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Postgraduate Self Help

Doing research can be really rewarding, however it is not without its challenges. There is support out there for when you are experiencing difficulties.

On this page:


Sources of support:

  • Student wellbeing offers support in the form of disability advisors, mental health advisors and counsellors.  The student wellbeing webpage provides more information here.
  • While there are challenges unique to the PGR community, we recognise that there will be some which are universal.  We also have self-help pages for some of the commonly experienced difficulties.  
  • The Wellbeing Thesis is an online external resource targeted at postgraduate research students.  It is designed to support your wellbeing, learning and research. ​The site has been created by The University of Derby, Kings College London and Student Minds.  Website:


Challenges specific to postgraduate researchers:

There are some challenges which come with doing postgraduate research, which are common experiences.  

It’s a full time job… plus

It can be difficult to manage perceived expectations around working hours.  This can lead to difficulties with work-life balance and burn out.  Students sometimes try to work at a pace which is not sustainable over the three to four years.  This is particularly challenging for students who may have other commitments such as families.

  • Work out the balance which is important to you and a rate of working which, along with helping you to meet objectives, is sustainable. 
  • Set boundaries about the time you have off and keep to them.  If for example you always have Sunday off, make sure you stick to it an allow yourself to not feel guilty about having some rest.

The supervisor / student relationship

Often students will feel supervisors are their only port of call - the gatekeeper to their PhD.  There are some great supervisors out there. However, there are also times when the supervisor / student relationship feels strained or breaks down.  Students can feel that they are all alone as a result of this.  Previous experiences within relationships with authority figures or parents, can also impact how the supervisor/student relationship is experienced.

  • Keep a record of what is agreed in meetings with supervisors, and consider emailing a summary of the conclusions to your supervisor, so that you are both on the same page going forward.
  • The Doctoral college offers training, including “Working effectively with others (including supervisors)”.

Autonomy is not absolute

Independent thought is a key part of postgraduate research.  However, there can sometimes be feelings of frustration when students encounter limits to their independence.  If you are working under the banner of an academic / principal investigator (PI), they will have both a vested interest and a say in the direction the research takes. This is particularly true of laboratory based PhDs. 

  • Understand that not being able to pursue a particular direction is not necessarily a reflection on the quality of your idea. 
  • When discussing directions that you are interested in taking your research, put together a clear argument that explains what it is you are looking to achieve, how it fits into your research as a whole, and what previous research backs up this idea.
  • Supervisors will have an over arching view of your research and how it will come together at the end.  They have gone through this process before, so try and trust that their advice comes from a place of knowledge and experience.

Being unprepared to fail

Research you have undertaken at undergraduate levels will have often been in the context of projects that are likely to succeed, in areas which have probably been researched with previous success at the University.  When you embark on postgraduate research you are entering into the unknown.  The whole point of research is that it has not been done before.  Failures in research are common, but not generally published, so when the failures happen this can lead students to feel that they alone are failing.

  • Remember that failures are also a chance to learn something.  They can be just as important for your thesis as your successes.
  • Ask for help from a peer, postdoc, supervisor or another academic.

Struggles in the second year

Students can commonly experience struggles with motivation and emotional resilience in their second year, for several reasons.  As the research moves into progressively unknown areas the challenges often increase in parallel.  In addition, students can sometimes have been working at an unsustainable pace for several years and at this point they may feel they will never get enough results for their thesis or make it to the end of the project.

  • If you are worried about your research speak to your supervisor.  They have been here before and will have a more objective idea of whether there is anything to be concerned about.
  • Remember to maintain a good work-life balance.
  • The counselling service is here for you, so if you are struggling get in touch.

For those researchers not working within teams or groups isolation can be an added difficulty.  Try to take time to meet peers for coffee breaks etc., consider working in parallel over zoom and make an effort to join any informal gatherings or research seminars in person.

Postgraduate research can be challenging, but you are not alone.  Student wellbeing is here to help, and you can refer yourself to our services through our webpage here.

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Student Wellbeing

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Student Wellbeing is closed at weekends and during holiday periods.
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