To support PGR wellbeing, focus on building a strong relationship

This is a guest post by the University of Lincoln’s Dr Trish Jackman(@Trish_Jackman), Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology. Trish has authored two recent papers on mental health and wellbeing in doctoral researchers, and is Principal Investigator on the Getting Off to a Mentally Healthy Start in Doctoral Study project. The piece below coheres around supporting doctoral researchers in the transition to doctoral study, and at key points during the doctoral journey.

A seedling growing out of dirt

My involvement in research on doctoral researcher mental health and wellbeing started with a project funded by the Lincoln Higher Education Research Institute (LHERI), which combined visual life grids with interviews. In this study, which was recently accepted for publication in Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, we were particularly interested in understanding what could promote psychological wellbeing. As depicted in the life grids, our participants felt that their wellbeing varied at different stages.

Throughout the participants’ account, supervisors were considered to be key supports for navigating challenges. This support could range from ‘esteem support’, which was characterised by words of encouragement that built confidence, to acts of ‘emotional support’, which aided management of lower psychological wellbeing. Furthermore, supervisors that were responsive and accessible were also considered integral.

Building on this initial study and in response to calls for preventative measures to support mental health and wellbeing in PGRs across the sector, we sought to understand the transition into doctoral study and how institutions structures could be best designed to support doctoral researchers at this stage through the ‘Getting Off to a Mentally Healthy Start in Doctoral Study’ project. This project involved two distinct phases. With my colleagues Lisa Jacobs, Kelly Sisson, and Rebecca Hawkins, in the first phase we conducted a systematic review to generate understanding on what was currently known about mental health and wellbeing in early-stage doctoral students in the peer reviewed literature. It was published in the European Journal of Higher Education, entitled “Mental health and psychological wellbeing in the early stages of doctoral study: A systematic review”.

Although there is room for further development of this evidence base here, a salient finding was the importance of supervisory support for mental health and wellbeing in the early stages. Our synthesis of qualitative data demonstrated that supervisors were not just important providers of subject knowledge, but they could help to alleviate worries that could arise in the transition to doctoral study, a period that can present challenges for many.

In contrast, some findings indicated that supervisory practices could have a detrimental impact.

Furthermore, the review highlighted a series of elements that supervisors could be well-placed to provide doctoral students with support on. These included:

  • Difficulties with adjusting (e.g., to a new community)
  • Doubts about ability
  • Uncertainty
  • Assessments, deadlines, and times pressures
  • Concerns about evaluation and feedback
  • Workload and working arrangements
  • Writing

Building on our initial review, we conducted a co-design study, where I, alongside colleagues Lisa Jacobs and Rebecca Sanderson, worked in partnership with doctoral researchers and higher education staff to generate principles that could be used to inform induction practices in the future.

A key element of this stage was that we sought to generate principles for inductions that were designed by doctoral researchers for doctoral researchers. Key suggestions for supervisors arising from this work centred on the importance of clarifying expectations from the beginning and to ensure that supervisors provide direction, explicate progress made, and reassure PGRs in the early stages. The manuscript from this work is currently in preparation, but we have blogged the findings from this work.

We would like to invite you to join our community of practice (via the blog post linked above), where we hope to share experiences of implementation across the country.

Taken together, evidence generated through our research points to the importance of supervisors for supporting doctoral researchers. Based on our research to date, we highlight several points pertinent to supervision in the early stages of doctoral study, which are divided into two key themes:

Recommendation 1. Develop strong relationships with your PGRs

Doctoral researchers in our work highlighted the importance of developing strong relationships in the early stages. Given the uncertainty and doubts that can arise in the transition, when the move to independent study is likely to be new for most, it was not surprising that doctoral researchers emphasised the need for supervisors to ensure they provide adequate direction and offer reassurance on progress made. In the early stages of the transitions to doctoral study, it was recommended that supervisors should connect with supervisees via weekly or fortnightly meetings.

Recommendation 2. Institutional focus on building high-quality relationships

Initiatives that educate supervisors on the importance of building high-quality relationships with supervisees could be a valuable way of engaging with this. Such training, which could be embedded within existing supervisory training, should clarify the distinction between mental health/illness and wellbeing, the basics of self-care, and academic well-being, and the (boundaries of the) role of supervisors (and other support services) with regards to mental health/illness and wellbeing.

In addition to providing informational support, supervisors must recognise the importance of offering esteem and emotional support, responding to the needs of supervisees at different stages.

Institutions should ensure that supervisors are enabled to provide effective supervisory support, for example by allocating an appropriate amount of time for supervision and providing CPD to develop their supervisory practice over time. Thus, institutions should ensure that supervisors can engage in development of their supervisory practice over time and create mechanisms to facilitate this.

You can read more about the Getting off to a Mentally Healthy Start in Doctoral Study project and download a copy of the findings detailing principles for inductions to support doctoral researchers.

Trish is also chairing the 2021-2022 SMaRteN PhD Student Mental Health Lab series. If you would like to find out more about this, please sign up via this form.

3 Replies to “To support PGR wellbeing, focus on building a strong relationship”

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