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It need hardly be said that completing a doctoral degree is no walk in the park. Many students feel uncertain, lost and alone, their hopes and dreams invested in a long and arduous process with no guaranteed outcome or end date.
To allay some of this angst, McGill has introduced a university-wide PhD Support Group, jointly organized by the Career and Placement (CAPS) and Counselling Services. Meeting once a week in Thomson House, PhD students exchange information, discuss problems and receive moral support in times of need.
Jeff Osweiler of CAPS and Vera Romano of Counselling set up the groups in response to a growing need on the part of doctoral students. "We and other counsellors noticed how many PhD students felt isolated, overwhelmed and alone," says Romano. "It got to the point when we decided to stop talking and do something about it."
They looked at similar programs at other universities, and realized they had to make some decisions about how to structure the program. "There were so many different options. Should the group include people from all disciplines, or be divided by research area? What was the optimal size? How often should we meet? In the end we decided to make it as open-ended as possible, take a modest approach and be informed by the process as we went along."
They decided on two McGill-wide support groups, inviting all PhD students, irrespective of specialization or stage of completion, to meet once a week, and to have each group facilitated by a professional counsellor. Andrew Blakeslee, a relatively new recruit to the PhD in religious studies, was one of the first to sign up. "I've always been interested in looking at ways to perform better," he says. "I was looking for moral support from this process, and it's been helpful already." The group addresses practical problems as well as emotional ones. "I've been struggling with funding issues and some helpful ideas have been offered by people who've experienced similar problems," he says. Group members are "helpful," "articulate" and "smart," and he feels the meetings will have a positive influence on his time at McGill. "I'm very grateful to Jeff and Vera for getting this started," he says.
The program has proved popular, so much so that the group has had to limit membership.
"We want to accommodate as many people as possible, but we also want to provide the best possible experience for those involved," explained Osweiler. Some avenues are being explored to expand the program — such as training interns as group facilitators and providing online, webCT-based groups, aimed at helping non-resident McGill students — but resources are limited.
There are other options, though. Brian King, a PhD student in management, set up a support group after reading about them in Joan Bolker's Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. "Being a PhD student is a very lonely process," he says, "and you only have limited time with your supervisor." His group is focused more on content than process, but he says "the group itself is a helpful process — it helps us kick ourselves in the butt."
Other independently run groups include Ger Zielinski's Art History and Communications Doctoral Dissertation—Writing Group, which offers feedback on everything from research strategy and methodology to scheduling and conferencing, and Nicola McEnroe's Geography Support Group.
With such a flurry of activity, you might think PhD blues will soon be a thing of the past at McGill. But just in case, Osweiler and Romano and a host of other one-on-one counsellors are there to pick up the slack.