How to make the most of PhD journal clubs
A popular activity among PhD students, particularly for those in structured programs, is a journal club. This is a regular meeting at which PhD students gather together to read and discuss a journal paper from their field. These meetings can be a fun and educational addition to a PhD program, and today we're discussing how you can make the most of the opportunities presented by these meetings.
Keep yourself informed and up to date
Any researcher knows that huge numbers of new and exciting papers are published every month, and it can be hard to keep track of all the latest developments even within your sub-field. A journal club can be the ideal chance to learn about new papers coming out which you may have missed. Regular meetings - around once or twice a month - offer a chance for you to check up on the newest research being published and to discuss it among your peers.
Journal clubs are most often organized by the PhD students themselves, which can be a chance to get some experience with the organization of academic events. You can choose the topics and style of presentation and discussion which are most of interest to you, and this is a good chance for experimentation. If you're interested in bringing in research from another field to your own work, or if there's a new style of group discussion which you've heard about and want to try, these clubs allow for trying out these ideas in a low-pressure setting.
Sharpen your presentation and debate skills
An important and unique feature of most journal clubs is that the material is typically presented by the PhD students to one another. Although it might seem a little intimidating, do volunteer to give a brief presentation or to lead the discussion at one of these meetings. This gives you the chance to practice your presentation skills in a low-pressure setting; you can get more comfortable with describing the research of yourself and others to a group, and you can even ask the other students for feedback on your presentation style at the end. You can also get in practice at putting forward your opinions in a discussion, amongst peers in a setting which is less intimidating than at a full lecture. This is great practice for PhD students who are less experienced in group discussions.
Learn from others
As a PhD student, one of the greatest assets and resources available to you is is to be found in your peer group of fellow PhDs. Whether they are from your department or school, or even if they are from a totally different field from you, you can learn a huge amount from listening to the informed opinions of other students. You can find out about the major debates and developments in fields of research which are adjacent to your own, and keep up to date on a broad range of knowledge. In some ways, the more diverse the members of your journal club, the better your opportunity for informative debate.
The life of a PhD student can be somewhat isolating, so it's important that you make time to develop an active and supportive social life. As journal clubs tend to be rather informal, you can use them as a chance to get to know other students socially as well as professionally. You could even consider hosting the journal club at a restaurant or bar, to encourage informal social interactions and to help break out of the usual patterns of discussion. Or of course you can always meet for a journal club first, and then decamp to another location for socializing after the academic discussion has concluded. Journal clubs can be a surprisingly fun and enjoyable part of the PhD process and give you the chance to get to know your fellow students outside of the more strict structures of the work environment.
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