Catalyst Fund Project
Queen Mary was one of 17 successful institutions that received funding from Research England and the Office for Students to improve support for the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate researchers. The project ran between April 2018 and January 2020 and Queen Mary is commited to continuing offering the initiatives launched during that time.
What the project involved and outcomes
1. Launch of weekly Support Groups for PGRs, facilitated by a Counsellor and a Researcher Developer
- The groups are available to any PGR who needs support with personal, emotional and relationship issues that arise from the PhD experience. This includes PGRs who have a pre-existing or emerging mental health disorders, mental health problems or mental distress.
- The groups operate within the Advice and Counselling Service’s existing clinical and risk procedures, ensuring timely referrals into alternative support according to need.
- Anonymised feedback has been used to devise a list of areas to address at the institutional level and to measure the effectiveness of the support groups in improving participants' wellbeing.
- Results (PhD Support Group results [PDF 623KB] and full results in this article):
Participants’ subjective wellbeing scores increased considerably over the eight weeks of attending a group and improved from initial score ranges associated with risk of depression or psychological distress. Participants also felt:
- less isolated and anxious;
- more satisfied with their life and work-life balance;
- more confident that they could complete their PhD within the institutional timeframe.
2. Introduction of emotional resilience and resourcefulness sessions for PGRs during the annual Cohort Days and expansion of the ‘Survive and Thrive’ workshop programme
- The annual Cohort Days provision and the expanded 'Survive and Thrive' programme reached just over 500 PGRs during the project.
- The aim of this strand was to send a clear message that the tools provided to manage the emotional pressures are equally important for a successful PhD journey as the academic skills training.
- The new sessions for the Cohort Days were developed in collaboration with the Charlie Waller Trust and the resources are free to download and use by trainers across any institution.
- Results: the majority of attendees reported:
- finding the training useful in helping them manage their mental health and wellbeing;
- being more aware of how to improve their mental health and wellbeing and where to go for support;
- feeling more supported by the university;
- being more likely to seek support with their mental wellbeing.
3. Development of new workshop and resources for PhD supervisors to cover pastoral support
- Development of a half-day training workshop to cover pastoral support, including recognising first signs of deteriorating mental health, starting a conversation and responding to a student in crisis.
- Embedding a 30-min excerpt of this training within the mandatory training for all new supervisors.
- The workshop was developed in collaboration with the Charlie Waller Trust and the resources are free to download and use by trainers across any institution.
- Results: 79% of attendees:
- rated their knowledge of the subject as ‘good’ or ‘very good’ after the workshop (compared to 24% before the workshop).
- stated that they probably or definitely will use what they had learned during the session (which includes starting a conversation on mental health and wellbeing issues, and signposting PGRs to an appropriate service).
- stated that they probably or definitely will recommend the training to a colleague.
4. Delivering a PGR wellbeing campaign and events
- The aim was to address issues like social isolation, and “toxic” sub-cultures of overwork and ableism, contributing towards a change in culture. The message that needs to reach all PGRs is that QMUL promotes a culture of support.
- The campaign launched on 30 January 2019 with the event Is it just me? Discussing mental health and the PhD experience and was followed by a month of wellbeing workshops and activities that encouraged PGRs to look after their wellbeing across the 5 dimensions of wellness. To support the campaign, the Researcher Development programme and the GradFest in February 2019 had a focus on wellbeing.
The interim results of the project were presented at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference 2019 as a poster [PDF 1,656KB].
The results from the PhD Support Groups have been published as an article:
Panayidou, F. and Priest, B. (2021), "Enhancing postgraduate researcher wellbeing through support groups", Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education
Open-access training resources
Queen Mary University of London worked with the Charlie Waller Trust to develop the following training sessions for PhD students and PhD supervisors during this project:
- Year 1 PhD Day - Your PGR journey:getting the best start
- Year 2 PhD Day - Keeping up the momentum
- Year 3 PhD Day - Crossing the finishing line
- Mental health and Wellbeing in PGRs: Guidance for Supervisors
The PhD sessions, tailored for researchers in their first, second and third years, cover topics from stress management to self-compassion and optimism for the future. Practical tools, such as mapping a support network, are designed to help researchers manage emotional pressures, acknowledging that this is as important as academic skills training in navigating the PhD journey successfully.
The new workshop for supervisors and staff supporting PGRs was designed to enhance pastoral support and increase mental health awareness. The training includes guidance on recognising signs of poor mental health, practical advice on talking and listening to students in crisis and highlights the importance of caring for your own mental wellbeing as a supervisor.
The resources for these training sessions are free to download and have recently been updated to include recommendations on online delivery as a result of Covid-19.
Teams involved in the project
- Researcher Development
- Advice and Counselling Service
- Student Life
- Doctoral College
- Queen Mary PGRs
The project was led by Dr Magda Chanopoulou, Head of Student Life. For more details about the project, please contact her in the first instance.