Supporting transition to and during postgraduate study

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

A smooth transition into academic study has emerged as a key element of a successful postgraduate degree. Transition can be described as a “complex process of development, change, and identity shift, in which relationships between individuals and their contexts are inextricably linked” (O’Donnell et al. 2016). Whilst previous research around postgraduate transition is limited, common themes can be identified; the assumption of an expert status, diversity and uniqueness of student experience, the need to continue transition beyond a ‘quick fix’ induction, and conflicts between the university and student. It is important to address these themes, for example the assumption of ‘expert status’ can promote feelings of isolation and undermine confidence.

Whilst the ‘induction period’ is a key transition period, transition to and during postgraduate study (both taught and research) should not be restricted to this.  For example, postgraduate taught students experience transition when moving from the structured taught to research elements of their postgraduate programme. Research has identified threshold concepts that can inhibit the progress of postgraduate researchers, which are transformative in that once they are understood; they lead to changes of perception in the subject and a possible shift in identity. The stage which precedes this transformation is characterised by oscillation, confusion and mimicry during which students can feel depressed, ‘stuck’, unable to continue, challenged, and confused. If stuck for too long, they can lose confidence and question their identity as researchers. This illustrates the potential limitations of viewing transition as simply induction to postgraduate study, and the need to embed transition throughout postgraduate study. With this in mind, one feature of long-term transition models is the formation of wider academic communities at the beginning of the study period, and ensuring that these academic communities are sustained and supported throughout the degree.

Heussi (2012) and Tobbell (et al, 2009) suggest the need for both subject specific and general sessions on the experiences of transition in postgraduate study. This would provide an understanding of potential difficulties students may face at the beginning and throughout their degree. Minimising the normalisation of stress, imposter syndrome, and reinforcing positive methods to help with these issues would be extremely useful for postgraduate students. Additionally, to prevent isolation, Heussi (2012) and Stuart (et al, 2008) argue for the importance of facilitating discussions with other students and forging relationships and support networks between students in similar situations to share problems and difficulties. Thus, the creation of supportive and positive academic networks and activities proves vital to reduce isolation and promote a sense of belonging within the wider institution. These could be created as university-wide networks, subject specific, or could be formed through common interests and hobbies.

The literature highlights the uniqueness of the student experience. O’Donnell (, 2016, p.7) stressed that the process and experience of transition is vastly different for each student. Whilst much of the literature focusses on the need for transition due to negative experiences, it should also be reinforced that though transition can be stressful, it is also a positive and exciting time for many students in higher education. Institutions must move beyond treating postgraduate students as a homogenous group, because this “overlooks individual needs” (Heussi, 2012, p.3). Rather, a consideration of student heterogeneity is fundamental. Scholars stress the importance of a transition model which accounts for the consideration of student experience as a whole, rather than a singular engagement with the curriculum (Tobbell, et al 2010, p.269). Tobbell (et al, 2009; 2010) suggests that an effective way to diverge from the ‘one model fits all’ approach is to ensure the attention to, and awareness of, diverse individual needs, personal aspirations, and current experiences of students. Therefore, they argue, an adaptation of these practices based upon the knowledge of student heterogeneity would be “meaningful not only in the diversity of the student body” but also in university-wide experiences of students (Tobbell, et al, 2009, p.38).

Current research by the University Graduate School seeks to gain greater understanding and knowledge of the transition needs and barriers of postgraduate students, specifically at the University of Birmingham. The findings of this research are currently being analysed with the view to publication.

Further Reading

Heussi, A., (2012) ‘Postgraduate Student Perceptions of the Transition into Postgraduate Study’, Student Engagement Experience Journal, 1:3, pp.2-13

O'Donnell, V. L., Kean, M., Stevens, G., (2016), ‘Student Transition in Higher Education: Concepts, Theories and Practices’, The Higher Education Academy.

Stuart, M., Lido, C., Morgan,S., Solomon, L., Akroyd, K., (2008), ‘Widening Participation to Postgraduate Study: Decisions, Deterrents and Creating Success’, The Higher Education Academy.

Tobbell, J., O’Donnell, V., Lawthom, R., and Zammit, M., (2009) ‘Transition to Postgraduate Study: Practice, Participation and the Widening Participation Agenda’, Active Learning and Higher Education, 10:1, pp.26-40

Tobbell, J., O’Donnell, V., and Zammit, M., (2010) ‘Exploring Transition to Postgraduate Study: Shifting Identities in Interaction with Communities, Practice and Participation’, British Educational Research Journal, 36:2, pp.261-278

Tobbell, J., and O’Donnell, V.L., ‘Transition to Postgraduate Study: Postgraduate Ecological Systems and Identity’, Cambridge Journal of Education, 43:1, pp.123-138.