Organizing your own reading group

Jingwen Zhang, Social Statistics, University of Manchester (2020 Cohort)

Solitary work and limited social life are common for PhD students, but are we doomed to be lonely? How can we find companions on our personal PhD journeys? One way to help us come together with those with similar interests is to organise a reading group.

Since last September, I have been organizing an online reading group focusing on ageing and wellbeing in China and had monthly meetings with a group of early career researchers around the world. This has turned out to be an inspiring experience for me during my PhD studies. This reading group was initially founded by my supervisor Dr Nan Zhang, alongside the Global Network for Ageing Research on China (GNARC), and I offered to help her plan and organize each reading group session. Although we originally targeted PhD students within the UK, to our surprise it has attracted PhD students from China, India, Japan, Germany and Belgium and received kind support (commenting and reading suggestions) from some senior researchers too.

So far, we have organized a variety of activities in the reading group, including discussing and critiquing publications, group members presenting their recent work and informal chit-chat about our own publication experiences and career aspirations. We also organized a special session, “Meeting the Author”, where we invited a senior researcher from UNSW Sydney to share her experience in conducting a study which was published in a top journal in gerontology (you can find the recording on GNARC’s YouTube channel). She also introduced the exchange program in her research institute to those in attendance and encouraged us to collaborate and network further.

Personally speaking, I enjoyed participating in this reading group and have benefited a lot from organizing it beyond deepening knowledge in my research field.

Firstly, it was just great to meet people with the same research interests to me and talk about each other’s PhD experiences. One reason for feeling lonely during a PhD is that our research area is usually very specific and narrow. It is likely that most of the fellow students in our office are solving different puzzles to us. However, we are definitely not alone if we consider the whole research community in that specific research field around the world. Why not take advantage of the internet and reach out to fellow scholars in another time zone?

Secondly, it is a good opportunity to network and incubate new ideas. In one group meeting, a PhD student presented her own research on informal care in China when there was a senior researcher from a prestigious research institute in China, who works on the same topic as her, in attendance. They shared their data collection and field work experience and expressed interest in future collaboration. As an organiser, I felt so excited to see new bonds formed via the reading group and this gave me a sense of accomplishment which is hard to come by during a PhD.

Finally, I developed my own organization and communication skills in arranging each meeting. As an introverted person and a second-language English speaker, I gradually built my confidence by reaching out to potential speakers by email and chairing each meeting. It was a great encouragement when I heard back from and received support from researchers whose work I admire and my fellow peers. The confidence and skills I have gained through my involvement in organizing a research group is not only helpful for my academic career but may also be important preparation for other types of research and non-research work outside of academia.  

I hope hearing about my experience has been useful for you, especially if you have ever felt lonely during your PhD journey. Even better, reading this may even encourage you to start your own reading group! You are also more than welcome to join my reading group if you are interested in ageing and wellbeing. Please feel free to get in touch (jingwen.zhang@manchester.ac.uk) or DM me on twitter (@lily_zjw) if you want to know more tips for organizing a reading group or just to have a chat!

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