7 steps for planning a successful live webinar

Do you have teaching responsibilities, or are you thinking about putting together a PGR-led seminar or writers’ retreat? Read our top tips for leading a live webinar.

1. Plan your content as well as modes of interaction

Keeping participants’ attention during a webinar is hard work, but a clear structure for the session and well-planned interactions can help mitigate that. Organise your content in clear themes/parts and let participants know upfront what the flow will look like.

There are many forms of interaction that you can build into your session depending on the platform you are using. Consider including opportunities for participants to ask questions via their microphones, setting them short tasks and asking them to contribute via the chat box (this encourages those that are less forthcoming to interact as well).

Through some platforms, such as Zoom, you can also put participants in smaller ‘break-out’ style web-rooms to enable small group discussion.

2. PowerPoint is your friend … most of the time

Even if you are leading a session that is not content heavy (for example, a writers’ retreat), sharing PowerPoint slides during your session is a good way of ensuring that participants know what is happening at all times. For example, you can use a PowerPoint slide to signpost that you are ready to receive questions, to specify the requirements of an interactive task, to indicate that it is break time (and at what time you will resume), etc.

However, keep in mind that sharing PowerPoint slides takes up a large portion of the screen and in some cases it might be preferable to shut it down, allowing a ‘gallery’ style view of participants’ web cameras to create a stronger sense of community.

3. Practise

Before leading a live session, you should practise managing the platform of your choice. Consider organising a test-run with a few friends or colleagues. You don’t need to replicate the full session but you should go through the key motions, including any planned points of interaction.

Alternatively, if you have access to a spare laptop, use it as a ‘faux’ participant and place it next to your main device to see how things will look like for your participants.

4. Send out joining instructions

Sending out simple joining instructions will help manage your participants’ expectation. How will they access the platform? Will they be expected to use their microphone? Will they have to put their web camera on?

You should also encourage participants to join the session a few minutes before the start time so that they can test their audio/visual.

5. Provide guidance on webinar etiquette at the start of the session

Devote a few minutes at the start of the session to taking participants through your webinar etiquette. You should explain upfront what forms of interactions they can expect, how and when you will take their questions, as well as a quick overview of the key controls of the platform you are using.

6. Get yourself a ‘wingman’

If possible, ask a fellow PGR to be your session wingman. This means that you have someone ready to step in and help if any of your participants have connection issues or if you need a hand with managing conversations in the chat box.

A wingman can also help you fill any awkward silences as you are waiting for all participants to join at the start of the session, as well as during the breaks. Initiating small talk with your wingman during downtime will encourage others to participate as well and help foster a sense of community that is much needed at the moment.

7. Follow up with participants if needed

Managing time during live sessions is a tricky business and issues with technology can also eat up delivery time. If this happens to you, then don’t stress. Tell your participants that you will follow up with some written notes on content that was not covered, or send them a voice-over-PowerPoint recording. If you didn’t have enough time to take questions then encourage participants to put their queries in the chat box or email you, and then follow up with a written Q & A.

Last but not least, remember that we have all been thrown into digital modes of learning and interacting very abruptly and making mistakes is expected. It’s all about progress, not perfection.

Stay tuned for more guidance on delivering digital content in future blog posts.

Top tips for a successful videolink viva

With current guidelines around COVID-19, vivas are being conducted by videolink where possible. What should you expect from a videolink viva and how can you prepare? The Bristol Doctoral College asked five PGRs who’ve been through the process to share their experiences and tips.  


Debbie Daniels, School of Biochemistry 


Why did you have to do your viva by videolink? 

My viva took place during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak – as non-essential travel was advised against and flight schedules were looking increasingly unreliable, we made the last-minute decision for my external examiner to take part via videolink.  

How did you prepare?

I was feeling a bit nervous about the prospect of a viva over videolink so one thing I did was to practise some answers to a few common opening viva questions, for example “why did you decide to do this project?” or “briefly summarise your project for us”. I think even if you don’t end up using them it makes you feel a bit more confident when beginning the viva, especially when you throw in the added nervousness of it not being in person! 

What was the main thing that stood out for you about the experience? 

Debbie Daniels
“It took a few minutes to settle in, but after that it really felt like my external examiner was in the room with me.” Debbie Daniels

How surprisingly normal it felt! It took a few minutes to settle in, but after that it really felt like my external examiner was in the room with me.  

In the end, I found it a really positive experience, despite the initial nerves! The whole process went really smoothly and my examiners even commented on the fact that they felt they were able to conduct the viva exactly as they would do in person. Overall, I would say to try not to be too nervous about the videolink aspect and to trust in your ability – you will have spent much of your PhD explaining your work to other people and doing it via videolink really feels no different. 

Any tips for someone who now has a videolink viva planned? 

Think about any aspects of your projects (for example, a complex experiment set-up) where your go-to explanation may have involved drawing a diagram or using other visual aids – this might be trickier to do via videolink so it could be worth practising some verbal explanations for these out loud during your viva prep.  


Catherine Chan, School of Humanities  


Why did you have to do your viva by videolink?
 

My viva took place before the COVID-19 pandemic. One of my external examiners was supposed to come to Bristol from London but he had injured his back and had to restrict his mobility. The decision to move to videolink was quite last minute (if I’m not wrong, less than 24 hours before). 

How did you prepare and what did you learn?

Catherine Chan
“Having a set up where you do not have to constantly worry about unnecessary details will help you focus on the exam.” Catherine Chan

Personally, there was not much I could do but to face the ‘challenge.’ I was a bit jumpy over the sudden change of plans, especially because I (and I trust a lot of others) have always found video calls/meetings awkward. I was mainly worried about the awkwardness and the possibility of glitches. Talking to my supervisor about this helped a lot, particularly because spelling out my worries in detail made me more aware of the actual issues I had with a Skype viva.   

Looking back, I wouldn’t have prepared differently.
If properly set up and with good internet connection, an online viva is not too different from an actual face-to-face examination.
 

I have learned to be less wary of online videocalls/meetings and this has been extremely helpful during the current situation with COVID-19. I’ve increasingly dealt with online teaching and meetings in the last two months, and I can assure everyone that it does get easier after a few tries. 

Any tips for someone who now has a videolink viva planned? 

  • Take the videolink viva as you would a face-to-face examination. While you’re in the process, you’ll find yourself so immersed in dealing with the examiners’ questions and discussing your thesis that it feels as if everyone is physically present in the room. 
  • Make sure to do a test call (or a few test calls) to make sure that the internet connection is stable, you are comfortable with the angle of the camera, and that you’re showing only what you want to show in the background. Having a set up where you do not have to constantly worry about unnecessary details will help you focus on the exam.

Jon Prager, Bristol Veterinary School 


How 
has COVID-19 impacted on your viva? 

In a way the most unsettling thing was constantly changing plans – when COVID-19 initially became a problem I was going to join the external examiner in London (where I’m now based) and have a two-way Skype call between Bristol and London, then my internal had to self-isolate so it was going to be three-way call, with him at home. Then, a couple of days before the viva, the external’s campus was closed so we moved to four-way Skype call from home.  

What was the main thing that stood out for you about the experience? 

Jon Prager
“My external examiner afterwards commented it was great to be able to do a viva in fluffy slippers” – Jon Prager

The examiners were both really friendly. In a way, because doing it by videolink was new for everyone, it meant we were all a bit unsure how things would work and could all laugh off any teething connections issues and lighten the atmosphere. (My internal examiner accidentally disconnected – I joked he was bored already!)

It all worked much more smoothly than I expected/feared, and certainly I don’t think it had any negative impact on the viva. My external examiner afterwards commented it was great to be able to do a viva in fluffy slippers – so that’s one positive!  

Any tips for someone who now has a videolink viva planned? 

  • Check your internet connection and platform set-up. Do a test call with and without a headset to find the best approach for you.
  • Try to find somewhere quiet and without distractions. Make sure anyone around knows when you’ll be busy so you’re not disturbed. Similarly, close your emails and any other messaging apps to avoid distracting notifications.  
  • Think about how you’ll reference your thesis during the viva. I considered marking up my thesis digitally but ended up sticking to pen and paper.  
  • Check whether the examiners want you to join at the diary start time, or whether they will want to discuss first and ask you to join later.

Vivian Kong, School of Humanities 


What was your experience and how did you prepare?

Vivian Kong
“Before the viva I had a mini-mock viva with a friend over Skype.” Vivian Kong

Before the viva, I worried whether I would be able to hear everything clearly over Skype and understand my examiners’ questions. English is my second language, which also added to my concern. I also had concerns about other practical issues, such as internet speed and sound clash 

Before the viva I had a mini-mock viva with a friend over Skype. My friend asked me standard questions about the thesis and checked if my answers were audible and clear over Skype. That really helped ease my concerns, as I knew the right speed and volume to speak at in order to convey my thoughts. 

How did it go in the end? 

There were occasions where I couldn’t hear my examiners properly, and I had to ask them to repeat. However, once my examiners started asking me inspiring questions and gave me feedback, I almost forgot we were doing it over Skype! Having done a videolink viva, I understand how one may find it trickier to prepare, but I hope my positive experience can give students preparing for a videolink viva some assurance, and hope they’d find their viva useful too! 


Hang Yee Leung, School of Education


Why did you have to do your viva by videolink?

Hang Yee Leung
“I tried to maintain a healthy body and peaceful mind.” Hang Yee Leung

My doctorate was based at City University in Hong Kong and taught by academic staff from the University of Bristol. My viva was originally scheduled to take place in Hong Kong. However, due to the spread of COVID-19, the teaching team had returned to the UK and the viva was rescheduled to take place in Bristol. Unfortunately this was also cancelled due to closure of the School of Education. I was then informed that my viva would be conducted by Zoom two days before the scheduled date, with the five attendees all dialling in from separate locations.

How did you prepare for it?

Despite the coronavirus pandemic and sudden transition from offline to online viva, I tried to maintain a healthy body and peaceful mind, which helped me turning the viva from a challenge to an enjoyable experience.

Any tips for someone who now has a videolink viva planned?

  • As well as academic preparations and getting used to the technology, take the time for a walk or listen to your favourite music when you are feeling stressed.
  • Getting enough sleep and having a clear mind are also vital for a successful viva.

What are your thoughts, looking back on the experience?

To cite a quote from Forrest Gump: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” 2020 is perhaps one of the most tumultuous years in many people’s life, but we should never give up hope. Good luck to all candidates who are going to attend an online viva. Enjoy the experience and learn from it.


Find out more

‘Jump at the chance’ — 3MT advice from a Bristol winner

Rebecca Shaw presenting during Bristol’s Three Minute Thesis final (Colston Hall, May 2019)
Rebecca Shaw presenting during Bristol’s Three Minute Thesis final (Colston Hall, May 2019)

What does taking part in the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition really involve — and what do doctoral researchers get out of it?

Rebecca Shaw, a postgraduate researcher in the School of Humanities, shares her reflections on winning the University of Bristol’s 2019 competition.

The idea seems simple enough – write a three-minute speech about your research and present it in front of your audience. But actually, as it turns out, 180 seconds isn’t that long! Making this the perfect challenge for any doctoral student.

I entered the 3MT competition during my second year of my PhD, and it was a fantastic opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on my research, and think about it in a different way.

For while we, as doctoral students, are intimately aware of our own research projects, distilling them down to a three-minute speech that will appeal and make sense to the general public – well, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

The trick I found was to find a ‘hook’; some aspect of your research that could get your audience interested and thinking, ‘hmm, this sounds interesting’. Here, the bespoke training offered by the Bristol Doctoral College was invaluable. Discussing your presentation with the Bristol Doctoral College staff and other research students, who have no idea about your research or even your subject area, can help you find that ‘hook’.

The training also offered you a chance to practise your presentation, as on the day (yep, you guessed it!), you aren’t allowed any notes or prompts. Just one static slide that you can refer to throughout your presentation. And don’t forget about that three-minute rule – one second over and you’ll be disqualified. Timing really is everything.

The semi-final of the competition soon came around, and after a final practise in the space, I felt ready. It really does feel like everyone’s presentations are amazing – each competitor had clearly put in a huge amount of work, so the competition was tough.

What I found, though, is that it’s not just what you say, but how you say it too. Deliver your speech with confidence, as if you’re telling a story on stage – the idea is to get the audience to engage with your research and your presentation. They are never going to do that if you mumble your speech while looking at your shoes. So, perform it!

The same goes for the final. At this stage, you really are competing against the best presentations. The final takes place at the end of the Research without Borders day, which I had also taken part in. It was quite a long day, as you can imagine, but I just thought – I’ve got one chance to wow everybody, let’s do this.

When my name was announced as the winner, I was genuinely surprised and of course, thrilled. The whole experience of 3MT had been quite the rollercoaster, much like any PhD! But given the chance to hone and practice your presentation skills, conquer any fear of public speaking, and gain fresh perspectives on your research – what research student wouldn’t jump at the chance?

So give it a go, and if you do enter, good luck!


Interested in taking part this year? You only have until 9am on Monday 16 March to apply for the University’s 2020 competition, so don’t delay!

To submit your application now, visit the Bristol Doctoral College’s 3MT pages.

Three rights and three responsibilities that all Bristol PGRs should know about

Cartoon Chris Brasnett standing on a pile of Regulations and Code of Practice for Research Degree Programmes.

The University’s ‘Regulations and Code of Practice for Research Degree Programmes’ is an important document — but, for busy postgraduate researchers (PGRs), finding the time to read it in detail can be a challenge.

Below, Chris Brasnett, Postgraduate Education Officer in the Bristol SU, highlights some of the items that he thinks all PGRs should know about.

Soon after starting my role as Postgraduate Education Officer, a mysterious brown parcel landed on my desk. Much to my disappointment, it didn’t magically contain a finished version of my otherwise completely unwritten thesis, but instead, a copy of the University’s Regulations and Code of Practice for Research Degree Programmes.

For the uninitiated, it’s pretty much what it says it is: a 124-page booklet about how research degrees at Bristol are governed and assessed, complete in 10 sections and 16 annexes. I immediately ignored and shelved it away.

I remembered it a while later after many difficult conversations with PGRs about their time studying, and the challenges that they’ve faced. The Student Union (SU)’s (free, independent, and confidential) academic advice service, Just Ask, is always on hand to support students through these times, but I am often contacted by students asking for advice or specific guidance beforehand.
Reading and memorising all those details is challenging at the best of times, let alone when it’s difficult.

So, what are the rights and responsibilities that the regulations guarantee you that I think are most important, now that I’ve had some time to digest them?

Know your rights as a PGR student:

1. To meet your supervisor regularly

You should be able to meet your supervisor at least once a month, and they should be providing feedback on written work and other queries within an agreed timescale. At the start of your studies, these meetings may be more frequent, and they should be looking to help you settle in to your research as much as carrying it out.

2. To have access to a supportive, developmental learning infrastructure and appropriate research environment

Make the most of the Bristol Doctoral College (BDC)! Every year they put on a great and varied programme of activity that is designed with your development in mind. Going to these courses can be a great way of getting to know students from other disciplines and how research works in other disciplines. There’s always something new to learn whatever the area, and they’re a great way of mixing up your day to come back fresh to what you’d otherwise have been doing.

3. To take your holiday!

You 👏 Are 👏 Entitled 👏 To 👏 Twenty-five 👏 Days 👏 Of 👏 Holiday 👏 A 👏 Year 👏 And 👏 You 👏 Should 👏 Take 👏 Them

Understand your responsibilities as a PGR student:

1. To take responsibility for the progress of your research, and personal and professional development

This can sound quite intimidating on the face of it. At the start of your research degree, you’re probably raring to go and feel confident in taking the lead on your research. A few months in and subsumed by the literature, and you may start to feel differently. Use your supervision meetings to address these issues head on, talk to other students and postdocs for help.

2. To manage your workload

Work will come and go throughout the year… but on average you can expect to work at least 35 hours a week. Learning to manage a workload can be really challenging, particularly when you’re really enthusiastic about your subject. I’m sure you don’t need reminding, but it’s still important to find that work-life balance. Make time to take part in sport or other activities, do some volunteering (the SU is here to help with both of these!), or just take some time out to relax and rest.

And finally …

3. To give the University your feedback

It’s not just undergrads who have student representation! As the Postgraduate Education Officer, I spend all my time working in partnership with the University to improve the experience and opportunities for postgraduates — but I couldn’t do it without the many conversations that I have with student representatives from across the University on a regular basis. The SU runs a system of representation for PGRs as well, and they can influence your experience within your school, faculty, or at a whole University level. Getting involved can be a great way to make changes to your own environment as a PGR, whether at school, faculty, or University level. Contact your current rep with your thoughts, feedback and ideas — and look out for the SU elections soon to get involved yourself!

These are just some of the highlights that I think it’s really worth knowing not just at the start, but throughout your research degree. Understanding what’s expected of you — and more importantly, what support you can expect along the way — are the keys to having a great time as a PGR.

Animal charm — ‘PGR Pets’ returns to banish the winter blues

For many of us, the cold, dark days of a new year can be something of a slog. The festive break is a fading memory, your regular routine has resumed — but it can be a challenge to find your motivation and get back into the swing of things. Which is why we’re launching a competition that’s designed to bring some joy to January.

Yes, ‘PGR Pets’ is back — and, as in 2019, it’s really just an excuse to celebrate the furry/scaly/feathered friends that help you take a break from your research, or even just give you a little lift when you’re having a particularly frustrating day. The animal in question can be a cat, dog, fish, lizard — even a robin that you always spot on the University campus. If it belongs to somebody else, though, please make sure that you have their permission to share the photo.

To take part in our contest, and be in with a chance of winning a £20 voucher for Pets at Home or 20 Bristol pounds, just share a photograph:

  • as a comment on one of the Bristol Doctoral College’s #PGRpets Facebook posts
  • on Twitter or Instagram using the #PGRpets hashtag
  • by emailing it to doctoral-college@bristol.ac.uk.

Terms and conditions

  • The competition is open to all current postgraduate research students at the University of Bristol.
  • The closing date for entries is 5pm on Friday 31 January 2020.
  • The winner will receive a £20 Pets at Home voucher or 20 Bristol pounds. (The winner will be able to select their prize from these two options.)
  • The winner will be selected at random.
  • Multiple entries are permitted.
  • PGRs who took part in the 2019 competition can participate in the 2020 contest, as long as different images are submitted.
  • If a photograph features a domestic animal that isn’t yours, please ensure you have the owner’s permission to enter.
  • The Bristol Doctoral College may share images from the competition in a future blogpost and on social media. Entrants who don’t want their images to be used are asked to notify the Bristol Doctoral College.

Note: although we thought this was an original idea, we must credit the University of Glasgow’s PGR Service, who got there before us. Read their PGR Pets and self-care blogpost.

Prizes, perspectives and popped balloons — Laura’s Research without Borders story

  • Laura Fox holding a scientific model
    Laura Fox's Research without Borders stall was entitled 'Nano: Nice or Nuisance?'.

Dr. Laura Fox, who recently completed her PhD at the University of Bristol, is a Development Scientist/ KTP Associate in the Physics department at the University of Manchester. In May 2019, when she was still a postgraduate researcher (PGR), she won the ‘Best-Communicated Exhibit’ prize at the 2019 Research without Borders showcase exhibition.

Below, she reflects on the festival — and why getting involved was such a positive experience for her.

I took part in Research without Borders (RwB) in the final year of my PhD (2019), while I was writing my thesis. I decided to take part mostly because I had gotten fed up with the daily slog of writing and sitting at my desk for weeks on end. Taking part in the festival let me have fun with my research again and view my work from a new perspective.

Getting out of the writing bubble

Coming to the end of a research degree sometimes feels like you don’t have time for anything else. You can feel like you should live and breathe your research, which you probably have been doing for 3/4 years.

When you have been working on something for so long, it can definitely start to feel a bit stale towards the end. Taking myself out of the writing bubble to view my research from the eyes of the general public really helped me to squash that feeling. I really enjoyed putting some creativity into the stall design, making colourful and engaging posters, displays and demonstrations. Sparking a bit of joy back into my research again.

The BDC provided some really helpful sessions to help us plan a stall design, discussing what had worked well before and how best to communicate with a wide variety of people that would likely visit us on the day. From these sessions, I learnt the importance of keeping it simple and how much people love to be quizzed!

Sharing research with diverse audiences

I had a bit of set-up to do on the day, as I had decided to make a display out of balloons to represent a cell membrane. Quite a few popped, as you can imagine.

I was ready to go as the doors opened with props and quizzes to describe what I had been doing for the last three years of my life! The first guests at my stall were a large group of retirees that took part in my quiz, ‘Nano: nice or nuisance?’. I was surprised at how much they already knew and they had some brilliant questions. This experience taught me never to assume someone’s knowledge! Within the group were people who used to be engineers and worked at NASA!

From then on, I had lots of visitors at the stall throughout the day — including four-year-olds, sixth-formers, teachers and industry professionals working in a huge variety of fields. Explaining my work to such a large range of people with different science capital was a challenge, but one I’d been prepared for.

A rewarding experience

The event was brought to a fantastic end by the final of the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, which I watched as part of the audience. At the prize-giving and drinks event afterwards, I won the prize for the ‘Best-Communicated Exhibit’ — and I got to use the prize money to attend a conference and give an oral presentation in Sofia, Bulgaria. I’m now happy to say I’ve since submitted my thesis and passed my viva!

Taking part in RwB gave me improved communication skills, the opportunity to network and, most importantly, renewed energy to finish writing up! It’s a fun day and a fantastic thing to put on your CV, so what are you waiting for? Apply!


Want to give it a try yourself? To apply for this year’s festival, just complete the Research without Borders application form before 9am on Thursday 6 February 2020.

If you’d like to get more information about the festival before you apply, the Bristol Doctoral College team will be holding two drop-in sessions in the PGR Hub (2nd floor, Senate House). Join us at:

  • 1.30–2.30pm on Wednesday 22 January
  • 1.30–2.30pm on Friday 24 January.

Five things we learned from the PGR panel at November’s Open Day

The panel at the PG Open Day's 'Perspectives from current postgraduate researchers' session: Angela Suriyakumaran, Blanche Plaquevent, Trang Tran and Arsham Nejad Kourki.
The panel at the PG Open Day’s ‘Perspectives from current postgraduate researchers’ session: Angela Suriyakumaran, Blanche Plaquevent, Trang Tran and Arsham Nejad Kourki.

As part of the University’s Postgraduate Open Day on 20 November 2019, the Bristol Doctoral College brought together a panel of PGRs — from a variety of faculties and at different stages in their research degrees — and asked them to share perspectives with an audience of prospective postgraduate students.

The session may have been brief, but it provided plenty of insights into the PGR experience. So much so that we’ve decided to round up tips and advice that might be useful to a wider audience — such as our new and existing PGRs.

However, before we begin our list, we should introduce our panellists properly. The four PGRs who took part in the event were:

  • Arsham Nejad Kourki, PGR in the School of Biological Sciences
  • Blanche Plaquevent, PGR in the School of Humanities
  • Angela Suriyakumaran, PGR in the School of Civil, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering
  • Trang Tran, PGR in the School of Education

The session was chaired by Professor Robert Bickers, Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor (PGR).

And, without further ado, here are their words of wisdom. (Quotes are verbatim wherever possible, but have sometimes been shortened or edited for clarity.)

1. Support, encouragement and fresh perspectives are vital

Angela
“In terms of support, my supervisor has played a key part in that role. Because I have a background in Chemistry and now I’m moving over to Mechanical Engineering, he’s helped me a lot to fill in the holes — fill in my knowledge base, basically.

So he’s been very supportive in terms of giving me the tools to work with my PhD, as well as encouraging me to go and try other stuff, such as going and doing outreach, placement opportunities — so actually helping me gain other skill sets.

“You need that support for four years, to be able to have someone there and some people there to count on — and to be able to say ‘you’re on the right track’ or ‘you’re not on the right track’, ‘maybe you’ve thought about this?’ and ‘maybe try other things’ as well.”

Arsham
“Things you might be facing at the moment, a lot of postgraduates experience. It happens to everyone.

“Other postgraduates, especially ones in the years above you, as well as staff members, are a very good source of support.”

2. Working together can help create a sense of community

Blanche
“I’ve found a very strong feeling of community among my peers. I think I wasn’t really expecting that, as I was doing a PhD in History. So I thought: ‘it’s probably even more solitary than any other kind of PhD, because you don’t work in a lab, you don’t need to necessarily all be in the same place of work.’

But actually, there’s been space provided for Arts and Humanities [PGRs]. It’s been a bit changing, but when there is this kind of space, connections get created very quickly and it really makes you feel supported. And I think it has enabled me to treat my PhD as an actual job — where I go every day, and go into a building and work. And that’s not really what I was expecting.”

3. Listening and presenting can help you see the big picture

Trang
“Get on to any reading group or any presentations that enable you to listen to other people’s work or present your own. Because one thing that happens in a PhD is that you lose your confidence a lot. Because you want it to be perfect, and when you’re with it in your head everything will go wrong compared to what you had in mind.

“So you really want to present where you are at the moment so that everyone else in your community will be able to say ‘oh, this is great — but this is how it could get better’.

“You also want to get on to those groups so that you can hear, right at the beginning, what other people’s work is about — so you can then say ‘OK, there’s a bigger picture. I have re-calibrated what my work should look like’.

4. Teaching can enhance your skills

Angela
“Teaching comes in very different forms. For example, I’m teaching in labs rather than going and helping with the workshops and stuff like that. And you gain a lot of skill sets from doing the teaching. You’re mentoring students, you’re helping them solve problems, etc.

“[They’re] quite good skill sets to build on — and for your future career path as well.”

5. Your research project will evolve — and that’s fine

Arsham
“Don’t worry too much about the specifics of your project — even by the end of your first year.

“As long as you have an idea what it’s roughly going to be about, and as long as your supervisor is on board with that, you can generally make it happen.

Because a lot of it will change. Projects evolve.”

Soaks, strolls and stretches — how Bristol PGRs take well-earned breaks

A rubber duck floating in bathwater

How did you mark this year’s Self-Care Week (18–24 November)?

As well as holding relaxing events and activities in the PGR Hub, we used the occasion to ask Bristol’s postgraduate researchers a simple question: how do you look after yourself?

We received a range of insights into how you take breaks — from stretching to strolling to socialising — but the clear theme that emerged was the importance of giving yourself time to relax and wind down. And, if you’re keen to cut down on your screen time, bathtime can make for a perfect phone-free zone. (Bubbles and browsing don’t really mix, especially if your handset isn’t waterproof.🛀📱😧)

So, without further ado, here’s what helps you unwind, de-stress and step away from your research.

Sabina
For me the best way to relax is yoga! I go to a weekly yoga session, and it’s heaven! It’s where I can be me, I am not a mum, or a daughter or a teaching assistant. I am able to forget about the outside world! Yoga forever!

Natalie
I leave my office every day and go for a thirty minute walk. It always helps me to relax though it’s a bit less fun in this weather. 🌧

Sandra
Got to say clean fresh bedding. Having to be clean getting in and reading or listening to a book.

Joan
Getting into a freshly made bed after a hot bath is the absolute definition of heaven. I’ve also become very reliant on starting the day with a cup of coffee and ‘morning pages‘. Getting all my thoughts out at the beginning of the day sorts me right out.

Caitlin
I second Joan’s comment about baths! I find it’s really hard to keep away from my phone, but I’m always afraid that I might drop it into the bath, so having a bath becomes, of necessity, a phone-free zone! That makes it a great chance to get some quality time with a (non-work related) and keeps me blue-light free, which is really important for sleep hygiene.

I realise sleep hygiene sounds made up, but when I’m anxious I often suffer from badly disturbed sleep and following a sleep hygiene routine works (a bit). Whether that’s just because I’m doing any routine or because the specific “sleep hygiene” stuff actually works, I can’t say.

Leone
I have a nice hot bath.

Sarah
Ensuring I give myself a good amount of time to wind down in the evening before bed. Watch TV/read/have a bath — strictly no work!

Brittany
Talking and having a laugh with all of my doctorate course mates! We are all in the same boat and if it wasn’t for them I don’t know what I’d do!

Building skills at a start-up hub — Henry’s placement story

One of Unit DX's engineering labsThe Bristol Industrial PhD Placement Fund is an EPSRC-funded scheme which pairs doctoral researchers with relevant industrial partners — funding placements in sectors ranging from start-ups to larger companies, government bodies and policy organisations.

In August 2019, doctoral researcher Henry Stennett joined Unit DX, central Bristol’s deep tech incubator, for a three-month placement. Henry shares his experiences below.

Why an industrial placement?

I was keen to get more science communication experience for my CV alongside my research work, so I dropped into a Q&A session about industrial placements run by the Bristol Doctoral College (BDC) at the PGR Hub.

A couple of weeks later, I took part in a ‘speed networking event’ which was a chance to meet companies offering placements. There weren’t many companies offering what I was looking for, but Aby Sankaran (BDC Industrial PhD Programme Officer) did a great job of ferreting out opportunities for me.

She got in touch with Adam, head of marketing at Unit DX. Unit DX is a deep tech incubator in central Bristol. They help science start-ups to grow, providing lab and office space, investment and mentoring.

Why science communication?

During the training period of my CDT course, we were encouraged to reflect on the relationships between science and society. I became interested in science outreach for a few reasons:

  • Synthetic biology is a touchy subject: it raises concerns that scientists are ‘playing God’ or profiteering, some of which are definitely valid.
  • We’re living through a crisis of trust: polling shows that people don’t trust institutions, experts, or even facts.
  • It’s a lot of fun: science communication lets you unleash your creativity, and embrace improvisation and performance.

Through volunteering and projects like the EU’s Horizon 2020 PERFORM, I learned that dialogues are more important than lectures and that there is no such thing as ‘the public’ — we communicate with diverse groups, and have to adapt our approach every time.

Why Unit DX?

I’d been vaguely aware of Unit DX for a while. My supervisor, Paul Race, and Martin Challand, a postdoc in his group, were spinning out their company Zentraxa when I joined. Harry Destecroix, Unit DX’s CEO, judged a competition during my PhD induction where we pitched synthetic biology start-up ideas. The best feedback he had for my group was that we were ‘realistic about the idea’s flaws’…

Adam reached out to me via email, but before I had a chance to reply, we met in person. Embarrassingly, I was rushing out of my flat with a tin of Stella, on my way to a Mos Def gig. Adam recognised me from my picture online, and asked if I was a PhD student — it turned out that we were next-door neighbours! I got back to him the next day and went down to Unit DX for a meeting.

I knew immediately that Unit DX would be a great fit. I’ve been allowed to independently develop my own projects and encouraged to get involved in anything that interests me.

What’s your role at Unit DX?

On a typical day, I’m working on one main project — researching and writing a piece of content and taking accompanying photographs. There’s a lot of ad hoc work too. Someone will appear at my elbow with a problem: a press release that needs writing or an event to publicise on social media.

My role involves talking to lots of people: in strategy meetings, during interviews for pieces I’m writing, or at graphic design workshops with Patrick Fallon, the lead designer. I also plan public engagement activities with Charlie Proctor, the outreach coordinator, and deliver them about once a week. Being involved in so many different projects keeps work interesting.

What have you learned from your placement?

The main thing I’ve learned is how to work quickly — often we get very little notice on the communications team! Adam has given me a book called ‘Writing Without Bullshit’ to read, which emphasises that your reader’s time is always more important than your own.

I’ve learned so much about writing that will help with my thesis: how to plan and structure a piece, and how to communicate ideas more effectively.

I’ve also developed my professional skills, and I hope to be more organised when I return to the lab, and better at working in teams.

I’d highly recommend applying for a placement. It’s a rare opportunity to try your hand at something that isn’t research and expand your skill set. And to be honest, it’s good to get out of the lab for a while!

Find out more about Henry’s research on his University of Bristol profile page and on Twitter.

Interested in enhancing your own experience and employability thorough a placement? Visit our Bristol Industrial PhD Placement Fund page to find about eligibility and how you can apply.

 

Breaks, books and board games — how we’re marking Self-Care Week 2019

A cartoon tortoise reading a book | 'Take it easy this Self-Care Week'

Self-Care Week 2019, which begins on Monday 18 November, is an opportunity for all of us to take stock, think about our day-to-day wellbeing — and to make sure we’re taking breaks!

To mark the occasion, the PGR Hub (second floor, Senate House) will be hosting free events that provide opportunities to relax, ‘raise your gaze’ from your research and connect with other PGRs.

Here’s what’ll be happening during the week.

Board Game Café
Tuesday 19 November, 4–7pm
Three hours of pizza and play in the PGR Hub. We’ll be breaking out some classic and contemporary games — including Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, Apples to Apples and Scrabble — and bringing in some free refreshments. Find out more on Facebook.

Silent Reading Party
Friday 22 November, 1–4pm
A chance to read and relax in the Hub’s chilled ‘literary lounge’ — and to enjoy some healthy snacks. We’ll have free bookplates, BDC bookmarks and books of all genres (although you’re welcome to bring your own). Find out more on Facebook.

Competition

We’ll also be marking the occasion by asking for your self-care tips — and collating them for a BDC blogpost.

Whether it’s a technique that helps you to relax or an activity that gives you a break from your research, you can share your nuggets of wellbeing wisdom using one of the channels listed below. We’ll pick a tip at random at 5pm on Monday 25 November, and its author will win 20 Bristol Pounds.

You can submit your tip:

  • as a comment on one of the Bristol Doctoral College’s #selfcareweek Facebook posts
  • as a tweet with the #selfcareweek and #BristolPGRs hashtags
  • as an Instagram post with the #selfcareweek and #BristolPGRs hashtags
  • in an email to doctoral-college@bristol.ac.uk
  • (from Monday 18 November) by adding to our ‘timeout tips tree’ in the PGR Hub.

Terms and conditions

  • The competition is open to all current postgraduate research students at the University of Bristol.
  • The closing date for entries is 5pm on Monday 25 November 2019.
  • The winner will receive 20 Bristol pounds.
  • The winner will be selected at random.
  • Multiple entries are permitted.