protecting supervisors who respond to the mental health and wellbeing needs of international research students.

A hand reaches out of a dark sea implying that its owner is in need rescue.
Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

There is evidence that international doctoral students are more vulnerable to study-related stress in the course of their candidacy. Our project asks how this amplified stress may also have an impact on those who closely support them? The study defines a unique set of stress triggers for the supervisors of international PGRs and demonstrates for the first time how doctoral supervisors experience that stress, within a context of high pressure to take on students and tight deadlines for thesis completion.

Since December 2018 a team from The University of Glasgow, the University of Sheffield, and Herriot Watt University have been investigating how well the supervisors of international postgraduate researchers understand the mental health and well-being of those doctoral students. This is a study funded by the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) and is an important topic due to the reported poor levels of psychological well-beingexperienced by this group of doctoral candidates. 

Other research has suggested that international PGRs newly arriving in the UK for their doctoral degree were likely to be vulnerable due to a combination of reasons, including the process of adjusting to a new culture, their existing cultural mores, finance, Visas, family circumstances and potentially through having less access to support from family and friends. 

To date, attention to the mental health and wellbeing of PGR students is focused on understanding the students’ perspective and there is a lack of research looking at the perspectives of the PGR supervisors in how they support international PGRs.

Supervisors are often the people who international doctoral students reach out to first. We have completed detailed, and creative, interviews with 15 experienced supervisors (median = 5.5 international PGRs supervised to completion) from 6 universities, to understand how they support the international doctoral students they supervise, how they know something is wrong, the types of issues their students face, and when those issues commonly arise. 

So, what did those experienced supervisors tell us? What follows is a summary of the preliminary headlines. Do please bear in mind that these findings are open to refinement once the team have completed a series of independent analyses.

How do UK supervisors understand the mental health/wellbeing needs of international students?

  • Supervisors report a range of experience and understanding around mental health and wellbeing of international doctoral students, from very little to professional clinical experience. There was an overall agreement that all doctoral supervisors would benefit from regular training/updating on this.
  • There was a consensus that PhD are ‘stressful’ but international students may be more vulnerable to increased ‘stress’. 
  • Issues around disclosure were commonly reported in association to international students, hierarchical and cultural differences were suggested as potential reasons for this. Many reported only finding out about students mental health/wellbeing issues when students were at crisis, disengaged or from other students. 
  • Key PhD journey stress points for international students were (1) the initial entry into the country and ‘settling in period’. (2) ‘During field work – especially if the field work was in their ‘home’ country. (3) The period leading up the thesis submission and viva due to issues with academic writing. 
  • Triggers that were seen as ‘unique’ to international students, generally focused around (1) ‘Legal and financial’ such as Visa and funding systems. (2) ‘Isolation’ such as loss of a family support network. (3) Difference in ‘education style’ such as expectations of ownership, style and quality of work and (4) ‘external pressures’ such as supporting a family. 
  • Protective factors that were seen as ‘unique’ to international students were a ‘strong work ethic’ and a tendency for students to be ‘more mature’ and potentially ‘more resilient’. The concept of international students being ‘survivors’ due to their determination was a common theme the supervisors reported.

To what extent are supervisors equipped to respond these mental health needs?

  • Supervisors reported often poor department and organisational training and lack of support around this topic. Most support was identified as being informal peer support, and this was highly valued.
  • A lack of knowledge around the ‘correct’ places to signpost students to as well as what the ‘correct’ approach should be varied greatly amongst the interviewed supervisors.
  • Many participants disclosed that supervising students who experience poor mental health and welling being as has huge impact on their own mental health and wellbeing. This was linked to pressure from organisations and departments with ‘completion rates going on academics records’ and ‘getting students to complete in the funded time frame’. Pressure for supervisors to take on larger numbers of students, particularly international students (with funding) to enable their dept to make financial gains was also raised as a detrimental factor.
  • ‘Supervisory boundaries’ was a common theme and many reflected that supervisors ability to maintain ‘protective’ as well as ‘professional’ boundaries has improved with their experience and through learning from past mistakes.

Figure 1 summarises the contextual stressors experienced by international PGRs and by their supervisors and recognises that stress can be transferred between student and supervisor, moderated or exacerbated by their working relationship. Relational factors such as setting and keeping clear role boundaries, and openness to disclosure, reduce the impact of these stressors by allowing for timely support to be put in place.

This preliminary data is a work in progress, once we finalise the analyses, we will use the data we collect to develop evidence-based understanding of the needs of international postgraduate researchers, and to inform the development of interventions and training packages tailored to supervisors of international doctoral students.

The project has been approved by the University of Sheffield Ethics Committee, and a full Study Information Sheet can be found herePrincipal Investigator: Dr Chris Blackmore

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