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Supporting future researchers - It takes a village

How Queen’s graduate researchers are finding support and success through student-led communities of practice. 

The journey from coursework to final thesis defence is a long, demanding and at times isolating experience for doctoral students, regardless of the dissertation field. Attrition rates for PhD programs usually reflect this difficulty; in nursing schools for example, research shows that general attrition rates for PhD programs can be upwards of 20%. The same research also shows that online doctoral nursing programs have notably higher withdrawal rates than in-person programs, with lack of peer-to-peer interaction highlighted as a contributing factor.  

Academic attrition rates are just one reason why, in addition to struggling with a country-wide shortage of nurses, Canada is also facing a shortage in PhD-prepared nurse scientists. Other factors include lower application rates than undergraduate or masters-level programs, and that a large portion of the current PhD-prepared nursing workforce is nearing the age of retirement. While general nursing shortages are most immediately felt in hospitals and clinical care settings, the shortage of PhD-prepared nurses will have a trickle-down effect on health care, affecting everything from undergraduate nursing education to new health research and policymaking.  

So how can we encourage higher retention rates in nursing programs, ensuring the next generation of PhD-prepared nurses are able to complete their education and continue supporting our health system? For a group of Queen’s Nursing graduate researchers, part of the solution includes building supportive, student-led communities of practice (CoP). 

“Communities of practice can provide a space for students to support each other on the PhD journey,” says Paulina Bleah-Nenwon, a nurse practitioner and third-year doctoral student. “There is something unique about getting support from peers who understand your challenges and can advise you on how to navigate them.” 

Bleah-Nenwon entered the PhD program in 2019, and together with other nurse practitioners in her cohort, formed a community of practice to encourage each other as they navigated their research and coursework. While the focus is on professional and academic goals, the group has become an important social support, providing motivation and reassurance.  

Students are social creatures for which social participation and interaction with others is necessary for our personal and scholastic growth,” explains fellow group member Jovina Concepcion Bachynski.Becoming a grad researcher is not an isolated pursuit – it literally takes a village of family, friends, supervisors, fellow students, and other supporters to make this a reality. A CoP of like-minded individuals can provide critical support throughout the student’s journey. It represents a forum in which members develop competence through the sharing of knowledge and best practices in a safe yet challenging space. 

Emphasizing professional and interpersonal support as they complete their degree, the community does everything from social check-in sessions to running mock defence practices—whatever the group feels it needs in that moment as they navigate their research goals. Additionally, the group also organizes academic networking events, open to doctoral health sciences learners at Queen’s and other universities. They even share their CoP learning experiences with the wider research community; group members have presented at conferences and written a paper focusing on how community of practice membership can be a reflexive strategy for researchers 

Since our CoP is student-led, our topics of conversations are based on students' interests, and discussions are fruitful,” says Martha Whitfield, another member of their community. 

The idea that the student-led nature of graduate-level CoPs is key to their success is a feeling that fellow nursing doctoral student Laura Killam shares. “My biggest suggestion for programs looking to better support or encourage student communities of practice would be to help students get set up. Not that you need to lead them necessarily, because I don't want it to start feeling like a class where you feel like you must go and participate. Students should have their own autonomy over what's valuable for them and what isn't. 

Killam is in her second-year of the program. Along with classmate Christina Cantin, she’s also established a cohort-based community of practice at the School of Nursing. They began developing the community during their first-year at Queen’s, recognizing a need for peer support while starting school and balancing work and family demands during a global pandemic. Like the third-year community of practice, they also co-wrote a paper that has recently been published. It details their work establishing a student-led CoP amidst the COVID-19 health crisis. Even though they operate independently, the two practice groups do collaborate where they can and work to support each other.

Both Killam and Cantin have been part of student-led communities of practice in the past, and find them valuable to their growth as health sciences researchers. Due to the online nature of their current program and the ongoing pandemic, their group has yet to meet in person—though they’re looking forward to doing so one day soon.

When asked about how building CoPs for new researchers, both informal or formal, can support student success and program completion, Killiam explains that: “As graduate researchers, we are often working in isolation. We’re all working on our own topics and we're learning to become independent researchers. It can be really helpful to reach out to colleagues who are in a similar stage to you and talk about some of the challenges that you might be having with structuring your literature review, strategies for getting committee involvement or working with your thesis supervisors, that kind of thing. I think that those more informal conversations between peers can be really validating for students.

This research snapshot first appeared in the School of Nursing's 2021 Research Report. You can read the report in full here.