The process of completing a PhD can make research seem like an independent endeavor, but while some of your research may be sole-authored, the dissertation is not representative of what research should and can be. Being a PhD shouldn’t be isolating or lonely. We all need camaraderie, support, feedback, and encouragement along the way. So one of the most important things to do during graduate school is to find your people. Not only will this be beneficial while you’re in graduate school, but it is incredibly valuable beyond as you leave the bubble of your home institution and venture somewhere new. I’ve found it particularly helpful to establish accountability buddies, writing groups, and collaborators throughout both graduate school and beyond.
As you’re pushing forward with your work, it’s incredibly helpful to talk to others about what’s working and what isn’t. Discussing problems and bouncing ideas off of others inevitably leads to a solution or maybe several solutions to try in any issue from an unresponsive advisor to a snag in access to data to challenges in balancing research and teaching. What an accountability buddy system looks like varies, but often involves sharing your goals and checking in on your successes and slowdowns towards achieving them. My longstanding accountability buddy and I talk once a week to check in on what we’re working on and how it’s going. But other groups exchange written goals and updates instead. During graduate school, your goals might include plans for programmatic requirements such as qualifying exams, in addition to your research. After graduate school, your goals will continue to include research, but also other tasks associated with your job whether that be teaching, service, mentoring, training, or organizing.
It’s important to pick people for this who you are willing to be vulnerable around and whom you trust, which means it might take a little time to identify these people in your PhD network. You also want to choose people who are supportive and encouraging. That frenemy from your cohort who is judgmental is probably not the best pick here. When the shit hits the fan and you’re feeling down and disappointed, you should feel comfortable disclosing to your accountability buddies and they should be supportive and encouraging as you deal with that challenge.
Where accountability groups can be helpful across research, teaching, service, and life, writing groups are specifically for pushing your research forward. There are two common formats for writing groups. The first is a co-working model, which is about coming together in a physical or virtual space to work. There’s usually a time within each meeting for socializing, but the bulk of the time co-working is spent working, which can give you accountability for focusing on your work and not being distracted by email, Twitter, etc. The second model is a space to get feedback on your writing in just about any form including your prospectus, fellowship applications, job market materials, and draft articles and chapters. To me, the former is optional and the latter is necessary. Feedback is the way our writing gets stronger whether in summary statements about how our research contributes or in manuscripts documenting our findings. Having others read your work can help resolve problems you’re struggling through and alert you to problems you didn’t even know you had like using too much jargon.
Similar to the accountability buddies, you want to include people you trust to share your works-in-progress with including everything from a very rough first draft to a polished almost done manuscript. You also want people who will give honest, direct, and helpful feedback. This is a space where you might be willing to deal with your judgmental cohortmate who could provide useful feedback and critique (if you can stand their tone). A good way to suss out a good writing group member is to watch interactions in spaces like courses and conference presentations. You want someone who is kind and helpful, but clear and direct. You could also ask someone to read something you wrote and see what their feedback style is like. It’s a lot easier to vet someone before you’ve asked them to join a group then to deal with someone who is harsh, passive, or just uninvested in your group. Finally, it’s helpful to set parameters about what feedback looks like when you’re starting a group to make sure the group is providing supportive, constructive criticism and not shredding members’ work. From my observations, groups that include the latter are not likely to last.
Finally, some of your relationships will evolve into collaborators on research, teaching, service, or mentoring projects. Despite what your experience might have been (or be) in graduate school, life post-graduate school is full of team work both inside and outside the academy. You’ll work with others on research projects, co-teaching courses, committees for service, co-leading teams, and co-mentoring students and supervisees.
These will be people you trust to not take credit for your work and carry their weight on the project. For research collaborators, they’re also likely to be people who share similar research interests and have complementary methodological skills.
Where to Find Your Community
There are so few people who (a) pursue PhDs (b) in your discipline and (c) have research and personal interests in common that building this network can sometimes feel hard to do. It’s challenging, but also necessary.
Graduate school is the obvious place to start your search for supportive work colleagues, co-authors, and friends. Remember that while you’re randomly thrown into a cohort, you have access to the graduate students who come before and after you, including alumni. Go to receptions in the department and for your department at conferences, ask for introductions to the alumni that faculty reference, and email people you’ve heard about to ask to meet.
Meeting people beyond your program is often incredibly important for creating community, particularly for people who are underrepresented or working in subfields with less community in their departments. Look for conference activities such as receptions for underrepresented minorities or events sponsored by your subfield interests. You might also find annual or one off events that bring together like minded scholars or scholars from similar backgrounds.
Wherever you find one of your people, don’t hesitate to tell them “I’d love to stay in touch.” Nine times out of ten, they’re going to say sure. We’re all searching for community, even those of us who’ve been around a little bit longer.