Postgraduate researchers need tailored mental health support

Postgraduate researchers need tailored mental health support

17 May 2018

Postgraduate researchers face mental health and wellbeing issues just as undergraduate students do. But the factors driving these issues are different, and mean a tailored approach is needed to support postgraduate researchers.

That’s the conclusion of the first ever UK survey into the wellbeing and mental health of postgraduate researchers, the results of which are published today. It found that this group can face challenges such as difficulties with the supervisor relationship, financial worries, harassment, and feeling isolated and inadequate.

The report, commissioned by the former higher education funding body, HEFCE, and led by Vitae – which supports the professional development of researchers – recommends a range of interventions for Research England and Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to ensure a healthy and supportive research environment for all postgraduate researchers.

Many of the recommendations in the report are being addressed by 17 projects funded under HEFCE as part of its Catalyst Fund. HEFCE awarded £1.5m to English universities in March 2018 through the fund to improve support for the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate researchers.

Research England’s Executive Chair, David Sweeney, said:

‘I welcome the report for helping us better understand this important issue. It is encouraging that the sector is already taking forward many of the recommendations from the report, and Research England will continue to play a key role, working with OfS, in supporting this. I am looking forward to the HEFCE Catalyst Fund projects exploring interventions that the sector can build upon to tackle these issues.’

Previous research has investigated mental health in UK undergraduate students, and it is widely acknowledged by the sector that there is also a problem in the postgraduate research population. But, until now, there was little understanding of the specific problems faced by the UK’s population of postgraduate researchers. 

HEFCE – whose responsibility for postgraduate researchers is now shared by its successors the Office for Students and Research England – commissioned Vitae to provide an initial insight into the wellbeing and mental health of postgraduate researchers, find out what mental health support is offered by HEIs, provide an insight into the factors specific to this population, and make recommendations for interventions.

Vitae assessed the wellbeing and mental health of postgraduate researchers, and the policies and provision relating to these issues through interviews with staff and postgraduate researcher focus groups at ten UK HEIs between September and November 2017. They also ran a pilot survey at six HEIs, providing an indication of the views and experiences which could be explored using a survey instrument.   

As well as finding that postgraduate researchers face a number of issues that could affect their wellbeing and mental health, Vitae found varying levels of provision and support at HEIs for postgraduate researchers.

Vitae make ten recommendations for Research England – as part of UK Research and Innovation, and HEIs, including:

  • commission a project to explore supervisors’ perceptions of their role in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate researchers
  • facilitate practice-sharing mechanisms around the Catalyst Fund projects
  • train, support and recognise supervisors’ role in identifying wellbeing issues among postgraduate researchers
  • HEIs should develop communications strategies to promote points of entry into support services

Many of the Catalyst Fund projects focus on the factors that influence postgraduate mental health and wellbeing highlighted in Vitae’s report such as: student isolation, the supervisor relationship, access to appropriate services/pastoral support, and feelings of inadequacy. They will support a range of activities, including those to:

  • develop new practice for the pastoral support of postgraduate research (PGR) students
  • enhance training for PGR supervisors and other staff
  • support students’ transition into postgraduate research, with its different expectations and working practices
  • work with other institutions and external partners to improve support for all PGR students.

Research England and the Office for Students are working together to continue to deliver this important programme of work and support the funded projects, evaluate the projects and analyse their impacts and outcomes, and facilitate the sharing of best practice across the sector for the benefit of all postgraduate students.

As well as supporting and sharing outcomes from the Catalyst Fund projects, we will consider how best to take forward the recommendations in the report as part of a wider approach to postgraduate research in UK Research and Innovation.


  1. Research England shapes healthy, dynamic research and knowledge exchange in English universities. We are responsible for funding, engaging with and understanding these institutions, and working with devolved funding bodies and the Office for Students to understand their strategies, capabilities and capacity. We support and challenge universities to create new knowledge, strengthen the economy, and enrich society. We distribute over £2.2bn to universities in England every year in the form of quality-related research (QR) funding, and via the Higher Education Innovation Fund. We are responsible for administering the Research Excellence Framework, used to inform QR funding, and for delivering the forthcoming Knowledge Exchange Framework. We also support specific activities with dedicated project funding, including the £900m UK Research Partnership Investment Fund, and the £100m Connecting Capability Fund. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 established Research England as a Council of UK Research and Innovation alongside the seven Research Councils and Innovate UK.
  2. OfS The Office for Students is the independent regulator of higher education in England. We aim to ensure that every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.
    Established by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, the Office for Students took over many of the functions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and began operations in April 2018.
  3. HEFCE Catalyst Fund The Catalyst Fund was designed to enable HEFCE to deliver on their strategic aims for higher education (HE) across learning and teaching.