What does research culture mean… for PGRs?

By Mary Beth Kneafsey, PGR Strategy Manager

a neon question mark on a wall

Last week I was fortunate to virtually attend a conference, the 5th International Conference on Developments in Doctoral Education and Training where the theme was ‘research cultures’. There was a clear link in the presentations between the PGR student experience and what was identified as a positive research culture, but it did make me ask what we were really talking about when we included PGRs in ‘research culture’ – is this institutional research culture, local or disciplinary research cultures, the student experience, all of these, or something else?  

Does the university research culture, the local disciplinary culture and the student experience come together to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts?

Advance HE, who run and report on the Postgraduate Researcher Experience Survey (PRES survey), include ‘research culture’ as one of their survey themes, under the ‘research degree experience’ heading – however, this is one area where institutions struggle to get high satisfaction scores. The University of Glasgow didn’t participate in this round of PRES (2021 data here,  and shown below), but we have had similar results over time.

PRES 2021 results, figure 11. Bar chart of satisfaction within the research degree experience.

PRES questions that relate to research culture ask about ‘access to local research seminars’, ‘opportunities for PGRs to discuss their research’ and ‘opportunities to be involved in a wider research community’. AdvanceHE don’t discuss research culture separately in their reporting on the survey results so there are no more clues here, but this does indicate the importance of both local and disciplinary research cultures as well as highlight that there is some work to do here for all of us.

At Glasgow, we are clear that we see a positive research culture as meaning that researchers are recognised and valued for their varied contributions to research; support each other to succeed and are supported to produce work that meets the highest standards of academic rigour. Institutionally, we (and others) have previously focused mainly on staff and the broader research ecosystem at the university, in designing culture enhancement activities. PGRs are, of course, researchers and an important part of this ecosystem although the ‘student’ aspect of their experience (and associated systems and policies) can set them apart. However, many also do have employment relationships with the university as Graduate Teaching Assistants, Interns, Research Assistants, etc.  Are we clear to PGRs how much we value their contributions to our research ecosystem? While this could lead to a discussion of the ‘PGRs as staff’ movement, I don’t intend to tackle that here other than to suggest that some of the thinking about what research culture means for PGRs might be useful in that discussion as well.

With all this in mind, some other suggested indicators of a positive research culture for PGRs, might be: 

Wellbeing

This is a topic of continually increasing importance and PGRs have clearly been identified as a group that is more likely to suffer from poor mental health than other student groups, or the general population. Many conversations about ‘research culture’ in the context of PGRs start or end with wellbeing. How institutions go about supporting PGRs towards improved wellbeing can make or break the overall student experience. Indeed, levels of access to support for wellbeing and good mental health could be seen as an important indicator of an overall positive (or otherwise) university culture. Although a sense of good wellbeing is highly individual, it is arguably as much an outcome of belonging to a generally supportive culture as it is something that is delivered through specific wellbeing initiatives.

Community

There are a lot of factors that influence an individual’s wellbeing or that contribute to a lack of wellbeing. One thing that was clear from the PGR Survey run at Glasgow last summer was that PGRs missed being around each other during the pandemic and the various types of support that this provided to them. Peer connections, community and support are vital to PGRs – especially where they may lack a clear community such as a research group, or are international students who may be missing extended social connections after relocating to the UK. Where PGRs find their community(ies) is as individual as they are – from office mates to social media mates to that one other researcher they have coffee with.  One small piece of research that I have done (as yet unpublished) looking at the experience of students in the Scottish National Graduate Schools and asking what helped them most in their journey, found that community and by extension, belonging, were what they most quickly identified as what helped them to succeed.

Engagement and inclusion

Student engagement is a challenge in any large, complex institution and students may need to engage with subject groups, research centres, schools, institutes, graduate schools and external entities related to funding or disciplinary activities, amongst others. Does it matter where or how students engage, or simply that they do? The study that I mentioned above suggests that PGRs, to a large extent, ‘get out what they put into’ their PGR experience – that their ability and willingness to engage and seek out opportunities seems to be a benefit to them. Are PGRs enabled to access the opportunities and resources they need to succeed and to participate fully in the experience of being a PGR? Are our systems and processes supportive of this? I think it’s slightly more complicated than ‘if you build it, they will come’ so how do we engage effectively with our PGRs?

Supervision

It’s of course hard to discuss PGRs without discussing their supervisors as many PGRs would identify the relationship with their supervisor as the most important one in their journey and this was reflected in our PGR survey last year. Supervisors perhaps provide that important link between the student experience, the research culture of the university and the disciplinary culture. How can we foster good communication between student and supervisor? How can we help PGRs where this relationship isn’t working as well as it should? How can we, as developers and supporters, better enable supervisors to undertake this very important role?  

I’ve asked a lot of questions here and I don’t think that there is any one right answer – but I think It’s important to continue to have these conversations across our ecosystem, as we develop new ways of enhancing our research culture.

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