A Vision for Specialised Mental Health Training for Supervisors - Part 2

Posted 14/06/2023 by Sarah Nalden

Katherine Parker-HayWe continue this series with 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 2

Mental health-awareness training for supervisors: the dream package

In the first of this two-part blog series, I suggested that mental health training for doctoral supervisors might need to account for the pervasiveness of “self-in-trouble” narratives within universities. The supervisors I interviewed as part of ‘The Supervisor’s Voice’ stated that mental health awareness would be top of their list of training needs, suggesting that they see this area of their job as both challenging and important. They also stressed that, to be really effective, training would need to be specialised to address the following needs:

  •  How to discuss mental health within a hierarchical relationship. Supervisors reported that they often had a delicate relationship with the doctoral student’s ego and therefore generic approaches to mental health might cause more harm than good, especially if in violation of established boundaries. They also expressed how difficult it was to encompass the role of both a mentor and critic. Participants called for training that was attuned to this hierarchical relationship of supervision, though they also stressed that the existing confidential systems needed to be strengthened because, for some  Postgraduate Researchers (PGRs), the space of supervision would never be appropriate for such pastoral discussions. Therefore, supervisors wanted to be able to signpost with confidence, services with capacity to help in a timely way, so that they knew they were doing right by their research students.     
  •  How to differentiate between routine anxieties and mental health problems. As discussed in the previous post, to a certain extent the supervisors I spoke with expected that PGRs would experience some down periods during their doctorate. Faced with these periodic crises in confidence, their go-to response would be to offer a boost to morale. However, worryingly, with narratives of the self in trouble being common in academia, cries for help might easily be misunderstood as natural and expected blips. Supervisors would therefore benefit from training in how to distinguish these different kinds of complaint.   
  •  How to provide pastoral care, when there is an overlap between research and personal problems. Supervisors spoke about being time-short and therefore in need of firm boundaries: the thesis was within their remit; the PGR’s personal life was not. However, anyone who has been a postgraduate knows that the line between personal and research can be blurry. This can leave supervisors in a difficult spot when a PGR’s research is impacting their mental health. Supervisors felt that counselling provision catered better to undergraduates, but there was limited understanding of the difficulties surrounding producing original research, and this made signposting PGRs on to other departments problematic. There is therefore a need for wellbeing services which better cater to the needs of postgraduate researchers, as well as training for supervisors on when to provide pastoral support and when to signpost, using concrete examples of times when the personal and the academic overlap.

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)