A Vision for Specialised Mental Health Training for Supervisors - Part 1

Posted 13/05/2021 by 9a4fa0b2-a68f-44ca-95b6-a2b900c1471a

Katherine Parker-HayThis week we hear from Dr Katherine Parker-Hay who joined Vitae as a research assistant under the supervision of Dr Kate Jones to work on ‘The Supervisor’s Voice,’ a project that examined the boundaries of the supervisory role, including supervisors’ responsibilities in the mental health and wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers (PGRs).

This series of blogs looks at the challenges supervisors face supporting PGR wellbeing and mental health and offers suggestions for supervisor mental health training that might meet some of these challenges.

Part 1

‘Troubles talk’: the meaning of complaint in research cultures

With Mental Health Awareness Week here again, and the student population experiencing an uptick in isolation and anxiety having faced a global pandemic, it is worth reiterating the important role that the supervisory relationship plays in the wellbeing and mental health of PGRs. It is now widely accepted that PGRs are more likely to suffer poor mental health than the average person, and that the supervisory relationship has a large influence on researchers’ experience of the PhD. Some argue that suffering is normalised in academia, and many who have made it through the system continue to consciously or unconsciously promote the idea that the PhD is designed as a “trial by fire”.

The supervisors who took part in ‘The Supervisor’s Voice’ were generally sensitised to the plight of their students, even prior to the pandemic hitting, yet interestingly the narrative of trauma and war-wounds was still much in evidence, irrespective of this sensitivity. Many of the participants noted that all of the PGRs they worked with experience periods of difficulty, anger and despair and some explicitly stated that periods of depression are a natural part of the process of creating original work. Is this evidence of a ‘sick’ research culture? Perhaps. But perhaps not, or at least perhaps not always.

Doing the groundwork for this project, one piece of research really stood out to me and has stayed with me since. In her article ‘Troubling talk: assembling the PhD candidate,’ I. Mewburn suggests that we might be misreading what she calls ‘narratives of the self in trouble’. She argues that a one-dimensional reading of student complaint fails to account for the ‘identity work’ that is often being done when students get together in conversation. In her words, ‘troubles talk’ captures doctoral researchers doing ‘identity work in the ‘hinterlands’ where academic subjectivity and other forms of subjectivity (wife, husband, parent, son, daughter etc.) start to blur into each other’. So, while talk of bad writing days and bad supervision certainly can be a cry for help, it might alternatively be read as an effective way of negotiating the identity change of becoming an academic, allowing PGRs to find their standing within research cultures and integrate different parts of themselves. 

Male holding unhappy face card over his face

In the changed context of a chorus of student complaint loud enough to reach national headlines, this might read as provocative at best and crass at worst. And yet, having myself recently emerged from the PhD journey, I can’t help but notice how well Mewburn’s analysis chimes with my lived experience of student talk. I can’t count the number of times we got together in corridor conversations to complain about bad writing days and bad supervisions and bad prospects. More than once I found myself surprised to hear that someone a year above had just passed their viva, when I had only ever heard them speak of dire progress and writing that was not good enough. Mewburn helps me to see that in these conversations we might have been engaging in ‘troubles talk’ as a way of coming to terms with our own changing identities while also positioning ourselves as ‘one of us’ (a student) and not ‘one of them’ (a professional academic). If troubles talk plays such a useful role, then, perhaps it wouldn’t be entirely wise to aspire to wipe it out completely.

This is not to suggest that student mental health needs to be taken any less seriously. If anything, I believe that the opposite is true when it comes to providing responsible supervision in contexts where trouble talk can be pervasive. It seems imperative that supervisors able to distinguish its more socially useful forms from actual cries for help which demand speedy intervention – especially in dark times. With everyone in academia so time-squeezed, misreading the signals is surely all the more likely. How often is genuine distress misread as a natural part of the process?

Therefore, though a shift in the culture of academia might well be important and necessary, we are perhaps also in need of something more modest: supervisor mental health awareness training that is sensitised the role that troubles talk plays in research cultures and can help distinguish this from issues that will not solve themselves with the passage of time and a confidence boost. It seems to me that, while generic mental health training provision would be useful, it will not necessarily get at this complex aspect of research cultures. Overlooking this complexity risks alienating those involved by coming in at an odd angle to their lived experiences. In the second part of this blog, I address what supervisors said they wanted from training, using their words to imagine what specialised supervisor mental health training might look like.

Read full report

Further information:

The Supervisor’s Voice report

Dr Kate Jones' interview of Katherine Parker-Hay for Vitae Connections Week 2020

Link to Vitae’s Mental Health Awareness Week page

Link to PGR catalyst fund

Catalyst Fund - Supporting mental health & wellbeing for postgraduate research students report.

Wellbeing when writing

Practical advice, resources and supportive wellbeing interventions for both Postgraduate Researchers (PGRs) and their supervisors developed by the University of Manchester and Vitae as an output from their Catalyst Funded project. Generic set developed by Vitae for doctoral candidates and supervisors that are available as editable templates for use by other institutions.

Wellbeing and mental health lens of the Researcher Development Framework (RDF)