Release of initial findings to sector following response to Covid-19 survey

Release of initial findings to sector following response to Covid-19 survey

The Student Mental Health Research Network (SMaRteN) and Vitae would like to thank all respondents to the impact of Covid-19 survey, and from early analysis conducted to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week, can release these initial findings to the sector.

SMaRteN and Vitae, on behalf of the sector, have surveyed doctoral researchers and early career research staff in UK universities about the impact of the COVID-19 restrictions since 16 March 2020 on their working lives.

The survey was launched on 16 April and to date 4,800 researchers have responded, consisting approximately of two thirds doctoral researchers and one third research staff. SMaRteN and Vitae are releasing the following key findings emerging from early analysis of these responses to help inform institutions’ and funders’ actions to support this vulnerable population.

  •  Half of respondents report being very stressed about their work, two thirds very worried about their future plans and 70% worried about their finances.
  • 40% of the research staff surveyed reported that their research contract ends during 2020. Only 10% of this group report that their funding has been extended in the context of the pandemic.
  • Only 12% of final year doctoral researchers reported that their institution has provided an option to extend their doctoral studies.
  • Respondents consistently report that the lockdown has negatively impacted on their ability to undertake research activities: more than three-quarters report a negative impact on data collection, discussions with colleagues and dissemination activities; more than a half report a negative impact on data analysis, writing and grant/fellowship applications. While one in five report a positive impact of the lockdown on reviewing the literature, a third report negative impacts. Doctoral researchers are reporting substantially more negative impacts on their research activity than research staff.
  • While four in five respondents are reporting the same access to a computer as they would usually have, 30% are reporting reduced or no access to the software that they require for research.
  • The majority of respondents report that there have been clear guidelines on how they will be supported by their institution to manage any changes in their ability to work (60%) and to work remotely (64%). While two-fifths of respondents agree that their institution has done all they can or should do to support them at this time, two-fifths believe their institution could do more.
  •  Two thirds of doctoral researchers report that their supervisors have done all that they can to support them. Four-fifths of supervisors have been in contact to check how they are managing, with three-quarters making clear arrangements for progress meetings to continue.
  • Around two-thirds of research staff report that their line managers have done all that they can to support them. Three-quarters of managers have been in touch with them, with 68% making clear arrangements for progress meetings to continue.
  • Around a quarter of respondents have caring responsibilities. Of these, around 90% have seen these responsibilities increase since the lockdown, 60% report a considerable increase. The large majority (88%) of those reporting a change in caring responsibility report that this has had a negative impact on their ability to meet the needs of their work.
  • Around a third of respondents report a change in their employment options outside of academia since the lockdown, with around four-fifths of these expecting an impact on their finances for the next academic year.
  • Approximately four in five respondents are showing some level of mental distress. Levels of mental distress are higher among doctoral researchers (compared to research staff), women, individuals working in the arts and humanities and non-UK citizens. Mental distress was lower among respondents who felt that their university had provided clear guidelines about how the university would support changes to working arrangements.
  • Three-quarters of respondents are showing low levels of mental wellbeing. Mental wellbeing was higher among individuals who felt well supported by the university and identified being able to access online skills training from their university.
  • Reported loneliness was highest among doctoral researchers and those working in arts and humanities. Levels of loneliness were lower where respondents felt their supervisor had supported them to stay in touch with peers and colleagues.

Doctoral researchers and research staff are typically in a position of high job insecurity, with short term funding resulting in concerns about future career moves. The data highlights the substantive effect of the lock-down on this population.

“They have been asked to transition to working from home and most are reporting a substantive negative impact on their ability to work and are experiencing high levels of stress in relation to their work. While there is praise here for the support being provided by supervisors, concerns about finances and job insecurity remain very real.” Quoted Dr Nicola Byrom, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, Kings College London and Principle Investigator, SMaRteN, the Student Mental Health Research Network.

Dr Janet Metcalfe, Head, Vitae commented: “These researchers are at critical stages in their careers and the restrictions due to COVID-19 are not only having a significant impact on their current research activities, but are likely to have long term implications for their future careers.”

Professor Jennifer Rubin, Executive Champion for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at UK Research and Innovation, which funds SMaRteN said: “The findings of this survey provide insight into how challenging this time is for our research community, and especially our doctoral students. Our ways of working have had to change dramatically, bringing new pressures and difficulties for many. The mental health and wellbeing of our community is paramount, and UKRI is working to identify, understand and address the impacts of Covid-19 on the researchers we fund and the research that is underway, helping to provide support to researchers to navigate these unprecedented times.”

The survey can be accessed here:
For context, there are 112,000 postgraduate research students studying in the UK and whilst around 60% are supported by stipends, many self-finance their studies. There are 50,000 research-only staff in UK universities, with 67% of these employed on fixed-term contracts (HESA 2018/19).

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Further information

For a visual summary of these initial findings, these presentation slides have been compiled.

Sarah Nalden, Communications and Marketing Executive

T: 07708 914976 E:

Dr Nicola Byrom, SMaRteN Director


Notes to editors

About SMaRteN

The UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funded Student Mental Health Research Network (SMaRteN) is working to support and encourage better research into student mental health. SMaRteN is based at Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neurosciences at King’s College London.

About Vitae

Vitae and its membership programme are managed by the Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC) Limited, an independent registered charity.

Vitae is the global leader in supporting the professional development of researchers, experienced in working with institutions as they strive for research excellence, innovation and impact.

Vitae is a non-profit programme with nearly 50 years' experience in enhancing the skills and careers of researchers. We strengthen our members' institutional provision for the professional development of their researchers through research and innovation, training and resources, events, consultancy and membership

CRAC provides research intelligence and innovation for all those who support career development for people of all ages and in all sectors. We work in partnership with government agencies, education organisations and providers and employers and professional bodies.

CRAC is a registered charity No 313164 established in 1964.

About UK Research and Innovation

UK Research and Innovation works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. It aims to maximise the contribution of each of our component parts, working individually and collectively. It works with many partners to benefit everyone through knowledge, talent and ideas.

Now the UK has left the European Union, UKRI continues to support the research and innovation communities with information and updates on access to grants and mobility.

Operating across the whole of the UK with a combined budget of more than £7 billion, UK Research and Innovation brings together the seven research councils, Innovate UK and Research England