Building community and developing a sense of belonging through PhD internships

Image credit: Original artwork by Mehak Chauhan, PhD student, School of Biological Sciences.

In this post, Bradley Sharples reflects on his role as a Community Building PhD intern, working on the Resilient Learning Communities Enhancement Theme. This post is part of the Building Community Learning and Teaching Enhancement Theme.

Since March 2022, I have been a PhD intern at The University of Edinburgh focusing on the community building aspects of the Resilient Learning Communities Enhancement Theme. This theme is a way for all Scottish higher education institutions to work together to improve the student experience. For further information on this Enhancement theme, please read the previous blog posts by Nichola Kett – Prioritising equality, diversity and inclusion activities through the Enhancement Themes – as well as myself and my colleague Yuemiao’s blog post – Welcome to May–June Learning and Teaching Enhancement Theme: Building Community.

Whereas Yuemiao is focusing on postgraduate research (PGR) students, my work tends to be university-wide being involved with many different schools. I take a broad, more general view of community building at the University, which means I interact with various individuals in various projects around the University, from the social sciences to maths and physics, and everything in between.

I was first interested in this role because of how closely narratives around belonging and inclusion relate to not just my current PhD research but also to my undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Additionally, I was excited about the developmental opportunities and the experience it provided that could enhance my skills.

What have I been doing?

As I mentioned, I have been involved in various projects across the University, some of which I will highlight here.

Initially, one of the first projects I undertook was updating the ‘Student Feedback Guide’, which contained outdated information and was not useful to students. I updated the general version with correct information, and improved it by including in it how we, as the University, would ‘close the loop’ and use their feedback. We thought this was very important considering that many of these feedback tools are essential to the measurement of our work in the Enhancement Theme. Following this, I also liaised with Yuemiao to produce a PGR-specific feedback guide because we realised that, as different communities have different needs, so different students have different contexts and had access to different resources and services.

Another project I undertook was developing a theory of change model to conceptualise our work throughout the theme. I gathered information from the previous interns’ work and used that to inform the model, as well as the opinions of various individuals and the institutional team (who coordinate the University’s work on the Theme). In brief, the model traces the root causes that impact the community building ‘needs’ at the University. These then feed into some activities and projects occurring at the University, which then translate into outcomes organised by timescale. It also includes the various tools that we can use to measure community building, from the student representative handover document, to student surveys, to the student panel. We can use this model to record, justify, and guide community building at the University.

Alongside this, I’ve been investigating the different projects that are happening in relation to community building around the University, which we can use to inform and evidence our work on the Enhancement Theme. This evidence will be combined with the theory of change model to provide justification for our activities. These projects were invited to produce a blog post regarding their activities, some of which you will be able to find within this Teaching Matters theme!

An example of one of these projects is the Health In Social Sciences (HISS) disability survey that I have been running. Last year the school ran a survey with the aim of improving the experience of students with disabilities and giving students a voice to tell their story and share their experiences. This year, it has been my responsibility to update and distribute the survey as well as conduct follow up qualitative interviews to figure out what is working in the School.

Additionally, I have been involved in two conferences during my internship. Firstly, I presented at the ‘QAA Scotland Enhancement Conference 2022: Resilient Learning Communities‘ in Glasgow on the value PhD interns bring to the Enhancement Themes. Following this, I also helped run a stall at The University of Edinburgh’s Learning and Teaching Conference. Both of these were valuable experiences that I certainly feel privileged to have attended.


Reflecting on my experiences, I would say that I have certainly enjoyed my PhD internship. I think it has enhanced my own experience and understanding of the different opportunities that there are at the University regarding community building as a student, and it has made visible the actions that I can take to improve these, for my own benefit as well as that of other students. I think that being a student at the University gives you a different perspective. The internship has also provided me with plenty of developmental opportunities.

It has also impacted on my own sense of belonging, primarily in that it has put me in contact with many people throughout the University who otherwise I would not have met. I think this is particularly relevant during a PhD, exacerbated by the pandemic, because of the individual and almost isolated nature of study.

I also must note the usefulness of the internship structure in relation to two PhD interns supervised by two separate individuals. While Nichola, my supervisor, was invaluable in guiding and supporting me throughout the internship, having someone like Yuemiao, who is in the same position as myself, is incredibly helpful in many different aspects, from any challenges faced to any opportunities captured.

In conclusion, I think that PhD interns certainly have an important part to play in both the Enhancement Themes as well as in wider University activities. The middle-ground between student and staff that PhD students often inhabit can be leveraged to provide a unique perspective and facilitate valuable institutional change at the University. Short-term, I think my role has aided in the pursuit of ‘What Works’ within University community building and, I hope, has given a voice to different communities at The University of Edinburgh.

photograph of the authorBradley Sharples

Bradley is a PhD student at Moray House School of Education and Sport at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on inter-national inequality within the developmental context of lower-order sports mega-events.

photograph of the authorMehak Chauhan

A first year PhD student in School of Biological Sciences, Mehak has a keen interest in the realms of molecular biology. Apart from working in the lab with Staphylococcus aureus, she indulges herself in hobbies like drawing, dancing and poetry. Being a published author on Kindle, she also runs a blog on WordPress. She has contributed this piece for our running theme “Positive practices in community building” wherein she has depicted how engaging in various activities can help bring people closer and lead to formation of a congruous community.

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