Academic research supervision: The unconscious role identity of a PhD student

Keywords: anxiety, containment, identity work, potential space, projection, role identity


An extensive body of knowledge exists concerning the experiences and personal characteristics of successful PhD students. However, the unconscious role behaviour of the PhD student in an Open Distance and e-Learning (ODeL) academic environment is less well explored. The aim of this article was to study and describe the unconscious role behaviour of a PhD student at a South African ODeL university. Data collection entailed the author reflecting on and writing an essay on his phenomenological PhD experiences and choosing the most appropriate vignettes for thematic analysis. The findings indicated high levels of free-floating and performance anxieties in the researcher’s unconscious existential and phenomenal roles, primarily emanating from conflicting projections and introjections about his competence and perceived incompetence as a PhD student. The feedback process manifested as a potential space as it became a precious social and psychological environment to hold and contain his transformational anxieties as a student. Practical implications are presented and recommendations suggested to students, supervisors and academic institutions, aimed at enhancing the supervisory relationship in the interest of increased higher degree research outputs.

Author Biography

A-P. Flotman, University of South Africa

Department of Industrial and Organisational Psychology, Associate Professor


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How to Cite
Flotman, A-P. 2021. “Academic Research Supervision: The Unconscious Role Identity of a PhD Student”. South African Journal of Higher Education 35 (6), 83-100.
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