The power of reaching out – and replying!


This post is the result of an email, which later inspired a blog post, and ultimately improved the lives of a small band of Early Career Researchers (ECR). It is a story of how reaching out can make a difference in our professional and personal lives – and just how far a little care from more experienced researchers goes!

My doctoral research journey was – to put it lightly – a lonely one. I pursued my PhD as an external student of an Australian university while also living and working on a Chinese university campus. During the pandemic years, semester-long lockdowns trapped me on campus, and strict internet censorship made it difficult to communicate with the outside world. I was a prisoner in all but name.

At the same time, I lived in a sea of chaos as university and government regulations shifted rapidly, sometimes overnight. One never knew with certainty if tomorrow’s classes would be online, offline, or cancelled for a mass nucleic acid test. As someone who seeks organisation and certainty in everything I do – this was my personal hell.

However, I was not alone. My local colleagues, or my “fellow-sufferers” to borrow Schopenhauer’s term, faced similar personal and research difficulties despite our cultural differences. Paying attention to my colleagues’ struggles led me to wonder if we could somehow support each other through the COVID storm. That’s when I resolved to form a peer support group – but I didn’t know where to start.

So, I reached out. I contacted Tseen Khoo, who I’d talked to once before through a common acquaintance, and posed my question. The very next day, she generously offered her time and not only provided comprehensive advice on options for peer support, as well as pitfalls to avoid, she also linked a series of resources to serve as a start point for my investigations. I was, and still am, deeply grateful.

With Tseen’s roadmap of advice and resources in hand, I investigated my options. Organising a peer support group is challenging at the best of times – and the midst of the world’s strictest COVID lockdowns is not the best of times. Carefully weighing the needs of my colleagues and the limitations of our situation, I settled on the idea of a “Mastermind group”.

A Mastermind group is “a small group of peers who provide mentoring to one another within a confidential and supportive atmosphere”. It is problem-solving and goal-oriented with the aim of helping each member achieve their academic targets. Group meetings often involve sharing personal struggles in the spirit of seeking ways forward.

I worked with a Chinese colleague and together we gathered a small band of ECRs eager to reinvigorate their research lives. We distilled the mastermind concept into a simple, fortnightly meeting schema. At each meeting, group members speak to three questions before inviting others to comment. The questions are:

  • What did I achieve since the last meeting?
  • What difficulties did I encounter?
  • What do I plan to achieve in the next two weeks?

Beginning with achievements sets a positive tone and allows group members to properly acknowledge those little victories we often overlook. This perspective from peers works wonders for highly self-critical academics, such as myself, who feel that they have never done enough.

Discussing failures and obstacles is just as important. Here too, colleagues provide much needed perspective, halting the harmful feedback loops of negative self-talk we engage in when left alone. Mastermind meetings remind us: you aren’t a bad researcher – you’ve just encountered a typical research problem – and that’s normal!

Next comes the target for the following two weeks. Our group aims for measurable targets. These range from “complete the literature review section of my next article” to “read the stack of journal articles on my desk”. Goals can include exact word counts or be slightly fuzzier. These short term deadlines turn large writing projects with vague deadlines into bite-size tasks we can better plan around – and deliver on!

With the help of our mastermind group, my colleagues and I flourished. Our regular meetings helped keep research firmly on our agendas. When the temptation to put off writing, in favour of say lesson planning or marking, reared its head, our goals from the last meeting, and the spectre of fronting up to the next meeting empty handed, kept us honest. We shared our publishing victories, our research woes and our mundane struggles – normalising the ups and downs of ECR life. We created order out of chaos, normalcy out of crisis, and care in a seemingly heartless world. Since our group was founded, its members have published papers and won grants. With the group’s support, I successfully completed my PhD.

China’s “Covid Zero” policy is now a distant memory of daily nucleic acid tests and deep isolation. My colleagues and I survived with our research agendas (and sanity) intact, at least partly, because we formed a supportive community through our Mastermind meetings. This, in turn, happened because an experienced researcher listened to a plea from a junior colleague in a sea of emails – and responded.

I hope my experience helps any struggling ECRs out there to bite the bullet and ask for help. Getting in touch with senior experts can be daunting, but a well written email can spark something wonderful. I also implore those weary warriors of the academic trenches who have already “been there, done that” to stay mindful of their junior colleagues to share some of their hard-earned wisdom. It could make all the difference in someone’s life.

Author Bio: Michael Hooper is a China-based researcher whose work touches on topics as diverse as law, COVID-19 policy and ideological education.