Supporting Students in the Transition to Postgraduate Taught Study in STEM Subjects

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Jessica Bownes Nicolas Labrosse David Forrest David MacTaggart Hans Senn Moira Fischbacher-Smith Maria Jackson Michael McEwan Gayle Pringle Barnes Nathalie Sheridan Tatsiana Biletskaya


While there has been a wide range of studies examining the transition of undergraduate and postgraduate research students, there are few which concentrate on the experiences of postgraduate taught (PGT) students. This is unfortunate, because PGT students have pressing needs for support: since taught masters courses last for usually one academic year, postgraduate students are asked to adapt and succeed at a far faster rate than undergraduates, who take four years in Scotland to complete an honours degree. PGT students are a minority group amongst the university population, with e.g. more than three times as many undergraduates enrolled at the University of Glasgow than postgraduates. Furthermore, international students represent a high proportion of PGT students. To better understand the needs of PGT students and therefore improve the quality of their education, we need to understand their experiences and challenges as they transition through their course. This paper presents a study focused on PGT students in STEM subjects at the University of Glasgow. Feedback from students in the College of Science and Engineering was gathered using a multi-methodological approach. Surveys, one-to-one interviews and a workshop were utilised to investigate students’ perceptions of support received from staff and services. This data was linked to student academic confidence, social confidence, and overall satisfaction with their experience at the university. Data were gathered at three points in the year to evaluate whether perceptions change as students progress through their course. This data from surveys and interviews was used to direct a workshop, which discussed potential solutions to issues raised. Better online resources were identified as key to feeling prepared before the commencement of a PGT course, and better communication with lecturers and peers was important to the success and satisfaction of students, particularly after beginning PGT study.

Article Details

Original Research
Author Biographies

Jessica Bownes, University of Glasgow

Jessica Bownes is a PhD student at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) and Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Glasgow. She was the Research Assistant for the project, and is interested in science communication and developing students’ scientific academic writing skills.

Nicolas Labrosse, University of Glasgow

Nicolas Labrosse is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Glasgow. He oversees the MSc programmes offered by the School of Physics and Astronomy. He led the research project behind this paper. He is passionate about supporting MSc students throughout taught postgraduate study at the University of Glasgow. He can be found on Twitter @niclabrosse

David Forrest, University of Glasgow

David Forrest is Senior Lecturer and co-ordinator of PGT in the School of Geographical & Earth Sciences at the University of Glasgow. He has many years of experience in developing and leading programmes in mapping sciences, and in dealing with student cohorts with widely varying origins and backgrounds.

David MacTaggart, University of Glasgow

David MacTaggart is a Lecturer in Applied Mathematics at the University of Glasgow. He is currently head of the Applied/Pure Mathematics MSc (PGT). His research interests are in theoretical mechanics.

Hans Senn, University of Glasgow

Hans Martin Senn is a Lecturer in the School of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow. His research interests are in quantum chemistry and molecular simulations. He teaches Physical Chemistry at all levels and has been the head of the Schools’s postgraduate taught MSc programmes since their introduction in 2010.

Moira Fischbacher-Smith, University of Glasgow

Moira Fischbacher-Smith is Professor of Public Sector Management and Assistant Vice-Principal (Learning and Teaching) at the University of Glasgow. She has been involved in studying and developing transitions support for students for several years.

Maria Jackson, University of Glasgow

Maria Jackson is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Glasgow. She directs two genetics MSc programmes in the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences, and has particular interests in improving the student experience and in facilitating effective use of feedback by students.

Michael McEwan, University of Glasgow

Michael McEwan is a Lecturer in the Learning and Teaching Centre at the University of Glasgow. He coordinates the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice, a programme of initial teaching development for new academics.

Gayle Pringle Barnes, University of Glasgow

Gayle Pringle Barnes is the International Student Learning Officer for the College of Social Sciences at the University of Glasgow, where she co-ordinates an academic writing programme for taught postgraduates. Her particular interests include the postgraduate student experience and postgraduate writing.

Nathalie Sheridan, University of Glasgow

Nathalie Sheridan is the Effective Learning Advisor for the College of Science and Engineering, working in the Learning and Teaching Centre of the University of Glasgow. Her background is educational science. She has worked in academic development since 2010, focussing on improving transitions and translating creative pedagogies into higher education.

Tatsiana Biletskaya, University of Cambridge

Tatsiana Steven (Biletskaya) holds a PhD in Law and Economics from the University of Turin, Italy. Following that she worked in social science research at the University of Glasgow, at the same time graduating with an MSc Psychological Studies in 2015. She then worked as a post-doctoral Research Assistant at the University of Cambridge.


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