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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Combating Isolation Through Peer Writing Groups

The case for engaging with others to boost scholarly productivity.

February 15, 2018

Deidra is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher Education at the University of Mississippi. You can find her on Twitter at @DeidraJackson11.

Publish or perish. Sink or swim. Do or die.

Though many early and seasoned academic researchers are well-acquainted with the idioms that refer to the unrelenting pre-tenure pursuit of published scholarship, the terms are rather ominous. Their connotations are pure killjoys. Want a tenure-track teaching position in a prominent research institution? Prepare to submit to some psychological warfare, not to mention a several years-long physical endurance test, a marathon (hopefully!) leading to an eventual finish.

At one time, the prestige of one’s master’s degree and the mere potential to publish was enough for prospective PhDs to gain entry into high-status doctoral programs; now, it is expected that those seeking to join the same ranks will bring with them several examples of rigorous scholarship published in respected academic journals.

When many of us enthusiastically declared our intent to pursue doctorates, we perhaps faced reactions from at least two crowds in our camp: one that relentlessly cheered us on and another that made choking gestures in our direction. It’s long been part of pop culture lore that higher education academics often suffer in silence as sequestered creatures, who must publish, publish, publish their original research to earn respect inside the ivory tower.

As GradHackers and others have discussed here, here, and here, the grad student research life while rewarding, also can be isolating and emotionally stressful. One empirically-tested way for grad student researchers to boost their scholarly productivity is to join or form a peer writing group, where members can find space and time in which to write and/or discuss their research. Touted less strenuously are the ample research studies, such as this one and this one, that show how belonging to such groups can counteract feelings of isolation. If effective, its members hail from that crowd of cohorts, who always are eager to exchange feedback and lend support.

After critiquing student research on the subject, one faculty member, I was told, called writing groups a waste of time. Despite empirical quantitative and qualitative studies to the contrary, the professor is not alone in dismissing the merits of such collaborations. Some academics still firmly believe in what University of North Carolina law professor Eric L. Muller referred to as the “macho spirit in the traditional scholarly enterprise” when it comes to the “celebration of solitude,” centered around academic writing.

There’s nothing magical about peer writing groups. And they don’t have to employ tech (but they can). However, when writing groups are utilized efficiently, they can yield remarkable results, two words we all like to hear when referring to our research outcomes. As a graduate research assistant, my institutional work has led me to facilitate several discipline-focused and multidisciplinary writing groups.

If you’ve never considered peer writing groups as a social salve, here are some features to convince you how it can be:


Translation: You are not alone in your struggle. Knowing that you’re part of a team, whose members, like you, are in it for the long, difficult haul can be reassuring. GradHacker Kelly Hanson wrote an article detailing how best to engage in the graduate research and writing slog through what she calls do-it-yourself writing groups that enable us to be around people engrossed in similar work for support, commiseration, and problem-solving.


No one is saying grad students are too fragile to engage in demanding academic research, but there are times when stinging critiques from professors and mentors, rejections from grant and fellowship committees, wonky experimental research data, etc., etc., etc., can tear you down. The piling on is real. You and your writing group team, often composed of peers who’ve been there, can build each other back up.


Emotionally speaking, wherever you and your crew gather for writing group sessions are judgment-free zones. After you’ve taken stock of those letdowns, there’s often something humorous and light-hearted to glean from them. Sometimes sharing your failures with supportive people in safe spaces can be cathartic.  


Your peers are conducting amazing research. Discussions of each other’s academic work, before a receptive and captive audience, may yield refreshing perspectives worth pondering or incorporating into analyses. Hearing about one another’s successes, as well as stressors, can make you feel uplifted, which sends “feel-good” chemicals to your brain.

In spite of the challenges, many of us still persist and pursue the published paper chase, among other rigors of academia. The reasons we choose to plod along our various academic paths vary – professional prestige, advancement and promotion, commitment to research, altruistic service, and fundamental life improvement number among them.

Some of us do our best work alone and acquire sharp focus when we’re by ourselves, and that’s OK. But for other grad students who may be struggling with abject isolation that seems harmful to their wellbeing and their scholarly productivity, encouraging their participation in an active peer writing group can be anything but a waste of time.

What are your experiences with writing groups in grad school? Have they helped you overcome feelings of isolation or influenced your productivity? Share your thoughts with us in the comments or on Twitter, @GradHacker.

[Image by Flickr user DigitalEpicness and used under Creative Commons licensing.]


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