finding the boundaries of PGR peer-mentoring

PhD Peer Mentoring logo.pngStarting a doctorate requires us to rethink our tactics and readjust to independent scholarship, project management, and isolated working (as I wrote about recently). These transitions can be hard work, and involve getting to grips with a lot of tacit knowledge about how academia works, implied or vague success criteria, and invisible processes for getting work done. Dr Chris Blackmore and I have a couple of projects ongoing concerned with transitions, well being and mental health, and one of those is detailed below, we are concerned with ‘Finding the Boundaries of PGR Peer Mentoring’ and have received Senate Award Fellow Funding to look into this.

Why is wellbeing and mental health even a concern? The workload involved in a PhD, and in academia is high, and some say too high. Doctoral students can experience many stressors relating to academic pressure and workload, which are sustained over a period of several years. Emerging research on occupational stress in university environments indicates that it is widespread, especially among junior academics, who experience a unique set of stressors. A high proportion, 32%, of PhD students are at risk of developing common mental health problems. The academic culture of high-achievement and high workloads also creates an environment where wellbeing is more likely to be at risk and PGRs may feel less able to talk about their uncertainties, wellbeing and mental health.

Making sense of developmental experiences can be supported by good professional relationships and recent research has mapped a wider set of ‘meaningful others’ interplaying in doctoral support networks, and demonstrated the importance of peer networks. Peer-to-peer mentoring models can provide good longitudinal support for engaged individuals and so peer-mentoring is an obvious first choice for those seeking to broaden the transitional experience and support base for new doctoral students. Hence its rising popularity across TUoS (and wider) in our Departments and cohort-based doctoral structures e.g. Centres for Doctoral Training, Doctoral Training Partnerships, Innovative Training Networks. Helping those responsible for peer-mentoring to use the available evidence-base to underpin the design and success characteristics of peer-mentoring approaches is therefore a current priority.

Can peer support help with PGR wellbeing and mental health though?Well, a recent meta-analysis of 23 peer-run programmes for depression in non-student populations, found that such interventions produced significant reductions in depressive symptoms and performed as well as professional-led interventions and significantly better than no-treatment conditions. Data also suggests that peer led programmes are most effective if they are formally structured and framed around specific peer skills or attributes, rather than left to chance.

An important caution is that expectations of what peer mentoring can achieve tend to be high and a concern is that that the role of peer-mentor could become inappropriately burdening to the mentor (who has their own PhD to get done!), or creep into overlap and conflict with the role of the supervisor. Understanding boundaries, and what is beyond the role of the peer mentor is essential in creating effective programmes that don’t simply transfer stress from new PGRs to their second or third year mentors.

Our project then seeks to find these boundaries by asking mentoring pairs to meet and then complete a post-mentoring reflection form asking both what the mentors could, and could not, help with. We’ll follow up with end of programme interviews and integrate the data we collect, with the aim of creating a good practice guide. We feel that being able to draw on guidance that defines the structures, attributes, remit, and limitations of doctoral PGR peer-mentoring, would support all the different groups planning or launching peer programmes. We want to support groups at The University of Sheffield and beyond to succeed with developing an offer capable of supporting PGR well-being both for the mentees and for the mentors.

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