CAREER FEATURE

How to harness the support of your local community: write with your PhD pals

Writing sessions with colleagues are a great reminder to PhD students that we’re all in it together.
Agata Bochynska is a PhD student in language studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway.
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Female college students studying on floor in dorm room

Finding others to write with can be a powerful source of motivation.Credit: Getty

In her column detailing how students can use writing meet-ups to overcome isolation and depression, psychologist Karra Harrington at the University of Melbourne, Australia, touched on something my colleagues and I are already putting into practice.

For us, such meet-ups have had a significant impact on our collective mental health as we study for our PhDs — a challenging task that often leads to overwhelming feelings of isolation, uncertainty and anxiety.

Make it simple

Not all institutions have the resources to organize writing sessions of the scope described by Harrington in her article, and some do not have students who wish to take on such initiatives. Harrington’s meet-ups involve reaching out to well-established institutions to recruit students, setting up video conferencing, filling the role of facilitator of discussions and establishing consistent ground rules for the sessions.

As Harrington points out, it is challenging work, requiring a significant amount of time and effort. Typically, however, PhD students already feel overwhelmed by the amount of work and the time pressure they have. For this reason, many could feel discouraged from organizing such structured events.

Therefore, it is important to recognize that it does not take a lot of effort to organize writing sessions on a smaller scale. In fact, it can be done with minimal effort, and the pace can be entirely dictated by the participants.

Recently, I and other PhD students at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, in Trondheim, started organizing similar sessions.

Students began to reach out to others by simply offering to meet up for a structured writing session for a couple of hours. We would run the sessions ourselves, setting a timer for 45 minutes and taking a 15-minute break. We started posting about where we were meeting, and for how long, on a Facebook group. We update the group regularly with new PhD students and postdocs in the language department, and it now includes around 40 members. As a result, everybody is well informed on a regular basis and, most importantly, little effort is required.

Do you want to skrivepress?

In Norway, these writing meet-ups are called skrivepress (literally translated as ‘writing-pressure’). It became a verb (“Do you want to skrivepress today?”) and a gerund (“I really need some skrivepressing”), and is among the most common words uttered in the halls of our department these days.

Our writing meet-ups now happen daily instead of monthly. Even having one person join you is enough to fill the room with the sounds of increased productivity.

Often, the sounds reflect the challenges of writing a thesis. There might be a prolonged silence, or there might be sighs when the writing is not going to plan. All of these sounds, far from being a distraction, deliver a sense of community, belonging and comfort: others are also working hard and struggling.

Then there are the breaks, which encourage an exchange of familiar experiences. We start opening up to each other about the difficulties we’re encountering in our PhD programmes — an ad hoc peer-to-peer therapy session.

In our department, even though PhD students belong to different research groups or laboratories, there are common struggles. It helps to know how much we have in common as a PhD community. This helps us to understand that we are not alone.

Not only writing

Our meet-ups have expanded to include activities outside of writing. Now, if you need to analyse your data, design an experiment or simply read an article that you’ve been putting off picking up — you are welcome to join us.

There is only one rule: no e-mails, phones or social media for the 45-minute work session. During the break, this rule is lifted. Despite that, we choose to talk to each other instead of checking our phones or social-media feeds. It is the here and now that counts, and this local community is much more supportive than your mobile phone.

As I write this, my colleagues are sitting across the table from me, deeply focused on their own work. You can skrivepress with us at our next session at the Dragvoll campus in Trondheim. If you can’t make it, consider organizing something locally. I highly recommend it.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05925-0

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturejobseditor@nature.com.

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