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Postgrad pressure: 'the expectations can feel impossible to sustain'

For more than a decade, post-doctoral researcher Liz Mistry found it hard to leave her bed. 

“I felt so lonely, some days I would pull the covers over my head and cry for hours.” Creative writing helped her manage her depression and she went on to complete a master’s at Leeds Trinity in 2016. Mistry believes that postgraduate researchers need to be able to share experiences and support each other to stay healthy. “Isolation is one of the main issues that affect students’ mental wellbeing,” she says. “Developing a community with good support mechanisms and access to mental health practitioners is key.” Undergraduates’ wellbeing has grabbed headlines, but the experiences of postgraduates - researchers in particular - are not so often considered. Some feel isolated, according to research published this year by Vitae and the Institute for Employment Studies (IES). “They might suffer anxiety about whether they deserve their place at university,” says Sally Wilson, who led IES’s contribution to the research. “Postgraduates can feel as though they are in a vacuum. They don’t know how to structure their time. Many felt they didn’t get support from their supervisor.” Taught students tend to fare better than researchers - they enjoy more structure and contact, says Sian Duffin, student support manager at Arden University. But she believes anxiety is on the rise. “The pressure to gain distinction grades is immense,” she says. “Fear of failure can lead to perfectionism, anxiety and depression.”

 Younger postgraduates who’ve come straight from undergraduate study might suffer from burnout, particularly if they performed well in their first degree. “Expectations can feel impossible to sustain. The feeling of ‘not good enough’ can erode confidence and self-esteem.” With more postgraduates forced to live at home, universities are losing what psychologist and author Audrey Tang calls “that campus feel”. Staff at Brunel University, where she runs mindfulness sessions for postgraduates, try to intercept students before they hit crisis point and require help from counsellors - whose services are nearly always overbooked at many institutions. 

 Since the summer, 17 universities have won up to £150,000 each (totalling £1.5m) from the Office for Students to target postgraduate wellbeing. Some, such as the University of Manchester and University of Sussex, are linking with NHS services and training both staff and students. Leeds Beckett and Portsmouth are investing in initiatives to change attitudes and awareness of mental health. Derby and the University of the West of England are developing web-based resources and apps to help students connect with each other and help intervene early. “These are early projects,” says Wilson. 

“They’re trying to understand exactly what is needed - it’s not one size fits all.” If students do slip through the net, it’s important emergency provision doesn’t depend on a single staff member, says Clare Dickens, mental health and wellbeing coordinator at the University of Wolverhampton, where the award-winning “three minutes to save a life” suicide prevention scheme is being rolled out. Nearly 450 student union officers and staff - from caretakers to academic staff and the vice-chancellor - have been trained in how to recognise and act on early warning signs. “It’s not helpful just to tell students to go and seek help,” says Dickens. “If someone is in obvious emotional pain, then literally a few minutes of your time could save them. You haven’t got to sit there for three hours - that’s not your job. But we must respond with compassion.”

How to look after yourself As a postgraduate, you will have many demands on your time. But if you don’t stay healthy, or work too long on autopilot, you might lose attention to detail, miss opportunities and burn out personally and professionally. If the world around you is not going to slow down, says psychologist Dr Audrey Tang, who wrote The Leader’s Guide to Mindfulness, you’ll need to find a way to manage. Looking after yourself, she says, is not unnecessary or indulgent: if you’re physically, emotionally and mentally healthy, you’ll perform better for yourself and others.Set “office hours” and don’t engage in work-related matters after a certain time (as much as teaching requirements allow).

Fresh air and time away from your work always does you good. A daily walk - maybe with a friend or family - will re-energise you.oga, tai chi and other relaxation therapiesY can clear the mind. Just 30 minutes exercise three times a week has been proved to lift mood.Make sure you take a proper lunch break - that means physically stepping away from where you’re working.Break down tasks - completing achievable goals will give you a sense of satisfaction. Identify mood patterns and try to plan your day to suit these.Go to social and wellbeing events on offer. “Attend any extra seminars, lectures and events in your field - you can build common ground. 

It’s a boost for academic and pastoral wellbeing,” says former postgraduate Philippa Bunch.Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help, companionship or just a chat.

If you feel lonely or anxious in new social situations, take it slowly - or try a class where you can immerse yourself in the activity, rather than focus on needing to speak to people straight away.

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing jo@samaritans.org. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393, or by visiting mind.org.uk