What can Ph.D researchers do to increase the ‘student experience’? Agency, Community building & Laser cutting workshop.
It’s a reasonably well-known ‘secret’ that Ph.D students rate their university experience poorly. Part of this are complaints regarding the lack of PGR community (Bath SU, 2015; PdOC, 2017). Out of all of the core scales in the postgraduate experience report, research culture was the lowest ranked, an area that includes PGR communities (Slight, 2017:13). Doing a PhD is actually quite an isolating experience; the specialism of your subject area often puts you at a cognitive distance from your peers. This is only exacerbated by a trend in universities to merge schools together, creating large schools that can cover academic research from textiles to the rise of class warfare in the 1930’s. This means PGR communities are left on nothing to really bond with other than the fact they’re a PGR – which only increases the distance they have between each other. There are of course other factors for the lack of PGR communities in universities across Britain: the psyche of “all work no play”, researchers being based at home and not within school offices, and the yearly churn of outgoing and incoming students all act as some of the barriers to building a PGR community.
There are significant reasons why this is a serious problem. The most often cited issue being resulting mental health issues, which can often stem from the isolationist experience of doctoral programmes (Bath SU, 2015). One damming report found that education constituents are indeed failing PGR’s in a number of areas resulting in PhD candidates “2.8 times more likely to develop mental health problems than university employees … and 2.4 times more likely than degree holders in the general population” (Bothwell, April 13th 2017). Another research report funded RAND Europe found that a strong community is especially important at combating mental health issues in PGRs. As a secondary or tertiary intervention, a community can often provide emotional and organisational support unmatched through more top-down solutions to mental health, indeed a community can provide and diagnose the need for support far before an organisation such as a university can (Guthrie et al, 2017). By the time a university steps in to provide support through counselling services, it is often already too late. The second reason why community building is of importance to universities is it’s impact on the overall experience. Students who feel isolated from the department and their peers are more likely to have a lower perception of the university more generally (Trigwell & Dunbar-Goddet, 2005). This has obvious knock-on effects for student recruitment and retention. The third reason is pretty obvious, because a community is a good thing for researchers to have! It leads to a better PGR experience, and getting PGRs talking can lead to academic collaborations which would improve the universities research output.
So here is the question, why are universities getting it so wrong? My argument is fairly simple and stems down from a top-down and bottom-up perspective. On one side, you have well-intentioned university departments taking the lead and trying to create a community from the top-down, which results in artificial communities rather than real ones. On the other, you have PGRs who don’t feel empowered or encouraged (in the right ways) to go about creating the activities which actually builds community bonds. The approach I would suggest, would put the resources into the hands of PGRs in a managed way, to provide agency at the local PGR level, and empower researchers to build the community bonds themselves through more organic mechanisms.
Now if you’re an academic staff reading this, you’re probably wondering why a lonely PGR student is worried about all of this: after all, (s)he should be focusing on their research. Well, my response would be I came across it by accident. My initial interest stemmed from a PGR experience study I did with Salford PGR students when I first became the PGR representative. The survey was something I undertook to understand more about the PGR body in the school, and also to help choose which battles to pick or lose with the university. One of the major issues that was highlighted to me was the lack of a PGR community. Numerous comments were made, most of which have been replicated across many similar PGR experience reports throughout the country (c.f. Bath SU, 2015)
“My biggest regret in doing my postgrad is that I’ve not really got to experience working in a true research community.” – Ph.D researcher (October, 2017 PGR Space & Experience survey results)
The second reason why PGR’s should be taking up the PGR community cause is that communities cannot be manufactured; they are something that should be made from the bottom-up with support from the university. It is also important that a community is not controlled by universities for obvious reasons. Unfortunately, Student Unions have failed to lead the way in community building, often due to the lack of representation provided to PGRs by these bodies, and poor performance and engagement with student societies set up for PGR students.
So, what works?
Semi-structured social events:
Social and regular events have worked somewhat at getting PGRs talking, at least at my university. Events such as Friday afternoon trips to the pub have a better regular attendance than official university workshops! However, they are not without their problems. Making sure that going to the pub does not put off people who do not drink alcohol is a concern that is hard to overcome. Despite their faults, these semi-structured events are something that get people speaking, which is important in community building. Much like the Laser Cutting workshop below, a environment like a pub or a bar provides a space where PGRs individual research doesn’t matter, and people can begin to communicate on areas other than their subject, which through a process described in political theory as accidental exposure.
Giving PGRs agency, with a focus on PGR spaces, and PGR’s role in asking for it:
Attendance in PGR spaces is often used as a measure of community engagement. And it’s for a good reason – PGR space attendance and community building are invariably linked. So therefore it’s important to get PGRs into their spaces. But there is an issue, PGR students have the option of working at home, and if they do not like the spaces provided on campus, the result is simple, they won’t use them. So the aim, is to figure out ways to get PGRs into the spaces allocated to them.
One report By QAA Scotland provides a potential solution. They found PGR space and their ownership of the space (and importantly breakout areas such as a café) to be a vital aspect of the community (QAA Scotland, n.d:5-6). At Salford, there is a worrying correlation with university action taken without consent and input of PGRs but impacts on them, and a reduction of room attendance. This leads to the conclusion that agency is an important factor in the student experience. Agency over their spaces, events, and determining how funds given for PGR support and experience are spent. -857The factors between this correlation are up for debate, the very fact of PGRs coming together to decide on factors in a situation where their voices matter and have impact will undoubtedly bring PGRs together. Indeed, at Salford, mass emails allowing input over the issues brought up by PGR’s at school level meetings generated significant discussion alone.
There is also the secondary factor of adequate space and facilities. Schools which have invested in spaces and facilities for PGRs often see an increase in benefits. The QAA studied five PGR communities and spaces from a number of western style universities and found significant benefits including: intercultural awareness, increased levels of workshops and student-led groups, higher levels of wellbeing, and staff reported increased levels of networking amongst academics & researchers. But most importantly, giving PGR students a place where they can feel home led to an environment where students could mix, learn from, and inspire each other (QAA Scotland, n.d:7-8).
I once took a visit to another university while on a research expedition, and had chance to pop into the PGR space available there, and they were fantastic. They had smaller offices based on the working environment they desired, a large breakout space that had to be used when accessing facilities such as printers, lockers, kitchen areas, toilets (and showers), and the most important thing – everything felt nice. PGRs had been given some say over what they wanted the space to be, and they had gotten it. Little things to make the space feel at home such as plants had been provided, and it made the world of difference according to one PGR I’d spoken to. They felt valued, and it was a space they wanted to work in.
Of course, with all things: You don’t ask, you don’t get. PGR’s need to build a culture where they are willing to ask for that agency to begin with, and to work with the University to devise a structure for the how to do it. Universities will need to have that culture shift too, and key stakeholders to be less protective and more open the budget available for the year and other non-financial constraints that they may be working within. It needs to go further than PGR asking for specific objects such as plants and whiteboards, but there needs to be a defined set of “powers” that have been allotted to PGRs, or a yearly (ring-fenced) budget.
PGR led but school supported activities & the laser cutting workshop:
One of the issues within the School of Arts and Media at Salford is the wide range of subjects studied under the one roof. This leads to a large disconnect between students. The knock-on effect of this is any School level event will requires that it broaden its subject matter into irrelevance. As a team of PGR Representatives, we created an event that is both irrelevant to everyone’s work equally, but something that remains interesting for everyone nevertheless. The first application of this was ran The Laser Cut your PhD event ran 9th March 2018.
The event was simple, in a one-and-half hour workshop, students could learn how to design and create a laser cut coaster, engraved with something relevant to their PhD then watch it be created! It was an all-out win for everyone: the maker-space in Salford University engaged with an audience it hadn’t done before, PGR students learnt a new skill, and the school was happy… because well … PGR events like this don’t happen every day and it was good PR. The result was a well-publicised workshop that was distinctive, but most importantly community building. The event also created more than just coasters, it created discussion. PGRs discussed issues relating to the community, the spaces that have available, shared information on sources of help and guidance. Also in attendance were PGR coordinators from the school, who participated not as overseers, but as a pair of ears taking in concerns and opinions, which you do not get over an email, or for that matter, a meeting. The event will later be expanded upon in the PGR yearly conference at Salford.
The reason why this worked is simple. Everyone who entered that workshop was equally unqualified when it came to laser cutting, it did not benefit one area of the school over another, and ultimately, it was something different but educational. Getting PGR students talking is the foundation for building a community, building the networks, and creating a free and open dialogue.
My argument throughout has been that PGRs communities are essential to the Ph.D experience. But the weight of building them needs to be with PGRs and not PGR coordinators. On the other side, university management needs to take action to ensure that PGRs are enabled and have the agency to build communities to begin with.
Bothwell, E. (April 13th, 2017). Universities Urged to tackle PhD mental health crisis. Times Higher Education. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/universities-urged-tackle-phd-mental-health-crisis
Guthrie, S., Lichen, C., van Belle, J., Ball, S., Knack, A., & Hofman, J. (2017). Understanding Mental Health in the research environment: A rapid Evidence Assessment. RAND Europe: Cambridge.
McLoughlin, L. & Gaynor, S. (2017). Salford PGR Experience Survey – Survey results and recommendations presented to the School of Arts & Media.
QAA Scotland. (n.d). Building a Research Community – Examples of Policy and Practice – Focus on he Postgraduate Research Student Experience. http://www.enhancementthemes.ac.uk/docs/report/building-a-research-community—examples-of-policy-and-practice.pdf?sfvrsn=2
Slight, C. (2017). Postgraduate Research Experience Survey 2017. Higher Education Academy. https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/hub/download/pres_2017_report_0.pdf
Trigwell, K., & Dunbar-Goddett, D. (2005). The Research Experience of Postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford. University of Oxford: Oxford.
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