Being a Grantham Scholar? It’s all about community and communication

The team of researchers who have just begun their PhD studies with the Grantham Centre get a unique training programme. It teaches them the importance of interdisciplinary working and equips them with the skills to become policy advocates. In this post, Grantham Scholar James Thackery reflects on the process so far.

james-thackeryThere’s a lot to say about starting a PhD. There’s the project itself and the people you’re working with, or the office politics and the inordinate amount of reading required to get started. But I want to focus on two things that have been specific to my PhD, which have come from being a Grantham Scholar: community and communication.

These are two values that can be found in any PhD, really. Community can be found with the lab group or the department, and communication is promoted as an important skill when speaking to your peers. However, the Grantham PhD programme puts a much larger emphasis on these two values, and the result is fantastic.

The Grantham Scholars have become a community of students and academics, but importantly, they share a common goal: improving food security. Departmental communities will perhaps share an academic rigour, or aim to help the University succeed through individual successes. But sharing a goal is a completely different experience. We are constantly pushing each other to learn more about our topics and how they might affect the world. We learn to look outward rather than just down at our small piece of research. We are trained to look at big problems and start to understand their complexity, and ask, “How can we help fix them?”. Being surrounded by people passionate about the same thing as you is an incredible driving force. It emboldens us to get involved wherever possible, and to start looking at things we might never have looked at before because we lacked the companions to do it with. Our community is also made of people from many disciplines, so we begin to understand how our research can link with the work of others, and we begin to understand things from foreign points of view.

A caveat of being a multi-disciplinary community is that we must learn to communicate with each other. All PhDs will teach you to communicate with your academic peers, but today this is often not enough, and researchers must be able to tell the public how their work can help. Grantham Scholars are trained in communication with both the public and with each other, as each discipline has it’s own language. In a sense we are learning several dialects, and it forces you to reconsider what you think is “basic knowledge”. To train us up in this, we are encouraged to take part in courses on academia’s role in media and policy, and we have plenty of opportunities, as well as financial freedom, to start talking to the public.

For me, these two values – community and communication – make the Grantham PhDs very unique. They recognise the flaws in academia today and try to rectify them. The world is becoming more connected and interdisciplinary, and so academia should meet those demands. It feels exhilarating to be at the beginning of a programme that aims so high, and as a community we feel on the cusp of something brilliant. I look forward to welcoming the next cohort of PhD students into our community, learning their language and seeing their passions flourish.