The empty office: Re-building our academic support networks

Meaghan Castledine (@mcastledine96) is a 3rd year PhD student based in CLES at the University of Exeter, Penryn campus. Her research, funded by the Medical Research Council, explores the evolution of microbial interactions in community ecology and medicine. She has studied here since an undergraduate in 2015 and has settled into Cornish life. She loves taekwondo, reading and, most importantly, dogs.

“I’m really sorry to bother you…”

“I know you’re really busy but…”

“Please can you help…”

“Help…”

Developing an academic support network is hard and made harder in a time when knocking on someone’s door or hovering by someone’s desk is no longer a possibility. Offices that once facilitated support are now quiet ghostly places. The casual support groups we formed over cups of coffee have become strained by dedicated online calls. Especially for new students, asking for help has become significantly harder: who do you ask? Who has the time, or willingness, to share their skills?

I’ve been incredibly lucky, and remain grateful to, a number of mentors who took me under their wings at each stage of my academic learning curve. These were mentors who were not assigned to me by the university, but rather people who personally volunteered to share their skills and knowledge with me.

At undergrad, two postgraduate students taught me how to write essays, develop ideas and work in a laboratory. At PhD, a post-doc – Dr Daniel Padfield – has taught me how to code and analyse my data. Although the foundations for each of these skills were laid in my degree training, these mentors helped me refine my skills and gave me more confidence than any course or module could.

Since the pandemic started, translating such social interactions to an online setting has stunted the development of these casual support networks. To address this, we may, as a research community, need to advertise our skills more explicitly among our peers.

A recent initiative by Dr Daniel Padfield is an exemplar of how support networks may be set up in the current climate. As a coding and statistics expert, Dan is a “go-to” for those who need extra help. To make himself more accessible to students who may be too shy to privately approach him, Dan set up weekly help sessions in the medical school where students can drop in. These, in effect, replace the casual office atmosphere where people would drop by Dan’s desk to ask for help.

Opening up such sessions need not be a place where individuals have their work done for them. Instead, staff and students can learn how to overcome hurdles and barriers to their learning. Sometimes those barriers come from self-confidence and having a supportive peer can help them overcome that block. Personally, I now tutor undergraduates in statistics; helping students work-through their problems and relaying my own past struggles has helped some students drop the adage that they are simply “useless” at statistics.

Sign up to be a mentor/tutor, check in on your peers, set up a dop-in session. Sharing skills and knowledge is at the centre of what it means to be a researcher. If we are to encourage the next generation of scientists then we need to develop support networks between all levels of academia: from undergrad to masters and PhD, post-doc and beyond.

Why a PhD is the best thing you will ever do

Dondu Sarisen is a third year PhD student in Centre for Water System, CEMPS at the University of Exeter. After few years working in a company in Turkey, she decided to pursue her career in academia.

PhD is a love and passion rather than a pain! If you enjoy and love what you are doing, and if you trust yourself, you would never be put off by your mistakes and other people’s prejudices or misjudgements. On the contrary, you will learn from your experience to enlarge your capabilities.

Every one of us has different experiences, facing different challenges and different responsibilities. Some of us, including but not exclusively, are wives or husbands, mums or dads, international students or home students or professionals struggling with the burden of a daily job, with some handling simultaneously nearly of the roles I mentioned. I have been writing this blog in order to appeal to all of you, being in all hope that you will find useful.

I assume that the common question for all the readers of this blog post is “What it is like doing a PhD?.” I can only write based on my own experience and therefore I might be biased but you can all apply your critical thinking to make sense of the information presented here.

It is tough to decide where to begin talking about a PhD. Doing a PhD abroad in a 2nd language changed my life, contributed to my both personal and academic development.

I would like to start simply talking about “learning.” Human beings experience various pleasures in their life; the taste of learning is one of them. Contributing the broader body of knowledge is invaluable. In the PhD, you are learning, starting with general knowledge, and then diving into more specific information, you get to know every particularity related to your field. Additionally, the PhD is a big project where you are the manager. You are learning to manage everything including your time, social life, relationships, academic life, cleaning, shopping, etc. From the personal development aspect, you are learning to be patient, coping with failure, and dealing with being alone (for those of you having families, you will still spend a great amount of time alone for running experiments and performing research).

PhD helps with development of transferrable skills: problem solving, critical thinking, adaptability, teamwork, communication, writing, listening, creativity, attention to detail, so on so forth.

At The University of Exeter, you also have a chance to be a PTA (Postgraduate Teaching Assistants). Teaching is one of the best ways of learning. You also can learn from students during classes.

In summary, I have realised during my PhD that what you can achieve is even bigger than what you can imagine or even expect from yourself. When I say “achievement,” I do not only mean academic achievements. You can realise how strong and resilient you are as a person. These achievements bring happiness and joy to our lives and motivates us.