Managing the Journey - Tip #3 Develop and Use Your Personal and Professional Support Networks

Two Friends Standing Together
Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Just because your research degree thesis has to represent your own work it does not mean that your time as a research student should be lived in complete isolation. Isolation - from family, friends, and colleagues - can be detrimental to your mental wellbeing and it has already been noted how connections with others are one of the Five Steps to Mental Wellbeing.

As a research student it is important to give both time and effort to maintaining your existing relationships and to developing new relationships. This is important because these relationships will together form your various support networks - the groups of people that you can turn to for support, reassurance, and advice.

These support networks therefore have a vital role in your mental wellbeing and in helping to make sure your time as a research student is enjoyable and productive.

This guide will look at two main types of support network - personal and professional. As a research student you should make use of both. However, it is also important to remember that the people in these networks cannot provide expert advice if you are experiencing mental wellbeing difficulties - speak with your doctor if you have been feeling depressed for more than a few weeks or if anxiety or stress is affecting your daily life.

Personal Support Networks

It can be easy to overlook the people who make up your personal support network(s) - your family and friends and, to some extent, the people who are working alongside you. They are likely to have little - if any - direct connection with your work as a research student. They may not even have much idea of what your work as a research student involves. But it is important to recognise the role that they play, particularly with respect to your mental wellbeing. In this sense, they are very much what one research student blogger has called the PhD/MPhil student's "supporting cast".

The phrase is apt because it is a reminder that a research degree, despite the independent nature of the work and the sense of isolation that can result, is never a one-person show. If you have ever looked at the acknowledgements page of a research degree thesis, you will have seen that successful research students always include thanks for their family and friends. And these are not pro forma thanks - they express a real debt and articulate the importance of those people in helping the research student to complete their degree. They provide support and encouragement - and family members may even be providing financial assistance.  It perhaps is not always recognised, but one of the secrets of successful research students is that no matter how demanding their research degree is, they continue to make time for and value the support of these people.

Maintaining Personal Support Networks

It can be easy - albeit unintentionally - to give less time to your personal support networks once you have started your research degree. You find yourself busy with your work, your priorities change, and without noticing you may be keeping in touch with family and friends less regularly. The problem may be exacerbated if you have moved to Leicester and your family and friends are now much further away or even in another country. While it is important that you give appropriate priority to your work, this should not be to the total exclusion of time for your personal support networks. If you have a deadline to work to, it is natural to want to give all of your efforts to that; but it is at times when you are at your busiest and under the most pressure that it can be the most beneficial to make some time for family and friends.

Making some time - even just a few hours - and using this to catch up with or meet with family and friends is a good way of taking a break from your work and clearing your head. It is important to make sure that each week you are giving your degree the time it needs if you are to finish on time, but taking regular breaks for family and friends will help you stay focussed and maintain your motivation; it will also help to ensure those valuable personal support networks are maintained and can continue to provide support to you and your mental wellbeing.

Your personal support networks are important for your mental wellbeing as your family and friends will provide reassurance at times when you might be doubting yourself or your work and they can offer new perspectives when you have been looking at a problem from one angle only. They therefore play a key role in your feelings of self-confidence and purpose and in your ability to manage stress, all of which influences your overall mental wellbeing. So make time for your personal support networks and keep family and friends informed of what you are doing and how you are getting on. If you are experiencing problems, your family and friends are there for you to talk to and often they can provide the advice and help you need to get things back on track.

Finally, a research degree is an excellent opportunity to grow and expand your personal support networks. You will be familiar with the concept of networking and its importance with respect to your professional development. It can also be important for your mental wellbeing. Use the opportunities over your degree to make new friends and contacts within your School/Department, the wider University, and beyond. Many research students find the relationships that they make over their degree continue for many years afterwards. New friends can be just as valuable as old friends for support, reassurance, and helping you and your mental wellbeing.

Virtual Personal Support Networks

An increasing number of research students are also making use of virtual support networks reached by online blogs. These blogs often cover issues associated with the research student experience including common difficulties relating to mental wellbeing such as stress and anxiety. For the bloggers, writing about their experiences in this way can be cathartic and can help them clarify their own views on how such issues are best addressed. For their readers, it is a reminder that many research students share the same type of experiences including mental wellbeing difficulties.

You can keep up with blog posts from University of Leicester research students by liking the Doctoral College on Facebook. Other popular external blogs include The Thesis Whisperer and PhD2Published. Blogs with a mental wellbeing theme include No More Blue Mondays - a blog set up by research students at the University of Edinburgh - and The New Academic - Academia and Mental Health - a blog curated by Dr Nadine Muller, a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University.

Professional Support Networks

The idea of seeking help from - or simply admitting there is a problem to - a member of University staff can be daunting. There is a fear that such an approach will be taken as a sign of failure or even lead to punitive action. This may be particularly true for international research students whose previous education has been in a context where personal difficulties are not usually discussed openly.

On a research degree programme you are required to take responsibility for successfully completing your degree; to do that, you must be honest with yourself and others about anything that is having an adverse effect on your progress or your work. You must report as early as possible any problem, whatever its nature, that is affecting your standard of work or your ability to complete your degree on time.

The University can offer support and help if problems are reported promptly and usually it is possible to help research students find a way to resolve or manage any problems so that they do not get in the way of them successfully completing their degree. However, the University cannot help if you do not let us know when there are problems. If you experience problems and do not tell us, there is very little we can do and it is not possible for us to make allowance for this later on.

Given this need to report any problems at the time they occur, it is important that you understand who you can approach within the University for help and advice. The term "professional support networks" is used here to describe those staff contacts within the University who can provide general advice if mental wellbeing difficulties are affecting your work or progress.

Your Supervisors

Your supervisors are the members of University staff that are closest to you and your work. They have a direct investment in your progress in your research degree and are best placed to offer advice on keeping your work on track if you experience problems such as mental wellbeing difficulties. But that creates its own problem - the closeness of a research student's working relationship with their supervisors means that they can be reluctant to inform their supervisors of any difficulties.

The research student-supervisor relationship works best when the research student takes ownership for their progress and for any difficulties that may be affecting this. In the case of mental wellbeing difficulties this means that your supervisors will be in a better position to respond when you:

  • have recognised there is a problem
  • are taking action to address this
  • have a plan to minimise any impact on your progress

Even if you do not feel comfortable sharing with your supervisors the details of any mental wellbeing difficulties you are experiencing, it is important to keep them informed of what you are doing to keep your work on track. Your supervisors will not be judgemental if you are experiencing mental wellbeing difficulties, but they will want to be reassured that you are taking steps to improve your mental wellbeing and, in particular, that you are being proactive in managing any impact on your work.

Your supervisors can also provide advice on what to do if as a result of mental wellbeing difficulties you need to take a temporary break from your research degree.

Your Postgraduate Tutor

Although your supervisors should be your first point of contact should any issues or concerns arise over the course of your degree, there may be times when you want to speak with someone who is not one of your supervisors.

Your departmental Postgraduate Tutor is available to provide support, advice, and guidance on matters relating to your academic progress or any personal circumstances that may be affecting your progress. Common subjects of discussion include options available when medical or personal circumstances are affecting your work, maintaining a good working relationship with your supervisor, and balancing a research degree with other commitments.

Research students are encouraged to take the initiative in contacting or making an appointment with their Postgraduate Tutor. Your Postgraduate Tutor will normally be introduced at the start of your research degree; if you are unsure who your Postgraduate Tutor is, please ask your departmental administrator.

College Directors of Postgraduate Research and the Graduate Dean

If you are experiencing severe problems or there are good reasons why you might want to discuss your situation with someone outside of your department, you are welcome to arrange an appointment to speak with your College Director of Postgraduate Research or the Graduate Dean.

You can find details of who your College Director of Postgraduate Research is and how to contact them on the Doctoral College Website.

To contact the Graduate Dean, please email graduatedean@le.ac.uk

When arranging to speak with the College Director of Postgraduate Research or the Graduate Dean, it is helpful if you can provide some indication as to what you would like to discuss. This will help them answer the questions you wish to ask. Discussions with the College Director of Postgraduate Research or the Graduate Dean will be handled sensitively. However, in order to resolve issues it is normally necessary to involve others at some point.

Specialist Support Services

Again it needs to be borne in mind that the support networks described above cannot provide expert advice if you are experiencing mental wellbeing difficulties. For professional mental wellbeing support it is important that you make use of the specialist support services and resources that are available to research students.

The final section of this guide looks at using the help that is available.

Managing the Journey - Mental Wellbeing for PhD/MPhil Students

The Doctoral College's Top Four Tips for Mental Wellbeing in Your Research Degree:

  1. Understand what mental wellbeing is and why it matters
  2. Manage your mental wellbeing as a research student
  3. Develop and use personal and professional support networks
  4. Don't ignore problems and use the help that is available

Mental Wellbeing Links and Contacts

 

Share this page: