Insomnia, loss of appetite and chronic anxiety are among the problems frequently faced by postgraduate research students, a study suggests.
Amid growing concern over the mental health of postgraduate and doctoral students, staff at the University of the West of England revealed that a third of the postgraduate research students that they surveyed had reported a decline in mental health or general well-being since starting their studies.
Of those who reported an issue, sleep and diet were among the two most-cited problems, explained Helen Frisby, an officer at the university’s graduate school, who presented the findings at the UK Council for Graduate Education’s annual conference, which took place in Bristol from 2 to 3 July.
“When we ran a qualitative analysis on the comments, the words ‘sleep’ and ‘food’ came up again and again,” Dr Frisby told Times Higher Education.
“Some students were having trouble sleeping and others said that they were sleeping too much, while many also said that they were ‘struggling to switch off’.”
A high number of students also spoke about how their eating habits and diets had changed since becoming a postgraduate, said Dr Frisby. “Some were eating a lot more and eating much less healthily, while others were eating a lot less,” she explained.
While Dr Frisby admitted that the results drew on a “small sample” of just under 100 students, she said that they were broadly consistent with recent findings from other studies.
According to the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey, which collected responses from almost 58,000 students in the UK, 31 per cent of postgraduates said that they had consulted their supervisor regarding mental health at least once over the previous year, while 9 per cent had done so every few months.
Some of the symptoms of anxiety exhibited by postgraduates could be explained by the switch from more structured undergraduate courses to postgraduate programmes with fewer contact hours, said Dr Frisby.
“Becoming a researcher is about finding ways of working that suit you, so this is a process of transition where people are finding habits that work for them,” she said.
However, the results had led the University of the West of England to reassess its support for postgraduates by providing more resilience training, she said. “We now hold workshops with the well-being service – which postgraduates often view as mainly for taught students – where we encourage students to talk about the emotional and intellectual challenges of their studies,” added Dr Frisby.