Tuesday, April 29, 2014

One Major Key to Success for Doctoral Students: Building a Supportive Network

I am excited to share that I recently finished collecting data for my dissertation and the finish line is now in sight. I must say I owe it to my amazing committee, my understanding family, my helpful colleagues and a very supportive online network. About a year ago, I was still in the dissertation proposal stage feeling very isolated and alone in the process. As I described in my first blog entry, I was searching for a way to connect with others having similar struggles and could not find it.  My frustration prompted me to start blogging: www.doctoralatina.blogspot.com. The Doctoralatina blog then lead to the creation of the Facebook group Latinas Completing Doctoral Degrees and I am proud to say that it has grown to over 600 members. I am humbled by the idea that new members are joining every day looking for what I couldn't find last year - a support network that understands the unique challenges of Latina doctoral students. With so much interest growing daily, could it be possible that a major factor to doctoral degree completion is forming a strong support network?  I say yes - absolutely!

The beauty of my doctoral program is that it was perfect for someone who needed the flexibility of completing a degree while holding a full time job. The downside was not having a set cohort to bond with, commiserate with and motivate each other to a common goal: completing the doctoral degree. What this means is that it then becomes essential to build your own supportive network.The tricky part is that the people in this network need to understand your unique circumstances. I would venture to say they also need to be one with whom you can be vulnerable and ask questions without the fear of being perceived as incompetent. 

This reminds me of a recent impromptu dinner gathering that happened when I attended a national student affairs conference.  A group of us who did not really know each other before decided to go to dinner together.  It was a very comfortable conversation. We shared work and life challenges and gave each other advice.  It was like we were old friends and could share our stories without fear of being judged. What did we all have in common? We were all Latinas with a shared understanding of the unique issues that we all face in higher education.

I feel the Facebook group has taken a life of its own and has become a place where Latina scholars ask questions, celebrate milestones and share challenges in a supportive and affirming environment. There is something special about having a space to share these experiences, hopefully minimizing the feelings of isolation and the lonely writing process. You can't find this kind of network everywhere and if you don't find what you seek - create it!

So my advice to new (or not so new) doctoral students is to get to know their fellow students and build a social support network as early as possible. Find people with whom you have things in common. For example, if you are a parent, find other parents; if you are juggling classes while working full time, find others doing the same. There are so many commonalities that can connect people enough to form that supportive self-created cohort that can lead to successful completion of the doctoral degree. 

I wish I had found this network earlier in my doctoral program, but no need to lament at this point.  I have not only created the network I needed, but have fully thrived through it and have finished collecting data and am on my way to writing my final dissertation chapters.  I have my faculty, supportive family, helpful colleagues and the amazing online network, Latinas Completing Doctoral Degrees to thank.  Finally, the most important group to thank are the amazing Latinas who agreed to be interviewed for my dissertation study. I can’t wait to tell their stories, so on to coding and analyzing! (More about that in my next blog post - stay tuned.)