The Power of Peer Networks

Shoba Subramanian, Maggie Gardner and Beth Bodiya share advice for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and educators on how to develop trainee networks for enhancing professional growth during training and beyond.

October 11, 2021
 
 
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It was the first day of graduate school. I was sitting in a classroom with 30 or so other first-year students. During a break in the class, the person in front of me turned around, and said, “Hi, I’m Josh. Can I have your number?” I was caught off guard, unsure about sharing my number with someone I just met. I thought to myself, “Was this the first day of graduate school or the start of a romantic comedy to be titled ‘When Josh met Mina’?” After a longer conversation, it was clear that Josh simply was trying to make connections among our peers.

That week, Josh hosted the first Friday Night Dinner, aka FND, with those of us who had shared our contacts. Most Fridays for the next six years, we would prepare a quick dish, pick up some takeout or grab a bottle of wine and gather for FND. We grew from five to 20 people, including significant others and eventually children. Coming from an umbrella Ph.D. program, our interests transcended disciplinary boundaries. Over time, we became a network of peers who supported each other in our personal lives (from cancer scares to growing families) and through our professional lives (from preliminary exams to careers). This peer network would not have existed if it weren’t for Josh bravely taking the first step to build community among our graduate cohort.

Mina’s story above is not unique. Peer networks bring a multitude of benefits to trainees: sharing triumphs and challenges, co-navigating professional journeys, building lifelong friendships and even lifelong mentorships, among others.

Early in our educational journeys, peer networks are often influenced by school structures. In middle and high school, classmates gather to do homework after school or participate in extracurriculars. Network building continues in undergraduate years within residence halls and classrooms, where new friendships provide the support system to navigate life, for the first time, away from home.

Graduate and postdoctoral training structures, on the other hand, are more independent in nature. Trainees spend most of their time at the lab bench, at computers or in digital or physical libraries doing research. For postdocs, who are not hired as a cohort, the onus is on them to find and create peer networks. Since graduate students and postdocs are trained at a time in life when priorities are different, those networks are rarely created without intention and effort.

Building a Peer Network as a Trainee

Peer networks can be developed through the many learning environments trainees encounter during graduate school or postdoctoral experience. Each environment presents distinct challenges and opportunities for building peer networks. Here are some of our suggestions.

  • Classrooms are natural places to meet new people with shared experiences or interests. Peer networks may emerge because of group projects, or because of students seeking to create study or homework groups. You can kick off the start of a new graduate course by asking classmates to join you in person or via Zoom to review course materials. Perhaps you can even start your own Friday Night Dinner tradition, like Josh, to bring a larger group together.
  • As trainees progress through graduate school and enter postdoc training, engagements in classrooms decrease. Unlike classroom learning, programs and research groups may have fewer structured interactions. In that case, connect with university or program colleagues and research group members who have similar interests and experiences as you. Take advantage of research group meetings, program seminars, journal clubs and social engagements to meet new people and deepen your connections. Read weekly emails from your department, graduate school, career center and other sectors of the institution to see where relevant activities are happening to connect with new peers.
  • Recently, some graduate programs have instituted in-house peer mentorship programs to help new students adjust to graduate school. The Program in Biomedical Sciences, hosted in our office, sorts our first-year Ph.D. students into four houses, with sets of peer mentors from upper years provided for each house. This helps to build community and new bonds. In another example, the chemical engineering department at the University of Michigan developed a peer mentoring program for graduate students that has had many positive impacts, as detailed in a published study. Connecting with a peer mentor can help new students navigate the logistics of their program and start the process of building supportive and long-lasting professional relationships. Your peers today will be valued colleagues, resources and friends in the future. Find out if your program has a peer mentorship initiative. If not, approach a more senior trainee to serve as a mentor to you, or you could serve as a mentor to a junior trainee.
  • Program administrators are always looking for trainee volunteers to help build community, to provide a representative voice or to develop professional and social events. This kind of institutional service can be a great way of meeting new people within and beyond your department while developing key transferable skills (more on this later). Perhaps your department needs help planning an upcoming retreat, a host for an invited guest speaker or a volunteer to serve on a faculty hiring committee. Or maybe you are interested in amplifying trainee voices by serving on the graduate student council or the postdoc association. While serving on a committee certainly will add to your workload, the relationships and experiences will benefit your professional and personal growth tremendously. Such experiences will also improve your ability to manage time between varied projects.
  • You can also make peer connections through affinity groups -- a set of folks with shared identities, experiences and purpose. Affinity groups often foster empowerment, opportunity and recognition. You may identify with trainee parents, discussing the balance of raising young ones while also pursuing their careers, or international trainees learning the ins and outs of U.S. culture while celebrating and honoring their own heritage. More formally, you may elect to join an institutional chapter of national associations such as the Association for Women in Science, or a homegrown trainee group such as the Association of Multicultural Scientists, which offer great opportunities to connect with peers and engage in activities specific to your needs. Where an affinity group may not exist, take the lead to bring your community together! In 2020, we saw this in action through the creation of Black in Microbiology, now a nonprofit that is building community and raising Black scientists’ visibility.
  • Many professional societies and national organizations also solicit trainee input and seek volunteers to plan outreach events and annual conferences. Serving on one such committee will help you grow your network beyond your institution and deepen your relationship with others in your field. This might be especially helpful if you are planning on applying to postdoc positions or going on the job market soon. After all, there is some truth to the saying “it’s all about whom you know.” Building relationships broadly within your discipline can help you identify potential future mentors, employers, collaborators and more. Beyond your discipline and university, see if your university sponsors membership to the National Postdoctoral Association or other professional organizations.
  • Graduate students and postdocs may also choose to join virtual networks through resources like Future PI Slack and the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN). Future PI Slack is “a peer support group for postdocs on academic track,” offering informal peer mentoring and resource sharing. The National Institutes of Health-funded NRMN connects mentees at any stage with knowledgeable mentors who can offer insight and guidance.

Over all, engaging with peer groups in a formal or informal capacity supports active development and application of broad professional skills, such as effectively collaborating, managing your time, working across differences, sustaining professional relationships and working on projects outside your immediate research sphere. Peer groups across institutional boundaries have become easier to build in the virtual meeting environments that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to adopt.

A Case for Peer-Cohort Training Models

In most campuses, career and professional development (CPD) programming has traditionally been ad hoc, with need-based workshops peppered throughout the year. Attendance and participation in such programs also tend to follow an ad hoc pattern. Cohort-based CPD education for Ph.D. and postdoc trainees via peer communities, however, is a growing trend.

While programs like Preparing Future Faculty and those focused on topics of pedagogy, teaching and learning are not novel programs based on cohort participation, innovative professional development programs that use a cohort model are slowly emerging. One example is the You3 Postdoctoral Leadership and Management Program that we offer to our postdocs to grow their confidence in career-agnostic transferable skills. We assemble a peer cohort and provide structure in our eight-week program, which has seen 95 percent attendance, as compared to 45 percent in ad hoc programs. Importantly, our participants share that they value the peer interactions and cohort experience, which enables the community-centric nature of our program.

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The stressors around narrowing down career choices and actively pursuing top options are not uncommon among graduate students and postdocs. To mitigate those stressors, active and guided career exploration programs are being developed, which benefit from a peer cohort structure. Exploring careers as a peer group and reflecting on shared take-homes alleviates the anxiety of doing such activities solo. In the cohort-based Biotech Career Development Program, we offer for cross-disciplinary peer trainees from life sciences, chemistry, engineering and related areas. Participants value the systematic learning about broad career choices while specifically exploring their top preferences with accountable structures. Other successful career development models include the Making Informed Decisions program at the University of California, San Francisco, which leverages peer teams for active exploration among biomedical trainees, and the Career Pathways Communities at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which provides formal curriculum-based resources for this important aspect of graduate training.

Funding agencies have also recognized and embraced the power of cohorts in funding structures -- especially for early-career scientists. In many of these funding models, the peer grantees meet via annual conferences or other periodic activities to build relationships across institutions while developing diverse professional skills. A few examples of such programs include the NIH-funded IRACDA program for postdocs, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Gilliam Fellowship for graduate students and the Hanna H. Gray Fellows program. In the future, we anticipate growth of programs that build cohorts and nurture peer communities.

In conclusion, peer networks are important at all professional levels, from trainees to professors to CEOs. Peer support and feedback often normalize shared experiences while fostering innovative ideas for advocacy. Such networks are particularly salient in pushing for equity and inclusion for communities with marginalized identities such as BIPOC, first-gen, immigrant, LGBTQ+, trainees with disabilities and more.

If you are a trainee, we hope that, like Mina in our opening paragraphs, you will take advantage of engaging with your peer community in a capacity that is optimal to you. An important first and easy step could be passive networking with colleagues, including peers. And if you are a career and professional development educator, we hope you will encourage your trainees to leverage peer support systems and develop structures for cohort-based career training.

Bio

Shoba Subramanian, Maggie Gardner and Beth Bodiya drive the career and professional development team at the University of Michigan Medical School’s Office of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies. They are all members of the Graduate Career Consortium, an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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