If you are working in a University support role, you will be aware that there are many different types of student on many different courses of varying length, level and qualification. The majority of these students are doing a taught course of some description; that is, the sort of course that anyone who has been through a formal schooling system can recognise. Classes. Teachers. Exams. Cohorts of students doing much the same thing at much the same time.
But then there are the postgraduate research students, who are a little bit different and in my experience cause a bit of confusion as they are following a type of programme that far fewer people have direct experience of. They may attend some classes, workshops or seminars to support their research, but they do not attend regular, scheduled classes for the entirety of their course as taught students do. They have meetings with research supervisors rather than sitting in groups in front of a teacher delivering a curriculum. They have something called a viva voce (oral defense of their thesis) instead of a written examination. And while they may be doing broadly the same sort of thing over the course of their degree, it doesn’t happen at the same time for every student.
Much of the support that research students need are what any student would need – guidance with enrolment, advice about visas or access to library resources, for example – but some of it is going to be different, reflecting the different type of course they are pursuing.
Research students spend far more of their time engaged in independent study than taught students do. While most students find such work engaging, many may feel a bit isolated or lonely – particularly if they are working within a small research or subject community or if they have been used to working and studying as part of groups in the past. We can help these students feel like they still belong to the University by organising regular social events, postgraduate conferences, a research student journal or guest lectures, and by encouraging external networking by collating calls for papers and professional conferences. As support staff, we can do a lot to help provide research students with the networks they need when they are not part of a class cohort structure.
Such students may also be working in a year-round model rather than disappearing off campus for long periods around Christmas, Easter and the summer, which requires different systems of support than an undergraduate would need. Considering research students here need not be difficult, but does require a bit of planning. Do research students, for example, start at different points in the year to other students? If so, do enrolment deadlines or induction events need to be adapted or repeated to accommodate this? If a key office or service is going to be closed for part of the summer because undergraduates are not going to need it then, could an alternative point of contact or information be provided for researchers who may need to be working in August? If not, then make sure you advertise closures well in advance so these students can plan accordingly.
We need to remember that research students are much more like an academic member of staff than an undergraduate student and build our means of supporting them accordingly.