A weekly meeting of Higher Degree Research students within UNE's School of Health, borne of COVID-19, has evolved into a supportive and stimulating exchange for junior and senior colleagues alike.
Professor of Nursing Kim Usher established the Monday morning Zoom get-together back in March, concerned that students working from home would soon become isolated and may experience emotional disconnection. She felt a weekly conversation could ease the anxiety of newer students she was supervising and afford more advanced students a valuable teaching opportunity.
"Even though students were telling me they were doing fine, I felt we could all benefit from regular interaction," Professor Usher says. "And most of the students - sometimes 10 or 12, including international students and even a returning student in hotel quarantine - have attended the meeting every week.
"It's a very generous, emotionally supportive group and has evolved into a great community of scholars. I always find the dialogue exciting, it has encouraged people to read more widely and to share, and we have even enjoyed guest presentations on self-development, how to avoid plagiarism, and how to identify predatory journals. The more advanced students have really helped the newer ones. We have also had a number of writing days, with us all connected on Zoom from 9-4 and these have also been very successful."
Doctoral candidate Jo Durkin, who is five weeks off delivering her thesis, says the group recognised a valuable opportunity.
"It's a chance for people like me to honestly share our experiences and examples of what we have struggled with, as well as how we've coped. People can be very protective of their work in academia; our group has provided the peer support I wish I had had early on in my journey."
Jo says while the group was initially quite formal, it has morphed into a very honest and authentic gathering that encourages collegial relationships.
By normalising the challenges of the HDR journey, and showing vulnerability, we have helped each other to develop.
"It was always going to be a very difficult year for everybody; the connections that we have fostered have widened our support network and meant we could rely on one another throughout the year."
New PhD student Peter Smith felt the group's warm virtual embrace recently when he had to present his research topic to a panel to confirm his candidature. "It was pretty nerve-racking, but four of our group members got the link and were there in spirit, cheering me on from the 'gallery', he says. "Just knowing they were there meant a lot and I couldn't have felt more supported."
For "newbie" Yumiko Coffey, who commenced her Masters this year, it is an honour to be part of such a diverse group.
I had been told that higher degree research can be a lonely experience, but I haven't felt that at all.
"Everyone is so generous with their knowledge, sharing resources and advice. It's like a cheerleading group and not competitive at all; there is lovely professional respect and we celebrate one another's achievements. I feel so appreciative to have this weekly access to my supervisor and peers."
Jo hopes the group provides "some comfort and kindness" to new students as they begin their research. Conversations and offers of help routinely continue offline and Yumiko is thrilled to have gained a couple of "really good friendships" and invitations to be involved in other projects.
"For me, it has also helped to demonstrate how far I have come," Jo says.