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GRADUATE MATTERS

Finding your community in graduate school

You will need people, both inside and outside of the academy, to help you be successful and keep you grounded.

By DANIELLE BARKLEY | APR 10 2018

At some point, graduate school will be tough. And when the going gets tough, the wise lean on each other. This message may or may not be widely shared within academic institutions. There is, after all, a long tradition of seeing scholarly work as a solitary endeavor. Autonomy and self-direction are some of the greatest rewards of pursuing research, but they may also lead graduate students and other junior scholars to the false impression that success means going it alone.

In fact, the opposite is true. Strong networks are key to success during and after graduate school. You will need people to celebrate with when you pass your comps or defend your dissertation proposal, and you will need people to say encouraging things when your conference proposal is rejected or your experiment fails for what feels like the millionth time. You will just need people, period.

That said, two particular types of community stand out for helping individuals thrive during graduate school. The first are those who can share the experience because they’re also pursuing graduate studies, or have done so in the past. These are individuals who care as much about a (possibly obscure) topic as you do. They can pick up your references; they laugh at your highly specific jokes. These people will make all the difference when you need to talk to someone who just gets it.

On the other hand, there are those who help you step outside of that experience by keeping you connected to other perspectives. They may not know what PI stands for, but this community (usually your friends and family) outside of academia have a wealth of knowledge about other work environments, and what kinds of professional norms might be modelled there. This knowledge is incredibly rich and useful. By listening to the questions they ask you about graduate school, you’ll have an opportunity to become more self-reflective about practices and assumptions you might otherwise take for granted.

Want these people in your life? Here are some thoughts on where and how to find them.

Your community within the university

  • Don’t look at them as competitors. Whether you enter your program as one of six or 66 students, your graduate cohort is one of the easiest places to build connections. You’ll likely move through most of the program at a similar pace, so your milestones and progress will readily align with each other’s. While it might be tempting to see fellow students as yardsticks for measuring your own progress, try to focus on solidarity rather than comparison.
  • Welcome the wisdom of upper-year students. Graduate students who are further ahead in the program offer the value of hindsight. Learning from their experiences can save you huge amounts of time and effort, so don’t be shy to seek out advanced students and ask them about what they’ve learned, and what they wish someone had told them.
  • Faculty members: think outside of your committee/specialization. Your supervisor, your committee members, and folks working in your subfield will likely already play an integral role in your graduate career. But what about faculty members who work in your department, but study different areas? Or possibly someone from an adjacent department? For example, if you’re a literary scholar specializing in a particular period, it might be beneficial to connect with historians who study the same time period.

Your community outside the university

  • Maintain ties. Even with all the tasks and responsibilities you will juggle as a graduate student, try not to lose touch with friends, family, and former colleagues. They will often be the ones to keep you rooted and in touch with aspects of your identity that can otherwise slip out of focus. As Jennifer Romolini writes in her excellent book about building professional identities, “Ground yourself so you don’t crave constant validation, so that every accomplishment or positive reinforcement, every negative comment or rejection, doesn’t redefine who you are. Call your grandma. Do something kind. Think about someone else for a while.”
  • Nurture a multidimensional identity. When I suggest graduate students consider including hobbies and interests on a resumé, I sometimes get blank looks. The intense pace and workload of most graduate programs can make it hard to carve out time for other activities, but pursuing outside interests serves many purposes. If they’re social, they may come with a built-in community (especially useful if you’ve relocated to a new place). Even if they’re not, they give you something to talk about other than your research, and that can go a long way when meeting people outside of the academy.
  • Think digital. Whatever your social media platform of choice, it can be a great way to join conversations and foster community. Just be mindful that this content can readily be viewed, especially by supervisors and faculty, prospective employers, or students you may teach.
ABOUT DANIELLE BARKLEY
Danielle Barkley
Danielle Barkley completed her PhD at McGill University, and now works as a career educator and adviser for graduate students at the University of British Columbia.
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  1. Mary Frances Ellison / April 11, 2018 at 16:30

    Another addition to “your community within the university” – the graduate staff members in your department. They will have seen a number of cohorts through your graduate program – from admission to dissertation defense – and have lots of wisdom to share about successfully completing a PhD. For instance: on my office door, which is covered with humourous sayings/cartoons/words of wisdom,is the following adage – “The best dissertation is a COMPLETED dissertation”. I would advise graduate students to seek these folks out; they can be an amazing resource!

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