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Understanding and acting on student survey data to improve the postgraduate research experience

07 Jun 2019 | Elizabeth Adams Elizabeth Adams, Researcher Development Manager at the University of Glasgow, has been running the institutional PRES survey for over 10 years. Here, she shares her thoughts on how we can better understand and make use of student survey data to improve the culture for Postgraduate Researchers (PGRs).

With over a thousand of our students investing time and energy into completing the annual PRES survey, I think it’s really important that we find ways to maximise the value of the data we are gathering.  We want to ensure it can be used locally by Schools and Institutes to inform their activities rather than just centrally as performance indicators. When we first started running PRES, over 10 years ago, the PGR policy landscape was far less developed than it is now. It was much easier to target some low scoring areas and report at University level on ‘actions’ we were taking as a result. We are now in a fortunate position of scoring very highly in most areas, particularly supervision, which is the factor we think plays the largest role in the overall experience.  However, this also makes it more difficult to know how to respond to our scores and where to place efforts to improve.  Where I see the biggest challenges are in ensuring consistency of quality in the student experience (which means working at the local level to ensure we aren’t trying to implement a ‘one size fits all’ process where it doesn’t work) and tackling issues relating to research culture and wellbeing. These last two are becoming increasingly important, yet there is a dearth of evidence on what actually works to improve them.  We don’t have any magic solutions, but we are trying to use the results to really understand the experience and pilot some interventions to help build that evidence base.

Making use of results for local impact

One of the key things for us was to make sure we were aligning any efforts for PRES with local initiatives that were already underway. Therefore, as well as sharing the PRES results with Graduate Schools, PG Convenors and University Services, we tried to take them to relevant groups such as our Research Integrity Champions and Advisers and Athena Swan Self-Assessment Teams. 

We consulted in advance with these groups and added extra questions to the survey to help to ensure they are getting the information they need and don’t have to run a separate survey (which would compromise response rates for both).  We used Qlikview to give local units access to sort and filter the results in the way they wanted, such as by gender or whether they had caring responsibilities (this was one of our additional questions).  This allows for a much more nuanced conversation to go on at local level on how they can address their results and build that into their local action plans.


Keeping the conversation alive

A survey isn’t really a dialogue but we have tried to make PRES part of a much wider two-way communication plan, using PRES statistics to stimulate discussion and debate across the University. Some key initiatives that have helped with this are:

  • Our PGR blog and social media presence, which is written by current PGRs for PGRs and allows discussion of individual experiences as well as signposting to university policies, events, resources and support. We ran a series of blogposts on our response to PRES and other feedback over 2017/18, including infographics that were shared on social media
  • A Yammer (social media) group for distance PGRs to focus on community building and giving them the platform to raise specific issues. 
  • A series of PGR townhall meetings, attended by around 80 participants (students, professional services staff and supervisors) to share practice and latest research on the PGR experience, as well as facilitate more in-depth analysis of PRES results. New connections and ideas from these sessions have resulted in many practical actions to improve the PGR experience, including a project on destination data / working with alumni mentors and a series of wellbeing workshops which have become embedded in our regular PGR programme.   

Both students and staff are investing a lot of energy into PRES, either as respondents or in encouraging a high response rate. To make this worthwhile and really ensure it results in tangible outcomes, we need to work with partners across the University before the survey to ensure we’re asking the right questions and after the survey, to get them the results they need in a way that makes them easy to use. But, more than that, we need to find ways to embed the survey as just one strand of a much richer conversation, which really helps us to understand the PGR experience and find ways to move forward and tackle those more challenging issues. 


Student surveys from Advance HE have engaged with over 170,000 students in the last two years. 2019 survey results will be available soon.

Advance HE provides all institutions with a confidential institutional benchmarking report for each survey. These reports will be sent to key survey contacts within each institution by the end of June for PRES, and by the end of July for PTES and UKES.

There is also a range of custom report options available. Find out more about Advance HE surveys

If you would like to discuss your survey needs further, please contact or call +44 (0)3300 416201

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