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Exploring the PhD Student Journey Using a Perceived Personal Advantage (PPA) Perspective

  • School: Nottingham Business School
  • Starting: 2021
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / International student (non-EU) / Self-funded


Much attention has been paid recently to the university experience, not least in the respect of ‘value’ as perceived, and co-created, by students (e.g. Dziewanowska, 2017; Ledden and Kalafatis, 2010; Woodall, Hiller and Resnick, 2014). However, the majority of this work has centred on undergraduate students, with only a small proportion of extant research focused on those working for a PhD. Value is a highly complex/conceptually elusive phenomenon subject to a range of definitions and interpretations (references), yet perceptions of value are considered vital in understanding the extent to which students are satisfied, and whether they will recommend their experience to others (Dollinger, Lodge and Coates, 2018). As such, this study takes the perspective of student-as-prosumer, or co-producer (e.g. McCulloch, 2009), a learner who concurrently consumes and produces the ‘service’ they experience.

The aim of this study is to determine the value perceived by PhD students-as-prosumers in a learning environment, using a very particular, yet thus far under-developed, interpretation of value called ‘Perceived Personal Advantage’ (PPA: see Hiller and Woodall, 2019; Woodall, Rosborough and Harvey, 2018).  This provides for a compound perspective on value that has both longitudinal and cross-sectional elements, and also combines various value meanings.  This interpretation is strongly influenced by the work of American pragmatist John Dewey (e.g. Dewey, 1939), and one of the aims of this project will be to help refine and define the nature and scope of PPA with a view to helping establish this is an academically credible construct.

In order to complete this study three very specific outputs will need to be developed.  The first is the identification/specification of the PhD experience actor network, and this will likely best be understood in the context of a social theory (e.g. Assemblage theory, see DeLanda, 2016; Actor Network Theory, see Latour, 2005).  These encompass a range of ideas, not least that related to the generalised symmetry of human and material actors (Callon, 1986), but this research will focus also on the idea of the individual agent as actor network, continuously in flux as both reference and referent – a product of both how they see theirselves and how they are perceived by others (Elder-Vass, 2015).  The second is producing a map of the ‘personal advantage’ perceived throughout and across the student journey, from registration to graduation, noting also the range of student identities likely to be present in that constituency.  The third output from the project will evolve from insights derived from both empirical elements of the study which should be used to elaborate, synthesise and configure the concept of PPA.  This exists presently as fragments in a number of contributing sources (see earlier) and this work will respond to a recent call (Belk and Sobh, 2019) for more theory development in consumer/culture focused contexts.


A recently completed Nottingham Business School PhD project utilised immersive ethnography as a means of tracing the relationships between student engagement and value co-creation in an undergraduate student context.  Given the insights derived from this study, and a wider appreciation within the NBS Marketing Division of the benefits of ethnography, this same methodology will be applied within the doctoral context.  Given combined intrinsic/extrinsic nature of PPA it is envisaged that this will combine elements of both personal (autoethnographic) and collective (group ethnographic) experiences.


Belk, R., & Sobh, R. (2018). No assemblage required: On pursuing original consumer culture theory. Marketing Theory,

Callon, Michel. 1986. “The Sociology of an Actor-Network: The Case of the Electric Vehicle." In Mapping the Dynamics of Science and Technology: Sociology of Science in the Real World, edited by Michael Callon, John Law and Arie Rip, 19-34.  London: MacMillan Press.

DeLanda, M. (2016). Assemblage Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Dewey, J. (1939). ‘Theory of Valuation’. International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, 2(4), 1-66.

Dollinger, M., Lodge, J., & Coates, H. (2018). Co-creation in higher education: towards a conceptual model. Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, 28(2), 210-231.

Dziewanowska, K. (2017). Value types in higher education–students’ perspective. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 39(3), 235-246.

Elder-Vass, D. (2015). Disassembling actor-network theory. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 45(1), 100-121.

Hiller, A., & Woodall, T. (2019). Everything Flows: A pragmatist perspective of trade-offs and value in ethical consumption. Journal of Business Ethics, 157(4), 893-912.

Ledden, L., & Kalafatis, S. P. (2010). The impact of time on perceptions of educational value. International Journal of Public Sector Management, 23(2), 141-157.

Latour, B. (2005) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University
McCulloch, A. (2009). The student as co‐producer: learning from public administration about the student–university relationship. Studies in higher education, 34(2), 171-183.

Woodall, T., Hiller, A., & Resnick, S. (2014). Making sense of higher education: students as consumers and the value of the university experience. Studies in Higher Education, 39(1), 48-67.

Woodall, T., Rosborough, J., & Harvey, J. (2018). Proposal, project, practice, pause: Developing a framework for evaluating smart domestic product engagement. AMS Review, 8(1-2), 58-74.


Doctor Tony Woodall

Entry qualifications

An applicant for admission to read for a PhD should normally hold a first or upper second class honours degree of a UK university or an equivalent qualification, or a lower second class honours degree with a Master's degree at Merit level of a UK university or an equivalent qualification.

International students will also need to meet the English language requirements - IELTS 6.5 (with minimum sub-scores of 6.0). Applicants who have taken a higher degree at a UK university are normally exempt from the English language requirements. A research proposal (between 1,000 and a maximum of 2,000 words) must be submitted as part of the application.

For more information please visit the NTU Doctoral School – Research Degrees webpages.

How to apply

Applications are accepted all year round.

For a step-by-step guide and to make an application, please visit our how to apply page.

Fees and funding

This is a self-funded PhD opportunity.

Guidance and support

Further information on guidance and support can be found on this page.

Still need help?

Tony Woodall