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Supporting the wellbeing of postgraduate research students

Despite increased attention to student mental health in the media and within institutions, the wellbeing of postgraduate research (PGR) students can be overlooked. PGR students are often at greater risk of mental health problems and the PGR experience is normalised as one that is expected to be stressful. A growing body of research and evidence that tells us about PGR students stress and identifies contributing factors but we don’t really have a good sense of what steps can be taken by universities and others to address these issues.

A new open access review by UEA workplace wellbeing researcher Dr David Watson and UEA social policy colleague Dr John Turnpenny set out to address this gap by asking the question: ‘What is the effectiveness of different interventions, practices and institutional arrangements in supporting PGR mental health?’

Systematic searches of academic databases identified only 21 studies that addressed this question. Most included studies used qualitative or mixed methods to understand student experiences and the studies were typically cross-sectional not giving a sense of the effects of interventions over time. The popularity of qualitative methods is not surprising given the relatively small sample size of studies and practice-focussed nature of the evaluations, but this makes it hard to generalize from the review findings and identify the effectiveness of specific approaches. However, the review provided information about the kind of approaches that might work and how these influence PGR wellbeing.

A plain English report summarizes the review findings, which are outlined in detail in the freely available journal article. Both also set out how the review findings can be taken forward in practice and improve PGR students’ wellbeing experiences.

Recommendations for universities to improve wellbeing

  • Facilitate the development of PGR community. Opportunities for PGR students to inform initiatives are important and student-led initiatives whilst effective may need institutional support. Virtual communities can be complementary.
  • Dedicated mental health support services are important, but preventative strategies are also likely to be useful.
  • Universities should understand what sources of online support PGR students access and use, and what is effective. Online spaces and services can provide support, but are not comprehensive and can potentially be negative.
  • Supervisory relationships are important for wellbeing. Embedding emotional support in supervisor training and using of tools/strategies to manage and improve the supervisory relationship are useful. Additional support for supervisors and other staff might be needed.
  • Peer support and mentoring is an important source of good mental health and professional development, but also demands resources and commitment from individuals and may require specialized knowledge/skills.

Whilst universities are beginning to attend to wellbeing more strategically, PGRs should not be left behind. Addressing potential barriers to implementing practices that support PGR wellbeing at individual and institutional levels is also crucial.

*This blog by Dr David Watson was originally developed for the LSE Impact blog and is based on the author’s co-written article Interventions, practices and institutional arrangements for supporting PGR mental health and wellbeing: Reviewing effectiveness and addressing barriers (DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2021.2020744)

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