13 May 2024
by Nick Warburton

Help is at hand - supporting the wellbeing of early-career researchers

The unique pressures associated with being an early-career academic researcher in STEM are putting the spotlight on support and training for them and their supervisors to maintain positive mental health and wellbeing.

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Concerns were raised even before COVID-19 struck. A year before the global pandemic caused unprecedented disruption for postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers – restricting physical access to workspaces, including laboratories and supervisors – Nature published a paper on PhDs: the tortuous truth, reporting on a survey of more than 6,000 postgraduate students.

Its insights revealed that a third of respondents had sought help for anxiety or depression brought about by their doctoral research, with individuals from minority groups more likely to experience mental ill-health.

In recent years, articles have also been published in journals like Chemistry Europe and The Oxford Scientist magazine, from the University of Oxford, UK, highlighting how the research culture in STEM may be affecting mental health.

For Graham McCartney, co-founder of the charity Jonathan’s Voice, it is important that academia removes any remaining stigma around mental health. The organisation published a guide on Protecting your mental health: A practical guide for postgraduate research students in STEM in 2021.

Working with co-author Penelope Aspinall, lead mental health consultant at Jonathan’s Voice, the charity drew on a wealth of academic studies as well as anonymised contributions from postgraduate researchers (PGRs) to produce the bespoke guide.

Putting aside any personal circumstances, they found that many postgraduate and postdoctoral STEM researchers can experience a variety of similar pressures.

The report says, 'Postgraduate research within the STEM disciplines can be a stimulating and rewarding career path. However, in recent years, the higher education sector has become more aware of the complexities of the specific challenges that exist for PGR students…more needs to be done to address the mental health and wellbeing of PGR students in STEM.'

A materials scientist by background, McCartney is an Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Engineering at Nottingham University, UK, who supervised around 40 PGRs between 1983 and 2017 in materials science and engineering.

In the foreword to the guide, he writes that he has 'experienced first-hand how the demands and challenges on these students have increased over the years. For researchers in STEM subjects, there can be particular challenges, for example, working in industrial or other settings, the demands of research sponsors, and the growing need to adapt to team working and interdisciplinary research.'

The publication continues, 'There is a wide range of factors that can impact postgraduate mental wellbeing in STEM. These can be systemic and may include a highly competitive and pressured working environment, lack of representation, racism, bullying and harassment.'

Feelings of isolation

One pressure comes from the work being experimental in nature and most probably cutting edge, with all the competitiveness that comes from carrying out innovative research that can offer scientific breakthroughs and commercial applications.

Many individuals report feeling a sense of isolation or disconnection from colleagues, family and friends, especially if they work in silos on highly specialised projects.

'On top of that, there is an incredible pressure to work 24/7 and to not take any time off, but then to feel really guilty if they do,' comments Aspinall.

Researchers also often need to compete against large research institutions and industrial companies, as Dr Kari Clark found, a Royal Academy of Engineering Senior Research Fellow at University College London (UCL).

Now an independent research fellow, who supervises his own PhD student, Clark says the PhD was a 'steep hill to climb' after achieving an undergraduate degree. Some of the pressure, he acknowledges, comes with the territory.

'To get a PhD, the bar you need to overcome is to make an original contribution to human knowledge. That’s tough!'

But on top of that, Clark says the financial stress that researchers face can make postgraduate research challenging and can massively impact an individual’s mental health. There are concerns that salaries are not competitive and reflective of the researchers’ skillsets and expertise, and the financial pressures have become particularly acute post-pandemic with rising living costs.

The impact of 'precarity of contracts' is also cited in the paper in Chemistry Europe on The impact of research culture on mental health & diversity in STEM, produced by a group of US and UK researchers. It references a Wellcome Trust research culture study that found that short-term contracts are a cause of major stress.

Supportive supervisor

Having been a supervisee and now a supervisor, Clark highlights the critical role a supervisor plays in supporting an early-career researcher.

He reflects, 'Doing a PhD is like choosing a door to kick down and then kicking it down. The job of a supervisor is to help the researcher select the correct door…the researcher’s job is to kick the door down. But equally, if the researcher gets stuck, the job of the supervisor is also to help with the kicking!'

UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) notes in a Briefing for supervisors that 'supervisors have the closest relationship with PGRs and are best positioned to encourage them to manage their mental health and wellbeing, and to identify those potentially at risk as early as possible'.

This includes creating a sense of belonging and community, but also knowing how to have effective conversations and when to ask for additional support for PGRs and themselves.

A sensitive area is the impact a supervisor (or principal investigator) can themselves have on the mindset of these researchers. Problems can arise in this critical relationship, notes The UK Council for Graduate Education. Its Good Supervisory Practice Framework underlines how having a group of supervisors mitigates these risks.

Indeed, findings from the organisation’s 2021 research supervision survey reveal that team supervision of doctoral candidates is becoming standard practice, with 70% saying they 'frequently' or 'always' undertake research supervision as part of a team.

Senior Strategy Advisor for Talent at UKRI, Ewan Nicholas, cites how their Commissioned Report on Research Supervision shows that supervisors do recognise they have a role in supporting their researchers’ mental health. The question, he says, is defining what that role is.

'One of the complaints sometimes is that a student has a needs assessment, but the adjustments that are required are not put in place because a supervisor doesn’t see the need for them,' he says. 'Supervisors need to be supportive of that.'

Most supervision works well says UKRI, but it highlights that supervision can be inconsistent. Also, systems must be in place so academic institutions can resolve issues promptly when things go wrong.

'What we would like to see is a culture where supervisors are proactively asking for and receiving feedback from their students, and that there are confidential complaints mechanisms in place that students can use if they need to,' Nicholas says. 'That shouldn’t be seen as being a terrible thing, but it is an important way to ensure students have a voice.'

He also points to the Good Practice Framework: Principles, which the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education has produced. This includes how to improve the student experience. UKRI would like to see much greater awareness of this area.

For its part, UKRI is investing a further £4.6mln in the Next Generation Research SuperVision Project to further develop supervisor guidance. Clark agrees most supervisors want to help their supervisees if they struggle with their mental health, but suggest they may not have the tools for it. The briefing from UKRI highlights that supervisors need to be aware of the range of support services available to PGRs and how they can access them, and that wellbeing is increasingly being incorporated into supervisor training.

First point of contact

Universities UK has produced strategic guidance on Stepchange: mentally healthy universities, which asks all universities to adopt mental health as a strategic policy. In recent years, most academic institutions have responded and now offer a wide range of support packages.

Liverpool University, UK, provides a multi-layered solution that builds on its student support services hub and includes a mental health advisory service.

Support can be tailored to the individual and their circumstances by the hub’s team of experts, whether that is organising counselling or helping with visas for international students.

In February this year, the School of Physical Sciences reintroduced its pre-pandemic, wellbeing ambassadors programme for PGRs.

'Instead of researchers going to their supervisor or to the mental health advisor and central services, they’ve got peers who are able to offer support,' explains Daniel Lawrence, Athena Swan and Wellbeing Co-ordinator, who works across the University’s Schools of Engineering and Physical Sciences.

The ambassadors have undergone Mental Health First Aid training and can step in if immediate support is needed and/or will signpost to other University support services.

At UCL, Johanna Novales, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Co-ordinator, delivers bespoke training every four-to-six weeks, and its Faculty of Engineering now has the highest number of Mental Health First Aiders.

'I have heard anecdotally from a PhD student that, over the past few years, it has felt easier in their department to talk about mental health and it’s partly because there have been more Mental Health First Aiders. It has normalised thinking and talking about the issue.'

Novales also runs bite-size EDI sessions around sensitive subjects like micro-aggressions and being an active bystander, which encourages individuals to step in, for example, if they feel behaviour towards a researcher is inappropriate.

UCL also provides psychological support and counselling services for PhD students as well as academic and research staff.

And both Liverpool and UCL provide Mental Health First Aid training to supervisors/principal investigators. This can help build empathy while helping supervisors better manage their own work-life balance too.

'We went from having no academic staff with the training to at least four or five,' says Clark, who personally undertook the training after becoming a supervisor. 'I have used it a few times, both with colleagues and students, and also in my personal life.'

Lawrence adds that Liverpool also has a network for supervisors, 'with seminars, which is when supervisors can all get together, listen to talks and can share best practice.

'Also, there is often a secondary supervisor and the student experience teams who will offer support. Within the departments, there are postgraduate directors of studies who can also provide this support to supervisors'.

New deal?

Nicholas welcomes such initiatives from an increasing number of universities but highlights the body’s cross-sector consultation on the UK Government’s New Deal for Postgraduate Research in 2022.

This found that, although there is fair bit of mental health and wellbeing support available to PGRs, many still don’t know how to access it or aren’t accessing it.

This is one of the areas that UKRI will explore further. McCartney concurs. 'They need to be given something that is packaged at their level. If they don’t feel ‘that’s for me’, or they feel ‘I don’t want to approach that because I’ll be seen to be weak and failing’, then it’s not going to work.'

Doctoral training centres

One of the most successful mental health training events that Jonathan’s Voice points to were two sessions they delivered for around 24 PGRs at the Advanced Metallic Systems Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT), held in Sheffield and Manchester. It is one of the largest and most longstanding doctoral training centres in the materials ecosystem.

McCartney notes the positive feedback they received around how it helped researchers identify signs of deteriorating mental health and implement self-help techniques, while also encouraging them to access the university support.

'The point that [the centre’s co-ordinator] made was that the doctoral training centre has its own budget for professional training, and so they were able to include this…within the overall research experience,' he feeds back.

In March this year, the UK Government announced a £1bln investment in 65 such centres across a range of disciplines. McCartney sees this as an opportunity, arguing that their four-year study programmes offer the ideal model to build mental health and wellbeing support into the overall professional and personal training package.

Aspinall has previously delivered a webinar called ‘Looking after your mental health; an essential skill for PGRs’. She believes there is great value in promoting preventative, self-care measures as a positive skillset that can help individuals thrive during their research, but also in what are often demanding work environments in industry.

The guide for PGRs from Jonathan’s Voice offers practical tips on a range of areas, including:

  • What support systems to put in place.
  • How to ensure good work-life balance, helping to separate self-worth from research output.
  • Time management.
  • Dealing with imposter syndrome.
  • What to do when self-care is not enough to manage anxiety, depression and stress.
  • How to manage specific challenges such as bullying and harassment, financial difficulties, and cultural shocks that researchers from overseas, from minority groups and from deprived backgrounds report facing.

Aspinall continues, 'If you talk about mental health and present it as a deficit model, then that’s not really appealing.

'However, if you present it in a way that individuals can be even more effective if they look after their mental health and get early help should they need it, then that is more likely to get buy-in.'

You can access Jonathan’s Voice guide for postgraduate researchers and UKRI’s Briefing for supervisors online.


Nick Warburton

Freelance writer