How (and when to start) building an international peer group

Depending on your field of study and the institution where you are based, academia can be a lonely and bewildering place. The bureaucracy of career advancement, the codes that surround appropriate professional behaviour, and the nuances of field boundaries are sometimes challenging to decipher. To cut through the confusion and to combat this sense of isolation, a peer group of colleagues is an important asset to have in your professional life.

What is a peer group?

From a sociological perspective, a peer group plays an essential role in shaping how an individual grows, learns and becomes a member of a collective.  Typically, a peer group shares not only a set of demographic characteristics – such as age, background, or social status – but also a common set of interests. For this reason, you don’t so much create a peer group as discover your place in one. But it is the seeking and finding that is sometimes a challenge, especially when you are hoping to reach across national and international borders.

Why is a peer group important?

Just as peer groups are significant during adolescence, they are also an invaluable aspect of early career development. Often given a bad rap in the social life of teenagers, peer groups also have many positive aspects, like social support, information, and feedback.

Peer groups are essential spaces where you can nurture poise, self-esteem, and combat that dreaded impostor syndrome – your own or your trusted colleagues. If you’re suffering from a bout of self-doubt, your peer group is the best place  to ask for help, seek a second opinion and boost your confidence. They know the field, they’ve likely experienced something similar through the course of their career and their advice will likely work.

Having a set of peers that you can call on for advice, ideas or feedback is an invaluable part of building confidence and a career. And, it is important to have contacts that you can depend on outside of your home institution and perhaps even your home country.

Being able to trade tips and tools from an international perspective can help get you unstuck from writer’s block, bring in some innovative teaching tools, or consider approaching your Chair in a different way if work relationships are under strain.

In addition, having access to an international peer group opens opportunities for collaboration in research and publications. Many elite universities see the value in such an exchange and will help facilitate these relationships.

In a textbook peer group definition, the members of this group tend to influence a person’s beliefs and behaviours in both positive and negative ways.

Interestingly, the mainstream view of negative peer pressure itself is also not necessarily accurate. Rather than pushing (or pressuring) group members to do something dangerous or destructive, it is more often the member themselves who changes their behaviour to fit in.

By the time you’ve entered your final graduate student phase or been hired as a professor, this negative influence is somewhat negligible. That does not mean you can escape the cold academic shoulder. Think about those rejection or revise-and-resubmit letters you get after sending in an article for publication. There’s a reason it’s called “peer review”, and there’s a reason it hurts. But, most often, it is professionally channelled and professionally managed so that it can be viewed more as constructive than destructive.

How do you find a peer group?

1. Grad School

The best possible place to start forging peer group relationships is at graduate school. Chances are extraordinarily slim that you and anyone from your cohort will end up at the same institution once you have your PhD in hand. With the tough job market and globalisation, those people with whom you pulled all-nighters or complained to about crotchety dissertation committee members may end up halfway across the world. This can help you build an international peer group. You will have already forged common interests and bonds; now you should continue to nurture and grow these professional relationships.

2. Join international associations and conferences

One way to maintain these peer groups, and add to them, is through joining international associations and attending conferences and workshops. Besides the stimulating panel discussions and poster presentations, the most fertile ground for developing new connections is around the coffee urn, at the wine and cheese functions, and subcommittee meetings.

For some of us, though, making new friends is difficult. That’s why an entire industry was spawned by Dale Carnegie’s 1998 How To Win Friends And Influence People.  But, remember, these academic-oriented peer group friendships are likely to spark themselves naturally, because, by definition, there will be shared interests. However, it does take some effort to build and maintain.

Listen to your colleagues’ interests, passions and concerns. Ask questions. Offer feedback. By taking care to understand their point of view, you will be able to share, support and help each other refine or generate new ideas. Be wary of always having to put across your pet project. Nothing turns off a potential friend than someone who is wholly self-referential or self-interested.

Fear and self-confidence absolutely play a role in how you manage this process. It’s daunting and those seeds of doubt tend to sow themselves deeply.

But…you’re in the mix, it’s so important to remember that everyone on this journey stands on the shoulders of giants, we all have more questions than answers. Finding a peer group will aid your confidence, you’re certainly not alone.

If you’ve been cloistered behind the ivy-covered walls, with your nose in books, trapped behind your computer, this might seem daunting. Making friends, establishing an international peer group and finding a group of like-minded people is an art. But you can study it and practice.

Time Well Spent

Initiating and maintaining these connections can take time and effort. However, nurturing these peer group relationships is well worth it. They provide both emotional and intellectual support. They keep you connected to the universe of ideas, surround your intellectual passions and help you retain a balanced view of your world of work.

Unsplash 2021 / image: Hannah Busing