Uncertain circumstances and the challenge of writing are a perennial problem for PhD students and early career researchers. Nature (2018) reports 41 per cent of graduate researchers suffer from anxiety and 38 per cent depression.

As Charlotte Wegener and colleagues put it, “writing involves not only anxiety but an occasional total lack of confidence in one’s own ability to become a researcher.”

And now their circumstances are exacerbated by COVID-19 related loss of teaching income and disruption of work.

With mixed support from university services and supervisors, researchers are creating their own assistance, through research writing groups.

Typically consisting of early career academics and doctoral candidates, their focus is on writing and other research related activities. Their structure often centres on the Pomodoro Technique, a time-management system that alternates 25-minute focused intervals and five-minute breaks.

Open in nature, researchers from a cross-section of institutions, meet at an agreed place and roll up their sleeves to get writing done together. Empirical research in 2019 by Dr Lisa Hodge (VU)  and Dr Jason Murphy (RMIT) , suggests writing groups provide a safe and supportive community. There is a sense of belonging created within these groups, which directly contributes to research outputs. For example, one respondent said:

“Research can be isolating. Engaging with a community of individuals undergoing similar projects engenders a sense of belonging that might otherwise be lacking – working together in structured sessions creates an atmosphere of productivity, which is conducive to getting things done.”

Hodge and Murphy  also found the breaks as important as the writing itself – facilitating networking discussion and solving research challenges.

A further unanticipated finding was the range of academic experience of the attendees, with early and even mid-career researchers joining doctoral candidates.

Due to the lockdown, writing groups are now on-line, hosted on such platforms as Zoom. Preliminary findings suggest on-line format provide the same sense of belonging and allow for extended membership.

Engi Messih, a doctoral candidate from La Trobe University  says “they help me mentally and in practice, to get tasks done, and to feel supported. Attending these sessions has allowed me to progress my article writing, which I would not have been able to do with teaching demands.”

Sonya Iskandar, a doctoral candidate from Swinburne says the Melbourne Write Up provides, “a sense of belonging, particularly in this isolating, topsy-turvy time and offers a supportive space to just write. It has become one of my principal go-to places to keep chipping away at my PhD thesis work.”

Similarly, Jonathan O’Donnell, a doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne shares his experience from another group; “each Friday I run a writing group. I feel good both because I get some writing done, and I’m helping others, too. It helps to hear a different perspective and see how others are doing.”

Despite the unprecedented and challenging times COVID-19 presents, online academic writing communities are flourishing and providing examples of how those working in higher education can support each other and foster research – both now and beyond this pandemic. With the ongoing retraction of institutional and governmental support for research, on-line writing groups provide one innovative model of support that has been established through the research community itself.

If you are interested in finding out more about the writing groups running in Victoria, or would like to establish your own group, you are welcome to contact Drs Lisa Hodge @  [email protected]  or Jason Murphy @ [email protected] for advice


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