Reflections of a new researcher

Reflections on the New Researchers Support Sessions

In light of the COVID pandemic, VSSN decided to expand its support to new researchers, with new regular online sessions held to provide space for people to connect and provide peer support. The sessions were hosted by Steering Group members Vita Terry, Jane Cullingworth, and Jon Dean. Sessions were held across the Spring and Summer, with around a dozen attendees each time from across the UK and Europe, drawing in people who had not participated in VSSN before. Sessions focused on peer support in a pandemic, how to publish from your PhD (with Chris Dayson, SHU), and how to disseminate your research findings (with Emily Dyson, IVAR and Nic Dickson, Uni of Glasgow).

Here, one regular attendee Karin Bierman (doctoral student at Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt) reflects on the process.

What a difference it makes: Reflections on new researcher peer support
Karin Biermann

My mind map of doubt: Am I smart enough to undertake a doctorate? And if I am, is my area of interest exciting and influential? If it is, will I find a supervisor and be accepted into a university? And if admitted, have I the stamina and resolution to finish?
And on it went.

Doctoral studies are long and mentally, emotionally, and socially challenging, and in moments of self-doubt, there is the half-hope that there is a good reason not to start at all. Self-doubt acts as a process of self-deselection before and during the doctoral course.
The extent post-graduate students are orientated into and supported throughout their studies depends upon their institution’s history and resources, including access to networks such as Vitae. Yet, even if an offering were made to all students, doctoral studies are not homogeneous. Variations exist in the stages, years, intensity and flexibility, and according to location and subject. The process is complicated, living it is stressful and lonely, and social and collegial support offer essential counterbalance (Hazell et al. 2020). The question is, where can newcomers find encouragement, especially when their institutions fail to facilitate.

Enter another mind map doubt: picturing myself amongst the ‘next generation’ researchers featured in the university websites. This is confronting as I am, by all yardsticks, of mature age, meaning from a previous generation. Search engine results for “young researcher” compared to “new researcher” illustrates the point (for the daring, search “old researcher”, or look at images of “early career” or “early stage” researchers). Thankfully, VSSN did not make this stereotyping faux pas.

I was aware of VSSN, and its publication Voluntary Sector Review, and here is where the forum steps in. To be clear, I was a student, not a researcher in any stage or phase; researcher is a new identity. Luckily for me, the forum name – new researcher – clearly identifies the target audience, making joining-in accessible and transitioning to a researcher-identity possible, albeit a work-in-progress.

The first seminar in my first doctoral semester explored how history has led science being different from other dialogues, such as lobbyism, propaganda, or the trending term, ‘fake news’. History shapes the paradigms of science and knowledge as do the rules, norms – including stereotypes – and ethics of the institutions which cultivate them. In turn, the paradigms and the institutions set the stage for how science is scientifically communicated, even to non-scientific communities.

In recent VSSN new researcher forums, a raft of communication and dissemination alternatives have been presented. Not unexpectedly, getting articles published in academic, peer-reviewed journals to showcase science to the scientific community was a key topic. However, bringing science to a broader audience was covered by book writing and publishing and, in another session, tailoring reports and presentations to practitioners and policymakers, including internet and social media. To show that science is not only stuffy theories and formats, using innovative methods for collection and dissemination was made wonderfully clear by PhD student Nic Dickson presenting her The Art of Reconnection project.

What makes the forums unique is the down-to-earth, and welcoming exchanges within the group, notwithstanding the challenges of interpersonal communication in an online world. We come together because of an interest in civil society, a sphere with mutual support as one of its pillars, not an interest in a discipline. The group meet as peers, although, I must admit, referring to distinguished and accomplished researchers as peers may take a little getting used to. Presentations are a mutually respectful interaction within a small and at-ease group, not a top-down transfer of information from an expert other.

In my first doctoral seminar, Professor Matthias Karmasin encouraged us to read “Re-thinking science” as a critique of science and its relationship to society: ‘The more open and comprehensive the scientific community the more socially robust will be the knowledge it produces’ (Nowotny et al. 2001, p.258). Although the authors are making a larger point, the quotation allows peer support, such as VSSN’s, to be appreciated as more than a mutual exchange but as a precondition for generating valuable science.

Thank you, Vita, Jane, Jon and all my ‘peers’ for your contribution.

Hazell, C.M. et al. (2020). Understanding the mental health of doctoral researchers: a mixed methods systematic review with meta-analysis and meta-synthesis. Systematic Reviews [Online] 9.
Nowotny, H. et al. (2001). Re-Thinking Science: Knowledge and the Public in an Age of Uncertainty. Malden, MA: Polity Press.