One of the things that I anticipated when I started my doctoral study was loneliness. Although I wasn’t too worried about this, being by nature an introvert and liking to be responsible for my own work, it wasn’t something I was particularly looking forward to. I moved to Sydney just before I started my doctoral studies, so I didn’t know anyone at the uni and imagined that most other doctoral students would have done their undergrads and/or masters programs there. I figured many of them would know each other, and would certainly know their way around. I had psyched myself up and was prepared to be the ‘new kid’ yet again (a familiar and not at all desirable role, after several moves in my earlier years).
As it turned out, I haven’t felt at all lonely. In fact, my imaginings about the social side of doctoral studies were totally wrong. Not only have I not been lonely – far from it – but the majority of my peers seem to have come from other universities, and many of them have come from other countries. I am a ‘new kid’, but so are most of the others. Many are shy. Many lack confidence in conversational English. It’s not at all the socially and academically confident cohort that I thought I’d be bumping along on the periphery of… (on the periphery of which I thought I’d be bumping…along…pfft, whatever.)
The reason I mention all this is because throughout the past 2.5 years of my 3 years here so far, I’ve become part of a group of students who have developed into a very functional writing group. We have a membership of ten, and an active participation of between 3 and 7-ish (it varies according to conferences, paid work, overseas travel etc). As most have now completed their data collection and are in the analysis and writing-up phase, both our focus and our group organisation has shifted. Initially we met fortnightly, talked through literature and our thesis proposals, practiced presentations, did buddy-editing tasks on abstracts and chapter drafts, and shared in each others’ anxieties and celebrations. Now we meet weekly for 2 hours, spend almost all of that writing, and soon we’ll be celebrating the first submission…the first acceptance…the first graduation.
We’ve tried several venues, looking for something with the right combination of background noise/quietness, food, drink, light, ventilation, temperature control, table height, and Skype access (the student who really got the group going has moved overseas, and now participates from the other side of the planet). Recently, five of us spent a Saturday doing a 5-hour ‘writing retreat’ at a room adjacent to a local cafe, interspersing 50-minute solitary writing sessions with breaks for coffee, lunch, and time-limited chats. It was so successful that we are going to be doing this 2-4 weekly from here on, now so many of us are reaching the pointy end of writing-up.
Hence the parallel play allusion. We have been reflecting on how amazingly productive we find these ‘alone together’ writing sessions, and how illogical it seems that it should make any difference to be doing together something we are all perfectly capable of (and experienced at) doing alone. We laughed at the curious looks we got from people who see us seated around a table at our respective laptops in silence, tapping away or looking quizzically into the distance then launching ourselves back at the keyboard.
What makes this group so successful, and what is our secret of longevity? Here are some suggestions:
1. Someone needs to be a leader/co-ordinator, to the extent that they co-ordinate communication, logistics and so on. Who this is might change over the life of the group, and group members are also in contact with each other outside organised group activities, but we’re all busy people and if there wasn’t co-ordination and a designated contact person for group matters, we’d fragment off into our own separate trajectories.
2. Everyone else needs to participate in keeping the group vibrant. In our group, what this looks like varies. Some people are regular attendees at weekly writing sessions; others only get along intermittently but stay in email contact and attend when they can. One has left the uni but remains involved to work on other writing tasks.
3. Activities need a focus. I think this has been a critical point in keeping us so active. I’ve been in groups before (have even led groups before) that have gradually settled into a ‘let’s go round the table and quickly say how our week’s been going’, inevitably running out of time and never actually progressing to other core activities. In the end, they always run out of energy and fizzle out. In our group, we tried setting monthly goals, compiling a table of goals/strategies/outcomes and holding each other accountable, but that didn’t work too well, largely because it took a bit more organisation to put the table together (and remember to go back to it) than we could realistically manage. Now, though, we start each session with a one-sentence statement of what we plan to achieve in the session (“Today I aim to write 300 words in my Methodology chapter”/”Today I am going to draft an abstract for my conference application” etc) and maybe also a goal for what we’ll be focusing on prior to the next group meeting.
4. Let the purpose of the group evolve as the group evolves. I say this with some hesitation because it may not be relevant for every group, but our group has very definitely changed over our nearly-3 years. When we were all new, there was a lot of need to listen to each other talk, around a wide range of aspects of our research-student experience, from emotional support, to information about methodologies, to ideas for presentations. As we each progressed past our proposal acceptance, ethics approval and data collection, we became clearer and more confident about our own particular research, and needed the structure of writing together more than we needed the wide-ranging discussions.
5. Look toward the next phase and plan how the group might work in the future. This includes, eventually, planning the closure of the group if that is decided on. We are starting to talk about who will be the first to complete their thesis and how we will celebrate this. Who will be the last, which is also a milestone for us as a group? (Almost certainly me!) And of course there will also be graduations to celebrate! And beyond…
Several ‘younger’ students have said to me, on hearing about this group, “I wish we had something like that.” My answer is very simple: start one. That’s how ours came into being. No-one put it on for us. One student (not me) talked to other students she knew though a workshop series that the faculty provides for students (a word of advice: go to these), got a core group going, and they all then worked out how they wanted the group to work (see points 1 and 2 above, in particular). It’s also worth asking the relevant doctoral support staff on faculty to help get the word out to other students, if needed. In addition, keep things like Skype and other media in mind, for linking in peers who are off-campus.
Parallel play is usually talked about in terms of preschool behaviour, where kids move around a space in little clumps, ostensibly doing their own thing and yet watching, learning and sharing space and energy with each other. That’s what our group does. Each of us is researching something totally separate, using an array of theoretical and methodological approaches, and yet we share a common experience and are better off for getting through it side by side.