Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Cultivating a Strong “Team” of Social Support While in Graduate School and Beyond: You Cannot Do It Alone

By Ah Ra Cho, Senior Graduate Student Representative, Division J
PhD candidate in Higher Education (graduating May 2017), University of North Texas

“I did it all by myself” is not something one will hear any person who graduates with their doctorate.  If you happen to come upon the acknowledgement section of a dissertation, the individual will list multiple people who have supported them throughout their journey. This is analogous to professional sports. Not just one person coaches a professional sports team. There are multiple coaches, coordinators, trainers, nutritionists, and other support staff, who are all in place to carry out the different functions and needs of the team and individual athletes toward success.

Having your team in place is particularly important as one transitions from the coursework stage, where one regularly sees faculty and fellow classmates on a regular basis, to the dissertation stage, where that sense of routine, deadlines, and interactions are no longer in place. Graduate school is tough; it is a journey, a marathon. Social supports are key, both in the level and quality, in helping graduate students cope with stressful events and maintain good health (Goplerud, 1980; Hall, 1969).

What if you are a new doctoral student and unsure who comprises your “team”? Here are some various team members you can consider adding to your team.

Your Graduate Program

Your Peers/Classmates. Peer support networks are particularly critical for graduate and professional students (Hall, 1969). This includes the sharing of information and social value from the peer interactions that occur (Austin, 2002). Some of these social supports will be from fellow students, who are a semester, a year, or multiple years ahead of you and who are willing to let you “in the know” about the program—the culture and the information not readily provided in the open but are crucial to your success.

Some of the strongest bonds I have seen and personally cherish are the small groups or partnerships that form during graduate school. You will often recognize them always together at conferences. They write together, they commiserate together, they celebrate together. This is not bounded to graduate students alone. You will often see junior scholars and senior scholars publish together time after time, many of those bonds formed early on in these scholars’ careers, starting in graduate school. The power of technology nowadays helps keep those bonds going on even after graduation as your “squad/posse/group” go your separate ways to other institutions. These bonds form through similar research interests, possibly an established cohort model, or even organically.

Your Faculty. The quality of faculty-student interaction is an important aspect of graduate school (Hartnett, 1976). Faculty, particularly your advisor, can help you set your “action plan” both in how you proceed during your doctoral program and your future career aspirations. The field of higher education is small, and the networks that your current faculty have can be helpful in connecting you to other scholars in higher education.

Higher Education Groups and Organizations

For graduate students, the “continuum of involvement” in participating with organizations is a distinction that graduate students should consider as they can be incredibly helpful in building those social supports (Gardner & Barnes, 2007).

Get involved with national professional organizations. The main academically focused organizations in higher education include AERA’s Division J Post-Secondary Education and the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE). Join their graduate student networks and participate in the programming provided year-round such as AERA’s #DivJChat twitter chats or Conversations with Scholars. Both graduate student networks also provide wonderful programming specific to graduate students during the annual conferences which include graduate student sessions, fireside chats, and graduate student socials. Another is to be involved with practitioner oriented organizations, including NASPA and ACPA, which umbrella all of student affairs. There are a myriad of multiple other organizations in higher education that exist which focus on a specific area or specialty, and located at the state, regional, and international levels.

Networking/Social Media
The concept of social support from social media is something I have found to be particularly helpful in gathering a unique type of social support, from those near and far. In my experience, sending or receiving that limited 140 character “encouragement” on twitter can be quite reassuring. Interacting with a fellow doctoral student I have never met in person or seeing posts with hashtags such as #gradschool #sadoc #gradlife #gradschoolproblems has provided me a form of support that someone else in the world is likely feeling the same way I am. Seeing researchers on social media having interests outside of academia also help foster my own striving for a work-life balance in my own personal life. Also, social media is a great way to connect with other graduate students and researchers with similar research interests. This means is particularly helpful for those who have research interests that are unique or very few people in your own graduate program share.

Outside of Academia
The more obvious ones will be your family, significant other(s), etc. This further extends to your friends outside of academia and other social circles you are involved with. Even pets are a great source of support. Sometimes, the best thing to do while in graduate school is to get these people to take you outside of the graduate school bubble. It is important to have interests outside of graduate school, whether that be hobbies, a sport, or other people to count on when graduate school is too much to bear.

Self-Care/Health Resources
I cannot stress enough the importance of having a well body, mind, soul, spirit, etc. to get you through the process of graduate school. Graduate school is stressful and can have an effect on you for which at times, can seem unsurmountable. The feelings of imposter syndrome, loneliness, lack of motivation, and other life stressors can arise in anyone and can hinder progress in your graduate program. Multiple campus resources exist such as the health and wellness, counseling and testing, recreation centers, and a myriad of other areas on campus. Also seek out assistance outside of your institution if needed for therapy or health care issues. Be willing to get help as it is crucial for your overall well-being. Setting healthy habits and practices now will only benefit you towards success in the future.

There is no ideal equation, perfect formula or one-size-fits all of support one should seek from these multiple channels. It may also shift as you become more advanced in your studies, as the needs for a student entering the field will be different than those who are in their final stages of their doctoral program. Keep in mind your personality and specific social supports you need in place to succeed as it differs for everyone.

Finally, it does not stop after one graduates. You are creating a team which will carry you through graduate school and into your professional life. It is important to find an ideal team for yourself that helps set you up for success, supports you through the challenging aspects of graduate school, and celebrates your achievements and milestones for years to come.

To end, this quote by Leslie Knope, from the Parks and Recreation series finale, captures the essence of graduate school and success…

"Now, go find your team and get to work”.


Austin, A. E. (2002). Preparing the next generation of faculty: Graduate school as socialization to the academic career. The Journal of Higher Education, 73(1), 94-122.

Gardner, S. K., & Barnes, B. J. (2007). Graduate student involvement: Socialization for the professional role. Journal of College Student Development, 48(4), 369-387.

Goplerud, E. N. (1980). Social support and stress during the first year of graduate school. Professional Psychology, 11(2), 283.

Hall, D. (1969). The impact of peer interaction during an academic role transition. Sociology of Education, 42(2), 118-140.

Hartnett, R. T. (1976). Environments for advanced learning. In J. Katz & R. T. Hartnett (Eds., Scholars in the Making. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.