Loughborough PhD Social & Support Network

#BLOG Power of PGR led groups

This is the third in a series of blogs about PGR experience at Loughborough University. In my last blog, I explored the quite broad topic of whether PGR’s are best considered staff or students. For this blog I want to narrow down somewhat and discuss the local context of Loughborough. Specifically focusing on PGR led groups and quite simply to encourage their formation and continuation. I am sure there are a range of PGR led initiatives across the university, but I will discuss the groups I am both aware of and have taken part in, in some form or another. These are PhD SSN, The Writing Gym, Heads Together and LiQuiD Lab. My primary motive in this blog is to express support for peer-led group, but also to discuss the issue of Research Culture at Loughborough.

Before I begin it is worth mentioning why I think these groups are so essential to the PGR experience. To do this, I first have to take a few steps back and discuss the modern nature of universities. All students, PGRs, staff are divided by schools that generally coincide with their chosen research area (although this is not an exact science, as many PGRs will know). Within many of those schools there is a further division called units/departments. Within some departments there is a further division of research themes. To give an example from my experience. I study in the Social Sciences and Humanities School, I am in the Communication and Media department and I am loosely situated in a research theme Media, Memory and History and my PhD is part of a research project. There are also varying methodological traditions that divide groups further. Each tradition, CDT, theme, department, and school will use their own specialist language, have unique practices, and compete with each other for research funds (For in-depth discussion about this topic visit Billig 2013). Each area has become so specialist that PGR’s enter an academic space that is by the nature of modern day academia, fragmented.

Is it any wonder then that universities across the UK do so poorly in PRES with research culture and research collaboration? With Research Culture often described as a ‘nebulous’ term, management and reps look to PGR’s to define the term hoping to find solutions based on feedback. It is much harder to accept that the issue is systemic to the running of modern day universities. In my view, I see the poor rating as a mere reflection of the unnecessary endless division of sub-disciplines, research groups and methodologies that encourage the PGR to work within narrow confines and divides cohorts into cliques. That might sound overly gloomy, maybe it is. But I do believe that Research Culture can be fostered ever so slightly within these limits. One way of doing this is by maintaining and establishing peer-led groups at the university. This is not a revolutionary statement. Indeed, the Doctoral College established a Research Culture Fund in 2011 in direct response to PRES results for any ‘events that encourage student-led academic events across the university’. This is a great help and incentive for PGRs and one that representatives should fight to keep despite the current financial hardship.

It is worth underscoring the value of these peer-led groups. Not so the university can achieve better PRES results next time round. But to do better than academics that came before us. To establish connections across disciplines, learn from each other and build a greater sense of research community. I realise that these are pretty empty words, I even did the political rule of three. But simply I hope that by building closer relationships between schools, we can broaden our research perspectives and find collaborations that are truly inter-disciplinary.

LiQuiD Lab

LiQuiD Lab is the only methodological research network that is available for PGRs across the university. That alone makes it worth keeping hold of.  It is a space for cross-disciplinary discussions about qualitative research and was formed over a decade ago. Its existence relies on a PGR committee to setup events and the goodwill of PGR’s to get involved in sharing their methodological ideas with one another. I believe its strength is in its potential to facilitate connections across disciplines encouraging research collaboration and a sharing of ideas from individuals in different schools. It is also a worthwhile experience to organise and co-ordinate the events.  Again, empty words, what I mean to say is LiQuiD Lab has given myself and other PGRs the opportunity to meet and hear different perspectives on qualitative research. I think this widens my knowledge of the area and it can be interesting meeting PGRs from across the school.

A big thank you and congratulations to the current committee, events have been both varied and tremendously successful and well attended.

PhD SSN

The PhD Support and Social Network adds to the PGR experience in a variety of ways. It is hard actually to describe what it is because it serves so many functions. In many ways it operates like a society, in other ways like a service, organisation, social group, all of the above. Sports, social events, blogs, reading groups, virtual quizzes and lunches are just a few things it covers. It is great to have something like this at Loughborough University, so thank you to the committee. Perhaps primarily known for the social side, I believe the potential of the SSN stretches far beyond this, but another blog, another time. I want to briefly explain why PhD SSN is so vital for PGRs like me who have strong opinions on PGR representation and why I chose SSN blogs as a place to write these series of thoughts about PGR life at Loughborough.

This blog is a prime example of why PhD SSN is essential for PGRs at Loughborough University. It affords me the opportunity to critique the institution with relative autonomy. For example, my blog posts are unlikely to be accepted by the Doctoral College blogs because at times I am questioning its and the university’s performance. And quite right, I would not expect DCO to post a blog that questions the effectiveness of Careers or Mental Health services at the University. However, whilst the Doctoral College must be one of the best and most supportive of its kind in the country, it is not infallible and should welcome a vocal PGR community. It is the PGRs that make up and represent the community after all and the Doctoral College is an appendage of the university. It makes decisions that have positive results for us, but it also has power to make decisions that have a problematic impact on us all, and thus is and should be open to scrutiny. Because PhD SSN is in large part (despite receiving certain funds from DCO) separate from Doctoral College it means it can entirely cater to and for the PGR community, not bounded by commitments to the institution.

I think the PhD SSN has really stepped up its game this year. Of all the PGR led initiatives I am discussing in this blog; I think the SSN committee has the toughest job of all. They have to put on a range of different events that will satisfy the diversity of interests of over a 1000 PGRs. It does not function in the same way as groups that meet at the same time and day every week, it therefore is more dependent on promotion which is more unpredictable in terms of turnout. I also welcome the sports aspect of SSN giving those interested a chance to continue playing as opportunities are scarce at this stage of our time at university. Not to mention its positive impact on wellbeing. I am further encouraged by a new academic representation role in SSN for the following academic year. Again, huge appreciation goes out to the committee this year, who have done a fantastic job.

Writing Gym

The Writing Gym is a space where PGRs can go every Monday to start off a productive week by working on their research. I have started to join the group and use it as an opportunity to revisit analytical chapters. It is a great way to compartmentalise time to work on something, to speak with fellow PGRS and also, if you need, as I do, a sense of holding yourself accountable. You set yourself a goal and you discuss how you managed to do during a certain set time. It can help with structuring your time and again, as with the above groups, can help with wellbeing. It is a really friendly and relaxed setting to start the week.

Again, a massive thank you to the organisers of this, and long may it last into the future.

Heads Together

Heads Together is a new initiative from the Social Sciences and Humanities school set up towards the start of the calendar year. Created by Chloe Blackwell and Rachel Armitage in response to a lack of shared space and conversation among the cohort, it has made an immeasurable impact in the school since its inception. It has particularly come into its own since lockdown facilitating a virtual space for PGR’s to share experiences of being a PGR, research ideas and general life happenings. It has added to the sense of research culture within the school and is made up of PGRs across disciplines. I am certain that many schools will have a similar space of sharing, whether formalised or not, but if not, I can only suggest creating one. Of course, the difficulty lies in getting it established in the first place. It takes a real team effort to get an initiative off the ground. Nevertheless, it is a practical step towards creating a sense of research culture at the local level that is not so constrained by the parochial nature of sub-disciplines.  

Thank you organisers, Chloe and Rachel for all your efforts. As well as the ‘regulars’ who continue to show their support for the group.

Challenges and opportunities for PGR led initiatives.

The main challenge that PGR led groups face is that the committees are forever in need of new personnel. LiQuiD Lab and PhD SSN have shown that groups can continue long after they have been established, with new committee members adding their own contribution and ensuring the maintenance of the group. In an ideal world, each new committee would work to the betterment of the group, but we know this is not always the case. Establishing a group in the first place is a really considerable feat. But being able to create something that endures and helps future PGRs is another level all together and is the goal to work towards for. It may be that the groups evolve as the experience of being a PGR does, but ultimately peer-to-peer networking will always remain a very essential aspect of developing as a researcher.

Although there are now a variety of PGR groups set-up. There are still gaps and opportunities for other groups to emerge. In particular, it would be great to see a quantitative network established. It seems perfectly natural that a group of this kind would work to the advantage of researchers using those methods, in the same way as LiQuiD Lab has for many years for qualitative researchers. I think there is also scope for a peer-led network that expands on training offered by the Doctoral College i.e. a network of PGR teachers to discuss pedagogical issues or how to cope with research/teaching balance. It likely though however that new groups will be designed out of necessity as the case was with the Heads Together group.

I can only apologise to the peer-led groups I have overlooked; it is only a small sample. I am positive there are more that I have not considered in this blog and also confident they add a lot to the PGR community. Peer-to-peer, PGR led groups are a sign of a dynamic PGR research cohort. It signals a shift from complaining at the way things are at the university to a creation of practical solutions for the betterment of the community. Again, special acknowledgement must go to those who are working towards that end because the groups are simply non-existent without the PGRs who give up their time to make them a success. The Doctoral College have also played a role in helping these groups flourish and championing them so they should be thanked. I can only hope that some of these support networks will be around when I return as an alumnus in future years and that they continue to benefit PGR communities for years to come.

So, we are now halfway there, 3 of the 6 I have planned for the series. I do hope it is of some interest. Any feedback/comments would be much appreciated (E-mail: n.ritchie@lboro.ac.uk; Twitter: @NathanRitchie16)

Nathan Ritchie

Doctoral Researcher in Media and Communication
Loughborough Doctoral Researcher Co-President
Nathan Ritchie

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