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Find Your People: Building Your Community as a PhD Student

Student Success New Professionals and Graduate Students Graduate
November 12, 2023 Vic Massaglia Abby Wilfert

JCC Connexions, Vol. 9, No. 4, November 2023

The Scholar's Compass: A Voyage Through the PhD Experience – A Series of Articles in JCC Connexions

As we continue our voyage en route to a PhD, we may notice ourselves humming the melody of Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors’ “Find Your People” (Rhoads & Holcomb, 2023). Its lyrics resonate with the community-building and socialization needs that are critical for our success. As emerging scholars, the people with which we choose to surround ourselves act as a north star guiding us through this thrilling and unpredictable odyssey.

Barker and Pifer (2021) have charted this terrain before. They assert the “ability to network and be an effective collaborator is a skill that is necessary for academics in any field and institution type” (p. 12). Rather than waiting for connections to happen naturally, taking the initiative to seek out like-minded individuals can greatly enhance the academic experience.

Establishing a personal board of directors is a powerful strategy to ensure you receive the necessary support during your PhD journey (Horst, 2020). Your personal board of directors can include faculty members who inspire you, fellow students who share your research interests, and professionals within and outside academia who can offer valuable insights. Regularly engaging with this network can provide you with new perspectives, honest feedback, and a strong support system when stormy skies roll your way.

Who Should Serve on Your Crew?

Horst (2020) presents a wealth of ideas regarding the composition of a personal board of directors, also known as your crew. This resource not only offers suggestions for the individuals who could serve on this board but also provides a helpful sample form for keeping track of board members. Below, we highlight individuals you may want to consider adding to yours.

Friends and Family

Friends and family play a vital role in supporting us through completion of our program. Beyond their unwavering emotional support, friends and family can provide a valuable outside perspective, offering insights we may not have considered. In the book Destination Dissertation, authors Foss and Waters (2007) articulate the value of a "conversational partner." This partner can be a friend or family member, someone you can trust to be patient and honest as you conceptualize your research topic, discern your career interests, or talk through the challenges encountered on your journey to scholarship. At critical moments, friends and family can remind us of our capabilities and push us to reach our full potential.

Reflection: How have your friends and family supported you? In what ways can you actively involve friends and family in your academic pursuits, beyond emotional support? How might their involvement contribute to your networking and collaboration skills?

Peers – A Community of Practice 

The supportive company of fellow scholars can serve as a lifeline for PhD students. A study by Lassig et al. (2013) found that students with a flourishing community of peers exhibited an increase in self-efficacy, scholarly identity development, and sense of belonging (Roberts, 2021).

PhD life can often feel like an inside joke that only your peers truly understand. As the song goes, they are the ones who “get the joke” and “pick you up and don't put you down” (Rhoads & Holcomb, 2023). Alongside family and friends, peers can serve as conversational partners who are not only capable of providing emotional support but also technical knowledge from your field. Contrary to popular conceptions, peers can be found beyond the classroom. Join study groups, attend social events, and most importantly, lend an ear to others in need.

Reflection: Reflect on the impact of having a supportive peer network. How has it influenced your past academic experiences? What characteristics do you typically seek out in peer friendships? What extracurricular activities or groups offered by your university interest you? How can you practice being a quality friend to your peers?

Faculty, Advisors, and Mentors

Faculty, advisors, and mentors are lighthouses guiding us through the often-foggy terrains of academic research and vocational exploration. Since these individuals were once in our shoes, they are often happy to pay forward the support they once received. They challenge our assumptions and push our boundaries out of faith in our potential. These relationships require trust, communication, and mutual respect. Clearly communicate your aspirations and goals, along with the challenges you may be facing. Establishing open lines of communication ensures that we receive the guidance necessary for our growth as doctoral students.

Reflection: Consider your relationship with a particular faculty member, advisor, or mentor. How would you describe the level of trust, communication, and mutual respect in this relationship? Have you shared your aspirations and developmental goals with them? Have you been receptive to their feedback? Have you thanked them for their support?

Future Colleagues

Throughout our PhD odyssey, future colleagues can introduce us to other scholars, suggest unfamiliar perspectives, and offer opportunities for collaboration. Build these mutually beneficial relationships through informational interviews, academic conferences, seminars, or even professional networking platforms. To optimize these experiences, be prepared, be authentic, and ask meaningful questions. Each interaction is a chance to explore and learn something new.

As members of a greater academic community, we must each advocate for open dialogues, encourage mutual respect, and promote collaboration over competition. A nurturing academic community is one where everyone feels understood and valued.

Reflection: What steps have you taken to expand your network? How can you contribute to academic communities or organizations that align with your research interests and values? What meaningful questions can you ask to help you gain insights, learn from others’ experiences, and gauge your own progress in the academic world?

Find Your People, Then You'll Find Yourself

In the end, completing a PhD is as much about academic growth as it is about personal growth. As we navigate this journey, remember that the relationships we build along the way will define our experience. It is through curating our personal board of directors that we discover our identity as scholars. In the words of Rhoads and Holcomb (2023), "You gotta find your people, then you'll find yourself." So, let us continue our adventure, compass in hand, to find our people and, in doing so, discover our scholarly identity.


A personal board of directors can help unlock your potential. (n.d.). Groove Management. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://www.groovemanagement.com/blog/personal-board

Baker, V. L., & Pifer, M. J. (2011). The role of relationships in the transition from doctoral  student to independent scholar. Studies in Continuing Education, 33(1), 5-17. https://doi.org/10.1080/0158037X.2010.515569

Foss, S. K., & Waters, W. (2007). Destination dissertation: A traveler's guide to a done dissertation. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Horst, J. D. (2020, January 10).  Your personal board of directors: Go beyond mentorship withyour professional development. EHS Daily Advisor. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://ehsdailyadvisor.blr.com/2020/01/your-personal-board-of-directors-go-beyond-mentorship-with-your-professional-development/

Lassig, C. J., Dillon, L. H., & Diezmann, C. M. (2013). Student or scholar? Transforming identities through a research writing group. Studies in Continuing Education, 35(3), 299-314. https://doi.org/10.1080/0158037X.2012.746226

Rhoads, K., & Holcomb, D. (2023). Find your people [Recorded by Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors]. Hancy Music, Grey Fedora Publishing.

Roberts, L. (2021). “This is just what we do”: PhD students on becoming scholars in a  community of practice. Communications in Information Literacy, 15(1), 75-94. https://doi.org/10.15760/comminfolit.2021.15.1.4