Supporting Your PGR Supervisees’ Wellbeing

By Suzie Shapiro, PGR Mental Health Adviser

Colleagues sharing a conversation in a corridor

Undertaking postgraduate research can be an exciting time; however, it also presents very tangible challenges. It can be a time of culture shock, overwhelm and isolation that can impede a researcher’s wellbeing and their performance.

So, when we talk about ‘wellbeing’ what do we really mean? Let’s consider this definition from the World Health Organization (WHO):

“A state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

As a PGR Supervisor, it is easy to assume that your role is simply to enable the completion and submission of a quality thesis; if we think about this in the context of our definition of wellbeing, we can see there is scope for supervisors to play a key role in facilitating supervisees developing their wellbeing management capability and realising their own potential. The ‘wide-ranging, highly complex and demanding set of roles involved in research supervision’ is recognised through the UKCGE Good Supervisory Practice Framework. In this blog post, we’ll share some practical ways that supervisors can support their supervisees and help equip them with the skills necessary to manage their health and wellbeing and succeed in their research.

Beginnings matter

The first step in supporting postgraduate researchers is to establish clear expectations from the outset; as human beings, we find uncertainty difficult to deal with, so articulating what is expected of your supervisee, such as timelines for their research and what your role as supervisor entails can set things off on a strong footing. This will help them to manage their time effectively, balancing their workload and personal commitments, and feel more confident in their ability to succeed.

‘Contracting’ your relationship – i.e., agreeing its parameters – especially on the pastoral support side, can be particularly important. Being clear at the start that your PGR can speak to you about their mental health and wellbeing, setting out how quickly you’ll aim to respond if they contact you, and noting anything that’s outside the scope of your relationship helps define the responsibilities on both sides. When it comes to supporting their wellbeing, it can also be useful to set out what confidentiality looks like, for example letting them know that if you have concerns about their personal safety, or the safety of others, you have a duty of care to seek further guidance.

Encourage networking

Peer support is particularly critical for PGRs – the highly individual nature of postgraduate research, coupled with the fact many are international students, can leave PGRs feeling isolated and lonely which we know has a critical impact on mental health and wellbeing. Encouraging your researchers to seek out opportunities to make connections and build their networks, in both a personal and professional capacity, may give them a sense of permission to prioritise meeting new people, helping offset challenges around managing work/life boundaries.

Encourage and model good self-care

Supervising others is demanding and requires a high level of self-care and resilience. Modelling self-care behaviours can also be a positive step in supporting your supervisee – by demonstrating you prioritise your own wellbeing, this again gives the student tacit permission to do the same. This may be done through setting and maintaining of clear boundaries, a purposeful out of office message, or speaking about your own practical self-care toolkit.

It is vital that you are ensuring your own mental health and wellbeing needs are being met when supporting others; do check out the support services offered at you own institution for more information.

Foster a positive environment

As noted above, while supervising postgraduate researchers, part of your role is to help ensure they have the skills to navigate these difficulties without it impeding their research endeavors. Recognising particular difficulties in your supervisees, and encouraging development of their self-management skillset through signposting them to resources and training can be particularly helpful; understanding if your institution offers Wellbeing Masterclasses or PGR workshops to help students develop their resilience and self-management abilities is a good place to start.

Alongside signposting, being authentic and congruent in your interactions with your supervisees is crucial. For example, appropriate sharing of your own personal experiences can be a powerful tool –difficulties such as imposterism and perfectionism thrive in silence, and fostering an open dialogue can be hugely impactful in mitigating the impact of these difficulties on your supervisees’ performance.

Be prepared to listen…

Be human – leave space for compassion and care in your interactions with your supervisees. Life is complex and demanding, particularly so at the moment given the ever-shifting social landscape and increasing pressures in relation to cost of living and accommodation. Being vigilant for any signs that something might not be quite right with your supervisee can also be important; as their supervisor, you may be their sole key contact within the university setting. If you do spot something that causes you concern, being ready to open up a conversation with them.

As mentioned earlier, the ability to listen effectively underpins any successful relationship. Listening looks really easy – but really ‘hearing’ is tricker. Active listening is actually a bit of a misnomer, because you are not only listening but also watching and, with consideration, speaking as well – to help facilitate them in opening up. Essentially, active listening can you help you get beyond ‘I’m fine’ with your supervisees.

So, first up – be attentive. Really pay attention; we can all be guilty of not actually listening, but rather waiting for an opportunity to speak. Especially when we want to help someone – we’re often driven by a need to share a potential solution or advice. It’s also worth noting there’s no harm in clarifying what they find most helpful from you in that moment; some may want a sounding board, others will be keen to hear your opinion or ideas on how to resolve.

A good tip is don’t jump in (often as we’re keen to offer solutions) as soon as they pause…allowing silence can be a powerful tool in supporting people, allowing the speaker to reflect and offer further thoughts. Often the most crucial information comes at the end…in therapy, we refer to this as the ‘doorknob confession’!

…and know when to refer onwards

While you do play a key role in facilitating your supervisees’ success, it’s also important to remember that you don’t need to have the answer to every question, or the solution to every problem. It is invaluable to build a solid understanding of the services and resources available within the university that you can signpost your supervisees towards, and knowing where you can go to for guidance and support if you encounter a challenging situation or have concerns about their safety and wellbeing which are outside your role, or level of comfort and expertise.

Most HEIs will have some sort of crisis management support, so it’s worthwhile becoming familiar with what’s on offer at your institution and where you can go to generally share concerns and seek guidance, for example from a Student Wellbeing & Inclusion Team.

Supporting your postgraduate students’ wellbeing can be a demanding and complex undertaking; hopefully this post has given you some initial ideas to reflect on.

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