The creative route to enhancing postgraduate wellbeing

Student wellbeing is a major concern for United Kingdom universities and currently much of that focus is directed at postgraduate researchers.

With the impact of Brexit and the paucity of permanent academic contracts, especially in the social science and humanities sectors, the UK university environment has become increasingly unstable. According to Katia Levecque in her article entitled “Work Organisation and Mental Health Problems in PhD students”, 32% of PhD students are at a high risk of developing depression.

The other dimension to this is that many universities are struggling to develop approaches designed to encourage postgraduate students to consider non-academic career options (as a very small percentage of postgraduates go on to have academic careers).

The issues in this regard are, first, that it is often the case that the student careers service is geared towards the needs of undergraduates and may not have the knowledge to address the issues of postgraduate students; and, second, that the supervisory team may be experts in their own field, but most likely will not have the knowledge to advise postgraduate students appropriately regarding non-academic options.

This is another example of the added pressures facing postgraduate students in the current higher education climate.

This year the Office for Students has provided funding to 17 universities to pursue research into postgraduate wellbeing and develop innovative wellbeing programmes to enhance the postgraduate environment.

One approach to developing wellbeing involves encouraging postgraduate candidates to share how they feel in a safe, communal space without fear of judgment. In an article for The Guardian, Charlotte Morris, a doctoral research student in sociology, discusses how this approach was adopted by her institution, the University of Sussex, through their wellbeing week programme and it really helped her get through her doctoral studies and build her confidence.

A creative approach

Another approach that is getting more attention lately is the importance of promoting creativity to postgraduates across the board to enhance innovative thinking and promote wellbeing.

Ken Robinson, the internationally renowned advocate for integrating creativity into education, predicts a major movement in creative pedagogy is coming to the university sector to meet the demands of a complex high-tech AI world. This is very significant to industry, because the fourth industrial revolution will be centred on creativity and that is where humans will make a major contribution in the future.

In his analysis of the creative potential of doctoral research, Søren Bengtsen identifies the “learning spaces of educational darkness” in PhD research as a space of innovative possibilities that could be harnessed through using the right creative learning methodology and that this could apply to all doctoral subject areas.

In the UK, examples of universities encouraging creativity in postgraduates include the growing popularity of research posters through which postgraduate students develop innovative interpretations of their research in visual form. The University of Salford has developed a creative coaching system to encourage creative development in research.

Brunel University, the Open University and Oxford University joined forces earlier this year to host an event for postgraduate students where they could discuss creative methods in research and wellbeing. In that event they used plasticine as a method to engage with peers while discussing developing creative research methods and the importance of self-care, which all contributed to generating a relaxed environment.

Using poetry to enhance thinking

My company, Scriptor Cube, delivers wellbeing-embedded research and learning courses and our ‘Creative Thinking in Research’ workshop uses poetry-writing as part of a seven-step methodology designed to enhance creative thinking in any area of research.

As a poet, I am well acquainted with the power of rich poetic language to enhance creative thinking in writers, artists and designers. In recent years I have used it successfully with postgraduate art students at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and was nominated for the Ted Hughes Poetry Award by Cinnamon Press for innovation in 2014. In 2015 I gave a TEDx talk on its merits as a way to break down barriers, enhance confidence and generate innovative ideas.

In the summer of 2018 my company ran a two-day summer school at the Doctoral Academy at Cardiff University and on day two I ran the course for doctoral students from different subject areas. The students had to go through the seven steps, adapting their research using rich poetic language. Some of the steps involved language play where the students had to sit on the floor and play with words. They loved it and really engaged with each other.

The last part of the course involved the students creating a visual interpretation of their poem using sculpture, drawing or performance (based on their research). They then presented their poem and visual interpretation as part of the end-of-course pop-up exhibition. The feedback was very positive and the students registered a 24% increase in confidence in enhancing their approach to research innovation.

They also indicated that the course enhanced wellbeing, not only in terms of confidence building but also in overcoming writing anxiety.

I believe Ken Robinson is correct in his prediction regarding the future of creativity in the higher education sector and that arts and humanities research will have a much greater role to play in the fourth industrial revolution.

Dr Catriona Ryan is director of Scriptor Cube Ltd and a senior fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Email: info@scriptorcube.com