PGR mental health, wellbeing, and the supervisory relationship

This is a guest post by Dr Kate Gath, whose PhD in English was recently awarded. Kate uses her experience of PhD study to reflect on this new report from Vitae

Screen Shot 2018-06-25 at 11.33.40.pngAs a PGR at the very end of the PhD, gradually working my way through my (minor) corrections and looking forward to the actually rather tedious task of changing my title on every credit card, email signature and future piece of addressed post, I am able to reflect on the challenges faced by doctoral candidates as I myself finish the task. At the time of writing, I am on my third day of shadowing Kay and learning all about the mentoring projects she has developed, and is developing, and the important role these can play in supporting PGRs and enhancing their PhD experience. The wellbeing of PGRs and how it might be improved is scrutinised by a new and desperately needed report compiled by Dr Janet Metcalfe, Dr Sally Wilson and Professor Katia Levecque of Vitae, the Institute of Employment Studies, and the University of Ghent respectively, entitled Exploring wellbeing and mental health and associated support services for postgraduate researchers(May 2018). Funded by Research England (previously the Higher Education Funding Council for England), the research considers the support structures and policies in place within ten UK higher education institutions (HEIs) relating to the mental health of PGRs.

It makes for fascinating reading, not least for PhD supervisors, who are on the frontline of mental health support, and PGRs themselves. The types of mental health provision available for PhD candidates across HEIs are not well understood when compared with those for undergraduate students, yet it is vital that PGRs are adequately supported if and when they face the plethora of difficulties which may crop up during the PhD journey. While some level of stress aids in building resilient researchers, there is a ‘common link’ between demanding workloads and feelings of depression (p. 6).

 This report explores a number of factors affecting PGR wellbeing, including the ‘supervisory relationship’, stating that it is ‘central to the PGR experience and hence often central to their wellbeing’ (p. 19). Metcalfe, Wilson, and Levecque note that responses gathered by the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) consistently display a positive attitude in terms of supervisors possessing the ‘skills and knowledge’ required to support PGR research, but currently PRES lacks specific questions asking PGRs about the ability of their supervisors to support their mental health and wellbeing (p. 19). Considering that supervisors are in a unique position in terms of both impacting upon and monitoring, consciously or otherwise, willingly or not, the mental states of their PhD students, more attention must be paid by HEIs to all aspects of the student-supervisor relationship. It is no secret that supervisors lack the support they need to allow them to be effective in safeguarding the wellbeing of their students, and that HEIs currently do not provide them with the necessary ‘mental health literacy’ (pp. 30-32).

The report also notes that there was consensus across interviews with staff and PGR focus groups that a problem within the supervisory relationship was ‘one of the most common reasons for wellbeing issues’ (p. 19). PGRs and their supervisors have to work together to maintain a successful working relationship, and either party can be responsible for a breakdown in relations, but ultimately it is the supervisor who is offering guidance and who is in a position of power. Staff working as part of professional support services claimed that issues within supervisory relationships were ‘one of the most difficult circumstances to deal with, not least as PGRs were usually reluctant to give them permission to approach the supervisor’ (p. 19). I feel this is an instance where a secondary supervisor could be ideally placed to mediate, but this requires a high level of professionalism on behalf of the secondary supervisor, who may have a close working relationship with the primary supervisor, quite possibly in the same field depending upon departmental organisation and processes. A secondary supervisor may or may not be of lower professional standing than their colleague, may or may not be a personal friend or even partner, and may or may not have a good working relationship with the primary supervisor. Factors such as this can cause anxiety and problems for a PGR who is or feels they may be caught between two, or perhaps more, supervisors, even if none of the supervisors alone would underperform in a supervisory role.

Worryingly, it seems that there are few consequences for particularly poor supervisors whose behaviour impacts negatively upon the mental wellbeing of those they supervise. In my experience, it feels as if every PGR has a tale of their own or has been privy to the distressing experience of another PhD candidate, at their own institution or otherwise. PGRs are bullied into working alongside their supervisor on national holidays and/or for incredibly long days, for months on end with little time to rest. Other supervisors provide tiny amounts of feedback on PGR work after months of radio silence, while some give their students such poor, inconsistent advice for years that they are forced to abandon their PhD entirely. What about the multiple PGRs who have dropped out after working under the same supervisor? Can that really be a coincidence? In all of these cases, the academics involved continued with their careers, and often with their terrible supervisory approach, seemingly unhindered, while the PGRs suffered anything from a complete loss of confidence to wasted finances to a delayed PhD. Although supervising PhD students may not seem as integral to the role of an academic as publishing research, it does fall under their teaching remit and in many other career fields there would be consequences for poor performance. As well as there being few or no penalties faced by ‘bad’ supervisors, there is also not enough celebration of those who truly excel at supporting their PGRs via their supervision, and therefore helping to maintain their wellbeing. The Students’ Union here at the University of Sheffield runs the Academic Awards, which features a category entitled ‘Best Postgraduate Supervisor’, and Kay’s recent SuperVisionaries project highlights supervisors who have made a positive difference to the PGR experience. Even so, I think that many HEIs could be doing more to recognise, reward and encourage excellent supervision.

Nevertheless, even when PGRs enjoy a ‘positive and constructive’ relationship with their supervisor, they may be reluctant to flag any problems they are experiencing in relation to their wellbeing and mental health with the supervisor in question (p. 20). The report notes that this was due to a perception among some PGRs that disclosure could encourage their supervisor to doubt their ability to complete their PhD. Supervisors were also seen as integral not only in whether PGRs were successful in gaining their doctorates, but in acting as referees and providing a gateway to important networks (p. 20). It seems then, that PGRs may feel that disclosing information on their mental health may jeopardise not just their PhD but also their future career, and it would be ridiculous to expect anyone who feels this way to consider disclosure. Although such perceptions may or may not be based in truth, they reflect the stigma which still surrounds mental health conditions, both within academia and outside of it. The report states that many PGRs have reached a crisis point before they seek help for mental health issues, but that ‘early disclosure’ generally results in ‘better outcomes’ (p. 18).

Encouragingly, the research has gathered evidence of some PGRs having very positive experiences when choosing to disclose a mental health condition. One PGR spoke of having been brilliantly supported by a network of staff including their supervisor, and not needing to take a leave of absence to deal with mental health issues (p. 20). The latter seems troublingly common, and while of course it should be encouraged if it will help improve a student’s wellbeing, surely it would be preferable if students did not become so unwell and demoralised that they require time away from their PhD.

If more research students had the same experience as the PGR above, and more PGRs had supervisors who were acting as a positive influence upon their wellbeing, HEIs would have happier, healthier, more productive PhD students who would be less likely to drop out and more equipped to successfully submit their theses within three to four years of beginning their course. However, for this to happen, multiple and diverse factors must be addressed, not least the nature of the supervisory relationship and the lack of support and training available for supervisors to enable them to adequately protect the wellbeing of those they supervise. Metcalfe, Wilson and Levecque write ‘there is only a real opportunity for disclosures around wellbeing’ to occur if ‘the culture is one of trust and openness’ (p. 28). See here for some recent research on Trust and Supervision. Sadly, I think there is some way to go before HEIs can be seen to be fully embracing such an approach.

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