The importance of peers

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I’m an introvert. Sometimes quite a chatty one (!), but I’m happy in my own company, and I need to spend time on my own to recharge my batteries. For this reason, I was not at all fazed by the autonomous nature of doctoral research. Arriving in a new city and a new university, I was prepared to feel quite isolated, and had an image of studying in a place where other people would know their way around and be familiar with the routines, and I would swim along until I caught up.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

I hadn’t anticipated that so many doctoral students would also be new to the city in general, or to this university in particular. I also hadn’t anticipated that the university would provide so many opportunities for me to link up with other students. I made sure to attend all the induction sessions, and made a conscious effort to extend friendliness rather than waiting for it to be extended to me…sounds so twee when I see it written down, but it’s not something that came naturally to me when I was young, and I’m determined to make this transition more positive than some of my childhood experiences.

The DSW requires four Units of Study (think ‘subjects’) to be completed, and one of the side benefits of this has been a chance to meet other students, both coursework and research-focused, on a regular basis. In particular, I’ve met other DSW students, and that’s been a huge bonus as we’ve helped each other through some of the logistics and bureaucracy of our particular course of study. Despite the differences in our research topics, there’s a commonality in having a social work background. In the faculty, social workers seem to be considerably outnumbered by educators. Hey, no problem, social workers are all about minority groups! The cultural and language differences/similarities between the fields of education and social work are probably the topic of a whole other blog post, but I’m finding a surprising amount of overlap in concepts such as accessibility, engagement, vulnerability and social justice, for example. That it’s surprising is only a reflection of my own ignorance of philosophies of Education (big E rather than little e)… however, meeting another social worker feels a little bit like recognizing an Australian accent when you are traveling in Europe.*

I also took the opportunity to participate in the optional workshop series offered to Research Higher Degree students, and it was through this that I ended up joining a study group formed by a couple of other students with an impressive level of initiative and organisational skill. We’re quite a diverse little group: the 9 of us comprise 7 PhDs, 1 M.Phil, and me…7 teachers, 2 social workers…4 international students, 5 local…8 female, 1 male…about 25 years in age range I think, although I could be very wrong about that!…

In my experience, the value of having a peer network is both academic and social/emotional. It’s really nice to have a couple of numbers in my phone that I can ring if I’m on campus and looking for someone to have coffee with. The study group has settled into a routine of fortnightly meetings that have a clear study focus (eg. splitting into ‘buddy trios’ to comment on each others’ work, updating each other on our progress, sharing readings and other resources), but those who are available also meet for lunch on the alternate week, purely for social contact. Of course, emotional support is an important part of peer support too, whether in an academic or social context.  It’s all about balance, folks!

So, here’s some more unsolicited advice: if you are undertaking a research degree, don’t underestimate the importance of peers. You don’t have to like group work (I hate it, personally) but there is a lot to learn from other students, and a lot of mutual support and encouragement to be had. The university has been far more active in providing peer linkage opportunities than I’d expected, but when it comes down to it, how you use this is entirely your own responsibility. From my personal experience, I’d say go for it, and I hope you find a study group that is as focused and cohesive – not to mention well-organized! – as the one I’ve fallen into.

*I need to quickly point out that I go to Europe to meet Europeans, not Australians, but after a long day exploring new territory and struggling to understand the language, it’s like a holiday-within-a-holiday to have a bit of a chat with someone who speaks the same vernacular.

About postgradpanda

I'm a full-time PhD student, researching the perspectives of parents who are caring for a child with high-level physical care needs, on their relationships with diverse service systems and on their identity within or outside those systems. In December 2014 I left my social work position with a genetic support group but remain associated with the group as President of the Committee of Management. In other hours I write poetry and short stories, go sailing, and am learning to play my double bass.

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