The PRISM project: Programme Realities voiced by International and domestic Students in Masters’ study

Kerry Earl Rinehart & Carol Hamilton

Partnerships: School of Graduate Research, University of Waikato Summer scholarships


The last two decades have seen a significant growth of academic enquiry into postgraduate student engagement in international (e.g. Manathunga, Pitt & Critchley, 2009) and New Zealand (NZ) contexts (e.g. Zepke & Leach, 2010). However, these studies have almost exclusively focused on the impact of the process of doctoral study (Denholm & Evans, 2006).

Postgraduate work can be rewarding in its own right. Postgraduates overall experience better employment outcomes than their undergraduate counterparts (Ministry of Education, 2015) with this factor holding consistent over the first seven years of post-study employment (p. 1). Still, the experience of postgraduate study for students is not all positive. A 2018 study of under and postgraduate student health/wellbeing isolated five stressors impacting on student success. These include: managing academic workloads, managing additional commitments, finances, future career plans and personal relationships (Johns Hopkins Taskforce, 2018, p. 26).

What is the Aims of the Research?

The issue we are exploring in this project is: What are the realities of international and domestic students in UoW Masters programmes and how might identified stressors impact on their progress and achievement? Aspects of interest include features of academic study, additional responsibilities and relationships, student career motivation/s and resources. We are investigating self-reported levels of individual wellbeing; high and low points of tension in their programme, the nature of any challenges and strategies for meeting the challenges. We are interested in understanding any patterns of student experience emerging from this aspect of the study.

Why is this research important?

A NZ survey of student’s mental health found that, overall, domestic students experience more study distress than international students (New Zealand Union of Students Association, NZUSA, 2018). Further, of the primarily undergraduate respondents, this NZUSA study found students from the UoW reported the highest scores for psychological distress. First-in-family postgraduate students appeared at higher risk of the stress-related difficulties associated with lower graduation rates. Notable for our University of Waikato (UoW) cohort, in the Johns Hopkins Taskforce study (2018), this group were also less involved in campus mental/health/wellbeing initiatives. Further, over half the graduate group surveyed reported feeling overwhelming anxiety in the previous 12 months–some so anxious they found it hard to function. The beginning of the academic year was identified as particularly stressful (p. 27). Factors influencing student experiences and attainment are also more frequently discussed in the media (e.g. in the UK, Adebisi, 2019; Williamson, 2013) increasing the importance of student experience for an institution's public reputation.

Potential Research Impact?

Findings of the study will inform staff interactions with UoW Masters level students within the Division of Education, and UoW Postgraduate Leaders about the experiences of this postgraduate student cohort.