Postgraduate researchers need tailored mental health support

Postgraduate researchers face mental health and wellbeing issues just as undergraduate students do. But the factors driving these issues are often different, and the report we published today explores this and considers a tailored approach for the support of postgraduate researchers.

The report is particularly thought provoking this week during #mentalhealthawarenessweek. In the last two weeks alone, there has been a deluge of press relating to mental health, specifically focusing on young people – from Nature’s week long campaign to the recent BBC report on the Universities UK framework, and calls for universities to work closely with their local NHS trusts.

Report overview

Research England commissioned Vitae to undertake the first specific piece of research into the wellbeing and mental health of PGR students in the UK. They have looked at the policies and provision relating to these issues in institutions through interviews with staff, and postgraduate researcher focus groups at ten UK HEIs between September and November 2017. They also ran a pilot survey at six HEIs, providing an indication of the views and experiences which could be explored using a survey instrument.

The report concludes that these students face unique challenges such as difficulties with the supervisor relationship, as well as others recognised in the undergraduate population including financial worries, harassment, and feeling isolated and inadequate.

The Vitae report makes recommendations to funders and to HEIs to encourage a healthy and supportive research environment for all PGRs which include:

  • commission a project to explore supervisors’ perceptions of their role in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate researchers
  • facilitate practice-sharing mechanisms around the Catalyst Fund projects
  • train, support and recognise supervisors’ role in identifying wellbeing issues among postgraduate researchers
  • HEIs should develop communications strategies to promote points of entry into support services.

HEFCE Catalyst projects

Many of the recommendations in the report are being addressed by 17 projects funded through HEFCE Catalyst Fund which are being overseen jointly by Research England and the Office for Students. £1.5m is being invested in English universities from March 2018 – January 2020 to improve support for the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate researchers.

We will be working with the Office for Students and the 17 funded projects over the next 18 months to evaluate and analyse their outcomes. We will be guiding the projects, and helping them to share their learning and impact.

Many of the Catalyst Fund projects focus on the factors that influence postgraduate mental health and wellbeing highlighted in Vitae’s report such as: student isolation, the supervisor relationship, access to appropriate services/pastoral support, and feelings of inadequacy. They will support a range of activities, including those to:

  • develop new practice for the pastoral support of postgraduate research (PGR) students
  • enhance training for PGR supervisors and other staff
  • support students’ transition into postgraduate research, with its different expectations and working practices
  • work with other institutions and external partners to improve support for all PGR students.

As part of the Catalyst work Research England will be commissioning a project to develop good practice based on the evaluation of the Catalyst projects. This is a fantastic opportunity to understand different types of support, what works for PGRs – and importantly – in what circumstances. Research England has committed to sharing the outcomes of this good practice work extensively – which has the potential to help all postgraduate researchers.

Looking to the future

Supporting the sector by sharing and evaluating the outcomes of the catalyst projects is our primary role. We will be promoting this work within UKRI and across the HE sector. I expect that as the Catalyst projects develop, we will be considering what additional work we can facilitate. I make a plea to the HE sector to consider the recommendations made in this report in their own institutions. Let’s start to tackle some of these challenges head on.

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