The last few months, I have reflected a lot on the importance of peer support – so important throughout my PhD journey, but also not receiving enough attention in academia. Of course, formal support, supervisor and mentoring relationships are essential and will greatly affect both the productivity and the well-being of graduate students and junior scholars. PhD supervisors are the ones who will, generally, read your work most often and most closely, who will accompany your journey from start to finish line, and who will ideally provide support and advice throughout. I myself had three wonderful supervisors, and their encouragement and expertise have had a tremendous impact on the quality of my work and on my self-confidence as a scholar (within the space that imposter syndrome allows). But not all PhD student-supervisor relationships are built on mutual trust, sometimes the hierarchies involved become a challenge, and even great supervisors cannot cover all the bases. It is therefore important, for your PhD research, for your induction into academia generally and for your overall wellbeing, to also establish networks and connections with your peers.
This is my attempt to describe my own experiences, in the hope that they may be useful for other junior scholars, and in particular for new graduate students. Obviously, this is a subjective piece, from the perspective of a white female political scientist based in Scandinavia, working on conflict and violence, and an archetypal introvert.
Your own department
Occasionally, you hear horror stories of fierce competition, hostility or even sabotage among graduate cohorts, especially at elite institutions. I like to think that these are the exception rather than the rule, and that most of us start out in PhD programs based on mutual respect and a shared thirst for knowledge. Of course, some amount of competition is inbuilt in academia: funding opportunities and academic jobs are finite. Nonetheless, academia is a much more pleasant and productive place if we co-exist with our peers in an atmosphere of generosity and mutual support. My first piece of advice is therefore to aim for a collaborative and supportive spirit.
I would consider all the members of my former PhD cohort my friends. The mutual experience of the PhD journey and in particular the one year of coursework gave us the opportunity to get to know each other and our research projects. Whenever one of us ran into a methodological problem, wanted to discuss an idea or faced some other challenge, the others stepped up, sometimes one-on-one, other times in a group. From the very beginning of the program, we gave each other drafts of our work to read for feedback. Over time, we formalized this process and established a semi-formal PhD research workshop encompassing all PhD cohorts, where one or two people could present work at any stage in the process and seek the feedback of the group. This is not only a good way to receive input in a more laid-back format than a formal conference, it is also a great opportunity for everyone to practice giving and receiving feedback. At other places, I have heard of informal writing groups, where people hold each other to deadlines and provide feedback. These can be useful to give structure to your research process, maintain productivity and strengthen a sense of community. But not everything has to be, or should be, about work: it was beneficial for my overall state of mind to also socialize with my colleagues and talk about our lives outside academia.
Outside your department
While collegial relations with your cohort and other researchers in your department are important for a pleasant day-to-work work environment, it can also be extremely valuable to maintain networks beyond your department.
I was in the fortunate position throughout my PhD program to be a member of the Research School on Peace and Conflict. Apart from granting access to courses and research symposia, this membership also facilitated establishing professional and personal connections with dozens of PhD students from different disciplines and universities all over Europe and beyond. As the only person in my department working on conflict and violence, belonging to a network of junior conflict and violence researchers was an invaluable asset. I had many interesting, honest and personal conversations about the challenges of researching conflict and violence, and doing research in a context affected by armed conflict that would otherwise not have been possible. These conversations have eased my anxiety about my own fieldwork, for which I – in the absence of any formal training – never felt fully prepared.
Several formalized and well-organized research schools exist in Europe, but you can also take a proactive role in launching your own networks or groups. With a colleague from Norway and one from the UK, I have e.g. co-founded the Interdisciplinary Peace and Conflict Research Network to ensure that a semi-formal forum for continued exchange exists for alumni of the Research School. Another way to establish connections and expand one’s network in a more formal way is, time and resources permitting, to be a guest researcher at another institution, whether in the context of a collaborative project or without. During two months at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, I was inter alia able to connect with junior scholars who were able to shed light on doing fieldwork in Colombia and researching civilian agency during war.
Among the academic forums for networking, conferences are probably the most common and popular, despite their many drawbacks including often exorbitant fees, their environmental impact, and the various exclusions based on socio-economic status or citizenship that they magnify. Academic conferences come in many shapes and sizes. Mega-conferences like ISA or APSA can be intimidating for first-time (or even second-time, third-time … n-time) participants due to the sheer number of sections, panels and participants. More than once I have attended panels and recognized people whose work I admire, but I was too shy to approach them or felt I lacked the necessary mental bandwidth to talk to them in an intelligent manner at that precise moment. Generally, I use mega-conferences primarily to reconnect with people I already know rather than establishing new contacts, and my introvert brain seeks the solitude of my hotel room in between sessions or at the end of each conference day.
Socializing with “new” people or having more in-depth discussions about research and methods is – for me – much easier at smaller or more specialized conferences, such as the Conflict Research Society conference or the Swiss Political Science Association conference that I attended for the first time earlier this year. These are also usually shorter and cheaper to attend. I have established lasting connections with other junior scholars at such conferences. For example, with one colleague I met at a CRS conference in the early stages of my PhD I have had a few virtual check-in sessions on Skype during the corona pandemic. A good alternative to the more intimate networking opportunities that smaller conferences offer are pre-formed sections or panels at the bigger conferences, which are often accompanied by a joint dinner or small reception. These also give the necessary and dreaded (by many) small talk a bit more structure, as mutual research interests are a given and you don’t have to exert as much energy casting around for conversation topics after an exhausting day of conferencing. Several discussions about future collaborations have resulted from such after-session socializing events at conferences.
A friend of a friend…
Sometimes you have questions about a certain method, about the country you are planning to travel to for fieldwork or about how to conduct research on sensitive topics that nobody in your immediate network can shed light on. In such cases, it has been very helpful for me to leverage the networks of my colleagues and friends. Sometimes, I would approach people I knew to be working on similar issues and ask if they have any advice, and they would put me in touch with their colleagues. Other times, and this was the more frequent route, I would just have a casual chat with someone in the department or outside about my work, and they would mention someone they knew who has worked in Colombia, and the contact was established this way. Or I would receive an email from a colleague or friend introducing me to someone with similar research interests, saying “You guys should talk!” On rare occasions, I have even contacted people completely out of the blue and asked them for advice, because I had come across their work. I must say here that in each and every one of these instances, the researchers in question have been very generous with their time and extremely helpful.
While away on fieldwork, I similarly met other junior researchers through mutual contacts and social media. Their companionship and insight has made my time in Colombia that much more pleasant and productive, as I have already discussed elsewhere. In fact, fieldwork was the time when I needed and appreciated conversations with other scholars most because it helped overcome feelings of isolation and being overwhelmed. In sum: it is quite beneficial to use existing contacts, expand your networks and to not be shy asking for help. Most people will be happy to share their insights – and they may also benefit from yours in return.
Social media/ Twitter
Social media, and especially Twitter, polarizes, in more ways than one. Some people love it, others hate it with a passion. Adjectives I have heard used to describe Twitter are horrible, hostile and toxic. This has not been my experience at all; my academic Twitter is kind and supportive. Clearly, your experience depends on the bubble you happen to be in. And that’s the irony: one of the major drawbacks of social media generally, that it creates an echo chamber of sorts, can be an advantage for academic networking. You tend to follow like-minded researchers (and practitioners), who follow you back, you “meet” their followers and thus slowly expand your pertinent and overwhelmingly supportive academic Twitter network.
Of course, Twitter can be a major time drain. If prone to procrastination or on days when there are a lot of academic debates or intense meme activities going on, you can waste hours. On the other hand, one of social media’s greatest advantages is that it can be the introvert’s best friend. For me, in-person conversations can be exhausting, especially in the context of (big) conferences, where you might otherwise share insights from your work. Writing has always come more easily to me (and luckily Twitter forces you to keep your messages to the point and digestible), with the result that my online persona is more exuberant than I am in person.
My network on Twitter has been instrumental to 1) disseminating my research, 2) identifying new literature, learning about other methods etc., 3) getting emotional support when the going gets tough, 4) making connections that subsequently moved offline, 5) co-authoring resulting directly from social media connections, 6) learning about funding opportunities, jobs etc. It helps, of course, that many academic institutions and journals are also on social media these days, and they will post about new publications. But unless you are a pretty well-established scholar already or you are researching an absolutely, super hot topic, this alone will usually not reach a very large audience. But if you have a network of substantively and methodologically proximate scholars, they will share the news of your recent publications or your ongoing work.
These same networks will also provide you with information about new publications or datasets relevant to your research, and point you towards resources when you are stuck. But one of my favorite aspects of academic Twitter is that it humanizes us as researchers (maybe sometimes a bit more than we would like). Putting the face of a real person, with real passions, worries and challenges, to that amazing article you read reminds you of the fact that we are in this together and that nobody is perfect. When I feel down after a manuscript rejection, I can count on my Twitter bubble to send words of encouragement. When I have an accomplishment to announce, my bubble will celebrate with me and help keep imposter syndrome at bay. And I, of course, reciprocate.
Over the course of the years, I have been in the very fortunate position to meet in person some of the scholars with whom I had been in frequent exchanges online. These are excellent stepping stones for future collaborations, and I am always happy when one of my Twitter contacts gets in touch ahead of a conference to set up a meeting. Most recently, a Twitter conversation with other junior scholars I have never met has even outright resulted in a fun collaboration on fieldwork challenges and preparation. Finally, the support provided by my Twitter network while I was on the job market took even me by surprise. Several scholars – including some I had never interacted with at all – contacted me with job opportunities and funding schemes for postdoc projects, and even provided input in the application process. I am more grateful for this support and generosity than I can put into words. I try to follow their example and share information about academic jobs and funding opportunities, for which Twitter is an excellent forum. Vain as it may sometimes feel to be an active scholar on Twitter, it can pay off.
Academia can be a harsh and isolating environment, and the importance of peer support simply cannot be overstated. Try to surround yourself with people who will have your back, who can enrich your PhD and research experience, and who are overall positive forces in your life. Your PhD cohort can be your rock and anchor in the department, but also venture outside your department, leverage your networks, be open to networking online and offline, reach out and talk to people (yes, also as an introvert). Naturally, networking is not a one-way street. When you think two of your contacts should meet, in person or virtually, put them in touch. When someone approaches you with a question, take the time to give it some thought and respond. After I had returned from fieldwork and since I completed my PhD, I have been approached by others with questions about PhD life and fieldwork, and I seek to be as generous and helpful as other people have been to me.
Thank you to every single person in my academic network, and for your collegiality, friendship and support.