Trusted voices – family and friends as influencers

Posted: 10 Feb 2020 - 08:20
Trusted voices
Deciding to study at postgraduate level is a much more complex process than that of an undergraduate choice.

Many drivers are unique to adult life, and not part of the decision-making process of a sixth form leaver – private financing, career breaks, family and dependants, long term professional aspirations, and more.

As a result, the choice of further study is often more emotive, and the pillars of support and guidance in the family home, rather than the lecture theatre.

Family first

Our 2019 survey told us that family and friends are, overwhelmingly, the first resort for postgraduate prospects. Students told us their loved ones were the most trustworthy and accessible option – two motivations interestingly lacking in academic/professional factors, which will become more meaningful as we examine the findings.

Almost double the number of students opt for their family and friends over a personal tutor, and, even more so, over their lecturer or university support systems. While these advisers are more likely to be able to employ experience and context in their advice, the emotional and personal investment of family and friends ranks much higher.

Even those who chose academic support as their first choice, opted for family and friends next, making this the most popular choice as both a first and second resort. From a socio-economic perspective, ABC1 students are more likely to seek familial advice, than C2DE students, as are women, overall.

There is also a slight difference in those studying research degrees as opposed to taught courses. For the latter, they are more likely to seek help from family and friends, while the researchers opt for lecturers and tutors. And whichever option they choose, 20% of all students will only go to one source.

Sage wisdom?

Regardless of whether they’re asked, having the ability to impart useful and relevant advice on postgraduate decisions isn’t a given, with family and friends. But when we asked students where most of their support and advice eventually came from, it was still those loved ones who came up trumps. More than a third told us the majority of their support came from those closest to them, with the same second place (personal tutor), and third (lecturer). Again, those studying research degrees ‘appreciated’ their lecturer’s advice more than those on taught courses, and those who chose a different university for postgraduate than undergraduate valued their family and friends’ advice more.

Our conversations with students also produced some useful anecdotal insight to the numbers, highlighting the value of honesty and trust from those closest to them:

‘[My family and friends] were more transparent, honest, and supportive.’

‘While my personal tutor was able to provide me with a reference and talk through the idea with me, it was my family/friends who were able to provide the time and assistance in helping me choose which course to undertake.’

‘[My family and friends] were able to understand my hopes and what I wanted to achieve, and able to honestly support me in a personal way, rather than generic.’

Those who sought help from the academic world told us:

‘[My personal tutor/lecturer] has the most experience of the route I wanted to take, hence they knew a lot about the process in terms of applications and what to expect during my PhD.’

‘Because I felt like [my personal tutor/lecturer] could give me guidance on a process they were very familiar with.’

‘[My personal tutor/lecturer] supported me through the application process. Reading research proposals, discussing ideas, and gave me interview practice and tips.’

The role of family and friends as influencers is more pronounced at postgraduate level, but it’s something that we see across the range of study levels, ages, and social backgrounds. Loved ones have an investment in a student, that course providers do not, and, therefore, the time and effort spent, on the part of relatives and peers, is unrivalled in most students’ lives.

Our findings show that students optimise the experience around them. Their families and friends are most concerned with their welfare, and, therefore, most likely to offer personalised and relevant advice. Their tutors and lecturers can advise on academic options, impact on career and difficulty of funding/application. For postgraduate recruiters, this means making family and friends just as important a marketing prospect as the students themselves.

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