Policy Officer Tara Binder joined GuildHE in August 2022, supporting our work with postgraduate students, open access, and our shared service provision at smaller and specialist research active universities. Here Tara reflects on the relevant themes that emerged at a recent conference on postgraduate student wellbeing.

At the start of November 2022 I was fortunate to attend the 3rd International Conference on the Mental Health and Wellbeing of  Postgraduate Researchers, organised by the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE). The conference covered a range of topics from the experiences of black PGRs, to the role of the supervisor in PGR wellbeing. Below I have listed just some of the insights I gained.

Being a postgraduate researcher can be lonely and isolating. Many PGRs experience loneliness and isolation due to the nature of the job. It can be a high stress environment, with not a great deal of social interaction. Many of the talks highlighted the importance of the PGR’s relationship with their supervisor. It’s clear supervisors and PGRs spend significant time together in close proximity, so it’s important to have a transparent and constructive relationship. 

Different dynamics work for different people. There was some debate over whether supervisors should share their stresses about workload. Some thought it was useful for creating transparency, but others thought this drove PGRs away from sharing their problems through fear of being a burden. One speaker said “we’re asking you to notice, not to fix”.

The boundaries are blurred for PGRs. A point of contention is the classification of PGRs. They are sometimes considered half student, half staff member which leads to them being unsure of their rights or expectations. The consensus was that most PGRs would prefer to be considered staff. 

PGRs shouldn’t be treated as a homogenous group. I attended multiple talks about the considerations of  ethnic minority PGRs for example. The first speaker suggested that postgraduate research has historically excluded black voices. A talk on the second day brought to light some of the race-specific issues faced by black PGRs, including code switching and contention with racial biases. Often, black students will withhold symptoms of mental illness through fear of being misinterpreted and end up just ‘fading away’. 

The conference in the context of small institutions. The scale of the conference meant there wasn’t the opportunity to speak to anyone from a smaller institution. However, many of the challenges faced by HEIs are universal. For example, following a talk about inviting black PGRs to share their experiences, I had a conversation with someone from a Russell Group University. She raised that bringing this group together at her institution would be difficult due to the very small number of black PGRs . She was wary of putting too much pressure on this small community. 

Furthermore, I met someone who spoke about how the collegiate system in her institution made it difficult to propose or implement any standard practice. This was because staff teams are small within each college and this is something we see amongst our members too.

What’s next – what can we do?

Networking. A common theme was the benefit of bringing together multiple people in the same position to share their experiences. Particularly since covid, face to face interaction can be rare for PGRs who may be the only one in their department. Developing a sense of belonging and community is important. 

Facilitating discussions. Another idea would be to set up weekly/ monthly zoom calls where PGRs can drop in for their ‘write up’ phase. A university in Australia has done this and received great feedback, simply by creating a common ground for PGR students. Additionally, the students may feel they have more of a structure rather than always feeling like they could be doing more.

Contact GuildHE Research on research@guildhe.ac.uk to find out more about how we support smaller and specialist institutions to create positive and enriching research environments for researchers at all stages of their career.