The loneliness of the PhD student

Postgraduates face isolation because they lack the support that undergraduates receive. Catherine Nixey talks to some of them
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The Independent Online

Rob Fergus, an engineering science PhD student at Oxford University, says that the unhealthy amount of time he has spent on his doctorate has affected his social life. He speaks for many when he says that a postgraduate's life is very different from an undergraduate's.

Postgraduate study can be very isolating, says Dr Janet Metcalfe, the director of the UK Grad programme, an association dedicated to giving graduates help and support throughout their degree. "By its definition a PhD is supposed to be an original piece of research; yours and yours alone," she says. "So if you are writing about medical practices described in 14th-century English literature, you could easily go all day in the library archives without seeing anyone at all."

And if you don't meet people through your subject, there are very few other ways to make contact. Part of the problem is the lack of a recognised "graduate space". Often housed in accommodation far from the centres of university life and from each other, it is difficult for graduates to meet and mingle. They are usually unwilling to visit union bars because of the age difference between them and the majority of students. "I wouldn't really want to hang out with the undergrads any more," says Fergus. "All that beer craziness in the bar was great fun when you were that age. But you really do want to move on a bit."

Postgraduates can feel that they are a forgotten group. There are fewer support systems in place to help them when they have difficulties. While you would be hard put to find a university without a student union, there are only two graduate unions in the country. Although student unions are usually intended for graduates too, they feel that they are not the prime target. "A lot of university life tends to be very undergraduate focused," says Dr Metcalfe. "So although social and support systems, like helplines, do exist for postgraduates, it is difficult to encourage them to use them."

Part of the problem has been the rapid increase in graduate numbers. "In the past 10 years there has been a fourfold increase in graduate numbers, from 100,000 to about 400,000," says Dr Tim Brown, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee. "The numbers of graduates went up so fast that the resources just lagged behind them."

But the universities are changing. One of the most important developments was the setting up of graduate schools devoted to the social, academic and administrative needs of graduate students. The first graduate school in the country was set up 10 years ago at Warwick.

"The idea behind the initiative was that graduates were very isolated," says Professor Susan Bassnett, a Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Warwick, who was involved in the project. "Before, your experience of being a graduate depended very much on the culture of your subject: science students who spent their time in lab-based teams would usually say that they were fine. The real horror stories usually involved those doing the more solitary subjects such as English or history - people would tell you that they met no one from their department, and only saw their supervisor once a year in the pub. Graduate schools were an attempt to prevent such things from happening."

And they have been very successful. Since Warwick set its up, numerous other universities have done the same. One of the best respected is at the Nottingham Trent University. Graduates here get study facilities, a desk for the full three years of their PhD, and the use of several graduate common rooms. It creates a community out of a group of students who would otherwise be working on their own. Other universities are looking at different solutions. Many are beginning to provide graduate-only accommodation, thus helping to bring graduates together.

"Postgraduates are definitely much more on the map," says Dr Brown. "It's early days yet. But we're getting there."