Virtual groups facilitate connection for graduate students

A series of online graduate student groups focusing on topics like prelim preparation, the job market, and work-life balance is giving graduate students a chance to connect with others outside of their program and feel a sense of shared experience during a year that many find isolating.

“During this pandemic, we can’t make new friends and talk to strangers [as easily],” said master’s student Xiao Hu, who participates in the graduate student group on job market preparation.

“I really wanted to talk to someone else, even about job hunting,” Hu said. “In this pandemic, we have to create chances to talk to new people.”

Hu is studying human factors and health systems engineering in the Industrial Engineering program and plans to graduate in May. She joined the group to learn how to improve her skills on the job market as she searches for an internship or full-time job in human factors engineering. Being part of the group has improved her outlook on the challenge of job hunting.

“I feel less stressed that many students have the same problem as me. I feel I’m not alone,” she said. “This really helped me [get] to know some people and improve my communication skills, like how to share your experience to help someone learn from you.”

Maxwell Chibuogwu is a PhD student in Plant Pathology. He said attending the work-life integration and priority management group meetings has helped him learn new ways to approach his work. On one occasion, another participant shared a useful template for documenting weekly reflections, which he plans to suggest to his lab’s faculty advisor to use as a rubric in lab meetings.

“It helps to see and hear people from different academic programs and levels in their journey tell you – especially a first-year student like me – what they struggled with, how they overcame it, and what they are currently struggling with,” Chibuogwu said. “In the end, you have different perspectives and different options, strategies, styles, approaches, or methods to try, which will make your graduate school experiences smoother.”

He said the group has also helped him become more aware of the importance of self-care.

“Before now, I could be on my computer for hours on end without [a] break,” Chibuogwu said. “But I am learning to be intentional and decisive on when to stop working, shut things down, and reward myself for a job well done.”

For Kim Rooney, a PhD student in French who, before the pandemic, would often study in coffee shops, the “Virtual Coffee Shop” graduate student group began meeting at the perfect time – the middle of winter break, when she was looking for routine, accountability, and human interaction.

“I desperately miss going to the grad student study room in Memorial Library and working alongside other grad students whom I may not know but feel connected to through our common bond of hard studying,” Rooney said.

During weekly group meetings, each participant shares what they’re working on, whether it’s a task for their graduate assistantship, research project, writing project, or to-do list. Everyone works for an hour before regrouping to share what they accomplished in that time.

“We have the option of keeping our cameras on, and it sounds a bit odd, but for me that aspect helps create an atmosphere of working together,” Rooney said. “It’s one way I can choose to create the illusion of the shared space that I miss right from my little apartment.”

At UW–Madison, there are hundreds of workshops and professional development opportunities for graduate students every semester. Many give students a similar opportunity to connect.

Geography PhD student Nicolle Etchart was part of the Dissertation Writing Camp in January, hosted by the Graduate School Office of Professional Development and the Writing Center. Etchart applied for the camp after a friend recommended it, and hoped to have clear, structured time to work on her dissertation in the company of others.

During the camp, she met two other students who had set up a Slack channel as an online space for them to connect about their writing progress. The group has been using the channel regularly this semester to stay in touch and motivate one another.

“It’s so nice to see the kinds of goals that they set for themselves and the way that they manage their time, especially to see [that] the kinds of struggles they’re having and the kinds of struggles I have are similar,” Etchart said.

Etchart and a few other members on the channel share a common goal of graduating this summer. The group helps Etchart remember that despite being in different programs, she’s in this together with other students.

“It’s nice to have that sense of, OK, let’s help push each other forward,” she said.


How to join a Graduate Student Group

Graduate Student Group meetings are taking place throughout spring 2021, and new participants are welcome at any time. Graduate students can sign up to receive a link to join these groups:

Prelim Preparation, every other Tuesday from 4 to 5 pm CST

Virtual Coffee Shop, every Thursday from 4 to 5 pm CST