Tips for supporting doctoral students’ social transition experiences

25 October 2018

Doctoral study can be simultaneously rewarding and challenging. After all, it presents exciting opportunities for expanding one's mental, social, and occupational horizons. Yet, doctoral study can also be an intense period of multiple transitions. All too often, transition difficulties can lead to isolation or loneliness. One recent study outlined that over half of doctoral students demonstrated symptoms of psychological distress.

Given these alarming findings, it's important to think of the holistic life experience that is doctoral study (or any study level, for that matter) that permeates beyond the academy into all areas of students' lives. In our recent UKCISA-funded research, we took a cross-institutional look at doctoral students' experience of social transitions, focusing on international students – that is, the ways international doctoral students developed friendships with peers, connected socially with staff, and managed existing relationships with family and friends.

In our forthcoming report, we've outlined the invaluable support provided to doctoral students through strong social ties with peers and scholarly communities. We also found that doctoral students relied on support from those outside the university, including their partners, children, parents, friends, and more.

However, participants outlined it wasn't always easy to develop these networks and there were variations in whether doctoral students felt satisfied with their social transitions. Based on our project evidence, presented below are some tips for supporting the social side of doctoral study:

1. Think carefully about physical space. We found that student-specific working spaces helped doctoral students develop their communities. Doctoral students often formed friendships with peers who sat closest to their assigned working space. Similarly, physical working space divides (such as students working in different rooms) often led to perceived social divisions.

2. Consider attendance policies. Students who felt the most connected to a scholarly community (including both peers and staff) were those who were regularly present in their department. Attendance was often impacted by things such as university cultures, supervision frequencies, training opportunities, and involvement in wider departmental research activities. Of course, there are many reasons why attendance is difficult for some doctoral students, which means…

3. Develop spaces for students-only communication (even from a distance). In our research, social media was often used as safe spaces where doctoral students could bond over their shared experiences, share resources, and ask questions. No staff or supervisors were present, which allowed students to discuss their experiences candidly. However, these groups were often developed spontaneously, meaning not all students had access and they sometimes fell to disuse. The groups needed some form of monitoring (by student leaders below, for example) to ensure inclusive access and keep groups active as communities changed.

4. Identify student leaders. There were natural doctoral student leaders in the departments we studied, who often organised social events and maintained the wider community. Yet because their efforts were usually voluntary, social opportunities were often infrequent and didn't always involve all students. Identifying these leaders and providing them with resources (time, funding, space, etc.) can help doctoral students self-regulate their own communities more inclusively.

5. Develop regular social programming. Doctoral students often felt that, outside of welcome week and Christmas, there were few departmental opportunities that were socially-focused. Often, social opportunities were 'tacked on' to academic events – coffee before a seminar or lunch during training. However, students wanted to see their departments put more effort into recognising their social needs through more regular events.

6. Offer opportunities for doctoral students' wider social networks. Many doctoral students received vital support from their networks outside the institution. Yet, there were rarely opportunities for them to be included in campus social events, including celebrations of students' successes and networking opportunities to support their own social transitions.

Altogether, it was clear from our research that doctoral study isn't solely an academic experience and that more attention is needed on the social elements coinciding with this exciting and challenging life opportunity. In light of evidence indicating doctoral study's strong impacts on wellbeing, regarding these experiences more holistically is an important step towards providing the integrated supports students need.

By Jenna Mittelmeier

Lecturer in Education (International)

Manchester Institute of Education (MIE)

The University of Manchester

On 15 November, UKK and UUKi, in partnership with UKCISA, will host a one-day conference on enhancing the international student experience. Dr Mittlemeier will speak about supporting the social transition experience of international doctoral students and will take us through key international cultures and policies that impact doctoral students' experience.

This post is based on findings from the Social Transition Research into International Doctoral Experiences (STRIDE) project, funded through the UKCISA grant scheme. Other project contributors included Prof Divya Jindal-Snape (The University of Dundee) and Prof Bart Rienties (The Open University).

If you are a student and are having a hard time, please remember that there are a number of professional services you can turn to for help. Most universities provide counselling, mental health and wellbeing services, which you can turn to. You can reach out to the University Mental Health Advisers Network, a national UK charity, which provides support to students experiencing mental health difficulties. You can also use the NHS's Moodzone, which offers practical advice, interactive tools, videos and audio guides to help you look after your mental health. There are also a number of mental health helplines, which offer expert advice. 

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