Postgraduate study, being further education following the completion of a Bachelor’s (undergraduate) degree, is a significant component in many people’s lives and contributes to the diversity and reach at educational institutions. Postgraduate degrees can take many forms, with the University of Newcastle (UoN) offering programs such as Graduate Certificates, Masters (by Coursework or Research) and PhDs; these programs all take varying periods of time to complete and encompass different styles of learning, including classes, placement and research. It is important to remember that reasons to undertake a Postgraduate degree vary; a postgraduate course might be required for your career goal, to upskill, for a change in career path, or out of personal interest.
Approximately a quarter of UoN students are enrolled in postgraduate study; the most popular program of study being a Masters by coursework, followed by PhD, Graduate Certificate and finally Masters by research. With these smaller numbers, postgraduate students are often considered to be the overlooked cohort (Coneyworth et al., 2020).
It is unsurprising that research has indicated stress levels as a concern for postgraduate cohorts (Bukhsh et al., 2011; Fond et al., 2019; Mendes-Rodrigues et al., 2019; Zegeye et al., 2018), with some indications that females experience higher stress levels than their male counterparts (Zegeye et al., 2018).
Zegeye and colleagues (2018) considered causes of stress and relationships with substance use. Academic related stressors were found to be the leading cause of stress, with performance pressure related stressors and poor relationship with superior stressors also having impact. Cigarette smoking and khat chewing were found to be predictors of stress, with interesting results found that indicate moderate alcohol consumption may reduce stress levels.
Regardless of barriers and concerns such as stress, postgraduate study can provide many benefits; increase in knowledge and skills, specialisation options, networking, financial gain and personal improvements including confidence and happiness increases (Park et al., 2010; Shannon et al., 2017).
To improve benefits for postgraduate students and reduce barriers and adverse outcomes such as high stress levels, it is important to understand the student perspective. This brief report aims to consider some of the present concerns and stressors for postgraduate students at the University of Newcastle.
It is hoped that this brief report will shed some light on the wants and needs of postgraduate students as UoN.
A Google Forms survey was curated by the author in the first half of 2022. Across the 10 questions, basic demographics (including degree, enrolment status, mode and employment status) were collected along with questions pertaining to areas for improvement, any concerns and any suggestions for improvements. Identifying information such as age and gender was not collected.
Participants and recruitment
The Google Forms survey was distributed amongst postgraduate networks; this included via personal social media, social media groups, with Graduate Research, and via direct contact. Participants were eligible to take part if they were a) students at the University of Newcastle, b) enrolled in a postgraduate program at UoN.
The majority of participants were completing a PhD program (70%), with most employed in some capacity during their studies (70%) (see Table 1).
Participants highlighted connection between postgraduate students most frequently as the area for improvement, followed by training and opportunities (See Graph 1). Two students felt there was nothing needing improvement. They were also given the option to note anything further they felt needed consideration. Responses included humanities internships, work experience, more oversight of supervisory behaviours and actions, and web profiles.
Responses to given options regarding areas for improvement.
Concerns and issues faced by postgraduates
Qualitative data from 33 responses covered a range of concerns and issues that postgraduates are facing, which fall into a range of collective themes. Question posed: ‘What are some of the main concerns/issues (if any) you face as a postgraduate student?’ See Appendix 2 for full list of quotes.
Students identified concerns regarding their financial positions and options during their studies. This covered a range of components including stipends, work options and juggling work alongside study. It was evident especially for PhD students that the scholarship amount is not suffice.
“…juggling work commitments with study.”
“The scholarship amount is a joke… The restricted number of hours one can work is just unreasonable, and clearly most people go above and beyond those, ultimately having to find the ways of being able to claim their money. If nothing else, the university should acknowledge that PhDs are also being worked on during the weekend…”
Mental health impact
The experience of postgraduate study appeared to have negative impacts on students’ mental health. Students noted they were ‘overworked’ and had ‘mental struggles’.
“Lack of motivation, isolation, boredom, feeling lost when having to work alone for long periods”
“Mental health; time; income”
Students struggled to feel connected within their degree, with online study options heavily impeding networks and social connections. It was apparent to postgraduates that this cohort, as compared to undergraduates had less options to connect. There was also concern regarding the segregation between staff and postgraduate students. Further, networking was noted as lacking.
“Almost half of the elective courses can only be taken online, and there are no face-to-face courses. The course experience is very poor. I didn’t even meet the teacher face-to-face for two courses last trimester.”
“Less events and networking events for postgraduate students.”
“…more training and networking among students and staff is needed.”
“It’s cultural. You see it among academic staff too. Everyone is so fragmented. Seems everyone is just holed up at their own place. Where are the shared spaces/moments? Who comes in besides me and a handful of others? Where are the lunchtime buddies? Where are the corridor conversations and after study drinks? The reading groups, the camaraderie?”
It was echoed by students that support was generally lacking in their degree. This was predominately based around university support including training, resources and adequate orientations.
“I would like to see there being more information and support through this program.”
“As an international Postgraduate student, I didn’t receive much of an orientation to the Australian way of life and higher education system. The Meet and Greet that happened early on is not enough and should be expanded further.”
Concerns of the future
Thinking to life after graduating postgraduate programs posed some concern. Focus is not often on that next step once you graduate and there were concerns of how competitive programs are.
“Employment options are completion.”
“…there is no formal course work for any part of the degree marking out PhD’s below average when compared to any other area of science/business/ect.”
Working towards change
Qualitative data from 27 responses covered a range of suggestions from the students to work towards improving postgraduate study at UoN. A range of suggestions were considered that covered concerns including events, mode of delivery, funding, facilities, and training.
Postgraduate students at UoN comprise an integral population, contributing to the academic workload, engaging in high quality research and dissemination, and being informal advocates for postgraduate programs. However, there is a long way to go to improve the study conditions and options for this cohort. This brief report has provided an overview of areas identified by postgraduates that are deemed to need improvement and encompasses some suggestion to work towards change in these areas.
This report has been adapted for Opus. To see the full report, including references and appendices, please contact Tegan – firstname.lastname@example.org
Hello! My name is Tegan and I joined the Opus team in 2021 as an outlet to escape my PhD writing. I am yet to find my niche category, but you can probably expect pieces about postgraduate life, creativity, psychology, literature and all things cute and fuzzy. Outside of Opus and my PhD, I am also a peer mentor, team leader, tutor, and sessional academic (so you might just see me in class sometime!).