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08 October 2019

A traumatic road accident injury to a fellow PhD researcher six years ago led JCU academic, Dr Michelle Redman-MacLaren, to co-author a strikingly personal account of the value of peer support, and set also her on the path to become a student mentor.

The JCU public health researcher and University of Sydney health and applied researcher, Dr Karen McPhail-Bell, recently published a joint paper on peer support. It draws upon more than 200 emails the two exchanged over an 18-month period, after Karen sustained a fractured skull and brain injury in a bicycling accident, while both were working on their PhDs – Michelle at JCU and Karen at QUT in Brisbane.

“It is important to be honest about the struggles. We began this paper at a point of life trauma, but our story explores the social, vocational, and economic isolation experienced by many PhD students – and how peer support can help you survive,” said Michelle.

The two women had previously met while working on an HIV project in the Solomon Islands and maintained contact afterwards, but Karen’s injury and subsequent need for support to get her PhD study back on track took the relationship to another level.

Michelle, a social worker and mother of two preteen boys, faced her own challenges around adjusting to academic life, balancing study and family commitments, loss of income while studying, and the pressure of producing quality research in the face of relentless deadlines. She too valued her weekly interaction with Karen.

“You can be honest with a peer, because you don’t have to produce or perform for them. I think that helps you to think differently about problem solving. It helps you to think differently about what really matters. It helps to prioritise. You can also try to apply those lessons learnt by somebody else in a similar situation,” she said.

Prior to her PhD, Michelle’s research career had centralised strengthening research capacity in countries such as the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea (PNG), so it is no surprise that her own experiences as a PhD researcher prompted her to share her observations and learnings with other students facing similar challenges.

As both women’s PhD studies centred on relationships and collaboration (Michelle explored implications of male circumcision for HIV prevention with women in PNG, while Karen researched health promotion in an Indigenous-led health practice in south-east Queensland), they decided to write a co/autoethnography of their research journeys; intertwining their personal stories with a healthy dash of academic critical analysis.

Their paper explored three themes: Being an Academic, Doing Academia and Sharing in Academia.

“Being an Academic encompasses our shared experiences and processing of what it is like to be an academic,” said Michelle. “Doing Academia focused on activities and goals centred on developing our methodologies, planning our research, writing for academia, and achieving the PhD.

“Sharing in Academia reflects on the benefits of our peer relationship. We shared struggles, resources, opportunities, connections, learning and more, with some tangible results including publications, new relationships, job applications submitted, and networks broadened.”

In May last year, Michelle became a mentor with the JCU/AITHM Cohort Doctoral Studies Program and is now busy fostering peer relationships between other fledgling PhD researchers.

“Apart from mentoring students one-on-one, I co-facilitate a regular writing circle once a week, where we invite scholars to come and just have quiet time to write and get support from each other,” she said.

“We also hold a block weeks on campus twice a year, to unite students for professional development activities in a cohort environment, where people can travel through their PhDs together.”

She is passionate about the need to support PhD researchers.

“If we want to have new knowledge, then we need to have people creating that new knowledge. And those people require support. There are not a lot of support programs like we have at JCU,” she observed.

Michelle reaps her own rewards from helping PhD candidates to flourish.

“It is lovely to see people generating new knowledge, getting it out there, and becoming experts in their field. What a privilege to be alongside these scholars during their candidature,” she said.

Michelle and Karen’s paper is available to read at:

Learn more about the JCU AITHM Cohort Doctoral Studies Program at:

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