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BLOG: Lifting the lid on the mental health of researchers.

Date 21.05.2019

The first International Conference on the Mental Health & Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers took place last week. What was clear from this conference is that many PhD student researchers’ mental health is being adversely impacted.  They’re feeling stressed, struggling to cope with the isolation and workload that comes as part of being a Postgraduate Researcher (PGR). Newly elected Students’ Union Research Student Officer, Anthony Stepniak and Senior Lecturer in Education, Dr Cristina Devecchi, attended the conference, here, they blog about their thoughts.

“The two-day conference in Brighton was sponsored by Nature Research and by the Universities of Portsmouth and Sussex. It was a sell-out; bringing together researchers, PGRs, Deans and Head of Doctoral colleges, training developers, university leaders, Universities UK, VITAE and charitable organisations who focus on mental health and wellbeing.

“Drawing from the results of the six HEFCE funded Catalyst projects, the conference was an opportunity to share good practice and develop future collaboration with other universities. For us, it was comforting to know that we’re on the right lines in Northampton.

“John de Pury from UUK suggested that student voice is a key way to tackle some of the things that adversely influence PGRs mental health. This year, the way the PGR student voice is represented has taken a step forwards; alongside the existing team of PGR reps for the University covering faculty, subject and institution level, for the first time the Students’ Union held elections for the first Research Student Officer post, we’re pleased to be ahead of the curve here. The PGR student voice will only be amplified further at the upcoming open forum Research Student Committee, this will be a place where members of the research community can air their views to the PGR reps and rest of the community, we think it’s a real opportunity to effect change where students feel it is needed.

“The University of Northampton moved into our new Waterside Campus last year; as part of the development of the campus, a dedicated Postgraduate Research Space was developed. Previously, faculty/subject based PGR offices were dotted around campus, now, the first floor of the Senate building has a dedicated space for PGRs. This space offers the University’s postgraduate community a purpose built, 24/7 space, allowing over 80 students to work at the same time. The physical creation of a dedicated space has given the PGR community an identity as a whole, rather than sometimes feeling like addendum to a faculty or subject area. Having a space of our own does mean you feel less isolated while beavering away with research projects, even if you don’t stop to talk to the others in the space, who are equally as immersed in their work.

“As well as being together in a space, we’ve rejuvenated the way we build a sense of belonging at Northampton through activities. We’re trialling and adopting more activities; from a monthly social, to a digital interactive noticeboard, bake your PhD competitions, as well as a developing on an already thriving online community. The University has a 300-strong postgraduate research community, and recently ranked their experience at Northampton fourth out of UK universities in the Overall Satisfaction Category in the most recent Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES). Something we hope to continue to build on.

“Another change is the inclusion of PGR’s in the planning of this year’s Research Conference, which will take place in June . We’re excited; the Research conference is bigger and better than ever, we’ve had more submissions than ever before from PGRs, we’ve got PGRs leading workshops, PGR’s have taken on several leadership roles for the conference organisation.

“The conference has inspired us to push forward with further initiatives to oppose the isolation and identity crisis PGRs face and feel, which was apparent from the conference. Looking ahead, we will be working with Melanie Petch, Researcher Developer, to ensure that the Graduate School Training programme for PGR’s is inclusive to the diverse range of PGR’s our community consists of.

“We will be working on the way in which PGR teaching opportunities are designed and implemented, to ensure that PGR’s are supported to develop their wider skills, alongside supporting them to get a good research degree.”

Anthony Stepniak and Cristina Devecchi