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An unabridged version of this guest blog post was originally published on The Thesis Whisperer by Inger Mewburn, Instructor of “How to Survive Your PhD” on edX.

Since announcing Australian National University’s latest MOOC, How to Survive Your PhD, I’ve been overwhelmed by the response, with more than 2600 people signing up in the first week alone– far more than I had expected! A few people have written to me saying they plan to use the MOOC to help create a campus-based or online group experience. This got me thinking about how we do– and don’t– create community for and amongst research students.

There are clearly benefits of being part of an on-campus community. If you listen to PhD students talk, you might get the idea that poor supervision is the main problem, but survey after survey shows that PhD students everywhere think universities are doing a poor job of creating a sense of community.

So why are students reporting a lack of community? Some element is clearly missing – but what?

‘Community’ is defined in two ways: the first as a ‘being together’ in the same physical place, and the second as ‘feeling together’ – a sense of belonging that comes with working with people of like mind and heart.

Community is not just about being in the same place or having the same events to go to – it’s about that ‘feeling of fellowship’ that comes with sharing common interests and goals. The quickest way to achieve a sense of belonging, aside from perhaps religion, is shared work.

If you think about it, the structure of academic work does not give us many opportunities to work together on shared goals. Being an academic is nothing like my previous careers where I worked in large teams. On my research days at home it’s common for me not to speak to a soul.

Last week at a dinner party, someone said that being an academic is a bit like owning your own small business. This struck me as being very true. Being an academic is like managing a small shop that doesn’t get many customers each day. You set the performance targets. You decide if your ‘product lines’ (research, teaching) are profitable enough. You might have a few people in to help you during the busy times, but essentially you open and close the shop most days.

In fact, if I think too much about it, often my working life feels this way. No wonder many academics report feeling intensely lonely at times. Kate Bowles wrote beautifully about how academic work can make us feel estranged from the rest of the world. For many, the loneliness starts with the PhD itself. I’ve written before about how weird it feels that no one seems to care as much as you.

So what can we do about it?

How to Survive Your PhD offers a unique opportunity to work together to build community. I’ve encouraged people to sign up with friends and family, so here are a few ideas on how to make the experience more communal:

1) Book Club Model: Simply make a regular meet up time for your group or department to have coffee, discuss the course content together and your reactions to it. The course content will launch on a Wednesday because I think this a good, midweek catch up day.

2) Blended Classroom Model: If you are a supervisor or researcher developer, consider using the course as part of your own workshop series and convene discussion sessions around it – either for students or supervisors. If I were doing this, I would take the opportunity to build my own content or activities around the course.

3) Virtual and Local Communities: Create your own Facebook group to connect people online to discuss themes and organise meetups, either as a ‘virtual community of interest’ (such as for people in African studies as an example) or a ‘local community of practice’ (for people in your location – We’ll be doing Canberra meetups at the Fellows Bar at University House). A virtual community of interest would help you connect scholars in your discipline, the local community of practice could help you connect with and meet people in in your physical location who are doing the MOOC.

4) Get Social: Keep an eye on the hashtag #survivephd15, which we will be using to host regular Twitter chats. We’ll be ‘harvesting’ this hashtag across multiple platforms using the aggregator Tagboard so whenever you use this hashtag (on facebook, twitter or instagram), your peers will see it inside the edX course.

Ready to get started? How to Survive your PhD starts August 26th. Join our global community of academics today!

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