Supporting doctoral students at home and away.

Man Sitting on Ladder with UmbrellaAs we begin a new term the university welcomes doctoral researchers joining us to begin their PhD studies. It can be hard for anyone taking on such a challenge in a new environment, but those beginning their doctorate in January or April can miss out on some of the induction and support activities that take place in the autumn term. Barbara Crossouard (Education) has been thinking about ways to help those students to feel part of the research community.

Learning communities are important at all levels, but a flourishing community can be a life-saver when one is involved in independent, and often quite solitary, research. Particularly in a department that is as interdisciplinary as Education, Barbara argues that it is vital to ‘have spaces where people feel free to say “I have never encountered this… but how could it be relevant to my work?” because a lot of value comes from cross-fertilization of ideas’.

Initially, students don’t know each other and may be coming from different disciplinary as well as national and cultural backgrounds, so from their arrival, Barbara puts a lot of effort into making them ‘feel part of a critical social science doctoral community’ in which they also feel comfortable with coming forward with their own ideas for events and activities, such as setting up reading groups. However when one or two new students arrive in January or April they could easily feel rather isolated. Barbara addressed this last year by setting up an informal ‘buddying’ system where new arrivals are paired with existing students who can act as a peer contact to help them get to grips with the way things work and get them involved in what is going on.

We should not overlook the affective aspects of learning and as Barbara argues, although ‘we like to think of academia as an emotion-free environment’ there is ‘a huge personal investment in a doctorate’ or indeed any course of study. Spaces where that emotional aspect is recognised are important and we need to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to draw on that peer support structure.

The students that Barbara works with are more likely to be mature and come with a considerable amount of professional experience, but that also means that they are likely to have additional commitments and many of the participants on the International Doctor in Education are not on campus during normal term times. This is where online learning and community-building activities can be useful. With the support of ITS and others, Barbara has been using Adobe Connect to encourage these students’ participation in the School of Education and Social Work Open Seminar Series. The regular Monday evening seminars see invited speakers including faculty presenting on their research. A combination of this web conferencing software and a ceiling-mounted camera focused on the speaker allow students from across the globe to log in and actively participate. The technology is working well and can also be used to allow overseas speakers to present remotely to a Sussex audience. The sessions are well ‘attended’ with a recent seminar reaching 60 people in the room and another 15 online. It is not only students in other countries who benefit as the online seminars can also be very convenient for local students with caring or other professional responsibilities which mean they cannot be on campus at 5pm. The seminars are also recorded so no-one need ever miss one!

Increasingly, though, the doctorate is no longer carried on just within the department and wider connections are important too. In addition to research work in progress seminars during the year, the School of Education and Social Work organises an annual doctoral student conference that brings people together across the two departments and the Doctoral School works to enable researchers from all Schools to ‘feel fully integrated as members of the wider research community’ whether by getting together at professional development events, collaborating or attending seminars in the Research Hive or keeping in touch with the researcher community at Sussex through the Doctoral School blog, Facebook page or Twitter.

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