Do you have a healthy academic environment?

Success in research depends on many factors other than just talent.

One major factor is the academic environment in which you work, and the way you interact with your colleagues.

Why environment matters

There is a huge difference between undergraduate study and postgraduate research. You have to think in different ways, because you are conducting original research rather than learning an established curriculum.

If you are surrounded by other researchers on a daily basis, you can learn a huge amount from the conversations around you as to how researchers think.

You also have people to talk to about your own research, people with a vast range of expertise you can tap into, or people to bounce ideas off.

Connecting ideas

Breakthroughs often occur when you make connections between previously disconnected ideas.

If you have ever watched an episode of House M.D., you will have seen the scene near the end of every episode where Dr. Wilson makes a comment unrelated to the case which triggers the flash of inspiration just before the final commercial break.

It’s the connection of previously unrelated ideas that’s the key to solving the case, and it often happens by accident.

A healthy environment for generating ideas

In a healthy academic department, people meet for coffee every day. People throw ideas around and ask questions. People take an interest in others’ research and help each other out.

In a healthy environment, there should be enough trust that you can admit when you don’t know the answer, or to ask a stupid question or suggest a crazy idea.

In a healthy environment, this is an informal interaction… a weekly research group meeting rarely allows for the same freedom of discussion.

The biggest mistake…

The biggest mistake you can make is to try to do everything on your own, and never discus ideas with other people (see the 10 commandments for PhD failure).

Distance PhDs

If you are doing a distance PhD, then you don’t have the same opportunity for academic interaction, so you have to make extra effort to seek it out, whether that’s through more regular contact with a supervisor or other students.

Do you have a healthy academic environment?

And if not, what are you going to do to create one?

7 thoughts on “Do you have a healthy academic environment?”

  1. As an EngD I’m based in industry with few other doctorates; and I’m an engineer in with other engineers, doing a mainly social science doctorate. That wasn’t the plan really- and the whole situation does lead to a strangely isolated setup!
    BUT!! You can survive by finding other people who are smart and can discuss ideas with you- even if they haven’t all done doctorates; you can get your support in dribs and drabs if you have to. Who are your friends, your relatives, your colleagues? Try talking to likely people and you may be suprised; I have one friend who is training in counselling- great for psychology of management discussions. I have a couple of other friends who work at different levels in big companies and can shoot the breeze on management strategy, a friend/mentor who did my type of doctorate years ago, others who I knew as PhD students, and a retired uncle who was a pharma manager and likes academic arguments (good practice for viva defense!). Granted this might be easier when you’re a little older as your friends are more varied (I’m mid career) but even when you’re younger you will have quite a range of contacts; and if you don’t, try to find some. Innovation writers always talk about spending time with people different from yourself to get ideas.
    To be honest research environments often seem to be not ideal and there’s not always much you can do about them- so coping tips would be even better, and that’s sort of what I’m offering here! In the end as you become an expert in your area you’ll be able to have less detailed discussions about content and you will be working more on your own, but you can still benefit from contact with other people- “even” non academics 🙂

  2. I completely dislike my academic environment. A qualitative research paper is a requirement for me to pass my program, but I am genuinely interested in my thesis topic and excited about it. Thing is, I’m with two uninspired dreary fellow students who are just drudging through it all just to get it done, and do nothing but watch me go back and forth with my thesis adviser.

    Now onto my adviser….i’d get better advice from an ATM machine. Everything she says feels scripted, and she is unbelievably condescending. She assumes I’ve done this sort of thesis thing in the past, and is vague with all of her advice. I’ve never done a thesis before and it’s been such an uphill battle. How am I supposed to be successful at something if I don’t understand the basic purpose for it all?

    I’m having a difficult time, but I have to say, I love this blog. It is so helpful without being condescending. He is academically minded but NOT pummeling me with highbrow vocabularies and general loftiness like my adviser is doing. I finally understand what Chapter II is supposed to be about now thanks to this blog.

  3. I totally agree. The environment is vital, especially when you are starting off your research career like me. There are 6 people in our group, my PhD supervisor included, but the relationships within the group are not at all good and that hinders research.

  4. I am currently working within a large research group and have to say that it doesn’t feel like a healthy environment. Lecturers are too busy to interact with students and even though you discuss a bit with others during lunch or in the corridors, there are no meaningful conversations going on. I have opted to show up every other day just to be seen and work at nights- I have asked friends at other universities and they live virtually the same situation. I can’t help to think that healthy academic environments doesn’t really exist outside university propaganda.

    • I sympathise. At my place, there are not only the hectic teaching schedules coupled with constant demands and changes from management (e.g. we have restructured twice in the last two years, so the management types who are jostling for position seem to have to be seen to be ‘doing something’ thus doleing out 1-2 reactive high priority tasks on a weekly basis) You get no time allocation for undertaking your PhD work so it is a very much in your own time type of thing. All of which I can handle, except…

      This ideal of academic discussion and collaboration just doesn’t seem to exist. The good staff are too overstretched with teaching duties to be able to collaborate and the poor staff just seem to sit around and complain about their workload. Every time I get a chance to sit down with colleagues for coffee to want to bounce ideas around there seems to be recurring discussions of a non academic nature (basically the males talking about car engines and the ladies talking about clothes shopping) I could scream. Not the conducive environment you would imagine..

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