Show and Tell: supporting the mental health & wellbeing of Postgrads

Wednesday 02-11-2016 - 13:07

Nobody expects doctoral study to be easy; it is, after all, one of the highest qualifications someone can receive. But this doesn’t mean that research students ought to make sacrifices to their health and wellbeing. Here, we look at the experiences of postgraduate research students at the University of Exeter, and the work of the Students’ Guild and the university in improving support for them.


“I know personally how difficult the PhD is, so I’m proud that we’re supporting PGR wellbeing”

- Gary McLachlan, Change and Representation Manager, University of Exeter Students’ Guild

Exeter Guild’s research on PGR Wellbeing, mental and physical health was something that I was passionate about, both as a staff member supporting postgraduates, and also as a former PhD student who withdrew after my first full draft submission because various factors had worsened my own mental health and resilience. A small problem became a major ‘thing’ and I withdrew immediately; I’d simply had enough.

Looking back just before we did the wellbeing survey, of the two Managers who made up the Guilds’ Representation support teams, both of us had started a PhD, and one of us had gotten all the way through to call himself Doctor. Recalling other students, I realized I couldn’t remember a single drop-out at undergrad or Masters Level, but at Research level half of the people I remembered had withdrawn  and most of them (who I’d spoken to) reported problems with mental or physical health. While those problems weren’t all directly caused by their PhD studies, there was no doubt in most of our minds that anything troubling you at that level of study will almost always have a knock-on effect, and it was almost impossible to handle alone, without a support network that just simply isn’t there for many PhD students.

We decided to survey experiences of the PhD students at Exeter, since we’d always managed to achieve a fair sample size (above 10%) and received good data in previous surveys; particularly where issues that mattered directly to the students concerned were at stake. NUS were also interested – we’d seen the work they’d done with Leeds University Union on wellbeing - and our welfare services had seen an upward trend in case-work, so it was a good time to do the work.

From my own experiences with surveys and data, particularly when issues were at stake where there could be resistance to change as a consequence of negative findings, it was important to me personally that the questions were right; and that the results could not be treated as weighted or too self-selecting (or biased) to have overall validity.

The results we got speak for themselves; better overall than my own ‘people I know’ experiences, but still significantly different to similar surveys carried out on undergrad experiences of wellbeing and significantly worse on most metrics than those at the lower study levels.

Having worked to make sure the results were solid, we were pleased that our findings had an immediate effect in being taken seriously, and used to inform changes to practice, by the University. The evidence helped to draw positive steps when the new College of Doctoral Studies was established in making sure that student well-being at the Research level was prioritized and emphasized.

That’s an explanation of why we did it, what we’ve achieved from it so far, and the further impacts we hope that the work will have moving forwards as we work to improve the situation for PhD students here at Exeter.

To see what we have achieved already, read the case study that we put together with NUS.

I have been proud to work with other staff internally, and with elected student Officers, NUS and the University of Exeter in partnership on this study and these issues. I hope that by sharing our work we can encourage other unions and their institutions to tackle the wellbeing issues of research students.


Education, Features, Welfare

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