Tips (and a plug) for PhD accountability groups

Accountability groups and writing groups are fairly common, particularly in academic settings, where students and faculty may have a variety of roles and shifting demands. A quick Google search yields posts from people seeking groups to join, and institution-specific groups for students or faculty to join. A Pub-Med search even identified a study examining differences in “scholarly production” from participants of a faculty research/writing group compared to a matched group of faculty not participating in the group. The results indicated that participation in the group provided junior faculty with the support system needed to feel confident, and that over time, faculty in the group increased their productivity. (

I joined the SDOH-LIFE research group in the spring of 2019 to begin a project examining cumulative social stress and childhood obesity using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Kindergarten Class 2010-11 (ECLS-K:2011). In the fall of 2019, four fellow PhD students and I started an accountability group to motivate ourselves and try to remain productive in the amorphous post-coursework days of our PhD program. We are all completing our PhDs in Epidemiology, though in a variety of different topic areas, and the group has since become integral to our productivity and progress. Our accountability not only serves as a place for goal-setting and planning, but a sounding board for advice, and navigating imposter syndrome and mentor relationships.

Through that first semester we learned what worked and what did not work for our group, and tried to make progress on various projects and dissertations. Probably most importantly, we learned more about each other and how to support each other in the PhD program. Ultimately, the accountability group has seen its members through successful grant submissions, PhD milestones, and of course the pandemic and transition to working from home. During the pandemic we continue to meet via zoom, though those first months were mostly spent figuring out how to make our new reality work for us.

Since its inception, our AG has settled on some best practices and lessons learned for our group that could be adapted for others:

  • Block off the time on your calendar, and treat it like you would any other meeting
  • Have some kind of tracking document for short and long term goal setting
  • Keep track of accomplishments!
  • Check in at regular intervals for wrap-up and next set of long term goals (semesters, quarterly, etc.)
  • Be ready to talk about both what you did and how you did it – we have had a lot of success with helping each other identify processes that work!

Since joining the SDOH-Life Research group, I have also worked on other projects examining bullying and school connectedness in relation to adolescent adiposity in the Fragile Families Child and Wellbeing Study, completed my dissertation proposal and moved into candidacy, submitted pre-doctoral grants, and worked on other projects outside of the research group – and I did most of this while working from home! While it is possible I could have done all these things without an accountability group, the group provided structure and community to help me navigate the challenges of academic life while keeping my sanity intact.