Graduate school has a culture all its own, both across institutions and among cohorts of learners within specific programs. My experience as a grad student included a great deal of immersion in problem-solving and design-thinking situations both in, and especially outside of, class. Working with faculty members and my peers on committees, research teams, and other projects built skills. It’s the relationships founded during these experiences that have endured as a professional network.
The goals and experience of graduate education differ from undergraduate learning and success can depend in no small part on finding support – all kinds of support. Fortunately, there are growing numbers of communities that provide support and resources to graduate students, whether you need research tips or just a friendly ear that understands what you are going through. Online graduate students can benefits from these opportunities, too, but may need to take the initiative to get more involved. Where can online students connect as part of this culture?
10 Grad Student Communities
My definition of community here is one in which people of like-minds, with mutual interests, exchange information and ideas. Formal and informal in organization, they all share a common focus on graduate education. If you are currently enrolled in or plan to pursue study beyond the undergraduate level, take some time to tour these resources and think about how they may augment what you already have access to within your institution.
- Academia.edu: If you are already involved in social networking, consider adding this community of more than 3 million academics to your efforts. Start by creating a profile page that includes links to your other professional profiles (e.g., LinkedIn, Google+, Google Scholar) and add sections such as conference presentations, papers, book reviews, and thesis chapters. You can follow other academics in your field and researchers who publish papers in your areas of interest, and upload your own documents. Tip: By selecting specific research interests in your profile, you create a related newsfeed of the latest papers and presentations posted by other Academia.edu users. Consider the possibilities of this platform as a resource for your own research.
- Digital Media and Learning Research Hub: With a mission “to advance research in the service of more equitable, participatory, and effective ecosystem of learning keyed to the digital and networked era,” this organization “brings together researchers, practitioners, policymakers, industry leaders, and others” to collaborate in multiple ways. Attend the annual conference or weekly webinars, explore the open resources at DMLCentral, and consider submitting a proposal for next year’s Summer Institute. Tip: Check out the Spigot feed for a quick look at the latest in “research, news, and opinion in the digital media and learning field” gathered from sources all over the Web.
- GradHacker: Do you ever wonder if other graduate students face the same issues you struggle with? This collaborative blog is “dedicated to creating a community of grads who can benefit from hearing stories, tips, and challenges of others.” More comments and conversations can be found on Inside Higher Ed, where Gradhacker is syndicated as part of a collection of blogs. Tip: The site is on a summer break, but organizers are “looking for writers from any university at any level of program in graduate education, including professional education.” And at the time of this article, there are open positions for a Permanent Author and Development Editor.
- GradShare: Sponsored by research platform ProQuest, GradShare is “where graduate students help each other succeed.” Ask a burning question or search through past questions posted in a wide range of categories, from thesis/dissertation problems to work-life balance. You may even be able to assist other community members by providing an answer or two from your own experience as a graduate student. This site also provides a blog written by former and current graduate students. Tip: Follow @GradShare on Twitter for regular updates and shared resources.
- HASTAC: Pronounced “haystack,” (and an acronym for Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory), anyone can join this community, which provides many options for participation. Create an account and explore the opportunities to post your own content on the blogs, add resources to the topic collections, and apply to the HASTAC Scholars program (deadline September 10, 2013). Tip: The Events calendar provides a view of all upcoming workshops, conferences, webinars, etc., some of which are online, as well as deadlines for grants, fellowships, and calls for papers.
- Hybrid Pedagogy: This group “invites you to an ongoing discussion that is networked and participant-driven,” and focuses on finding “the most progressive applications” of educational technology. Join threaded discussion forums in The Commons and follow the @HybridPed Twitter account. Tip: This site is an open, peer-reviewed academic journal. Why not submit an article of your own, or work with your classmates on a contribution?
- National Association of Graduate-Professional Students: Join members from across the country who are “dedicated to improving the quality of graduate and professional student life.” Many graduate student associations at higher education institutions are affiliated with this larger group, but if your school isn’t a member, you can join as an individual student. Search the website for information about national and regional conferences, and leadership opportunities with this student-run organization. Tip: Benefits of individual membership include partnerships with insurance companies and vendors, like Lenovo and Foot Locker, for discounted products and services.
- #PhDchat: A live Twitter chat on Wednesdays at 2:30pm EDT, #PhDchat attracts doctoral students from around the world to discuss topics related to research and dissertation writing. You’ll find a lot of resources are shared via the hashtag between chat sessions, too. Tip: Bookmark the #PhDchat’s wiki for chat transcripts and more information on subjects like data analysis, literature review, going to conferences, and C.V. preparation.
- VersatilePhD: What do you want to do after graduation? This community tailors its resources to non-academic employment options. It has expanded over recent years to include a wider range of disciplines and gained ground with colleges and universities. See if your school is a subscriber that can provide you with access to premium content in addition to the free options you can view with an individual account. Take a look at the discussion forums and job postings. Tip: Use the “Career Finder” feature to see how you can apply your knowledge and skills in a range of industries. Search in the “Humanities and Social Sciences” and “STEM” categories to find tips for getting started in consulting, nonprofits, government, grant writing, and more.
- Your Professional Association: Already a member of an organization that provides resources and information about your field? Dig a little deeper to find out how it supports students more specifically and what resources are available online. The National Career Development Association (which I joined as a graduate student many years ago), for example, offers online publications, lower student rates for memberships and conference registration, and graduate student networking sessions like those held at the recent annual meeting in Boston. Tip: If you haven’t joined your field’s professional group, find out what’s involved and add it to your professional development plan for the coming year. This is a great way to build your network before you graduate.
Before You Join
There are more options available than those I’ve listed above, and some require more of a commitment to participate than others. Some also have fees associated with access. While I encourage you to connect with those beyond your own program, think about what you want from the experience before signing on.
- What do you hope to gain? From access to new resources and career exploration to research opportunities and professional networking, there are multiple possible benefits to joining an online community focused on graduate study. If you want to be involved in specific activities, be clear about availability, eligibility, and costs in advance.
- What kinds of conversations are taking place? You may find that some communities are more focused on academic topics (i.e., research and writing, teaching, service), while others provide an alternative, or “alt-ac” perspective (e.g., business and industry). Seek out different kinds of conversations that broaden your perspective.
- Where and how do you want to connect? Many of these communities transmit on multiple channels. They are active on Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms; have robust websites, blogs, and discussion forums; sponsor virtual and on-ground events; have local chapters and more. Find a group that already has a presence that fits in with your current preferences and activities.
- How can you contribute? Becoming a full participant means giving, as well as receiving. In addition to your academic discipline and area of research, as an online student you have a stake in the improvement of instructional technology. Your ideas about these and other topics can inform others.
Challenge Yourself and Your Peers
Working closely with others going through the graduate school experience is, I think, an essential component of the process. A recent LinkedIn discussion post from an online doctoral student who had limited contact with others in the same program, lamented the solo process wishing that there had been more interaction, particularly during dissertation planning. Learning about others’ research can also inform your own.
As more online programs integrate requirements for communication and collaboration among students, the potential for isolated learning is decreasing. However, many online programs still focus on individual activities and timelines, as opposed to group work and cohort learning models. And even with interactive courses and student groups, grad school can isolate you from family and co-workers who aren’t going through the experience.
The climate and expectations can vary by discipline as well as by school, and it may seem more convenient to bypass these kinds of activities, which when you are studying completely online can take extra effort to accomplish. This time and effort, however, is an investment that lays the groundwork for the conversations, career opportunities, and continued learning to come. Where do you turn for support as an online graduate student?