Outcomes of the PGR wellbeing and mental health survey

In June this year we (Andrew Livingstone and Anna Adlam, based in the Psychology department) conducted a survey of wellbeing and mental health among PGR students across the university. Wellbeing and mental health difficulties among PGR students are increasingly being recognised across the higher education sector, and the survey was a first attempt to assess their extent among PGR students at the University of Exeter.

The findings highlight how pervasive wellbeing and mental health difficulties are among PGR students, with the prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms in particular being much higher than in the general population.

At the same time, the results of the survey also point to some key factors that may protect against poor wellbeing, focusing on how connected we feel with others, and positive and supportive experiences in relation to one’s research degree.

A recorded presentation of the early findings can be found here.

Background to the survey

The survey was open during the first three weeks of June. A link was sent to every PGR student at the university, and we received 633 complete responses.

Along with demographic information, the survey included three main sets of measures:

  • Wellbeing and mental health outcomes, including measures of depression and anxiety symptoms, loneliness, self-esteem, stress, and life satisfaction
  • Stressors, or possible causes of poor wellbeing, including negative workplace experiences, negative life events, and the perceived impact of the Covid-19 pandemic
  • Potential protective factors, including respondents’ sense of belonging with different groups, the experience of social support, and the extent to which they felt understood by others

 How prevalent are wellbeing and mental health difficulties?

 Overall, 52% of respondents scored above the cut-off for ‘moderate’ symptoms for either depression, anxiety, or both. This compares to general population rates of 5%-11% for depression and around 5% for anxiety. These symptoms were assessed with widely-used screening questions: the PHQ-8 (depression) and GAD-7 (anxiety).

Scores on these indicators of depression and anxiety symptoms were also strongly correlated with other wellbeing measures: scoring higher on depression and/or anxiety was also associated with greater loneliness and stress, lower self-esteem, and lower life satisfaction.

What predicts better or worse wellbeing and mental health?

Amongst a host of factors, two were consistently the most strongly related to wellbeing: the perceived impact of Covid-19, and the feeling of being understood by others.

Consistent with the findings of other published studies on mental health in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the more severe respondents rated the personal impact of Covid-19 to be, the poorer their scores on wellbeing and mental health measures.

At the same time, believing that others understand us – what we term ‘felt understanding’ – emerged as the strongest protective factor. The more one felt understood by others, the more positive were scores on wellbeing and mental health measures.

What factors were in turn related to that feeling of being understood by others? The results suggest two key sets of factors: (1) positive experiences such as social support in the context of one’s degree/studies, and (2) a sense of belonging and collective identities. Especially relevant were a sense of belonging with other PGR students, and of belonging to multiple groups (including outside of academia).

Understanding the survey outcomes

How should we interpret these findings? On the one hand, they confirm the striking extent of wellbeing and mental health difficulties in the PGR community.

On the other hand, the levels of wellbeing and mental health difficulties revealed by the survey are most likely not specific to the University of Exeter, or indeed to PGR students in a university context. Instead, they fit an emerging pattern of wellbeing difficulties across the higher education sector as a whole.

For instance, levels of wellbeing and mental health difficulties were very much in line with other national and international surveys of PGR wellbeing. The results also echo similar findings from UK-wide research on wellbeing amongst undergraduate students, and amongst academic staff.

It is also important to stress that the findings do not in themselves show cause-and-effect relationships. For example, we can’t say for certain whether any of the factors assessed in the survey actually cause better or worse mental health outcomes.

Likewise, the findings don’t directly show that the PGR experience itself leads to poorer wellbeing, although aspects of individuals’ experiences during their studies are likely to be very important.

How can poor wellbeing and mental health be addressed?

The findings also point to some systemic and social strategies that may help to promote and protect PGR wellbeing. These complement more widely-known, individual-focused strategies (e.g., cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness) and the expanding support offered by the University of Exeter Wellbeing Services.

The importance of belonging and group identities comes through particularly strongly. Fostering a sense of community between PGR students, and with departmental colleagues, will almost certainly be a helpful part of a wellbeing strategy.

It is not the only part, though: it is also very likely that maintaining different sorts of group identities – both inside and outside of university – is a big protective factor for individuals too. Enabling PGR students to have a strong sense of self and identity outside of work and study is thus also important.

Finally, the importance of felt understanding – that feeling of being understood by others – suggests that we can all work to improve our everyday communication with colleagues at every level. In an environment in which we often feel defined by our work, and in which we also frequently receive (and give) critical evaluation, developing the skills to foster an empathic and understanding workplace culture may be one of the most important investments we can make in terms of wellbeing.

Dr Andrew Livingstone and Dr Anna Adlam

If you have any concerns regarding your mental health and wellbeing, you can contact University of Exeter Wellbeing services in the following ways:

  • Exeter-based students can book a telephone appointment by emailing or calling 01392 724381 and leave a voicemail with your details.
  • Cornwall-based students can email or call 01326 370460
  • PGR students can also contact the PGR Welfare Support Office at . They can meet with you informally to discuss the Health Wellbeing and Support for Study Procedures (https://www.exeter.ac.uk/staff/policies/calendar/part1/otherregs/health/)

Other advice and resources for your mental health can be found at the following links:

Part-time and Distant!

Emmet Jackson is a part-time distance Ph.D. Candidate in the Archaeology Department under the supervision of Dr Robert Morkot. He is working on the history and development of Egyptology in Ireland, the public and private collections of Egyptian antiquities, and the complex issues posed by Ireland’s place as a colony, but with individuals who were also part of the ruling imperial elite. He is a trustee for the Association of Studies for Travel in Egypt and the Near East (ASTENE) and works full time as a fishery scientist in Ireland.   

I am a part-time distance PhD student in the Archaeology Department in my fifth year and quickly approaching the seven-year end. I work full time as a fishery scientist an area not, in any way, related to my PhD subject which focusses on the history of Egyptology in Ireland during the 19th century. I say that I am attempting a PhD, rather than doing one! I am aware that it might not work out. One difficulty doing research in an area not remotely related to my day job is switching the brain from one subject to the other in the evenings and weekends and of course finding time. Working full time and studying part time with a family is hard, but I am aware of my privilege. I am a white male in full time employment with a supportive partner and two happy kids. I had the financial support of my parents throughout my undergraduate education and working full time means that I can pursue a part-time PhD. I have immense admiration for people who are tackling a PhD without these privileges. However, I still find the work-life-PhD balance difficult. Time of course is one of the most limiting factors. When I used to go on fishing trawlers for my job we would use the adage ‘time and tide wait for no man’, I think the same is true for your PhD!

Work can be hectic, there are deadlines and career stresses that can occupy and dominate your thoughts. It can be exhausting and leaves you incapable of switching the brain over to PhD mode after a long day’s work. One of the only positives on days when work has broken you is coming home to your family. Giving them time after work and at the weekends is a priority and study becomes the third wheel, ‘the gooseberry’. Sometimes, I just want to play with the kids and let’s face it, playing with the kids is way more fun that tackling some writing or that book you’ve being putting off reading. I also have terminal procrastination syndrome which doesn’t help!

At one particular time, last year, I had a moment of complete self-doubt and was going to quit. Was I able for this? Was it a huge mistake undertaking this project? Was I crazy to even attempt this when there were other pressures in my life? Studying as a distant part-time student can result in a real feeling of isolation. It means a disconnect with your University peers and support network. To battle this, I joined several on-line groups for distance students, part-time students and one for PhD and early careers academics who are parents. It was to this latter group that I posted a rant expressing my fears. There was the usual sway of support from the members that I so often see for other parents’ calls for help. One in particular which struck a chord read:

‘I was part-time with a job that had no relationship to my thesis. At different stages I guess different sections of your life reach a crisis point and have to come first for a while. It sounds like right now work is the crisis area that needs your best attention for a couple of months […]. I don’t think it works to try to keep all life sections (job/research/family/relationship) simultaneously at the top all at the same time… I don’t think that means you’re failing either.’

This among other comments was so helpful. It is true that when things are going well I can, and should, try to keep juggling all aspects of my life, but at other times something has to give. My main focusses, at the moment, might be divided into family, work, and study. At times one of these is going to be pulling more and takes a lead. Rather than feeling I am failing at the other two, if one of them is requiring more time and attention, I need to realise that and accept it, as the comment above said, I can’t keep all sections of my life as the top priority simultaneously.  So, right now after a period of busy work and busy family life (and everything COVID has brought) I can see that the next few months might allow me to swing my attention, and time, to that lesser visited PhD part of my life. One of the other comments from the parents reminded me of that joke ‘how do you eat an Elephant?’… ‘one piece at a time’. I just need to get that bib on and start tucking in. Best of luck to you on your own PhD feast.


Written by: Emmet Jackson


Son of Essence – Idris Yana

My name is Idris Hamza Yana. I was born in Yana, Bauchi state in the Muslim-dominated northern part of Nigeria. Some people get confused because my surname is the same with my hometown. Well, that is part of the colonial legacy we inherited whereby children enrolled in a centralised school, from different parts of a locality, were named with their villages for easy identification. I am Fulani by tribe. Fulani people constitute one of the largest (if not the largest) tribes in west and central Africa. They are commonly found in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Senegal, The Gambia and Togo. I speak Hausa and understand Fulfulde (also called Fula). As a child, I used to attend primary and Islamic schools on weekdays and shepherd goats on weekends. There are three different seasons in where I grew up: rainy, hot and harmattan. Rainy season lasts for about five months. Then harmattan will gradually creep in with its stinging cold and dusty air. The temperature sometimes drops to less than ten degrees Hot season precedes rainy season and it’s the time when farmers begin preparation. Sometimes the temperature reaches up to forty-five degrees during hot season. I am currently doing my PhD in the Department of English, University of Exeter. The focus of my research is the place and involvement of women in pre- and post-independence Kenyan politics. My interest is on the participation of women in the social, political, cultural and economic spheres of the society.


Son of Essence

I am a son

Of essence and substance

Dweller of the Sahel

Canvasser of the Sahara

Climber of the Mountains

Explorer of the Rivers


I am a son

Of winds and hurricanes

Of dews and dusts

Of mists and fogs

Of sweats and tears

Of laughters and cheers


I am a son

To Adamu and Adama

To Shaka and Sundiata

To Jaja and Fodio

To Mumbi and Gikonyo

To Amina and Opemsoo


I am a son

Of a man

And a woman

A human

So real

So dark

I am a son of essence

©Idris Yana

Being a multiracial, multicultural and multilingual woman in research – Nadia V. Monaia

As a multiracial, multicultural, and multilingual woman, I depict myself, proudly, as an African woman.

My history is the history of the people of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Italy. It is a history that I inherited and has crafted me through its values, its principles, its traditions, its religions, its languages, its chants, its music, its art, its literature, its poems, its food, its perfumes, and its colors. These are the roots of my history and upbringing. They are the wealth of values, cultures, traditions, languages, interrelations, interactions, educational and life experiences in various countries that have made me who I am today.

Being a multicultural and a multilingual person will definitely influence me as a researcher and my research; it will give me broader and multiple views of the world through multiple perspectives and dynamics. My research will have various lenses and angles and will focus on freedom, inclusion, tolerance, respect for diversity, and empowerment.

Tikya the Blackheart man, children – Malcolm Richards

Malcolm Richards is a second-year independent, self-funded PhD student at the University of Exeter. His research uses critical autoethnography to explore funds of knowledge/identity from Black educators, examining how digital resources promote de/colonial dialogic pedagogies in UK schools; it is supervised by Dr Judith Kleine-Staarman and Dr Alexandra Allan (Graduate School of Education, University of Exeter).

Navigating de/colonial dialogues in digital spaces by a Black Atlantic researcher during one day in the time of Covid-19  


The last time I was in-person with a group co-facilitating dialogue about race, anti-racism and social justice was on 7 June 2020.  It was the first time I had left my Devon home since the pandemic started. I was stressed. I remember being concerned about the rain which I assumed would fall.

Anyone engaging with local social media knew where I would be. Cathedral Green in Exeter. I was preparing to support a co-hosting community-led event in support of #blacklivesmatters. We’ve got to speak to several hundreds of people. I know why I am there. If not we, who…? 

Too many things to consider. There were posts on social media advertising the event. Would the far right turn up? Police? We consulted, but we know that things change quickly. Social distancing? What if someone is ill? What if someone becomes ill? What is the far right turn up? What..? Perhaps we are asking the wrong question.

Why? We have always claimed space and place in which we draw upon our “funds of knowledge” (Moll, et.al., 1992) to articulate our individual and collective voices. Today, there is a predominately ‘white’ audience prepared to join us in this space. Perhaps to consider our complicity in the structures and institutions we maintain?

Digital anchors

I am trying to break the habit of being transfixed to a broken mobile phone screen. I’m outside. There are people nearby, yet distant. Face coverings aren’t compulsory but I am wearing a thick scarf wrapped around my face. My phone vibrates in my pocket constantly.  Why was I spending so much time transfixed by the unsteady gaze of someone else’s camera phone narrative?

I need to avoid the videos showing the  8m and 43 seconds violence inflicted upon George Floyd (Rest In Power). The world has been consumed by the rescreening of his trauma, and my educational world seemed consumed by a blood lust for dialogue of my trauma. We’ve experienced enough violence in these spaces to last several lifetimes. I won’t watch a digital anchor where a police officer kneels on our neck while we cry for our mothers. I’ve heard those cries too many times.

Digital barriers

I try to focus. I know soon I have to speak. I forget my physical form is likely to inform perception and placement for many in the audience. As I scan the groups carefully assembled at distance on the grass, my eyes lock, for a moment, with some of the participants. I smile. Their gaze shifts quickly. A little shaken, I instinctively rely upon my routines of calm. We’ve been here many times before.

Quietly, I began to hum the first line of a Jamaican/Caribbean fable, ‘The Blackheart Man’, made famous by Bunny Wailer as the opening song of his debut album (1976). I call on the ancestors to give me strength and guidance, to be brave enough to engage with and listen to dialogue which may disrupt, distress – but seeks to heal, to de/colonise. I draw a deep breath and begin to speak.

Adapting and adjusting your research during Covid-19

I saw a tweet yesterday (3rd October 2020) from academic Dr Pat Noxolo (@patnoxolo; Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Birmingham). Dr Noxolo often uses autoethnography in her work, and in this series of tweets speaking about her experiences of shopping while black, and the way in which as a Black womxn, the choreography of shopping has changed in our post-Covid-19 times. Dr Noxolo tweets of the way she “uses her smile a lot to warm the encounter  with suspicious looking shop assistants”.

Her shopping experiences are now transactional and speedy, suggesting that the bleak economic climate ensures that “the shopkeepers have gone full-on hard sell”. The weirdness of the experience that Dr Noxolo illustrates, resonated with me immediately. Her words promoted a connection to the aforementioned events of 7 June 2020.

Next steps

I’m a cis-male, racialized as Black Caribbean, who is attempting to complete a PhD independently and currently self-funded. Statistically, it is unlikely that I will even complete this course.

Using autoethnography, I can reflect upon how my research is underpinned by assumptions associated with access to physical spaces, conversations and spaces. My research is reliant upon collaboration in dialogue with Black educators who live and work across the UK, my ‘fieldwork’ has needed to become highly adaptable.

In many ways, my original research design had been bound by my access to self organising spaces of Black educators, who have had few ‘formal’ spaces or places for their funds of knowledge, or cultural histories, traditions or repertoires to be told. The greater availability and understanding of digital technologies has enabled this research to connect with educators who may have been out of reach.

The critical discourses forced to the light by the racialized inequalities by Covid-19 have triggered exponential growth in interest of resistance in anti-racism and social justice in education.

As before, I continue to teach, support and advocate for research which seeks to disrupt, develop and ultimately de/colonize.

This post origianlly appeared on the Research and Innovation blog as part of their 20 in 2020 series.

The Transformation of A Little Black Girl – Victoria Omotoso

Victoria Omotoso recently completed her PhD which explored cross-cultural audience receptions of The Lumo Project (2014) and Son of Man (2006), two Jesus films. Her research looks into how contexts of filmmakers and audiences influence how they construct and imagine the figure of Jesus in film. She also has a BA in music as I enjoy singing and playing piano.


What did you expect? Entering a world that was not designed for you? What did you expect walking through the hallways that have systematically limited people that look like you? You’d sit and listen. You’d try not too hard to stand out more than you do. But oh little black girl you’re about to tread a path that will transform your. Remember your history. Your history of where you came from, or where you are and where you going. You stand on the shoulders of strong black women, your grandmother, mother, aunts, sisters, friends. Your essence draws back to the history of your ancestors. They were formidable, tenacious, royal.


Keep your head up little black girl. You are now a black woman. You used to sit and listen  but now you stand and speak. You stand in the room, you walk these corridors as if they were designed for you because they are. Confident in your skin. No need to hide. Stand tall you deserve to be here. Fight, speak and live your truth.

Getting started with your research degree

As part of our Induction for new postgraduate researchers we ran a question and answer panel on Getting started with your research degree. It was a fantastic session, and many thanks go to our panellists Cathryn Baker, Jamie Cranston, Fatima Naveed, Malcolm Richards, Sarah Richardson and Jo Sutherst for their time, advice and candor. For those who were unable to attend the event live, it is available as a recording summarised for your below.

Getting started with your research degree – advice from researchers

  1. A research degree can feel really overwhelming, especially at the start. Remember everyone feels like this, and your are not alone!
  2. Make your project more manageable by breaking it down in to smaller chunks and settings achievable goals.
  3. Your supervisors are your anchor – use them!
  4. Build a supportive academic community that helps you to dare to dream big, but also grounds you.
  5. Don’t compare yourself to people around you. Their project, supervisors, research methods and working habits are completely different.
  6. Don’t keep your worries to yourself – talk to your supervisors, your PGR pastoral tutor and your peers.
  7. Remember the research degree is the start of your academic journey – not the destination.


Ten tips from a final year PhD researcher

Anastasiia G Kovalenko is a final year PhD Researcher funded by the University of Exeter Medical School. She is a mixed-method researcher exploring the bystander approach to violence prevention. Anastasiia is passionate about social psychology, group processes, research, teaching and writing. She is the PsyPAG Representative to the BPS South West of England Branch. Outside of work, her interests include travelling, playing ukulele, and painting.

Finding the right software is essential when it comes to organising your research. Over the years, I have tried tons of various apps and software and these are my top 5:

  1. Evernote or Microsoft OneNote (OneNote comes free). You will collect lots of notes throughout the years, this could be related to any of your studies, or career and training opportunities. Evernote has a really good web clipper that allows to save papers, print screens or article sections directly to your notebooks. While OneNote has a better interface with all the colour coding. I tend to think about my studies a lot before bed or in the morning when I wake up. Such apps are quite helpful because they allow voice recording, so when I am too tired to type or look at the screen, I just dictate all of my ideas and save for later under a certain notebook stack.


  1. Mendeley or Zotero (both are free). You might be doing a systematic review or meta-analysis, or you might just need a referencing software for your literature review and overall thesis. Either of these 2 apps is a must-have, as you will be managing hundreds of resources. With just a few clicks you will be able to manage your citations and lists of references. These apps also allow web browser and MS word integration.


  1. LaTex (free). I am MS Office trained, and I’ve  been using only this software for my studies and work. In my final year I discovered LaTex, and I think it’s amazing. You will have to learn just a bit of coding, but after that you might not want to go back to any other document editors! Why? First of all, it allows online editing (via Overleaf that is linked with your UoE account) without glitches and crashes. Second, you edit all of your chapters/papers separately in the same folder and then compile the whole document in 1 click. Third, it allows to backup the whole project (but it can only be linked to Dropbox while our University default and recommended secure software is OneDrive). Since I couldn’t find any University of Exeter thesis templates, I decided to create one myself (following the UoE guidelines). You can find it here: https://github.com/girlinthegardn/phd-thesis-uoe but please note that it is unofficial and your school might have different requirements.


  1. OneDrive (free for UoE researchers). My main advise is to always keep your documents backed up, ideally on several sources. University of Exeter offers OneDrive storage and I honestly think it’s amazing. All of the documents are backed up, and I also copy them on an external encrypted hard drive.


  1. Forest (timer). I like this app because it allows to time various activities (and also stop procrastination as a bonus). As you grow the trees, you earn coins which you can use to plant a real tree.


In addition to software, I just wanted to share some general tips that I think would be important:

  1. Backup and keep all versions of your documents and notes. When it comes to the write-up of your thesis, every detail matters. And of course, you don’t want to lose any precious data.
  2. Think about your dream job. Then look at job descriptions online. Try to think what skills and knowledge would be beneficial in addition to your PhD. Sometimes it’s new software or coding language, sometimes it’s a new method. Try to find additional training before you finish your PhD – this could be your “thing” that differs you among others.
  3. Treat your PhD as a job and leave your work at work. After 2 years, the line between research and life disappeared and PhD became my lifestyle. Trust me, it’s unhealthy. You shouldn’t feel guilty that you’re not working at the weekends, your brain also needs to rest from all the tremendous work and data processing that it’s doing.
  4. You are a project manager. In addition to your everyday research tasks, you have to see the big picture, keep track of all things, manage your time and resources and coordinate with your supervisors.
  5. Impostor syndrome is a real thing. But here’s what I think: you are good enough, you are worthy, and you are smart. You were the perfect match and that’s why you got this opportunity. Almost everyone in academia has this issue. Just believe in yourself and… trust me, if it was easy, everyone could do it. You got this.


Written by: Anastasiia Kovalenko