Buddy system: creating community through writing

Is a writing group or partner an effective antidote to post-pandemic isolation during doctoral education? Lena Steveker and Laura Spadon explain how to put a forum for belonging in place


19 Jun 2024
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
College students in the library
image credit: iStock/Alberto Menendez.

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

University of Luxembourg

You may also like

Transitioning to a PhD: common struggles and how to overcome them
Advice from a doctoral student on overcoming common challenges while studying for your PhD

The landscape of doctoral education has changed in the post-pandemic era. Our previously tight-knit PhD communities have somehow lost their vibrancy and shine. While the use of digital tools has improved our connectedness, our PhDs at the Doctoral School for Humanities and Social Sciences (DSHSS) at the University of Luxembourg have experienced a drop in community and campus life activities. Could a writing buddy initiative rekindle that sense of belonging to our doctoral community? 

As the head of the DSHSS, my remit is to help doctoral candidates to ensure that they find support and a motivational boost when it comes to writing. Writing is an essential part of a PhD project, and yet many of our students tell me that they experience it as a solitary task, and they struggle with it. We know, too, that procrastination and the blank page are real obstacles to doctoral completion. 

Implementing a writing buddy scheme is an essential tool to deal with these issues, with benefits extending beyond the life cycle of a PhD. Writing buddies are groups of two to three individuals who create community around writing and offer peer-to-peer support. 

Why a buddy scheme matters to help build resilience and community

Having a writing buddy provides structure and support during the PhD process. Typically, writing buddies meet once a week for a set time, in which they share a space, either online or in real life (for example, in a library). Each meeting is divided into sessions, including breaks. Individual sessions can focus on either writing or giving each other feedback on a piece of writing (such as thesis chapter drafts, conference papers or grant applications). Breaks can be used to talk about writing experiences. Buddies discuss their expectations and their writing needs and decide together what type of support they want to give each other. No hierarchy is involved – ideally, this is a democratic, equitable relationship that operates on support, commitment, collaboration and trust.

Motivation is key. Buddies will need to be engaged for a set period and to negotiate objectives. This requires time and willingness. 

The benefits of having a buddy extend to many areas of the PhD life cycle. At our doctoral school, the scheme has been shown to give PhD candidates structure, a safe space to compare notes, a routine meeting, accountability and an opportunity to engage with others going through similar issues. The scheme helps our PhD candidates to develop skills that will be useful for a lifetime of work and that any employer would be delighted to see in their staff – the ability to compromise, provide constructive feedback, and negotiate space and time in busy schedules. 

Five tips to establish effective writing buddy schemes

So, how do you set up a structure to keep the group together and reap the benefits? Here are five actions to get you started.

Provide a model 

What is a writing buddy and what do they do? Sharing our own experience with writing buddies is an empowering tool to work with doctoral candidates. In my 20 years as a researcher, I have been supported by my writing buddy, Susanne Gruss. We have followed each other from our PhD days to our time as professors, now working at the universities of Luxembourg and Bamberg, respectively. Supporting each other while, for example, writing journal articles and monographs has been fundamental to our professional writing relationship, which has sustained each of us in our careers. 

Offer structure and a framework 

The system will need a clear structure. Put in place a written agreement, signed by each buddy team member at the outset. This should also outline what the scheme is not meant for and ensure that PhD candidates know where to seek health and well-being interventions if they need them. Writing buddies are not trained supervisors nor are they experts at providing psychological support. 

Allow buddies to set their own objectives 

Buddies can come from different disciplines and have differing objectives. These could include writing a research grant application, getting feedback on a specific thesis section, or understanding peer-review techniques or publication needs. When launching the writing buddy scheme, I used a speed-dating tool to allow interested parties to mix and match and discuss preferences. This approach is usually highly successful. 

Create effective feedback mechanisms at the end of the scheme 

The scheme can have a limited duration with buddies deciding to roll off after six months. Conversely, they can extend their agreement. A meeting is held to discuss feedback – any constructive point is taken on board to develop the scheme further.

Incentivise the scheme 

Rather than financial incentive, the experience and a personal reflection can be the basis for credits or a certificate of participation. Funding for writing retreats and networking events for buddies can also be a good way to promote and strengthen the scheme. Our successful writing retreats over the past three academic years and the recurring engagement from our PhD candidates in the more recent buddy scheme have shown us the effectiveness of these incentives.

Connecting through writing is a powerful way to revive a sense of belonging to a community, especially when writing is key to the academic success of their members. Individuals who can articulate constructive feedback and engage in a regular writing activity have shown to be more successful at negotiating their needs with their peers and supervisory committees. It is this sense of connection that often carries the students to the end of their PhD journeys and beyond.

Lena Steveker is head of the Doctoral School in Humanities and Social Sciences (DSHSS), and Laura Spadon is doctoral school facilitator at DSHSS; both are at the University of Luxembourg.

If you would like advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site