The QAAFI Student Association (QSA) was established back in September of 2019 with many social and academic projects planned for the year ahead, all of which involved a great deal of human interaction. However, when the lockdown started in March this year due to COVID-19, all social plans came to a halt. The uncertainties around work disruption and fear of falling ill to the virus quickly became major sources of a collective concern. Working from home and online meetings became the new norm, thus changing the way we had to interact with each other.

Graduate students are not excluded from the impacts that social distancing and isolation can have on mental health and wellbeing, particularly with added stressors from disrupted research progress and lack of connection with peers. Finding ways of connecting QAAFI HDR students was already a challenge for the society, as most of the student cohort is widely distributed across different UQ sites and some based outside of Brisbane.

In the quest of maintaining a sense of community and connection among the HDR students, PhD candidates Emily Mantilla (QSA President) and Charlotte Rambla (QSA Social Coordinator), came up with an idea of organising virtual meetings to connect graduates within and outside of UQ via Zoom, since everyone was already getting used to this platform.

With the help of early career and senior researchers, who were invited as panelists, each week we covered a different topic of relevance to our academic and future career path. This platform provided a forum to share insights, advice, and inspire fruitful discussions among the QAAFI community of researchers and students. We learnt how to successfully manage thesis writing, publish in high impact journals, develop networking skills and more. This was a great opportunity for students to immerse in the QAAFI community, especially for pre-confirmation candidates. We also invited speakers from academia and industry to share their experiences on how to successfully establish a post-PhD career.

Attempting to be as virtually connected as possible allowed us to create a space to foster student collaboration and communicate important issues in agricultural science as well. A series of sessions called “5 Minute Project Talks” were facilitated by PhD student Harrison Lamb to allow students to improve their presentation skills and confidence among peers. Additionally, PhD student Saskia Urlass organised a webinar series called “Future Foods for a Sustainable Planet”, which brought together researchers and industry to discuss the current challenges of our food system under climate change and how to influence sustainable practices through science and innovation. 

The student initiative was well received and had positive feedback from our Institute. Our social media presence also attracted interest from international agricultural students located outside of Australia. This inspired us to make all session recordings widely accessible through the audio streaming platform Spotify. The QSA Podcast is called “Let’s PhD chat”.

Altogether, the joint efforts of the QAAFI student association provided a platform for HDRs to remain socially connected. There are still many uncertainties about when our planned face-to-face activities will resume, but for the time being, we will continue our mission of connecting and supporting QAAFI students within and outside of UQ. We would continue using our podcast to communicate topics relevant for PhD graduates, for example, to uncover the stigma around mental health. A PhD is a challenging journey at certain times but does not longer have to be a lonely one.