Mitigating doctoral students’ perceived isolation: the value of young scholar networks

Ioana LiteratIt’s always nice to hear from SDP alumni; to find out why they applied, what they got out of the programme, and what they are up to now. Ioana Literat is a doctoral candidate at USC Annenberg, where she is studying participatory practices of collective creativity, as mediated by digital technology. She discusses her time in Toronto as a student on the 2013 Summer Doctoral Programme:

As doctoral students, we are in a line of work where we’re taught to emphasize the differences rather than the similarities. Find your niche, your adviser tells you. Distinguish yourself from your peers. Be an expert in your own unique domain. We are taught that the ingredients that seem key to a successful academic career are, at their core, all about difference, originality, individuality, and ultimately, standing apart from your peers.

But what if we started putting an emphasis on our similarities for a change? Taking part in the Oxford Internet Institute’s 2013 Summer Doctoral Program made me see that, although our personal circumstances and research interests may be different, as PhD students and young scholars, we are bound by the same challenges, goals, hopes and fears. Our research community can also function as a support system, but — for a variety of reasons — we do not sufficiently take advantage of this support system. My experience in the SDP in Toronto made me fully aware of how valuable this resource can be. It made me see points of convergence, rather than points of divergence, between my own personal and professional paths and those of my peers. It made me (re)appreciate the value of solidarity, whether that means sharing a call for papers, venting about the job market, or talking about motherhood in academia. It made me realize that I am not alone, in spite of how isolated I often feel, sitting in front of my laptop at my study desk.

Sure, graduate students meet up at conferences, but the conference experience is very different from participating in a program like the SDP and cannot — at least in my view — fulfill the same solidarity-building functions. Conferences (especially major ones) are too overwhelming and too formal to facilitate meaningful social exchanges on a deeper and more personal level. Somehow it is easier to talk about your job-seeking fears or your frustrations with the peer-review process on a kayak in the Toronto lakes rather than in a Marriott elevator rushing to the next panel session. And sometimes we are so busy waiting for a good moment to pass out our business card to that high-profile faculty speaker at the end of their talk, that we miss out on the opportunity to connect with the young scholar who is waiting in line behind us, with their own business card in hand.

An accomplished intellectual life should not feel lonely, yet it often does. Especially once we finish our coursework and start writing our dissertation, the work is quiet, lonely, and often intimidatingly abstract. The sheer amount of it is daunting; it seems like a Sisyphean task, if there ever was one. And we go through it stubbornly alone. The road to a PhD is made to seem like a 400 meters hurdles race, with no one in the bleachers cheering you on — just lots of other impressive competitors, who are pitted against you in pursuit of scarce rewards.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. What I’m beginning to find out, through programs like the OII’s SDP, is that those competitors, running on the numbered tracks beside you, can in fact be your supporters. And you can — and should — be theirs too. If nothing else, it will make for a much less exhausting race, and the hurdles along the way will seem much easier to jump.