Essay on the importance of virtual communities to grad students
The work life of an academic can be solitary. When I started my graduate training, I understood that research and writing would be isolating, but I never considered that while I love writing, I crave the company of other people in my work. As a graduate student and early career scholar, I have found a few colleagues that enjoy co-working, that is, writing in the same space. We congregate in coffee shops or at a local library, anywhere we find free wifi and caffeine to keep us focused. Co-working creates a shared sense of community around our work. We experiment with ideas and arguments or simply share our fears and frustrations around our research and writing. It’s the latter that I find the most reassuring in my professional life. Many of my graduate program colleagues have moved away and my local colleagues and I do not share the same schedules. Without physical co-working, I have opted for finding an e-community.
E-communities take you outside of your institution and even outside of your field, connecting you to other scholars or professionals doing similar work. E-communities exist, as one might expect, in many different forms. There are social media sites like Twitter and Facebook where individuals can share their personal and professional lives. There are professional networking sites like LinkedIn and Academia.edu focused on promoting professional attributes and accomplishments. And there are online forums like Phinished or PhdForum that provide greater anonymity for those who opt to participate without their names between individuals seeking support in their work. There is a veil across many professional issues (like what’s required for your tenure packet) or communication (like what do I write in that letter to the editor of a journal). And sometimes, it feels satisfying to connect with other people who understand the pressures and challenges of your line of work. In a field with so few written expectations, finding colleagues who support you and who help you become a better teacher, scholar and professional is essential.
How you engage with these communities depends on your comfort with your public presence. In many of the forums, for instance, the user controls visibility, anonymity, the content, and the reach of their individual information and subsequent network. Twitter users can protect their tweets or make them widely available. LinkedIn users can make their professional information searchable or protected as well. Forum users can choose to remain anonymous and still engage with other colleagues from around the world.
Engaging with others in a virtual sense is a delicate matter. Written text is not the same as face-to-face conversation, and once I put it into the universe, I cannot control how it will be received. I learned this with my last career advice column. I am active on Twitter, looking to build support and encouragement from other graduate students and early career scholars around the country and overseas. I follow hashtags like #phdchat, #phdforum and #socphd and I give encouragement to others whenever I can. Wouldn’t you know, when I tweet about deadlines, research frustrations or successes, the encouragement flows right back to me!
I am not suggesting that professional networks should only exist in virtual form. Having a local community of support is important for success at your institution. No matter what your role is in the institution, it is important to feel supported there. I am, however, proposing that those looking for a sounding board and support outside their brick and mortar institution should consider building an e-community. Finding other early career scholars through Twitter, I have stretched my network outside of my institution and my chosen field of study, allowing me to learn of others’ challenges and successes in their work. When I find myself working solo and craving that sense of community, I reach out to my e-community.
Technological applications make virtual collaboration happen nearly seamlessly, and I am waiting for the opportunity to establish virtual connections that lead to scholarly collaborations. As a sociologist, I understand the merits of networks and the strength of weak ties. Networks are important for transmitting information but they are also very important for finding support, ideas, mentorship and even friendship. In a field like higher education, it is easy to get pulled into the vacuum of your own institution and cut yourself off from other places. E-collaborations may be the workspace of the future.