The Power of Peer Support

Peer support for doctoral students meets emotional and cultural needs outside power relations imposed by institutional structures and authority figures.

I was recently invited to contribute a blog post to the Trust Me! blog, an amazing resource for research supervisor development, helmed by Dr Kay Guccione, Chair of the University of Sheffield Mentoring Network. My post is based on a recent article I wrote about how peer support and student advocacy are important resources for supporting international (indeed, all) doctoral students. The original post is re-produced here with kind permission from Kay Guccione.

[Journal article ref: Lee, S. (2017). Peer Support for International Doctoral Students in Managing Supervision Relationships. Journal of International Students, 7(4), 1096–1103. http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.1035971]

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I write from the perspective of a former postgraduate student leader (peer-mentoring others) and an international doctoral student. Based on my personal doctoral experiences, and interactions with fellow doctoral students, I share how peer support addresses supervision-related issues that are not easily met by administrative processes or supervisors themselves.

In the New Zealand context, the early period of one’s PhD candidature is ‘conditional’ and the candidate has to prepare a research proposal (or report), and a research ethics application if applicable, to be approved by the end of 6 months (extendable to 9 months). Thus, the most important milestone of a first-year PhD student was reaching ‘confirmed enrolment’. The stress of not seeming to make progress in meeting that milestone is compounded for international students who face family, societal, and/or financial pressure to succeed.

The stress of possible failure, as I have experienced for myself, comes about from supervision practices that do not provide encouragement to the developing researcher, and/or clear guidance for the documentation required for confirmation. Students who are new to the country and the institutional culture may be trying to make sense of their supervisors’ communication style and unspoken expectations. One may be trying very hard to read between the lines, while respecting the supervisors’ authority, and at the same time, wondering how far, and how best to assert one’s autonomy and epistemological perspective. Such negotiations may even continue past the confirmed enrolment stage and into the unfolding doctoral journey.

Across self-help guides and well-meaning (or maybe just mean) advice, such worries are often dismissed as ‘normal’ or somewhat needing to be better managed by the student. Rare is the response that asks supervisors to take greater responsibility in engaging with their students, especially those who are negotiating with intersecting demands of cultural ‘adaptation’, scholarly independence, and personal pressures of dealing with failure (however defined by the individual).

In my role as a postgraduate student representative at the university, I regularly engaged with international doctoral students. After I stepped down from the leadership position, I continued to mentor peers as and when the need arose. Having gone through a fairly rough first year, but coming out stronger at the end of it, provided me the insight to assist my peers in making sense of their experiences. I had also personally been on the receiving end of constructive advice from a more experienced peer. Had it not been for her regular following up on my situation, I might not have taken action to address my own well-being as a doctoral student.

In my conversations with fellow doctoral students, the issues they raised was more often than not related to the supervision relationship or supervision/communication practices. I usually respond by pointing out the various institutional structures that provide support for doctoral students. While many students had some idea of the hierarchy and reporting lines, few were prepared to use official routes of seeking redress. The suspicion of the efficacy of bureaucratic intervention was one reason; not wishing to expend additional emotional and mental energy was another; avoiding the embarrassment and shame of being exposed was also a likely reason if admitted. We would then discuss communication strategies, talk through possible outcomes, and debate on what a best case scenario would look like. Sometimes they concluded that institutional intervention was necessary. At other times, they chose to ‘wait and see’. It was also useful for us to rehearse what they wished to say to supervisors or other authority figures. Our conversations, done in private, did not promise to make things perfect. If anything, it reinforced the reality of imperfect but negotiable supervision experiences.

The doctoral journey is notorious for being isolating and emotionally draining. Institutions, especially at the faculty level, need to make concerted efforts to encourage peer interactions and peer mentorship so PhD students have opportunities to consult, debate and consider possibilities regarding supervision issues in a safe and supportive environment. As an international doctoral student, I have experienced and observed the benefits of peer support, especially when institutional structures and authority figures are not able to satisfactorily meet emotional and cultural needs.

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Getting the big picture of my PhD

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The Postgraduate Studies Office at my university recently organised a postgraduate development workshop for students. It was a jam-packed programme with concurrent sessions covering a broad range of skills and strategies a PhD student would need in the course of his/her studies, and beyond.

I chose both academic and non-academic sessions. The academic sessions I attended were on thesis submission & examination, and strategies for getting published in journals. The non-academic sessions were about careers outside academia, and career planning & interviewing skills. The highlight of the event was a mock PhD oral exam that aimed to demystify the process.

Here are my main takeaways of the day:

1. Non-academic pathways for PhD holders

I decided to do a PhD because I wanted to work at a university and be involved in research related to international students’ learning. The workshop opened up the possibility of being involved in research in a non-academic setting, such as a government agency. In a competitive labour market, PhD holders would be wise to be open to both academic and non-academic positions.

I’m certainly open to non-academic positions, but I wonder if the university can create links to potential jobs and employers though internships. Getting jobs in New Zealand is often through contacts and prior relationships. Internships would be invaluable to PhD students for both academic and non-academic jobs.

2. Networking to build a network

I’m also more aware of the need to participate in networking opportunities, although sometimes, I admit, they seem to be taking up precious time I should be using for reading and writing. And then there is the matter of keeping up with contacts, which appears to me to be fairly superficial unless there are regular encounters with them.

But network I must! The session on career planning reminded me how important contacts were in New Zealand. And although I’m far from completing my PhD, waiting till I complete it to start making contacts would really be too late! I’m not about to go to very possible networking event and I can’t – my time is mostly devoted to study and family – I’m making each opportunity and encounter count by making a good impressions (hopefully!) and offering to help whenever I can.

3. Being smart means being strategic

Being strategic as a student means to make the time and effort you put into your writing, reading, etc. as productive as possible. It sounds like one giant economics equation but it’s not.

For me, it’s about being focused to complete tasks for the day, plan ahead, and be flexible to change things. The workshop didn’t deal directly with this but the session on being productive in writing and submitting journal articles led me to think that it is about having focused and practical plans that will lead to results.

I’ve just completed the first milestone of my PhD – confirmed enrolment. And in the past few days, I’ve been refocusing my thoughts and energy towards getting ready for data collection,  and making plans about what reading and writing I want to do. As the year draws to an end, I’m glad there’s the summer holiday to relax and recharge for the journey ahead.