Studying for a PhD can be a lonely proposition. Whether you have come straight into postgraduate study after your BA or MA via a studentship, or are returning to higher education part-time in the middle of your career, it’s hard to find and nurture a student peer group alongside classes, lab work, individual study and, often, the additional pressures of work and family obligations.
However, being part of intellectual and career-oriented networks may be as important to your post-PhD future as your degree work itself. These relationships can determine whether your name comes up when colleagues are talking about who should be contacted about a new post or project, for example.
Strong peer networks also contribute to improved scholarship, because they provide a forum for discussing and critiquing each others’ work, methodology, sources, and developments in our field. They can also help in less tangible ways: feeling like part of a supportive group can lead to lower stress and fewer problems, which in turn increases the chance that you will compete your doctorate.
How to get started.
First, check with faculty and your students union to see if they know of existing networks. At some universities there are longstanding organisations for postgrads: for example, the Oxford Classics Network brings together postgrads by publishing student profiles (helpful for finding others you might want to meet up with to discuss similar work), holding events, and publicising calls for papers, conferences and so on.
If no group exists, or if you find the existing group doesn’t meet your needs, it’s not difficult to start your own. Postgrads who attend taught sessions, such as research methods modules, have easy access to peers. See if you can come to class a bit early or stay a little later, and broach the subject of forming a group for networking, study sessions, and/or social events.
If your campus time consists mainly of one-to-one tutorials with your supervisors, solitary lab work, or individual study, a poster is a good way to attract others. You could also try contacting all postgrads via email or shared resources like WebCT—you may need help from a member of staff to do this.
These days the easiest way to create a virtual group is with tools like Facebook or LinkedIn. This is a good start, but connections via social networks are less robust: participants may not even recognise each other when they pass in the library. Besides, there are many postgrads who have no interest in social networking, or would prefer to keep it apart from their studies or professional life. The most effective networks are always those that bring people together in real life.
If you don’t find interested people where you study, see if there is a national network for postgrads run by a key association in your field. The Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association (MeCCSA), for example, has a very active postgrad network for student members.
Sometimes students can feel particularly isolated even amongst their peers, sidelined due to gender, age or ethnicity. Few UK universities are large enough for specialist postgraduate groups, but some do exist. There are also national postgrad networks that can provide models, advice, support and networking (see Resources, below).
Black British Academics: http://blackbritishacademics.co.uk/join-us/phd-network
British Federation of Women Graduates: http://bfwg.org.uk/bfwg/
Elevation Networks: http://www.elevationnetworks.org/
NUS postgrad forum and campaigns: http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/campaigns/postgrad/
SETwomen (Science, Technology and Engineering): http://www.setwomen.co.uk/