Fostering a healthy and supportive research environment for postgraduate research students

Suzy Allinson from the Office for Students and Claire Fraser, from Research England, a Council within UK Research and Innovation, explain how outputs from this joint programme will help providers to support the mental health of postgraduate research students.

Student in library with laptop

Mental health and wellbeing issues can arise at all stages of the student journey. Recent years have seen an increased focus on the mental health of undergraduate students. But there is, perhaps, less general awareness of how poor mental health can affect postgraduate research (PGR) students.

The Office for Students (OfS) and Research England are collaborating with Universities UK (UUK), Vitae (which supports the professional development of research students) and other partners to encourage and share innovative practice on the mental health and wellbeing of PGR students. These students make a huge contribution to our culture, economy and society and our shared aim is to foster a healthy, supportive research environment in which they can thrive and succeed.

Today sees the publication of the final report conducted by the independent evaluators Vitae, in collaboration with UUK, as well as project case studies, stakeholder briefings and animation films, published on the Research England website

On the OfS website, we are publishing a package of resources to help higher education providers in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of their PGR students. These have been produced by the projects and include apps, training materials, literature reviews, workshop templates and podcasts.

We are publishing these resources at a time of significant and growing concern about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the mental health of students. Furthermore, the current situation creates new challenges in the short-term around implementing some of the measures recommended in the report. The projects took place over a two-year period and concluded in January 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the UK. However, a number of the interventions they trialled, and that are now embedded in student support services, are online or can be adapted to meet the requirements of social distancing. We’d encourage higher education providers to consider how these recommendations can be taken forwards whilst adhering to government and institutional guidelines.      

Specific challenges

PGR students are generally different in demographic than undergraduates. They are usually familiar with the higher education environment, and more likely to have already lived away from home. This can help them navigate the demands of their studies and their interactions with their teachers and peers.

But PGR students are also vulnerable to many of the same issues that can lead to poor mental health in undergraduates: financial pressures, family and relationship worries, harassment, isolation, feelings of inadequacy and ‘imposter syndrome’.

They may also face specific challenges. Doctoral research programmes differ in important respects from taught undergraduate or graduate courses. A 2018 Vitae report on PGR mental health and wellbeing, commissioned by the (then) Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), explored the particular pressures associated with research degrees. Several common themes emerged – the importance of supervisor relationships, heavy workloads, and a lack of clarity around what was expected of students.

Improving support

The 2018 report underlined the need for more and better information about PGR mental health and support needs. It recommended, among other things, training for academics who supervise PGR students to help them identify and respond to wellbeing issues, and better communications to promote points of entry for PGR students into support services.

These and other recommendations were taken forward in a £1.5 million joint OfS and Research England programme involving 17 universities across England. The projects covered a range of topics including peer support and mentoring, the development of mental health pathways and interventions, improved support for new PGR students, and diversity and inclusion issues.

Newcastle University: PGRwellbeing4All

This project focused on diversity and inclusion. Research through semi-structured interviews surfaced three key concerns:

  1. The supervisory relationship as a source of stress and anxiety.
  2. The negative impacts of social isolation, especially among postgraduate researchers with protected characteristics.
  3. The need for a consistent, evidence-based tool to support PGR student wellbeing.

As a result of this research, the project focused on supervisor training and a programme of activity and support. New training for PGR student supervisors was embedded as part of the university staff development offer. It was designed to help supervisors offer positive mental health and wellbeing support to their PGR students, and to ensure equality of support for those with protected characteristics. The post-course evaluation showed improved confidence levels in this area.

The University of Derby: The Wellbeing Thesis

The outcome of this project is a website of wellbeing guidance framed around the doctoral process. It is designed to be a resource that can be drawn on by PGR students for the duration of their doctorate. The website was developed with student involvement. It has received positive feedback from the Student Minds Clinical Advisory Group and Student Advisory Panel, and from student groups.

Lessons learned

The programme evaluation report highlights the need for universities to put in place inclusive, well-evidenced strategies for all their students, which integrate good mental health and wellbeing practices into daily life, education and work. The report discusses the need for PGR students to be included and integrated into a whole provider approach to mental health, that acknowledges the distinct features of the doctoral journey and where this might impact on their mental health. PGR students should be involved in the development and review of these strategies, which should be actively promoted and championed by senior leaders.

The report finds good evidence of increased awareness among PGR students involved in interventions, of their own mental health, how to improve it, and where to find support. It also found that, equipped with the right tools and training, supervisors are better placed to advise their students about available support services. Crucially, too, they are more confident having conversations about mental health and wellbeing with their students.

The report concludes that while the quality of the supervisory relationship is key, all university and college staff have a part to play in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of PGR students.  

Read more about what the OfS is doing to support student mental health.

In April 2020, we published a briefing note on supporting student mental health during the coronavirus pandemic.

We have also published case studies from providers demonstrating the ways they are responding to the pandemic to support student mental health.

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Published 08 October 2020

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