Peer Support, All Aboard!

From your supervisor to family, friends and specialised services at your institution, there are many sources of support students can draw on. Peer support is great asset to help you stay on track and make your PhD journey more rewarding.

Why is it great to have peer support during your PhD?

Terrible supervision meeting? Endless paperwork for your fieldwork? Codes that simply refuse to work? They understand. An embarrassing typo (or three) left in your big presentation? A day when your writing is stuck? A looming deadline? They understand. They do not need to practise phrases to soothe you or a dictionary to grasp why you are feeling down. Your peers know exactly how you feel because they have been there themselves, probably more times than they can count.

Good relationship with your supervisor is incredibly important for the success of your PhD, as well as the support of your family and non-academic friends for your overall wellbeing. However, peer support can make this challenging journey much more pleasant and rewarding. Researching and implementing peer support programmes showed that they greatly benefit the students and complement the supervision process, especially in case of part-time PhD students. Peer support offers figures you can relate to, not necessarily role models, but someone who has a very good idea of your situation, either because they have recently been or still are there themselves. A formal meeting or a brief chat on the bus or over a cup of tea, the effect is similar. Peer support is much more than just sharing resources and effective strategies, it is finding structure from the often overwhelming PhD start, to accepting mistakes and misjudgements as integral part of learning even, no particularly at PhD level, but also fighting for change where ever possible. Even the highest mountain is easier to climb when you know there is somebody you can ask for directions. Finally, it is about sharing all the good moments too, and acknowledging the hard work and dedication behind them.

Image credits: amygeils/CC0

What are the benefits of supporting your peers?

When it feels like you are months behind the schedule, you cannot get an experiment to work or a reviewer savagely reject your paper, it hardly seems like you are in a position to support anyone, right?

Wrong. PhD is about failing as much as succeeding, and experiencing this and knowing how to cope with and learn from it is an invaluable skill. PhD progress can sometimes seem slow (so slow you wonder if you’re making any progress at all), that it is easy to overlook how much you have learnt since the beginning, how much more confident you are talking about your research aims and methodology, how knowledgeable you are about your analysis. In interaction with other colleagues this knowledge, skills and experience come to surface, and by reflecting on them, we can paint a more wholesome picture of our professional value. The Olympics are now behind us, but sports metaphor seems suitable here nonetheless. Peer-support is not about being someone’s trainer, their medical team or even their faithful fan (there are other services to provide that kind of support), it is about being a fellow athlete who has already competed and won, as well as lost, quite a few medals.

Time spent offering peer support to colleagues is not lost, it is invested in your own personal development as much as that of the colleague you are supporting. Finally, it is a great way to build networks and help academia become a more kind, enjoyable place to study and work.

All Aboard!

Whether you are looking for such support or would like to help your colleagues, many universities run peer schemes for postgraduate and PhD students, so it is definitely worth exploring these options, or even starting something similar yourself. If you are based at Warwick University, have a look at peer mentoring scheme starting this year. Apply for the role if you would like to draw on your experience to engage with other postgraduate students, develop valuable skills and help build a more integrated postgraduate community. 🙂

Have you had any experiences with peer support programmes? What are your thoughts on advantages and challenges of implanting such programmes?

Ana Kedveš  (@anakedves)

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