Postgraduate research students (PGRS; PhD, MPhil and MRes students) are at a breaking point. Research conducted in higher education institutions in the UK has shown that PhD Students have higher anxiety and depression rates than educated people in employment, and this difference is not explained by a higher rate of pre-existing mental health problems. Moreover, doctoral researchers perceive poor mental health as a “normal” part of the PhD process. Key predictors of poor mental health included: not having interests and relationships outside of PhD studies; symptoms of imposter syndrome (imposter thoughts and perfectionism); supervisory relationship; isolation; financial insecurity; external stressors.1
These issues are also being faced by our PGRS community. In a survey conducted by the 2021-2022 LSESU PGRS officer, receiving 74 responses, the most common challenges faced by LSE PGRS were: financial insecurity (50%), mental health problems (48.6%), imposter syndrome (47.2%), loneliness/isolation (44.4%), juggling personal life with research responsibilities (34.7%), Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA)-related issues such as fair salary/pay (33.3%) and workload (30.6%), and supervision (25%).
In response to this alarming data, a motion was presented to the LSESU in June 2022, entitled “Should the LSE provide wholistic support for postgraduate research students to improve their wellbeing?”. The motion passed with a 95% majority. It included a vow to address: 1) Poor mental health within the PGRS community; 2) PGRS and GTA Precarity; 3) The highly varying supervision quality and experiences; 4) The lack of or inadequate support for PGRS with caring responsibilities; and 5) Loneliness and Isolation within the PGRS community.
The PhD Action Network was created to uphold the implementation of this motion, and by doing so fight for better working, study and living conditions for the PGRS community. By collaborating with the LSESU, LSE Divisions and Management, the PhD Action Network aims to devise solutions to improve PGRS wellbeing and academic experience at the School.
The PhD Action Network’s secondary purpose is to support and scrutinise the implementation of any LSESU/LSE policies related to PGRS, GTAs and class teachers (beyond the motion), and suggest improvements if the implementation of these policies is deemed ineffective.
The final purpose of the PhD Action Network is to build a platform through which engaged PGRS can unite and connect for action. As the positions of LSESU PGRS officer and departmental academic representatives are not always filled, having this structure is important to maintain an advocacy movement for PGRS, GTAs and class teachers at the LSE.
- Working with the School and LSE Counselling to improve mental health support for postgraduate research students à To train or employ one counsellor in the LSE Counselling service to specialise in postgraduate research student issues (including intercultural counselling) by September 2023.
- Working with the PhD Academy and Eden Centre to standardise and improve the level of supervision quality between departments à To devise a framework for good supervision and supervision assessment by September 2023 and collaborate with the PhD Academy and Eden Centre to devise a strategy to circulate and implement it.
- Working with the School and the “Save the nurseries” campaign to improve support for postgraduate research students with caring responsibilities which go beyond the offered nursery scheme à To advocate for the LSE to reinstate/review the benefits of having an on-campus nursery or move from the nursery-based scheme to a bursary-based scheme by September 2023.
- Working with the School, and in particular the Pro-Director of Research, to improve financial support and working conditions for postgraduate research students, graduate teaching assistants and class teachers à To advocate for the LSE to review the amounts at least annually to adjust stipends to inflation and send a formal report; To advocate for the LSE to adopt standardised and improved level of hourly pay for GTAs (e.g., prep time) and class teachers across departments by September 2023.
- Working with the PhD Social Committee to build a postgraduate research community to tackle loneliness and isolation à To organise at least one cross-departmental event per term in the 2022-2023 academic year, funded by the LSESU SUF and/or the PhD Academy.
COMMS & CAMPAIGN STRUCTURE
The PhD Action Network communicates via email and meets at least once a term. Each aim of the Network has a lead and a support, meaning that we divide and conquer our objectives amongst ourselves, and work together to achieve the aims of the Network for the academic year.
Interested in knowing more or in getting involved? Please contact either:
- Hazell, C.M., Niven, J.E., Chapman, L. et al. Nationwide assessment of the mental health of UK Doctoral Researchers. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 8, 305 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-021-00983-8. An LSE Blog was also written by the authors of this research about this issue.