Community: build networks to support your work (Jade Sleeman)

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When I’m not hard at work researching or writing, there's a US sitcom that I secretly enjoy called Community.

It's about a group of unlikely characters studying in a community college, who decide to form a study group. It stars Chevy Chase, so you know it'll be good for a laugh.

The thing that makes this show so funny - apart from Chevy Chase - is that the group of students seem to have nothing in common, and yet they make each other's experience of college so much better.

One of the most difficult things I've found about studying for a higher degree by research is that it can be extremely isolating.

Being proactive about identifying your community (or communities) can be helpful in creating supportive networks, and improving your experience of what can seem like a hard slog.

There are lots of different types of communities. 

Communities of practice have been a popular area of study. This is where a group of individuals have a shared interest and can collectively support each other in developing their individual practice in a particular area. Where this type of community differs from other types of common interest groups is that there is a focus on sharing and developing resources and knowledge. Learning happens, then, not in isolation, but through interacting and building knowledge together. A significant benefit of a community of practice is being able to learn from more experienced members of a group.

Learning communities are also a useful way to improve an educational experience. Researchers such as Vincent Tinto have looked at factors that contribute to student persistence in higher education, finding that forming social bonds with other students can increase academic engagement by facilitating positive social learning experiences both inside and outside the classroom.

Another important source of community these days is social media. Online communities formed on Facebook and Twitter can provide us with endless opportunities for interaction with others that have similar interests worldwide. We can also search for blogs and discussion forums to gain advice, and possibly contribute our own experience to further understanding in a particular area.

Networks to support you

So, what is your community of practice? For a graduate research student, this will probably include supervisor/s, other academics in your discipline, and postgraduates further along in their candidature in your study area. These are the people in your academic or professional area with whom you can share ideas. They help you to learn and grow as a researcher.

Do you have a learning community? Without regular classes to connect us, graduate researchers can find it hard to get to know others in the same situation. Many of us have families and/or jobs, which can make it difficult to find extra time for connecting with other students in our departments. However, the pay-off for the time that you put in to meeting your peers is the increased feelings of engagement with your studies, which will improve your experience of the candidature process.

Who is part of your online community? Where distance is an issue (and even where it’s not), digital connections can make the world of difference to how connected you feel. Although the naysayers will claim it’s wasting time, using social media can significantly increase your social participation in academic or professional communities. Check out blogs like The Thesis Whisperer or The Research Whisperer for advice, or follow @PhDForum or @Write4Research on Twitter to join informative conversations. In this way, you have the possibility of creating a learning community or community of practice in cyberspace that transcends geographical distance.

So, I would urge you to tap the resources of your community of practice, connect with other students studying in your department, and use your devices to digitally expand your networks.

And, at the next RED event, make time for a chat or even a coffee to get to know some of the other graduate research students in other areas.

You never know - you may just form your own group of unlikely characters, which could make your experiences as a PhD or Masters candidate so much better.


Jade Sleeman is an English teacher, mother, researcher, and writer - often all on the same day. 

Jade has just begun a PhD looking at social media in higher education. She loves developing community in all its forms, and is especially excited about the possibilities afforded by technology. 

She can be found on Twitter @academiadiva, blogs at, and loves having a coffee and a chat.