In terms of academic buzzwords, it’s hard to find a university or department whose research isn’t termed interdisciplinary, collaborative, or cross-institutional. For many researchers, increasingly finite resources and greater specialisation make these arrangements not just desirable but also a necessity. But how do these terms relate to the average PhD student? Convincing myself that an inter-library loan is actually worth the effort is usually as cross-institutional as I get. The doctoral degree is by nature an examination of the individual candidate. Although most of us will participate in conferences and some may collaborate on multi-authored publications, the PhD is more often than not a solitary undertaking confined within our own institutions. Opportunities to interact with PhD students from other universities are therefore very important, on both an academic and a personal level, with benefits for the students and the institutions involved.
One example of such an opportunity is the graduate conference. Last month I attended a two day event jointly organised between the Irish history seminars of Edinburgh and Cambridge universities. The benefits of a graduate workshop style seminar have already been well-documented: a ‘safe’ and sympathetic environment to practice presentation styles, build confidence, and present work-in-progress. This was also the case with this conference but the extra time made available by having a two day long event made room for presentation sessions (which were superb), a post-paper panel and roundtable discussions. They gave us a chance to explore in depth the arguments, sources, methodologies, and common themes within our research subjects. Through this we became more aware of how we conduct and present our research, both individually and institutionally. One of the most interesting aspects was noticing the different presentation styles used by the visiting students compared with the papers from my own university, and the similarity of style among each institution’s group of students. This could reflect having the same supervisor or rarely experiencing the research culture of another institution. I certainly gained some new ideas and perspectives for my own work and learning of the similar trials, tribulations and breakthroughs in others’ research was inspiring and refreshing. Additionally, a group of around fourteen postgraduate students along with each group’s supervisor created a welcoming and informal atmosphere which can be lacking at seminars or conferences.
Of course it’s not just in a professional or academic guise that meeting students from other institutions is beneficial. It’s also a chance to get out of the proverbial research bubble. Head down the pub, go out for dinner (check out those collaborative/cross-institutional departmental grants), explore the university and city, and find out how the other side lives. Sharing both our common and uncommon PhD experiences definitely helps reduce that sense of isolation we can feel at some stage of the PhD/year/week/day/hour. This can be the perfect time to get ideas on how to improve the postgraduate community in your own institution, not to mention expanding your network or checking out a potential job location. Additionally, for the visiting students an event in a different environment and meeting new people provided a welcome mental break from the normal routine.
Meeting postgraduates from different academic and personal backgrounds is no doubt a good and healthy thing for us. Newsflash I know, but the opportunities for it, either organised by universities or (far more importantly) by us as postgraduate students, are few and far between. Sometimes it’s difficult enough to create a postgraduate community within our own institutions let alone one between them, but the experience is more than worth the effort. So whether or not we can call these events and interactions interdisciplinary, collaborative or cross-institutional is not the real concern (though it certainly helps on the funding forms). The benefit is in how they can broaden our horizons and help us to make the most of our time as postgraduates. I’m looking forward for a return leg in Edinburgh!
Simon Gallaher is a second year PhD student in Modern Irish History at the University of Cambridge. His research project focuses on the care of children under the Irish Poor Law in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. You can find him on academia.edu and twitter @simon_gallaher.