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How stressed are postgraduate students?

How much stress are postgraduates under, and how far should we seek to prevent it? Vivien Rolfe shares details of exploratory research.
This article is more than 4 years old

Vivien Rolfe is Head of Herbal Research for Pukka Herbs. She writes here in a personal capacity.

Laura Cole is a final year PhD student at Bristol University studying neuroscience and psychology.

Postgraduate study can be a stressful time.

Campaigns, such as the one artistically reflected in Zoe Ayre’s (@ZJAyres) infographics, helps raise awareness of stress and mental health challenges amongst postgraduate students. Scholars have coped with the rigours of learning in the past by wearing garlands of rosemary on their heads to enhance memory (Greece); scholars’ gardens in China often included a tea house as the tea plant Camellia sinensis was believed to also be good for the memory; and in ancient Indian traditions, a herb called Brahmi was taken to enhance intellect and thinking (from Brahman meaning wise one; botanical name Bacopa monnieri).

Much of the existing research looking at academic stressors is exclusively focused on students in medical and healthcare professions. Few studies specifically look at postgraduates, and little is known of what the students may be experiencing and how they are coping. In one systematic review on stress and quality of life in students, none of the articles identified looked at postgraduates as a distinct demographic.

How stressed are postgraduate scholars studying in the UK?

In a small self-selecting survey of 218 postgraduate students from several universities studying different subjects, conducted during the summer of 2019, many claimed to be stressed “to a large extent” or “completely”. Students were aware that the survey was going to ask them questions about their wellbeing but not stress specifically, so it is likely to have attracted those more health-conscious but not necessarily stressed.

Around one quarter were studying for a PhD and the remaining were taught or research masters. Students came from a mix of UK, other EU and international backgrounds, and subjects represented a spread of academic disciplines. Study methodology and data can be found here.

What stresses PG students the most?

When asked to select from feelings they may have experienced in the last three months, a lack of confidence in academic performance and their subject ranked highly, along with feeling overloaded with university work and inability to take time out for relaxation. Peer and supervisor relationships were less of an issue, although have been highlighted elsewhere as a potential cause of stress.

In addition to family problems, health, finance, housing, travel, or having English as a second language, one of the main areas of concern was work-life balance and “how to manage my free time without feeling guilty”. For non-UK students in particular, stress and anxiety was also caused by being away from home and loneliness.

In terms of academic activities – the pressures of being in the lab, multiple deadlines, writing the dissertation or thesis were common causes of anxiety. Being in the summer and a natural time when many courses end, students were concerned about job prospects, the end of their research funding, and not having yet secured employment.

A small number of students mentioned they had underlying and more serious mental health worries, and stress is known to exacerbate existing problems.

University support

Most students felt unsupported by their university, or weren’t sure they were gaining the support they needed, and for EU and international students this was even more significant.

There was a sense that students felt they were under too much pressure. Some noted they were expected to publish journal articles, or to contribute to other departmental work such as supervising students alongside their own work (deadlines, dissertations, examinations). Several students felt that they didn’t receive enough feedback on their work or how they were progressing, and experienced “setbacks with research” which is natural enough experience to all researchers, yet one that is often not culturally acceptable nor compensated for within the rigidity of programme structures.

Strategies for managing stress

Stress is a normal physiological response to a challenging or adverse event, and acute (short-term) stress will provide energy and improve alertness to deal with a situation, but when stress is pervasive it can become chronic and damaging.

Most of the students surveyed were not sure or claimed not to be coping with their stress levels. Their strategies varied and they had a good degree of insight into what was helpful, from eating healthily, to playing sports, gaming, walking and taking time to rest or socialise with friends. Coping strategies seemed to be more adaptive (having a positive impact) than maladaptive (having a negative impact as in the case of drinking alcohol, or over-eating). Students seemed to recognise the importance of being aware of their feelings and taking measures when stress was mounting up.

The Wellbeing Thesis provides resources specifically to help postgraduate students recognise the symptoms of stress and intervene early on through taking breaks, but importantly, it creates a positive narrative that university work might be uncertain at times, or there might be failures that dent your confidence, but there are ways of constructively thinking this through, rather than letting the issues become the only focus.

Some emphasis has gone on the design of learning environments in universities in recent years, perhaps at the expense of thinking holistically as to what scholars need. Universities in the East are often designed according to feng shui, and incorporate relaxing spaces, green spaces and sensory areas.

Research at Liverpool Hope University is exploring the relationship between food insecurity and poor nutrition, and student stress, and symptoms such as depression and anxiety have been associated with biomarkers of poor nutritional status. MetMunch is an award-winning student social enterprise led by National Teaching Fellow Haleh Moravej which helps students (and the community) understand about healthy lifestyles and the importance of nutrition.

A previous assessment of university campus green spaces (given a flymo ranking) perhaps should be developed further given the importance of outdoor spaces on mental and physical wellbeing.

However, for students to enjoy these spaces and partake in activities it needs to be culturally acceptable for them to take time out, and this requires permission from academic and senior staff, and even better, leading by example.

Next steps

There has been much great work in recent years that has attempted to understand how universities can best support students at all levels, and helping them understand the “pinch points” in their transitions. Yet these reports sometimes assume that students enter university with problems, or that problems emerge while a student, rather than looking critically at the environment universities offer students. What role does departmental or team habits and culture play? What about the broader environment of the university and how it supports its scholars?

This small study is not representative of the UK postgraduate population, but it gives some insight into their stressors and coping strategies. Additional research needs to assess the extent of stress and mental health issues in this population of students, why they lack confidence at this level of study, and how local team and departmental cultures can be changed. In the short term, the notion of taking time out should be written into departmental strategies to give students the chance to recharge their batteries. There is much to learn from ancient scholars in terms of creating not just environments sufficient to alleviate stress, but ones that can truly promote wellbeing, empower students and encourage learning.

The authors would like to thank the South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnerships Professional Internships for Postgraduate Students scheme for supporting Laura’s internship at Pukka Herbs.

For more on this theme join us at The Secret Life of Students in March – booking now open. 

4 responses to “How stressed are postgraduate students?

  1. This study although imperfect replicates the findings of a number of US surveys mainly of doctoral students that were not self-selective but which varied in terms of randomness. The US survey data consistently pointed to the fact that graduates are more stressed than the demographic from which they were drawn. The difference was attributed primarily to poor research supervision, long hours workplace cultures, and either a lack of or uneven training in pastoral care among supervisors (often allied to poorly defined pastoral roles within Departments).

    While it may be that “There is much to learn from ancient scholars” there is certainly a lot that can be learned from the US contemporary experience.

  2. Hi Bradbury – thank you for your important comments here about students in the US. I was most interested in our students claims about lack of confidence which isn’t something I’ve read about before. Best wishes Viv

  3. Viv, hi. A very interesting post. I am exploring the extent to which a coaching model I created some years ago, and which has subsequently been identified as a process which may improve how people manage stress and anxiety, could be used by postgraduate students. I have some anecdotal feedback; rather than evidence; of it being successfully used by postgrads at Liverpool university, as well as from some professional psychological colleagues who are positive about the methodology. From personal experience, I have used it to frame my own world whilst trying to dig myself out from severe depression, having been completely let down by NHS psych counselling who provided me with no framework or clear pathway.

    I know it seems like I’m promoting myself…in a sense I am because I want to position what I have discovered and learnt from others’ / own experience, in support of postgraduate mental health/wellbeing. You know what’s interesting? As an independent contractor / interim manager for the past 18 years, there is a sense of isolation and at times lack of self-confidence, which resonates with the feedback I have received from the postgrads I’ve had contact with. My own opinion is that a perception exists that for both postgraduates and isolated contractors, we possess the intellect and capability to ride out the tough times. Note I have not used the word “resilience”…

    Would you be open to a conversation?

  4. Hi Vivien,
    thank you very much for your article.
    I’m Dilini ,postgraduate student in University of Dundee. these days I’m reading my dessertation. the topic is Explore Mental Health and Coping strategies on postgraduate International students in UK universities. I read your article. there are so many important ideas I can grab from your work. thank you very much.

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