Enrichment of postgraduate transition using an evidence-based approach

This project aimed to gain a greater understanding of the needs, barriers and challenges associated with transition to postgraduate study and what actions could be taken in response to these. 

Transition can be described as a movement from one educational context to another, in this case the transitions associated with postgraduate study – both taught and research. Supporting transition to, and during, postgraduate study is important because research has shown a smooth transition is a key contributing factor to a successful postgraduate degree. Further to this, whilst the ‘induction period’ is a key transition period, postgraduate transition is a dynamic and ongoing process and thus occurs throughout a postgraduate degree programme.

An initial literature review identified key barriers to postgraduate study as finance, social class/ethnicity/gender/discipline area, and disability. Key challenges that should be considered when contemplating how to effectively support transition to postgraduate study include the assumption that postgraduates are ‘expert’ students, the diversity and uniqueness of the student experience, conflicts between the interests of the university and the student, and mental health and wellbeing. The literature review identified a number of ways in which postgraduate transition can be supported, including ensuring early awareness of postgraduate finance and opportunities, providing opportunities for experiences to transition to be shared, induction days, mentoring/buddying schemes, careers and research culture development activities, online training, workbook learning and ensuring postgraduates are aware of the support available to them.

To gain greater understanding of transition experiences at the University of Birmingham, focus groups and an academic survey were completed. The findings of this primary research reinforced the key messages identified within the research literature. Funding was expectedly a key barrier to postgraduate study and concerns around the assumption of postgraduate students being ‘expert’ students reiterated. Postgraduate taught students expressed the need to clearly understand the expectations of level 7 degrees, whilst postgraduate researchers explained a need for a degree of structure at the beginning of their research programme. Imposter syndrome is commonly experienced by both our PGR and PGT students. Suggestions for how these challenges can be addressed included discussion forums, confidence building workshops, and buddying systems. The university induction is seen as an important period of transition by our postgraduate students that provides an opportunity to provide a comprehensive introduction to the university, procedures and services, and course and school specific information. Suggestions for things that may be missing from induction programs included information/discussions around the increased demands and workload of the degree for PGT students, and the emotional challenges of postgraduate research.

Most frequently mentioned by PGR students was the expectation of high workload and long working hours, with many suggesting this stems from the realities of the academic job market and the pressure to do more in less time in order to increase changes of securing employment post-degree. This was at the irony of current recognition and prioritization within the sector of postgraduate mental health. Challenges regarding representation and visibility were mentioned during focus groups, which at postgraduate level are compounded by the ‘student pipeline’ in which marginalized students are underrepresented at undergraduate level.

A number of significant themes, issues and suggested practice have been highlighted through a review of current literature coupled with learning from our current postgraduates about their experiences of transition. Going forward, the findings of this paper will be shared with colleagues across the university and used to inform practice, certainly within the University Graduate School.

Snapshot

October 2018 – July 2019
Beneficiaries: Postgraduate Taught (PGT) and Postgraduate Research (PGR) students
Theme/focus: New Academic Teaching Year developments

MicroCPD

Watch Dr Andrea Patel talking about how to aid a smooth transition for students to and during postgraduate study

For more information, contact the projects office on hefi.projects@contacts.bham.ac.uk, quoting reference CSLP227.