Orienteering for Academics: Mapping your Scholarly Community

PhD Student Advising Articles written by Shannon E. Williams, Assistant Dean for Student Engagement at the Schar School

At the beginning of the academic year, motivation is high. Most doctoral students greet the new term with plans to immerse themselves in their research and produce volumes of high quality writing. Momentum can diminish as the semester rolls along, however, taking productivity down with it. How can students stick with their good practices? What sorts of choices can be made throughout the year to avoid the stress, isolation, and potential burnout that can accompany solitary work?

All doctoral students have heavy workloads, and most experience exhaustion at various points along the journey. Despite this, many are still thriving. What do these flourishing students do differently? Strong study habits and tightly disciplined schedules are certainly critical, yet successful students possess more than rigid routines. Several Ph.D. student advising articles explore the role that such factors as wellness, study groups, and social connections play in academic success. Other research indicates that perceptions of efficacy and involvement can make the difference between burnout and progress (Maslach and Leiter 2008) (Clark, Murdock, and Koetting 2009). Flourishing students seem to understand the way their work is situated in a larger context. Often, effective and driven students feel that they are contributing to something that matters—they see themselves as part of a scholarly community.

A strong sense of connection to other scholars is as essential to a doctoral student as a compass is to a mountain climber. It is necessary to understand where you are in relation to the terrain. Without this scholarly orientation, how can you know where you are headed or even where you are located right now?

To understand why this sense of community contributes to productivity, it helps to take a look at the other end of the spectrum. What causes hard-working people to lose momentum? Literature from the field of occupational health provides insight into factors that can exacerbate or alleviate work-related stress. Maslach and Goldberg suggest three elements that together signal burnout: emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced sense of efficacy (Maslach and Goldberg 1998).

Ph.D. students who are at risk for burnout are those experiencing stress and exhaustion that “may arise from the mismatch between individual student and the scholarly community” (Stubb, Pyhältö, and Lonka 2011). This perspective emphasizes the importance of “program match” discussed in a piece on Currents in January 2012, in which both academic and social-personal connection influence a student’s ability to complete a graduate degree (Hoskins and Goldberg 2005). Similarly, a sense of alignment between students and the academic communities in which they work can improve well-being as well as persistence in a doctoral program.

This match, or lack thereof, can be tricky to pinpoint because the concept of a scholarly community involves many layers. It includes department, the collection of authors publishing on a particular research topic, a group of peers and faculty members, or the whole international collection of academics comprising a broad field. It can even be seen as the vast domain of “academia” or “research” in which scholars from many disciplines explore and generate new knowledge (Stubb, Pyhältö, and Lonka 2011)

Beyond these actual components, the way students define their scholarly community affects how they work. Those who experience that community as a source of empowerment report lower levels of stress, exhaustion, and anxiety than do students who perceive their community as burden. “Empowerment” here includes satisfaction, engagement, a sense of belonging, and a perception of oneself as a junior researcher or a colleague. Conversely, “burden” consists of insecurity, poor support for learning, a sense of exclusion, and lack of meaning and motivation (Stubb, Pyhältö, and Lonka 2011).

If doctoral students benefit from belonging and efficacy, what enhances these qualities? Departmental culture can play a part, as can a relationship with an academic advisor. Ph.D. programs and faculty mentors have a great deal of impact on the student experience. Indeed, in a study evaluating PhD student well-being, “students identified supervision as the most important aspect of successful completion.” Despite this, many students who report high levels of satisfaction with their mentors are still at risk for burnout. A good relationship with a faculty mentor is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for well-being and for persisting in a program (Juniper et al. 2012).

In practical terms, this places the compass in students’ hands. Budding scholars can determine their location in a scholarly community, point themselves in an empowering direction, and make strides towards academic, professional, and personal success.

Using your Compass: An Exercise in Strengthening Your Scholarly Community

1. Orienting: What comprises your scholarly community?

As you dive deeper into your coursework and research, pause to consider how you perceive the term “scholarly community,” a concept with multiple layers and dimensions (Numenmaa et al. 2009). Take some time to explore the who, what, where and when of this community. Within both the broad discipline and specific areas of inquiry in which you see your work located, who are the important thinkers? How do you delineate the boundaries around your field of inquiry? Consider and then sketch out the following realms of scholarship:

  • The discipline of public policy and its international assortment of scholars and researchers as well as the conferences and publications within that discipline
  • Your field of inquiry and the scholars, research centers, faculty members and peers who share your research interests
  • The regional collection of universities, academics, researchers, and practitioners
  • George Mason University
  • The Schar School of Policy and Government
  • Research, writing, service and study groups, as well as other collaborative project groups
  • Your peers and classmates

2. Compass reading: What is your relationship with your scholarly community?

Now that you have a sense of the scholarly community in which your work resides, where do you locate yourself in it? How would you characterize your relationship with the other members of your scholarly community? In each stratum of the field, do you see yourself as a student or a junior scholar? An observer or a participant? A novice or an up-and-coming expert?

Note your sense of connection with others within each of these communities. It is natural to feel both outside and inside depending on your level of involvement and your stage in the program. Consider the degree to which you sense a trajectory of increasing involvement in the various realms. What steps have you taken to participate in each of these arenas, and how have those choices affected your relationship with the community?

3. Direction of Travel: What is your action plan for enhancing the match?

Making progress on your research is, of course, the most important task you can tackle in the months ahead. Nevertheless, the work you generate also belongs to your policy field and to the career you are building. The time spent nourishing connections is not wasted.

Make conscious choices to perceive of yourself as having agency in your community and take action accordingly. Return to the list you made for question 2 above. Note the gaps. Bridge them with small, intentional actions. A few suggestions include the following:

  • Ask your advisor for suggestions for seminars or conferences worth attending. When you attend, make a point of introducing yourself to the presenters and attendees
  • Find out if contributors to your field will be presenting in the area and request a few moments of their time with specific questions or comments on their work
  • Reach out to a faculty member who is not on your committee from either the Schar School or another university department
  • Become involved in the Association of Public Policy Ph.D. Students
  • Collaborate with a classmate on a paper
  • Meet students at different stages of the program for coffee and discuss your projects
  • Form a research or writing group
  • Attend events on other campuses in the region
  • Present a paper at the Doctoral Research Workshop
  • Skim the proceedings from an academic conference in your field and contact one of the presenters with specific questions or comments on their work

It may feel as if pausing to get your bearings will slow you down and that taking these steps is the same as taking a detour. In fact, these tasks can help you stay on track. Students who use these approaches tend to work more efficiently and effectively than those who labor in isolation.

Resist the temptation to let inertia win out over connection. Bridge the gaps and locate yourself within the community of scholars awaiting your contribution.

Works Cited

Clark, Heddy Kovach, Nancy L. Murdock, and Kristin Koetting. 2009. “Predicting Burnout and Career Choice Satisfaction in Counseling Psychology Graduate Students.” The Counseling Psychologist 37 (4) (May 1): 580–606. doi:10.1177/0011000008319985.

Hoskins, Christine M., and Alan D. Goldberg. 2005. “Counselor Preparation.” Counselor Education and Supervision 44 (3): 175–188.

Juniper, Bridget, Elaine Walsh, Alan Richardson, and Bernard Morley. 2012. “A New Approach to Evaluating the Well-being of PhD Research Students.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 37 (5): 563–576. doi:10.1080/02602938.2011.555816.

Maslach, Christina, and Julie Goldberg. 1998. “Prevention of Burnout: New Perspectives.” Applied and Preventive Psychology 7 (1): 63–74. doi:10.1016/S0962-1849(98)80022-X.

Maslach, Christina, and Michael P. Leiter. 2008. “Early Predictors of Job Burnout and Engagement.” Journal of Applied Psychology 93 (3): 498–512. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.93.3.498.

Nummenmaa, A.R., H. Soini, K. Pyha¨lto¨, and T. Soini. 2009. Tiedeyhteiso¨ tohtoriopiskelijansilmin. Esitetty Kasvatustieteen pa¨ivilla¨ , 27. Marraskuuta, Tampere. [The scholarly community through doctoral students’ eyes. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of Finnish Educational Research Association FERA, November 27, in Tampere, Finland]

Stubb, J., K. Pyhältö, and K. Lonka. 2011. “Balancing Between Inspiration and Exhaustion: PhD Students’ Experienced Socio-psychological Well-being.” Studies in Continuing Education 33 (1) (March): 33–50. doi:10.1080/0158037X.2010.515572.