Authoring the identity of learner before doctor in the figured world of medical school

Evangeline Stubbing* (Corresponding Author), Esther Helmich, Jennifer Cleland

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Students enter the ‘figured world’ of medical school with preconceptions of what it means to be a doctor. The meeting of these early preconceptions and their newly developing identities can create emotional tensions. The aim of this study was to advance our understanding of how such tensions were experienced and managed. Using figured worlds as a theoretical framework we explored students’ interactions of preconceptions with their newly developing professional identities in their first year at medical school. Advancing our understanding of this phenomena provided new insights into the complex process of identity formation.

This was a qualitative study underpinned by a constructivist epistemology. We ran biannual focus groups with 23 first year students in one UK medical school. Data were recorded, transcribed and then template analysis used to undertake an inductive, iterative process of analysis until it was considered the template provided a detailed representation of the data.

Significant preconceptions associated with the identity of a doctor were ‘to help’ and ‘to be a leader’. These early preconceptions were in conflict with realities of the figured world of medical school creating the emotional tensions of ‘being unable to help’ and ‘lacking power’, with implications for interactions with patients. By the end of year one students’ negotiated tensions and ‘self-authored’ their identity as a learner as opposed to an imagined ‘as if’ identity of a doctor.

We revealed how preconceptions associated with becoming a doctor can conflict with a newly developing professional identity highlighting the importance of supporting students to embrace the formation of a ‘learner’ identity, a necessary part of the process of becoming a doctor.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)40-46
Number of pages7
JournalPerspectives on medical education
Issue number1
Early online date5 Jan 2018
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2018

Bibliographical note

We thank all the students who took part in this project, and Professor Rona Patey, the Director of the Institute of Education for Medical and Dental Sciences, University of Aberdeen, for her support of this project. We also thank Professor Lynn Monrouxe for helping ES get to grips with the complex literature on professional identity development, her suggestion of and guidance for longitudinal data collection.

This study is part of the corresponding authors (ES) doctoral program of research funded by the University of Aberdeen, and supervised by EH and JC.


  • Medical students
  • Qualitative research
  • Professional identity formation
  • Emotion
  • Figured worlds


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