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Understanding and improving the wellbeing of postgraduate taught students: A longitudinal study

Paula Miles, Senior Lecturer at University of St. Andrews

Research from around the globe has highlighted that university student wellbeing is lower than that of the general adult population (see for example Adlaf et al., 2001; Larcombe et al., 2014), and student wellbeing has only worsened during the pandemic (see Liyanage et al., 2021). This is especially true for postgraduate taught (PGT) students who have been identified as a particularly vulnerable group, reporting the lowest levels of wellbeing in any university student group, and being referred to as the ‘forgotten cohort’ (Coneyworth et al., 2019). With increasing numbers of PGTs (approximately 25 per cent of the UK student body in 2021–22; HESA, 2022) it is important that these students are given the attention they deserve.

‘Postgraduate taught students have been identified as a particularly vulnerable group, reporting the lowest levels of wellbeing in any university student group, and being referred to as the “forgotten cohort”.’


Researchers have attributed the poor wellbeing of PGT students to their unique university experience (McPherson et al., 2017): that is, undergoing a great deal of change in a very short time frame. In the UK context, this is typically one year of intense study comprising both taught and research components. Changes that PGTs experience over the span of their short degree include:

  • transitioning to new learning environments
  • experiencing higher academic expectations
  • adapting to new living environments
  • developing new support systems
  • juggling increased academic and personal responsibilities.

If we want to help improve the wellbeing of our PGT students, we must first establish the current wellbeing levels of this cohort. We can then develop an understanding of the factors that help and hinder our PGTs’ wellbeing. With this knowledge, we will be able to create targeted interventions to strengthen the wellbeing of our PGT students.

Utilising a longitudinal mixed-methods design, over a five-year period, we have asked PGTs at a Scottish University to complete questionnaires and participate in focus groups, centring around a wellbeing theme. Our three aims are:

  1. monitor and better understand PGT wellbeing across the academic year, utilising the CORE-GP wellbeing scale
  2. compare PGT wellbeing across multiple years – pre, during and post Covid-19
  3. impact university policy and practice by developing the tools necessary to support PGT wellbeing.

Preliminary findings highlight that PGT wellbeing is consistently poor across the year. Interestingly, this was observed in each year of our study: before, during and after Covid-19. Our results support previous claims that PGT wellbeing is worryingly low and needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Due to our mixed-methods approach, we are now in a good place to demonstrate which factors help and hinder wellbeing. Preliminary analyses of qualitative data suggest that social interaction, loneliness, stress, housing and issues relating to equality, diversity and inclusion are factors that can negatively affect PGT wellbeing. Positive factors include kindness and pastoral support of staff, developing a routine, and engaging in hobbies (such as sport and nature activities). This provides us with vital information to aid in the development of interventions, the next phase of our project.

By carrying out this work over a five-year period and keeping the student voice at the heart of this work, we are ensuring that future interventions are appropriately tailored to the wellbeing needs of PGTs. We believe that this work will bring about positive change for a cohort of students who are often overlooked and who we know experience significant challenges when completing their studies.


Adlaf, E. M., Gliksman, L., Demers, A., & Newton-Taylor, B. (2001). The prevalence of elevated psychological distress among Canadian undergraduates: Findings from the 1998 Canadian Campus Survey. Journal of American College Health, 50(2), 67–72. 

Coneyworth, L., Jessop, R., Maden, P., & White, G. (2019). The overlooked cohort? Improving the taught postgraduate student experience in higher education. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 57(3), 262–273. 

Higher Education Statistics Agency [HESA]. (2022). Who’s studying in HE?

Larcombe, W., Finch, S., Sore, R., Murray, C. M., Kentish, S., Mulder, R. A., Lee-Stecum, P., Baik, C., Tokatlidis, O., & Williams, D. A. (2016). Prevalence and socio-demographic correlates of psychological distress among students at an Australian university. Studies in Higher Education, 41(6), 1074–109. 

Liyanage, S., Saqib, K., Khan, A. F., Thobani, T. R., Tang, W. C., Chiarot, C. B., … & Butt, Z. A. (2021). Prevalence of anxiety in university students during the COVID-19 pandemic: A systematic review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(1), 62.  

McPherson, C., Punch, S., & Graham, E. (2017). Transitions from undergraduate to taught postgraduate study: Emotion, integration and ambiguity. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 5(2), 42–50.