PhD Lifestyle: Are Most Academics Lonely at Work?


There are clearly benefits of being part of an on-campus community. If you listen to PhD students talk, you might get the idea that poor supervision is the main problem, but survey after survey shows that PhD students everywhere think universities are doing a poor job of creating a sense of community.

So why are students reporting a lack of community? Some element is clearly missing – but what?

‘Community’ is defined in two ways: the first as a ‘being together’ in the same physical place, and the second as ‘feeling together’ – a sense of belonging that comes with working with people of like mind and heart.

Community is not just about being in the same place or having the same events to go to – it’s about that ‘feeling of fellowship’ that comes with sharing common interests and goals. The quickest way to achieve a sense of belonging, aside from perhaps religion, is shared work.

If you think about it, the structure of academic work does not give us many opportunities to work together on shared goals. Being an academic is nothing like my previous careers where I worked in large teams. On my research days at home it’s common for me not to speak to a soul.

Last week at a dinner party, someone said that being an academic is a bit like owning your own small business. This struck me as being very true. Being an academic is like managing a small shop that doesn’t get many customers each day. You set the performance targets. You decide if your ‘product lines’ (research, teaching) are profitable enough. You might have a few people in to help you during the busy times, but essentially you open and close the shop most days.

In fact, if I think too much about it, often my working life feels this way. No wonder many academics report feeling intensely lonely at times. Kate Bowles wrote beautifully about how academic work can make us feel estranged from the rest of the world. For many, the loneliness starts with the PhD itself. I’ve written before about how weird it feels that no one seems to care as much as you.

So what can we do about it?
Here are a few ideas on how to make the experience more communal:
1) Book Club Model: Simply make a regular meet up time for your group or department to have coffee, discuss the course content together and your reactions to it. The course content will launch on a Wednesday because I think this a good, midweek catch up day.

2) Blended Classroom Model: If you are a supervisor or researcher developer, consider using the course as part of your own workshop series and convene discussion sessions around it – either for students or supervisors. If I were doing this, I would take the opportunity to build my own content or activities around the course.

3) Virtual and Local Communities: Create your own Facebook group to connect people online to discuss themes and organise meetups, either as a ‘virtual community of interest’ (such as for people in African studies as an example) or a ‘local community of practice’ (for people in your location, meetups, etc.). A virtual community of interest would help you connect scholars in your discipline, the local community of practice could help you connect with and meet people in in your physical location.

4) Get Social on social networks with national and international peers.

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How Facebook Helps Students Adapt to College


For today’s students, social media isn’t just a diversion, it’s a support system, says a paper exploring the role that Facebook plays in helping students adjust to campus life, from Collin M. Ruud (postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), “Social Networking and Social Support: Does It Play a Role in College Social Integration?”.

Mr. Ruud has been observing the effects of social media for years. He was an assistant residence-hall manager when social-networking sites first started to take off, and he was immediately interested in how they might affect student development.

For his recent research, Mr. Ruud conducted online surveys, collecting 159 responses from undergraduates at an unnamed flagship university in the Midwest. He identified a strong link between social-media use and feelings of belonging to the broader campus community.

Mr. Ruud found, as he expected, that students today spend more time on Facebook than they did in 2007, and that more students have made Facebook part of their daily routines. “It’s just part of what we do now,” he said.

But there was a more surprising finding, too: Students who used Facebook to keep in touch with high-school friends reported feeling stronger connections to their college communities. Mr. Ruud said he’d had a feeling there might be a link there. When he got the numbers to back up that hunch, “it was like an alarm going off,” he said.

On its face, Mr. Ruud said, it makes no sense that students feel more connected to their colleges when they continue to interact with friends from high school. But look closer, he said, and there’s a logic to that link. Facebook acts as a support network for students. A virtual network can help college students bond with high-school friends who are going through the same process of adapting to life on other campuses, Mr. Ruud said. With social media, all a student has to do to feel supported is log in.

Now that Facebook has become so ingrained in daily life, “we’ve got all these student-development theories” he said, and “is technology going to change the way students develop socially?”

 

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