Pears: Investigating Loneliness and Peer Support in Postgraduate Research Students

Timeframe: 2017-2019

As part of a multi-disciplinary research project we have been exploring University student experiences of loneliness and social isolation. Initial qualitative studies led us to identify postgraduate research students – aka PhD students – as being particular at risk of loneliness, especially if they do not belong to a clear cohort of students. In response to identified issues of social isolation and loneliness we designed and created a system, PeaRs, to facilitate peer support and social connectivity among postgraduate research students. PeaRs comprises of a mobile application and paper-based journal, which connects students for regular “pearings” (in-person meetings between two students) and provides a set of activities to promote reflection on their studies, social activities and their PhD progress. We evaluated the system over four weeks with a group of 15 postgraduate students, collected analytic data around its use and interviewed participants about their experiences. We found that putting students together sometimes, but not always, facilitated peer support. Some participants would instead meet formally and not open up with one another, and others used to system to make new personal, social connections. Additionally, some participants who faced struggles during the study found the system to contribute to their stress levels. Systems such as this encouraging peer support can be positive for student wellbeing, but need to be utilized carefully, and are not a replacement for other sources of student support in universities.