Research findings from the ‘are you ok?’ project

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Funded by the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), this project was carried out by an inter-university team researching how well supervisors understood the support needs of international doctoral students, and what support supervisors feltconfident to provide, given the reported poor levels of psychological well-being experienced by students in this group (see here for an example).

We interviewed a range of experienced doctoral supervisors:

  • of any nationality, and any career stage
  • based anywhere in the UK,
  • affiliated with any British Higher Education Institutions, and
  • who have experienced supervising at least two international doctoral students to completion from the same geographic region (Asia, Africa, Middle East, Europe, North America, The Carribbean, South America, Oceana).

Main findings

How do UK supervisors understand the mental health/wellbeing needs of international students?

  • Supervisors report a range of experience and understanding around mental health and wellbeing of international doctoral students, from very little to professional clinical experience. There was an overall agreement that all doctoral supervisors would benefit from regular training/updating on this.
  • There was a consensus that PhD are ‘stressful’ but international students may be more vulnerable to increased ‘stress’. 
  • Issues around disclosure were commonly reported in association to international students, hierarchical and cultural differences were suggested as potential reasons for this. Many reported only finding out about students mental health/wellbeing issues when students were at crisis, disengaged or from other students. 
  • Key PhD journey stress points for international students were (1) the initial entry into the country and ‘settling in period’. (2) ‘During field work – especially if the field work was in their ‘home’ country. (3) The period leading up the thesis submission and viva due to issues with academic writing. 
  • Triggers that were seen as ‘unique’ to international students, generally focused around (1) ‘Legal and financial’ such as Visa and funding systems. (2) ‘Isolation’ such as loss of a family support network. (3) Difference in ‘education style’ such as expectations of ownership, style and quality of work and (4) ‘external pressures’ such as supporting a family. 
  • Protective factors that were seen as ‘unique’ to international students were a ‘strong work ethic’ and a tendency for students to be ‘more mature’ and potentially ‘more resilient’. The concept of international students being ‘survivors’ due to their determination was a common theme the supervisors reported.

To what extent are supervisors equipped to respond these mental health needs?

  • Supervisors reported often poor department and organisational training and lack of support around this topic. Most support was identified as being informal peer support, and this was highly valued.
  • A lack of knowledge around the ‘correct’ places to signpost students to as well as what the ‘correct’ approach should be varied greatly amongst the interviewed supervisors.
  • Many participants disclosed that supervising students who experience poor mental health and welling being as has huge impact on their own mental health and wellbeing. This was linked to pressure from organisations and departments with ‘completion rates going on academics records’ and ‘getting students to complete in the funded time frame’. Pressure for supervisors to take on larger numbers of students, particularly international students (with funding) to enable their dept to make financial gains was also raised as a detrimental factor.
  • ‘Supervisory boundaries’ was a common theme and many reflected that supervisors ability to maintain ‘protective’ as well as ‘professional’ boundaries has improved with their experience and through learning from past mistakes.

We are pleased to report that the ‘Are you ok?’ project won the Paul Webley Award for Innovation in International Education 2019 from UKCISA – further information here.

For the full report, please visit the UKCISA webpage to download a pdf copy.

For more information please contact the study’s Principal Investigator Dr Chris Blackmore: c.m.blackmore@sheffield.ac.uk.

Our findings will help to inform the development of new ways of supporting  and developing the supervisors of international doctoral students.

Chris, Dely, Rob, Kay and Sally