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N=1: A Social Scientific Inquiry into Happiness and Academic Labor

Contingency CFP

This article is part of a series addressing the problem of contingency in higher education. The goal is to examine our role as pedagogues in a system wherein education does not always result in opportunity. The discussion is ongoing — see all articles in this series or the original call for papers that prompted them and consider adding your voice to the conversation.

ABSTRACT: This study aims to assess the professional perspectives of Ioana Literat (hereafter referred to as ‘the subject’), a fourth-year PhD student at a major US research university. The sample (N=1) was analyzed using both quantitative and qualitative methods, including statistical analysis, in-depth interviews with the subject, content analysis of emails and social media activity, and dream interpretation. In spite of unresolved anxieties, the data indicates a positive trend in the subject’s development, while pointing to the larger challenges of pursuing a PhD in an era of contingent academic labor. 

A young scholar’s doctoral education is a quintessential period for both personal and professional development. While pursuing a PhD can be an immensely rewarding experience, it also presents frequent occasions for soul-searching to those that dare to tread down this path. In addition, recent developments in the academic labor market have exacerbated doctoral students’ concerns regarding their employment prospects and, consequently, their self-worth and, ultimately, everything else in their lives. However, the impact of the PhD experience on students’ self-esteem and career perspectives has, surprisingly, received too little attention in the literature so far. The present study uses the convenience sample of Ioana Literat in an attempt to fill this lacuna, and to contribute to the knowledge regarding young scholars’ paths to personal and professional success.

 This study aims to address, principally, three consequential research questions:

  • RQ1: Does an academic career represent a good career fit for the subject?
  • RQ2: Will the subject be happy in her chosen career?
  • RQ3: Can the subject can make a meaningful contribution through teaching, research, and service?

While it may seem that the first and second research questions are too closely related, rightness of fit does not always correlate with personal happiness, especially in the presence of external factors (such as financial and social well-being) that might influence the latter variable. Furthermore, rightness of fit is understood for the purpose of this study as a more rational and objective determinant, while perceived happiness is a subjective variable, open to the emotional meanderings of the study participant.

The three hypotheses relating to the research questions above are stated as follows:

  • H1: A PhD in Communication is a good career fit for the subject.
  • H2: The subject will be happy in this doctoral program.
  • H3: The subject can make a meaningful contribution to the field of communication through dedicated teaching, service, and a socially conscious research agenda.



The sample (N=1) used in this research study is a female 27-year-old doctoral student at a major R1 university. In completing the demographic section of the questionnaire, when asked to indicate her ethnicity, the subject chose ‘Other.’ In terms of self-reported income, the subject left the answer to that question blank.

Research Design

The present research study includes both qualitative and quantitative methods, in order to ensure a comprehensive assessment. While this type of triangulation aims to increase the validity of the research findings, it is also meant to capitalize on the author’s unique position of having unfettered access to the subject’s thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams.

The qualitative methods employed in this study consisted of in-depth interviews with the subject, content analysis of emails and social media posts, and dream interpretation. The quantitative procedures, on the other hand, consisted of administering a comprehensive questionnaire to the subject, with her responses being analyzed with the aid of an extremely expensive and non-reimbursable statistics software.


According to the data extracted from the interviews and the survey, the first hypothesis (‘A PhD in Communication is a good career fit for the subject’) was indeed supported. An unrotated factor analysis of the survey data reveals six significant subfactors that cumulatively account for 85% of the variance. The factors that correlated positively with rightness-of-fit were: the subject’s passion for teaching, her intellectual curiosity, the desire to work in an intellectually stimulating environment, and, finally, the respect she has for her chosen doctoral program and faculty. The combination of these particular elements seems to reassure the subject that she has chosen the right career path.

However, the factor analysis also revealed two elements that negatively correlated with the subject’s perceived rightness-of-fit. These were: the lack of creativity inherent in high-level academic work, and, respectively, the abstract nature of scholarly research. In regards to the latter, it appears that the subject cannot help but compare her current academic activities with the nonprofit work she had previously been involved in, as the field coordinator of a digital storytelling program in central India. Nevertheless, due to the superior factorial weight of the four positively correlated items, we conclude that the first hypothesis (‘A PhD in Communication is a good career fit for the subject’) was supported, and we predict that evidence for this statement will only increase in the near future.

The second hypothesis stated that the subject would be happy in her chosen doctoral program. At the time the research was conducted, we found only limited statistical support for this claim; however, we were equally unable to prove the null hypothesis (‘The subject will not be happy in this doctoral program’). The factor analysis identified two major elements that were positively correlated with projected happiness levels: the appeal of intellectual pursuit, and, respectively, an appreciation of personal independence. The items that correlated negatively with both current and future happiness levels were: concern about her future employment prospects in the academic job market, the presence of material concerns, and a strong fear of failure. Of these, the most pronounced factor — anxiety about future employment prospects — is exacerbated by the subject’s status as an international student in the United States. Non-citizenship, indeed, poses further problems for finding an academic job; adjuncts are not offered work visas and must leave the country. Considering these circumstances, the subject realizes that landing a tenure-track job may be the only way to stay in the country that she now calls home, and this realization adds a further dose of anxiety to her thoughts about the future.

Finally, the third hypothesis, concerning the subject’s potential contributions, was supported by the data in this study. Beyond her passion for teaching, a major factor in this area seems to be her desire to blend communication research with prosocial engagement, materialized in her interest in education and participatory cultures. In addition, during the most emotionally intense parts of her interviews, the subject repeatedly mentioned her commitment to ‘give something back’ to her home country of Romania. Nonetheless, in spite of the subject’s emotional sincerity on this matter, it is the author’s sense that this desire is based on an elusive patriotism anchored in nostalgia, faded illusions and stubborn memories. Interestingly enough, as a conclusion to these findings, it also appears that the subject’s acute awareness of these potential academic and social contributions acts as a moderator variable, increasing the strength of the relationship between rightness of fit and happiness levels, as illustrated by the above-mentioned findings.


The implications of these findings are multifold. Principally, they point to the internal complexities associated with pursuing a doctoral degree at a rigorous American university. While a PhD is a highly coveted and respected educational degree, it also poses vital challenges and can be emotionally consuming. These challenges are particularly pronounced for international students, whose success in such a program is often hindered by employment concerns and a lingering feeling of displacement.

However, this study presents many limitations and does not claim to be a representative portrait of doctoral students’ perspectives towards their program or academic field. The sample (N=1) is extremely small, and, due to a variety of reasons, is not representative of the general population of PhD students. Upon meticulous review of the statistical data, we have also identified a constant moderator variable (the subject’s general disposition as an optimistic but highly introspective individual), which might have skewed some of the results, particularly in regards to the second hypothesis.

In terms of avenues for future research, a significant conclusion that emerges is the need for a more longitudinal study, which measures the subjects’ development over time. The data obtained here is extremely time-specific, and is thus subject to the emotional and intellectual fluctuations that characterize such a transitional period in one’s professional development. Nevertheless, it is the author’s hope that the present study will contribute to a better understanding of the multitude of factors that shape a PhD student’s career outlook. Further experiments may be conducted, in a like fashion, should others wish to apply these research questions to their own personal contexts. In spite of the small(est) sample used in this research study, we believe that the current findings may resonate within the academic community more widely, and we invite others to join the conversation.

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