Self-Determination Theory as a framework for understanding doctoral students’ wellbeing, perceived satisfaction and confidence in completing their studies.

Rebecca Smith, Amy Moon, Paul Joseph-Richard, Janet McCray

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review



Background: Universities in the UK have been reporting increases in the number of students seeking mental health support since 2007 (ONS, 2022). Globally, the mental health of post-graduate students is purported to be in crisis, (Evans et al., 2018), with research suggesting that one in three European post-graduate research students (PGRS) at risk of developing a psychiatric disorder, (Levecque et al., 2017). How can we better understand how to support the needs of our doctoral students? Self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2004) offers a framework for understanding basic needs for wellbeing; a sense of relatedness, autonomy and competence. The fulfilment of these needs allows for motivation, independent learning, improved performance, and wellbeing. The model has been successfully applied to educational settings (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009) but only provisionally to doctoral students’ progress and experience (Van de Linden et al., 2018) and is yet to be applied to their wellbeing.

Methods: The purpose of this cross-sectional study was to investigate the doctoral student experience, a very different experience to taught courses as it requires higher levels of autonomy as well as a unique relationship with supervisor(s). It was hypothesised that the that basic needs of; competence, autonomy, relatedness as fulfilled within the a) the supervisor relationship and b) the postgraduate research degree more generally, would predict three outcome variables; (1) doctoral student’s wellbeing, (2) perceived satisfaction with their course and (3) confidence in finishing their doctorate on time.

The project was assessed and approved by the university ethics committee prior to data collection. 165 postgraduate students (Mage = 37 years), recruited via email from three British Universities, completed an online, self-report questionnaire containing demographic questions and the following measures; Doctorate-related Needs Support and Satisfaction scale (D-N2S) which assesses the extent to which the supervisor supports the three basic needs (21 items) and the extent to which the student feels their needs are satisfied by the doctorate more generally (19 items; Van de Linden et al., 2018) and the seven-item Short Warwick–Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (Shah et al., 2021). Participants overall satisfaction with their degree experience was be measured using a single item based on the postgraduate research students experience survey (PRES), a national survey in the UK by Advanced HE. Participants confidence in finishing their doctorate on time was also measured using a single item, also based on the PRES. This project was preregistered on OSF.

Results: Separate hierarchical linear regression analyses were performed on each outcome variable in which our model, which in step one controlled for mode and year of study, then in step two, tested the predictive value of D-N2S. Our model accounted for 50% of the variance in wellbeing, 56% of the variance in overall satisfaction with course and 62% of the variance in expected timeliness of completion. Closer inspection of the regression revealed that satisfaction of the need for relatedness and the need for competence in the doctorate were both significant independent predictors for all three outcomes. Additionally, the supervisor’s need support for autonomy, independently predicted wellbeing and their support for structure independently predicted satisfaction with the course. Year of study also remained an independent predictor in our model for satisfaction with the degree and confidence in timely completion, in that closer the student came to the end of their doctorate, the more negative their score.

Implications: Overall this study shows the value of using self-determination theory as a framework for understanding the doctoral experience. For positive student experience institutions need to ensure that their PGR students feel their needs for relatedness and competence are satisfied. A key role for the supervisor is to support autonomy and structure. This finding is consistent with research elsewhere in SDT applications for teaching; students need enough freedom of choice to feel a sense of autonomy in their work coupled with enough structure to avoid chaos and support their sense of competence. The limitations of correlational studies are considered as well as suggestions for future research.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (Eds.). (2004). Handbook of self-determination research. University Rochester Press.
Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature biotechnology, 36(3), 282–284.
Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868–879. doi: 10.1016/j.respol.2017.02.008
Niemiec, C. P., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory and research in Education, 7(2), 133-144.
Van der Linden, N., C. Devos, G. Boudrenghien, M. Frenay, A. Azzi, O. Klein, and B. Galand. 2018. “Gaining Insight Into Doctoral Persistence: Development and Validation of Doctorate-Related Need Support and Need Satisfaction Short Scales.” Learning and Individual Differences 65: 100–111.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBERA Conference 2023 Proceedings
Number of pages10
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 12 Jun 2023
EventBERA Conference 2023 -
Duration: 12 Sept 2023 → …


ConferenceBERA Conference 2023
Period12/09/23 → …


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