Wednesday 17 August 2016

The importance of peer support during your PhD

Leading on from his previous post, Andy discusses how peer support can be vital for the well-being of PhD students

-Andy Rowe

The introduction of the PhD journey in my previous blog post described the difficult process of managing a PhD. It detailed how pastoral and mental health support is something which is hardly spoken about (I term this a “non-academic” issue) and consequently little is known about it. However, it is a huge issue which can be faced by many an academics at some point in their career. This blog illustrates how important peer support is not only for undergraduate students, but also PhD students; many institutions struggle to adequately provide a means to enable peer support. This is where I, briefly, sing the praises of what we do at Loughborough University. 

I have co-created and currently co-lead a social and support network at Loughborough University (Click here for our twitter account) which enables students from across the University to come every Tuesday lunchtime and socialise with others whom they would not usually engage with. It is incredibly informal and we want people to put their work to one side for an hour and receive support from those who are also going through the same process. We politely request for people not to come and talk about their work, as it is a chance to get away from that and there’s more to life than the PhD! It also shows that as PhD students we are not on our own in what we think and what issues we are facing. We also provide signposting to other services which may be able to help with more specialised issues. We have cake, tea, coffee and a buffet lunch every so often and support students, where possible, to organise certain University-wide events to get the PhD community together. It has become incredibly popular and if only it could be a model for more institutions across the UK.  

More generally what this shows is that supportive peers are incredibly important and they can make or break your PhD journey. It forms a key facet in your PhD experience along with family, friends and supervisors. I’m fortunate as through the network I have met some fantastic people who I would not have met otherwise. However, every department in each institution is different as more often than not you only really associate with others in your own department. From experience, different means of working can have an impact on the development of peer friendship networks. For example there are numerous students at institutions across the country who work in a hot-desk, open plan, office environment and despite being adopted to help people communicate with one another, if people do not want to interact, regardless of the type of work space, they simply will not. In my experience, open plan working does not solve isolation and peer support issues. It can be difficult to formulate friendships as students can become frustrated with this way of working and they consequently work elsewhere in the office where there is a free desk. Whilst this way of working may actually enable people to speak to larger volumes of others, the development of really close friendship support networks can be limited. I am not saying people do not support each other, but students can feel like a “rabbit in headlights” at the sheer number of people working in the same space. 

Secondly, I use my close friend who has just completed his PhD as a further example. He worked in an office environment which he shared with two others and was on the same corridor as other PhD students in the same cohort. His transition into PhD life was easier for him as he developed a close friendship with those in his office because he saw them every day in the same space. This then transcended into meeting the other students at morning and afternoon communal coffee breaks.  

It is also here where I should importantly mention those who work from home; like me. We are forgotten about, there is no doubt about that, and there are different reasons as to why we choose to work from home. But, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, we should not cut ourselves off from the institution – training sessions, which support the RDF (Research Development Framework), provide a huge opportunity to meet others. This is how I met some of my fellow PhD friends. In this situation I would strike up a conversation (don’t be shy!) with them and after the session I would take their email address and drop them an email suggesting meeting for coffee – you would be very surprised of the amount of PhD students who are glad of the chance to converse and socialise informally! 

Overall, as a PhD student, your working environment can have a huge impact on the development of peer support networks. These people are going through the same process as you and whilst each PhD journey is different, supportive peers should be able to understand and offer an empathetic ear. As well as the reputation of the department, the University work space should be a major consideration in your decision to apply there. After all, different means of working have both their advantages and disadvantages, but you have to choose what you feel will be right and comfortable for you as ultimately you could be spending several years in that space.  

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