PGR wellbeing and social identities –what can we do?

A huge thanks to Sanja Djerasimovic and Punit Shah (PIs) with Stephanie Alder, Susan Hope Hoffman, Masha Remskar, Idris Yana & Lucy Waldren (PGR team) for managing the event and putting this blog piece together.

The last few years – Covid-19 pandemic notwithstanding – have highlighted the fact that postgraduate students (PGRs) appear significantly more susceptible to ill mental health, particularly anxiety and depression, than comparable populations. Recent UK-based research further indicates that neither the existing research nor wellbeing services built on the needs of the undergraduate and postgraduate taught students are adequate for the doctoral student community.

In response to these issues, we – a team of social sciences and humanities academics and PGRs from the universities of Bath and Exeter – were granted funding by the ESRC SWDTP academic-led collaboration fund to organise an event aimed at PGRs and supervisors from across SWDTP and SWWDTP institutions.

Identifying Stressors

The event sought to comprehensively explore this topic, often addressed by identifying discrete stressors – worry about the future, financial situation, relationship with the supervisor, unclear expectations, competitiveness, impostor syndrome, work-life balance – from a novel perspective of social identity. In other words, we sought to understand the different social identities that PGR students inhabit, how these interact with a PGR identity, and with what consequences to students’ wellbeing.

Experiences of the PGR members of our team influenced our planning of the event. Among them were Psychology, English, and Drama PGRs, some of them British, others international, navigating a new cultural as well as academic landscape; some following a fairly linear path from their undergraduate to their doctoral studies, others joining with background in student wellbeing and PGR representation, yet others prompted to join by their own, often problematic, negotiations of the PGR journey, not quite a ‘student’ (mature, with caring responsibilities), not quite an academic ‘colleague’ despite engaging in research and teaching, acutely feeling the resulting financial and social precariousness. We also liaised with some members of the institutional PGR wellbeing services, whose experience confirmed that felt by some PGRs collaborators: that the institutions are keenly aware of the problem, but that the institutional provision is often under-utilised, prompting us to address this aspect of the issue in our event as well.

We aimed to take a dialogic, multi-perspective, holistic, non-pathologising approach to the question of PGR identity and wellbeing, starting with problematising the language that is used to describe the PGR experience. Moving away from discourse that often positions PGRs as (struggling) students, we wanted to focus on all the different aspects of their social being and belonging that interact with this experience, some making it more challenging, but others elevating it. We used ‘social identities’ as a way of designating and naming different roles that we all enact or aspire to enact, the social spheres and communities of belonging that inspire our values, motivation, a sense of accomplishment.

Sharing experiences

Although we approached the planning of the event from a combined disciplinary expertise and research interests in Higher Education policy and Psychology, the idea for the event came from a conversation in which the two academic leads realised that we shared a personal as well as an intellectual interest in the topic. We have both entered academia from within social spheres – class, ethnicity, gender – not ‘traditionally’ compatible with the cultural ideal of an academic, one that is thankfully, but slowly beginning to change, a fact that has been as helpful as it has been occasionally problematic. Having a sense of shared experience among peers and supervisors, and being able to relax the anxiety associated with the nascent academic identity and the fears about the academic career, by changing the perspective and drawing on these other sources of social support and belonging, was incredibly important, and allowed us to cherish the positive aspects of the PGR experience.

We thus wanted to open up this conversation among current PGRs and create an environment in which diverse, and perhaps similar, experiences can be shared – from across disciplines, institutions, and levels of academic experience, in an effort to understand, all of us, the broader lifeworlds of doctoral students, beyond that of a student, learn about their triumphs and their challenges and begin sketching the ways in which social resources can be utilised to improve wellbeing, within and beyond peer and supervisory relationships and institutions.

Our focus was on humanities and social science students who often share similar working conditions, such as individual work (increasing the risk of isolation), with their supervisor(s) often the main – if not only – source of support and guidance.

We also focused on PGRs in the 2nd and later years of their PhD journey, to ensure that the event enabled productive, experience-based conversations. However, we plan to share our insights that are valuable for transition into PhD study, and 1st year induction processes and experiences, with participating institutions.

The online event: Precarity, prosperity and everything in between

The half-day event was delivered online on the 8th of September 2021, and consisted of creative, prompt-based, and topic-based small-group discussions, and whole group discussions. At each point during the day’s several sessions, we had between 20-25 participants, who had, judging by the pre-event survey, joined for a number of different reasons, from learning how to look after their wellbeing, through wanting to understand their and others’ PGR identities, to seeking to socialise, network and get the sense of confidence and resilience from knowing that they are not alone in their experience – although for most of them, their PGR experience had not been entirely (or even predominantly) negative.

We welcomed participants from at least five different institutions, a dozen different disciplines, at different stages in their PGR journey, part-time and full-time students, those funded by the doctoral partnerships, by other funders, and self-funded.  A number of academics and current PhD supervisors, were also in attendance, drawing both on their past PGR experience, and the present experience of PGR supervision.

The event was set up to be conversational. Although it was delivered online, we decided that it would not be recorded, so to enable creating a relaxed, safe atmosphere where participants – PGRs and supervisors alike – would be free to express their views. We opened with an introduction from organisers and closed with a whole group discussion. But for the most part, participants were divided into smaller groups of PGRs and supervisors.

Initial Zoom breakout rooms, during the morning sessions, opened the broad discussion about the PGR identity and other social identities, and wellbeing during the PGR journey, moderated by the members of the organising team. The afternoon sessions, also moderated, took place in Wonder rooms to facilitate more flexible discussions (with participants moving in and out of the rooms) around specific topics: me and my supervisor; me and my peers; I feel like an outsider; what I do and why; my PhD and my home life; and my PhD and my future. 

Social Identities

We brought myriad social identities (see image above) into the day’s discussions, which resulted in several important insights that we plan to tackle in more depth in our next steps, including PGR focus groups and an event for represented institutions and funders planned for early 2022.

For example, it was felt that defining oneself solely by what one does, i.e. ignoring other social roles and identities, was potentially dangerous, but something that PGRs are particularly vulnerable to, given that the nature of their work is more likely to be connected to their values and passions. Additional difficulties were seen as arising from a perception that PGRs’ work is not inherently valued, and the burden of having to demonstrate that one’ research ‘matters’ – the value and the challenges of public engagement, and the permission to be ‘an expert’ even though one was not yet ‘an academic’ were in one group discussed at length.

The hierarchical nature of academia and the cultural and financial factors influencing the division between ‘academics’ and ‘PGRs’ were further perceived as problematic, not least in terms of difficult relationships with supervisors. Finally, identity conflicts were particularly strong where there was a mismatch between one’s PGR experience, and the identities relating to class, gender, national or ethnic background (international and ethnically diverse students, in particular, voiced experience of their wellbeing not being adequately supported by institutions) – and an additional sense of inner conflict for mature students who may have lost access to their prior professional self. 

Overall, however, common themes of being lost, different, an outsider, came up across the group discussions throughout the day. Such difficulties associated with trying to find a social circle where one fits, could also be interpreted as a reasonably weak ‘PGR identity’ to begin with among our participants – not helped by the pressures of academia, both the job market and the cultural values of competition where, almost paradoxically, it was noted at one point, the very group that should provide the strongest sense of belonging and support, i.e. one’s peers, ends up being a group of individuals against whom one is in constant competition. 

Some suggested ways of addressing these problems included: a stronger institutional presence for PGRs, both in terms of representing the research community, and where applies, the paid labour force; more social and professional interaction between PGRs and senior colleagues in a flatter, collaborative, non-hierarchical structure and bringing together PGRs and staff around common interests and agendas, thus overcoming the institutional barriers; supportive supervisor and pastoral relationships; appreciating the uniqueness of one’s own path and understanding that there is no such thing as ‘ideal’ PGR experience; finally, exercising other social identities – having the option of leaving the academic ‘bubble’ or the ‘echo chamber’ by maintaining strong social ties outside of academia or engaging in fieldwork in a manner that challenges the dominant perspective of a PGR struggle and relaxes some of the pressures associated with it.

Conclusion

The post-event survey indicated that participants really appreciated the prolonged discussion in which they could voice their concerns openly and hear about others’ experiences that could be both supportive of their own and relieving the sense of isolation, and challenging and presenting different perspectives, not least those of the supervisors. This was confirmed by our PGR collaborators, who affirmed the necessity of such spaces and the enlightening and reassuring effect of the event on their own experiences. Further survey responses suggested willingness to engage in more similar discussions, with more people and disciplines represented, or conversely, discussions focused on particular challenges of a subject/discipline and an institution, or centred around issues of equality, diversity, and inclusion.

We wish to thank the ESRC SWDTP for their support – every step of the way! – in moving from an idea and a casual conversation towards delivering this event, and generating what is now the outline of a research project and a programme of developing better understanding and adequate support for our PGRs in the context of their social identities. We, as a team, have also gained so much from this process, not only a better understanding of the issues discussed, but also of each other’s experiences of academic and social identities and wellbeing, which have been enriched personally and professionally by the project.

Get involved in future work

Finally, we are taking this project a step further now, in an effort to better understand some of the themes that emerged from our conversations back in September, and test some ideas for short-, medium-, and long-term initiatives to address some of the challenges mentioned, particularly in terms of a question over whether there are strong, visible, high-status PGR communities in our institutions, and how to reconcile multiple, occasionally incompatible, social identities.

If you are a PGR or a supervisor interested in contributing to this conversation in a focus group interview, planned for December 2021/January 2022, please get in touch with one of the project’s PIs, Sanja Djerasimovic, on s.djerasimovic@exeter.ac.uk.

The interviews will be pseudonymised and your participation completely confidential, and the insights from the interviews and our event, will be shared with other stakeholders, including funders, academic (research) communities, and institutional wellbeing services in an online event planned for February 2022.