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With a Little Help From My Friends

Advice for joining a working group during the PhD.

December 1, 2015

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is PhD student in English Literature at Northeastern University. You can find him on Twitter at @jon_fitzgerald or at his website www.jonathandfitzgerald.com.




Grad school can be a lonely place. While we enter with a cohort with whom we take classes in our first years of study, eventually we begin to specialize and the sense of community that might have once felt strong dissipates. But we needn’t go it alone; opportunities to collaborate are abundant, if only we seek them out.


I experienced this feeling of isolation firsthand at the start of the fall semester this year as my coursework was all but complete, barring one last course, which I opted to take as a self-directed study. That means that while most of my cohort still had one last opportunity to meet regularly in the context of a classroom—and to engage with one another as well as with the incoming cohort just beginning their coursework—I was often working alone.


Fortunately, a couple of motivated peers decided to put together a kind of informal working group for those of us in the midst of our comprehensive exams. Suddenly I had an opportunity, one hour per week, to meet with members of my cohort and to toil together toward the completion of our exams. It’s only a slight exaggeration to call these weekly meetings a life saver. They ensure that, every Tuesday afternoon, I have to leave my cloistered office, walk over to the library, and sit and work in the presence of my peers. Most weeks we simply sit together and, after a few words of introduction, work silently on our own projects, but we are together, keeping each other accountable to our stated goals and, every so often, peer reviewing drafts or discussing challenges we encounter.


In this spirit of collaboration, I offer the following suggestions for finding opportunities to work together, even on seemingly solo projects:


Be the initiator: I didn’t initiate this collaboration, but I am so grateful to my friend who did. Faced with what might have been a lonely endeavor of writing papers in her field of study, she saw an opportunity to create a working group to provide community, accountability, and a social element. If no one is taking the initiative to put something like this into action, maybe you can be the one to do it.


Be a joiner: If, as in my situation, you’re not the one to initiate a working group, find someone who is. We get a lot of emails, newsletters, and Slack chats, but chances are amidst the barrage someone else might be looking for community. The best way to find a group is to ask around, but you might also see a group that is already meeting and ask to join. If the opportunity arises, I say take it. You won’t be sorry.


Show up: It’s one thing to join a group, it’s another to actually be a part of it. I know that there are often a seemingly impossible number of meetings and responsibilities in any given week, from classes that we’re taking or teaching, student government, volunteering, meetings, and the like.  But if you prioritize working with your peers toward your individual goals, you’ll actually be helping yourself and others.


Be inclusive: If you’re fortunate enough to be part of a productive community and you notice peers that are struggling or looking for help, invite them in. The more the merrier! Grad school is hard, no one should have to go it alone.


Of course, not all the work we do lends itself to collaboration; sometimes you just have to close your office door and do the work—a topic I plan to explore further in my next post. But in many instances you don’t have to go it alone and the benefits of working in community in terms of productivity, accountability, and sometimes, sanity, are many.


What ways have you found to work collaboratively with your peers? Are you involved in any working groups, and if so, how has that involvement benefitted you?

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons and used under Creative Commons license]


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