Cultivating the Community of Scholars



As an undergraduate at UNC – Chapel Hill, Jason was part of a campus community where he found support and encouragement personally and academically, and where he was surrounded by a group of caring peers. One year, he and his friends secured the basketball coliseum for a group date at center court. When he was offered the opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. at Harvard, he had no idea that the highly-competitive, achievement-oriented environment would be overwhelming. What he seemed to miss most was peer support. At age 27, frustrated and isolated while pursuing his research agenda, he took his own life. The tragedy traumatized his parents, his peers, and his extended family. The obvious question arises: would Jason have handled the stresses of graduate school better if he had more support and encouragement from his teachers and peers?

An environment that emphasizes academic excellence above all else might not be attentive to the personal and emotional needs of its students. The pressure to excel academically is often intensified by such factors as: competition within a department for status and funding a tight job market, in which only the top students will be noticed excessive hours spent in isolation in a laboratory or library separation from peers and other members of the department during the ABD phase family expectations on the student inappropriate pressure from advisors who have their own research agenda the push to publish or perish, or at the very least, to finish the degree.

While some students may enjoy a balanced life and an enriching academic experience in graduate school, others may find that the above-mentioned combination of stressors overwhelms them. This paper suggests some ways to assess campus support systems and modify them where needed, so that the idyllic “community of scholars” may come close to reality for a majority of students.

Assessing Department Support

At a major research institute in Texas, one department wanted to raise the caliber of its graduate students and to do so quickly. According to one of the students in the department, the plan was to accept twice as many students as desired, set high demands on all of them, and reward only the best students by allowing them to continue in the program. After the first semester, this particular student said he had survived the culling process “at a tremendous personal cost.”

Another student in a different department observed that the returning graduate students in the program seemed to be highly competitive and anxious about their work. A group of new Ph.D. students decided that they would band together and try to create an atmosphere of cooperation and support. Personally and academically, the results were astonishing. The students felt that the supportive environment helped to make the academic year challenging and rewarding for them. In this environment, the students flourished and the quality of their research was enhanced.

Excessive competition in academia fosters a sense of isolation and ill-will. Students have told us stories about virtual sabotage by others in their department- where, for example, the reference books were removed from reserved positions, equipment was intentionally damaged, equipment and supplies were hoarded, and students were shunned because their research or an advisor was on “the outs” in the department. While some have refused to take part in such games, others find it unavoidable and uncomfortable. Virtually any environment can be improved with some creative initiatives. In a situation where an advisor seems to be more harmful than helpful, a “pseudo-advisor” should be found.1 If students feel excessive pressure that is more internally-imposed than externally, it helps if they keep a journal of their personal progress, and to record objective perspectives from their peers. Some psychologists recommend that graduate students seek a support group from the very onset of their program. Even those who find themselves in less competitive environments will benefit from the social and intellectual stimulus of regular peer group interaction.

Some Effort Required

In a national study on the lifestyles of graduate students, The Barna Research Group of Glendale, California found that the vast majority of students placed a high value on quality relationships; but 73% of them felt distant from their peers. The study indicated that “Friendships appeared to fuel the search for academic growth by enabling students to learn from the perceptions, experiences, and challenges of their comrades, and they also provided an emotional release from academic intensity.”2 Mutual growth from shared experiences is the greatest benefit of peer relationships.

Grad Resources has also conducted interviews with thousands of graduate students across the country, in order to learn more about the challenges of graduate school. Most of those interviewed said that older graduate students within the department offered the best guidance and assistance to them. One Ph.D. student in a history department said, “[My peers] helped me to understand the system, compile all my funding grants, and discover lots of post-doctoral opportunities.” But this valuable help may not be available to everyone. Some graduate students find it impossible to meet all the academic demands on them and still have time to develop relationships within the department. International students especially may find themselves associating exclusively with peers from their own country, and never take the time to meet other students. Furthermore, 50% of all Ph.D. students are married and cannot afford distractions from family time to participate in social events. It takes precious time commitments before they can begin to reap the benefits of close relationships with their peers.

Follow the Process

All relationships go through phases, and various levels of openness are appropriate in different phases. Getting beyond the acquaintance phase and habitual “safe topics” in conversations take time- time that is essential if peer relationships are to grow into mutually-nurturing and rewarding friendships. There is a tenuous characteristic to early friendships that, with time and cultivation, may progress to deeper, more fulfilling relationships. With deeper commitment, greater depth of sharing, and trials and tests, friendships may rise to new levels that involve less risk and greater rewards. These “quality friends” are then available to socialize, “let off steam” together, and be “listening ears” during times of struggle. Graduate students provide safe havens for each other, especially when one of them feels overwhelmed by his or her work. Some departments recognize the hesitation among their graduate students to make relationships a priority, and try to schedule socials for them. The University of Washington – Seattle fisheries grad students, for example, scheduled a regular Friday afternoon happy hour. The mathematics group at University of Texas – Austin hosted a tea and cake hour as a weekly break for students. Some students start book clubs, gourmet dinner clubs, and socials with faculty. We even heard of a group that had PB&J weekly lunches for international students. These organized activities allow for short regular breaks and a chance to exchange concerns. Sometimes the students who need the emotional and social release don’t feel that they have the time to attend such events.

Investing Trust

A student once told me that “I would feel too vulnerable” to be in a support group of peers within the department. Some people are afraid of revealing their weaknesses, or of giving other students an advantage by assisting them. Struggling students may feel that they are the only ones going through such difficulties. Many are shocked to learn that a majority of graduate students feel inadequate at times, unable to do their work, or unable to get along with a professor- to the point where they have seriously considered quitting. It takes vulnerability and trust to share such struggles with peers and to help one another through these challenges. But emotional risk is necessary for deeper relationships.

Older, returning graduate students (individuals previously in the workforce, now entering an advanced degree program) represent one of the largest groups on campus, and they may find it more difficult to connect with younger students. Men in particular may be afraid to let others get too close. The best relationships require you to let others meet your needs even if you feel uncomfortable asking.

Time constraints for graduate students may limit their opportunities for developing relationships. Awkward communication skills may further limit social interaction. It takes intuition and initiative to know how to reveal oneself without dumping on others, how to share without gossiping, and expressing concerns without demeaning colleagues (while some relational self-help books offer training in these skills, most learn through trial and error). Within departments, international students often form cliques because they feel more comfortable with peers from the same country or language group. Unfortunately, all students lose out when cross-pollination fails to take place.

Sample Support Systems

Most authors who assess the stress factors for graduate students recommend that they form dissertation support groups. Rob Peters suggests joining a support group from the beginning of a student’s program.3 Many also benefit from study groups for qualifying exams, while others may be looking for a diversion from study. At one university, a group of peers read Star Trek books together. At others, there are groups that have formed to play bridge or discuss great books together. The key ingredients in these groups are shared interests, a sense of commitment, mutual acceptance and openness to others.

Some students go to older graduate students or to faculty members for guidance, while others prefer to look for people with common interests outside their field of study. Some prefer to get involved in women’s or men’s groups, or in networking groups that might help them in the future. Such groups provide a place where students can find distractions from study and a forum where they can bring struggles, ideas and plans. One needs only to look for people with similar interests in order to join such groups, or to start one yourself. As one Berkeley student put it, “A socialist mentality is needed; support for all, no competition, and no leader.”

Getting There

If the fear of vulnerability or lack of time has distanced you from other people in your department, it may be time to look elsewhere for a support system. Before initiating new peer relationships, there are several questions to ask yourself. Do you encourage others in the same way that you want to be encouraged? Do you share feelings with friends and not just concepts? Do you seek like-minded people or a variety of views? Would you prefer to talk deep or talk sports? Do you seek accountability, critique, light-heartedness, or depth analysis? When you’re with a close friend, do you say what you think or guard your words? As a listener, are you attentive and concerned or easily distracted? Do you tend to work through relational conflicts or avoid them?

The path to forming quality peer relationships requires small steps rather than quantum leaps. Begin by showing genuine interest in your peers- by asking questions and showing openness and empathy. Allow others into your world by inviting them home to meet your family (if appropriate), or into your lab or office; or share some of your outside interests by inviting someone to a concert, sporting event, movie, or restaurant. Some students find better connections outside their departments, and discussion may flow better outside of the university altogether. The goal is to identify peers who allow you to be open with them and who are supportive.

It is essential that one follow the appropriate process for developing these relationships, and not dump too much information, share struggles with too much passion, or invite depth that hasn’t yet developed. There is as much to learn from our differences with other people as from shared convictions and experiences. But there is also a human tendency to move away from people with too many differences from us.

Trust is an extremely difficult element to restore once it has been destroyed. Some students will spare no expense in getting ahead, especially if it is at someone else’s expense. Aristotle once said that, “The antidote for fifty enemies is one friend.” 4 In some situations, you may need more than one friend to balance the difficult relationships. Be willing to try again, and to find peers that are available to you in a challenging academic environment.

The quality of your life ought to be measured by the depth of your friendships, not by rows of degrees on your wall. Begin by developing a vision for the role of friendships in your life, and consider graduate school a practice ground for friendships. Take the initiative, take steps, take risks, and take a friend with you for what may be the most rewarding time of your life.

1. Professor/Grad Relationships: Maximizing the Mentoring Potential, Nick Repak 1990
2. Understanding Graduate Students, George Barna, 1990
3. Getting What You Came For, Robert L. Peters Ph.D. 1992
4. Words for All Occasions; Quotes, Stories, Anecdotes, Poems, Fables, Proverbs & One-Liners, Glenn Van Ekeren, 1988

Nick Repak is the founder and director of Grad Resources, a faith based service organization addressing the needs of graduate students. He is also the founder of the National Grad Crisis-Line (877.GRAD.HLP).