Are most academics lonely at work?

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Last week I announced our new MOOC “How to survive your PhD”. Since then I’ve been overwhelmed by the response, with more than 2600 people signing up in the first week alone, which is far more than I expected! A few people have written to me about how they might use the MOOC to help create a campus based, or online group experience. This got me to thinking about how we do – and don’t – create community for and amongst research students.

\"ScreenThere are clearly benefits from being part of an on campus community. If you listen to PhD students talk you might get the idea that poor supervision is the biggest problem, but survey after survey shows that students everywhere think that universities are doing a poor job of creating a sense of community.

At RMIT, where I used to work, students would routinely rate the university at 80% or above in quality of supervision, but they would rate the intellectual environment poorly, around the 60% agreement level. That’s a vast different in statistical terms. Here at ANU students are more satisfied overall, but of all the measure of ‘intellectual climate’ is consistently the lowest of all the scales we measure.

At RMIT, where there were around 2600 students in a total student population of over 70,000 this sense of being lost in a crowd is perhaps understandable, but at ANU where there are the same number of PhD students in a cohort of only about 22,000 it is very puzzling indeed. It is even more puzzling when you think about the kind of place ANU is.

I don’t say this to suck up to the bosses, but I have honestly never worked in a place where the life of the mind is so well catered for. Of the some 57 events I was invited to this month, here are just the ones I would like to attend (but probably won’t have time for):

You could spend almost every hour of every day on campus here at ANU going to a presentation, coffee discussion, exhibition or workshop. For a person like me, who is hooked on learning, it’s like being an alcoholic locked up in a liquor store. When you see the breadth of interests and needs being catered for, that score on intellectual climate the ANU students give us goes from puzzling to downright absurd.

So why are students reporting a lack of community? Some element is clearly missing – but what?

I think there’s a clue right there in the definition of community shown in the image above. Here ‘community’ is defined in two ways: the first as a ‘being together’ in the same physical place, and the second as ‘feeling together’ – a sense of belonging that comes with working with people of like mind and heart.

When thought about this way, I can see why it might be possible to inhabit the the incredibly rich ANU intellectual environment and still not feel a strong sense of community. Community is not just about being in the same place or having the same events to go to – it’s about that ‘feeling of fellowship’ that comes with sharing common interests and goals. The quickest way to achieve a sense of belong, aside from religion (and maybe taking drugs), is shared work.

If you think about it, the structure of academic work does not give us many opportunities to work together on shared goals. Being an academic is nothing like my previous careers where I worked in large teams. As an architect I worked many, many late nights to meet crazy deadlines. Nothing builds comradery like eating pizza with a team of similarly exhausted people at 11pm after an epic drawing stint. When I worked in a record store we used to go out to see bands together after we closed up at 11pm. If you weren’t feeling a warm glow of fellowship after drinking at blues club in Collingwood until 3am, well – you just aren’t human.

Some of the lab sciences are lucky enough to take place in spaces where you can develop these intense feelings of fellowship and shared endeavour – but many, many other academics don’t. The rest of us turn on our computer and commune with the world of thought (or hang out on Twitter – no judgment!) until dinner time. On my research days at home it’s common for me not to speak to a soul. When the male Thesiswhisperers went skiing the other week I didn’t physcially speak to anyone for three whole days.

I would have been very lonely without Facebook and Twitter.

Last week, at a dinner party, someone said that being an academic is a bit like owning your own, small business. This struck me as being very true. Being an academic is like managing a small shop which doesn’t get many customers each day. You set the performance targets. You decide if your ‘product lines’ (research, teaching) are profitable enough. You might have a few people in to help you in the busy times, but essentially you open and close the shop most of the days.

In fact, if I think too much about it, often my working life often feels this way. No wonder many academics report feeling intensely lonely at times. Kate Bowles wrote beautifully about how academic work can make us feel estranged from the rest of the world. For many, the loneliness starts with the PhD itself. I’ve written before about how weird it feels that no one seems to care as much as you.

So what can we do about it?

I think the Shut up and Write! movement offers us a model for building a stronger sense of community. Working side by side, even if not on the same thing, is helpful. But I think our new ‘Survive your PhD’ MOOC offers a unique opportunity to work together to build community. I’ve encouraged people to sign up with friends and family – so here’s a few ideas on how to make the experience more communal:

1) Simply make a regular meet up time for your group or department to have coffee, discuss the course content together and your reactions to it. The course content will launch on Wednesday because I think this a good, mid week catch up day. I call this the ‘book club’ model.

2) If you are a supervisor or researcher developer you could use the course as part of your own workshop series and convene discussion sessions around it – either for students or supervisors. If I was doing this I would take the opportunity to build my own content or activities around the course – I call this the ‘Blended classroom model’

3) Create your own facebook group to connect people online to discuss themes and organise meetups. You could do Facebook group in two ways, either as a ‘virtual community of interest’ (such as for people in African studies as an example) or a ‘local community of practice’ (for people in your location – we’ll be doing Canberra meetups in the Fellows Bar at University House). A virtual community of interest would help you connect scholars in your discipline, the local community of practice could help you connect with and meet people in in your physical location who are doing the MOOC. Facebook groups can be made private, or public – we will advertise and promote the public ones.

4) Keep an eye on the hashtag #survivephd15, which we will be using to do regular Twitter chats. We’ll be ‘harvesting’ this hashtag across multiple platforms using the aggregator ‘Tagboard’ so whenever you use that hashtag, in facebook, twitter or instagram, people will see it inside the EdX course.

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