PGR Peer-Mentoring can’t compensate for poor supervision

Making sense of PhD learning experiences, and understanding the ’norms’ of research can be enabled by supportive peer cohorts and communities, good supervision relationships and recent research has mapped a wider set of ‘meaningful others’ interplaying across doctoral support networks. Peer-to-peer mentoring models in many different contexts can provide good longitudinal support for engaged individuals and so peer-mentoring is an obvious ‘solution’ to the organisational ‘problem’ of how we can support new researchers to transition to doctoral level study, and to find their ‘independence’.

Last year,  in partnership with my colleague Chris Blackmore, I ran a small research project looking at how we could design peer mentoring that has clear objectives and guides participants and their hosting departments towards realistic expectations for what peer mentoring can achieve. This is because expectations for this type of support sometimes stray into the inappropriate, with mentees expecting their mentor to fix their ‘big unknowns’ of PhD study, or with departments hoping that peer-to-peer support will take away some of the supervision workload, or solve the complex issues of a poor supervision culture, or feelings of isolation amongst students. Chris and I felt that I was essential that we didn’t stress out the mentors by overloading them with responsibility for a new student, and so managed and supported the partnerships carefully.

The programme was structured to begin with a group induction discussing what issues mentoring can help with and how; covering expectations for mentoring and the programme structure; the roles of mentee and mentor; practical experience of delivering effective mentoring conversations; and boundaries and signposting. Pairs were then ‘matched’ outside their own departments, and encouraged to meet and define expectations and objectives for the partnership using an ‘agreement’ (‘contracting’ to those who work in coaching or counselling disciplines) form.

After each of the subsequent 3 mentoring meetings, both mentors and mentees completed an online form asking them to reflect on the value of mentoring to their emotional wellbeing, in gaining new knowledge or information, in gaining new understanding or strategy development, and to their PhD progress. It also captured what mentors and mentees felt the boundaries were, that is, what mentoring could not help with.

At the end of the programme, each participants’ reflective notes were used as interview prompts for individual semi-structured interviews which collected in-depth accounts, with the aim of understanding how they approached and benefitted from peer-mentoring. We compared and linked across cases to interpret the data. Here’s what we found:

Peer mentoring adds value

All participants valued the opportunity and recommended that the programme continue. It was felt that the expectation setting (induction and agreement form) had been essential to success.

Mentoring was used for information sharing, study/self-governance strategy development, and for wellbeing support. Aides to wellbeing were: a sense of connectedness, being listened to, making sense of the research environment, relating to others’ experience.

Mentors benefitted too, they reported gaining a coaching skill-set, they gained reciprocal information from their mentees, and most importantly they valued the opportunity to do their own reflection and sense-making.

Peer mentoring has limitations

Peer-mentoring supported and complemented good supervision relationships, helping mentees to evaluate their relationships with their supervisors, and to think through how they might set and negotiate expectations, styles and personal boundaries with their supervisors. However, it did not help mentees to overcome the more acute and well characterised issues of poor supervision, that is, matters of absent or unavailable supervisors, poor or absent feedback, bullying harassment and rudeness, expectations for overworking and high productivity.

Peer-mentoring did not enable or accelerate disciplinary enculturation. Mentors cannot broker professional introductions, support disciplinary network building, or provide opportunities to present or publish. This important responsibility was again reserved for the PhD supervisors.

Peer-mentors, as guided, signposted mentees to counselling or mental health services (where needed) but could not ensure that the services had appropriate capacity, or helpful timelines.

The concluding recommendations for PGR peer-mentoring are below. They are drawn from the data, and from my observations as the programme leader.

  • Participants should receive an induction and ongoing support to set and manage expectations for mentoring and deal with issues arising.
  • Peer mentoring should not be seen as an easy way to solve matters of poor supervision. Supervision is still the biggest predictor of success, and the biggest influence on the PGR student experience.
  • Peer mentoring can be one approach within a wider strategy for mental health and wellbeing, but should not be seen as an easy way to solve the problem of poor mental health in PhD populations. Programmes should be named carefully to avoid ‘wellbeing’ language which may fall into the trap of either overpromising, or being off-putting to certain students.
  • Peer mentoring should be seen as specialist learning and teaching work, with its own set of pedagogical processes. It can be mapped to the UKPSF, and used as evidence to support a claim for HEA Accreditation. Peer mentors should therefore be paid for this specialist work, for example using a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) model. This has obvious potential for conflict with PhD Funder guidelines and Visa restrictions which may be prohibitive of GTA work.

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