Thursday, September 20, 2007

Grad Student Support Groups Both Formal and Informal

Ah, the power of informal social networks.

Everytime I go get my refill for Allegra (Awesome Part of Country is not so awesome if you have pollen allergies), I pass by the student counseling center. If you scan the walls of the campus counseling services they have all these dissertation support groups for grad students. I mean, a lot of them, and as many as any other type of support group for substance abuse, disordered eating, etc. Clearly, dissertating is an extremely stressful process. I'm not even in the writing phase, but I feel stressed just drafting my sample questionnaire and IRB proposal--nevermind the data collection and analysis when I get to that point this spring. But I'm for some reason resistant to using these formal counseling groups to get through the stress. I don't really want to talk to strangers about my particular project, and while misery loves company and I would appreciate the sympathy and commiseration, I wonder how useful it would be to consult with students in other departments about the writing process.

Enter the informal social network.

I'm good friends with several people in a Ph.D department that has a lot of its students jointly pursuing J.Ds at Liberal College Law. Every week, they meet for a "Wacky Wednesday" lunch, just to talk, chill out, gripe, exchange gossip and vent. I like that idea.

Two of the women in that department and I decided to do our own lunchtime coffee right before Wacky Wednesday, to actually go over our dissertation projects. How to refine our research question that might be adequately addressed and resolved in a monograph; how to operationalize our variables (which to make dependent/independent, how to code); which literature to discuss; how much space should be devoted to theoretical/conceptual frameworks, etc. I think this is much more useful than just complaining about the process to strangers. My friends, one of whom has a J.D. and thus has a similar project and approach, find these meetings more useful than any other. I "get" her anti-discrimination law project and what she's trying to do, and she "gets" mine on the FMLA, having worked at the EEOC . But we're personal friends, and so consulting each other isn't as fraught with anxiety as it would be to talk only to advisors and impersonal colleagues in a workshop. And it's much more sustained discussion, because we take turns and so discuss one project at a time for up to an hour. You can't 'move on' and table a friend for discussion.

I wonder how much junior faculty do this: schedule a time to meet with other colleagues at their school, or really utilize email/phone to contact friends in the same field at other schools, to refine their projects and just be supported throughout the writing phase with someone to act as a sounding board and an extra pair of eyes.

I'd highly recommend it. I'm looking forward to my next Dissertation 'N Dessert lunch hour.