Postgraduate research students

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has dramatically changed the academic experience of postgraduate research (PGR) students.

These case studies highlight some of the practical ways in which universities, colleges, research organisations, higher education sector bodies and research funders have been supporting them.

These interventions have been developed at pace and have not yet been evaluated for effectiveness. Their inclusion is not intended to stipulate particular approaches or endorse the actions of specific institutions. They are offered in the spirit of sharing practice that others may find useful and applicable to their own contexts.

The Graduate School is responsible for the postgraduate experience at Imperial College London. As well as providing guidance on postgraduate education policy and practice, it offers more than 140 professional development opportunities to masters’ and research students.

In response to the coronavirus lockdown measures, the college is offering remote PhD viva examinations. To support staff and students taking part in such examinations, the Graduate School worked with others across the college to create good practice guidance.

The guidance covers information on supporting students through a remote examination, using technology confidently, pre-viva checklists and contingency planning.

King’s College London offers digital wellbeing resources for PGR students, including the PGR Wellbeing Toolkit and the Wellbeing Thesis (a collaborative initiative between King’s College, the University of Derby and Student Minds funded by the OfS and Research England).

Alongside existing provision, King’s is offering a series of new digital workshops focused on navigating change and uncertainty, dealing with stress, building resilience, and managing workloads. Sessions cover theory, practical tips, and small group discussions in virtual breakout rooms, offering a valuable chance for PGR students to connect and talk candidly about the struggles they may be facing.

To support supervisors, the Centre for Doctoral Studies, the Disability Service and the PGR academic lead ran a webinar outlining how to support students with disclosed or emerging mental health conditions, what to do in an emergency, and supervising virtually during the pandemic. Resources have also been made available online.

Queen Mary University of London’s Researcher Development team adapted its training provision for online delivery, including virtual writing courses and retreats to support continued research activity.

The team consulted with PhD students and research staff to develop additional courses addressing the challenges they face and the support they need to stay well, cope with uncertainty, and continue research activity under lockdown. Topics include:

  • keeping connected with colleagues
  • maintaining productivity
  • accessing research materials online
  • changes to the recruitment landscape
  • technological solutions.

The university’s provision has been adapted to include elements that relate to wellbeing and professional development, as well as research. This includes work on:

  • creativity
  • personal qualities
  • self-management
  • research management.

The university took a ‘multi-modal’ approach to supporting PGR mental health and wellbeing. To supplement online support services, staff have been holding ‘e-drop in’ sessions for students who are concerned about completing their research from home. Tips by students, for students, about how to adapt and cope have been published and shared.

For those with technology or bandwidth issues, and those who are weary of additional screen time, the university has been encouraging the use of telephone calls. The university has recognised that PhD study can be isolating and is sharing messages about maintaining community using any mode that is suitable and is safe.

The University of Exeter’s Researcher Development and Research Culture team has expanded its existing webinar programme to include additional sessions on topics such as writing, wellbeing and project management to provide guidance and support on continuing research remotely.

This includes a popular ‘Working from home: and keeping well’ webinar, co-developed and run between the Researcher Development and wellbeing teams. During this webinar PGR students were invited to share their experiences and frustrations, with one commenting that ‘Just the act of dispelling certain working myths and detrimental messages was so needed, and provided that extra sense of support,’ and that it was ‘exactly the conversation we needed to have’.

In addition to the webinar training programme, the university has moved its Supporting PGR Writing project entirely online, with academics and PGR students running twice daily ‘Shut up and write’ groups and full day writing retreats using videoconferencing tools. These sessions are intended to provide structure, productivity and community while PGR students work remotely.

The university has also launched a ‘Focus on…’ online panel series, featuring University of Exeter academics and researchers discussing a range of different research topics and activities including visualising data, podcasting, making videos about research, publishing a thesis as a book, tweeting, blogging and much more. These are live Q&A sessions that are then recorded and uploaded to the university’s virtual learning environment, and supported by follow-up resources including infographic summaries of the sessions.

The university’s normal community and professional development activities (such as its ‘Three-minute thesis’ competition and university-wide doctoral conference, as well as the full suite of skills and career training) are continuing as planned, but in virtual form.

Some activities are being delivered more frequently, in acknowledgement that researchers need increased contact and support. The university is holding more ‘writing retreat’ sessions and its bimonthly ‘Researcher Cafe’ is now taking place weekly. Virtual Institute of Directors Programme activities are available to entrepreneurially focused researchers. The doctoral college has also invested in Headspace licences to complement wellbeing services offered by the university, all still available virtually.

National and international researchers are supported through the ‘23 Things’ online course, which this year has researchers from UK institutions and New Zealand university partners. The course keeps researchers connected with and inspired by other researchers, while developing skills to help them promote themselves and their research.

The University of West London has moved its postgraduate research training online. Before remote working, research training was delivered by blended learning using a ‘flipped classroom’ approach. The blended approach required students to engage with modules from the Research Skills Master Programme produced by Epigeum before attending a related face-to-face workshop delivered by academic and research staff. 

While staff and students are working remotely, the university’s Graduate School is producing weekly briefings for students to direct their learning via the Epigeum Research Skills Master Programme. The previously face-to-face research workshops are delivered online via the university video conferencing systems. Additional support is provided through consolidation activities for students such as peer review, online surgeries and discussion boards. The move to online research training is complemented by regular online seminars where students and staff present and discuss their research. These activities (in combination with doctoral online supervision) enable staff and students to remain connected and also provide a way to identify students who require additional support.

As well as specific academic and pastoral support from the Graduate School team, the wider university offer for doctoral students includes an ongoing counselling service, student financial and visa advice, academic support for English as a second language, academic writing development from Level 7 to Level 8 with a Royal Literary Society Fellow, and bespoke support sessions for mathematics and statistics.

The University of York has developed a coronavirus webpage for PGR students that sets out procedures to accommodate changes in students’ capacity to complete their work.

For assessments, the university has built on its established, university-wide ‘annual reviews of progress’ for PhD students. Before lockdown, the reviews involved a panel meeting with the student, their supervisor and other staff members. To reduce burden during the pandemic, the university has temporarily adapted the annual progress review process for all research students with a progression deadline between 23 March and 31 October 2020.

Candidates deemed to have made satisfactory progress on the basis of evidence gathered over the last year will automatically progress to the next stage of their studies. Those about whom there were existing significant concerns prior to the coronavirus outbreak will have a progress review, modified to take account of lockdown restrictions. For consistency and to protect student interests, the progress reviews are chaired by the Dean of Graduate Research.

Resources

UKRI, Guidance for the research and innovation communities’.

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, supporting the assessment of postgraduate research students​​​​​.

Wellcome Trust, ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19): Information for grant applicants and grantholders’.

UKCGE, ‘COVID-19: Considerations for doctoral degrees guidance note’.

UKCGE, ‘Guide to online supervision’.

UKCGE, supporting UKCGE members through the pandemic.

Vitae, supporting Vitae members through the pandemic.

OfS, quality and standards guidance.

UK governmentguidance on working safely during coronavirus for labs and research facilities.

UKRI, written response to Women and Equalities Committee inquiry, ‘Unequal impact: Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the impact on people with protected characteristics’, to be published.

Published 19 June 2020

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