Academic Sparring Partners


Academic Training Partners

Lately the media has emphasized many disheartening aspects of the graduate school experience: the debt crisis, the slumping of the academic job market for tenure-track jobs, the increase in insecure and poorly remunerated academic jobs and so forth. All of these issues are incredibly pertinent ones, but they all seem to stress the competitive nature of graduate school and academia, particularly the idea that someone else’s success is your loss or failure. We aren’t disputing that there is plenty of that feeling to go around in any graduate program, but our own experience as graduate students in a large anthropology program at a large university was also colored by the meaningful connections and relationships we made with other students, faculty and researchers both within our field and beyond.

We go to universities to learn from experienced scholars and teachers but also to build relationships with peers whom we can share our thoughts, writing and research. The three of us were part of overlapping academic communities that provided key support to all of us, despite working in different parts of the world (Mesomerica for Alanna, the American Southwest for Jaime, and the Himalayas for Dolma) on very different topics (archaeology and material culture exchange for Alanna, masculinity and mixed martial arts for Jaime, and gendered experiences of education for Dolma). We came to view each other as significant sources of support and clarity.

Jaime observed that these relationships both in terms of their function and form were very much like the training partnerships she saw at the gym where she was doing her own research on Mixed Martial Arts. We found the analogy of training partners particularly apt for describing the intense mutually supportive relationships we formed while in graduate school. If you run, go to the gym regularly, or participate in a sport you likely already know the value of a good training partner. A good training partner will first of all help you to be accountable to get work done. Knowing that someone else may be relying on you and is there for you can provide the motivation to complete projects and meet deadlines. You often learn things from your training partners, someone closer to your own level of experience and expertise, which you wouldn’t learn from a coach. Good training partners are there to encourage you and often push you beyond your comfort zone. But getting into a rhythm with your partners may take time, knowing when to push through and when to back off. Training can’t be one-sided. You have to be willing to put as much into it for your partners as you anticipate getting out the relationship. Most of all, while a training partner can inspire you and help you improve; they can’t do the work for you. We wrote this post to share the benefits of developing your own training community and how to get the most out of your relationships by being a good partner and finding good partners.

The first couple years of graduate school are heavy on class work, intensive reading and writing exercises. Building a rapport with people in your cohort, ideally across disciplines, in the form of reading and discussion groups is helpful in providing support and gaining new insights. For us, these early groups of training partners provided the community sounding board for our neophyte ideas and writing attempts. Later on, these same communities formed the basis for writing and editing support.

As we progressed through our respective graduate programs, the community we fashioned for our initial class work was the same group that we drew upon in forming our advanced reading and writing groups. Often we found these a useful way to keep up with recent publications and new discoveries after we were no longer enrolled in structured classes. These groups were also vital for getting feedback outside of our relatively insulated committees on our various theses, dissertations, and grant proposals. Having fresh pairs of eyes and sympathetic and interdisciplinary feedback was a large factor in our success at getting funding from major agencies such as the National Science Foundation. The great benefit of these group exercises was also to provide emotional support along with honest insight from both within and outside our different sub-disciplines.

Post-graduation as we’ve moved on to different types of employment—some within and others outside the academy—the training partners we relied on have remained an important resource for active research projects and writing feedback within our fields of study. It’s difficult to keep abreast of an active research community in your field without having regular contact in the form of writing and reading groups unless you are able to connect with other people who are just as engaged as you are, especially if you are no longer in a formal academic environment. The relationships we cultivated as graduate students continue to sustain us well after the completion of our degrees.

The obvious place to start looking for potential training partners would be peers from your classes. You will get to know others’ areas of interest and writing styles from your interactions in these settings. Is there someone whose research interests intersect with yours? Perhaps someone whose insightful comments impressed you? Usually you enter grad school with a cohort, but your community can certainly benefit from members who have been in the program longer. They can give you tips and advice based on their previous experience. Other places to look are at conferences and as academics have become more active online, places like twitter and discipline specific blogs have become great places to meet potential training partners.

Each group of training partners will have a different structure. Some groups are more informal: 5-10 peers going out to happy hour after class to discuss confusing aspects of social theory and occasionally reviewing each other’s papers. Other groups are more formal: a few people meeting every 2 weeks to go over goals and provide written comments on each other’s work. You will have to find out what works best for you and your training partners. You can benefit from being in more than one group, just don’t spread your time and commitments too thin.

Although it may seem sensible and convenient to include only people who are researching the same geographic region or topic, or are using similar theoretical perspectives or analytical tools, we found it beneficial to engage with people in a variety of academic disciplines. Doing this can broaden the reach of your ideas and perhaps inspire you to think about aspects of your work in new and different ways. Also consider training partners who are not exclusively academics. They may not be attending your group meetings, but having someone who is outside academia read your work can let you know if your work is accessible. It couldn’t hurt to have a friend or sibling proofread your work for errors in grammar, punctuation and any unintentional pompousness or lack of clarity.

Others to consider as potential training partners could be trusted advisor, committee member or a mentor in your field. They will be reading your papers and work anyhow and will likely be happy to give you feedback on other projects such as grant applications or academic articles. In return, offer to read some of their work–chances are they will appreciate you taking an interest in their work and value your feedback. However, if you are reviewing an advisor or more senior academic’s work, present your constructive criticism tactfully and judiciously. They may turn out to be more sensitive than you realized. Remember; although it may not seem like it, there are aspects of hierarchy and politics to relationships in academic so keep this in mind. Overall we felt engaging with other more experienced academics was a very positive and beneficial experience which helped us contribute to and make connections with the communities we aimed to join.

Now that we’ve covered the benefits and general advice about picking training partners, we’d like to offer some specific practical advice to starting up your own training community and how to be a good training partner. First, keep in mind that it may be a little awkward starting your group especially if it is your first year at grad school or don’t know your peers very well. Once you meet a couple times or establish common goals you will get into a more comfortable pattern.

Remember that you and your training partners must be comfortable sharing and editing each other’s work. Similar to many graduate students, each one of us was compelled to overcome the fear of asking someone to read our work lest this expose us as not as smart as everyone else. But graduate school shouldn’t be about proving how smart you already are. Your training partners’ comments and feedback will almost always greatly improve the focus and quality of your own work. People can’t help to improve your work, if you don’t share it with them in the first place. If you are not comfortable showing your work to someone, even if they are a good editor or insightful, then they are not the right fit for you as a training partner. Not all your training partners will remain in your group. Sometimes schedules (or personalities) will clash. Sometimes people’s goals may simply differ or change over time. No need to force it or feel guilty if it isn’t working for you or for someone else.

A truly supportive and productive training partner relationship has to be based on genuine engagement and exchange. This doesn’t mean that exchange has to be completely identical (you read my paper so I’ll read yours) but make sure you are not taking your training partners for granted. The quickest way to exhaust goodwill is to be unreliable and stingy with your time. There has to be both give and take even if what is given and what is received is not exactly the same. People have different skills and talents; they are at different stages in their career and have different things to offer each other. Some people are great at giving feedback on conceptual issues, others know exactly where a comma should sit, another person will spend an entire weekend helping you pick out the most flattering and best priced interview outfit, and then there is that kind soul who will look after your pets when you go to conferences. The point is to make sure both that you are getting support and that you are giving it.

It’s very easy to get pulled into someone else’s hectic attempts to meet a looming deadline but you have to be honest with them (and yourself) about how much you can do and how quickly. It’s easy to create misunderstanding and resentment if someone is counting on your help and you aren’t able to deliver or when you spend so much time helping someone else that your own work suffers. It’s important to set clear and reasonable limits of how much help you can realistically provide while meeting your own deadlines.

Be honest with each other. This is particularly true when someone asks for your advice on their work or their ideas or on a decision they are making. Remember that in some cases your honesty could prevent them from embarrassment or worse before they take their ideas or work to bigger, less friendly audiences. However it’s critical to remember that honesty is not the same thing as cruelty. There is almost always a kind or generous way to put any suggestion or criticism. It’s also important to be honest about your own progress (or lack thereof) with your training partners otherwise it’s not possible for them to understand what kind of help or support you need.

Push each other to take advantage of opportunities and to do your best work. One of the real rewards of being part of a training community is that you cultivate a group of people who come to really understand you, your work, your interests, and your capabilities. This knowledge gives all of you the ability to be supportive of other academic choices, such as presenting at a conference or submitting an article to a journal, based on whether this would be a good fit for someone. You can also give advice if one of your training partners is not putting in their best work. So push each other harder but don’t forget that a huge part of effectively pushing someone to do better is reassuring them that they are both capable and deserving.

Be consistent about getting in touch and keeping in touch. It’s easy to stay in touch with each other and each other’s projects when everyone is taking classes and on campus together. Things change once coursework is over and people start to set their own idiosyncratic schedules. Being in touch takes conscious effort, but it’s worth it! One way we stayed in touch was to regularly schedule time to work together (even when we were at different stages and working on different projects) at coffee shops or in each other’s homes. To make your time together truly productive plan on catching up either before or after the meet-up so that most of the time can be spent working. It also helps to set public deadlines so that you prevent procrastination (though as always, be generous about accommodating each other’s extra-academic lives). Consistent in-person meetings are of course best but are not always possible (particularly during fieldwork) but emails, phone calls and skype all make it possible to be in touch regularly. If you are someone who gets completely sucked into their work and loses touch with time (has it really been six weeks since we were in touch?) then schedule yourself reminders to touch base. Google calendar for example can be set to send you pre-scheduled reminders.

Try not to compare yourself or your work to anyone else’s. In competitive graduate programs where funding and opportunities are not equally distributed, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling jealous about someone else’s success. Applying for grants and later jobs can only increase the tendency to compare your own success to that of everyone else. A little jealousy might be normal but it can be poisonous to your training partnerships. A constructive way to handle someone else’s success is to see it as an opportunity for you to learn from them. Ask that person to see her fellowship application or if she has time to look at your cover letter. Don’t be insulted if people are not always willing to share. There are a lot of reasons they might say no, including feeling shy or insecure about their own work. But the best way to prevent yourself from getting jealous is to see yourself as truly invested in the success and achievement of your training partners. Be excited for them. Celebrate with them.

It’s easy to rely on your training partners during the worst of times; when you feel lonely, uncertain or stressed. While that kind of emotional support, encouragement and advice are so critical to your academic success, don’t forget to also share in the successes and good times, to mark the big milestone together. For example we made each other’s dissertation defenses and presentations mini-celebrations catered with baked goods and coffee. Also, it’s much harder for a committee member or the audience to tear down your ideas if his/her mouth is full of jelly doughnuts!

Our training partners were vital to finishing our dissertations in more or less one piece. More importantly, in the sometimes toxic environment of academia, we want to stress how much pleasure we had in sharing our work with each other and how deeply engaging it is to be a training partner and part of a training community. In many ways this was exactly what we had originally (perhaps naively) hoped graduate school and academia would be all about.

Dolma Choden Roder
Faculty of Social Sciences
Royal Thimphu College

Jaime Holthuysen
Department of Anthropology
Bellevue College

Alanna Ossa
Senior Ceramic Analyst/Lab Manager
Archaeological Consulting Services, Ltd.

Image: Photo by Jaime Holthuysen from her fieldwork on mixed martial arts in the American Southwest.

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.

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