PhD working environments and why they matter

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Where we work is important. Where we read, write and discuss our work, whether or not we speak to someone during the day, and where we take a break from our work is important, too.

Until recently, I was trying to motivate myself to go into university every day. I used to hot-desk in an open plan space provided for PhD students from various disciplines. Even though during my part-time Master’s I did the majority of my work at home, it doesn’t seem to work as well for me now. I get bored, distracted, and if I’m honest, a little lonely.

Yet I found it difficult to want to go and work in a small, stultifying silent space where I always felt that I was encroaching on someone else’s territory (those who are further on in their studies don’t seem to want to hot-desk, which is fair enough even if it is a bit frustrating for the rest of us). I also didn’t know many people who worked in there, and the atmosphere wasn’t exactly conducive to striking up conversations.  So when I heard that I might be able to get a space in one of the related research centres, I jumped at the chance- if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

When I went in the following Monday to start working in the research centre, I felt instantly that I was part of an academic community. One of my fellow PhD students who I met on the first day also works in the office, and I was introduced to everyone else who worked there. My research involves looking at individuals’ experiences of studying for their PhD (for more details see here). I believe that working in an environment which is supportive and fosters a sense of belonging has a significant impact on PhD students. I know that my motivation and my focus have been vastly improved by moving into the research centre, and I’ve definitely been more productive in the few weeks I’ve been there.

Now I’ve moved into this office, I chat to people in the kitchen area when I’m heating up my lunch in the microwave. The other day a colleague left a journal article he thought would be useful for my research on my desk. I used to work full-time before starting my PhD, and it is these small, everyday interactions with others which I really missed. You don’t realise how good it is to have colleagues around you until you no longer have them.

Why is my new working environment worthy of writing about, then? Because I think my experience is similar to many others. Friends of mine who are also PhD students work in a variety of environments, from a desk at home to a small office space to their university library. Some of them like their situation, some of them don’t, and of course it’s important to recognise that people work differently and have different preferences.

Yet research has consistently highlighted isolation as being a serious issue amongst PhD students, particularly for those studying within humanities or social sciences (Ali & Kohun et al. 2006; Brown and Watson 2010; Golde 2005). In serious cases it can contribute to a student’s decision to leave their studies. Doctoral attrition, where students studying for their PhD leave before completing their degree, is a significant problem for universities across the world (Golde 2000; Lovitts 2001). By providing a place of study which is welcoming to PhD students, and offering them a space to call their own where they can leave their books and interact with their peers, this isolation can be reduced.

I’d be really interested to hear from other PhD students and your experiences. Where do you work? Does it work for you, and why?