What do FMHS Postgraduate Students think about their 2021 experience?
Postgraduate students comprise at least one-quarter of the student population at the University of Auckland, yet their voices often seem to go unheard. 2021 was a challenging year for many due to a lengthy Covid-19 lockdown in Auckland; so how did FMHS postgraduates feel about their research experience last year?
What is the issue?
UoA has a duty of care to students and staff as required by the New Zealand government. Postgraduate students are often engaged as both students and staff members; however the university lacks a clear and regular mechanism for garnering feedback from this population. It is important to check in with postgraduate students because:
- Data collected from around the world suggests postgraduate, particularly doctoral, students suffer high rates of mental ill health. Some authors even claim we are living through a ‘graduate student mental health crisis.’ At UoA, we have no idea how our postgraduate students are doing in this regard. Even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, postgraduate students were not asked to report on their needs and experiences. If our postgraduate students need extra help, then the first step is to ask.
- Postgraduate students have a variety of complex needs. Postgraduate students deal with social isolation, caregiving requirements, financial insecurity, and intense competition to find post-doctoral job opportunities. Difficult supervisor-student relationships exacerbate an already stressful experience. We need to identify any specific issues that UoA postgraduates are facing, so that we know what support is needed.
- As mentioned earlier, UoA has a duty of care to postgraduate students. Without postgraduate student feedback, it is near impossible to reconcile if the support offered by the university is meeting the needs of current postgraduate students.
What did we do and what did we find?
FMHS postgraduate students were invited to complete a quick survey online in December 2021. 111 students completed the survey, and we divided participants into seven groups according to school: School of Pharmacy (SOP), School of Population Health (SOPH), School of Medical Sciences (SMS), School of Medicine (SOM), School of Nursing (SON), Other FMHS, and Liggins. We discovered that:
- More than one-third of students considered leaving their study programme in 2021. The most frequently cited reasons were mental health difficulties, financial difficulties, the challenges of remote working, and a feeling of disconnection with fellow research students.
- Students in SOPH are dissatisfied with their access to resources including academic and IT services. Students in SOPH are the most likely of all schools to have an unsuitable on-campus workspace.
- A feeling of disconnection with fellow research students was most prominent in SON and Other FMHS.
- The Liggins Institute scored very highly in almost all sections.
- Postgraduate students have mixed feelings about the university’s support of them. 41% of postgraduate students felt the university had worked to ensure the quality of their academic experience during the pandemic.
- Two-thirds of postgraduate students felt supported by the FMHS-PGSA.
- Most doctoral students did not expect to finish their thesis on time, and did not feel able to financially support themselves beyond 3.5 years.
- Comments from students indicated bitter disappointment at the university’s response (or lack thereof) to the recent PhD stipend petition.
We have written a series of recommendations for the university/faculty and created goals for FMHS-PGSA. Our recommendations will be sent to senior leadership and include the following:
- Increase the doctoral scholarship stipend to at least the minimum wage equivalent
- Extend the doctoral scholarship stipend to account for Covid-19 delays
- Request a third party to conduct a thorough investigation into student experiences in SOPH and SON
- Increase the availability of counselling sessions for postgraduate students, including availability of culturally competent counsellors
- Develop a formalised method for postgraduate feedback
- Take action to diffuse the power imbalance between staff and postgraduate students
We will send out a new survey in 2022, so keep an eye on your email inbox!
The full version of the FMHS Postgraduate Feedback Report is available here. To cite the findings of the report, please reference as follows:
Plank, Julia, & Chen, Joseph. (2022). Postgraduate Student Feedback 2021: Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.6363788