In this Peer Learning and Support mini-series post, Maddie Kurchik, the Postgraduate Peer Support Intern for the Edinburgh University Students’ Association and Institute for Academic Development, reflects on the unique needs of postgraduate students and how they might best be served by the development of peer support schemes…
The basic principle of peer support is that more experienced students share their knowledge with those less experienced. At the undergraduate level, this often manifests in a straightforward format, whereby, for example, upper-year students mentor and advise first year students. However, this configuration is not always best suited to the postgraduate level.
Firstly, the postgraduate population at The University of Edinburgh is demographically different. According to student figures from the 2018-2019 school year, there were 25,881 undergraduate students at the university, as opposed to 15,796 postgraduates (10,487 taught and 5,309 research). The postgraduate cohort is considerably older: 58% are over 25 years of age. Arguably, the starkest differences between the undergraduate and postgraduate populace are the student’s entry point (domestic or overseas), and the prevalence of part-time study. Only 25% of undergraduates matriculated as overseas students; the rest are from Scotland, the UK, or the EU. In comparison, 44% of the postgraduate community are from overseas. Only 12% of undergraduates study part time compared to 44% of postgraduates.
What do these demographics tell us about the potential needs of the postgraduate population?
Well, the smaller number of postgraduate students lends itself to the cohort being spread widely across the university, in isolation in their schools, rather than in community with each other. Their age presents potential lifestyle and life experience differences, like care responsibilities. The fact that nearly half the population is from overseas adds an extra level of challenge in acclimatising to the university, city, and country (not to mention Edinburgh’s lovely weather). The pervasiveness of part time study reinforces the busy lives of postgraduates, who may work, have families, or hold any number of other responsibilities uncommon amongst the undergraduate population.
Secondly, and equally as important, is to consider the nature of the work that postgraduate students undertake. Students at this level are self-motivated and self-regulating. They have carefully chosen to pursue their degree and designed a research project that they feel passionately about. They also work alone. A lot of the concern around the well-being of postgraduates has to do with loneliness. The students may spend a lot of time physically alone with their laptop working with a high degree of focus. Intellectually, their research is their own, and it’s probably quite niche. Finding folks willing to discuss their project or to bounce ideas off can be challenging.
Emotionally, the stress and pressure that comes with having sole-responsibility for a project, the expectations of supervisors, and never-to-far-away deadlines can leave postgraduates exhausted. Postgraduate study is a profoundly demanding personal experience; students routinely report extreme levels of stress, mental health difficulties, and overall fatigue (Matheson et al., 2016; Ribeiro et al., 2018). On the bright side, studies show that students’ susceptibility to these effects can be mitigated by increased access to institutional and personal resources, like peer support networks (Briggs et al., 2012).
Establishing a flat hierarchy in peer support
When I first started in the role, a group of enthusiastic students from the School of Social & Political Science had an idea for a scheme aimed at building community in their PhD cohort. The wanted to address a very specific issue: trauma and challenge in research. As researchers, many of them were carrying out empirical data collection that was of a sensitive nature, or in a uniquely delicate context. They wanted to be able to share experiences with each other and be heard. So, they landed on a decidedly flat model of peer support. The students wanted to avoid hierarchy in their scheme. It wasn’t aimed at the transfer of knowledge; it recognised that all members of the community had something of value to offer their peers. This approach has proved attractive to student leaders across the university. Schemes of a similar ethos have become increasing popular. For instance, SolidariTEA and CommuniTEA schemes focus on broad ideas of community building and emotional support.
In the coming months, I’ll be attempting to understand the success of these schemes beyond the metrics of simple headcount. Based on preliminary feedback, I suspect this flat, organisational approach has achieved what it set out to do, by offering students access to a unique, non-hierarchical, humane spaces.
Briggs, A. R., Clark, J., & Hall, I. (2012). Building bridges: understanding student transition to university. Quality in Higher Education, 18(1), 3-21.
Hallett, F. (2010). The postgraduate student experience of study support: A phenomenographic analysis. Studies in Higher Education, 35(2), 225-238.
Matheson, K. M., Barrett, T., Landine, J., McLuckie, A., Soh, N. L. W., & Walter, G. (2016). Experiences of psychological distress and sources of stress and support during medical training: a survey of medical students. Academic Psychiatry, 40(1), 63-68.
Ribeiro, Í. J., Pereira, R., Freire, I. V., de Oliveira, B. G., Casotti, C. A., & Boery, E. N. (2018). Stress and quality of life among university students: A systematic literature review. Health Professions Education, 4(2), 70-77.