“We are all in this together”

A Bright Christmas #14

One of the highlights of my PhD has been the wonderful people I have met on the way and the network I have been able to build. It took me forever to write the acknowledgments of my PhD thesis, as I really wanted to thank the many, many people who helped me get to that point. I was therefore curious to watch the seminar “Building positive relationships in graduate school” organized by Beyond the Professoriate, an organization dedicated to help PhDs “leverage their education into meaningful careers, whether in academia or beyond”. 

The founder of Beyond the Professoriate, L. Maren Wood, discussed questions from graduate students with Andrew Crain and Susan Martin, both working at professional development programs of universities in the US. I realized I have been doing quite some things right without knowing it, but I also picked up many new tips. I tried (but failed miserably) to briefly summarize their tips here, mixed with some specific ideas for when you are working at KI.

Happy (virtual) socializing! 

How to manage relationships during covid-19 and social distancing (with your supervisors/peers)

  • First off: cut yourself some slack!
  • Maintaining existing relationships is a form of networking too.
  • Be intentional about reaching out: for example, schedule it in your work week.
  • Check out the virtual events organized on your campus, at KI for example by the Doctoral Student´s Association (and the KI Postdoc Association for, you guessed it, postdocs).
  • Try to schedule regular short amounts of time to communicate with your supervisor.
  • If you think you need mental help, seek it out on your campus (see this excellent blog by Richelle for a list of resources at KI).

How to ask for help without sounding unprofessional

  • It is always okay to ask for advice or help.
  • Use the power of peers: try to create an “advisory board”, including more senior graduate students, doctoral students outside your department and professionals out there in the field.
  • Put these support systems in place before the crisis hits.

Advice for students from historically underrepresented / minority groups

  • It is the job of everyone to make students feel safe on campus.
  • Find your people, whether they share your particular background, your personal research interest or are just fellow graduate students.
  • Join professional societies, affinity groups, campus organizations and even Twitter to build your community and look for potential mentors (see also the replay of the webinar “Mentorship: What, why, how?” organized by KI Career Service and DSA). 
  • Try to build relationships with people in positions of privilege and power, so they can look out for you and help change the academy.
  • If you come from another institution in the past, you will have a network of friends from there that still are a part of your support system.

How to build meaningful and positive relationships with supervisors

  • If it is difficult to get in contact with your supervisor during the pandemic with whom you normally have a good relationship:
    • Learn to “manage up”: do whatever you can to make your boss’ job easier by essentially managing your manager.
    • Learn to communicate well. Try to practice listening and connecting more on a personal level with your supervisor when you do have time together.
    • Be creative and flexible in your communication approach. 
    • Harness online tools that facilitate communication when working remotely, such as Office 365 (including Microsoft Teams and OneDrive) and Zoom. 
  • If you would like to get more responsibility from your supervisor:
    • Keep the traditions and perspective of your supervisor in mind.
    • The average faculty member is rather conservative and wants you to prove your skills, your trustworthiness and your dependability before they give you more responsibility.
    • Be a good collaborator on the assignments that you are given, support other people in your team, and make sure that your supervisor knows about it if you are doing other things and if you are interested in doing more.
    • Your supervisor does not have to be the all-important being in your life. Think of other people you can collaborate with, or other ways to build your cv to get to the point of taking more responsibility. 
  • How do you know if you should change supervisors?
    • Just like any other relationship, there can be ebbs and flows, and there can be very toxic and destructive relationships.
    • Bullying, mistreatment and sexual harassment are never appropriate, but there is also a grey middle area where you need to discern to leave or not.
    • Trust yourself: you will know if it is the right time to go.
    • Understand what the procedures and processes are for changing supervisors.
    • Talk to your ombudsman who can help to troubleshoot your issues.

How to motivate yourself to do what’s necessary to build positive relationships 

  • Think about the big picture: what do you want to accomplish in your life and your degree? 
  • For relationship building, just take it one conversation at the time (even for introverts).
  • Whatever has worked for you before to accomplish things, try to apply the same principles to your relationship building and think about it as a necessary part of every week.
  • Your peers are helpful to learn the rules of the game in academia: trying to find out everything by yourself is the painful way.
  • More senior students can be helpful too for post-PhD life, as they are already some years into their career when you are entering the job market.

As Susan Martin summarized it at the end of the seminar: “A PhD program is one period in your life (…). Being fully in it is so much easier with other people. Those relationships that you are developing now will emerge over time and you can sustain them over time (…). We are all in this together.”  

Bonus tip: Beyond the Professoriate will have one more seminar in 2020, titled “2020 Lessons Learned (And Ways to Prepare for 2021)” on December 18th at 12 p.m. EST. The registration is for free, so sign up if you think that sounds interesting (the replay link will be valid for a week after the seminar).

Photo by freestocks.org from Pexels.

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