Why and How to Form a Grad Student Support Group

Hands-down, one of the best decisions I’ve made during my PhD program was joining a PhD support group (sometimes referred to as accountability or writing groups–I’m using “support group” as an umbrella term in this post). Graduate school can be an isolating experience, especially once you’re out of coursework, and a support group can provide you with the community you may be missing. Such groups are also extremely helpful in giving you some external motivation to do your work at times when your internal motivation might be running low.

My current support group affectionately refers to ourselves as “Accountabilibuddies,” which I think captures the essence of an effective group: you should be working with people who are interested in supporting you and holding you accountable to your goals and whom you can support in return. In this post, I’ll be talking about my experience forming and participating in a couple different support groups and sharing some tips and advice for creating one of your own.

Why Form a Grad Student Support Group?

I’m already sold! Tell me how to get started.

As I mentioned above, a support group is a small community that helps you reach your graduate school goals. Maybe you’re still in coursework, and you’re looking for people to co-work or study with. Maybe you’re working on a prospectus, thesis, dissertation, or article manuscript and want someone outside of your advisor to bounce ideas off of or provide feedback on your drafts. Maybe you’re looking for people with whom to share advice or experience. Maybe you’ve found that you need help with motivating yourself to work. Or maybe you just want to feel less alone in the grad school experience. Depending on how you structure it, a support group can accomplish any and all of these things!

You might decide that a writing-specific support group is the best fit for your needs. Peg Boyle Single endorses writing groups in her book Demystifying the Dissertation, as does Wendy Belcher in Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks (I highly recommend both of these books, by the way). Belcher also facilitates a Facebook Group (Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks Discussion) if you’re looking for something specifically on that theme or just want low-organization writing support.

My Experiences with Grad Student Support Groups

I have been part of three separate support groups during my grad school career. The first was an already-formed writing group of English PhD students at my university that I was invited to join during the first year of my PhD program. The three founding members of the group were all 2+ years into their PhDs (which in my program, means they were out of coursework and were either at the prospectus- or dissertation-writing stages). This group met once-a-month at one of our group members’ residences, and each member would bring a project to work on during the meeting. For me, this usually meant a paper for a course. Sometimes, we would workshop someone’s writing. However, these meetings were also a chance for socializing, and I found that they were invaluable in giving me an “inside scoop” into my program and insight into the “road ahead.” By bringing me into the fold, the founding members were able to take on an informal mentorship role and saw just how far they had come since the start of their PhD journey. This group lasted for the first 2-3 years of my doctoral program (when the founding members graduated and moved on to other awesome things), and these women have all become close friends.

The second support group I was part of was much shorter-lived and focused on accountability. I formed this group at the start of Summer 2018, which was the summer between Years 2 and 3 of my PhD program (when I was working on my dissertation prospectus), and it lasted only until the start of the next academic year. I had been thinking about joining an online-only accountability group, but I didn’t want to pay to join one brokered by a company (these do exist, btw). So I reached out to friends from my MA program and one of the founding members of the group I described above, all of whom were post-coursework and wanted to remain productive over the summer. In other words, our group included five members from three different English PhD programs, not all of whom knew each other. I set up monthly Google Sheets and shared them with the other group members. Each group member had their own tab on the spreadsheets set up with a calendar; otherwise, they were able to customize their sheet to reflect their goals and how they wanted to document their progress.

While the second support group did not survive past that summer, I used my experience forming and moderating that group to start my third group–the one I’m currently a part of. This time around I wanted a hybrid online/in-person group experience, so I reached out to three other PhD students in my program (I’m a cohort of 1, so it happened that they were all at an earlier stage of the program). I used the Google Sheets template I had developed from my online-only accountability group to create a space for us to post daily goals & accomplishments, share struggles, and support one another (see photos below for an example of my tab from November 2019). The in-person component involves meeting for an hour once a month to chat about our current goals and projects, celebrate accomplishments and progress, and share our struggles and concerns (we have been doing this via Zoom since the pandemic). We close out each meeting by sharing our goals for the next month. As the most “senior” member of the group, I get the satisfaction of sharing my experience with the other members, and we all benefit from each other’s support and the sense of accountability to our little community.

Snapshots of my spreadsheet tab from November 2019.

How Do I Form a Grad Student Support Group?

There isn’t one static process for starting a support group, but I’m going to give you a step-by-step guide below. Feel free to mix the steps to your preference! If you already have a group of people in mind, you can of course involve them in the decision making process.

  1. Decide what kind of experience you’d prefer. Entirely online? In-person or synchronous? A bit of both?
  2. Think about how long you want this group to operate. A summer or semester)? A year or more? Do you want to start with a one-month trial period? (If you’re not sure, you can wait and decide this with your future group members.)
  3. What is the group’s focus? Is it writing-specific, where you’ll workshop drafts? Is it more general accountability and support?
  4. Determine who you’d like to invite to your group (see Additional Tips & Advice below). Consider whether you want to work with members of your current program, people in the same discipline but at different schools, or other members of your university in different programs. Do you want to work with people at your same level (say, cohort members or people at the same stage as you), or would you like to mix people at varying stages of the program?
  5. Reach out to these prospective group members directly, or post an advertisement in your campus’s grad student Facebook group, subreddit, or other online forum. Make sure to be clear about your participation expectations for and the format of the group, so people know what they’d be signing up for.
  6. If your group is planning to use a joint spreadsheet, volunteer to set it up (I continue to be in charge of making each month’s spreadsheet for my current accountability group. It only takes me five minutes.) If you’re meeting in-person or synchronously, discuss with your group if you should meet at each other’s houses or a neutral location like a coffee shop (or pick your video conferencing platform if you’re social distancing). Volunteer to host the first meeting!
  7. Set up calendar invites and reminders, if desired, and decide what you’d like to do in the event a group member cannot attend a meeting (do you cancel or reschedule?).
  8. Ask all group members to set goals and communicate their needs to the group. Do they want to finish a dissertation chapter? Complete a certain amount of reading each day? Apply for a fellowship or grant? How do they want to be held accountable for their goals?

That’s pretty much it! The most important thing to getting a grad student support group off the ground is for everyone to get in the habit of participating. The “forming and norming” stages are when your group is at greatest risk of dissolving for lack of momentum.

Additional Tips & Advice

  • I think the ideal size of an accountability group is 4-5 members. This number is manageable for a one-hour meeting and gives each member access to a range of perspectives.
  • In my opinion, a successful support group’s members should care more about collegiality than competition. The goal of a support group isn’t to one-up one another–it’s to support one another! Therefore, if you’re planning to form a group, think about people who would be willing to celebrate your successes and lift you up during your low moments.
  • I believe all members of a support group need a willingness to be vulnerable. Really, this comes down to emotional honesty. It’s unfair to your other group members if they’re willing to share their struggles and you are unwilling to reciprocate.
  • What is shared in the support group stays in the accountability group. Each individual should be able to trust that their groupmates will respect their privacy.
  • No one member should dominate the group discussion (particularly important for groups that meet synchronously). Each group member should get a chance to share during every meeting.
  • For asynchronous, online-only groups: I recommend asking each group member to check in on the spreadsheet every day, even if it’s just to write an encouraging note to a group member. This will help create the habit of entering goals and accomplishments in the spreadsheet and ensures that you’re all supporting each other regularly!
  • If a group member can no longer participate for whatever reason, it’s respectful to communicate that to the other group members (rather than ghosting).
  • Group members’ needs might change over time, especially if you’re forming a more general support group. One of your members might decide to quit the group or take a leave-of-absence from their academic program: it would be kind (if they’re willing) to continue supporting them as they make this transition, especially if they’re willing to continue supporting you.
  • It might take a bit for your group to find its rhythm. It will help if group members remain flexible, especially at the beginning, as you work out the ideal structure for your group.
  • Finally, it’s okay for a group to run its course! All good things must come to an end, after all.

Are you thinking of starting a grad student support group? Do you have experience in one and want to share your advice? If so, please comment on this post!

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