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Stress ‘unprecedentedly high’ among postgrad researchers

Image: CollegeDegrees360 [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

QAA publishes assessment of pandemic experiences among postgraduate research students and supervisors

Postgraduate research students suffered “unprecedentedly high” stress levels during the first year of the pandemic, the higher education quality watchdog has found.

In a report published on 8 June, the Quality Assurance Agency pinned the blame on “highly individual and complex” factors, including a lack of study space, the inability to access specialist equipment, social isolation and extra caring responsibilities.

It said that although it was assumed at the start of the lockdown that those nearing the end of their research would be affected most negatively, “with the benefit of hindsight” it could be seen that those in the middle of their research were most affected as they faced “extremely difficult circumstances” in which they “were attempting to continue their research”.

It also found that although doctoral supervision had been able to continue online during the pandemic, the sharp rise in anxiety among students had “added a substantial pastoral dimension to the traditional role of supervisors”.

The QAA said that while some supervisors are “empathetic” and tend to “regard an element of pastoral care as part of their role”, this was “not true in all cases”. There was “a general perception among providers that the pandemic has brought to light issues in supervision that might otherwise have gone unnoticed”, the QAA added.

Despite the problems faced by students, the QAA said that universities were confident they had “enabled students to achieve doctoral standards in their outputs”, even if their research “had been subject to substantial adjustment because of Covid-19”.

Regarding lessons learned, the QAA suggested that supervisors should be appropriately trained to watch for signs of worsening mental health in their students even beyond the pandemic.

It also said that universities could consider setting up casework review groups so that supervisors can raise concerns, and they could hold regular meetings of research degree managers at school, faculty and institutional levels to improve institutional oversight of research degrees and research degree students’ wellbeing.