Post Graduate Researcher spatial experience

25 May 2022      Martin Higgs, AUDE Communications and Campaigns Manager

Our Space Management group is working on a series of interlinked projects looking at the types of space needed for successful functioning of different types of university staff and teams, and today publishes ‘The postgraduate research spatial experience’ discussion paper with the support of Campus Intuition, a specialist higher education design research consultancy helping clients get the most from their campuses.

This paper brings to the fore some of the real concerns of Post-Graduate Research Students (PGRs) who are often towards the bottom of a cultural hierarchy within our universities, and who can find themselves overlooked in favour of ‘more valuable staff’ with permanent roles which attract research funding. We’ve interviewed representatives from universities in the UK and Australia to understand the critical space issues facing this cohort; reviewed international literature on the topic; engaged with PGRs through social media and an experience-mapping exercise; and spoken with workplace experts to draw in lessons from other sectors.

“The space allocated to PGRs is often far from ideal,” said Helen Wallace, Head of Space Management and Design at the University of Exeter and Joint Chair of AUDE’s Space Management Group. “This group can find themselves lacking the kind of physical base from which to work that can provide both motivation and structure to their working lives. The working space allocated is often sub-optimal, not designed to maximise productivity or comfort, and may have low take-up from PGRs. But there’s a danger of this leading to a vicious circle in which low utilisation reduces the sense of community, so we need to plan “shared” space very carefully to address individual circumstances and avoid perpetuating the problem by creating supportive environments. There’s a gap in our understanding. We know that PhD completions have a high value to universities, but we don’t know enough about the role that high quality working spaces have in supporting that outcome. In addition, Covid-19 lockdowns have lessened the impetus for PGRs to be on campus at all, eroding the development of the professional networks that are vital to career progression.”

“Post-Graduate Researchers are integral to universities,” said Dr Samantha Hall, Principal Director at Campus Intuition. “For so long this cohort have fallen between staff and students, lacking targeted strategies on what they need to succeed. Re-thinking the workspace for this cohort presents a tremendous opportunity. They face mounting pressure for timely completions and research publications. This can be facilitated, in part, by better space strategies that support their functional and emotional needs. This research looked at what space means to PGRs. It isn’t just about a desk, it is a connection to the establishment, a home base, a means for networking and creating a community that will stay with them beyond finishing their degree. These networks are powerful assets. When space is done poorly, PGRs lose motivation and become disengaged. They feel neglected by their University, and this risks poor mental health outcomes. As we think sector-wide about the changing role of PGRs, space must be part of the conversation.”

This discussion paper highlights some of the key challenges facing the PGR group in terms of their workspaces, gathers first-hand testimony on the things they like and don’t like about the work environment, and provides recommendations that will unlock a better experience for PGRs.

“This group should be at the heart of Covid-19 academic workplace transformation, with a greater focus on mental health and building of networks and communities,” said Charlotte Livingston Lewis, Joint Chair of AUDE’s Space Management Group and Head of Strategic Programmes and Governance at the University of Warwick. “There is no single model that solves all spatial issues, but there are creative opportunities, such as moving students to different spaces as they progress through research. A stronger focus on community management will enable spaces to work more effectively. PhD students should not just be allocated to a desk without more consideration to their surrounding professional ecosystems. Details, such as seamless IT, kitchen facilities, daylight and meeting rooms, will make a significant impact to comfort and satisfaction.”

The AUDE Space Management Group continues to work on a wide range of overlapping themes, from the need to integrate space and timetabling decisions, to the role of university spaces in the climate emergency, to the need to successfully repurpose existing buildings rather than develop new ones. Please contact AUDE for more information on any of this work.

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