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.

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

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