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Thesis defences

PhD Oral Exam - Kathryn Mulvihill, Psychology

A Self-Determination Theory Perspective on Wellbeing in the Transition from University: Trait Autonomy and Basic Psychological Need Satisfaction in Graduates’ Goal Pursuits, Past and Present

Friday, August 13, 2021 (all day)

This event is free


School of Graduate Studies


Daniela Ferrer



When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.

Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.


This research aims to identify determinants of wellbeing in the transition from university, a challenging lifespan transition with long-term implications for adult development. We applied self-determination theory, a theory of motivation, wellbeing, and optimal development, to propose an integrative model of wellbeing during this transition. This model predicts that trajectories of wellbeing should reflect the extent to which social environments encountered during the transition support vs. thwart graduates’ basic psychological needs, the extent to which graduates’ dispositional tendencies catalyze processes that facilitate vs. undermine need satisfaction, and the extent to which need-relevant qualities of social environments and graduates’ need-relevant dispositional tendencies influence one another across the transition. We tested this model by investigating whether trait autonomy, a dispositional factor associated with need satisfaction and wellbeing within SDT, promotes graduates’ wellbeing by facilitating need satisfaction though goal pursuits, past and present. We examined this overarching hypothesis across two analyses of longitudinal data collected from graduates transitioning from a large, public university in Québec. Study 1 investigated whether trait autonomy promotes wellbeing by catalyzing need-satisfying processes of striving for post-graduation goals. Results confirmed that higher levels of trait autonomy predicted more self-concordant striving processes and, through them, increases in graduates’ life satisfaction across the transition from university. Study 2 investigated whether trait autonomy might also promote wellbeing by providing graduates with need-satisfying memories of past striving. We tested this hypothesis in relation to a single memory – that of facing an unattainable goal while in university – and two distinct, but conceptually related memory pathways – (i) need satisfaction associated with unconscious activation of episodic memories and (ii) need-satisfying themes of growth in narratives consciously constructed from these memories. The results confirmed our hypothesis, but mainly through the first memory pathway, raising theoretical and methodological issues for future research. Together, findings constitute the first empirical evidence for an integrative, SDT-based model of wellbeing in the transition from university, make theoretical contributions to SDT and other frameworks (i.e., the self-concordance model, the theory of episodic memory need satisfaction, and the theory of narrative identity), raise intriguing questions for future research, and identify promising approaches to intervention to support the wellbeing of graduates during this key transition.

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