Loughborough PhD Social & Support Network

#blog – The Isolated Beginning: What more can be done to help alienated first years?

By Nathan Ritchie
n.ritchie@lboro.ac.uk

This is the fourth blog of my series of blogs for PhD SSN. So far I have tackled mental health support at Loughborough, whether or not PGRs should be considered staff or students and the power of PGR led initiatives. For this blog I wish to discuss first year PGR experiences. In line with the tone of previous blogs, I am going to talk about alienated first year PGRs. Specifically, the very early stages of the PGR experience. To do this, I will talk primarily about my personal experiences, making this by far the most personal of the blogs I have written so far. I will use this as a way to advocate for greater support for first years and discuss ways in which the university could help the situation and ways they currently do not. Although the blog is about first year PGRs, it is intended for an audience with PGR experience at Loughborough. Indeed, I’d probably suggest that first years turn back now!

Firstly, to talk of my own experience. I really struggled at the beginning of my PhD. I was one of only three new starters, and the other two lived off campus. I walked into a friendly but not overly welcoming department and felt unable to connect with anyone. Although nice, I thought these people were different from me in outlook and personality. To top this off I was struggling to get to grips with my research topic. It was overwhelming and I struggled to keep up or make sense of my supervisor meetings. I couldn’t settle in academically, socially, or emotionally. At the time I was living on my own and my friends from the master’s course had left Loughborough. Staff strikes had been called and I lived with several undergraduates who were living, let’s say, undergrad lives.  Yes, yes I know sad story. Please put away your violins.  The point is I felt alienated from the university. I was one of the disillusioned. The #LboroFamily life felt far removed from my personal experience. But to what extent did the University contribute to this feeling, or was this all just my problem?

Let’s examine first, because well, it is easier to blame others, how the university contributed to this experience. Looking back, I felt my induction could have been far more thorough. I would have preferred a regimen to help integrate into PhD life. After the induction I was left more or less to my own devices with only the wonderful reminder by Doctoral College at their induction that my chances of remaining in academia were minute. Despite suggestions that Doc College remove this from induction, it continues for all the wrong reasons to be the most memorable part of the induction. Let the PhD at least get their bearings before crushing them with an extreme ‘managing expectations’ slide. Overuse of acronyms is also an issue for newcomers, it immediately confuses the PGR. Indeed, the function of the Doctoral College and how the LSU supports them is not clear at all. It remains a mystery to many throughout their PhD. It is a common misconception for example that the Doctoral Researcher’s Presidential Team is tied with Doctoral College, when in actuality the role is attached to the LSU.

Walking around campus you see various banners with smiling students talking about their ‘amazing’ experience at the university. They discuss how wonderful their lecturers are, how the university feels like a family, how they settled in right away and generally how perfect life is at Loughborough University. I have heard some people, perhaps who have recently read 1984, argue this type of communication is institutional propaganda, that it indoctrinates individuals into thinking they are having a great time at the University. I think a more thought out argument would be the banners are not for present students/PGRs/staff at all. Instead they are for prospective students who are touring the university throughout the year on open and visit days and are pretty standard fare at universities these days. Similar to the constant drumming of the university standing at league tables. Leaving present students thinking, could that be true? Generally, the banners are insignificant and are to be expected, but they together show an idealised and unattainable version of the university experience. Would these banners not best be served to provide visibility of services? Thanks Charlotte, 24, Sports Science, but I do not need the constant reminder that your experience is amazing, when I am feeling as far removed from that sentiment as possible. In itself the banners are not anything sinister, they are what they are, but they represent a general disconnect from the marketing image of Loughborough University and the people that make up the community. Another blog another time.

It is easy to poke and prod at the university. You could do it in various ways at almost all levels. Ultimately a lot of decision making is taken from a choice of constraints and a need for the institution (and the staff member) in general to survive and prosper. Loughborough does very well compared to others in PRES and NSS, so comparably the Uni does a good job of ensuring the experience of students/PGRs is pleasurable. So, what could I have done to help myself during that early period when I felt so alienated? On reflection I could have made a greater effort to communicate with fellow PGRs in my department. I am sure they too would know the feeling and would have been friendly if I had approached them with my thoughts and anxieties. I could have looked online for support, perhaps connected sooner with SSN, and developed friendships this way. Instead of retreating within myself, I could have actively tried to nurture connections with other people. I understand that to be my shortcoming. I think having more social contacts as I later managed would have involved me more in the university and helped me feel more attached to my surroundings. Sometimes when you feel most unable to settle in is when you should try harder to settle in. In hindsight, I took what seemed the easier way out at the time by barricading myself in my room!

I learnt from this early period of my PhD and it stuck with me even as my situation has improved to not quite the feeling of #LboroFamily, but at the very least #LboroFriends. In my role as representative for my school, I introduced the buddy system. Again, not a revolutionary mechanism, but one I hoped helped first years with a point of contact. The idea is to pair up an incoming PGR with one who is frequently on campus, so they instantly have some connection with a colleague,  to ask all the small questions you may not want to bother your supervisor with or find in a Google search. Simple, but can be an effective way to avoid complete isolation. I made sure to personally attend inductions, speak with new entrants regularly and hope they at least do not find me completely stunted or intimidating (may find me to be complete and utter numpty, but hey! can’t win them all). It has since stuck with me that not everyone is having an enjoyable and rewarding time and it is those PGRs who I most wish to help by setting up systems and helping to build strong representative teams. Ultimately, the more at ease our PGRs are with their surroundings, the better quality of research you will see. Marketing and managerial talk is obviously incompatible with a human touch. So, it is up to PGRs, PGR led groups PGR representation and Research Student Development to fill the gaps and help alienated PGRs to settle back in. But as I stated in the above paragraph, it is far more difficult when the PGR isolates themselves as a reaction to a rough beginning. I think advising first years to this point is a worthwhile discussion to have.

To end this bleak story on a bit of a high. I can say that my time at Loughborough did eventually improve. I gradually made some social connections and did (somewhat) get to grips with the PhD project that initially swarmed me. I became a very active member of the PGR community and can honestly say I have on the whole found the experience rewarding and can say I am very glad I took the opportunity. Not to give the impression that everything is plain sailing. There are many aspects I still find challenging and I have to look introspectively at myself continuously, but I think in a much healthier way than at the beginning. Okay, okay, stop puking, I’m almost done. It does however leave me thinking that if I had had a better experience at the beginning, would I have been able to achieve more during my PhD? Of course, you could say well this is your experience, but is it anyone else’s? But I think to deny that some PGRs feel alienated and aspects of the introductory process contribute to this, is tenuous ground to stand on. With the help of qualitative interactions with PGRs, let’s think of ways to help with the settling in process. Whether this be as some schools have introduced buddy systems, an induction week, a seminar program for first years or increased checking in on ‘absent’ PGRs. The aim should be to go beyond feedback forms and engage with PGRs who have most recently experience what its like when beginning a PhD at Loughborough.

So that is the fourth of my series. I hope it is of interest and some may be able to relate. Remember that the next intake of first years will be in October! Any thoughts and comments please email n.ritchie@lboro.ac.uk or follow me on Twitter @NathanRitchie16.

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