Tackling isolation among PhD students

Creating doctoral colleges and distance PhDs. What are universities doing to better support doctoral students? Holly Else writes

July 11, 2015

Just a day after the new universities and science minister, Jo Johnson, outlined his plans to re-balance the “pull between teaching and research” with the introduction of a Teaching Excellence Framework, the UK Council for Graduate Education held its annual conference.

Opening the event, Mick Fuller, head of the graduate school at Plymouth University and the UKCGE's outgoing chair, urged those working in postgraduate education to “keep flying the flag” for research training despite the emerging policy emphasis on “teaching, teaching, teaching”.

Mr Johnson’s inaugural higher education address, and one of his first speeches as minister, made no mention of postgraduate research, which Professor Fuller said posed “a challenge” given that training the next generation of researcher is what much of postgraduate education is about.

You can read more about Professor Fuller’s thoughts on the upcoming challenges for graduate education here.

The conference, held in Glasgow, was titled "Beyond the Ivory Tower: creating and sustaining postgraduate networks and communities in contemporary global universities", and looked at many of the issues universities face in the changing landscape of postgraduate education.

PhD training has become much more of a collaborative affair in recent years.

Research council studentships are now focused on centres for doctoral training or doctoral training partnerships, which bring together cohorts of students for transferable skills training often from a group of institutions and may include industry partners.

One emerging issue discussed during the event was the social isolation that PhD students can feel in the academy.

The incoming chair of the UKCGE, Rosemary Deem, who is also dean of the doctoral school at Royal Holloway, University of London, talked about the increasing incidence of mental-health problems among PhD and master's students.

Some PhD students find the experience of attaining a doctorate cripplingly isolating, and institutions are now increasingly aware of the role they must play in addressing these issues.

Other speakers at the two-day event presented case studies of institutions that have adapted to the changing postgraduate environment.

A theme running through the case studies was the new structures that universities are putting in place to better support postgraduates.

Among these was the University of Sheffield, which has recently created a Doctoral Academy. Gavin Boyce, doctoral development team leader at Sheffield, talked about the need to create a supportive community for research students. Delegates also heard about the University of Exeter’s journey in creating a doctoral college.

Meanwhile, Theresa McKinven, head of the postgraduate office at Edinburgh University, talked about her institution’s experience of developing distance learning PhDs, while Bryn Jones, dean of postgraduate studies, at the Newcastle University outlined how his institution had supported PhD students working on its Singapore campus.


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