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Advice and support for your academic journey.

PhD students often face loneliness during their journey, and it's important to have a support system. In this article, Alicia Wickert shares her advice on how to find your team, including reaching out to family, joining a community at university, and connecting with other students in your department.

A PhD can be a lonely adventure.
This thought has never bothered me. I was always the person to say, “I love my own company”.

Certainly, after five years of being a secondary school teacher, the silence of my home office is a welcomed one! And now, I enjoy working from home, I enjoy getting on with the task at hand, and I enjoy the solitude of researching my topic. However, eventually, (like I did) you will realise that you need other people. If for no reason other than to just tell you “It will be all right”. It wasn’t until around halfway through my first year that I realised I may need someone more conversational than my cats who, despite their best efforts, aren’t the greatest communicators.

There are a few ways to build your support system during this time, and if you’re lucky enough like me, you’ll have a wonderful partner and a huge, loving family that rallies around you. But even if family and familiar friends are far away, I still have something for you. Here are just a few ways that I dragged myself out of the cave that is my home office and I hope, in times of loneliness, you can do the same.

1. Your family are your friends too.

As I mentioned, I am very fortunate to have a partner and family who support me in everything that I do, but most importantly, feed me when I can’t be bothered to cook! On days when you’re knee-deep in data or your eyes are sore from all the reading, call your family. If my aunt had a pound for every time I’d called her (with about ten minutes of notice) asking to come for dinner, she’d be a millionaire by now. It doesn’t have to be anything formal and quite frankly, you don’t even have to leave the house. The positive from the pandemic… zoom! You’ll be surprised at how uplifting it feels to have a conversation with someone that isn’t about work. It will take your mind off the stress of deadlines and word counts, trust me!

2. Getting out there at university.

During my first year, I joined a few modules of a research master’s degree. I’m at the tail end of them as we speak. This is one of the best things I could have done. Although I didn’t join them for this purpose, I found an excellent group of people to share the trials and tribulations of a PhD with.

What started with joining these modules became a WhatsApp group, which became a place to laugh and joke about the ups and downs, which has now become a book club. These women who were once just classmates are now friends. Sharing our moans and groans is unbelievably reassuring. It certainly takes the edge off when you know you’re not the only one struggling with the stresses of a PhD.

My advice, join something! It doesn’t necessarily have to be research modules or something particularly academic for that matter. But join something. Join anything. You’ll be surprised at whom you’ll meet and the network you’ll create. What started for me as “another thing I had to do” turned into a friendship group of strong, intelligent, and hilarious women that I never would have met without this experience.

3. Your department is your friend.

Although it may feel like it sometimes, you are not the only PhD student in your department.
Get into contact with the other PGRs.
Create an email chain or a WhatsApp group. I would bet that more often than not, one already exists. The chances are a brilliant like-minded individual has started a group in your department who has built a support system for those going through the same experience as you, and in the same field.
In my case, it’s the PGTipsUoB group. And yes, I know what you’re thinking, that is the best name EVER.
And no, it’s not the tea. Go to @PGTipsUoB to see more!

Forgive me, PGTips, I don’t know how you began, but all I know is, it’s great to have you! PGTips is a community of linguistic postgraduate researchers at the University of Birmingham. They offer weekly meetings with a range of different helpful topics, and much more. And, as I imagine you’ll find in your department, there is a WhatsApp group to be joined full of supportive and wonderful postgrads all living the same experiences. What would we do without WhatsApp, hey? Now, I found this group through my supervisors, so ask yours! Not only can these kinds of groups offer you support, but one day, you may be able to help someone in there too. And if one doesn’t exist, create it! As I said, I don’t know who created PGTips and this WhatsApp group, but I sure am thankful for them!

Not only are these groups amazing for personal support, but also academic and career support too. PGTips run a postgraduate conference every year. This gives postgraduates, like yourself, an opportunity to experience a conference without the pressures of external forces, and with the support of their fellow peers. These kinds of experiences are a great way of meeting new people and building up your postgrad network. It may seem daunting at first but throw yourself out there. There are definitely a whole bunch of PGRs feeling exactly the same thing.

A final note...

​A PhD seems to feel like the end of something,
the end of the academic journey maybe.
But it isn’t.
It is only the beginning.

So, it’s time to find your team. You’ll need them. Whether it’s now or in six months, whether it’s family or friends, you’ll need them. My advice is this: make the calls to your family, join something new, make your department your friend. Completing a PhD is an amazing achievement – it’s time to start sharing it! 

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