Ever thought about participating in a research group? What would the benefits be? How can you find a suitable group? Being an active member of a research group can help you become part of a broader research culture. Here Lauren Thompson talks about the benefits and practicalities.

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Reasons to join a research group

Being a member of a research group puts you in direct contact with others in your field and your university. You become part of a collaborative and supportive network of researchers with similar interests. Research groups can bring together academics from different career stages, disciplines and institutions, keeping everyone up to date on both published and unpublished research.

Effective participation in a research group is a way to promote yourself and your work to a wider community of researchers. You build up a valuable network of contacts that are familiar with you and your research. It also helps you develop confidence in your professional life, making events like conferences just that little bit less daunting.

Finding a research group to join

The first step to research group participation is to find an appropriate group to join! The first port of call is your departmental website. Listings of active research groups within your department are likely to be found under the ‘research’ tabs on the departmental webpage.

Of course, if you are looking for an interdisciplinary group, don’t restrict yourself to your home department. The Institute of Advanced Study is an excellent starting point for those looking to engage with researchers beyond the confines of their own discipline.

Other sources to find a research group

  • the Research Exchange website events listing for postgraduate researchers
  • emailed notifications from your departmental secretary
  • posters on your postgraduate noticeboard
  • speak to your supervisor. Maybe they can recommend a suitable one
  • speak to your fellow PhD students. Perhaps they already attend a group that you’d be interested in

Once you’ve found a group that might be a good match to your research interests contact the convenor and ask for more information.

If you find that none of the existing groups match your interests, you can start up your own!

Contributing to discussions

So, you’ve found your research group. You’re sitting in your first meeting surrounded by like-minded academics, when suddenly your mind goes blank, your stomach tightens and you can’t think of a single thing to say…

  • Don’t panic. If you want to, it’s perfectly acceptable to sit, observe and listen for your first meeting, until you get the feel of the group.
  • Arrive early. You then have the chance to get settled in your chair and introduce yourself informally to other members as they arrive.
  • Do the reading. Make written notes and comments on the text that remind you of your response to it, so that you can offer these up during the discussion.
  • Say it even if it seems obvious. This can be a great way to get discussions started, and you’ll only kick yourself when someone more established or confident makes that comment two minutes later and everyone agrees (yes, this has happened to me, and to several other postgraduate researchers I’ve spoken to)!
  • Use your own knowledge. Try not to go off on tangents, but do feel free to suggest other complimentary readings and texts if appropriate.

Be constructive. When discussing work presented by other members of the group, always keep criticism helpful and positive.

Presenting your work: dos and don’ts

Once you’ve been in the group for a little while, you might feel ready to present your own work. Some do’s and don’ts for presenting your work:

  • Do be aware of audience, and tailor your presentation accordingly – don’t patronise
  • Do offer definitions of subject-specific terms and concepts, especially if your work is interdisciplinary
  • Do be receptive to feedback – that’s the whole point of having the group hear your work!
  • Don’t be afraid to say you don’t have an answer yet to a question that is asked

Research commons

Another significant advantage of being a member of a research group is the potential for involvement in research commons – research undertaken as a group with collective data available for use by all members. This can be an excellent opportunity to have your name attached to work alongside more established academics.

Projects will obviously vary from group to group but the best advice is get involved! Offer to do ‘boring’ jobs like typing up the data, compiling spreadsheets and databases, distributing guidelines and build from there. Who knows, you might get a publication out of it.

Image Harless Todd, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wikicommons