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We need more than workshops to support the wellbeing of PhD researchers

  • 27 November 2020
  • By Ellie Crabtree

This blog was kindly contributed by University Alliance’s Programmes Administrator Dr Ellie Crabtree, who supports the delivery of their Doctoral Training Alliance (DTA). Ellie completed a PhD in Italian Studies at the University of St Andrews at the start of 2020. You can find her on Twitter @evcrabtree

This time last year I was in the thick of my pre-thesis submission. Eating and exercising healthily, seeing daylight hours and taking weekends and evenings off seemed like luxuries, dwarfed by the ultimate goal of submitting as soon as possible after the start of my unfunded fourth year. Running at this ever-increasing pace for months inevitably took its toll on my physical and mental health.

I remember friends telling me to slow down. I even recall reading advice given within the insightful resources available on the UKRI and Office for Students’ (OfS) Wellbeing Thesis. With hindsight, I desperately wish I had paid attention.

But why didn’t I?

A recent report from HEPI by Bethan Cornell points to systemic failings that create conditions that contribute to poor mental health and mean researchers are less likely to engage with the support available. This includes aggressive research cultures, uncertainty about career prospects, as well as the low stipends and heavy workloads.

What can be done?

Flash forward to autumn 2020 and I find myself writing guidance on how to avoid burnout for researchers who are part of the University Alliance’s Doctoral Training Alliance (DTA), the funded PhD programme that runs across 19 Alliance universities and partner institutions. I don’t want my experience to continue to be the norm.

With Science Minister Amanda Solloway recently urging research culture to promote wellbeing at all levels – as well as this being a core priority of the new UKRI CEO Dame Ottoline Leyser – it feels like there is a real opportunity and appetite now to make a difference to the conditions that shape the wellbeing and mental health of PhD researchers.

So, while workshops and online resources will help those who do engage with them, for those that don’t engage, we need to develop a fuller approach to alleviate the pressures.

This is where the networks created by Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs) and equivalent structures have a role to play – and here are my three recommendations for them.

  1. Create cohesive online cohorts

Fostering cohesive cohorts amongst PhD students is recognised as an important factor in countering the isolation that worsens mental health issues. But when access to labs and offices are limited, this becomes even more challenging. There are, however, strategies that can support it.

Inter-university DTPs provide cohort networks that supplement those within institutions by positioning researchers as part of larger supportive communities of peers. When institutional activities are remote, these nationwide communities can play a vital role by increasing their online provision.

Virtual drop-in sessions in which researchers can raise anxiety-inducing issues allow staff to quickly settle worries by providing immediate explanations about, for example, the complexity of extension policies. Developing profiles sharing their research interests and contact details are another way of enabling researchers to reach out to one another. Through these they can then create the informal connections to receive the peer-to-peer support that may become vital for their wellbeing.

  1. Develop strong representation systems

While it is great that Student Unions (SUs) cover postgraduate representation, I know from my own experience that undergraduate-focused SUs are not the best place for PhD issues to be actively listened to. 

PhD students need dedicated representation systems and the issues they raise need to be prioritised by their institutions.

We need to see more initiatives like at the University of Brighton, where postgraduate research representatives regularly meet with the Doctoral College so concerns are addressed by those with specialised knowledge of the unique issues affecting PhD students.

The Alliance’s DTA Representative committee provides a similar space that prioritises PhD voices. Through feedback gathered in their own survey, our representatives told us that COVID has dampened researcher enthusiasm. During the darkest days of thesis editing, passion for my project was what pulled me through – but this reserve is running empty for current researchers. This reminder from our representatives has better equipped us to address the issue of motivation in our upcoming training.

  1. Offer hands-on training opportunities to improve understanding of career pathways

Most PhD researchers are well aware of the low prospects of remaining in academic jobs after they complete their thesis. Despite this, the support they receive for exploring other career options is limited. This can leave them with no clear vision for the future.

Although several DTP provide opportunities to undertake professional placements, in the remote environment their benefits are diminished. Developing other forms of hands-on training can go some way to making up for this.

Researchers can be provided with budgets and support to organise their own events, empowering them to guide their own training. An excellent example is the Student Programme Partner initiative at Imperial College, which gives PhD researchers the opportunity to shape the institution’s Professional Skills Development Programme.

Such opportunities can cultivate researchers’ self-awareness of the broad range of skills they possess, and, as I found, may even reveal to them that jobs beyond academic research can be just as fulfilling.

Now is the time to act

PhD funders need to recognise that, with the current financial provision, increasing mental health support services won’t stop the pressures that undermine researcher wellbeing. And the recent announcement of UKRI’s patchy extension packages will do little to assuage worries.

While the reforms promised in the UK Research and Innovation Roadmap will help address these for future generations, in the meantime, by adopting these recommendations providers of doctoral training can go some way to relieving the complex pressures faced by the current generation of PhD researchers.

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