Levels of satisfaction among UK postgraduate researchers (PGRs) have fallen to their lowest level on record, a major survey of almost 40,000 doctoral candidates has found.
The Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES), conducted annually by Advance HE, found that satisfaction had fallen slightly between 2020 to 2021, from 80% to 79%. But that figure, suggesting that two in 10 are not satisfied, is the lowest since the PRES began in 2007. The survey of PGRs collected the views of almost 40,000 candidates from 94 institutions between February and March this year.
Advance HE uncovered poor experiences of university pastoral support. Sixty-three per cent felt university wellbeing assistance during the pandemic met their needs, a figure the organisation described as “concerning”.
Despite some worsening statistics, an Advance HE report that summarised the findings noted a “reassuring drop in the proportion of PGRs who had considered leaving their postgraduate research degree programme, following an increase in 2020”.
Sixty-seven per cent of respondents said they were satisfied with the academic experience they received during the lockdown and the same proportion received the support they needed. Four in 10 said their institution did not value or respond to their feedback.
Satisfaction fell sharpest in the area of professional development, with respondents reporting having missed the chance to develop professional contacts and networks. Satisfaction with research culture was the aspect of the degree experience that attracted the lowest satisfaction levels (58%).
It is concerning that fewer than two-thirds of PGRs agreed that institutional support for health and wellbeing met their needs
– Jonathan Neves, Advance HE
The report collected quotes from PGRs. One said it was “disappointing” that their course included very little focus on professional development. Another said the “offerings from the careers centre have not been useful”. A third said their institution focused “almost entirely on students at an early stage of their careers” and not on PGRs.
Several anonymous respondents were critical of how institutions managed PGR wellbeing. One said: “There are too many post-grad students who have adopted the mentality that being depressed, stressed and anxious is a normality for researchers.” Another commented: “The university claims mental health and well-being is a priority whilst not doing enough to correct the culture amongst academics and PhD students – supervisors often expect too much from their PhD students and put too much pressure on them.”
Advance HE says students’ experience of communications from their institution “strongly correlated with overall satisfaction”. Improving communications with PGRs in the next academic year “could have a positive impact on their satisfaction”, the report added. An anonymous respondent mentioned receiving “poor communication…throughout [the pandemic],” which “demonstrates the devaluing of PGRs as an integral part of the research community”. Another said communication had been “lacking” and a third said the “financial support office have [sic] been particularly difficult to talk to during the pandemic”.
Nearly nine in 10 said library resources had been easy to access online – but only seven in 10 said they had suitable working space on campus and appropriate access to physical library facilities. One suggested that offices unused by senior academics able to work from home be lent to PGRs that could not. Others criticised open-plan spaces as unsuitable for researchers, and several suggested PGRs would value assigned offices.
Jonathan Neves, head of business intelligence and surveys at Advance HE, said: “Although overall satisfaction across the sector has fallen by just 1% in 2021, it is the first time since the survey began in 2007 that the score has fallen below 80%.
“It is concerning that fewer than two-thirds of PGRs agreed that institutional support for health and wellbeing met their needs. Improving support in this area is key to improving overall satisfaction and retention, making mental wellbeing a clear priority for the sector as we learn to live with Covid-19.
“Feeling that their institution values and responds to their feedback is one of the areas which typically receives the lowest scores from PGRs, so learning from and sustaining the measures institutions put in place to capture and act upon the PGR student voice immediately after the beginning of the pandemic could improve overall satisfaction levels.”