How can we embed inclusion in our research culture for postgraduate researchers?

Small, systemic changes can help universities make their research community more welcoming and collaborative. Here, Maisha Islam looks at four actions to consider – from PGR surveys to widening access

Maisha Islam 's avatar
12 Mar 2024
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If PhD students are the academics of tomorrow, what are we doing to ensure that they benefit from an inclusive and collaborative research culture? How do we help them to see academia as a worthwhile, meaningful career?

University leaders and academic staff across the country will likely be in rigorous planning mode to determine how they will support staff to monitor, evaluate and evidence their research impact in anticipation of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2029. One of the core purposes of the REF is to support a UK research system that is inclusive and collaborative, allowing a diversity of people, ideas and outputs to thrive and be recognised. This will arguably take up a much more significant slice of the REF assessment pie as the people, culture and environment element is at time of writing expected to be given far greater weighting in assessments.

But where do PhD students fit into this equation?

UK research shows that postgraduate researchers (PGRs) are “often critical of the perceived lack of attention paid to cultivating a scholarly research community environment for them to feel part of”. This suggests that further work is needed to build inclusivity into our research cultures (that is, the behaviours, values, expectations, attitudes and norms of our research communities) to enable an environment in which all students and staff can feel they belong. It is therefore crucial that PGRs are not an afterthought when we seek to develop inclusive research cultures. If anything, they should be the why to the how we go about producing these systems that ultimately enable excellent research systems and researchers to thrive sustainably.

Here are a few actions we’ve taken at the University of Southampton to more actively consider this.

1. Identify how PGRs see our research culture

Working in collaboration with our students’ union, we have implemented quarterly surveys to identify, understand and improve the student experience of our PGR students. These surveys have focused on aspects related to mental health support, work-life balance, cost-of-living support, feedback opportunities and sense of community. We have also explored how our PGRs understand the term “research culture”, which gives us a baseline understanding to work from. These surveys are being complemented by qualitative focus groups, from which we seek feedback as to how we can facilitate engagement and build PGR community.

2. Gain buy-in from supervisors

Ask any PhD student what the most important facilitator of their progression is and they will almost certainly say: “My supervisor.” While a supportive, constructive and culturally competent supervisory relationship is crucial to the successful completion of most (if not all) PhD research, it is also the cornerstone of building inclusive research communities. Supervisors give PGRs an insight into the inner workings of academia – at their best, they model what good practice and healthy academic relationships look like. While our student surveys show that the vast majority of our PGRs regard these relationships as largely comparable to those between colleagues or mentor-mentee, we know that isn’t always the case.

To set the precedent for healthy relationships, we have created a supervisor-PGR partnership agreement, which aims to foster a solid foundation between PGRs and supervisors in the early stages of the PhD project. The agreement facilitates important discussion points related to responsibilities of the supervisory team, the conduct of supervisory meetings, establishing work patterns, how to support mental health and well-being, opportunities for PGR development and recognising aspects related to equity, diversity and inclusion.

3. Understand the nuances of the PGR experience

With international focus on race equity, many universities have made a concerted effort to better consider the experience of racially minoritised students within higher education. From a UK PGR perspective, we know that racially minoritised students pursuing doctoral routes are severely under-represented, with many having inequitable and harmful experiences when they gain these positions. With relatively little research on how these experiences transpire at the PGR level, we undertook qualitative research with our UK black and Asian PGRs to understand specific challenges encountered and actions needed to create a more inclusive research culture. This research was co-produced with our PGR student partners and adopted a decolonial and participatory methodology to ensure an ethical approach to data collection. We found that while many could speak to positive aspects of their PGR experience, facilitating inter- and cross-peer networking and building in racial representation were key recommendations.

4. Widen access to PGR opportunities

Finally, we recognise that many students still simply don’t see pursuing a PhD as an accessible route. As a British Bangladeshi Muslim woman, I never thought that “someone like me” could do a doctoral degree because there was never any representation or support that suggested otherwise.

This is a key point to consider when we think about research culture. If we don’t think about building a pipeline into PGR for minoritised and under-represented student groups, how can we ever reach a research system inclusive of a diversity of people, ideas and outputs? We have therefore collaborated with our Careers, Employability and Student Enterprise team to curate a De-mystifying the PhD workshop series (targeted to under-represented student groups), supporting students to make informed decisions about pursuing doctoral study. Most importantly, we want students to come away feeling confident that they can pursue a PhD (and will be supported) should they choose to do so.

Research culture in its most holistic sense

Although important questions remain as to how research culture is to be assessed (particularly in relation to the “people, culture and environment” element in the REF), we are at an important crossroads in how universities create and share best practice related to inclusive and collaborative research environments. Regardless of what metrics are used to determine this, we should strive to recognise the small and systemic changes we can make towards these goals. Starting with our PGR students, we can enable a more holistic consideration of research culture.

Maisha Islam is research culture lead for equality, diversity and inclusion at the University of Southampton and a final-year EdD student at the University of Winchester.

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