You are not alone

sophie-blog-photoSophie Benoit has worked at the University for over 10 years. She joined the BDC as the Skills Development and Communications Officer in January 2014, before which she had covered several roles supporting postgraduate researchers including managing the Bristol Centre for Complexity Sciences, and the UK-India Network for Interactive Technologies research project. In her role with the BDC Sophie supports skills training and researcher development across the University, working with faculties, schools and central services to raise awareness of available resources and leading the development of a central training and development programme for postgraduate researchers. She also manages BDC communications including web and social media activity.

When I sat down to write this blog, I wasn’t sure where to start. I don’t have a PhD, so I couldn’t share my own experience of completing a doctorate, though the more I thought about it, I realised that my degree in Knitwear and Fashion from Central Saint Martins in London does in fact have some elements in common with the process of doing a PhD:

1) There was little / no structured teaching – you were expected to put in your own ‘self-learning’ time to get to the expected level of performance at a world-leading institution;

2) Having put your heart and soul into everything you produced, you had to try not to take it personally when your tutors ruthlessly critiqued every aspect of your work;

3) You had to dedicate endless hours in your quest for the ‘holy grail’ of all St Martins graduates – an innovative and original portfolio of work illustrating a novel contribution to the field, worthy of the long line of celebrity alumni who had graced the corridors before you.

When you add to this mix having to work nights and weekends to cover the rent, as well as going through a break-up in the family, it’s easy to see, looking back, why the final year of my degree was the most stressful, demoralising, and intense period of my life. However, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and more than ten years on, I am able to appreciate how this rigorous and unyielding experience made me a better communicator, improved my critical thinking, helped me to understand my own creative processes, and forced me to developed a resilience which has helped me to pick myself up and dust myself off on numerous occasions since. Not to mention leaving me with some pretty useful knitting skills!

Doing a PhD is tough, and I’m sure my experiences only provide me with a small part of the picture, but since I joined the University of Bristol in the Autumn of 2004, I have been privileged to witness the other side of the story: as a sounding board; as a shoulder to cry on; as a counsellor, and as a friend, supporting the journeys of more than 150 PhD students. Many of these have suffered with personal tragedy, battled with ill health, or even had to start all over again, but have still managed to make it past the finish line with a little bit of help. There is nothing so heart-warming and humbling as being included in the Acknowledgements of someone’s PhD thesis when you know the challenges they have overcome.

What has become clear to me over the years is that every postgraduate research student experiences a different journey to those around them. Every PGR starts their research degree with a different set of skills, experience and knowledge, and therefore has a distinct set of needs – and that’s before you even bring in the complexities of relationships with [multiple] supervisors, exploring a new concept/approach/method that hasn’t been covered before, the particular requirements of different types of doctoral degrees and funded doctoral training programmes, studying part-time or away from the University, juggling caring responsibilities…the list goes on…

So there is no such thing as a ‘standard’ PhD experience, but it is safe to say that most PGRs will at some point feel like no-one understands what they are going through, that 99% of PhD students will wonder at various stages whether they have the motivation to keep going, and that every PGR could do with a helping hand sometimes. This is why it is vitally important for PGRs to have access to a wide range of resources and a network of support to help them not just ‘make it through’ their degree, but to make the journey as manageable (or even enjoyable*) and fulfilling as possible.

This is why I value my job at the BDC. I get to work with fantastic people across the University who are dedicated to ensuring that the PGR community is well supported, and although there will always be improvements to be made, and areas where some are better supported than others, it is inspiring to know that there are so many people who want to make a difference.

One of the biggest hurdles when you are working to support a group of over 3 thousand people with such a diverse range of needs is that it can be difficult to know what kind of support or activities would be most beneficial or effective. Surveys such as PRES are vital for helping us to build a picture of what is working and what the various central teams / faculties / schools should be addressing, but obviously this is less meaningful if only a small percentage of PGRs take part. So if you’re reading this and thinking that the University could do more for you, or that the support you get from your faculty / school / university is great, it really does make a difference if you can find 5 minutes to tell us about it!

And if you are struggling and your supervisor(s) and peers can’t offer you the support you need, have a chat with the staff in your school office / graduate school. They might not have all the answers at their fingertips, but they are very likely to be able to set you in the right direction.

The important thing to remember is that you are not alone.

*Yes – this is possible!