On 7th December 2018, we published our first supervision story (together with the first ever postgraduate focused content in Felix!). The reaction from students and staff at the College was polarised, spanning from enthusiastic support to harsh criticism. While one brave ex-Imperial student took the courage to speak up first, we are still looking forward to reading the other 3480 supervision stories describing the life of our PG Research students!

Critical voices refer to the national Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) where Imperial College students showed a satisfaction rate of 83% with their current supervision. The participation rate was quite high, at 59%. For many people, this number, which is slightly below national average, seems to be satisfactory enough to lean back in their chairs and defend that Imperial does a good job in managing their supervision performance.

But wait a minute. As one of the few social scientists around College, I have concerns with the nature of questions and the conclusions we draw from the PRES. While the survey evaluates general satisfaction, the skills and knowledge of the supervisor and training needs, the PRES does not address any questions related to well-being and mental health.

I want to express my recognition of the Imperial staff working hard to improve student well-being and who are rolling up their sleeves to tackle the PG related mental health crisis. Together with a group of nine other universities, in 2018, Imperial College participated in the Vitae-led research project “Exploring Well-being and Mental Health and Associated Support Services for PG Researchers”. The report was very clear in stating that “the quality of the student-supervisor relationship is central to the student experience and hence, often central to their well-being.”

The report further states:

“There was consensus across staff interviews and student focus groups that difficulty in the supervisory relationship was one of the most common reasons for well-being issues, often exacerbated by imposter syndrome [a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’]. Professional support services staff particularly commented that it was one of the most difficult circumstances to deal with, not least as PGRs were usually reluctant to give them permission to approach the supervisor. Academic and support staff felt that there was general reluctance within universities to tackle difficult supervisory issues”. The report mentions that students experience fear of complaining, perceiving themselves as being in a powerless position. Only 42% of students agreed that they would feel comfortable in talking to their supervisor about mental health issues, while 45% disagreed; women being even less likely to talk to their tutors than men.

With “supervision stories” we are creating a channel for us and the College to hear what is going on inside of labs and offices, without fear, without filter. It is also a way to inspire students with problems to reach out for help through the constantly improving Imperial College welfare system and, eventually, resolve their problems and receive the PhD experience they deserve. So, dear students, please share your stories!