In isolation but not alone: sustaining academic networks

In this post, Antonin Ficatier, a PGR from the Department of Theology and Religion, shares his advice on sustaining an academic network from his experience as a distance learning PGR.  A version of this post appears on Antonin’s personal blog.

Antonin Ficatier's Twitter Bio: @aficatier PhD student @univirmingham (theology and technology); minister @bhcgodalming; speaker; MA from @ptseminary. Godalming, UK.

With COVID-19, what was once the fate of a few students has now become the new norm. Everyone is studying from home these days. But being an effective remote student doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a while to adjust to this new way of studying. I have been a distance-learning PhD student at the University of Birmingham for the past two years and, trust me, I am still learning a lot on how to effectively study remotely! Today I would like to share with you a few tips on how to build and sustain your academic network while studying remotely.

You are not alone!

The most difficult and common hurdle to remote studying is psychological. It is to associate studying from home with being alone. This may accurately describe your physical state – being in isolation at home – but it does not mean that you are on your own. Others are waiting to connect with you in the virtual world. If you are new to remote studying, a good exercise to begin with is to mind-map your existing academic network in the physical world (supervisors, academic support staff, mentors, peers, colleagues…) then match your entries with all the virtual social networks you use. Look for weak ties, and find ways to match the gap by potentially adopting new apps/software. As you transition from presence-learning to distance-learning, you’re not leaving your campus connections behind you! You’re just taking them with you to the virtual world.

Maintaining your peer networks

Getting together with other people in your field while studying remotely is key. At the two-week induction of my PhD program, I started a cohort with a few students from my department. We decided to meet every month over Skype to catch up and exchange ideas. It has been a real blessing to my studies. The University recently set up the Common Room Project on Discord (if you’re a student at the University of Birmingham, you can access the page here). See how you can connect with your peers from the University and start your own cohort. 

Making the most of your supervision

I am pretty confident in saying that most distance-learners do not make the most of their supervisory relationship. Supervision is not a “once-in-a-while” type of relationship. It is not a tiny window that we open one hour only and do not dare to reopen until the following month.

When studying remotely, you should absolutely be in frequent contact with your supervisor. Remember that he/she is there for you. Never hesitate to get in touch with your supervisor to ask questions or just to say hi. That’s the way it goes on campus isn’t it? You’re on your way to the library, and stop at the coffee shop to grab your morning latte. Surprise! Your supervisor is there waiting in the line. You engage in an informal conversation and start talking about the unusual sunny weather in England recently. The conversation naturally flows into your research area. Your supervisor read an interesting article recently, and will send it to you when back in the office. This is exactly the type of relationship that should not be lost when moving to remote studying. Try as much as you can to initiate these types of conversations and to be in regular contact with your supervisor.

How are you maintaining your supervisory relationships, academic networks and social support during this period?

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