Creating community among PhD students to help reduce isolation and play a positive role in supporting mental health

Posted 14/06/2023 by 9a4fa0b2-a68f-44ca-95b6-a2b900c1471a

Dr Alina Congreve asks: what approaches to intentionally support and maintain PhD community are most effective?

Alina Congreve

Dr Alina Congreve has worked as an academic for 15 years at a number of universities including LSE, Reading and Hertfordshire. She has been involved in the design and delivery of postgraduate programmes in sustainability and urban planning. She worked for the EU funded innovation agency Climate KIC from Sept 2016-June 2019, and carried out a study on PhD programmes.

One important way to cope with unexpected challenges is to have a good social support network. PhD students often move to a new city/country for a university with a good academic fit and funding, resulting in being geographically separated from family and friends. The unmet need for interaction with peers among PhD students is demonstrated by the vibrancy of the forum #PhDchat which sees 100s of posts each week offering practical, social and emotional support to PhD students and recent graduates.

Creating a community cohort is not so easy when students are geographically dispersed. One interesting example is the Scottish Graduate School of Social Sciences, a consortium of 16 Universities. Around 200 students come together at a summer school, choosing from 40 workshops run over three days. After the summer school, funds are available for student-led workshops and training, with travel bursaries for participants.

Many UCL PhD students researching medicine are working in practice and living in different countries and have an online forum facilitated by UCL staff that encourages them to share their experiences, applying research to real life situations and asking peers for advice. The short articles that PhD students write and requests for advice are compelling and other students feel motivated to contribute to the discussions.

Chevening, who support about 1,700 postgraduate scholarships of mainly taught postgraduates, also have a well-functioning online community. It has a Facebook page and a LinkedIn group which are student-led but are moderated, and staff are on hand to intervene from time to time when intellectual debates become a little too heated. Using established social media platforms has been important to get widespread engagement. Chevening staff also post and share good news stories, helping cement the idea this is a vibrant community that students would want to be part of – a Chevener from 10 years ago recently became the president of Costa Rica.   

Cumberland Lodge

Cumberland Lodge

Cumberland Lodge in Berkshire is an educational charity and a popular choice for many universities to hold their staff/research student away weekends. For many years it has hosted the ‘Life Beyond PhD’ residential workshop. It has broadened out, having initially focussing on CV writing and job interview techniques, recognising that many universities are currently providing this type of training. Now it covers skills including: working collaboratively; communicating with a non-expert audience; public engagement; and grant writing. Careers support remains, but within a wider framework of thinking positively about possible career choices. The workshop as a whole aims to re-energise doctoral students and to get them thinking about their research in new ways. It celebrates research culture in the UK and aims to combat feelings of isolation among doctoral students. Alongside career development it gives them a sense of feeling of part of an academic community. There are challenges in creating community when the external environment is so competitive, but trust within a community can be built through well-facilitated face-to-face interaction.

A number of funders set requirements for PhD students they support to attend additional activities, but sometimes these activities can be viewed negatively by participants. For most PhD students, their overriding priority is to complete their thesis and then publish in recognised journals. ‘Extracurricular’ activities promoted by funders need to be weighed against other time commitments that could be regarded as more beneficial. PhD students are time constrained so shorter, focused events are likely to prove more popular, with higher levels of engagement.

Creating and supporting community raises questions of resources and making a case for funding. Organisations such as Chevening and Cumberland Lodge are investing in the future. These organistions recognise that today’s PhD student may in 10 years time be a leader in academia, work for an NGO or perhaps be a future prime minster!