The question of how to build a research culture occupies a lot of big-brained types at universities, at all levels.
PhD researchers want to feel they’re a part of, and can contribute to, a good one. Professors like to think that they helped create and grow a thriving one.
University executives want an excellent one yesterday, preferably bristling with national government grants, effective and fat industry partnerships, top-flight publications, and seamless higher degree candidatures and completions. Sometimes, they want this almost instantly.
Research cultures are complex and often fragile systems, and when you look too hard for specific components to engineer one, the whole thing can evaporate.
Can you force staff to be productive without having a good research culture? I think you can – but you won’t have productive or happy researchers for very long, in that case. Nor would you have particularly good research.
For me, one of the best barometers of the health of an institutional research culture is the presence and activity of graduate researcher groups and associations.
Because if graduate researchers feel supported and confident in their institutional spaces, they are more likely to actively build their peer and personal networks, and be productive (this is true of researchers at all levels, no?).
For postgrads, these groups can lead to many opportunities for collaboration, a stronger sense of who their cohort is (disciplinary and purely collegial), and an enhanced information / strategy network.
So, what do postgrad groups actually get up to?
They can often be almost purely social groups that consist of regular gatherings and outings, drinks on a Friday, that kind of thing.
And they can sometimes create and manage these types of activities:
- Organising postgrad conferences or symposiums. These are excellent when they’re inter-institutional, and appropriately supported by the university (yes, I’m talking about money).
- Reading groups.
- Peer writing circles (including providing friendly critique on papers or chapters). These can often be #shutupandwrite arrangements that merge with other postgrad groups.
- Getting representation on school or departmental committees.
On this last point: I’d argue that through forming and participating in these kinds of groups, graduate researchers are also more likely to feel they can mobilise to speak out about issues relevant to their cohort’s experiences (e.g. transparency and access to conference funding, not being included in general school or department communications or events, conditions for sessional staff – many of whom may be postgrads).
Some university units fear empowering their postgraduates precisely because it might come back to bite them when the postgrad organisations start petitioning for fair work conditions around issues such as sessional marking or equity in resource/space allocation. But if graduate researchers are passionate enough to fight for various issues, it signals engagement and identification with academic identity and professional concerns. I can’t see how this is a bad thing in the bigger picture.
Smaller picture, sure, there are some spectacular barneys that can take place at school meetings with the school and postgrad association on opposing sides…but isn’t that as it should be at times? Insight for each group into the other’s concerns is no bad thing. For example, when it comes to the brass tacks of negotiating a marking rate, both parties need to know about departmental budgets, subject allocations, number of hours, and staff workloads. It makes issues visible to each side and, hopefully, this sharing of perspectives leads to better understanding overall.
My own experience of postgraduate societies is a very rich one. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses – there was backbiting and proposed coups, research area tribalism, clashing egos, and ennui. Much like academia more broadly, really! So it was all good in terms of prepping for life at a university.
But, seriously, being part of a postgrad society has forged some of the longest lasting adult friendships that I’ve got. There’s the solidarity of being in the same cohort of higher degree students and the recognition of others in your group. Coming through an Arts degree, finding a sense of one’s cohort was almost impossible. I changed subjects every semester and had very few consistent degree companions. It wasn’t until I started my Honours year that I started recognising peers on the higher degree trail.
Even during my PhD, though, with shared offices and the postgrad rooms arrayed along the same corridor, it wasn’t that easy to feel a part of a bigger structure. I wasn’t necessarily looking for peeps to hang with – introverted, remember? – but I did feel disconnected from the general concerns of the department.
Being part of the newly formed postgrad society, its conferences, and other events, meant working collaboratively with many other postgrads who weren’t directly in my area (literary studies). It also allowed a generational transfer of institutional knowledge and camaraderie that I didn’t realise I wanted until I had it.
It has been over fifteen years since I completed my PhD, and many of my postgrad society buddies are now in my orbit on social media. It’s a totally different way of knowing what one another is up to, and most of them I haven’t seen face-to-face for about those fifteen years.
And it doesn’t matter.
Shout-out here to my fellow travellers at various times during my Masters and PhD years at the University of Queensland: Sharon Bickle, @rocketpilot, @kathryngoldie, @johngunders, Laurie Johnson, Anna Johnston, @kirsty_l, @susanluckman, @acidic, Andrea Mitchell, Paul Newman, and Maggie Nolan.
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