Why is ‘Community’ important for researcher mental health?
In recent years, the academic community has seen a rise in anxiety and mental health issues among researchers and students. Higher education institutions are now investing millions of dollars in implementing measures and practices that support the wellbeing of their students. While these are necessary and helpful, academics can also do a lot among themselves to support each other by building and strengthening their own connections and community.
We share several ways of developing strong connections during your doctoral study and/or research journey, and how this can benefit you, both professionally in your research and personally, for your overall wellbeing.
Researcher life can sometimes feel quite solitary and lonely. Although you may be working with others in a team or as part of a department, a significant part of the research and writing process is often done alone. It is not uncommon for researchers to report being and working on their own for days at a time without interacting or speaking to others.
Know that if colleagues and people in your department are not reaching out to you, it is not necessarily because they don’t care about you. Understandably, everyone is probably quite busy and has a lot of responsibilities to juggle; likewise, they may believe that you are busy too and are not reaching out for fear of disturbing you.
It is therefore all the more important for each researcher to be proactive in reaching out to others. Look out for postgraduate activities or events that are organised by your department or university, such as public talks, workshops or social gatherings and outings. Join in when you can – these are excellent opportunities to meet other researchers, learn about their work and find likeminded people who will understand the unique ups and downs of doing a PhD.
Attending these events and approaching strangers can feel intimidating and awkward. However, if you feel this way, the chances are that most other people there do too. People can actually be a lot more understanding and willing to talk than we realise. Of course, not everyone that you talk to will become a friend for life, but you can definitely still make some new contacts, discover new networks and communities, and even meet others whose research interests overlap with yours.
Stay in touch
It is really easy to get so absorbed in your research that you don’t see friends for extended periods. However, although you may be making great progress with your work, it is just as important to maintain social interaction and contact with fellow PhD colleagues and friends. We know that this sounds obvious, but community and friendships are often the first things that get dropped in the busyness of research life, and are important aspects of PhD/research life that are not addressed enough.
Spending social time with friends may seem superfluous, and a distraction from the ‘real work’ that you need to do. However, it is important to realise that meeting and talking regularly with fellow researchers can bring huge benefit to your research. The research community can be very helpful for offering feedback on your work, helping to troubleshoot and brainstorm any issues you may be facing in your research, or simply lending a sympathetic ear when you’re having a hard day. You’ll be surprised at just how many good ideas and research epiphanies can come from these conversations with peers.
Maintaining regular contact does not need to take up an excessive amount of time. It could be something as simple as a weekly lunch, a coffee and chat over a video call (all the more relevant in these current times while many of us are self-isolating!). Sometimes, even a text chat over social media can go a long way in sharing support for each other, discussing research ideas, or just having a break from intense academic writing and thinking.
Distance learners or part-time students especially will benefit from maintaining contact with other students. Being physically distant from your institution, or not being able to physically partake in many events, can limit your opportunities for networking. However, most universities will now also have some form of social media or online forums and groups (all the more so during lockdowns). Reach out to people on these groups and start conversations. Remember that the world is made so much smaller now with online communication technologies, and it is very common for academics to befriend and collaborate with other researchers all around the world, without ever needing to physically meet.
Enhance your research
While you may be well supported by your family, friends and loved ones, the academic community will be helpful to your work and wellbeing in different ways. These are people with whom you can discuss obscure, sometimes odd, things that only other researchers will understand. I have had many very engaging conversations about methodology, research methods, theory and epistemology with my PhD colleagues that I simply would not be able to have with my non-academic friends. In turn, these conversations have greatly contributed to the development of ideas and writing for my thesis.
The research community will also be able to better understand the specific challenges of doing research – fellow scientists will empathise with the stress of lab failures, for example! And all researchers across all disciplines will recognise and sympathise with the struggle of writing, dealing with supervisors and academics, and managing tricky referencing or analysis software.
Last, but by no means least, are the opportunities for collaboration that can arise from developing strong connections in the research community. Whether it’s co-organising a conference, developing events and workshops, co-authoring journal articles or co-editing books, or even planning sports and social networking events for fellow researchers, these collaborations will not only further your academic development but also help you feel more supported. The benefits for your wellbeing and mental health can be plentiful, so that you’re not only doing better research, but you’re happier doing it.