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Findings from the 2021 Postgraduate Research Experience Survey

03 Nov 2021 | Maddie Pitkin As the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) 2021 Sector Report is published, Research and Insights Executive at Advance HE, Maddie Pitkin, shares her thoughts on the key findings.

Support for mental health and wellbeing is a clear priority for the sector 

A really positive finding in the 2021 PRES report is that a lower proportion of PGRs have considered leaving their programme this year. This year, we asked those PGRs for their reasons for considering leaving their programme, and mental or emotional health problems were the most frequently given reason.  

Concerningly, fewer than two thirds of PGRs felt the support for their health and wellbeing met their needs. Those who agreed their institution’s support for their health and wellbeing met their needs were considerably less likely to have considered leaving than those who disagreed. This highlights the need to improve health and wellbeing support for PGRs, as it could be the key to improving overall satisfaction with the postgraduate research experience and helping the sector to see a reduction in those leaving their programmes. 

Overall satisfaction has fallen slightly 

Although it’s encouraging that there has been a drop in the proportion of PGRs who had considered leaving their postgraduate research degree programme in 2021, unfortunately overall satisfaction across the sector has fallen slightly this year, from 80% in 2020 to 79% in 2021. While 79% still represents a high level of satisfaction with the PGR experience across the sector, it is the lowest score since PRES began, back in 2007. 

This fall in overall satisfaction might be a little discouraging, but there are positives. PGRs were asked about their contact with staff in the term when they responded to PRES, and those who said it was a mixture of in-person and virtually/online were the most satisfied overall. A suggestion is that these PGRs have found benefits to a blended approach to contact with staff, such as reduced commuting, while still enjoying the social benefits of some in-person contact. The vast majority of 2021 participants said their contact was mostly or completely virtual, due to the restrictions in place while PRES was in field, but I feel really encouraged by this finding as we look forward, as many institutions will be offering a blended approach of contact between staff, students and researchers during the coming academic year.  

PGRs call for more support from supervisors to help them to manage their own professional development 

The area of the PGR experience with the largest decrease in satisfaction this year is professional development, and given the uncertainties the pandemic brought to the job market, I was unsurprised to find that professional development was an area of concern. Fewer PGRs felt they were able to develop contacts or manage their own professional development this year, and they would like more support from supervisors, and more tailored careers support for post PhD careers, to enable them to do this. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has continued to impact on the postgraduate research experience in 2021 

When we consulted with our surveys network in early Autumn last year and decided to add a module of questions on how PGRs felt their institution had responded to the pandemic, we were enjoying a period of relatively few Covid-related restrictions, much as we are now. It was hoped that this new Covid-19 section would offer a chance to reflect on the experiences of 2020 but as we all now know, the winter brought rising case rates, new variants and more restrictions so the new module was in fact very current. 

Positively, a large proportion of PGRs (almost 8 in 10) were satisfied with the appropriateness and clarity of communications around Covid-19. That being said, PGRs do comment that they would have liked more information about funding, extensions and access to facilities, to have been communicated. 

Given that most PGRs have had to use IT and access resources away from campus this year, it is reassuring that a high proportion (81%) of PGRs have felt supported in doing so. However, a less positive finding is that only two thirds of PGRs agreed that they received the support they needed from their institution during the pandemic, or that their institution had worked to ensure the quality of their academic experience. I’ve found that these two measures are strongly linked with overall satisfaction, so improving support for pandemic-related issues and making PGRs aware of how their institutions are working to ensure the quality of their academic experience could have a positive impact on their overall satisfaction. 

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic’s negative impact on PGRs’ confidence to complete their programme within their institution’s expected timescale has been maintained during 2021. Many PGRs have been able to negotiate extensions, however, still have concerns about meeting their new deadlines due to the amount of time lost. 


Maddie Pitkin is Research and Insights Executive at Advance HE, working on all aspects of our student surveys. 

The student voice: Findings from Advance HE's student experience surveys On 10 December 2021 we shared key findings on student mental health and wellbeing from the UK Engagement Survey (UKES), the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES) and the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES). 

Find out more about Advance HE's surveys.

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