Your doctoral cohort: network with your peers

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I’ve been reading Linked In posts about ‘what I’d tell my 22 year old self’ and one caught my eye in particular – and that was ‘network with your peers’ Specifically, writes Nicholas Thompson of the newyorker.com; “many of the good things that have come in my career have come because of the people I got to know in my early twenties.”

I think of my own career and realise how true this is. It’s the people I worked with on newspapers and magazines in my twenties that I still turn to over the years as our careers have morphed in the evolving media landscape.

I wrote and published a book with Dr Caroline van de Pol, who I met on a suburban newspaper, and then worked with on a daily newspaper, and now have shared interests in academia as we have both received our doctorates in creative writing.

But Thompson’s advice doesn’t just hold true for twentysomethings just starting out. As we move through careers, which develop and change in this age of reinvention, academia plays a key role in retraining for the future. Swap “people I met in my twenties’ for “people I met doing my doctorate” and you can see where I am heading – it is your cohort at university that is vital, no matter how old you are when you take on post graduate study.

Thompson says with the hindsight of age that it “wasn’t meeting people who were influential; it was becoming friends, and developing working relationships, with people who would become influential” that was important.

Take this advice to heart, doctoral candidates, and embrace your cohort. What I have learned is the older you get, the more retired and senile your mentors become. Sad, but true. It’s your cohort that will grow and ultimately, help you as you will help them.

Not everyone who does a doctorate does so as a fresh faced 25 year old on the roller coaster from one degree to the next. Certainly, with the creative writing doctorate, I find that most of my cohort are in fact mid career writers who have realised that they need to “Dr Up” if they are to even get a casual teaching gig anymore. And why would they want that? Because it’s always been hard to make a reliable living from just writing creatively. You need to hustle your skills where the money is – be it copywriting, communications and in the old days before the Internet, journalism. Now to make a living doing sessional teaching as well requires you have the edge by having a doctorate. Call it educational inflation, if you like, but it’s reality.

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It’s easy with the pressure to complete your doctorate in a ‘timely fashion” to concentrate on that and nothing else. But that’s only one part of the story. Your doctorate is a journey and the people you met on the way will become characters in the story of your life and career.  I am going to give you advice I never got doing my doctorate and this it – it is not what you know, it is who you know when it comes to getting an academic job at the end of your doctorate. Meritocracy is for fairy tales, alas. The cold hard truth is that the jobs advertised are so often done for show – candidates are already chosen long before the key selection criteria is sketched out by some HR consultant. Those who want a certain candidate make sure the key selection criteria fits the person they have chosen so they can get away with this sort of thing.

So, how do you get around this? Networking. And that means – making your self known, useful, by joining up, taking part, putting yourself out there and helping others up, too. Getting to know people. All very well, isn’t it, when you are struggling to finish. But there is an organic way of doing this, and that’s to be part of an academic community that meshes with your interests.

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I went to many conferences before I found ‘my people’. And I am sure these are not the only people who are playing in the same sandpit as me, either. I could find more, and should. But so far I have met a wide circle of engaged emerging academics across disciplines who have helped me as I have helped them, in some small way, to get some recognition.

“Thank you for thinking of me” I have been told many times when I have put someone’s name forth for a panel, presentation, reading, whatever – as they have put forth mine.

Thompson writes: “I’m continually working with the same people I worked with in my early twenties. I assign them stories, or I ask them for advice. They call me. We’ve built up trust.”

Don’t underestimate this ‘trust’. I was reminded of this when researching Bruce Springsteen fandom, of all things, for a paper I am toying with that looks at the power of sharing personal stories to connect with readers. I have good friends who are ‘bronze’ Springsteen fans, travelling the world to see him play. As we watched numerous Springsteen concert videos together and I took notes, one of the words that came up frequently was ‘trust’; the trust Springsteen’s fans placed in him for his authenticity, the powerful personal connection with his lyrics, and the admiration fans have in Springsteen’s trust in his own E Street Band, his primary backing band that he has surrounded himself with since 1972, and grown up with – and grown successful with – over the decades. As we say in Australia, he’s a bloke who doesn’t ditch his mates.

What is true in life and for Bruce Springsteen is also true in academia –  we need to reach out to others, and hold on to those we connect with. Yet no one tells you this when you start your doctoral journey. It’s all about impressing the professors, getting articles into high ranking journals. Completing on time.

I can hear what you are saying: “my doctoral study is so isolated I don’t meet anyone”, and “any event I go to on campus hardly anyone turns up anyway”. So true. So true. So, this is where part two of my advice comes in – network with your cohort AND find that cohort at conferences. That’s where you’ll meet your real cohort – the ones engaged in your research areas, or like-minded interdisciplinary ones.

Alas, while universities like to pride themselves on supporting doctoral students and travel to conferences, that’s not always the case, as Pat Thompson explains. In fact, the talk is cheap and the funding cheaper. Let alone support from supervisors anxious you’ll quickly overtake them.

I presented at three Inter-Disciplinary.Net  conferences in Oxford during my doctorate and through those, I made many global connections that have been important in my life and work.

 

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Maybe you are reading this in some country that seems very remote from the action – certainly in Melbourne, I feel very remote from Europe. But the Internet connects us all. I co-edited an academic book Monstrous Geographies: Places and Spaces of the Monstrous with a French doctoral student from the Sorbonne Sarah Montin, whom I met at one of those conferences in Oxford.

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We finally caught up again for a stroll around Paris and the Sorbonne when I visited last year – it was wonderful to meet and chat after spending so many hours corresponding via email about the project as we edited it over many months. And Sarah gave me behind the scenes tour of that glorious Parisian university.

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Closer to home, I am a postgraduate committee member for ASLEC-ANZ – The Association for the Study of Literature, Environment and Culture — Australia and New Zealand , along with my counterpart, Emma Nicoletti. ASLEC-ANZ membership comprises writers, artists, cinematographers, and musicians as well as academics working in and across several areas of the Ecological Humanities, including ecocritical literary and cultural studies, environmental history and the history of science, anthropology and ecophilosophy. The 2014 biennial conference “Affective Habitus” takes places in June in Canberra and together with Emma and others, we are currently planning an informal post grad event of arts practitioner readings – and who are we turning to? Our cohort. From one toss of the pebble, the circles of influence and connection grow. But first you have to pick up that pebble…

It’s vital to go to conferences because you network and by socialising with your cohort you start making connections and organic links with people who share common research interests. And go to an academic’s book launch and support them! (That’s me in the crowd when Dr Peter Singer launched Dr Siobhan O’Sullivan’s book ‘Animals, Equality and Democracy’ . I got to know Siobhan at a conference in Brisbane at the start of my doctorate, and was invited to her animal studies reading group; the connections I made there carried me to an animal studies conference in Utrecht and into ASLEC-ANZ, and onto the Affective Habitus conference where Siobhan is presenting a keynote address. Connections.

Despite being told over the four years of my doctorate that the only thing that matters is writing the exegesis and submitting and everything else is a distraction, this is the stuff of fear and nonsense. It was the conferences I went to and presented at over those four years that were vital because of the people I met – people who became important in my life in so many ways.

It’s not the people at the top you go to conferences to impress and meet – remember, they may well be dead, retired or wandering in a fog of dementia in 15 years time. No, it’s the newbies like you and me who are the ones to network with – because we are at the beginning of our academic journey and whatever our age, we are enthusiastic, tackling the latest ideas, open to possibilities and (however slowly) climbing the academic ladder. You will do well to keep liaising with them over the years, and like me will find that it is this cohort who hold the key to the exciting opportunities.

So – get out there, chat to that other overwhelmed student you meet and really listen to what they have to say and follow them on Twitter, friend them on Facebook, get their email address, search them out on Linked In – follow their blog. When they get a book published – go to the launch and buy two copies and get them signed, keep one, and gift one and spread the love. Whatever you do, don’t lose touch but keep the momentum building.

 

 

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