Research without Borders 2020 Virtual Showcase: online competition

Research without Borders 2020

We are inviting postgraduate research students to share the story of their research in one image for the chance to win a prize in our online competition. 

Whether you get creative with paper, pens and glue, draw us a picture or use items found in your kitchen, your challenge is to create and photograph something that tells the world about your research through one image. The more creative and unusual the better! 

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic we have had to cancel our annual Research without Borders 2020 festival of postgraduate research, which was due to take place in venues around Bristol in May 2020.  We hope that by holding this online competition, our wonderful community of postgraduate researchers have the chance to share their fascinating research with the wider world in a different way.  

The challenge 

How can you bring your research to life through an image? We invite you to submit an image that you think helps share the story of your research, with a short, accessible description. Here’s a few ideas of how to participate: 

  • Get crafty: We know you can’t get to shops to buy special craft supplies. Instead, we encourage you to get creative with what you have around you at home – pens, paper, glue or tape could be used to create a model of your work. 
  • Grab some objects from around the house: What items can help tell the story of your research? This could be something literal or a more abstract interpretation. For example, perhaps a colander represents a molecular structure, some fruit and veg could stand in for your research participants or you could create a costume to reflect the period in history you are researching using bits and pieces from around the house. 
  • Got some kids’ toys lying around? Perhaps you have some Lego that you can use to recreate your work? 
  • Dig out some existing photos or visuals: You can also use existing images of you working on your research project — e.g. a photo of you in the lab or on a field trip — although we would encourage you to think of imaginative ways that you can combine or adapt these images.

All entries will be featured on our Bristol Doctoral College social media channels. 

How to enter 

The competition will run between 9am on Monday 11th May and midnight on Sunday 24th May. All entries will be collated and featured in an online gallery the following week.  

To take part, please share your image, a title and a short description (up to 80 words) that explains how this image illustrates your research and why it is important. Please don’t use technical jargon if possible, instead think how you could explain what you do to a friend outside of academic or a member of the public.  

Ways to share: 

Judging 

Submissions will be judged by a panel of staff from the BDC, Public Engagement and Communications teams (to be confirmed), on the following criteria: 

  • Overall, how engaging is the entryDoes it clearly communicate the relevance of the research to the public? 
  • How visually effective is the image? Does it make viewers want to know more about the research? 
  • How effective, clear and accessible is the description? We are looking for a clear description using non-technical English which grips the reader and highlights the relevance of the research. 

Prizes 

  • First prize: £50 Netflix or Spotify voucher 
  • Runner up: £20 Netflix or Spotify voucher 

Example entries

Conny Lippert - RWB online entry
Gothic Topographies: New England and other Spaces in the Work of H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. In the gothic genre, the past tends to encroach on the present, and, harking back to the country’s history, H. P. Lovecraft’s and Stephen King’s fiction engages with wider American societal anxieties via their own geographical roots in New England. This research shows how their gothic topographies provide the setting for crises of identity and authenticity, feelings of guilt, and the fear of transgression.
[Research by Conny Lippert]
Elizabeth Mamali - RWB entry
How do same-sex couples engage with wedding rituals that are grounded in heterosexual meanings and traditions? This project looks at the motivations behind same-sex couples’ decisions to replicate, appropriate or entirely reject well-established wedding rituals that are underpinned by the heterosexual norm: the belief that people fall in two complementary genders (female and male) with natural roles in life. The research aim to challenge stereotypes and simplistic assumptions that people make about same-sex relationships, gender identity and sexuality. [Research by Elizabeth Mamali and Lorna Stevens]

See also some examples on Twitter:

Terms and conditions

  • You must be a current postgraduate research student at the University of Bristol. 
  • The competition is open until on midnight on Sunday 24th May 2020. 
  • Entries to the competition must present work conducted as part of your research degree.
  • Photos can be taken on any device and can be colour, black and white.
  • By entering, you give the Bristol Doctoral College permission to feature the photo on their website and social media channels.
  • We will assume that all submissions have the permissions of anyone featured in the photo (this is the responsibility of the applicant).
  • Added 13 May: You must have copyright to reproduce your image and have created it yourself. You also need to have permission to use and edit any stock imagery that forms part of your submission (for example a photograph taken by a third party which you may have edited). If you are unsure about permissions, please contact research-without-borders@bristol.ac.uk.

Any questions? 

Contact us at research-without-borders@bristol.ac.uk. 

7 tips for creating a successful online presentation

If you’re taking part in a communication contest like Three Minute Thesis (3MT) — or even just sharing your research with an audience of non-specialists — how can you ensure that your presentation is accessible and engaging? And how can you adapt your approach for virtual environments?

Dr Elizabeth Mamali, Postgraduate Researcher Development Officer in the Bristol Doctoral College, shares her top tips in a post that originally formed part of the BDC’s training for the University’s 2020 3MT competition.

1. Your voice is your greatest strength use it effectively

Your voice is a powerful tool in every presentation, but in a virtual environment in particular it becomes the most important part of your delivery.

Unlike face-to-face presentations, where stage presence can be an effective way of capturing your audience’s attention, in virtual presentations it is your volume, pace and pitch that are more likely to score you points for the ‘Engagement and Communication’ category of 3MT’s judging criteria.

Use volume to emphasise important parts. Quicken your pace to convey enthusiasm or urgency, and slow your pace when you introduce a new point.

Public speaking anxiety (and a burning desire to convey as much as possible about your research!) tends to make presenters talk too fast for the audience to absorb the information conveyed. Pay attention to your speech rate, a simple metric for how many words you speak per minute (wpm), and avoid going above the conversational speed of 120-150 wpm.

Lastly, avoid “ums” and instead pause. Strategic pauses prompt your audience to reflect on what you just said and enable them to follow what comes next. Used in the right way, a pause can have the same dramatic effect as a very loud noise.

2. Consider your language

You will be addressing a non-specialist audience, so opt for language that is neither subject-specific, nor replicating stilted conventions loved by academics all over the world such as Zombie nouns.

Language highbrow-ism *pun intended* has no place in the 3MT. As this excellent example of science communication demonstrates, it is possible to be technically accurate and accessible at the same time.

It is of course sometimes necessary and even interesting to use jargon in your presentation, but if you choose to do so you should devote time to explain the concept and why the audience should care. You may also set yourself a challenge: try to ensure that your three-minute talk is conducted within the 10,000 most-used words, which is not as easy as it sounds! Remember that language accessibility is part of the ‘Comprehension and Content’ marking category of the competition.

Last but not least, keep your sentences in active voice as this is more suitable for the spoken word and contributes towards reducing your wpm count.

3. Before you compete… warm-up!

Warming up before physical exercise is meant to prevent injuries and make the main workout more effective.

Warming up before your presentation has the same effect. If public speaking makes you anxious and you dread those minutes before you go on the stage (virtual or otherwise), one simple exercise to take you out of your misery is power posing.

Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School, argues that posing for two minutes in stances associated with confidence and power lifted chest, arms high up or propped on the hips and head held up high —  before you give a talk produces sufficient physiological differences in your body (increases in testosterone and reduction in the stress related cortisol hormone) to improve your performance. You can also try voice warm-up exercises to get your vocal cords rolling.

4. Don’t throw jelly at people

It is a given that during the 3MT you will need to communicate the significance and purpose of your research, and this will be assessed by judges under the ‘Comprehension and Content’ category.

How to go about communicating that is not straightforward, though and researchers do have a tendency of explaining things in a way that doesn’t necessarily correspond to how the audience wants to hear them.

Communications specialist Andy Bounds identifies the practice of saying too many irrelevant stuff as a common barren communication tactic, equivalent to “throwing jelly” at people and hoping that something will stick.

Instead of trying to convey every piece of detail about your project, focus on the bigger picture of why we should care. The Thesis Whisperer, Inger Mewburn, refers to this as the helicopter view of your work: how could your research change the way we feel/think/act in the future? What could it help us create or build? It may be that your research only makes a small contribution towards some bigger change that might occur one day, but that doesn’t mean you should shy away from explaining that connection and using it to elevate your pitch.

5. You only get a single visual aid get it right

The 3MT only permits you a single slide as visual aid, one with no transitions, animation or sound. The slide itself is part of what you will be judged upon under the ‘Engagement and Communication’ criterion, so it is important that you make it intrinsic to the presentation. Your visual aid doesn’t have to be complicated to be impactful.

No one demonstrates this better than Rosanna Stevens, the 3MT winner of the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences final 2014, who used an empty white slide to illustrate “white” ways of doing things that white people fail to recognise as such. What this example teaches us is that whatever is in your slide should serve a purpose. For example, it might be that your visual explains something about your research to participants that your words can’t, help you explain the story of your project through a metaphor, or induce some humour in your presentation.

6. Stage your virtual presence (before the presentation)

Stage presence can be as important as content in face-to-face presentations and the 3MT is no exception. This is another aspect that will gain you points towards the ‘Engagement and Communication’ category.

But how do you create impact when your stage is your kitchen and you are no more than a 16-inch video on someone’s screen?

For starters, consider your surroundings. A quiet room (carpeted is ideal as you will avoid echoey sound!) and a neutral background will help the audience to focus on you only. If the latter isn’t possible, just make sure your space is tidy.

You should also take care with where you place your streaming device. Use boxes or books if needed so that your webcam is at eye level, if you are presenting seated, or high enough if you are presenting standing.

The last element of staging is the lightning. If it isn’t possible to use a room that receives good natural light then consider having a desk lamp directed towards you.

7. Stage your virtual presence (during your presentation)

There are also things that you can do during your presentation to improve your stage presence.

While it is counter-intuitive not to look at your video image while talking, to create impact you should look directly into your web-camera. This will make your audience feel like you are addressing and looking at them directly.

Another aspect to consider during your presentation is you hand movements. Whether you are sitting, or standing, don’t be afraid to use your hands as you would in a face to face presentation. Research suggests that presentations where hands do some of the talking are far more popular than those featuring idle hands.


Want to find out more about the University’s 3MT competition? Visit the Bristol Doctoral College’s Three Minute Thesis page.

PGR pastimes during lockdown — a BDC competition

#PGRpastimes during lockdown' | Nintendo Switch controllers; a book, a guitar; wool and knitting needles; jigsaw pieces; a person painting

For our latest competition, we’re asking PGRs a question: what’s the hobby or a creative outlet that’s been helping you to cope with the lockdown?

Whether it’s yoga, knitting or Animal Crossing: New Horizons, we want to hear about the activities and diversions that have been lifting your spirits during the COVID-19 situation. And taking part in our competition isn’t just a chance to win a prize (more on that below) — it’s also an opportunity to share your tips and insights with the whole PGR community.

How to enter the competition

To enter, just take a photo that illustrates a lockdown pastime and share it in one of the following ways:

  • as a comment on one of the Bristol Doctoral College’s #PGRpastimes Facebook posts
  • as a tweet with the #PGRpastimes hashtag
  • as an Instagram post with the #PGRpastimes hashtag
  • in an email to doctoral-college@bristol.ac.uk.

The prizes

We’ll pick three winners at random, and each PGR will receive a £20 Spotify or Netflix gift card. (The winners will be able to choose which gift card they’d like.)

Terms and conditions

  • The competition is open to current research students at the University of Bristol.
  • The closing date for entries is 11.59pm on Sunday 10 May 2020.
  • The winners will be chosen at random. As we’ll choose a winning individual rather than a winning entry, please note that submitting multiple photographs will not increase your chances of being selected.
  • 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.
  • This competition is not held in partnership with either Netflix or Spotify.

 

7 steps for planning a successful live webinar

A virtual chat involving four cartoon PGRs

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.”