Wellbeing is currently a topic of much interest within higher education, especially due to its potential impact upon student progression, retention and engagement. Recently, the results from the 2017 Student Academic Experience Survey highlighted that undergraduate students had lower levels of wellbeing when measured by the Office for National Statistics’ wellbeing scale compared to the overall population (Neves & Hillman, 2017), and an NUS survey showed 78% of students experienced mental health issues in their final year (Gil, 2015). Such evidence may partly explain a reported increased demand for mental health support over recent years (IES & REAP, 2015).
Whilst Vitae’s Careers in Research Online Survey does ask about satisfaction with work-life balance, there is currently a lack of sector-wide research on postgraduate researchers’ wellbeing. This is despite the fact, or perhaps even because, the challenges and struggles for this group appear widely acknowledged. The academic environment can be highly pressured, with demands upon individuals to produce high-quality research articles that are worthy of publication, whilst committing to research, teaching, networking, and general development alongside life outside of research. There is a general acknowledgement of a personal struggle which postgraduate researchers must conquer in order to make it to the other side. However, postgraduate study can be an incredibly rewarding and life-changing experience: an opportunity to develop, learn and engage with an area of interest whilst being supported and surrounded by high quality researchers. In this sense, providing support systems to help postgraduate researchers develop positive coping mechanisms and thrive under the challenges presented is important.
Understanding the extent of the issue
Whilst much work is currently underway in the sector on this topic, the evidence for underlying causes of wellbeing issues is limited, and there is a lack of sector-wide research conducted with postgraduate researchers to explore the topic further. Support mechanisms for postgraduate research students may therefore be based on assumptions and anecdotal evidence, which should be challenged and explored further in order to ensure that support is effective. In order to truly enhance postgraduate researchers’ experiences and ensure they are developing both academically and personally then it is important we understand the extent and nature of issues around wellbeing within the sector.
One key factor needing to be addressed in order to develop more robust evidence is: how do we measure wellbeing? The Office for National Statistics includes a robust wellbeing scale which explores satisfaction, sense of worth, happiness and anxiety. Whilst these items are valid measures of wellbeing they do not relate specifically to the impact of studying upon wellbeing. In many ways, going through a period of study could positively impact upon wellbeing, with individuals feeling challenged to develop and explore interests. However, through learning an individual will also be pushed into a state of uncertainty, of knowing how little they know, which can be in itself be challenging for confidence, self-efficacy and self-identity. Throughout a period of study an individual is likely to be learning, developing and changing. What may ultimately lead to a greater sense of well-being after graduation could create feelings of uncertainty, “imposter syndrome” and isolation during the period of study.
A new personal outlook scale in PRES
Due to the importance of wellbeing for the sector, for retention, and for enhancing student experiences, we included an optional personal outlook scale within our Postgraduate Research Experience Survey [PRES] in 2017. Based on research conducted in the area, the section explores respondents’ overall satisfaction with their life and work-life balance alongside the extent to which they feel they have someone to talk to about their day-to-day problems and that their research degree programme is worthwhile. Additionally, we added a question on whether students have ever considered leaving their research programme. The new PRES scale is exploratory. The questions aim to provide an insight into factors likely to impact upon students’ experiences. As further research is conducted into the area of student wellbeing we will continue to review the scale. We look forward to sharing the sector results of the new scale with you in September.
As of 2017, PRES is available for institutions to run on an annual basis.
For more information on PRES, including on the new wellbeing scale, please feel free to contact us at email@example.com or 01904 717500.
Gil, N. (2015). Majority of students experience mental health issues, says NUS survey. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/dec/14/majority-of-students-experience-mental-health-issues-says-nus-survey
Institute for Employment Studies [IES] & Researching Equity, Access and Partnership [REAP]. (2015). Understanding provision for students with mental health problems and intensive support needs. Retrieved from http://www.hefce.ac.uk/media/HEFCE,2014/Content/Pubs/Independentresearc…
Neves, J. & Hillman, N. (2017). 2017 Student Academic Experience Survey. York: Higher Education Academy. Retrieved from https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/downloads/2017_student_academic_experience_survey_final_report.pdf