Postgraduate researchers

Research England, as a council of UKRI, have an interest in postgraduate research students and the health of the research base. Research England are responsible for the research degree programme supervision fund.

To understand the pipeline of talent through this level of study, we are working with the Office for Students, who are responsible for protecting the interests of all students and the quality of the provision they receive.

Funding

Research England provides a stream of funding that helps universities meet the costs of supervising research degree programmes to encourage the next generation of researchers.

Research Degree Programme (RDP) supervision funding currently amounts to £260 million. This is allocated to departments which will receive mainstream quality-related funding in the same academic year. The allocation reflects postgraduate research student numbers in departments that attract mainstream QR funding, the relative costs of the subjects they are studying, quality and London weighting.

Mental health and wellbeing

Catalyst Fund: Supporting mental health and wellbeing for postgraduate research students

In 2018, the former HEFCE, now Research England and the Office for Students awarded £1.5 million in funding to 17 projects over two years to develop and implement sustainable approaches to supporting mental health and wellbeing of PGR students. The programme was overseen by an external advisory group.

The programme followed on from a 2018 report commissioned by Research England and OfS, which concluded that postgraduate research students face unique challenges, including difficulties with supervisor relationships, as well as others recognised in the undergraduate population including financial worries, harassment, and feeling isolated and inadequate

Vitae, as leaders in the professional development of researchers, and Universities UK (UUK), as a leading voice of the university sector, were subsequently commissioned by Research England to conduct an evaluation of the programme. Their report seeks to examine the impact of a range of prevention, early intervention, and support activities on the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate research students across the 17 funded projects, and to identify promising effective practice for the sector. To do this the evaluators (Vitae and UUK) developed a theory of change evaluation framework.

The projects almost unanimously demonstrated that the interventions they made increased PGR awareness of their mental health, how to improve it, or where to obtain support. Evidence of this was collected by the projects through feedback forms, project surveys, focus groups and less structured qualitative feedback. 

The report conveys the need for a healthy research environment in which PGR students are wholly integrated, yet the distinct features of the doctoral journey and the resulting mental health and wellbeing needs are understood and supported.

This report demonstrates the need for providers to have an inclusive mental health and wellbeing strategy for all students, informed by data, co-produced by students and championed by senior leaders, that integrates good mental health and wellbeing practices into daily life, education, and work. 

All staff have an important role in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate research students, and it is necessary that a range of staff, including professional staff and technicians, are engaged. Projects working with supervisors have evidenced that providing them with training and tools improves their knowledge of support services available, their confidence in having conversations on mental health, and their likelihood to discuss mental health and wellbeing with their students.

The report is available to read below, the appendices contain further details on the project activities, case studies and evaluation indicators:

In the report are a series of targeted recommendations developed in line with the programme findings for:

  • The wider sector
  • Senior academic leaders, including heads of schools/departments
  • Supervisors, and other academics with postgraduate responsibilities
  • Professional services staff
  • Postgraduate researchers

To complement the report and recommendations, Vitae have produced three targeted stakeholder briefings to present ways each group could support PGRs:

More details on the projects, as well as links to the resources developed for use by the sector and other providers undertaking work in the area, are available on the Office for Students website.

Further details and resources

RE and UKRI are committed to promoting a healthy research environment and will continue to work with other sector bodies to consider the recommendations that have emerged from this work, including wider funding, structural and cultural issues around doctoral training.

Steven Hill, Director of Research at Research England says “Postgraduate research students are an integral part of the research community, these funded projects have added to our understanding on the specific factors that impact their mental health and wellbeing and the practices that providers and the wider sector can adopt to support PGR students.”

The OfS aims to champion and promote safe, healthy and inclusive English higher education providers that support all students to thrive. This includes a whole provider approach to the mental health and wellbeing of students. This report will inform how they can encourage the sector to respond and improve outcomes for PGR students.

Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation, Office for Students says “It is essential that postgraduate research students have the mental health support they need to thrive and succeed in their studies, especially considering the additional pressures brought by the coronavirus pandemic. This evaluation report helps us to work towards a better understanding of the particular challenges research students face, and highlights the need for universities and colleges to put in place inclusive and innovative ways of working which integrate effective mental health and wellbeing practices with their strategies for postgraduate research.”

These projects and the accompanying evaluation were completed prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. We recognise the situation has created new challenges, both in terms of amplifying mental health impacts and in implementing the measures recommended in the report. We recommend any activity undertaken is done so in respect of the evolving wider context and adheres to new government and institutional guidelines.

Video: The role of the supervisor in postgraduate researcher mental health

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The importance of supporting the mental health of postgraduate researchers

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For more information, please contact researchpolicy@re.ukri.org.