Challenges and Stressors Faced by Female Doctoral Students

The following section presents the findings highlighting the experiences of the five doctoral students in their doctoral journey. The results were presented in the following thematic areas: academic, psychological, physiological, and relationship with faculty. Academic Challenges and Stressors:

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Most of them described their doctoral experience as positive though it was a little stressful. The nature of the doctoral program at the department of Workforce Education and Development shared some good and bad experiences. The lack of important academic skills were the main concern. Of most common skill they wanted to improve and needed support with is time management. The nature of doctoral education, requires a lot of time management as the courses are too heavy with assignments, content development, reading activities, and other writing activities. The other concerns were balancing school and family and as English is the second language, the international students will have to spend more time in reading and writing.

Stacy:              “It has been a good experience overall. The positive aspect of it was the relationships with people. I was able to get along with the people, students, and faculty and the staff. I found a very positive atmosphere.”

Keyla:              “I had multiple challenges, first challenge, is the balance between family and work. And the second is language, as English is my second language, reading articles and writing I need to spend more time reading and writing. The Third is I don’t have any background in workforce education and I have to learn a lot of basic knowledge about this area.”

Maria:              “I had problems coping with understanding the field because I had to change my field from humanities to workforce education and development.”

Another area of particular concern for female doctoral students, is how to manage both personal and professional lives. All students reported that supervisors provided little advice on how to manage potentially conflicting demands between their academic and family lives. These female students expressed less confidence in their ability to balance family and professional lives. They mentioned their multiple roles such as: taking care of children and parents, responsibility at work and being a part time doctoral student, as some of the conflicting roles of a woman.

Maria:              “I was afraid of the length of time a doctoral degree takes and the sacrifices I had to make to graduate. I have reduced my social life with friends and family because I do not have free time. The problem of trying to lead my family and be successful in my career is very challenging.”

Psychological Stress and Symptoms

These are concerns about emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing reported by the participants. Such concerns involve stress, lack of motivation isolation, or strains on social relationships. The most common psychological problem participants raised was stress that comes from financial issues, workload, time pressures, and being a mother. Lack of adequate funding to support their family and research was a major source of stress

Heather:          “By nature it is stressful because you have a lot of time studying your research interests and topics of interests, it will take a lot of time out of your hands, and once you start exploring it is like opening these doors in your brain, one thing leads to another. And certain things you need to adjust in class, these are the things I mean about open communication, it eases the stress. I’ve taken classes where it is impossible to talk to your teachers.”

Keyla:             “The most stressful is actually classwork/homework. Actually in class I enjoy the class but at home I don’t enjoy the work.”

Stacy:              “I think the negatives have been strongly related to couple of things: financial stress and worry because I am very dependent on an assistantship which I am lucky to have. Without that though I could not continue and complete the degree. I do not have any source of funding and I really need this assistantship to continue.”

Maria:              “I am a graduate assistant at the university and I have two children. I usually come home being tired and when I get home to do some cooking and assist my kids with their school work. Doing all these task makes me tired and neither do I have the energy nor the motivation to concentrate and study. This is my daily life. When I think about my doctoral study, I get stressed and lose home. But I really want to do it.”

When asked the most prevalent psychological symptoms faced, the most common responses were headaches, stomach aches, nightmares, fatigue, muscle soreness, and back aches.

Heather:          “Headaches, I get a lot of stomach aches because of stress and sometimes because of unfair grading in certain classes even the blood pressure goes up and down, I feel the fluctuation. I even get nightmares and I don’t remember how many times I’ve dreamt about my professor giving me a bad grade.”

Stacy:              It is not directly, but sometimes I sleep very late or a short and it makes me tired and uncomfortable. I do not get time to sleep. I also get back pain.


The most prevalent physiological symptoms expressed were anxiety, worry, irritable, sleep deprived, feeling edgy, and specifically lack of social support. Almost everyone answered lack of social support because they do not have their immediate family or friends here.

Heather:          “Anxiety interferes with our ability to think and our ability to solve problems and our ability to figure out our work because a lot of times you are overly stressed about a paper before an exam and because of which we end up failing”

Aliya:              “I feel anxious, worried, irritable at times, I am sleep deprived, fell edgy, feel                                down, and have nightmares at times, and definitely lack of social support because                         we do not have our family or friends here.”

All the participants reported that their unique role at home is a problem and consumes a lot of their time. These women also believe that they have equal rights and capacity as those of men. However, women are culturally bounded to assume additional responsibilities that are not done by men. These include every household responsibility, such as shopping, taking care of children and even producing money for additional expenses. Besides, women are expected to attend different social activities even if they are a student or worker. Even though their husbands are supportive, they do not share these tasks or have the skills to do so. In addition, the cultural role assigned to women by society is also raised as a challenge, where women are predominantly considered as care givers and handlers of every home chore. One of the participants was also concerned about adequately supporting her children financially and emotionally, as her doctoral journey required a lot of sacrifice on her and family time. Although having children and a spouse at home brought joy to these female students, they also felt torn at times between wanting to be with their families and feeling the need to work on their doctoral studies. One respondent went even further to suggest that university environments could be made more women friendly and the demand of parenting should not be ignored. One student clearly described the challenge of being a woman doctoral student as follows:

Heather:          “Different from males, we females are overburdened by house chores and other social life issues. When one is a mother, the duties are doubled as she, in addition to above mentioned home related activities, is expected to take care of her husband and children nutrition, clothing and schooling, etc. I know my male colleagues who are also studying at WED. They do many things in addition to their study to get more money. They can go to their office whenever they want to work on their dissertations. They don’t worry about the chores and children and other home related activities. When I try to compare myself, even though I have the capacity to do many things, I refrain from them as I have limited time to concentrate on my study. Even if I limited myself from other works which could have helped me get some more money, the time I have for my study is very much limited when compared to that of males.”

Relationship with Advisor and Faculty

All participants considered their advisor and faculty members as one of the most important factors shaping their experiences as doctoral students. Most students seemed satisfied with their advisors overall. Nonetheless, some noted concerns in the supervision process, which include: delay of feedback, unclear/unreadable feedback, inadequate guidance, and communication problems were among the common ones. Other concerns had to do with was the absence of supervision for a year which lead to no one being available to resolving concern. It became so severe that there was an issue that emerged in the team and they had to seek the help from outside the department.


            Keyla: “Yes, my advisor and faculty members are very helpful and mostly available”

Aliya: “The relationship with my advisor and faculty is good. Whenever we do meet they are supportive and warm. However, they tend to forget stud when we meet, but they are good. It has been quite positive.”

Heather: “They have been and really helpful. Mya advisor set a time line and I followed the timeline kept an eye on my grade every semester, he gave me feedback without any hesitation.”

Maria:  “I like my advisor and we have a good relationship.”


Keyla: “The advisor always gives me suggestions. However, at times I feel stressful because of communication issues and at times she is unclear about her expectations. Though she understands me well at times she lacks guidance and encouragement.”

Aliya: “I had some difficulties because most of the faculty members left in the middle of the course because of which I had to change my doctoral committee chair twice. Because of which I ended up being independent and I did a lot of it on my own.”

Maria: “The only challenge I had with him is that he takes a long time to give me feedback and I end up sending him multiple reminder emails, which once irritated him.”

Stacy: “We are learning a lot with the course of study; however, no one in the department discusses about professional development, I feel that there should be a course on it as we spend several years as doctoral students.”

Another concern regarding advisor and faculty was lack of appropriate guidance, reduction in the size of faculty, encouragement, and monitoring. One student had a supervisor that does not communicate regularly and did not show any interest in the work she was doing. In fact she was told that she is not having an assistantship for the following semester and she was hired on someone’s suggestion. In terms of similar kinds of support from their advisors and faculty, female doctoral students reported lower levels of support for such things as help with funding the research, encouragement and support for their career goals. In summary, although there were some challenges, most students were satisfied with their advisors and faculty. All students desired a supervisor who facilitated their professional development, who took interest in them and their work, who was considerate of their time and personal lives and who helped to keep them on track.


The study identified several areas of concern experienced by female international doctoral students and illuminated specific areas where change is needed. Accordingly, this study identified concerns surrounding: inadequate academic skills, psychological challenges and stress, physiological challenges and stress, and issues related to relationship with faculty, supervisor, and advisors. Moreover, being a mother, relationship problems, multiple roles at home and lack and lack of encouragement were raised as challenges specific to woman. raised as challenges specific to being a woman.

The participants considered their supervisors as one of the most important factors shaping their experiences as doctoral students and they seemed to be satisfied with their supervisors’ overall support. However, they raised important concerns with the quality and timeliness of feedback, guidance, encouragement and motivation on the side of their supervisor. Though there are a number of factors that facilitate successful completion of a doctoral study, most researchers agree that completing a doctoral study is a process that mainly depends on a close, working relationship between students and supervisors, in other words on the quality of research supervision (Grevholm, Persson & Wall, 2005; Lovitts, 2001; Styles & Radloff, 2001; Zainal, 2007). Thus, the effectiveness and quality of research supervision support doctoral students get from the supervisors is critical to their doctoral journey.

In line with many previous research (Brauer et al., 2003; Oswalt & Riddock, 2007; Toews et al.,1997) this study also pointed out stress, lack of motivation, feeling of isolation and lack of self-confidence as the most common psychological problems among all female doctoral students. Some research (Hodgson & Simoni, 1995; Mallinckrodt & Leong, 1992) has identified work and home related stress as a particular difficulty for women and female graduate students compared to their males. It appears clear that balancing personal and professional life is one in which students want and need more support and help.

Female doctoral students also reported specific challenges to women that relate with their multiple roles and cultural aspects that reduce females simply to care givers and responsible for handling all home chores, though they reported their husbands as supportive. Understanding and considering the varied mix of female doctoral students’ background with the goal of reducing anxiety and stress would likely result in improved doctoral student performance, as well as decrease attrition. Research (Castro et al., 2011; Johnson, Batia & Haun, 2008; Mouton, 2001; Stratton et al., 2006) has suggested that graduate students need adequate social support or networks to overcome the different academic and psychological problems they encounter in the course of their study.

Limitations and Implications

There are some limitations of the study. This study does not include the comparisons between the international students from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, as all the participants of the study are perceived as members of the international student community as a whole. In addition, the male is not explored for the same reason. Because the purpose of this research is to document and analyze the challenges and stressors experienced by female doctoral students, it focuses on the reflective stories gathered through the interview of a small sample of female international students. The sample of this study is not representative of all international graduate students in the United States, as convenient sampling technique was used. This, the results of the study are not intended to be generalized to the whole population of international students, even though the study may reveal some commonalities in experience. A further goal of this research could be conducing follow-up interviews in order to gain more insight about the international student experience on other topics related to challenges and stress, with the passage of time.

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Challenges And Stressors Faced By Female Doctoral Students. (2021, May 23). Retrieved December 8, 2022 , from

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