Growing a PhD student and Post-doc network

Dr Anke Kossurok with experience and advice.

Growing into an academic career isn't easy. Currently, I am transitioning from PhD student to Post-doc. It's a weird place to be in: While you celebrate your PhD research and look ahead, you also disconnect from your usual environment (your PhD colleagues and the desk you got so attached to). There is a vacuum that needs filling.

This transition is both exciting and a little overwhelming. An invaluable companion during this last year or so has been the Scottish Developmental Psychology Network that I helped develop. It has been an anchor and peer support during that transition, and an important academic experience that, I believe, made me stand out to potential employers. I want to tell you about this Network. Perhaps it will inspire you to create your own network in your field or get involved in an existing one (maybe even ours).

Why set up a network, and how?

Doing a PhD can be an isolating experience. Also, being a PhD student is odd. You don't quite identify as student anymore – at least I didn’t. But neither was I an academic – at least not yet – even though I was doing research. PhD students sit in the middle. To help in this transition, some PhD colleagues and I joined our department's academic network, the Centre of Applied Developmental Psychology (CADP) at the University of Edinburgh.  But we also felt that we needed a supportive community of PhD students and perhaps Post-docs of our own, and within our field. When attending CADP, we also noticed that there were many aspects to academia that we could not easily get experience in, for example, writing funding applications, managing grant budgets, designing workshop materials, organising events, and collaborating and networking with other passionate junior researchers in our field. Therefore, we decided to create these opportunities for ourselves.

We applied for a small grant, initially for a one-off event, to bring together PhD students and Post-docs from across Scotland with an interest in developmental wellbeing across the life span. Co-writing a funding application for the first time was amazing: it helped us develop our idea into a launch event with follow-up activities for an interdisciplinary and sustainable Scotland-wide network.

What we achieved with a small grant

With funding secured (we were thrilled!), our first goal was to organise the launch event at our university. We created a name – the Scottish Developmental Psychology Network or ScotDPN (easier said than done!) – a website with blog (www.scotdpn.wordpress.com), and social media accounts. However, one of our biggest questions was: How do we find the people we wanted to come to our event? This was not straightforward. Our contacts didn't reach far enough, online profiles on university webpages were outdated or non-existing, and we didn't know who to contact within other universities to help us promote our event.

Nonetheless, in September 2017, we delivered a Knowledge Exchange and Networking event to over 30 PhD students and Post-docs with an interest in developmental psychology, thereby launching our network. Our event included a keynote talk as well as two brainstorming activities – one to get pairs of delegates to think about collaboratively writing together, and another for pairs to arrange a hypothetical research exchange visit. The latter introduced our Travel Awards (an application-based competition) to encourage researchers to make this a reality. Overall, considering the reach and positive feedback, this first event was a great success!

One event alone doesn't make a network. We wanted to follow up our delegates, wanted to give them opportunities to reconnect with each other, and we wanted to reach other interested PhD students and Post-docs. Our Travel Awards were one such follow-up activity: Pairs of PhD students and Post-docs completed an application to receive a bursary to support research exchange visits with one another. We were impressed with the quality of proposals. The two pairs we awarded visited one another’s institutions for a day, presented their research, toured facilities, and connected with other PhD students and staff. A particular success was that one pair took forward our event’s collaborative writing activity and published a blog post on metacognition; and another person has begun to collaborate on writing a research grant application with academic staff from another institution. How amazing is that! It was fascinating to be on the other side of awards: to create the application procedure, evaluate incoming applications and follow up the research exchange visits of those awarded.

The launch event introduced us to PhD students and Post-docs from other universities. We wanted to reconnect, develop our young network with them, and share our resources. Therefore, we invited three people from the University of Stirling and of St Andrews to Edinburgh to plan another event. Early on, it was important to us to hold that event at one of our new collaborators’ institution. We decided to go to Stirling, with another event in mind in St Andrews (subject to future funding). It was exciting and encouraging to have Heather, Gideon and Emily actively involved! We were truly collaborating, not only within our department, but slowly across Scotland. In Stirling, we repeated our collaborative writing activity – previous delegates loved this! – with about 15-20 delegates from five research institutions and invited academic staff from Stirling to speak. The most exciting part was touring the research kindergarten. It was so unique! We learnt more about research methods involving children, and got to see kids at play.

Overcoming challenges and gaining vital experience and skills

This event strengthened our network. We also learned new skills, overcame new challenges, and gained vital academic-related experience. These included, for example: 

Maintaining a network for an always changing community: Every year, new PhD students and Post-docs start, while others finish. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that this affects a post/doctoral network and this requires taking early steps to ensure continuity. This wasn’t our priority at first, so when most of the early team members either refocused on their studies or moved on to other projects after the first event, the project was at risk of failing. It became important to identify people to pass skills and roles to, and mentor them into becoming the next generation in the network. This led to actively including some PhD students and Post-docs from outside and within our university and allocating tasks to mentor-mentee pairs. It remains an ongoing activity. 

Filling roles and adapting to changes: This will, of course, depend on the goals of the network. But it also depends on the skills and interests team members bring. For example, some roles are filled by specific team members because they are already good at it or well positioned to carry them out, such as tweeting, designing posters, and arranging event catering and venue. Other roles are filled by all, and some of these rotate, so that all have opportunities to gain new experiences, such as writing funding applications and monthly blog posts, taking minutes, contributing feedback to drafts of blog posts, applications, and promotional material, promoting events/activities, approaching and hosting event speakers, and preparing and facilitating event sessions.

Effective leadership: From a team’s perspective, identifying, perhaps collectively choosing, someone who steers the team in an agreed direction can clarify otherwise ambiguous roles, and really move a project forward. At the beginning, our group had no identified lead role and I felt that stepping up as lead myself – as scary as it was – gave it a momentum. From an inexperienced lead’s perspective, do get a mentor. Someone to discuss ideas with, to advise you, to highlight achievements, and to encourage you on when things get frustrating. Recently, we agreed to rotate the leadership role and integrate mentoring. A team member from the host university for the next event becomes the key organiser, and the previous lead becomes a mentor. Thus, team-leading becomes a shared responsibility giving others the chance to gain leadership skills.

Reaching our target audience: This is an ongoing challenge. It will always be difficult to demonstrate to an already busy post-graduate that another commitment will benefit them. And we know from our event feedback that attendees did value and enjoy it. Using a range of media has been effective. We also repeatedly tweet about events, post in Facebook groups, put up posters in our departments, and advertise on AV screens. Most valuable has been word-of-mouth promotion by someone potential delegates know, and someone at each university willing to promote our activities there. (Know someone? Email us!) It is an incredibly underestimated amount of effort, but vital.

Encouraging collaboration and fostering stronger networks: We found that, even though attendees were extremely engaged in our activities on the day, carrying this forward is challenging. We continue to experiment with this, but collected a few good ideas: Offering incentives (such as our Travel Awards) and encouraging people to collaborate on something concrete has been useful. Also, asking PhD students and Post-docs to share their experiences on our blog or join our Skype meetings encouraged collaboration and connections. However, we wish to grow our modest (though fabulous!) core team of 10 and to find ways to retain those 20-30 people we reach at events. Any idea how?

Communicating across universities and managing an online presence: Logistics can be tricky. How do you hold meetings with team members located across the country, without resources for frequent travel? How do you manage documents and social media together? Using technology was the best way for us. We created a closed group with university tools for sharing emails and documents among core team members. Only using emails will not work! We hold Skype meetings to exchange updates, agree the next step as a group, and distribute tasks. It works brilliantly! Regarding social media, usually one or two people per platform oversee this. Closer to events, all of us advertise to increase reach. There will always be downtimes and crunch times so this should be clearly communicate within the team.

Where do we want to go next?

This project, whilst not always smooth sailing, has been an incredible and invaluable learning experience for myself and those involved. We have grown as people, as early-career academics and as a community. Since our Stirling event, we added two new members from Dundee and Edinburgh to our core team. We are applying for funding for our St Andrews event (Look out for this around December or January!), hoping to repeat our Travel Award initiative, and considering a fourth event in Dundee next year. My vision for this project, however, is much bigger! I would love to see more PhD students and Post-docs across Scotland participate in what we do. I also envision this network connecting people from other disciplines, such as education, social work and nursing. And how awesome would it be to partner with industry, government or the health and social care sector to learn how our research and skills can be useful outside academia?  

If you identify with our experience, I invite you to get in touch. If your research is on developmental wellbeing across the lifespan, you may like to plan and deliver our next activities with us (One at your university perhaps?) or propose new activities. It will be a rewarding journey. We also welcome ideas to address our ongoing challenges, such as finding sustainable funding and promoting events.

- Dr Anke Kossurok is a Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

[email protected]

[email protected]

"I would like to say a BIG THANK YOU to Aigli and Kiyoshi from ScotDPN who co-wrote this article with me. And another BIG THANK YOU to Heather, Gideon, Rita, Josh, Huong, Somia, Aigli and Kiyoshi from ScotDPN with whom it is a joy to make this Network happen." 

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