Ask any PhD student what the most difficult aspect of their research is and they are likely to tell you something about the problems associated with working alone. Completing a PhD is a solitary game – by the end you might be regarded as the ‘expert’ in your field, but in all likelihood that’s just because NOONE ELSE is studying exactly what you are. Your supervisor might be able to help you with some research methodology, provide valuable feedback on your written drafts and ideally give you emotional or physical ‘thumbs up’ to keep you on track. But they won’t have read all the papers you have. They won’t be as well versed in your results. And in all likelihood they won’t have the time to make you feel supported and confident in your research pathway. If supervisors can’t provide that kind of support, what can other students do? As it turns out, quite a lot…
In April of last year, with the support of my supervisor and Head of School, I started a Study Group. The goal of the study group was to develop a support network of postgrads and have the opportunity to learn from other’s experiences. Postgrads and supervisors would come together once a month to talk about their research. Each month would have a pre-defined topic, chosen by the postgrads, and everyone could contribute to the discussion. Some weeks people would present on their own research and in other weeks we would talk about an idea or theme that was relevant to all of us. Over a year later the Study Group is still going strong, with a reliable 6-10 attendees at each session. So far we have had research proposal presentations, talked about the philosophical underpinning of our research, and discussed the costs and benefits of different methods and tools for use in our research. Feedback from regular attendees has been overwhelmingly positive, with people saying that they feel more ‘grounded’ in our discipline area, believe they are now part of a research community and have benefitted from the experiences of others.
So what would my suggestions be to those interested in starting a Study Group?
- Develop interest before you start. I benefitted a lot from talking to people before I started my group to find out if they were interested in the idea and whether they had preferences in terms of frequency/time/topics etc.
- Be flexible! You might have started the Study Group but the group really belongs to all of those attending. Accept suggestions and shift the mode/content to suit the people attending.
- Plan in advance. While this might seem like the antithesis of being flexible, when so many researchers are heading off on conferences or fieldwork it helps to create a schedule of future sessions and topics so people with a particular interest can request sessions being shifted around to suit their timetables.
- Make the list of invited attendees visible. Knowing who is in the Study Group helps create the sense of community and makes it easier for people to identify who is missing.
- Have a consistent venue/time. I think that having the Study Group in the same venue each month gives a sense of continuity to the sessions.
- Make sure you’ve got all the equipment you need. We generally need a room with an overhead projector. Sometimes we have people calling in to participate via Skype, so there has been scrambling around to find the appropriate technology. This is still an area that I need to work on!
- Have a continuity plan. The last thing you want is for the Study Group to fall apart when you are no longer around or can’t make it to a session. Find out if there is anyone in the group who is interested in acting as a support Chair or Chair-in-waiting. You can teach them the ropes and then have them replace you when the time is right.
Of course, not everything about the Study Group has gone according to plan. In some months attendance is on the low side, but I continue, knowing that fieldwork and due dates can often get in the way of postgrads’ availability. Additionally, the input from supervisors has been woeful, with only about 5 attendances from supervisors over a nearly 18-month period. But luckily the postgrads’ enthusiasm for the Study Group makes up for supervisors’ lack of interest!
Thanks to all the people who keep showing up to my Study Group month after month! xo