Degree Date


Document Type

Dissertation - Public Access

Degree Name

Ed.D. Doctor of Education

Academic Discipline

Higher Education Leadership

First Advisor

Dr. Karen O'Donnell

Second Advisor

Dr. BettyJo Bouchey

Third Advisor

Dr. Brian Hamluk


Approximately 24% of the college population is comprised on first-generation students, yet they continue to deal with significant challenges when completing their degrees. Research has been done on first-generation student characteristics, challenges, and existing support programs; however, their personal evolution and success in academic achievement and career development once support mechanisms are in place has not been adequately studied. This qualitative study utilized a transcendental phenomenological research design to explore the influence of purpose on degree completion and career advancement of first-generation doctoral students. The study examined the experiences of 14 first-generation doctoral students to find qualities that led to a strong sense of purpose for degree completion and career advancement. The goal of this study was to research how first-generation doctoral students embrace purpose as a resource for achieving educational goals and career advancement. Careful attention was taken to preserve the integrity of self-determination theory (SDT), which was the theoretical framework used to examine the role purpose played in degree completion and career advancement. A major finding in the study was that all participants had a different definition of purpose, which translated into three meaning making units (design, direction, and development) that participants used to focus their attitudes and behaviors toward their goals. When it came time to leverage that sense of purpose, all participants engaged in meaning making to strengthen their resolve to complete their degrees and career choices. Student development professionals could innovate new ways to incorporate the development of purpose in the learning experience by creating a community of purpose where first-generation doctoral students could synthesize their career interests with a strong sense of purpose.