7 things all Bristol PGRs should do in 2017

Make sure you start the year as you mean to go on by getting involved in the thriving research community here in Bristol. Here are some of the highlights coming up in 2017 that our postgraduate research students should watch out for:

1. Look after yourself by prioritising your self-care

We bet you didn’t expect to see this as number 1 on the list, but looking after yourself shouldn’t be forgotten. Life as a researcher can take its toll on your mental and physical health. In the depths of research – whether in the lab, the archives, or the field – it’s all too easy to get sucked away from the wider world. Take a quick look at our virtual resource hub for activities, events, information and news about mental health and general wellbeing.

http://www.bris.ac.uk/doctoral-college/healthy/

2. Celebrate the start of your research at our special inauguration event in February

If you’ve started your research degree on or after 1 August 2016 then come along to our special Researcher Inauguration event on Monday 6 February, 2017. Receive your official welcome from the Vice-Chancellor and President of the University, Professor Hugh Brady, and introduce yourself to the University’s rich and vibrant research community over a glass of wine and some nibbles. Sign up for your free ticket here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/researcher-inauguration-event-tickets-30551567561

3. Showcase your research at the BDC festival of research: Research without Borders 2017

Our flagship Research without Borders festival provides an interactive space for Bristol postgraduate researchers across all disciplines to come together and showcase their work to a broad audience from within and outside of the University. This year’s festival will include a whole week of interactive showcase events: an evening seminar series, the finals of the Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition and an afternoon showcase exhibition at Colston Hall on Friday 12 May. More than 100 PGRs shared their work at last year’s exhibition, through research posters, hands-on demonstrations, innovative research displays and lively discussions. Take a look at last year’s event to get a sense of just how special the event was – and help us make this year’s event bigger and better than ever! Keep an eye on the Bristol Doctoral College website to find out how you can sign up.

4. Sign up for personal and professional development training  

In an increasingly competitive environment there is a growing demand on postgraduate researchers not just to be qualified experts in their subject area, but to be highly accomplished individuals with the skills and attitude to communicate, innovate and adapt within a continually changing landscape. The Bristol Doctoral College runs a Personal and Professional Development programme with more than 150 workshops, seminars and online resources designed specifically for postgraduate research  students. Take a look at the full catalogue and sign up today!

5. Join the Bristol SU Postgraduate Network

The PG Network is a student-led initiative for all postgraduate students (both research and taught) that seeks to develop an active, strong and vibrant postgraduate community here at the University of Bristol. The PG Network organises events in Bristol and provides a real chance for students to work together to shape and develop Bristol postgraduate community life. Get involved and keep up to date by joining the group on Facebook.

6. Learn something new and see where it takes you

Keep your mind active even when you need a break from your research by going to a public lecture, talk or debate about something completely different to your main study area. There are numerous public talks and lectures in Bristol, and many of them are free to attend. The Bristol Festival of Ideas attracts experts from around the world to Bristol with an inspiring programme of debate and discussion throughout the year. The Arnolfini also organises regular talks and the Pervasive Media Studio at the Watershed holds a free lunchtime talk every Friday.

7. And finally, make the most of being in Bristol

Bristol has a wealth of cultural treasures and historic places to explore – from museums, art galleries and theatres, pop-up cafes, festivals and world-renowned graffiti. Make sure you make the most of studying in such a vibrant city and take some time out of your research to explore. Keep up to speed with what’s going by keeping an eye on Bristol 247 and Bristol Museums.

Global Researcher: fieldwork tips from Germany

doreen
Doreen Pastor, a PhD Student in German, travelled to Germany to collect fieldwork this summer. She recounts her trials and rewards, and offers a couple of tips for postgraduate researchers preparing to go out into the field themselves.

I am a part-time student in German Studies researching how visitors engage with ‘challenging’ histories at memorial sites in Germany. This required spending an extended period of time in Germany talking to visitors at the concentration camp memorials Flossenbürg and Ravensbrück, the Holocaust memorial House of the Wannsee Conference and the former Stasi prison Bautzen II.

So, with my clipboard in my hand, I set off to Germany in June 2016. I was incredibly anxious at the airport with all these thoughts going through my head. “Will the survey I prepared work? Or more importantly, will visitors actually talk to me?!” I was also wondering how I would cope with living in Germany for four months, something many of my friends could not understand as Germany is my home country. I moved to the UK eight years ago and although I have been back since, the UK felt much more like home now.

Flossenbürg concentration camp memorial, my first stop, was a tough site. Visitor numbers were low which meant I had to work very hard in order to achieve my sample size. I stood with my clipboard in the rain, in thunderstorms and in scourging heat, often wondering “Why did I decide to do a PhD?”

By the time I completed my research at Ravensbrück (my 2nd case study), a former concentration camp predominantly for women, my own mental health started to be affected. I had completely underestimated the impact of the loneliness during fieldwork combined with spending significant amounts of time at sites which represent one of the darkest chapters in human history. There were times when I was close to giving up, especially when I went to my 3rd site, the House of the Wannsee Conference, where my living arrangements (student residence halls) were awful. Thankfully, Germany’s summer weather had significantly improved by then and I was able to spend the majority of my time outside, so I could cope with the unpleasant living situation for a month.

My final case study was the former Stasi prison, Bautzen II, in the East of Germany. Interestingly, this was a return to home territory for me, as I am originally from East Germany. It was tough to conduct research in a former Stasi prison, as the history is so close to my own family history (my uncle was imprisoned by the Stasi albeit not in Bautzen). However, it was also an incredibly humbling experience as I met a few former prisoners who talked to me about their own experience of having been a political prisoner in the GDR. In fact, one former prisoner said to me “Your PhD is so important, we need to know how we can engage with visitors in the future when we are no longer here.” This comment gave me a much needed dose of motivation after four months of hard work. I completed my research successfully in October, and was even invited back to Ravensbrück for a presentation to the staff team about my visitor research.

Although, looking back, I enjoyed working at these different memorials, it was one of the hardest jobs I have ever done. I had to learn to cope with rejections and the unpredictability of primary research while also keeping up motivation. Therefore, my main two pieces of advice for any PhD student on fieldwork are:

1. Don’t take setbacks personally – unfortunately the nature of primary research is that it includes ups and downs.
2. As tempting as it is to keep on working, schedule regular breaks – these are vital for your physical and mental health.

Flossenbürg concentration camp memorial, where Doreen conducted fieldwork by surveying visitors

Flossenbürg concentration camp memorial, where Doreen conducted fieldwork by surveying visitors

Tried and Tested: PhD is the New Boss

At my previous place of employment. Now, I work as a PhD researcher at the Graduate School of Education.

At my previous place of employment. Now, I work as a PhD researcher at the Graduate School of Education.

Jane Nebe is a PhD student at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol with funding from the Commonwealth Scholarships Commission in the UK (CSCUK).

On the 21st of September 2016, I marked one year at the University of Bristol. People have compared the first year of a PhD programme to the “honeymoon phase” after a wedding. Since I have never been on a honeymoon, I cannot relate to that metaphor. I can however assure you that it has been an amazing academic year with huge learning experiences for me. I like to think that I have become smarter than I was a year ago. You have to take my word for it though. My research proposal has also gone through some changes, a process similar to the metamorphosis of a butterfly. However, it doesn’t look as pretty as a butterfly yet, but I hope it will, in the coming months. The research problem that intrigued me hasn’t changed yet. I am only changing the ways I wish to address the problem. These changes have been necessitated by the need to clarify the focus of my research and fine-tune the research process. During this period, I attended several seminars, workshops and conferences, in addition to my compulsory coursework units. I can attest to the fact that all of these platforms equipped me with vital skills for doing research. Particularly, there was one seminar organized by the Bristol Doctoral College (BDC) for Postgraduate Researchers (PGRs), which literally changed my PhD life. It was held sometime in February 2016 and made significant impact on my attitude towards the PhD. They called it the ‘Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Researchers’ seminar with Hugh Kearns.

I will not give away too many details about the seminar, so that I do not ruin the experience for those who might be attending the next one. I will instead talk about the three important lessons I took away from the seminar. The first was to treat the PhD like a job, because it is a job. Prior to that time, I viewed the PhD programme as my ‘last’ schooling endeavor. I had resigned from my ‘job’ to go to ‘school’. That demarcating line meant I could afford some luxuries like procrastination and distractions. As a full-time student, it also meant that I was in full control of how I spent my flexible time. Of course, I was busy with lectures, pre-readings, assessments and preparations for supervision meetings, but most of it happened within a schedule that was subject to my whims. To treat my PhD as a job I had to have regular working hours and specific targets with deadlines. I had to be responsible with how I spent my time and self. I had to be accountable to the PhD because it was my new Boss. It put money in my account and paid my bills literally, courtesy of my scholarship. Would I spend all day browsing the social media around a Boss, in an organization where I was an employee? Would I still be in bed by 9am when that organization’s resumption time is 8am? Would I just decide to stay off work without a legitimate reason like ill-health? I definitely would not. To treat the PhD as a job, my ways had to change — and they did, gradually. Today, I am doing my best to please my Boss and show this Boss that I deserve to be here.  Treating my PhD as a job has engendered in me a high sense of responsibility and accountability for what I must do per time.

Jane's previous 'Home Office'.

Jane’s previous ‘Home Office’.

The second lesson for me was the need to write as I read, and not leave writing to a time in the future. Hugh Kearns problematized the notion of a ‘writing-up’ phase of the PhD and insists that writing must begin from the beginning – as we read articles, run experiments etc. This lesson has benefitted me a lot as it reduces the chances of me having a ‘writer’s block’. As I read articles or books, I review in writing the areas that are relevant to my research. Indeed, I end with MANY drafts but it’s a good thing for me because I also think by writing.

The third lesson for me was Hugh Kearns emphasis on the fact that the PhD is not the pursuit of a Nobel Prize. The aim of my PhD is not to submit a perfect thesis. Rather, it is to finish the PhD and submit the thesis. Therefore, my expectations of what I can and will accomplish within the three years of the programme must be realistic. I am grateful to my supervisors who spent our first meetings insisting that I narrow my research focus to something feasible within the timeframe I had.

I am also grateful to the BDC for organizing the seminar and numerous others that I have attended. I look forward to the new courses that I have booked to attend in the coming months. If I may ask, which seminar or workshop at the University has greatly impacted your PhD life?

The next ‘Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Researchers’ seminar will run on Friday, November 11, from 9:00-12:00 in the Helen Wodehouse Lecture Theatre, 35 Berkeley Square. Register via OnCourse.

Nominations Open for Postgraduate Network!

The Bristol SU PG Network is hosting elections again, and there are lots of positions up for grabs! The PG Network is a student-led initiative for all postgraduate students (both research and taught) that seeks to develop an active, strong and vibrant postgraduate community here at the University of Bristol. The PG Network provides a real chance for students to together shape and develop Bristol postgraduate community life – which is why it’s a great organisation to get involved with! We chatted to Ben and Rachel, two long-standing and devoted members, about why they loved their roles so much.

Ben Hudson – Chair

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Laura Ho and Ben Hudson at this year’s Welcome Week Fair

How did you get involved with the PG Network?

I have been involved with the PG Network since its inception. When I heard that Bristol SU were planning on developing a network to bring together postgraduate students from across the university, I was keen to be involved. The university had for many years lacked a real sense of postgraduate community so I was very pleased to hear about this initiative and wanted to play my part in making it a success.

What have been your most memorable experiences?

Getting to meet so many students from across the entire university – sharing our experiences and making real friends along the way. Also, bringing the postgraduate voice to university committees at the highest levels has been a real honour and has been positive for my career development.

Why would you recommend joining the committee to others?

I would definitely recommend considering to stand for one of the positions on the PG Network Committee. It gives you a real chance to be at the heart of postgraduate life here at the University of Bristol and allows you to play your part in shaping our postgraduate community.

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Rachel Harris at this year’s Welcome Week Fair

Rachel Harris – Postgraduate Research Representative

How did you get involved with the PG Network?

I moved to Bristol to start my PhD when the PG Network was just getting up and running. I’m based at Southmead hospital and didn’t know many people in the city when I arrived so I went along to some events. Having benefitted from the network and enjoyed the events I attended, I decided myself forward for postgraduate research (PGR) representative when nominations opened last year.

What have been your most memorable experiences?

Representing PGR views on university committees and see how change really happens has been a particular highlight. I’ve also enjoyed attending as many events as possible and talking to new people. Our PG Pub Quiz a favourite as it’s nice to see some friendly rivalry among the PG community!

Why would you recommend joining the committee to others?

I’d highly recommend having a look at the committee positions available and putting yourself forward. If you enjoy working with other passionate postgraduates and talking to fellow students about their experiences, this is the position for you. You’ll also get the chance represent postgraduate researchers and be a part of the decisions made in the union and the university.

Nominate yourself for a position on the Postgraduate Network Committee by 12th October. Voting is from 17th– 20th October.

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The PG Network runs loads of events – such as hiking the Cheddar Gorge valley! – and is a cornerstone of Bristol’s PGR community

Tried and Tested: Memorable moments at the 2016 Life beyond the PhD conference

This August Abi’odun Oyewole, a PhD candidate in the Graduate School of Education, went to the annual Life beyond the PhD conference at Cumberland Lodge. In this blog post she details her experiences and insights from her time spent at this interdisciplinary, knowledge-sharing and collaborative weekend. 

It was an absolutely lovely experience to travel to Cumberland lodge, Windsor for the 2016 Life beyond the PhD conference. I am using this blog to share some of my memorable moments at the conference to encourage whoever may want to attend the conference next year.

1. A celebration of doctoral students
The welcome session struck a note when Owen, the programme director at Cumberland lodge and our host, described the conference as a celebration of doctoral students. According to Owen, doctoral students forget to celebrate themselves and we were about to be celebrated by people who appreciate what we do and how much we have sacrificed to that cause. Did I feel celebrated after three days? I think the amazing scenery, beautiful accommodation, engaging customer service, barbecues and delicious menus, did justice to Owen’s hopes. The day before the programme ended, I was wondering how much I would miss the dreamlike package.

2. Getting vital information on career development
The conference included useful sessions on experiences of applying for a job, and working inside and outside the academia. It was really helpful to hear personal experiences of failure and mistakes and what we can do to avoid some of these experiences. Also, the common factor to all shared experiences was the fact that the speakers achieved their aims after sometime, with effort and dedication. I absolutely enjoyed listening to the dramatic journey of a chief inspector of police who had once studied a PhD in Bio-chemistry. I also enjoyed listening Professor Graham Smith who spoke about expectations for and the realities of working inside academia. His advice is to take some time off work to refresh – all doctoral students must keep this in mind!! The workshop on successful applications by Dr Steve Joy and Katie Hewitt offered valuable insight into the job application process. It was enlightening to understand the standpoint of the recruiters and the qualities they are ‘really’ looking for in a prospective employee.

3. Learning how to communicate research to a different audience
On the second day of the conference we had a session with Dr Geraint Wyn Story, on public speaking or in better terms ‘how to avoid speaking Greek to a non-Greek audience’. I must admit that I wondered if his ‘dramatic’ techniques of getting the message across would help doctoral students. However, there was an amazing difference between the speech given by a few doctoral students at the beginning of the session and at the end of the session. The next day I found myself using some of those dramatic tips to present my research to a group with different disciplines. It was a truly beneficial session.

4. Working on an interdisciplinary project

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Okay, I admit that this was my best moment at the conference and for a very obvious reason – my team won. Yayy!!! The background detail to this event was that we were split into groups and told to come up with an interdisciplinary research proposal. Imagine yourself working with researchers from a totally different field. I looked through the abstracts of my teammates the morning before the activity and got a headache. I just couldn’t see how our interests and skills would come together. However, my team mates quickly proved me wrong, it wasn’t about sole accomplishments but what the group could create and contribute to. In less than two hours, we came up with a project, the aims, rationale, research question, and schedule. We also had to present our proposal to other colleagues and the alleged sponsors, to compete for ‘funding’. I would say it was a tough competition but I’m really proud that my team got the chocolate box at the end of it all. We took a picture to celebrate. Haha!

5. Listening to experiences of the viva
On the final day of the conference, we listened to personal experiences of the viva voce and this was quite helpful. The speakers provided a balanced view of good and bad experiences of the examination. It was helpful to note mistakes to avoid at the viva, and understand the viewpoint of the examiners. The speakers also talked about experiences of selecting examiners. I liked the suggestion that we should not reject examiners that we disagree with, they might actually provide a more constructive critique of our research. Dr. Rachel Smillie also advised that we avoid assumptions about the examiners’ feedback.

Final words: Thanks to Cumberland lodge for organising this worthwhile experience and thanks to the Bristol Doctoral College for providing the opportunity to partake in it.

The Resilient Researcher: Self-funding your research

Jessye Aggleton is a second-year PhD candidate in Archaeology and Anthropology, and is a self-funded student who juggles a part-time job with her full-time PhD. While she has experienced setbacks to her funding, she has found her optimal work/life balance — but not without building up her reslience along the way! Read about her experiences below, and (hopefully) feel encouraged in your decisions to fund the work you love!

When I asked family and friends about undertaking a self-funded PhD, the resounding replies were along the lines of, ‘Can you do that?’, ‘Why would you?’ and the more-popular response, ‘Are you crazy?’

It does seem baffling.  Why would anyone consider paying for what one would hope to be a supported and salaried position?

Quite simply, it’s love. Love of your work, being a researcher, and discovering new things – despite the barriers, and a fair amount of heartache and failure.

With top grades from the University of Oxford in my subject, I made the mistake of thinking PhD funding would be easy. I applied during my Master’s degree to Bristol after meeting my now-supervisor, and discovering she specialised in my chosen area of research. But despite my predicted grades, I was unsuccessful in my application to the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and I knew I needed another plan.

During the summer, I entered the FindAPhD competition. In between my summer job shifts, I made a short stop-motion film about my research proposal. Although I didn’t have the money to make an amazing movie, I had two things – time and effort.  It paid off; I won £500.  A great start, but I knew I needed a whole lot more to fund my PhD.  Subsequently, I was fortunate to receive a one-off runner-up bursary from the Graduate Arts and Humanities department – not quite the amount the official Award offered, but none the less it meant that I can now pay the majority of my tuition fees for the next two years, for which I’m extremely grateful.

I realised I was going to have to go it alone for the foreseeable future.  I’d been funding the first year of my PhD through the saved remnants of my undergraduate student finance loan, plus my earnings from summer jobs.  How does a doctoral student earn enough to live and save, whilst working towards a full-time PhD?  I didn’t know anyone who’d done a self-funded PhD, so I did what any 20-something does when they’re stuck –  I looked on the internet for help.

I was heartbroken to be initially faced with a wall of forums saying that no-one in their right mind should attempt an unfunded PhD. It took me a while to realise I wasn’t alone.

I reached out to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, who provided me with an astonishing statistic: in 2014-15, approximately 84% of doctorate students at UK institutions (84,315 people) were not funded by a Research Council. While these figures don’t account for those initially enrolled on a Master’s course who then transfer to a PhD, the implications are still astounding. Additionally, arts funding is notoriously low, and funding outside of research councils can be limited and specific (especially to those who are in their first year).

Handaxes Madrid

Handaxes from Madrid

I applied again for Research Council funding; I made it to the interview stage but fell at the last hurdle. At the time, I was struggling to love what I was doing, especially when those around you seem to be doing so well.  But there’s one thing you learn as a researcher, and that’s to be resilient.  Remind yourself you are capable, you are worthy and you may be unlucky – or you may need to learn from the mistakes.  Keep trying, because that’s the only way to make discoveries and progress – both academically and personally.

Did The Bride give up in Kill Bill 2 when she was buried alive? No way. And neither should a researcher – even if six-feet-under for us is a metaphor for funding rejections or lab malfunctions.

Luckily, after many unsuccessful retail job applications, I managed to land a part-time job at the University as an administrator, where I currently work.  This position allows me to pay for my rent, living costs, and occasionally travel to visit my partner who lives and works abroad, whilst saving a bit every month to support me in the next few years.  While it’s not enough to provide for any new lab-based ideas, my supervisor ha s been a wonderful support. Talking to her has continually inspired me, and she has pointed me in the direction of sources and arranged opportunities for me in order for me to get my data without forking out of my limited pocket.

The journey towards funding and my PhD has only really just begun.  I’ve sent out lots of enquiries to charities about application and eligibility for small-scale funding, and I’ve discovered three potential large funding sources for my specific subject with deadlines coming up over the next six months.  For external funding databases and advice, I found the Alternative Guide to Postgraduate Funding, FindAPhD, and Research Professional all useful tools.  I’ve also learnt about funded possibilities of doing part of your research abroad, and I’m exciting to have been accepted to present a poster at a large conference this September. Being self-funded is all about balance; now, I head to the lab after the office, I read articles and compile notes on my days off (as well as make time for relaxing!), and I love the sense of achievement I feel after a productive day.

While I have definitely felt episodes of defeat, tiredness and isolation, I know I’ve already come so far on my PhD journey. I’ve learnt to prepare for the unexpected, optimally organise my time, and know how much coffee I need to be properly productive!

Truthfully, although it’s tough, being self-funded means that now I feel confident in the challenges that will inevitably come over the next few years.  And though I’m still hopeful for external support, it’s empowering to know I’m achieving my goal by working hard for what I love.

Finite Element modelling in progress

Finite Element modelling in progress

The time for post-referendum grief is over: pro-active strategies for European-minded PGRs

Isabel Stockton is a doctoral student in the Department of Economics, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the ESRC, although they are supported by the Bristol Doctoral College. 

Within the university: Fight for your funding

As PGRs, we transcend groups that are often talked about as separate entities, namely university students and academic staff. As the UK negotiates its exit from the EU, we – or future cohorts of PGRs – are likely to be affected in both of these roles. The Treasury has recently announced that the government will underwrite bids for EU Commission funding made before the UK’s exit. This is excellent news that mitigates the uncertainty about our participation in collaborative European research in the short term. However, no commitment to preserving the fee status of EU students beyond this year’s incoming cohort has been made by the University or the government. At last month’s #bristolisglobal event, Pro-Vice Chancellor International, Dr Erik Lithander suggested that the University may decide to make up for any shortfall in government funding for EU students’ tuition. As we all know, securing funding for research and for research students is no walk in the park even at the best of times. Brexit constitutes a considerable financial risk for the University, so help make the PGR case for our funding priorities.

evidenceSpread the love for evidence

Like many of the students and researchers around me, the referendum result did not worry me about any immediate change to my status as much as a change in political culture brought about by the campaign leading up to it. Whilst the rhetoric of either camp gave cause for concern, the leave camp’s anti-intellectualist argument that culminated in Michael Gove’s statement that “People in this country have had enough of experts”, should attract our particular attention as researchers. Now is the time to shout about our love for rational debate, for empiricism, for limiting the range of plausible disagreement by facts. Celebrating a plurality of methods and questioning established truths is at the heart of research. We must not allow those who would like prejudice to go unquestioned to co-opt the language of inclusion of dissenting voices. This is the time to show the public that while research may and should allow space for disagreement, it is not arbitrary.

Stand up to racism: This is our home

None of us can have failed to notice the increase in derogatory comments and hate crime related to race and ethnicity reflected in anecdotes as well as statistics since the referendum. We cannot tolerate our fellow citizens being told to “go home”, so speak up when you witness abuse and report it to the police. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has published an advice sheet collecting contacts and information on your rights in this respect. But outside of acute incidents, you can contribute towards an inclusive, supportive environment for migrants, at universities and beyond. Get involved with campaigns like #WeAreInternational and #BristolisGlobal or start your own and if you can, directly support migrants and refugees by donating or volunteering.

EuropeLive the European Dream

Journalist Nicholas Barrett’s emotional statement, “We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied” went viral immediately after the referendum. But the personal side of European integration that he refers to was never about directives and white papers and green papers. Freedom of movement certainly helped, but to those of us with first-hand experience of intra-EU migration it has always been painfully clear that it is far from perfect or hassle-free anyway. On top of that, as we keep being reminded of, nothing has legally changed so far. So bite the bullet and do the paperwork, now and in the future, and live a European life. Apply for funding from your sponsor, your School, the Alumni foundation, research societies, or the government (and the EU while you can). Do fieldwork, attend events, network, do a placement abroad. And if you want to really make your point and be a part of a cross-national European marriage, Twitter has seen proposals to unspecified people with European passports…

accessMake Academia accessible

The overwhelming majority of academics’ voices in the run-up to the referendum favoured a remain vote. The result, however, revealed a deep divide by education and socioeconomic status. This calls for action on two fronts. Firstly, make education accessible to more people, to make universities more representative of society as a whole. This can take a variety of forms, from getting behind efforts within the university to widen participation through admissions strategies to supporting pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. UoB students and staff are involved in numerous initiatives and charities tackling these issues. And secondly, redouble our efforts to make sure recommendations based on academic research are both relevant to lived experience and credible. This includes being open about our assumptions and about the limitations of what we can predict. The cultural change required to achieve this can and should be driven by PGRs.

politicalGet political

If there is anything everyone seems to agree on at the moment, it’s that no-one knows what Brexit will actually look like, so it is up to us to shape it. Universities UK, the National Union of Students and UCU have all formulated demands for research and higher education in the upcoming negotiations. Continued membership in the European research network like other non-members such as Norway and Switzerland, funds to compensate for lost EU research funding and guarantees for EU nationals currently working and studying in the UK tend to be high those lists, with the first one now the subject of a petition to parliament. You will each have some demands to add to that, so make them heard and hold the negotiators to account. Speak up on social media, contact your MP, get out and organise in grassroots initiatives and encourage others to do the same.

Ain’t I a Superwoman?

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Jane at the Riverside Museum of Transport and Travel, Glasgow, Scotland. April 2016.

Jane Nebe is a PhD student at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol with funding from the Commonwealth Scholarships Commission in the UK (CSCUK).

On the first day of the year 2016, I woke up very sad and stayed that way throughout the day. I just kept wondering if the PhD programme had been worth resigning my dream job for. I had started my dream job in June 2015, and did not meet the requirement to qualify for a study leave by September 2015. The dilemma for me at the time was not if I wanted to do the PhD, but if I wanted to start the PhD by September 2015. Oh! I forgot to mention that I had received a prestigious scholarship that would fund ALL expenses for the PhD programme and it could not be deferred. Maybe I was just homesick. You see, every 1st January of the New Year was a huge celebration in my family home back in Nigeria. The day usually began with excited greetings of ‘Happy new year’, festive aroma emanating from kitchens in the neighbourhood, happy chattering, and visits to or from friends and family later in the day. On this 1st of January, I was alone. Park Street was quiet and my accommodation extremely quiet. This was not unusual though because some mornings in Bristol are always like that. But this morning, I felt the silence was too loud. In addition to the feelings of aloneness, was the stress of writing two essays for my assessed units that were due for submission in some weeks’ time; as well as the preparation for my next supervision meeting later that month. On that day, the 1st of January 2016, I began to contemplate dropping out of the PhD programme.

Students’ mental health is something that the University of Bristol takes seriously. We should take it seriously too. I was aware that professional counselling was available at the Student Counselling Service, but it was not an option I considered. At the time, seeking professional help meant acknowledging somehow that something was not right with me. That definitely wasn’t my persona, because I am a Superwoman.[1] Or was I not? I remain grateful to my friend and PhD colleague who sensed from our conversations that something wasn’t right and kept listening to me, while encouraging me again and again. Then, I decided to do something different from research, something to be excited about. So, I started swimming lessons at the university’s swimming pool. I thoroughly enjoyed myself while the lessons lasted. I am yet to cross the line between learner and swimmer though. Over the past few months, I have learnt to extend my life experiences in Bristol beyond the triangle enclosed by my house, school and church. It has been very beneficial to my mental health. Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed, I take time-outs. My past exploits include visits to the aquarium and museums, taking a boat ride, walks by the harbour side, joining the gym, travelling, learning to skate, and so on. Just forgetting work and having fun! Afterwards, I return to my research refreshed and reinvigorated, to excel as always. Most importantly, I have decided that if 1st January 2016 ever happens again in the nearest future, I would seek professional help because ‘I ain’t a Superwoman’ after all. So tell me, how do you maintain your mental health?

[1] This is coined from the ‘Ain’t I a Woman?” speech that is attributed to Sojourner Truth (1797–1883), who was born into slavery in New York.

Research Roadmaps: the final phase of my Phd, by Tessa Coombes

Tessa Coombes is a postgraduate research in the School for Policy Studies. She originally blogged for us during our Year in the Life of a PhD campaign, and she continues blog on her own site, where the below post originally appeared. It’s been a pleasure to follow Tessa’s journey throughout her PhD — the original roadmapper for the BDC!

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I’m now entering the final phase of my PhD! Now that sounds vaguely ridiculous as it only seems like yesterday that I started. But I am now at the point of finishing off my fieldwork and beginning that rather daunting bit that means I have to try and make sense of it all. For me it still feels like I don’t know much, like there is so much reading still to do and so much data to make sense of, that it’ll take years to get to that end point of the completed thesis.

This middle stage, the second year, has been fun, manic, challenging, frustrating and rewarding all at the same time. It’s involved talking to and interviewing people I have never met before, as well as many I know well. It’s involved taking up other people’s time, often at times that are most busy for them. It’s also involved a significant degree of personal learning, confidence, engagement, listening and energy. There were times when I have felt stretched beyond what I could cope with, completely out of my comfort zone, bombarded with information and exhausted from long days and late evenings full of meetings, interviews and debates. There have also been times when I’ve felt extremely grateful for how cooperative people have been, energised by what I have heard, motivated by discussion and a fair amount of empathy for the people who have shared their challenges with me.

There have also been times when I’ve wondered whether or not the questions I am asking are the right ones, whether the information I am gathering is actually what I need. In fact there have been many times when I have wondered about that and indeed still do – only time will tell.

I guess I’ve reached that stage now where all of those questions and self doubt begin to take centre stage, where a year to analyse data and write up just doesn’t seem long enough. For me I know what I need at this stage, I need to be able to see the story that I’m trying to tell, the story that takes the reader through my research. At the moment I’m not quite sure what that is, but gradually as I write up notes, transcribe interviews, go back to the theory and keep reading and thinking, little parts of that story begin to emerge. It’s almost like it’s there, but just out of reach! There’s also possibly too much, too many different routes I could take through the data, that would confuse the main messages and reduce the main characters to a minor role. So picking out the right story and the right main characters is all part of the trick going forward.

At the moment, there’s a story about influential people and how they operate overtly and covertly to influence policy agendas. There’s obviously a story about the importance of elections in providing opportunities for policy change, where policy priorities are debated and framed before, during and after the election. But more likely there’s a story about personalities, about key influencers and decision-makers, their style and approach, as well as who they talk to and take notice of. There’s also something there about solutions, looking at the same solutions that keep cropping up, year after year, to the same problems, but never quite seem to gain traction, but just maybe they will this time? Add to this the role of party politics and the media in influencing the policy prioritisation process and you can see that there’s a lot to consider.

Whilst it’s a daunting prospect, I’m actually looking forward to the writing process. I love making sense of information, bringing it together in a story that others can read and hopefully enjoy. The process is inevitably frustrating, long and painful at times, but that moment when it comes together, when clarity appears and the story is just right, well that’s totally worth waiting for!

I feel privileged to have been able to take the time out to do this research, to have the support and help of so many people, it’s a far cry from where I thought I would be right now and I’m loving it (mostly). Thtessa profile v3e School for Policy Studies at Bristol University have been outstanding in their support throughout. My two supervisors (Alex Marsh and David Sweeting) are just great, providing the questions, support, encouragement and nudges I need at all the right times. Others in the school have put up with me talking about my research, provided feedback, suggested reading and most importantly of all, provided me with the encouragement that says ‘yes’ I can do this.

So now it’s time to get on with it, to make sure I reach the end of my PhD journey.