PhD students, scholars who are on research-only contracts and lecturers taking research leave can suffer feelings of isolation. This article explores ways of overcoming this problem.
Researchers suffer feelings of isolation because of the nature of their work. Very often they are the sole expert in a particular field and there are very few other people with whom they can discuss their work. Even with supportive friends and family, this can lead to feelings of isolation. Some scholars love the feeling of autonomy this gives, while others would rather work in teams or undertake tasks which provide shared experience with others. Also you might be alone working in archives, libraries (maybe a long way from home) or laboratories, suffering physical isolation.
The best way to overcome these feelings is to engage with other scholars in your field of study. Even though there might not be anyone close to you in the same library or university working in your area, there will be people across the world, and technology now allows connections to be made.
Using social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In and Academia.edu, scholars can combat isolation by making connections with other like-minded individuals. You might make an individual friendship enabling you to discuss your work in some depth, or simply find rewarding the knowledge that others are working in the same areas, engaging in group discussions. Another way is by following and commenting on others’ blogs, or even starting your own blog.
In many fields there are large electronic communities of scholars coming together to ask questions, air concerns and share knowledge. For example, in the Humanities, one such network is H-net (www.h-net.org). This website advertises funding opportunities, websites, conferences and calls for papers as well as providing numerous topic-based email discussion lists to sign up to. Not only does this provide a forum to ask your own questions, but also ties you into a community of like-minded scholars.
Getting out there – face to face networking:
If you are working in a physically isolated environment, leaving your archive or laboratory in order to meet others is a key way of avoiding isolation. Conference attendance is an important way of doing this. If you are doing a PhD or have a research contract at a university, there should be some money available for you to attend conferences (although this is more likely if you are actually giving a paper yourself).
Many people find conferencing a challenge because they dislike engaging in small talk with strangers. This is often the case for isolated researchers who are not used to discussing their work with others on a regular basis. However, if you force yourself to go to conferences and to talk to others while you are there, you will find that this gets easier with practice. And it can be very rewarding to realise that others have the same interests and concerns as you.
What does your university offer?
Finally, and most obviously, get involved in all the activities that your university offers researchers and PhD students. There will probably be regular seminars for staff and postgraduate students, perhaps also skills workshops. If you are unsure what might be relevant for you, talk to your supervisor or line manager. It can be difficult to take advantage of these opportunities if you live a long way from the university at which you are based, but by making an effort to feel part of the community, your research job or PhD will feel much more rewarding.