The Flourishing-performance Thesis within Postgraduate Students


Project leaders

Postdoctoral fellow: dr. Laura Weiss

Supervisor: Dr Marita Heyns


A group that is extremely important for South Africa, but at the same time mainly neglected in research and practice, are postgraduate students (master and PhD students). They are essential for the economy, as highly skilled workers are scarce. This is acknowledged in in the National Development Plan, where education is a key strategic imperative, with a focus on the throughput of master’s and doctoral students.

Postgraduate students are also of tremendous importance for universities, as subsidies for their graduation and research output is an important source of income. Investing in understanding their problems and helping them to succeed would be an effective way to create more income for universities, who are currently struggling and have to cope with the effects of the #FeesMustFall Movement.

However, the student drop-out rates in South Africa belong to the highest in the world. Numbers are alarming: only about 15% of the students graduate, causing both financial and human capital losses. Reasons for drop-out are diverse. Financial problems, academic unpreparedness and trouble combining study with work belong to the reasons. Although these are factors that are not easy to alter, there are also psychological factors for drop-out, which can be positively impacted.

A recent study showed that 40% of PhD students suffer from depression. But even the postgraduate students that do not suffer from mental illness are often languishing. They are under a lot of pressure. Many feel isolated, incompetent, doubting themselves, and they do not know how to cope with the stressful situation.

Helping these students to cope with stress, to achieve their potential, to experience meaning, to explore their talents, to discover sources of strengths and to connect with others could significantly improve their well-being. Improving emotional, social and psychological well-being has been shown to positively impact academic achievement: flourishing students perform better.

According to the job demands-resources (JDR) model, adapted to the study context, there a three possible predictors of flourishing and performance:

  1. Study Demands (e.g. high pressure, stressful events, unclear tasks)
  2. Study Resources (e.g. support from peers and supervisor, opportunities for personal growth, achievable goals)
  3. Personal Resources (e.g. optimism, grit, self-compassion)
By using job and personal resources, student’s motivation can increased and they could effectively deal with the high study demands. Interventions specifically developed for postgraduate students can help them with this process.

Prof. Llewellyn van Zyl and dr. Laura Weiss conceptualized a research project, entitled ‘Investigating the flourishing-performance thesis within postgraduate students in South Africa’ to tackle this issue with the following steps:

  • Conduct a systematic literature review to develop a theoretical framework for the flourishing-performance dynamic within a tertiary educational institution in South Africa.
  • Refine this model by conducting interviews with both master and PhD students and supervisors.
  • Test the model with a cross-sectional and longitudinal study.
  • Develop an intervention around the validated model with action research, by working together with the target group and taking their vision and their wishes into account when designing the intervention.
  • Implement and evaluate the intervention in a randomized controlled trial.
Helping postgraduate students to flourish and thereby to improve their academic performance will not only benefit the individual student, but also the economy and universities in South Africa. 

Short Presentation of the Study Proposal: