Reducing stress in doctoral supervision, engage with your community

By Dr Kay Guccione, Researcher Development Manager

A single foot track through a snowy mountain landscape.

A couple of weeks ago I put together a workshop for University of Glasgow supervisors called Working with Stressed Researchers. The workshop used this short article on how to respond to stressed researchers as a prompt for discussion. The article is part of the toolkit from the ‘Are you OK?’ research study, which our research team completed in 2020.

Our workshop discussions naturally turned to the difficulty of delivering such guidance in practice; how can we take the advice given in well-meaning toolkits like the one linked above and actually make it work in reality? This is, of course, the precise purpose of hosting the group discussion. A blog post in our growing supervisor series primes each workshop, and whilst offering new evidence-based ideas and guidance is positive, it’s more valuable if evaluated and tailored for the individual using it.

For example, a rich aspect of our discussion concerned the need to balance being respectful of a researcher’s choice to not talk about their mental wellbeing, with the need to ensure their safety and to keep them progressing over time. Supervisors spoke about how difficult it is to observe somebody struggling with stress and also to respect their boundaries, allowing them to cope in their own way. We discussed how each supervisor may differently judge the point at which the risk of not coping, or of running out of time to complete the doctorate, signals the need to intervene. Supervisors in the group supported each other to unpick how they make that judgement call, a question which really has no right answer.

Another point to ponder was how to encourage a postgraduate researcher to take action on the advice given to them about reducing stress. We discussed ideas for building trusting relationships that increase the likelihood of advice being heeded. We shared a variety of coaching techniques that help to build a PGR’s commitment to action, and even considered whether advice was the right approach to take, to support stressed colleagues (there’s more on that in this post).

Naturally, as well as discussing the reactive end of the thorny problem of postgraduate mental health our discussions considered a proactive approach – how supervisors can help to head off problems, and reduce doctoral stressors. 

What causes stress in the doctorate? 

I’ve been working to support PGRs, and to research the postgraduate experience over the last 10 years, and I was able to offer some insights drawn from many hundreds of discussions. Students who attend workshops, coaching sessions, or reach out for help from a mentor will commonly talk about feeling ‘lost’, ‘off track’, or ‘overwhelmed with confusion’ – they can often feel quite angry about this lack of security. When we look at what underlies those feelings, we start to understand that the doctoral experience is a confusingly different one to prior modes of study and it requires conscious attention to develop new strategies for success. The isolated working, and burden of sole responsibility for success can feel very different from many prior (or concurrent) workplace experiences too. PGRs can feel insecure without the modular structures and assessment rhythms they are used to, with numerical grades to guide them, and they find it difficult to track both how well they are doing, and how far into the process they have come.

Layer on to this uncertainty about how academia works, as a workplace and as a career, the hidden curriculum of doctoral learning is extensive and the landscape for supervision is complicated, and has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. Further uncertainties can arise if the role of the supervisor(s) is not explicitly made clear, which can lead to all parties operating on slightly different assumptions about the expected levels and types of support that supervisors provide. The number of players offering subtly different types of support can also muddy the waters – supervisors, convenors, PGR administrators, Grad School managers, researcher developers, support officers, the Students’ Union, wellbeing, counselling, and careers advisors to name a few.

Alongside this requirement to be able to navigate complex workplaces, comes the uncertainties that are inherent in doing original research. The whole essence of a doctorate is that you not know the outcome before you start. So, how much research is enough? What does it mean to be critical? How do I find a ‘gap’ in the literature? What’s does an original contribution look like? What makes a thesis good? Where do I start with writing?

A powerpoint slide which reads: 

no grades, modules or apparent structure 

bottom of the hierarchy, precarious, undervalued

roles less defined, who can help?

how does academia work?

your opinion is required but you don’t feel like an expert – how to engage?

what is ‘an original contribution’?

what is enough work for a thesis?

Further, career precarity, and the uncertainty of remaining in an academic role can cause feelings which lead researchers to question whether the doctorate is ‘worth it’ (Bryan & Guccione, 2018). The loss of the anticipated academic ‘good life’ (Burford, 2018) can be experienced as grief feelings such as shock, anger, and depression. 

Within that landscape we see the same patterns of who tends to be more stressed. It’s of course the people placed at a greater structural disadvantage: our international PGRs, people of minoritised ethnicities, disabled and chronically ill people, parents and carers, and other marginalised groups of postgraduate researchers.

Taken together it’s no wonder that postgraduate mental health has become a cause for concern and a big area of research, and it’s no wonder that supervisors feel the weight of responsibility to provide the right support. Luckily for us, evidence is emerging that we can make use of as supervisors, and as supervisor developers. 

What can supervisors do?

Take a look at some of the latest research, translated into practical actions.

To support PGR wellbeing, focus on building a strong relationship. This research makes suggestions centred on the importance of clarifying expectations from the beginning and to ensure that supervisors provide direction, explicate progress made, and reassure PGRs in the early stages.

Trust grows when supervisors take the lead. This paper shows how the power asymmetry in supervisory relationships means that the supervisor must lead and initiate actions to reduce students’ experiences of vulnerability in the relationship and in the program. The supervisor is key in advocating for well-designed programs, and funding, in addition to academic and wellness support.

Empowering researchers through ‘experienced uncertainty’. This study identified three supervision strategies for supporting research identity development and reducing uncertainty: normalise strategies for managing uncertainty, facilitate learning through an incremental approach, and affirm the PGR’s research identity.

Don’t try to do it all yourself. It takes a village to raise a PhD. This paper shows how social support improves the PhD experience and helps progress. Not only does it keep PhD students mentally and emotionally strong, and ‘on track’, it also supports them in developing a sense of self as emerging researchers who are fitting into the academic community.

We aim to ensure that no University of Glasgow supervisor feels they have to go it alone. A supportive supervisor community works in precisely the same way as a supportive PGR community, by reducing uncertainty in the process, providing validating collegial conversations, and collectively unpicking complex concepts. This benefits mental wellbeing, and the shaping of a confident supervisor identity.

One response to “Reducing stress in doctoral supervision, engage with your community”

  1. […] on postgraduate research opens the door to a long-term period of uncertainty, which can be stressful and challenging to navigate, and is often a largely autonomous role […]

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