, for example, to ‘graduate teaching assistants’ in the UK or the USA. Further studies will be needed before the findings can be transferred to other disciplines.


This study, undertaken by the Centre for Teaching in Higher Education at the University of Münster, received funding from the “Quality Pact for Teaching” (Funding code: 01PL16077) under the auspices of the national and regional state governments in Germany.

Original publication:

A. Hillbrink & R. Jucks (2019): ‘Me, a teacher?!’ – Professional role identification and role activation of psychology PhD students. Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education; DOI: 10.1108/SGPE-03-2019-0031

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