peer support for you and your PhD

This is a guest post from Michelle Redman-MacLaren and Karen McPhail-Bell. Michelle is  based in the College of Medicine and Dentistry, James Cook University, Australia. She tweets as @shelmaclaren. Karen is a Senior User Researcher in the medical device industry, based in the Silicon Valley, U.S.A., and Honorary Research Fellow at the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health, University of Sydney. She can be found at LinkedIn, Twitter @Dr_KMcB and her personal blog.


Do you ever feel like the world is conspiring against efforts to complete your PhD? Are you hesitant to reach out for help? We all need friends during our PhD, and here we share our story to show how peer support helped us – and might help you.

Karen’s story

An 80km per hour impact changed my (Karen’s) life in an instant. A serious cycling accident left me with a fractured skull and brain injury. As a previously active, goal-oriented PhD student commencing my third year, I now struggled to plan and set goals, became easily disoriented and found it hard to break down tasks required for my PhD. Hours would pass of failed attempts to write, with only exhaustion, frustration, and anxiety to show for it. I needed support to structure my PhD progress, to re-learn how to write and plan. I reached out…

Michelle’s story

During the third year of my PhD, I (Michelle) was writing, retreated from my family responsibilities and part-time work in a peaceful, tropical environment – I was thriving. During this time, I noticed Karen’s SOS social media post asking “How many times is it normal to think about quitting your PhD?” This was unusual from my friend and colleague who was positive, high achieving person and rarely reached out in this way. I responded with a suggestion we share our plans to progress our respective PhDs, perhaps even weekly. A commitment was made, and a precious connection formed.

Weaving our stories together

During the next three years, we completed and submitted our PhDs (Michelle in 2015; Karen in 2016) and stepped into academic work. We wrote 215 emails (mostly weekly), had two face-to-face meetings (both two days in length) and three Skype meetings. Using co/autoethnography, we analysed the data generated and wrote into each other’s story through loops of reflection.

Three big ideas emerged from our co/autoethnography, with the details recently published in The Qualitative ReportBeing in Academia encapsulated our shared experiences and processing of what it is like to be an academic – how we grappled with juggling commitments, managing finances, connecting socially, and then managing post-PhD transitions, working worlds, and somehow maintaining our own wellbeing in the midst of that. Not unfamiliar to any PhD or Early Career Researcher (ECR), Michelle reported, I need some meditation, exercise and rest . . . there just feels too few hours to go around. (Michelle’s email to Karen, 3 May, 2015). In a market oversupplied with research candidates for available positions the temptation was and is to be the academic super-hero, as Pit and Mewburn describe it.

We both grappled with Doing Academia, including making progress with our research and goals relevant to academic careers. We developed methodologies, planned our research and wrote, to achieve our PhDs and become employable ECRs. We discussed our shared commitment to enacting research and practice according to our values, including participatory and decolonising research methodologies. When one of us got stuck, the other often stepped up and provided suggestions, alternate frameworks, and possible ways forward. Karen reflected on writing goals sent by Michelle, writing,“I like your word goals for the coming months. I’ve wanted to set some goals like that, but really didn’t know how… My supervisors say everyone is so different, it’s up to me to choose my own goals. Some days, word numbers help; other days, sections of pieces make better targets. Right now, I don’t know! :-). As peers we supported each other to become independent researchers.

Our trust-filled, reflective relationship enabled our Sharing in Academia. We shared struggles, resources, opportunities, connections, and learning. While these actions nurtured the sharing between us, they also produced benefits. Tangible results of this sharing including publications, expanded networks, job applications submitted, and a joint project. The support was, for us, priceless.

It is becoming increasingly common for universities to support formal doctoral cohort programs that involve face-to-face workshops, Shut Up and Write sessions and support from formal mentors (Michelle is a mentor in one such program). Much of the value of these programs is resultant peer connections and peer support, fostered through shared time, space and interests. Online platforms also support PhD peers to connect, such as Shut up and Write on Twitter. Whether the peer support is formally or informally established, our experience is that it can be highly valuable – with peers you can say what you want to say in an empathetic environment and it is not likely to be career limiting!

PhD scholar, do you also find yourself in a situation where you feel like quitting? We share this personal account of our vulnerabilities and support needs to let you know that your experiencing is not unique – you are not alone! We encourage you to consider to who you could reach out in your network. Take a risk, even a small one at first. We hope our story has convinced you it is a risk worth taking! 


Photo by Mathias Herheim on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, per support, PhD completion, quitting and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to peer support for you and your PhD

  1. Lisa says:

    Timely post. Difficult to find peer support if those around you are already engaged in the competitive funding-chasing, self-promotion world of academia.


    • Hello Lisa! Thanks for your comment. The academic environment certainly can promote competition over solidarity. I wonder if there are others in your context wishing to find connection and peer support. If you want to nut out some ideas you can try to find peer support, let me know!


  2. Michelle says:

    Hello Lisa, thank you for your response to our blog. I agree that the competitive nature of academia is challenging. Our experience is that there are also some in academia that are challenging the status quo – check out #circleofniceness and #slowacademia


  3. madnecessity says:

    A PhD friend and I have taken to calling each other every Friday afternoon to check in about our progress and discuss our goals for the coming week. The conversation often includes the emotional journey of PhDdom and all the other things that are going on our lives as we wrestle with what being a budding academic means and involves. It’s been so helpful and clarifying to have this weekly conversation. I am intrigued to read more about how the cowriting and analysis works. Thanks for sharing


    • Hello ‘madnecessity’ 🙂 Your weekly check-in with your friend sounds like a very good plan – thank you for sharing that support strategy with us all. I agree that it is often the emotional aspects/impacts of the PhD experience that we need support around. Good luck!


    • Hello madnecessity! It’s fabulous to hear that you and your PhD friend are sharing and bolstering each other’s journey – and as whole people, with emotions, goals, and broader lives. All the best with your PhD!


  4. Michelle Newcomb says:

    Hello Karen! I used to share and office with you during your PhD and so glad to hear you are doing so well! What a great journey – you did so well to recover and keep kicking those goals. I recently set up an feminist inter institutional writing group and we all find this an amazing experience. Lovely to see you name across the oceans. Michelle Newcomb

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Michelle! Wow, how fun to reconnect here. I’d love to hear more about the feminist inter institutional writing group, sounds fabulous. Wld also love to catch up in person again when I’m back. All the best! PS sorry for slow reply, somehow I missed this earlier.


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