The changing future of postgraduate research

In late November, the University posted an internal news story about, “the changing future of postgraduate research.” [LINK].  As mentioned in the article, University PGR Committee is currently undertaking an extensive work programme, across five key areas, to really reflect on the current challenges in the offering of PhD programmes. One area is, “Mental health: surveys in the sector suggest that 40–45 per cent of PGR students report having mental health issues.”

I am co-lead for the aspect of the above work programme looking at wellbeing and this project has re-ignited some reflections had during my time in the ‘Think Ahead’ team.

Through the survey and focus groups we have held as part of the wellbeing work-stream, what is evident is that there is a huge appetite across all roles to be part of positive change.  Over 100 people gave up both their time and ideas to make suggestions for how we can all collectively contribute to an improved research environment, not only for PhD students but for all.  In these more complex times, I think that is something worth noting.

This blog has its fair share of posts relating to wellbeing and they go back over a number of years, so the challenge of the wellbeing-research balancing act is not new.  The fact that the University is really digging in to processes and practices in relation to improving wellbeing in postgraduate research is heartening and what I hope comes as part of the process is a two-pronged approach to improvement (1.) through better processes and (2.) to robust support for the people around the postgraduate researcher.

Through the assignments I have marked as part of TRAM and Associate SuperVisionaries, it is apparent to me the pivotal role postdocs/research staff play in the achievement of positive outcomes for PhD students.  They have the technical knowledge, the emerging people management skills and recent lived experience of the process.  Here at TUoS, they also have the benefit of a tailored researcher development programme that includes delivered theoretical content, applied learning experiences, reflective practice mechanisms and recognition methods.

I read assignments that are honestly critical, self-aware and self-supporting and that contain aims for the future.  Feedback of these learning experiences is about the transformative effect they have had for the developing supervisor/research leader and their practice.

Whilst this augurs well for the future of research management, I am left somewhat bereft at the two questions in naturally leads to:

  1. What is the emotional cost to these individuals to be ‘in loco’ supervisor?
  2. Where is the parallel offering, expectation and encouragement to current supervisors to practice at this level?

During 2019, a working party has also been convened to look at the researcher development offer at the University with an aim to recommending how it can be meaningfully expanded across the career spectrum from PGR-Professor.

Given academic support and development is repeatedly surfacing as an area for review and that well-being is high on everybody’s agenda, it’s never been a better time to innovate in the sphere of academic development and build a robust and engaging offer.

‘Learning opportunities are among the largest drivers of employee engagement and strong workplace culture – they are part of the entire employee value proposition, not merely a way to build skills’. (LINK: Deloitte: Global Human Capital Trends Report 2016)

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