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Five ways to support PhD students’ well-being

Doctoral researchers are often absent from university discussions around well-being support, writes Jenny Mercer. Here, she argues that their situation requires bespoke attention and sets out ways this might be achieved

Jenny Mercer  's avatar
Cardiff Metropolitan University
30 Nov 2023
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Doctoral researchers (DRs) report higher levels of stress and are at an elevated risk of mental ill health compared with undergraduates and the wider population. This is due not to pre-existing mental health problems, but rather to factors specifically associated with doctoral research programmes.

Yet this group is frequently left out of discourse around well-being support at higher education institutions. In fact, they need tailored attention. It is critical that those responsible for DRs’ pastoral care understand the elements that contribute to this issue to enable them to foster a healthy sense of well-being.

The UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) acknowledges the need for support in its Good Supervisory Practice Framework. Here, supervisors are informed that they should be aware of the personal issues that their supervisees might be experiencing and be able to refer them to the appropriate services. They are also encouraged to acknowledge that they can be role models (especially in the maintenance of a work-life balance).

However, when this advice is applied to a cohort who rarely have personal tutors and are often absent from the dialogue about “student experience” in higher education, it can leave supervisors feeling a heavy weight of responsibility.

Below are five ways in which universities can support supervisors to support their supervisees’ well-being.

1. Acknowledge that doctoral researchers are different

DRs’ stress levels might be exacerbated by (or can be attributed in part to) factors specific to the doctoral education environment (for example, isolation, role conflict and supervisory relationships). Doctorates are less structured than taught programmes; they aim to generate new knowledge, with each DR focusing on a tailored research question. DRs work exclusively with a small team of supervisors, over several years, and the relationship with this group is core.

Their status within the university is unusual – somewhere between student and staff (for instance, DRs might support teaching, so they might have a contract as a tutor). By the nature of the entry requirements, they are likely to be older than typical undergraduate students, which often means that they have additional financial and caring responsibilities. They are frequently located in doctoral schools, with programmes governed by research rather than learning and teaching regulations. As such they sit outside the usual structures, yet are expected to seek support from centralised services that more regularly deal with undergraduates.

2. Have people dedicated to advocating for doctoral researchers

Universities need to have people who understand and can advocate for DRs. This might be a well-being officer within the graduate school to liaise with and support central well-being services. Regular communication between services is essential. Those delivering well-being support within the university need to be aware of the structures and nuances of the doctoral journey. University well-being policies and plans should highlight this.

Ideally, well-being should be part of the skills delivered within graduate school training programmes. This properly acknowledges their bespoke requirements and puts them centre stage (making it more likely that DRs will attend). Writing retreats, and time-management and psycho-education courses, have all been shown to enhance DR well-being.

3. Train and support supervisors

Supervisors need support, too. Well-being should be part of supervisor training. In addition to raising awareness of DRs’ requirements, guidance in this area should also include supervisory roles and responsibilities. Equally important is setting out boundaries around what is not a supervisor’s role. No one is suggesting that they be required to become counsellors for their supervisees – in fact, this would be an inappropriate conflict of interest. Such training sessions offer supervisors a forum to share experiences and/or raise concerns and questions. Training can also enhance their confidence.

4. The importance of mental health literacy

The terms “well-being” and “mental health” are often used interchangeably. It is outside the scope of this article to distinguish between the two – however, some DRs will experience mental ill health. Many universities offer staff-development training in mental health literacy. These courses allow supervisors to be aware of the range of issues that can occur. They provide excellent grounding in what to do if a supervisor suspects a student is presenting with mental ill health, as well as appropriate boundary setting and when to refer them on. For DR supervisors, this helps ease the worry of thinking it is your sole responsibility to deal with such issues, which it is not. Supervisors need to be familiar with the referral processes and those who support doctoral well-being, and be able to signpost resources for their DRs.

5. Make well-being an integral part of the PhD experience

Being well should be an integral part of the doctoral journey. When our candidates are not well, it is likely to impede their experience and progression. It is also a potential stressor for the supervisor, which can affect their own well-being. Implementing these recommendations can help to make well-being support an integral element of the programme – rather than an uncomfortable extra burden for supervisors.

Jenny Mercer is a reader in qualitative approaches to applied psychology, principal lecturer and graduate studies co-ordinator in the School of Sport and Health Sciences at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

Jenny has been shortlisted in the Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year category in the Times Higher Education Awards 2023 #THEAwards. A full list of nominees can be found here. The awards will be presented at a ceremony in Liverpool on 7 December.

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