Building Community: What, Why, and How
As a starting postgraduate researcher (PGR), the most important relationship seems to be the one with your supervisor (and by extension, your second supervisor and review panel). In second place you might see the colleagues in your research group and others with whom you will collaborate. Thirdly, perhaps the support staff that will teach you and help you carry out your research. Though all that is very true and important, I’d advise you not to forget a vitally important group: your peers! I believe that building community with the other PGRs in your institute and across the university has multiple benefits, which I would like to share. This blog will also offer some tips and tricks on how to build a vibrant PGR community in your institute. The first reason to build community with your peers is to learn from each other. You may think that only the people senior to you can teach you things, but I’d argue that the opposite is true. PGRs in your institute are likely to have very different degrees, which means that we all start with different background knowledge. What is a new technique or approach for me, might be something that another PGR has already done during an internship or summer rotation project. Though post-docs and technicians are there to help you, inevitably they are busy at times, at which point you may more easily turn to another PGR for help. Even just brainstorming with them about your project may give you useful suggestions. And at times, an outsider’s perspective to judge whether your report/presentation/review makes sense might be exactly what you need. This is especially true of PGRs who have been around for longer and can help you to navigate your research, but also your institute, annual reviews, and other issues that might come up, simply because they have experienced it already.
The next reason is to benefit from mutual support. Nobody will understand that feeling of despair when you find out weeks of research turned out to be useless – except the other PGR that just went through the same thing! We are all in the same boat, and therefore we can all understand the frustrations and the demotivation, but also the highs and the addictive nature of research. Your peers can pick you up when you’re down, drag you out of the lab for a therapeutic sport or pub session when you’re working too much, and celebrate your successes when they come along.
Finally, peer communities are great for networking. It may seem like you always need to “network up” – connect with your seniors – in order for networking to be worthwhile. But think of the top dogs in your research area, where did they come from? In my field, many of the big labs are headed by people originating from the same set of labs. It seems strange to think now, but this might be you and the other PGRs in your institute one day! Similarly, many of you might not go on to do academic research, but imagine how useful it is for industry reps, sales persons, publishing editors, start-up entrepreneurs, government workers, etcetera, to know each other. No matter what industry you and the other PGRs will end up in – it will be useful to have a broad network across disciplines. So start now!
Hopefully you will have come to see some benefit to building community with your peers. But how to achieve this? I’ll give you a couple of tips from my own experience.
Start a PGR Forum
PGR Forum in my institute was started by a single student a couple years ago. It takes place once a month on Friday afternoon, where we have a talk by a PGR or an external speaker, followed by beer and pizza. This encompasses all three of the arguments I mentioned above: we learn something, we support each other by practicing how to give talks and discussing issues, and we network! Starting a PGR Forum needs a bit of money to cover travel expenses for external speakers and to provide some drinks and nibbles, but most institutes are happy to provide you with funding to do so. Ask the head of your department or the PGR Convenor for advice on how to achieve this.
You can even go a step further and develop a PGR Retreat, which is what we did this year. Forty of us went on a two-day trip to the Scottish Highlands, where we held scientific talks, poster sessions, and transferable skills workshops. Such an initiative involves a lot of work and money, so you will need to enthuse some of your peers to form a committee for the funding applications and organisation, but we all felt it was worth the effort in the end!
Introduce a Buddy System
My institute just started a Buddy system. First years flagged up that it was difficult to arrange things like moving to Glasgow and figuring out what is expected of them, which seems silly considering we all go through the same things upon starting our PhD! Now, first years are matched to third year PGRs, who will be available from the moment they accept their positions and offer help throughout the first year. This will hopefully make it easier for first years to handle the stress of moving their life to Glasgow, settle in, and integrate.
Develop a Communication System
Fact: we all get bombarded by e-mails and do not read most of them. Therefore, it is key to develop a platform where PGRs can exchange ideas without being a nuisance. In our institute, we opened up a Facebook Group. The PGR Student Representatives act as admins and approve the admission requests to make sure only PGRs from our institute have access. In the group, we share interesting articles, questions, funding and training opportunities, and the occasional social or party invite. We also have our own Google Drive folder, which is accessible for all. Here we are trying to write up a First Year Student Guide with relevant information for new students, as well as a Course Review Doc to rate which training courses are worthwhile going to. The PGR reps also hold an annual Student Satisfaction Survey using Google Forms to keep an eye on problems and issues we may be having.
Welcome New Students
The turnaround in academia is extremely fast: every year 25-30% of the students in our institutes graduate and are replaced. This means that the culture and attitude can change very quickly as well. It is vital to welcome new students and get them involved in the initiatives in your school to make sure these continue. In our institute, we hold a Welcome Night for First Years where we explain admin and procedures (such as annual review). This is followed by drinks and nibbles with all the ‘older’ students. One year we even had a pub quiz with over 40 people! Again, you will need some funding to pull this off, but if you include an ‘official’ part with an introduction to your institute, they will be likely to fund the evening.
These are just some initiatives that I have experience with, but of course there is a lot more you can do. Simply organising social activities can do the trick to get people together. Just suggest to all meet in a pub some evening, or go for a quiz, or movie, or sports activity. Chances are you will all end up talking about your research and issues anyway! Do you have other suggestions to build community, or is your institute pioneering some new initiatives? Maybe you would like some more help starting up one of these? Get in touch via the comments or Twitter (@UofG_PGRblog) and we’ll try to help out. Happy community building!