Pastoral care in doctoral education: a collaborative autoethnography of belonging and academic identity

Danielle Hradsky, Ali Soyoof, Shaoru Zeng, Ellie Mohammadi Foomani, Cong-Lem Ngo, Jacky-Lou Maestre, Lynette Pretorius

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


Aim/Purpose It is increasingly recognized that doctoral education programs should better sup-port doctoral students. In particular, it has been noted that students experience significant isolation during their PhD, which negatively affects their educational experiences and their personal wellbeing. Doctoral writing groups are collabora-tive learning communities that have in recent years received increasing attention to address this issue. This collaborative autoethnography explores the affective benefits (i.e., benefits associated with emotions and feelings) of these doctoral writing groups, particularly focused on the pastorally supportive nature of these learning communities. Background Writing groups have been shown to promote academic writing skills and build reflective practice, personal epistemology, and academic identity. We have found that a much more significant benefit of our writing groups has been the pastoral care we have experienced, particularly in relation to the turbulent emotions often associated with academic writing. This should, perhaps, not be surprising since it is clear that academic writing is a form of identity work. There is, therefore, a clear need to better support doctoral students, particularly with regard to the more affective components of academic writing. This prompted us to write this collaborative autoethnography to showcase what we consider to be the primary role of doctoral writing groups: pastoral care. Methodology We employ a collaborative autoethnographic methodology to integrate our per-sonal reflections into the existing literature in the field. Contribution We argue that doctoral writing groups are vehicles of pastoral care as they pro-mote wellbeing, foster resilience, provide academic care, and build social capital. Findings We demonstrate that doctoral writing groups foster students' sense of belonging through self-reflection and the sharing of experiences in a safe space, which builds perceived self-efficacy and self-awareness. Furthermore, through the self-reflection and discussion that is inherent in doctoral writing groups, students also develop a better understanding of themselves and their place within the academy. Recommendations for Practitioners Our research highlights that writing groups may be designed to teach academic communication skills, but they provide an affective benefit that cannot yet be quantified and which should not be underestimated. Incorporating writing groups into doctoral education programs can, therefore, have a positive influ-ence on the educational experiences of PhD students and improve their overall wellbeing. This paper concludes by providing practical suggestions to help prac-titioners implement writing groups into doctoral education programs, particu-larly focused on how these groups can be made more pastorally supportive. Recommendations for Researchers This paper also extends the theoretical understanding of pastoral care by provid-ing a framework for pastoral care within the doctoral writing group environ-ment. We show how pastoral care can be conceptualized as the promotion of self-awareness, self-efficacy, reflection, and empowerment of doctoral students through nurturing communities where all members are valued, encouraged, guided, and supported. Our experiences, which we have integrated throughout this paper, also highlight the importance of relationship-building within the edu-cational community, particularly when these relationships are characterized by mutual respect and shared responsibility. Impact on Society The poor well-being of doctoral students has now been well-established across the world, but strategies to improve the academic environment for these stu-dents are still lacking. This paper provides evidence that implementing writing groups as a strategy to embed pastoral care in a doctoral education environment helps doctoral students flourish. Ultimately, this can lead to an improved aca-demic research culture into the future. Future Research Future research should explore other methods of better integrating pastoral care interventions into doctoral education programs in order to reduce isolation and promote student wellbeing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-23
Number of pages23
JournalInternational Journal of Doctoral Studies
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • doctoral education
  • writing groups
  • pastoral care
  • belonging
  • academic identity
  • autoethnography
  • collaborative autoethnography

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