How is your PhD going?

By Caitlin Gormley and Poppy Kohner 

A PhD is a strange thing to do.  It is.  A tiny percentage of the population do it, and perhaps because of this privilege, there is a tendency not to talk about the ways in which students may feel isolated, get lost in theory, experience self-doubt, or discuss how the research may be emotionally shaping or affecting the person doing the research.  Even at a time when reflexivity is fashionable, it seems we must be reflexive alone.

A PhD which uses social research methods, as we tend to in Sociology, also brings a whole host of unique joys and challenges.  It is perhaps the most tangible interface where academic and non-academic worlds meet, and where theory and practice collide.  And what manifests from such a collision is usually rather messy and, in some cases, even what’s known as ‘imposter syndrome’.

‘Peer-to-peer’ is an attempt to foster community between people who are experiencing similar circumstances in and through their PhD journeys.  In action, it is simply people coming together, sharing space with one another and chatting.  However, what emerges from such a space can be far more complex – it is a system of reciprocity based upon mutually negotiated agreements of what is helpful, with an understanding that we are all experts of our own situation.

In this respect, the kind of expertise present is both varied and extremely flexible, drawing on the huge breadth of knowledge and experience that students at different stages of the process bring to the table.

Rather than focus on the limitations of the individual, this model tends to focus more on positive aspects of how people are capable of finding solutions for themselves, and each other.  In this way, re-naming experiences can create new ways of understanding and acting.  In an increasingly competitive and atomistic academic culture, ‘peer-to-peer’ posits that sharing is in the interest of everyone.

Apart from reducing stigma around issues that students might be facing, peer-to-peer can also enhance empathy, and provide a supportive, yet critical space in which to foster self-awareness and self-acceptance.  In a fantastic talk by Vicky Reynolds, she introduces her PhD research as an ‘anti-perfection project’, which is both refreshing and invaluable for how we conceive of the academic process.

In order to deliver its philosophical values of being a horizontally organised space, it is paramount for peer-to-peer to be a voluntarily attended, peer-led initiative, and not directed by the institution within which it exists.  At the beginning of each meeting, we run over the already agreed ways of how we want to hold space together – kind of like writing a communal consent form, which we orally agree to, before moving on with the session.  For example, confidentiality, trust and respect are among our agreements so far, which are up for discussion, debate, and editing for what makes a safer space among those who attend from week to week.  This not only allows for a shared understanding of what is mutually helpful, but also provides a moment for critical reflection on ethics, which is so central to our discipline.

By accepting that the PhD is a unique journey, we can then seek to navigate this by scaffolding strategies of support and self-care around and in response to our own strengths and needs. The journey is lined with moments of success and flourishing can be instantly shadowed by dips and feelings of discontent. Occasionally, things can go to plan. More often than not, however, we are forced to follow our noses along those precarious and isolating research pathways.

‘Peer-to-peer’ aims to provide a supportive environment where postgraduate social science researchers can cultivate wellness and broaden their reflexivity in order to overcome practical, theoretical, ethical or emotive fieldwork barriers. Supporters of this style of collegiate group support maintain that it feels pretty good to support others and that it can leave you with a renewed confidence and determination.

Peer-to-peer is a peer led group for Sociology PhD students, which happens every 2 – 3 weeks in the Bute Gardens Seminar Room. Meetings are at 11am and last for between 60 and 90 minutes. To get involved please email or and follow us on Twitter @GUSociologyP2P.


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Poppy Kohner is in the final stages of a PhD in the Anthropology of US militarism and resistance, specifically looking at the post 9-11 veteran anti-militarism movement. It was the veteran movement that introduced Poppy to the merits of peer-to-peer support, for which she is very grateful. Poppy also works as an intern for GRAMNet (Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network). She is interested in critical anthropology, medicalisation, trauma, embodiment, and social justice as well as in gender studies, specifically masculinities and performance. You can reach Poppy via email at or on Twitter @poppyzara.


Caitlin Gormley is currently in the second year of her PhD which is concerned with how individuals with learning disabilities and difficulties experience and engage with the criminal justice and penal systems in Scotland. The PhD is collaboratively funded between the ESRC and Cornerstone, a third-sector organisation who deliver throughcare support to liberated adults with learning support needs. Caitlin graduated in 2012 with an MRes in Criminology and in 2011 with an MA(hons) in Sociology and Hispanic Studies both from the University of Glasgow. You can reach Caitlin via email at