NRN Blog: The Power of Networks – Supporting Collaborative Students

Acatia FinbowAcatia Finbow reflects on the benefits she has found from engaging with a range of networks, including us!  Acatia is an AHRC funded collaborative doctoral award student, at the University of Exeter and Tate, based in London. Her research looks into the value of performance and performative art documentation for contemporary art museums, and is focusing on the collections and programmes at Tate since the 1970s. She is also attached to the AHRC funded research project, ‘Performance at Tate: Collecting, Archiving and Sharing Performance and the Performative’.

I must admit that, before I applied for one in 2014, I had never heard of a Collaborative Doctoral Award; I barely understood what I was letting myself in for with a PhD really! As it turns out, a collaborative doctoral award allows a doctoral researcher the opportunity to work within the boundaries of a cultural institution whilst being supported as a student at a higher education institute. They are usually working as part of a larger research project, contributing to an exhibition or research publication within that cultural institution, or generating materials around an underexplored archive or aspect of the organisation’s collections, while also working on their related thesis. In my case, I am a student at the University of Exeter and am attached to Tate’s research department in London as a member of the research team for ‘Performance at Tate’, a two year AHRC-funded project looking into the history of performance and performative art at Tate, while completing my own research into the value of documentation for contemporary art museums.

For me, the CDA has been a wonderful opportunity. I had been thinking vaguely about doing a PhD at some point in the future, but when this specific project came up, it seemed to be the perfect topic for me and I jumped at it. The chance to work with Tate was also something I’d been hoping to do, and it was a great chance to extend the work I had done for my MA dissertation. I’ve had amazing access to Tate’s archival materials and gallery records, have had the opportunity to participate in practical research work, generating a documentation archive around a live dance event, and to work on a variety of written materials for the research project. I have also been wonderfully supported by members of Tate’s Research Department, other members of the research project team, and the wider staff at Tate.

However, there has been one particular challenge which I have, at times, found it difficult to overcome. It’s probably one you’ve been warned about, or have experienced for yourself: the loneliness of the PhD. For CDA students, I have found, this can be particularly heightened by the lack of a strong community of other students around you. Living in London, in order to make the most of the opportunities working with Tate offers me, I am 200 miles away from my university and my department. I have my majority of supervisions on Skype, and probably only travel to Exeter once every two months, usually for no more than a two day stay. Tate has a small group of CDA students, there are seven from my intake year, but we are attached to different departments, sometimes different branches of the Tate, and without a centralised working space, it can be difficult to generate the same feel of community amongst students which you find at a University.

This is why research networks have been such a great thing for me! They offer the opportunity to discuss my own research, ask questions about doing a PhD as well as mores specific questions around my field of interest, and to generally meet people working in a similar area. I have had the chance to meet other students from Exeter, other CDA students, and other PhD students from across the world. While I was slightly terrified attending my first network – last year’s STR NRN Symposium at the Shard – not knowing anyone, and not being sure how my research would fit with other people’s interests, I have come to realise how valuable these opportunities to spend time with other students can be, to avoid feeling like you’re the only person in the world struggling through certain aspects of doing independent research.

There are a number of forms these networks can take. I found Twitter a great place to start; hashtags like #phdlife and accounts such as @phdforum offer the opportunity to participate in discussions, ask general questions and connect with other students. Getting to know about specific PGR and ECR Networks, like our very own STR NRN, and working groups, such as Theatre and Performance Research Association’s Documenting Performance working group, offered the opportunity to make more specific connections with other researchers working in a similar field. I am also a member of the postgraduate CoCARe network – the Conservation of Contemporary Art Research network – which is part of a larger multi-disciplinary research network, the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art, which also includes researchers from practical as well as academic backgrounds. Through this I have connected with other PhD and Post Doc researchers across Europe, who keep me informed about developments in their fields of research, and opportunities which are opening up. Each network offers something different in terms of the field of study and the way that they meet and interact, but each provides the chance for researchers at various points in their careers to meet, discuss their work, offering opportunities for support, collaboration and discussion.

Whether you’re a CDA student, a distance student, or even a traditional on-campus PhD student, research networks offer fantastic opportunities for connecting with other students outside of your University environment, and can throw open new collaborative opportunities. It can be a daunting process to jump straight into talking about your research and having to meet a lot of new people all at once, particularly if you’re attending a networking meeting where you don’t know anyone, but I can assure you that the rewards are great and all sorts of exciting opportunities can come out of it! And for those of us already embedded in networks, I think it is really important to remember what it can be like to make those first few connections during your PhD and be as welcoming and as supportive as we can.