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Intellectual climate and academic community

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Although it might not always be apparent because of disciplinary separation and the size of our campuses, McGill's intellectual climate is full of activity. Take the initiative to participate in some of the many events that gather our academic communities and inspire dialogue and debate. You can also facilitate new events; you simply need a reason, the people who'll come, and the space to welcome them.

Be sure to look at the "McGill resources" tab on this page for many links to places of interest, but also identify which of the following signs of a warm intellectual climate that you could facilitate in your department:

  • Student-led peer support groups and other student-led initiatives (e.g. events or policies)
  • Presentations by students and postdocs that are attended by most of the faculty
  • Occasions for visiting speakers to be introduced to students, postdocs, and professors
  • Social activities attended by a wide range of people from the department
  • Departmental meetings that are genuine discussions and not merely administrative routines

Adapted from Gerry Mullins and Neville Marsh of the University of Adelaide, and the University of Oxford’s Intellectual climate tool.

As graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, finding not only the time but also a collaborative space to engage in activities can be challenging, but it is often done. 

Other student- and/or faculty-led strategies for engaging in academic communities include:

  • Writing groups – Students meet on a regular basis to discuss and give feedback on their work. This can be done in person or through online communication tools like Skype. See also the McGill Writing Centre, which offers workshops, non-credit courses, and individualized tutoring for graduate students.
  • Journal clubs or reading groups – Regular meetings encourage critical thinking about selected journals or other academic literature. See, for example, the Institute for Comparative Law and IPLAI.
  • Student seminars or mock conferences – They offer an opportunity to present in front of a local audience and get feedback. For an example, follow up with the Education Graduate Students Society (EGSS).

How can supervisees work together to meet more collective needs?

Even with events happening across campus, graduate students can still feel that they are isolated or that they lack the support to succeed. Some departments provide opportunities for social contact with other students, faculty, and academic staff including research presentations. In other departments, initiatives to foster an academic community come from the students themselves.

Case study: Creating a graduate community

The two McGill graduate students writing together here developed a discussion group through a number of conversations with their cohort to address a number of growing concerns:

We didn’t feel we were getting a chance to have conversations with our professors. They’re always so busy! But, they have a wealth of experience that we don’t always get to hear about in the classroom. Some of their exciting view-points may not warrant a full 13 week course; however, we wanted to learn more on these subjects and what was behind their motivation before starting our intern and job searches.

We wanted to connect with alumni, local professionals, and active community members with a focus on developing some of the professional skills we aren’t taught. We wanted to explore our future roles as professionals and community members; how to work and engage collaboratively in the field and across disciplines. We invited people we admire from the community, some responded and others sent their regrets.

Finally, we wanted to connect with our fellow students before we all disbanded; to have fun, watch cool videos or YouTube clips and discuss what we thought about them. We did this mostly to challenge ourselves to think critically about current issues.

We aimed the discussions a people in our department and connected fields, but really it was open to anyone. We’ve held three very successful Q&A sessions and hope to hold another aimed at engaging and encouraging the cohort below us to set up reading groups and other academic activities aimed at graduate students.

Regardless of the motivation, some goals of developing an academic community are:

  • To provide a forum for students, researchers, and academics discuss projects and practice presentation skills;
  • To give critical yet constructive feedback; collaborate and develop research ideas;
  • And to build and support the culture of an academic environment.

What it feels like to be in a good intellectual climate

From your relationship with your supervisor and department, to your position in the university in general, a good intellectual climate enables you to feel respected, supported, stimulated, and involved. People in the humanities and social sciences can follow the team-based approach of many scientific research communities, thereby reducing feelings of isolation that are more common in the former disciplines.

Doctoral study is simultaneously an academic and social experience. A good intellectual climate provides both social and academic integration, and it may often be difficult in practice to separate the two. Attrition and long times to completion are related, on the one hand, to a student’s lack of social integration in the broader community and, on the other, to academic integration in the department. Achieving such integration is a departmental responsibility too—not only a supervisor’s or student’s responsibility. Fostering a sense of collegiality among research students and encouraging students to participate in the intellectual life of their university needs to occur at the level of the academic unit and at the level of one-to-one supervisory relationships.

What is a good intellectual climate for graduate research? What does it feel like? Students feel respected, supported, stimulated and involved. There is recognition that graduate students are not just engaged in research, but in developing their identities as researchers. They experience opportunities to interact with fellow graduate students, academics in their department, and in their broader field—and they feel well-integrated rather than isolated. Obviously, this involves not only resources but also positive attitudes of professors towards students in their departments.

International and part-time students may be prone to isolation because they experience more barriers in trying to access peer cultures and academic cultures. Students in science disciplines tend to be more satisfied with the intellectual climate and therefore less isolated than students in humanities and social sciences. This disciplinary difference is commonly attributed to the greater prevalence of research groups and teams in scientific research. However, there is no reason why more disciplines cannot improve the departmental integration and intellectual climate they provide for their students. It might simply require deliberate interventions, because in some disciplines the intellectual climate is less likely to develop as an indirect outcome of the modes of research employed.

The text of this page was based on:

  • Deem, R. & Brehony, K. (2000). Doctoral students’ access to research cultures – are some more unequal than others? Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 149-165.
  • Golde, C. (2000). Should I stay or should I go? Students' descriptions of the doctoral attrition process. The Review of Higher Education, 23(2), 199.
  • Leonard, D., Metcalfe, J., Becker, R. & Evans, J. (2006). The impact of working context and support on the postgraduate research student learning experience, Higher Education Academy commissioned literature review.
  • Wright, T. & Cochrane, R. (2000). Factors Influencing Successful Submission of PhD Theses. Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 181-195.

Vibrant and vocal

McGill has a vibrant intellectual climate and a vocal academic community. Ideas abound beyond the usual departmental confines—at guest lectures and exhibitions, through conferences and clubs, and at a growing number of institutes, centres, and websites like this one. They offer many opportunities for stimulating dialogue, creating new ideas, and learning more about all the knowledge developed and brought here.

Finding the right networks to suit your particular academic interests may take some effort, but a number of initiatives, institutions, and programs are committed to fostering and enhancing intellectual exchange. If you are a graduate student, perhaps start with recommendations from your supervisor, faculty advisers, or join your peers at one or many of the exceptional events at McGill each year. While the supervisory relationship is important, graduate students can receive additional support from—and feel more integrated in—a broader community.

So, look near or far. Departments often have graduate student associations that sponsor academic or social activities, and the McGill-wide Post Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) coordinates and collaborates on numerous events for its members. Graduate students here are actively engaged throughout many recurring events such as Learning to Teach Day and 3 Minutes to Change the World, which are aimed, in part, at changing the way we think about our work and environment. Events are co-sponsored by different groups and departments including PGSS, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, the Office of Sustainability, and Teaching and Learning Services. Check out any one of these sites for more information to become involved.

Affiliated or independent, McGill’s institutes, research centres, and academic units promote dynamic and interdisciplinary intellectual communities. The Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI), the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC), the Institute for Health and Social Policy (IHSP), the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies (IGSF), and the McGill Institute for Aerospace Engineering (MIAE), to name only five, encourage active research environments by organizing and hosting public events and lecture series, conferences, reading groups, and visiting scholars among others. In addition to being cross-disciplinary, McGill’s academic environment extends research beyond the university to partners in the community and offers additional opportunities for graduate students to network and seek intellectual support.

A wealth of information is regularly delivered to graduate students email accounts. SKILLSETS sends an InfoBulletin promoting professional and academic development, PGSS offers updates on local activities, and Public Affairs keeps students, staff, and faculty up to date with internal, local, national, and international media and events with "What’s New / Quoi de Neuf" and on social media.

Acknowledgements: Original content prepared by Gerlese Åkerlind, CEDAM, ANU. Updated by Lynn McAlpine, Oxford Learning Institute, May 2012. Adapted through an agreement with Oxford and ANU at McGill by Heather Braiden and Joel Deshaye, April 2013.