By David Sibley, Organisational Consultant with Tavistock Consulting
How Systems Psychodynamics can help leaders build community and belonging following the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) results.
The Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) results have recently been released for 2023. 37,000 postgraduate research students (PGRs) from 105 higher education institutions took part in the survey (1). Three key areas have been identified as most benefiting from improvement to advance the overall satisfaction for PGRs: feeling a sense of belonging, feeling part of a community, and responding to feedback from PGRs.
Systems psychodynamics is an approach that supports learning from experience and sense making of complex organisational and societal dynamics (2). Applying system psychodynamics in the context of PGRs experience involves examining the underlying emotional dynamics and structures within the academic ecosystem to help improve academic performance.
Feeling a sense of belonging
Studying as a PGRs can be an isolating and lonely endeavour for many people due to the independent nature of research (3, 4). This year PRES introduced new questions about community. The report states that feeling a sense of belonging has the strongest correlation with overall satisfaction of being a PGRs (1).
‘Early on I still felt as if I was a fraud; I still wasn’t an academic that I was still just someone trying to fit into this world and this culture, that I was peering through the window looking in at, but wasn’t really part of…’ Quote from a PGRs in Marshall L, Morris C (5) research.
So, how can higher education leaders help PGRs feel like they belong? Systems psychodynamics asks leaders to consider the unconscious dynamics in groups and systems that can affect people’s membership to a group or organisation. The independent nature of the research task risks that students do not take up group membership within the PGR community or deny the reality that the group exists. Entry into the organisation is therefore important, processes such as inductions should support individuals to become part of both ‘task’ and ‘sentient’ system – a key systems-psychodynamic theory. The task system is the formal structures, procedures, and performance expectations. The sentient system is the ‘human’ social aspect, the emotional commitment and importance of the group to individuals in the group (6). Another key aspect is the exploration of ‘role,’ where the individual and the system meets (7). Exploring how a person takes up the role of becoming and being a PGRs can help staff to uncover blocks to belonging.
Feeling part of a community
The PRES survey shows that many PGRs want to feel part of a community. However, people are also very anxious and conflicted about joining new groups. This can be especially difficult for people who have experienced discrimination or disadvantage. The survey reported that when social background (respondents being the first person from their family to attend University or respondents having received free school meals) and disability was considered, those students had the largest gap in being satisfied with their experience as a PGRs (1).
When Leah entered her first academic conference people avoided eye contact with her, as a wheelchair user she was familiar with this experience of invisibility, in this context it continued to make her feel unwelcome and that she did not belong.
This example shows how quickly and easily people with experience of difference to normative expectations can feel they are not part of a community. Unconscious processes such as splitting, and projection (8) can lead to scapegoating and othering people. This is a defence mechanism when it can become hard to see things in the round, where good and bad are all part of the whole, and so unbearable feelings and aspects of ourselves become disowned and projected.
Systems psychodynamics can help leaders build an in-depth perspective of how existing structures can help or hinder the building of ‘communities of practice’ around the research (9, 10). For example, thinking through this approach can lead to the inclusive design of events, spaces and programmes that support all student’s identity to be recognised. This will create feelings of belonging and community that support academic performance.
Responding to feedback from PGRs
In the PRES survey this year, the question about how institutions value and respond to PGRs feedback has declined more than any other question. This has also been a low scoring question for several years (1). My hypothesis is that institutions may be defending against feedback because it evokes strong emotional responses and conflicts in staff.
Laura nervously asked if she could give some feedback to her academic supervisor Robert, he responded by asking her to complete the departments feedback questionnaire. Laura left feeling angry and disappointed.
Organisations often create defensive structures to defend against emotional aspects of work, these can be part of unconscious social defence systems that can hinder organisations progress if not addressed (11). System psychodynamics highlights the importance of leadership in influencing organisational culture. University leaders can benefit from this approach by understanding how their leadership styles impact the overall emotional climate of the institution and how the organisation impacts them.
In conclusion, system psychodynamics can help higher education leaders by giving them tools that assist them to work at depth, enabling them to build inclusive learning communities in which people feel like they belong. By addressing unconscious processes, relational dynamics, and emotional aspects of academic work, this approach can be a valuable tool in improving the experience of postgraduate research students and university staff.
If you are a leader and interested in finding out more about how this way of thinking can help your leadership, please do get in touch on our enquiries page.
- Neves J. Postgraduate Research Experience Survey 2023: sector results report. Advance HE; 2023.
- Obholzer A, Roberts VZ. The unconscious at work. A Tavistock approach to making sense of organizational life. 2nd ed. ed: Routledge; 2019.
- Vitae. Catalyst Fund. Supporting mental health and wellbeing for postgraduate research students. Vitae; 2020.
- Morris C. “Peering through the window looking in”: postgraduate experiences of non-belonging and belonging in relation to mental health and wellbeing. Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education. 2021;12(1):131-44.
- Marshall L, Morris C. Taking wellbeing forward in higher education. Brighton: University of Brighton Press; 2011.
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- Armstrong D, Rustin M. Social Defences Against Anxiety : Explorations in a Paradigm. London: Routledge; 2014.