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From PhD to Life

Support and community for graduate students and PhDs


I work for and largely by myself, and I love it. My graduate school experience was similar in important ways: I worked at home without much externally-imposed structure. It was challenging, and remains so. Even so, this is how I work best.

But I do have support. I do have community.

These days I have my own coach and I work with a business consultant as well. When I was starting my coaching business, I was taking courses, and they provide me with some much-needed structure, too. I’ve been a member of a monthly “mastermind” group for a few years, and for nearly a year I meet most weeks with an accountability partner. I have a network of coaches and consultants who do related work to turn to when I have specific questions, and I rely on Twitter for connecting me with a wider community of folks in graduate school, working as professors, or employed beyond the professoriate in various capacities.

When I was in graduate school, I was a member of a couple different informal reading groups. One brought together graduate student historians from several universities. We sent each other dissertation chapters, article drafts, or other writing in progress and then met in person a week or two later to discuss how the work could be stronger. The theme of our scholarship was one that I didn’t otherwise encounter in my own program, and I appreciated having this intellectual community. Another group did something similar, but was more formally entrenched in my department, with a more fluid membership. Both were useful in different ways.

For about a year ending this past summer I met most weeks over Skype with a PhD in Perth, Australia who was also working on a book. We reported on our progress, shared concerns and challenges, and offered suggestions and resources. But it was also fun to chat with someone going through a similar process. In our case it was writing short books for self-publication, but your project could be dissertating, studying for comps, or working on job applications.

Melissa Dalgleish credits her graduate writing group with helping her navigate graduate school. “These folks are very necessary to my health and happiness as a person and a writer,” she wrote last fall, “and in ways I couldn’t have imagined back in the days when we all thought we were headed for the tenure track.”

Every third Saturday, we gather around someone’s kitchen table. Brunch gets served, coffee gets poured, and we settle into our chairs and share stories about our weeks and plans for the weekend ahead. We talk about cooking, and travel, and books, and movies, and gossip, and babies, and partners, and jobs. And then, when we’ve caught up, we talk work. Structure. Application of theory. Voice. Organization. Negotiating our committees. Publication. Productivity tools. Grammar. Turning conference papers into articles into chapters. Syntax. Analysis. We’ve been doing this for years.

Melissa, now Dr. Dalgleish, successfully defended her dissertation in York’s English department a few months ago.

Connecting with another person or persons over a shared goal is a powerful way to give and receive support. Together, you keep yourselves accountable, and the support and comradery can make working more meaningful, rewarding, and fun.

Do you wish you had a better support system in place? Don’t wait for your advisor, program, or institution to provide you with what you need — ask for it, demand it, but in the meantime see what you can do for yourself and your colleagues. There are many models you can copy to create your own accountability and support system(s), or you can join existing ones.

There are also great paid options for graduate students and professors who are struggling to accomplish their goals. Years ago I was a member of Gina Hiatt’s Academic Ladder (now called Academic Writing Club), and former University Affairs blogger Jo VanEvery runs a program called Academic Writing Studio. Those are just two examples.

Or, if you’re headed beyond the professoriate, participating in the (free) forums on Versatile PhD might help you feel part of a community while also providing useful advice, information, and resources.


A couple months ago I blogged that I was going to launch a new community for PhDs. Well, it’s happened, and it’s more narrowly-focused than I originally imagined it would be. If you’re self-employed — whether that means you have a side hustle, work multiple contracts, or are a full-time freelancer, consultant, or business owner — and you’re interested in joining other graduate students and doctoral degree holders who are doing similar things, check out Self-Employed PhD.

The community launched on 1 November and at the moment we’re in beta mode (through January 2017). There are two component to Self-Employed PhD: a private online social network where members can connect with each other, share resources, ask and answer questions, etc; and an online event series including live coaching/discussion sessions and eight interviews with PhD business owners. More info here.

I hope you’ll considering joining us if you’re self-employed, or with to be! It’s been fantastic so far, and I’m excited to see how the community evolves over the next two-and-a-half months.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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