Catalyst fund: Supporting mental health and wellbeing for postgraduate research students

To support the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate research (PGR) students, we worked with Research England to deliver 17 projects, with a combined £1.5 million investment.

The projects started in March 2018 and concluded in January 2020.

Resources

Resources for the programme have been grouped using the four domains set out in Universities UK's Stepchange: Mentally Healthy Universities framework - learn, live, support and work.

These resources look at the way learning is designed and structured, and how this can support postgraduate research students' mental health.

  • University College London: ADAPT to Thrive website
    The website for the ADAPT to Thrive programme of events and resources. The site includes videos from researchers at different stages in their careers, exploring how they have learned from failure. See the ADAPT to Thrive website
  • University of Derby: The Wellbeing Thesis website
    A collection of resources to support postgraduate research students with their mental wellbeing at different stages of their research. See the Wellbeing Thesis website
  • University of East Anglia: Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences PGR placement case study
    A description of the Bitesize PhD lunchtime seminar series run by postgraduate researchers to give peers the opportunity to network and share their research. See the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences PGR placement case study
  • University of East Anglia: Norwich Bioscience Institutes PGR placement case study
    A description of work by a postgraduate researcher to develop a survey examining attitudes toward research culture and community at Norwich Bioscience Institutes and develop an event series to build community through knowledge exchange. See the Norwich Bioscience Institutes PGR placement case study
  • University of East Anglia: Faculty of Science PGR placement case study 
    A description of work undertaken by a postgraduate researcher to explore factors affecting mental health and wellbeing and how these are dealt with by supervisors and the university. See the Faculty of Science PGR placement case study
  • University of East Anglia: Faculty of Social Sciences PGR placement case study
    A description of workshops designed and run by a postgraduate researcher to explore publication skills and what research culture means to postgraduate research students. See the Faculty of Social Sciences PGR placement case study
  • University of East Anglia: Faculty of Arts and Humanities PGR placement case study
    A description of work undertaken by a postgraduate researcher to explore the evidence around positive working environments, what workspace means to research students, and how these findings might inform future decisions on space allocation. See the Faculty of Arts and Humanities PGR placement case study
  • University of East Anglia: University of Suffolk PGR placement case study 
    A description of a programme of work undertaken by a postgraduate researcher to develop a research culture and community among postgraduate research students. See the University of Suffolk PGR placement case study
  • University of East Anglia: Workshop to help overcome barriers to effective support case study
    A description of a workshop asking postgraduate research students and staff to share their experiences and suggestions to address the question 'What stops universities supporting PGR mental health and wellbeing effectively?' See the workshop to help overcome barriers to effective support case study
  • University of East Anglia: Courage Festival public statement case study
    A resource setting out the recommendations that have developed from the Courage project. See the Courage Festival public statement case study
  • University of East Anglia: Literature review
    A rapid review of literature on supporting the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate researchers. See the literature review
  • University of East Anglia: Literature review summary
    A summary of the rapid review of literature on supporting the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate researchers. See the literature review summary
  • University of Oxford: Research report
    A report including a literature review and information on research undertaken in relation to the Peer Support Programme for postgraduate research students. Read the research report
  • University of Plymouth: The Researcher Toolkit 
    A series of workshops designed and delivered by postgraduate researchers. See the Researcher Toolkit
  • University of Westminster: Wellbeing When Writing training materials
    A collection of resources to support providers who wish to develop workshops to support research students with writing skills relevant to different stages of their research, with the aim of reducing writing-related stress and anxiety. See the Wellbeing When Writing training materials

These resources look at ways to make university settings healthy, through healthy cultures, environments, communities and leadership.

  • Durham University: Supervision training modules
    Training resources for supervisors and supervisees to support understanding of mental health difficulties, how to recognise them, and how they may affect the supervisory relationship. Read more about the project on Durham University's website
  • University of East Anglia: The Lakeside View PGR blog
    A description of the aims and outcomes of a blog written by and for postgraduate research students. See the Lakeside View case study
  • University of East Anglia: Walk and Talk case study
    A description of a programme of walks to support postgraduate research students in undertaking low-commitment physical activity while discussing topics relevant to postgraduate research and wellbeing. See the Walk and Talk case study
  • University of East Anglia: PhDiggers and UEA Silent Space case study
    A description of a project combining the establishment of a Silent Space in a campus garden with ongoing allotment work carried out by postgraduate research students. See the PHDiggers and UEA Silent Space case study
  • University of East Anglia: PGRunners case study
    A description of a low-commitment running group for postgraduate research students. See the PGRunners case study
  • University of East Anglia: Mental health impact assessment case study 
    A description of the development of a system for assessing new policies and processes for their potential impact on the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate research students and staff. See the mental health impact assessment case study
  • University of Liverpool: Peer ambassadors promotional video
    A video of peer ambassadors explaining the support they offer for wellbeing. Watch the peer ambassadors video
  • University of Manchester: PGR transitions student resource
    A resource aimed at new PGR students to guide them through the transition to postgraduate study, including a focus on their mental health and wellbeing. See the PGR transitions student resource
  • University of Sussex: 'Mental health during your PhD' podcast episode
    A podcast episode focusing on advice for doctoral students on caring for their mental health, including personal experiences and protective factors. Listen to the podcast episode
  • University of Sussex: Self-care leaflet
    A leaflet for postgraduate students suggesting different strategies for self-care. See the self-care leaflet
  • University of Sussex: Peer support group implementation guide
    A guide for providers interested in establishing a programme of video call support groups for doctoral researchers. See the peer support group implementation guide
  • University of Sussex: 'Looking after yourself during the COVID-19 lockdown' workshop slides
    Presentation materials from a workshop for postgraduate researchers on caring for their mental health during the lockdown resulting from coronavirus (COVID-19). See the 'Looking after yourself during the COVID-19 lockdown' workshop slides
  • University of Sussex: Personal, social and relational predictors of UK postgraduate researcher mental health problems report
    A report exploring the personal, social and relational predictors of UK postgraduate researcher mental health problems and practice implications. See the personal, social and relational predictors of UK postgraduate researcher mental health problems report
  • Queen Mary University of London: Training sessions for PhD students
    Together with the Charlie Waller Trust, the university has developed three training sessions for PhD students in their first, second and third years to help them manage emotional pressures and to highlight that this is as important as academic skills training in navigating the PhD journey successfully. 

These resources look at the accessibility and effectiveness of mental health support services provided by institutions, and links into external NHS and care services. 

  • University of East Anglia: Courage project website
    The website for the work of the Courage project, including activity resources, research reports, and details on the programme. See the Courage project website
  • University of East Anglia: PGR Mental Health and Wellbeing Coordinator case study
    A description of the establishment of a PGR Mental Health and Wellbeing coordinator role with responsibility for a range of activities in this area. See the PGR Mental Health and Wellbeing Coordinator case study
  • University of East Anglia: Emotional intelligence training case study 
    A description of emotional intelligence workshops delivered for postgraduate research students as part of their personal and professional development. See the emotional intelligence training case study
  • University of East Anglia: Action learning case study
    A description of action learning training for postgraduate research students to encourage peer support and learning as part of their personal and professional development. See the action learning case study
  • University of East Anglia: Yoga for the mind case study 
    A description of a course on yoga and mindfulness techniques as tools for promoting wellbeing during the research process as part of personal and professional development. See the yoga for the mind case study
  • University of East Anglia: Mental Health First Aid case study
    A description of Mental Health First Aid training provision for postgraduate research students as part of their personal and professional development. See the Mental Health First Aid case study
  • University of East Anglia: Student Services sessions case study
    A description of sessions run by Student Services in response to common areas of concern for postgraduate research students. Topics include psychological flexibility, meditation techniques, and responding to failure. See the Student Services case study
  • University of East Anglia: Courage Festival case study
    A description of a festival to culminate and share the work of the Courage project, with a focus on public engagement. See the Courage Festival case study
  • University of Liverpool: Campus wellbeing map
    A map of key locations on campus for wellbeing, including support services. See the campus wellbeing map
  • University of Liverpool: Pin It or Bin It app
    An app to support in determining which experiences and memories to hold onto and which to let go of, including how these choices will benefit personal wellbeing. Download the Pin It or Bin It app from Google Play
  • University of Liverpool: Catch It app
    An app to support in tracking moods to help users better understand their own wellbeing. Download the Catch It app from Google Play
  • University of Liverpool: Technician report
    A report on the role of technical staff in supporting student mental health and wellbeing. See the technician report
  • The University of Manchester: Awareness presentation for non-academic staff
    An educational resource for non-academic staff, supporting their awareness of the nature of PGR work as opposed to taught programmes and the challenges that may be faced by students. See the awareness presentation
  • The University of the West of England, Bristol: Self-help Anxiety Management (SAM) app
    A general-purpose wellbeing app with specialised content available for specific PGR communities through a subscription to the institutional package. 

These resources look at bringing staff and student mental health together, through strategy, interventions, training and support.

  • Durham University: Supervision, wellbeing and mental health of doctoral students training modules
    A light touch review of literature on wellbeing and mental health of doctoral students, including a focus on supervisory relationships. Read more about the project on Durham University's website
  • University of East Anglia: Bullet journaling case study
    A description of work piloting bullet journaling as a tool for postgraduate research students in managing their time mindfully, with the aim of strengthening wellbeing and resilience. See the bullet journaling case study
  • University of East Anglia: Wellbeing content for research supervisor development
    A description of work to develop training for supervisors on supporting the wellbeing of their students as part of supervisor professional development. See the wellbeing content for research supervisor development
  • University of East Anglia: Supervisor support package case study
    A description of the development of resources, workshops, and measures to support supervisors in understanding mental health and wellbeing and how to support this for their supervisees. See the supervisor support package case study
  • University of East Anglia: 'Postgraduate research supervision and examination' module case study
    A description of the development of a module on the supervisory relationship as part of the MA in Higher Education Practice programme, which is undertaken at least in part by all academic staff. See the 'postgraduate research supervision and examination' module case study
  • University of East Anglia: Associate tutor network case study
    A description of the development of a network for postgraduate research students employed as associate tutors to share their experiences and discuss topics particularly relevant to their roles as associate tutors. See the associate tutor network case study
  • University of Portsmouth: Case studies for supervisors
    A collection of case studies prompting supervisors to consider appropriate responses when supporting postgraduate researcher mental health. See the case studies for supervisors
  • University of Portsmouth: 'How can supervisors support the mental health of doctoral researchers?' video
    A video of current postgraduate researchers discussing suggestions for supervisors on supporting the mental health of their supervisees. Watch the video on how supervisors can support the mental health of doctoral researchers
  • Queen Mary University of London: Workshop for supervisors
    Together with the Charlie Waller Trust, the university has developed a workshop for supervisors that includes guidance on recognising signs of poor mental health, practical advice on talking and listening to students in crisis and highlights the importance of caring for your own mental wellbeing as a supervisor. PGR mental health - supervisor training

Details of funded projects

The study explored the personal challenges that postgraduate research (PGR) degree students face during their studies and sought to reveal those factors which may support, and which may impact negatively, on their welfare.

The study also sought to:

  • understand what PGR students’ expectations are of the demands of study prior to, and during, enrolling
  • understand what information would have helped them to make the transition to minimise impact upon their wellbeing
  • clarify the nature and degree of organisational, supervisory and personal support mechanisms that may help PGR students to progress with their studies whilst maintaining their mental health and wellbeing.

PGR Connect: A peer support initiative to promote connectivity and mental wellbeing for the postgraduate researcher community at the University of Bradford.

The key focus of PGR Connect was to develop an integrated and sustainable approach to PGR mental wellbeing by aligning a peer support mental wellbeing initiative with core teaching and learning strategies and the researcher development framework.

It focused on building peer support networks amongst researchers to support social connection and foster a sense of belonging. Bespoke training for peer facilitators ensured the model remained truly peer-led and it was strengthened by an additional focus on fostering engagement across the whole researcher community.

Collaboration and consultation with researchers and key support services including counselling and academic skills liaison enabled responsive wellbeing interventions to be designed and delivered. These have been embedded into the researcher induction and training programmes promoting an early intervention approach that is contributing to a cultural shift and a growing ethos of mental wellness within the research community.

Social media hashtag: #PGRConnect

The Wellbeing Thesis: Surviving to thriving on your PhD: This project provides a national, open access web-resource that takes a prevention and early intervention approach to support PGR student wellbeing via a partnership between the University of Derby, King’s College London (KCL) and Student Minds.

Aiming to bridge the current gap in need the website provides proactive, psychoeducational resources considering the whole PGR experience to support positive cultural change towards good mental health.

Co-produced with PGR students at Derby and KCL the project used the expertise of all partners involved in creating effective, evidence-based psychoeducational interventions to improve mental wellbeing. Qualitative and quantitative data analysis was collected to evaluate.

Learning from the project will be consolidated into journal articles and a national report will be shared across the sector and presented at relevant conferences.

Project website: thewellbeingthesis.org.uk

Social media hashtag: #thewellbeingthesis

This project focused on the role of the supervisory relationship. The training resource developed will help both supervisors and their supervisees.

The aims of the project were to:

  • identify and address mental health needs within the supervisory relationship to promote early intervention
  • recognise the specific role of supervisors in supporting mental health and wellbeing, and identify the limits of that relationship for resolving wider mental health difficulties
  • prevent the development or exacerbation of mental health symptoms by identifying the helpful and unhelpful relationship patterns that can emerge in supervision.

The finished programme will be available nationally, across the higher education sector. The project was a joint effort between Durham University and three Doctoral Training Partnerships - NINE, Northern Bridge and IAPETUS. Durham Students' Union supported the project and postgraduate research students were on the Project Reference Group.

Project website: https://www.dur.ac.uk/counselling.service/catalystproject/

The 'Courage' project: To support prevention of, early intervention in, and cultural change around mental health and wellbeing problems among PGR students.

The 'Courage' project researched and piloted innovative approaches to support the mental health and wellbeing of PGR students. It was a partnership between the University of East Anglia, UEA Student Union, University of Suffolk and Norwich Bioscience Institutes.

The project was inspired by UEA Student Union's Honesty Project (2015-16), which found 77 per cent of respondents had suffered stress whilst studying, while nearly half experienced isolation and loneliness.

The Courage project built on insights as to how these problems might be addressed. With these in mind, the project was formed of eight 'strands', led by both students and staff. They are improving self-resilience and institutional practices, informed by academic research, and communicating findings across the sector.

Project website: https://www.uea.su/postgraduate/courage/

Blog: Courageous conversations – giving voice to PGRs https://www.uea.su/blogs/blog/lakesideview/

This project piloted a multi-layered training and development framework developing targeted interventions for stakeholders with an interest in PGR students' wellbeing.

After running the Vitae ‘Wellbeing of doctoral research’ questionnaire locally, they introduced a Peer Wellbeing Ambassador scheme offering bespoke training and support to those taking on the role.

Mental health and wellbeing training has been added to the Postgraduate Certificate Academic Practice to be completed by all new academic staff and online training modules were developed for academic supervisors and those in other student facing roles.

Collaborating with key external partners (Science Council’s Technician Commitment and learned societies) a sector wide survey to technical staff shone a light on the important pastoral support they offer to students.

Piloted interventions will be rolled out across the university and shared across the sector to have a positive impact on improving PGR students' mental health and wellbeing.

Project website: https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/integrative-biology/postgraduate-study/happy-and-healthy-phd/

The aim of this project was to better understand wellbeing and mental health issues from a PGR student perspective and improve and tailor provision, support, and resources for the PGR community at the University of Manchester.

The project was coordinated by the Graduate Education Team and involved academics, colleagues from student support, researcher development, the library, the counselling service, University of Manchester Students’ Union, and PGR representatives.

Project website: https://sites.manchester.ac.uk/pgrwellbeing/

Twitter: @PGRwellbeingUoM

The PGR Wellbeing4All project has a specific focus on equality, diversity and inclusion, and explored the potentially unique factors that impact the mental health and wellbeing of individuals from diverse backgrounds when undertaking a PGR degree.

In addition, the project investigated the importance of the supervisor relationship in the context of supporting the mental health of students from diverse groups.

The findings from the research were used to inform the development fully inclusive strategies, policies, training, and initiatives that support the mental health and wellbeing of PGR students at Newcastle University, and to share learning across the higher education sector.

Social media hashtags: #PGRCommUNITY #PGRWellbeing4All

This project focused on increasing peer support training for PGR students at The University of Oxford.

The Peer Support Programme at the University of Oxford was started in the 1990s. It has historically been more present in colleges (34 currently) and has greater involvement with undergraduate students than PGR students. This project aimed to improve inclusion of departments and PGR student representation.

Evidence suggested that students might be more likely to approach a peer for support than a more senior individual or those further up in a hierarchy in the first instance. Seeking support from senior staff might also bring feelings of shame, guilt, doubt or fear around perceptions of competency, performance or ability. Seeking support from peers can lower these barriers.

The training was enhanced for PGR audiences after consultations with PGR students and staff. The training content was modified to include PGR themes and issues and the timing of the training was also altered to maximise PGR student attendance.

The Peer Support for Postgraduate Research Student Wellbeing project at the University of Plymouth sees PGR students in at least the second year of their PhD deliver wellbeing workshops to new PGR students.

Workshop Leaders received 12 hours of induction training in mental health awareness and had the option to complete a Mental Health First Aid qualification. They were trained to deliver five workshops, badged as Researcher Development Sessions to avoid stigma around accessing mental health support. The workshops covered topics such as fostering a positive mental attitude and how self-care leads to success.

The project took a prevention-rather-than-cure approach. Workshops promoted good working practice, increasing resilience, and reducing negative thinking. They promoted mental health literacy by increasing students’ awareness and reflection, enabling early, self-identification of issues, and providing the tools to take action before problems escalate. The project highlighted the idea that peer delivery is key to facilitate networks of support and reduce stigma.

Project website: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/student-life/your-studies/research-degrees/toolkit

The University of Portsmouth project focused on increasing mental health literacy and social support across PGR programmes.

The project built on previous research that suggests that increased knowledge about mental health increases the likelihood that PGR students will seek help if they need it, and that supervisors can take the appropriate actions to support students. The project embedded mental health and wellbeing in induction and supervisor training, underpinned by online resources that are tailored to the specific needs of PGR students.

They also developed action learning sets, linked to researcher development training, which will provide opportunities for social interactions and networking across programmes and departments.

Project website: https://www.port.ac.uk/research/research-projects/postgraduate-wellbeing

Twitter: @PgrWellbeing

Blog: Mid point update: http://micehub.port.ac.uk/pgr-wellbeing-mid-project-update/

This project involved:

  • introducing emotional resilience and resourcefulness sessions during PhD induction and annual cohort days
  • expanding the existing ‘Survive and Thrive’ four-part training programme
  • a weekly support group for PGR students, facilitated by a counsellor and a researcher developer. The group is available to PGR students who need support with personal and emotional issues that can obstruct academic progress, including those with a pre-existing or emerging mental health disorder/problems or mental distress
  • delivering a PGR wellbeing campaign and events across the five dimensions of wellness, addressing issues like social isolation, toxic sub-cultures of overwork and ableism, and promoting a culture of support
  • developing a new workshop, ‘Supporting mental health and wellbeing in PGRs: a guidance for supervisors’, and other resources for supervisors to cover pastoral support.

ADAPT is a programme of preventative mental wellbeing support for postgraduate research students that focuses on building resilience.

ADAPT was developed by the UCL Academic Careers Office (ACO) to support the clinical academic community in the UCL School of Life and Medical Sciences. The programme has been expanded to include nonclinical students in related disciplines (life and physical sciences) and with partner institutions – the NIHR Academy and the University of Nottingham.

All participants in ADAPT to Grow and ADAPT Together were surveyed before, immediately after and six months after the intervention. Attendees of ADAPT to Thrive completed feedback surveys after the event to identify positive actions inspired by the event. The resulting learning will be published in a peer-reviewed journal and will inform the development of a template that other institutions can use to replicate ADAPT locally.

The ADAPT programme has benefited from meaningful input from PGR students throughout its development and implementation. PGR students were engaged through one-on-one conversations, focus groups, surveys and conferences. This deep engagement with the community continues alongside the development of the programme.

Project website: https://www.adapttothrive.co.uk/

Social media hashtags: #ADAPTtoThrive #FailtoThrive

The University of Sussex project aimed to develop an evidence-based model for the higher education sector to address the challenge of doctoral researcher mental health.

With a particular focus on prevention and early intervention, the project was organised into five strands, overseen by a project board with representation from academic faculties, postdoctoral researchers, doctoral students and professional services staff.

With limited existing research, the mixed methods research sought to improve understandings of the mental health needs of doctoral researchers studying in the UK, and the factors that may influence and be influenced by doctoral researcher mental health.

The findings fed into:

  • the development of supervisor and staff training
  • resources to enhance doctoral researcher awareness of mental health and the support on offer both within and beyond the university
  • an exploration of ways to improve referral and access to evidence-based psychological therapies.

Twitter: @SMHPsussex

Publications:

Understanding the mental health of doctoral researchers: a mixed methods systematic review with meta-analysis and meta-synthesis

https://systematicreviewsjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13643-020-01443-1

Blog: Global Studies Wellbeing PhD Workshops https://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/global/2019/05/19/global-studies-wellbeing-workshops/

PROPS: Postgraduate Researcher Online Psychoeducation and Support. PROPS aimed to develop a digitally-enabled support environment for postgraduate research students.

The project developed a new version of the university's existing anxiety management app (SAM), which enables the delivery of tailored and personalised content to researchers. The app provides self-help, information and advice around the common challenges that students encounter which, if left unchecked, have the potential to adversely affect mental health and wellbeing.

The app provides access to online spaces where PGR students can interact with one another to provide a peer support network. In addition, it provides tools to connect PGRs with academic and wellbeing support services for monitoring and to enable earlier intervention in cases of concern.

Drawing on the established links between personality and subjective wellbeing, ‘Potential Advantage’ explored whether students experience a forecasting error during the selection of a wellbeing activity, thereby choosing an activity which fits their personality, rather than a less ‘fitting’ and more uncomfortable choice which may be more beneficial for their mental health and wellbeing.

Participants completed online personality, wellbeing and mental health questionnaires before and after involvement each academic term. The project evaluated whether participants experienced changes in subjective wellbeing and mental health over time and the impact of their involvement in particular activities.

Participants’ understanding of wellbeing, barriers and facilitators to engaging in wellbeing support and their experience of taking part in their chosen or allocated activity were explored via one-to-one interviews.

Project website: https://warwick.ac.uk/services/dc/support/wellbeing/potentialadvantage

Twitter: @WarwickUniPA

Wellbeing When Writing: An intervention programme for tackling mental health and wellbeing issues arising from the doctoral writing process.

This project was based on the acknowledgment that the very process of writing doctoral research is often ignored as a key factor frequently causing debilitating anxiety and stress. The overall aim of this project was to support students in proactively tackling writing-related anxiety and stress and therefore to improve confidence, resilience and a sense of wellbeing.

These aims were achieved through:

  • a series of workshops tailored to cohorts from each year of study and available to all doctoral students in the university
  • writing retreats
  • engaging supervisors throughout the project.

The project was evaluated by measuring participating students’ experience of engaging in the programme. The project results will be disseminated via an information pack for practitioners, conference presentations and a journal article.

Project website: https://www.westminster.ac.uk/research/graduate-school/wellbeing-when-writing-resources

Published 08 October 2020
Last updated 12 July 2022
12 July 2022
Resources moved to this page

Describe your experience of using this website

Improve experience feedback
* *

Thank you for your feedback