A positive experience despite Covid-19…
Despite a challenging year for higher education, and indeed all areas of society around the world due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus, overall satisfaction with the postgraduate research experience remains high. Four in five (80%) of postgraduate researchers (PGRs) said they were satisfied with their experience as a whole.
Satisfaction is, in fact, slightly higher among those who responded during lockdown - after 16 March - compared with those who responded earlier (the flexible survey window was open from 3 February until 18 May 2020), which indicates that institutions have managed to create a positive experience for PGRs in spite of the difficulties faced this year. What really stands out to me is that a considerably higher proportion of PGRs who responded during lockdown felt their feedback is valued and responded to by their institution, demonstrating that attempts to engage with PGRs and show how the student voice is valued during lockdown have been successful.
Comments made by PGRs also reveal some encouraging examples of when supervisors have gone out of their way to engage with and support PGRs through this difficult time. Hopefully institutions can look to build upon these successes and continue to see higher satisfaction levels in this area.
…but lockdown has, of course, brought challenges
While the above examples are very encouraging, the report also highlights some areas in which the sector can look to further support PGRs. PGRs who responded during lockdown were less likely to have received formal training for their teaching, indicating the need to find a way for this to be delivered remotely. They were also less confident that they would finish their programme on time (particularly if they were in the later years of their programme), so support and advice around extensions may be beneficial.
There remains room to improve research culture…
Beyond any lockdown analysis, looking now to the results over the whole period, the area of the research degree experience in which PGRs are least satisfied continues to be research culture. 60% of PGRs are satisfied with the research culture at their institution. This includes PGRs’ opportunities to discuss research with other researchers, awareness of opportunities to become involved in the research community, feeling that the research community stimulates their work, and access to a good seminar programme in their research area. PGRs have consistently rated their satisfaction in this area lowest over recent years and 2020 has brought a 3% dip compared with 2019.
Improving opportunities to interact with the research community appears to be key to improving satisfaction. PGRs who do not live with other students during term-time are less satisfied with the research culture at their institution than those who do live with other students, and those studying on a part-time basis are less satisfied than full-time PGRs. Fewer opportunities to network with other researchers and discuss their work contribute to the lower satisfaction of both these groups, so organised events to connect the research community – preferably outside typical working hours – may help to enhance their experience.
…and opportunities for part-time PGRs
As well as being less satisfied with the research culture at their institution, part-time PGRs are less likely than full-time PGRs to have had opportunities related to teaching, skills, training and development. The opportunity with the largest and most striking difference is teaching - only 29% of those studying on a part-time basis have taught or demonstrated during their degree, compared with almost half (49%) of full-time PGRs. Part-time PGRs are also less likely to have received careers advice or taken part in a work placement, which raises a concern around their career preparation.
Comments left by part-time PGRs, however, demonstrate a desire for these opportunities. Hopefully, a greater focus on providing training and other opportunities online, and asynchronously, in response to the pandemic may enable more part-time PGRs to participate in them.
Full-time PGRs need more support for their wellbeing
Concerningly, full-time PGRs report considerably lower levels of wellbeing than part-time PGRs. In particular, they were less happy with their life than part-time PGRs (59% vs 71%). Comments reveal that issues such as loneliness and isolation are key issues, and are perhaps felt to a lesser extent by part-time students because they tend to be more likely to also spend time engaging in society outside of higher education. The previously made suggestion to widen access to social and networking events could help to combat this issue somewhat.
Comments also reveal that a sense of competitiveness and long working hours culture contribute to lower levels of wellbeing. As well as improving access to counselling and other forms of support, PGRs comment that they would like to see institutions build a more collaborative and supportive working environment and dissuade PGRs from developing traits which can be detrimental to their wellbeing.
Maddie is Research and Insights Executive at Advance HE, working across PRES, PTES and UKES.
Call for proposals
We are currently inviting proposals for Surveys & Insights Conference 2021: Adapting to challenging times that consider themes such as 'Measuring the quality of learning' and 'Supporting students'. The deadline for submissions is 28 January 2021. Find out more here.