Community Matters for PGRs
In this guest post, Jennifer Boyle and Mary Beth Kneafsey from the UofG R&I Services talk about their research into the idea of "PGR community" and why community is such an important part of the PGR experience.
Earlier this year, a small team in Research and Innovation Services undertook a project sponsored by the Scottish Quality Assurance Agency, dealing with support of postgraduate researchers and with specific focus on the idea of the PGR community. We aimed to find out answers to the following questions: What is the PGR community? How do PGRs engage with it? Is there only one large PGR community, or is it made up of several smaller overlapping micro-communities?
First, to gain a picture of the PGR community from an institutional perspective, we reviewed policy documents and reports, and also interviewed staff members responsible for Graduate School management in a range of universities in the UK and internationally. However, it was clear to us that the student voice was also vital in understanding PGR community, so we also chose to hold focus groups, including interviews with a dozen students who weren’t located on campus.
We had a huge volume of responses when we sent out our ad: community was clearly something that PGRs wanted to talk about! Despite a clear sense that perceptions of and engagement with ‘the research community’ is highly individual, some marked themes emerged from our research.
The following elements all play shifting but essential roles, varying in importance for each individual, and becoming more and less important at different stages in the journey through PhD:
Location - the idea of what made up “PGR community” varied by location
Supportive supervisory relationships - essential in maintaining a sense of connection with the community
Academic or scholarly identity - we found that teaching was especially important in how PGRs perceived themselves, particularly when moving from student to part of the academic staff
Communities that expand networks outside of PGR subject area, such as doctoral training structures, research pools or online communities – community can be cross-institutional and also virtual
Student representation, such as being a formal Student Representative, or participating in Graduate School committees – this raised interesting questions about how PGRs connected with the wider student body.
We also found that while there are a huge range of student experiences through doctoral life, most students are fairly happy with their experience, despite the challenges! There are always niggles with systems that don’t function the way we might like them to, or spaces or resources that could be improved, but - by and large - the University is working quite hard to respond to student needs and the PGR experience is a largely satisfying, if challenging, one. As well as resolving to hold regular focus groups to ensure that PGR voices are heard more often, we also implemented some new ventures as a response to what PGRs told us.
First of all, we worked to disseminate our findings to staff, students and decision-making bodies in the University. We held two ‘town hall’ style events last year - one to specifically discuss the outcomes of the project, and another to broaden the topic to ‘communities and engagement’ where we invited external speakers and specifically made an effort to engage with PG Convenors from Schools and Institutes as well as with PGRs. We’ve written reports on these events which are available to everyone here.
These events were a great opportunity to bring together staff who are committed to the PGR experience, and we intend to hold an annual event for the community of PGRs and staff who support them. This will enable us to share new ideas and best practice.
We also implemented several new measures to enhance the distance student experience. The Library held a Researcher Development Day, open to all, but distance students also had the option of staying overnight, and attending a dinner with other distance learners – sharing their experiences and forging connections. We’ve also introduced writing webinars for distance students, and they can have 1:1 appointments via Big Blue Button, ensuring that they have similar provision to on-campus students which is nevertheless tailored to their situations.
In addition to our community work, we’ve also done some work on PGR well-being. Building a stronger sense of community and creating a variety of ways for students to feel engaged and supported is key to fostering a positive sense of well-being. Alongside this blog, we run a range of well-being initiatives, such as lunchtime walks, gardening, and many local initiatives by School and Institutes and Graduate Schools - all designed to support this improved engagement and a sense that each one of you is a part of the University community, as well as part of the all the communities around you in your research and personal lives.
If you’d like to learn more, you can read our reports here!
We’re keen for this to be an ongoing conversation – so if you’d like to talk with us more about any of the ideas raised here, please feel free to get in touch!