By Kirsten Russell.
The 10th of September 2018 was World Suicide Prevention Day and marked a year since the official launch of the NetECR blog. The theme of this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day is “Working Together to Prevent Suicide”. This theme resonates with the ideology underpinning NetECR in that we believe that we are stronger when we work together as a team, and that it is only by working together we can save lives.
On the first day of my PhD, I was raring to go and get my head stuck into the literature and start planning the next three years of research. However, my PhD supervisor made a point of highlighting how important it was to invest some time to get to know the postgraduates around me first as they would become my peer network for the next three years. Upon reflecting on my time as a PhD student so far, I believe that it is one of the best bits of advice that I have been given, as it has encouraged me to develop a strong community of Early Career Researchers (ECRs) who I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to know and work with. Often it seems like there are many competing tasks to juggle, and not enough time – So what are the benefits of investing some of your limited time in getting to know your ECR peers, finding your tribe, and engaging with networks such as NetECR?
Overcoming the isolation of a PhD: Even if there is an established group of postgraduates in your department undertaking a PhD can at times feel isolating. This is the case as it is your own project, your own responsibility and often involves extended periods of time working alone. Further, it is not always the case that suicide and self-harm ECRs will be part of a research group and in fact you may be the only one conducting research into this topic within your department or institution. This can contribute to feelings of loneliness. However, there is a fantastic community of suicide and self-harm researchers across the world, and engaging with them online (for example via our NetECR DM group) really does make you feel like you are part of a supportive virtual research group.
Makes conferences less daunting: Conferences are a great place to make new connections and begin to establish a network of ECR peers. Whilst this can undoubtedly be a nerve wracking experience, taking that first step and attending ECR specific events or conferences (such as the annual Early and Mid-Career Researcher Forum in Glasgow) can be extremely beneficial. Attending any informal meetings attached to these events (e.g. NetECR brunches or dinners, IASP ECG drinks) is a great way to network in a more relaxed setting and can result in having an established network of peers for future conferences (and some excellent dance partners in place for the conference dinner!).
Peer support: A PhD can be very rewarding. You have been given the opportunity to spend at least three years conducting research in an area you are passionate about, may have the chance to attend national and international conferences, and have the opportunity to invest time in developing as an independent researcher. However, a PhD (particularly in an emotive and high stakes topic such as suicide and self-harm) can also be extremely tough. Whilst we may all have family and friends outside of the PhD that are extremely supportive and encouraging of our research, they may not fully understand or empathise with the unique pressures that a PhD can place you under or the uncertainty of life as an ECR. Therefore, having a network where you can talk to people who are doing, or have completed, a PhD is extremely valuable in that it provides opportunity to learn from each other and share experiences. There are different milestones to be achieved at various stages of the PhD, and a range of potential struggles and concerns associated with them. A network of ECR peers, such as NetECR, which has members spanning various stages of the ECR continuum (from first year PhD student’s right through to established post-docs) affords the opportunity to learn from researchers past experiences across different aspects of the research process that may represent challenges (e.g. ethics, methodological and academic self-care). This collaborative process can transform the pathway of research projects and researcher development as each person can provide valuable insights that reflect their stage as an ECR. Finally, it is important to have a network that allows you to see that rejection and struggling can be a normal part of academia, that promotes self-care and crucially is there to encourage ECRs to celebrate every milestone and success. It has been amazing to see NetECR mentioned in a number of PhD thesis acknowledgements over the past year.
Obtaining new insights into suicide and self-harm: Understanding suicide and how to prevent it is a momentous challenge. By nature, suicide and self-harm are both complex and multifactorial and as a result it is impossible for any of us to be an expert into everything or have all the answers. We all have one goal: to prevent self-harm, suicide and save lives. Only by working together and learning from each other will we take steps towards achieving this. By being part of a network of ECRs, such as NetECR, that comprises researchers from different stages, different disciplines and different cultures, we can obtain valuable insights into this fascinating but complex research field and learn from each other’s unique perspectives. This is particularly apparent from the interesting discussions that take place during our NetECR journal clubs.
Potential for collaboration: Having a network of researchers that are passionate about suicide and self-harm research provides an exciting opportunity for collaboration both now, and in our future careers. Already, as a result of NetECR, projects have been initiated, papers have been accepted and posters presented at international conferences. As a result, it has provided the opportunity for members to make novel and original contributions to the field both individually and in collaboration with other members. By investing time in developing a network of ECR peers now, you are creating a community of potential future research collaborators. It is exciting to think that we could be working together 20 years down the line and know that it all began as a result of connections made during our PhDs.
Developing and working with a diverse, supportive and inspiring network of ECRs, both within and beyond my institution, has absolutely been one of the highlights of my whole PhD experience and I would whole heartedly encourage ECRs to make time to invest in forming these connections. It has been an exciting year for NetECR, we have welcomed members from several countries across the world, hosted a number of informal events and most recently presented a poster at ESSSB17. We look forward to seeing what the next year has in store and how the network continues to evolve. Finally, as collaboration is key, we look forward to working together to prevent suicide and self-harm with others who share our commitment and passion. We continue to reach out to other networks, research leaders, experts by experience, health care professionals and third sector organisations, and hope that they will reach in to us too.