Characterising multiple trajectories towards the reflexive PhD project within a neoliberalist landscape

Xiujuan SUN

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlespeer-review


Under the relentless neoliberalism, there is a growing claim that doctoral students have transformed into highly performative, enterprising, and self-reliant subjects in the current higher education landscape. Whilst this seems almost a truism to encapsulate the unprecedentedly competitive educational context in which the PhD is pursued, it is equally important to recognise the diversified profiles of doctoral individuals. Against this backdrop, the study draws upon Archer’s critical realist theory to conceptualise the heterogeneity and complexity of eighteen doctoral students’ experiences with/in the neoliberal university and academy. Using Archer’s reflexive modality as an inclusive framework, analysis has detected the positive linkage between participants’ preferable deployment of particular mode(s) of reflexivity and the prototypical way they steer their PhD trajectories taking a multiplicity of forms. As such, the study makes original contribution to existing literature in three aspects. First, in illuminating the differential concerns participants hold about the PhD pursuit, it suggests that the prevailing neoliberal forces do not invariably produce damaging impacts, nor are they inescapable for all candidates. Second, analysis highlights that whilst participants with a great clarity of value commitments and career goals at the beginning of their PhD can consistently translate their reflexivity into agentic action, this is not a commonplace experience. Third, the finding on participants’ practice of hybrid and shifting reflexive modes throws into relief the limits of Archer’s thesis, which tends to champion a fixed conception of reflexivity and downplay structural influences on the mode of reflexivity one employs. In view of these insights, the study culminates in pointing towards more promising lines of inquiry alongside presenting a set of practical implications. Copyright © 2023 The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature B.V.

Original languageEnglish
JournalHigher Education
Early online dateJun 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - Jun 2023


Sun, X. (2023). Characterising multiple trajectories towards the reflexive PhD project within a neoliberalist landscape. Higher Education. Advance online publication.


  • Neoliberalism
  • Doctoral education
  • Reflexivity
  • Agency
  • PhD trajectory
  • PG student publication


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