This post is by Qian Jiang (@QJiang09) and Jingwen Zhou (@real_zjw) who are both first year doctoral researchers in the School of Education at the University of Glasgow.
This blog aims to share our experience of organising peer support group (although in our case, it was only two of us) and how it has served as an example of the hidden curriculum for us. It includes how we started this peer support group. We also explain why it is a great way to learn informally beyond the doctoral programme by taking into account the benefits of peer support, writing support, presentation preparation and emotional care.
Never being shy to ask “do you want to do peer support with me?” We initiated our peer support group from the very beginning of our long PhD journey. It does not require much effort compared to organising other academic activities. Our peer support group was formed after our first face-to-face chat. We just hit it off at the very first sight: we both had completed a Master’s degree in English-speaking countries. The conversation then came following our previous experience as international students and also from our shared concerns about this daunting PhD journey. Since “what is your project?” has become the primary question when socialising, we talked about our research and then read each other’s research proposal more comprehensively to obtain greater understanding of it. What happened next is quite natural, we decided to meet on a weekly basis for two hour to discuss our work. The lesson we learned is that every PhD student wants peer support—you will obtain it if you ask.
Building up our very own informal group Supervisors can provide tremendous support and help in your PhD journey as well as a good deal of resources for specific research fields, but they cannot be with you for everything and every time. Encouraged by our supervisors, we realised the importance of building up our own group to get further support. A peer support group is a great opportunity for informal learning, which is beyond the curriculum and different from any workshops we have attended. It is in the peer support group that we address various questions that we encounter, including the “silly” ones. Yes, there is no silly question, but you always need someone to listen to you and help you sort it out. In many cases, what people expect is not a piece of professional advice, instead, an empathetic response from someone who possibly raises a similar “silly” question.
Writing from process to product A PhD is highly related to writing. There are many great writing sessions and workshops available in our School, but a peer support group can be a more specific and integrated one. With the monthly task of draft submission, we monitor each other’s working pace first, and then meet every weekend to assist in proofreading each other’s work. In the first two months, suggestions for improvements were mostly focusing on the grammatical and lexical issues, but more recently, we were giving more professional comments from a reader’s perspective, for example, coherence, paragraph structure, and methodological consideration, etc. Six months passed by, and we observed some significant progress in both our work, such as better organisation of arguments and more critical voices. We both agree that we have made good contributions to improving each other’s writing.
Presenting our work once a week in the peer support group The viva seems a bit far away for two first year PhD students, but it is never too early to prepare for it. In our peer support group, every time before we read each other’s work, we do a short presentation at first and then the other one challenges the ideas presented. In this manner, we learn and practise how to defend our arguments. Sometimes we fail, but it is never frustrating. We find it helpful to have such opportunities to reconsider the logic of our arguments and then revise our drafts. One more critical point is that convincing the audience is a key ability for accomplishing a PhD, so it is good to start with a small group to practise how to explain the content of your research to others and persuade them to see your views. Furthermore, this could help you to shape your writing style and make it understandable for the wider public.
Having a shoulder to cry on For most, doing a PhD is a lonely journey and it is often overwhelming. It is a blessing to have someone accompanying you on this journey – someone who can understand most of your concerns, especially when you are emotionally fragile. When you encounter a ‘bottleneck’ especially when digging deeper in research, having someone who knows nearly every aspect of your difficulties and can provide appropriate support and suggestions is invaluable. At one point, one of us was too stressed and tended to lose confidence about carrying out the project; the other argued with a list of advantages for continuing with the PhD research and how feasible it is to conduct this research. A peer support group reassures that it is okay to “cry” with each other, but most of the time, having this someone also makes you feel that there is “no need to cry”.
In conclusion, we are still on the way of building up a more effective peer support group. We believe firmly that the benefits could be greater if we continue with our regular meetings. It is our hope that to some extent, we have offered some encouragement to other doctoral researchers to organise their own peer support group.