Realising potential by supporting the mental health of Graduate Researchers

In a strong show of commitment to the wellbeing of graduate research candidates, 60 senior university leaders and managers from across Australia and New Zealand gathered in Sydney on September 30 2019. Noting that 20% of working age population are affected by a mental health problem and that graduate research candidature can be both challenging and stressful, the attendees agreed that all universities have a responsibility to do as much as possible to understand and support the wellbeing of our graduate research candidates.

Convened and supported by the Australian Council of Graduate Research Inc. (ACGR), attendees of the Forum determined that more can be done to create strong and supportive ecosystems for our candidates, and to implement strategies that prevent or mitigate the factors that may contribute to the development or exacerbation of mental health problems.

Building on what is known about graduate researchers, existing research, and good practice around mental health in other sectors and industries, the ACGR Forum explored strategies and programs that can help candidates realise their potential, cope with the potential stresses of life and study and work on their research projects productively and fruitfully.

ACGR Convener, Professor Sue Berners-Price confirmed the Council’s core tenet that the emotional, physical and academic welfare of the student must always be the most important consideration in all dealings with, and support for, candidates. At the conclusion of the Forum she said, “An important aspect of this Forum was hearing the HDR candidate perspective. The lessons learned from other fields where workplace frameworks have been established has provided ideas for some practical things that we can do.”

Taking advice from the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) together with international and Australian experts, ACGR has committed to a significant investment in this important matter. While raising awareness was deemed very important, so too is taking concrete actions to ensure universities are leading the way in healthy and supportive research training ecosystems – not just as individual institutions, but across the sector.

Working with stakeholders, it was agreed that the Council will develop a set of clear principles which will then determine priorities for action by both ACGR and universities, in order to scale existing best practice and deliver suitable resources to support the wellbeing of graduate research candidates.

Forum facilitator and member of the ACGR Executive, Professor Pat Buckley, stated “We must support graduate research candidates’ success. Today was defining in terms of understanding how to do that better.”

CAPA Women’s Officer, Romana-Rea Begicevic agreed saying, “It is time for action on ensuring graduate researchers’ well-being is supported, and we welcome ACGR’s leadership in addressing this issue.”

Presentations made at the forum

ACGR is immensely grateful to all of the presenters who so generously shared their knowledge and experiences on this topic.

  • Dr Janet  Metcalfe: Wellbeing of postgraduate researchers in the UK  
  • Romana Begicevic, CAPA Women’s Officer: The candidate perspective & experience  
  • Associate Professor Michelle Tuckey, UniSA: Ecosystem & candidate wellbeing: an Australian perspective  
  • Professor Tony LaMontagne, Deakin University: An integrated approach to workplace mental health  
  • Professor Paula Brough (Griffith University): Work life balance and work life enrichment  
  • Associate Professor Samuel Harvey, UNSW: Developing a mentally healthy workplace  
  • Julia Rayner, Massey University: Starting well – building good supervisory relationships  
  • Sue Berners-Price, Griffith University: Realising potential – structured peer workshops to develop coping mechanisms  
  • Joe Luca, ECU: Realising potential – SOAR ambassadors & trained research degree coordinators  
  • Caroline Smith, WSU: A research study to identify needs and inform service delivery  
  • Pat Buckley, UniSA: Support where it’s needed – proximal & distal to the candidate  
  • Jeanette Fyffe, La Trobe University: Integrating candidature & wellbeing – accelerating completion