Building resilient communities for Postgraduate Research students

Image credit: Clarissa Yung, BSc Psychology student, The University of Edinburgh.

In this post, Building Community PhD Intern, Yuemiao Ma, reflects on her work supporting community building initiatives as part the University’s Enhancement Themes activity. This is the final post of the Building Community Learning and Teaching Enhancement Theme.

In March 2022, I joined the University’s Enhancement Themes Institutional team as a PhD Intern to support institutional work on the QAA Enhancement Theme: Resilient Learning Communities.

My focus has been on Postgraduate Research (PGR) students to investigate the landscape of community building and develop a sense of “what works”. The reason for having a particular focus on PGR students is that they are often positioned in a blurred place between students and staff, and there are indications that they sometimes struggle to feel part of a research group or community.

Day-to-day, I work with Dr Fiona Philippi, Head of Doctoral Education, at the Institute for Academic Development (IAD). I also work together with Nichola Kett, Head of Quality Assurance and Enhancement Team in Academic Services, and Bradley Sharples, another PhD Intern. I very much enjoy working with all of them, and am grateful for all the support they have given me.

The projects I’ve worked on

As the previous project from the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Scotland Building a research community for PGRs shows, even when PGR students expressed an interest in research from other areas, they referred to this as interdepartmental/interdisciplinary communication, which indicates that a departmental identity is important for PGR students to define themselves. Therefore, if they could feel part of a research community within their department/school/institute, then it’s easier for them to feel part of a research community overall.

From my conversations with PGR students and staff from a few Schools, I found different approaches of PGR community building. The School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences (PPLS) implemented CommuniTEA to offer a place for peer support through regular meetings. They also have a “work in progress” seminar series to invite PGR students to present their work. In the Moray House School of Education and Sport, the Interweaving conference was organised in May 2022 by PGR students, with a theme of “Becoming more certain with uncertainties”, providing a place for PGR students to present and network. In the School of Health in Social Science, a group of PGR students started Research Bow, a blog for PGR students in the School. The concept of it is described as “Independently growing together”, which invites PGR students to share practices and celebrate small wins during their research journey.

Stepping out of Schools and disciplines, PGR students I spoke to also expressed an interest to attend seminars and training sessions beyond their own research area on an informal basis, though they sometimes experience difficulties in finding these. This was the basis of a recommendation by the PhD intern in 2021 to investigate setting up a PGR representative roundtable, with the aim to provide a space for all levels of PGR reps to share practices within their School and also develop networks with other Schools. During my time, I have created a structure for this event and recommendations about how it can be piloted. In addition, the Students’ Association and Doctoral College are organising three PGR Pizza talks over summer 2022, which include a series of 15-minute presentations, focusing on general topics in research, such as ethics, innovation and meaning making. The Pizza talks are also good opportunities to have interdisciplinary discussion. An evaluation of these events would help deepen our understanding of “what works”.

Based on these projects, some themes have emerged. One challenge for PGR community building, with the ease of Covid-19 regulations and everything going back to ‘normal’, is how to make good use of in-person interaction, as well as recognising the need to keep high quality communication in online communities. This requires much effort in terms of organisation, but it is a necessity to make the community inclusive. Another challenge is recruiting participants – this has been an issue discussed at many places around the University, and it is suggested that more effort might be needed in articulating the meanings of events for the participants.

What have I gained?

Through the internship, I became more and more familiar with the PGR community not only within my own School, within the University, but also beyond that. I joined the Scottish Graduate School of Social Sciences (SGSSS) as a student representative recently, and am hoping to bring our voices to the whole sector. This was also achieved through participating in some internal and external conferences, including Learning and Teaching Conference by The University of Edinburgh, and Enhancement Themes Conference by QAA Scotland. These opportunities also helped me to develop presentation and networking skills.

What next?

One message that keeps emerging during the internship and my everyday PGR life is that there is a lot happening around the University but sometimes the excellent work goes unrecognised due to lack of effective communication. Regular newsletters are a good way to disseminate information, but they should not be overwhelming, especially because people get filled email boxes and PGR students, particularly, are often immersed in their research. Other communication methods can also be improved. Some people I talked to expressed that the information sources for PGR students are mostly their supervisors or Programme Directors, which leads to another area that can be further developed – student-staff partnership. More support from staff on student projects (such as funding, recognition) and building the relationship can increase PGR students’ sense of a research community and a sense of belonging.

As an output of my internship, I am consolidating all the projects/cases that I have been working on to form a case studies report, which will be available on the Doctoral College webpages. It will include description of the good practices, the challenges they have gone through, and a list of recommendations for future community building activities.

Even though my internship will finish soon, my journey of PGR community building won’t stop there. These few months of internship have provided me opportunities to explore how different PGR students think, and this has helped me as a PGR student, to increase my own sense of belonging to my School and to the whole University. I will continue my efforts and involvement in different levels of projects, and contribute to a more resilient research community.

photograph of the authorYuemiao Ma

Yuemiao is a PhD student at Moray House School of Education and Sport at the University of Edinburgh. Her research is about Global Citizenship Education with relation to Model United Nations.

photograph of the authorClarissa Yung

Clarissa is a BSc Psychology student with a passion for creative art and storytelling. She is inspired by natural landscapes, human nature and daily life encounters. Her work captures the extraordinary beauty in ordinary life.

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