As you might have heard next month we’re hosting a higher education student mental health & wellbeing conference at the University of Leicester. As we have already taken a look at the wellbeing needs of undergraduates we thought it only fair we look at this issue through the lens of postgraduate students.
To find out more we spoke with experts including Karen Jackson, the University of Brighton’s Director of Student Services and Kelly Louise Preece, Researcher Development Manager at the University of Exeter.
We also spoke with John Turnpenny, Associate Dean for Postgraduate Research at the University of East Anglia’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities. John is also currently leading a new initiative called The Courage Project, which is focused on researching and piloting innovative approaches to support the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate research students. He’ll also be speaking at our conference on these issues – so book your tickets now!
The current situation
“The wellbeing of postgraduate research students is increasingly a topic of national concern, with frequent references in the press to ‘the PhD mental health crisis’,” says Kelly. Indeed, more than half of PhD students experience symptoms of psychological distress and one in three of them are at risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder, according to a study published last year. The survey found the prevalence of mental health issues in PhD students was higher than in the highly educated general population, highly educated employees and other university students.
Wellbeing issues facing postgraduate students
Juggling multiple roles
The academic environment can be highly pressurised and competitive with postgraduate students having to juggle research projects, writing up papers, teaching and networking. “Postgraduate researchers (PGRs) are both staff producing professional research, and students studying for a degree. This ambiguity can be difficult to navigate in institutions where teaching and research are governed very differently. Funding is also more difficult to obtain, and many PGRs are significantly older and have very different lives and needs to undergraduates,” says John.
“Academic research is rewarding, but highly pressured and highly competitive. Imposter syndrome is experienced by everyone from newly minted postgraduate research students to eminent Professors. This feeling of being an imposter in academia and it being ‘found out’ that you are not supposed to be here can have a significant impact on mental health and wellbeing,” says Kelly.
“Postgraduate research is a much more individual experience than being an undergraduate; much work is done alone and under your own initiative. Some people find that liberating, others trying,” says John. Kelly agrees and told us it can lead to isolation if left unchecked: “The needs of postgraduate research students differ from undergraduates due to the nature of their study. Working on individual, often self-managed projects, postgraduate research students are more likely to experience isolation.”
Uncertain career prospects
Postgraduate research and study is seen as a sure-fire way to start an academic career, but it doesn’t always work out. “Research from Vitae in 2011 showed that 3.5 years after graduation, just over 1 in 5 (22%) doctoral graduates are working in academia. There continues to be an imbalance between the number of students who aspire to an academic career, and the number of jobs in Higher Education,” says Kelly.
This can take its toll on wellbeing as many postgraduate research students believe that their work and skills have a limited value outside of the world of academia. “This combined with misconceptions from employers – for example, that academic researchers lack commercial awareness – presents challenges when entering the job market. Therefore, postgraduate research students need support to understand the applications of the knowledge and skills in industry, and articulate this clearly to potential employers,” says Kelly.
GSL Conference Speakers
Find out who will be speaking at our student wellbeing and mental health conference at the University of Leicester, 21st June 2018
How universities can help
Establish a sense of community
One way universities can address the specific needs of PGRs is to build a community of researchers, says John. “One that recognises differing contexts of subject, age, life experience, culture, but that offers both intellectual stimulation and social interaction in a meaningful way appropriate to the priorities and desires of the people,” he says.
Offer relevant workshops and services
At Exeter Kelly tells us they offer “access to workshops led by wellbeing practitioners on topics such as managing stress through our Researcher Development provision.” They are also “working with HR services to provide access to Care First, a 24/7 telephone counselling service.”
Provide career support
Kelly tells us that career support is a fundamental part of Exeter’s Researcher Development provision and they have dedicated a careers coach supporting their researchers to further their careers both in and outside academia. “Our Careers Coach Kate Foster facilitates workshops and webinars on topics such as Career Planning, Job Interview Techniques and CV’s and our postgraduate research students also have access to 1-2-1 support from our wider team of expert careers consultants. We also run a yearly career event, where we invite our doctoral alumni back to the university to share their career paths and stories,” says Kelly.
Make support accessible
Karen tells us offering a range of support is a must, but it needs to be accessible. “We work closely with our Doctoral College to ensure students can access support, and we will provide bespoke sessions for groups of students, as we would for undergraduates. We also provide support throughout the year and during evening times so that we can be accessible to the needs of certain students who can’t access support so readily during the day; this can suit postgraduates, mature students and students on placement,” she says.
Ask for feedback
It also pays to simply ask more questions to find out if the support you are delivering is accessible and beneficial. “We are planning to continue liaising with postgraduate student representatives in order to ensure we are delivering the right support and to ensure they are aware of how to access it,” says Karen.
Postgraduate students have a lot on their plates. In many cases they are juggling research projects, writing, teaching and networking and trying to balance that with their life outside of academia too. They may also be grappling with isolation, imposter syndrome and concerns about their future career prospects. There are several steps universities can take to help support their postgraduate students and improve their wellbeing. Our experts have mentioned a range of excellent ideas including building a strong community, offering relevant workshops and providing career support. These efforts must be underpinned by ensuring they are accessible for busy postgraduate students. And if in doubt, ask them what you can do to help.
Find out more about PGR and student wellbeing on the 21st June 2018: Global Student Living Conference