Lack of community for PhD students ‘should be high priority’

Barely half of postgraduate researchers in the UK and Australia feel like they are part of a community of postgraduate researchers, according to major survey

November 22, 2023
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Barely half of postgraduate researchers in the UK and Australia feel like they are part of a community of PhD students, a major survey on graduate life has found.

Responding to the annual Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES), only 57 per cent of graduate researchers said they felt part of a community, while 62 per cent said they felt a sense of belonging.

The poll is the largest annual survey of postgraduate researchers in the UK and this year’s draws on responses from 37,661 graduate students at 101 UK universities and four Australian higher education institutions.

Just 59 per cent said they felt there were sufficient opportunities to interact with other postgraduate researchers, according to the survey, conducted by Advance HE and published on 22 November.

Although it is the first time that the survey, which has run since 2013, has polled postgraduate researchers about community and belonging, these areas should be treated as a “high priority” for institutions because they “correlate strongly with overall satisfaction and show clear room for improvement in terms of their scores”, according to Jonathan Neves, Advance HE’s head of business intelligence and surveys.

Campus resource: How to change research cultures to support the well-being of PhD students

That is partly because these issues “correlate strongly with overall satisfaction” and “show clear room for improvement in terms of their scores”, he said.

Female postgraduate researchers were found to be less likely to feel they are part of a scholarly community, according to the study.

However, overall satisfaction rates were significantly higher, with 79 per cent of respondents saying they were satisfied with their experience – slightly down from 80 per cent last year.

For several respondents who commented on the issue of community, the lack of opportunities to engage with other PhD students had negatively affected both their academic studies and their social lives.

“The departmental postgrad socials…seem to have disappeared,” said one scholar: “If you want to build a research community and a sense of belonging, you need to offer people the chance to socialise outside of conducting research.”

Another reflected that it was “hard to stay in touch and have a [postgraduate research] community when we are so spread out over the campus”, and a third said the role of supporting PhD students was often given to academics as a “bolt-on to their full-time role, which compromises the quality of support that can be given”.

“Research is already a solitary experience, especially when your supervision team lacks engagement. With an active, diverse PGR community, candidates could share ideas, debate, explore their research areas and offer support to one another,” said another, who felt this was lacking at their institution.

The survey also quizzed postgraduate researchers about whether they had considered quitting their studies – with 28 per cent stating they had, the highest rate recorded since the question was first asked five years ago.

Mental health and emotional difficulties were the most common reason that PhD students considered leaving (mentioned by 24 per cent of those who considered leaving), followed by financial difficulties (17 per cent), with some students raising the pressures of taking “side jobs” to make ends meet.

“It is positive to see nearly four out of five PGRs satisfied with their experience and there is encouraging feedback about research. But we should note that this is not for all groups,” said Mr Neves.

“Institutions will also wish to explore why some – females and minority groups, in particular – are experiencing lower levels of satisfaction and at the same time to look at ways to address a gradual fall in satisfaction over time.”

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