Loughborough PhD Social & Support Network

# BLOG – What you say and what we do

By Tasha Kitcher

The below is an edited version of the report written after a survey the SSN conducted earlier this year, with a few tweaks made to reflect on our current working conditions. From the get-go I was keen to make this publicly accessible so that the community can see what we do with their answers, and how the team operates!

Introductory commentary

In March 2020 the SSN Events Coordinators of the 2019 – 2020 committee created an events survey and distributed it using social media and the Doctoral College bulletin. Despite the wide reach you might expect from this effort, only 88 replied to the survey (below 10% of Postgraduate Researchers at Loughborough). Part of the reason for this low uptake is believed to be because colleagues were feeling “survey fatigue” after a number of surveys being released at a similar time, from the DC, presidential team, and the sports section of the SSN. One immediate take-away from this should be to note it is more important to spend time demonstrating the impact a survey had than in holding the survey in the first place. Researchers want to see results, rather than continuously telling these groups that exist for the purpose of helping and representing them what sort of help or representation they want. Fair enough, in the coming year we will endeavour to keep this in mind.

40% of responders had never previously attended an SSN event before, a surprising response given in the year 2019 – 2020 our events reaches 25% of the PGR cohort, with our most successful event hosting over 200 people at a club night in the Students Union. This unfamiliarity of respondents does explain some replies that express confusion over what the SSN is, does, or should do. A particularly useful example here is this response in question 7, which confuses the SSN for the Doctoral College:

What do you think the SSN does well? What could we do better?

“Nothing! Worst PhD events/organisers compare to other universities! You just only thing about you and plans you might think are good. But plans are just as bad as everything. No organisation, not very nice office environment, never ask students which plans should be done. Maybe you should do polls, create a chat group with PhD students where everyone can say anything, maybe make things easy at the office to deal with office desk, maybe try to do more adverts, maybe do more plans where no one talks about PhD, maybe more than one plan a week which not overlap other plans, many many things to improve guys! I’m on my third year and it’s just terrible the social aspect of PhD!”

While other responses held the SSN, a multi-disciplinary group, responsible for issues in their particular unit or office:

“We should have a pizza night but stick to it make it into a tradition of this office”

 “I don’t know SSN at all until this survey. The events were not for London Campus students”

These disgruntled replies to questions posed specifically about the SSN are valuable despite their misdirection. They are indicative of a culture of researchers that are frustrated with the social aspect of their experience at Loughborough, and while the PhD Social and Support Network formed to be part of the answer to these problems there comes a time when it is worth asking just how much work one group of volunteers can do. Are there other groups that could step in to help these isolated PGRs? What is the role of the Doctoral College and Students Union in the social life of their PhD colleagues?

Action in response to this survey

The Arts and Culture Representative

Several respondents requested more arts and culture events be held, with two suggesting directly that an arts and culture coordinator could be added to the committee. This suggestion has been taken onboard and should also mean that a wider range of events can be arranged in the future since the events coordinator role is no longer responsible for creating events that capture the interest of all.

If you are interested in suggesting events or reaching out to the Arts and Culture Representative, her name is Naami Sharma and she is available through all the usual modes of communication.

The Academic Development Coordinator

80% of those surveyed wanted the opportunity to attend events where they could meet new people – which made the committee consider hosting some more formal networking events. 45% of respondents specifically requested a networking event, while a handful of qualitative responses asked for events where they could discuss specific themes, have intellectual conversations with peers about something other than their research, or share skills they have developed themselves with a wider audience. The academic development coordinator role was created to fill this gap.

Again, Melissa Schiele is available to speak to at events and over email.

Tuesday lunches

Tuesday lunches have long been a staple of the SSN, but before lockdown were poorly attended. The responses to question six in the survey give a good indication as to why this is:

Tuesday daytimes are when students claim to be least available for social events, and so in the past term we have trialled Tuesday lunches of different days of the week.

Moving forward, it is clearly worth considering hosting events regularly on the weekend where most students are available. A bi-weekly pub event was proposed, however never started due to the nationwide lockdown and following restrictions.

I have always wondered what the future of Tuesday lunches might be, even more so now that Covid-19 restrictions have taken away the “drop in and eat your lunch” aspect of the meetings. I suspect this will continue to be a battle of mine for the coming year, and welcome any thoughts on the matter!

Survey results – What days and times are best for events to be hosted in your own opinion?

Action to be taken

Pay-for-entry events

50% of people were willing to pay for an event, while a majority of the more ‘colourful’ replies to question 7 (What do you think the SSN does well? What could we do better?) asked for a better quality of event – which would require increased funding or charged ticket prices. With new committee roles having been created, the SSN may branch out into new kinds of events and therefore find ways to charge entry for special events, such as talks by industry professionals.

Survey results – Would you be willing to pay to attend a special event?

Improve communication with PGRs

Given the answer to question 7, what can we do better, and 8, any further comments, there have clearly been some challenges in communicating with the PGRs. In response to this Tymele and I have endeavoured to set up a regular mailing list which PGRs can ‘opt-in’ to receive updates from the SSN. We also hope to advertise all events at least a week before they occur and will share details of ‘big’ events on printed posters as well as online.

Secure funding

The survey proves that there is a substantial need for social support of PGRs at Loughborough. While the DC is unable to provide many events because they are a small and busy group, they have historically provided funding to the SSN. We are grateful for their continued help, however with Covid meaning they are now only focused on ‘essential expenditure’ I do wonder how the SSN will be able to cope with increasing demand for support services while our budget is cut. Are there other ways to fill this gap? Should we be looking beyond the SSN to hold groups at the University accountable for the experience of PGRs?

Conclusion

The future of the PhD SSN at Loughborough is bright, but by no means secure. A group of volunteers that already have full-time research roles and frequently hold other positions within the University, we are a busy but dedicated team. I am proud to be a member of the committee because I think we are a group of people committed to peer support and hell-bent on improving the experience of PGRs at Loughborough. While not all of our events are well attended, I have never thought that was the point of the team. At the end of the day our focus has to be on the minutiae of life at Loughborough, on the small ‘wins’ we can make for improving even one person’s experience.

It has frequently been asked if as a team we should join forces with the Students Union or be further integrated into the Doctoral College. I think our independence from these two groups is our biggest strength. It allows us to remain impartial and constantly look out for the Doctoral Researchers interests. However, it goes without saying that if we merged with one of these teams, we would probably have a more stable funding situation. Perhaps it is time for the SSN to start thinking about how we can best serve our community, and just how much our independence means to us.

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