Where has your research taken you this summer?

A pinboard with the caption: Tell us about your #PGRtrek
Featured images: Lake Superior by Andrea Iannelli; Honolulu by Fiona Belbin; Melbourne by Kacper Sokol; Montmorency Falls by Lin Ma; Patagonia by Sarah Tingey.

We know that the summer months can be busy for Bristol’s postgraduate researchers, and that many of you use the time to travel overseas for conferences, symposia, field work, and so on.

We thought it’d be fun, then, to launch a photo challenge with a travel twist.

Yes, our #PGRtrek competition is back for 2018 — and, this time around, the postgraduate researcher who’s been to the farthest-flung location (for ‘business’ reasons rather than pleasure) will win a £50 contribution towards the cost of any research-related travel. We’ll also be offering another £50 contribution to a random draw from all other entrants to the challenge.

To enter our competition — and see your pin on our map — just share a snap from your travels in one of the following ways:

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

We’ll be sharing a #PGRtrek gallery on the blog later in the year, so please let us know if you don’t want your picture to be featured.

The closing date for the competition is noon on Friday 31 August. Good luck — and happy snapping!

Terms and conditions

The competition is open to current postgraduate research students at the University of Bristol.

The closing date for entries is 12pm on Friday 31 August 2018.

The prize is £50 towards the cost of any research-related travel.

The prize will be awarded via a transfer of funds or a reimbursement of expenses.

The prize will be awarded to the entrant whose research-related activity was the furthest Bristol. The activity in question must have taken place between 1 June and 31 August 2018.

Unless entrants indicate otherwise, images submitted during the competition will be featured on the Bristol Doctoral College blog.

Picture this — a gallery of your PGR pastimes

Last month, as part of our ‘Life Beyond the PhD’ competition, we asked Bristol’s postgraduate researchers to tell us about their hobbies. And, once again, our community didn’t disappoint …

The striking ‘PGR pastimes’ pictures we received showcased the broad range of activities that researchers use to take a break — from crochet to climbing, and from engine reconstruction to embroidery.

Below are a selection of the images that you shared with us, grouped into (slightly rough) categories. We hope you enjoy skimming through them as much as we did.

The Great Outdoors

Taking a break by climbing, exploring — or growing your own veg.🌶️

 

Making and mending

The relaxing effects of stitching, building, puzzling — or fixing a pianola.

My doctoral pastime… #PGRpastime #PGRpastimes

A post shared by carolinagordillo (@carolinagordillo) on

Sewing by Naomi Clarke
‘I am a Social Work PhD candidate and my downtime/interests outside of my PhD is sewing! I get lost in the rhythmic, repetitive motion of hand stitch which provides an almost meditative experience as I fall into a rhythmic pattern which appeals to so many senses (audio, visual, tactile). It enables me to create a tangible beautiful object to show for my time and effort.’ Naomi Clarke

 

A pianola in the middle of restoration
‘[This is a] picture of the 1923 pianola which I am restoring at the moment. This was left to my family by my Great Grandmother around ten years ago, but unfortunately it was in a desperate state … So I decided to refurbish it after the last of my masters exams had finished last year, and turn it into the cherished family heirloom it deserves to be. Still a long way to go on it though 🙂 Much more woodwork and fun to be had.’ Mark Graham

Music and motion

Hobbies that are anything but … hum-drum.


Going for a spin (and flying through the sky)

The power of hitting the road, making waves or taking flight.

Skydiving image by Maneera Aljaber
A spectacular skydiving image by Maneera Aljaber

Seerat Kaur with her bicycle
Seerat Kaur with her cycle
Lingfeng Ge driving a boat
‘I love boat trips. And sometimes I drive the boat myself. This photo was taken when I was driving a leisure boat on River Avon in Bristol.’ Lingfeng Ge

How do you take a break?

With a community of over 3,000 postgraduate researchers, this selection is obviously just scratching the surface.

And, although the competition is over, we’d love to see more of your snaps — so please feel free to share them with us on Twitter and Instagram using #PGRpastimes.

What’s your PGR pastime?

Our latest competition gives Bristol research students the chance to win a free trip to the ‘Life Beyond the PhD’ conference — just for sharing a photo of their hobby.

The prize

The competition winner will receive a free place at this year’s ‘Life Beyond the PhD’ conference, which will be held from 13 to 17 August. Travel costs will also be covered.

Held at Cumberland Lodge, in the heart of Windsor Great Park, ‘Life Beyond the PhD’ is an annual celebration of postgraduate research culture in the UK.

The conference invites PhD students and early career researchers to share their experiences, take part in training, and explore the value of doctoral research in an inclusive and supportive environment.

How to enter the competition

To enter, just take a photo that illustrates one of your hobbies 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 #PGRpastime or #PGRpastimes hashtag
  • as an Instagram post with the #PGRpastime or #PGRpastimes hashtag
  • in an email to doctoral-college@bristol.ac.uk.

Terms and conditions

The competition is open to current research students at the University of Bristol.

The closing date for entries is 5pm on Monday 25 June 2018.

The winner will be chosen at random. [Clarification, posted 25/6/18: As we will choose a winning individual rather than a winning entry, please note that submitting multiple photographs will not increase your chances of being selected.]

The winner must confirm that they accept the prize by 12pm on Wednesday 27 June 2018. If they are unable to do so, and alternative winner will be chosen at random.

Travel costs will be covered either through a transfer of funds or a reimbursement of expenses.

Entrants will be asked if their images can be used in a future Bristol Doctoral College blogpost.

 

Presenting posters to parliamentarians — Kate’s ‘STEM for Britain’ story

Kate Oliver at the STEM for Britain event
Kate Oliver at the STEM for Britain event [Photo: STEM for Britain]
Kate Oliver, a PhD student from the School of Physics, shares a first-hand account of her visit to the UK Parliament for the STEM for Britain exhibition.

On the 12th of March I went to Parliament, for the second time in my life, this time accompanied by a rolled up piece of A1 paper. I was going to ‘the major event bringing early career researchers and parliamentarians together’, STEM for Britain*.

This poster session, now in its 21st year following its founding by Eric Wharton MP, invites around 50 exhibitors in each of Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Engineering and Biological sciences to explain their work to the employees of Parliament and a panel of expert judges. Five of us from Bristol had been selected to present — around a third of applications are successful — all in different categories, and we had been preparing our two-minute pitches for a few weeks, with the help of our supervisors, university support staff, and patient friends.

A particular challenge of this event is that it is judged by scientists — who selected the posters that made it to the event, and decided who would receive each of the three gongs available per subject — but targeted at MPs and policymakers. Therefore, we needed to show our technical chops, but put the applications and relevance or our work front and centre for people who have slightly wider horizons.

All the posters and presenters took a very different route to achieving this goal, and there was an amazing diversity of work and approaches on show. Sadly my poster didn’t pique the attention of the judges much, but I did manage to buttonhole Professor Dame Julia Higgins, President of the Institute of Physics, and chat to the MP for Glasgow North East, Paul Sweeney. We agreed that science had a great potential to improve human well-being, so now we just need to do that!

However, the University did well overall: Dr Celine Maistret, senior research associate in the School of Maths at Bristol, won the gold De Montfort medal for her work on the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture. I shall have to get her to explain what that is to me at a time when she is not surrounded by enthusiastic fans.

I only got a small glimpse of the corridors of power due to the rather tight security, but it was still good to feel involved in a small section of the machine that runs the country. Government can feel very opaque and jargon-rich — perhaps almost as much as our specialist subjects — but we need to interact with it for our findings to have maximum impact. I reckon any opportunity to share what we know and cross barriers is worth taking. Plus, I’ve now got an extremely well-honed pitch that I can fire off at anyone.

*Formerly known as SET for Britain — science, engineering and technology — but maths have successfully lobbied for inclusion. Fair enough, you can hardly define a set without them.

9 highlights from the Bristol Doctoral College’s busiest year yet

As 2017 draws to a close, we thought it would be fun to look back over a fast-paced twelve months and select (in no particular order, honest) nine highlights that reflect the sheer range of activity within the Bristol Doctoral College (BDC) team.

Of course, as our work is all about Bristol’s postgraduate researcher (PGR) community, we also want to know what your highlights have been.

Feel free to share them in the comments — or, better still, pop over to our Facebook page and add them to our competition post for a chance to win 10 Bristol pounds. (The competition will end at 5pm on Saturday 30 December 2017.)

1. Bringing research into the heart of Bristol


May’s Research without Borders wasn’t the first festival of postgraduate research coordinated by the BDC — but it was the biggest and best yet, showcasing the work of almost 100 postgraduate researchers through an evening discussion series, an afternoon showcase exhibition at Colston Hall and the finals of the prestigious Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition.

Afterwards, PGR Katiuska M Ferrer told us how event had helped her to make connections: “On a personal level, I had the opportunity to make friends with engineers, vets, and biologists — a crowd that, as a sociolinguist, I do not normally mingle with.”

Interested in taking part in the 2018 festival? Keep an eye on our Facebook page during January.

2. A warm welcome at the Wills Memorial

Welcoming new PGRs? We’ve got it all wrapped up.

OK, so November’s researcher inauguration event wasn’t just about the free scarves; it was also an opportunity to get over 300 new PGRs together, encourage them to explore connections between their chosen topics and give them a warm welcome them to Bristol’s vibrant researcher community.

But yes — the scarf-waving moment, prompted by BDC Director Dr Terry McMaster, is a 2017 highlight in itself. Thankfully, as you can see from the video above, we were in the right place to capture it for posterity.

3. Sharing your stories


Bristol has an amazingly vibrant researcher community — and, throughout the year, we’ve had the privilege of being able share some of your stories on Facebook, Twitter and the BDC blog.

The video above — Astronauts star Tim Gregory reflecting on his final frontier — was just one of the PGR profiles that we posted during 2017. You can watch our other interviews, including Alfie Wearn on his well-earned place in the UK Three Minute Thesis final and bio-archaeologist Cat Jarman on her BBC Four appearance, on our Facebook page.

Also, on this very blog, you can read 8 things we learned from our PGR panel at November’s PG Open Day.

4. A dual-doctoral deal

The Macquarie University delegation at the University of Bristol in September 2017
September saw the UoB make a landmark agreement with Macquarie University — one of Australia’s top universities — to create 25 fully-funded dual doctorates over the next five years.

What’s so significant about this new Bristol-Macquarie Cotutelle programme? For one thing, it’ll offer PGRs access to state-of-the-art facilities at two universities renowned for their research excellence — and enable them to receive a PhD from both. It’ll also act as a model for future collaborations with institutions around the world.

The BDC conceived and co-managed the project with Macquarie University, so we’ll be sharing much more about it during 2018. Look out for details!

5. A zinger of a session with Inger

Dr. Inger Mewburn
In December, we were lucky enough to welcome the renowned Thesis Whisperer herself, as Inger Mewburn visited Bristol to hold a special ‘What Examiners Really Want’ seminar with PGRs.

For Sabrina Fairchild, the BDC’s PG Researcher Development Adviser, helping to coordinate the seminar was her professional highlight of the year. As she noted afterwards: ‘de-mystifying the viva is crucial to decreasing the anxiety of research students and Inger did that with Star Wars-themed flair.’

Interested in reading Inger’s slides? May the course be with you.

6. A block-busting Boot Camp

Multi-coloured blocks

All of the courses and resources in the BDC-curated Personal and Professional Development programme are designed to be useful to Bristol’s PGRs — so what was it that made this session a particular highlight?

For one thing, it was the first time we had actually run a Thesis Boot Camp. For the BDC’s Paul Spencer and Anja Dalton, this meant creating an environment where PGRs could spend an entire weekend writing — without even having to think about making their own meals — and encouraging them to put aside perfectionism so they could push ahead with that all-important first draft.

Did it help the PGRs, though? Well, the tweets about ‘#bdctbc’ were certainly encouraging.


Interested in taking part in our next Thesis Boot Camp on 23–25 February? Visit the BDC website to submit your application.

7. Meeting and mingling over mince pies

China Scholarship Council PhD scholarship holders with Pro Vice-Chancellor Prof Nishan Canagarajah and BDC Director Dr Terry McMaster

The special celebration that we held for the current group of China Scholarship Council PhD scholarship holders was very recent — literally in the last week — but it was such a fine, festive occasion that it easily makes our list of 2017 highlights.

Although the mince pies and mulled wine were fantastic, the real treat was the positive feedback that we got about UoB, the city and the scheme itself. As one PGR put it: “I hope more students will come to Bristol and enjoy their life as a researcher as much as me.”

Interested in finding out more about the China Scholarship Council-University of Bristol Joint PhD Scholarship Scheme? Pop over to the CSC-UoB page.

8. A pilot programme for industrial-strength skills

'Courage, creativity, collaboration' caption at the Research without Borders festival

Did you know that we launched a pilot Industrial PhD Professional Development Programme in 2017

If you’re a doctoral researcher who’s funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Doctoral Training Partnership, you’ll be able to build your skills and expand your future career options by signing up for entrepreneurial training, industry placements, a summer school — and, as we announced a few weeks ago, a skills development workshop on 23 January.

The pilot programme came about after the EPSRC awarded the UoB funding to support new and current PhD studentships in science and engineering (as part of the National Productivity Investment Fund).

Much more news will follow in 2018, so keep an eye on our Skills for industry page if you want to know more.

9. And finally… building a bigger and better BDC

The Bristol Doctral College team at November's researcher inauguration
It’s perhaps more of a theme than a specific highlight — but, for the BDC, 2017 was all about expansion.

A huge part of our work centres on enhancing the environment for our PGRs, and on that front we welcomed Paul Spencer (PGR Environment Development Manager), Anja Dalton (PGR Development Officer, covering for Loriel Anderson), Sabrina Fairchild (PGR Development Adviser), Patrick Ashby (BDC Administrator) and Robert Doherty (Communications & Engagement Assistant).

The work that we do to support the growth of our PGR community is equally important, and new team members Kevin Higgins and Aby Sankaran joined the team during 2017 to lead on, respectively, the Global Bristol PhD Programme and the Industrial PhD Programme.

Of course, it would be remiss of us not to mention the esteemed colleagues who moved on this year — and who played a huge part in making the BDC what it is today. So thanks and best wishes to Bea Martinez Gonzalez and Charlotte Spires. (The much-missed Loriel Anderson will be back with us in summer 2018.)

8 things we learned from our PGR panel

As part of the University of Bristol’s fantastic Postgraduate Open Day on 22 November 2017, the Bristol Doctoral College brought together a panel of four PGRs — from a mixture of faculties and at different stages in the research degree experience — and asked them to share their insights and experiences with an audience of prospective postgraduate students.

Over the course of a stimulating half hour, chaired by BDC Director Terry McMaster, the panel reflected on how the PGR experience had changed them and offered some advice to others embarking on the research journey. The following is an edited transcript that stitches together some of the main points raised during the session.

But first, some introductions. The panellists were:

  • Sam Brooks, PhD candidate (Engineering)
  • Isabella Mandl, PhD candidate (Biological Sciences)
  • Jane Nebe, PhD candidate (Education)
  • Milo Rengel, MPhil candidate (Classics).

And, without further ado, here are their words of wisdom.

1. Even when you feel stressed out, you’re still picking up new skills

Isabella: “For me, researcher development basically means that you learn a set of new skills that you just didn’t have before starting your PhD. And you might not even notice that you’re learning them, because you’re stressed out or you feel inadequate — those are two totally normal things. But you are definitely going to learn a set of new skills that you didn’t have before. They could be research-based, you could get networking skills that you didn’t have before, you just get writing skills or talking skills.

“So if you end up with a research degree, you’ll end up with a unique set of skills that you’ll figure out that you got during that time. You might not notice it in the process of doing it — but, afterwards, you’ll be ‘oh, OK’.

“And I think that’s what ‘researcher development’ means for me: it’s basically gaining skills, gaining knowledge.”

2. Collaboration creates confidence

Jane: “One thing this PhD has taught me is the importance of collaboration, the importance of networking, the importance of engaging with people — because you cannot do it alone, you need people as much as they need you.

“It’s like acquiring skills to make you a better you; a better person than you were.

“So, I look at my journey over the last three years, and I see that I’m a different person, but in a good way. Not perfect, but in a good way. And there are things that I think that I could do today that I would not have been able to do three years ago.”

3. It’s good to re-learn old skills and break bad habits

Milo: “The other thing that I’ve found useful, even in just my short time here, is that you develop skills that you kind of already had but were maybe just a bit unsure about. So, particularly in terms of research, or in finding knowledge, using that knowledge, applying theories, all that sort of thing.

“I think the other thing is it helped me develop, because I became a little bit cocky and thought ‘yeah, I’m a great researcher, I’ll be fine’. It does take you down a peg — but definitely in a good way, because you unlearn the things that you kind of shouldn’t have learned before, or bad habits, and you re-learn them in a much more constructive way.”

4. Take opportunities to push yourself

Sam: “Like Jane said, the more you get involved, the more you push yourself to challenge yourself, the more you get out of it.

“It’d be easy to sit in your lab or your office and do research and not meet anyone — and go through your whole PhD doing that. And some people would do that, they’d be quite happy to do that.

“But I think you should to take the opportunities to push yourself, because they’re the ones that will help you develop and grow as a person or as a researcher — or just help you with life, basically.”

5. At the start, you won’t know everything you’re going to do

Jane: “Your proposal is supposed to give your supervisor a general idea of what you want to do. You could not know everything that you would do at that point, but it’s important that you have general idea of what you want to do.

“And along this journey, that proposal may change. For some that change may be quite big, for some it will be quite small — and then you have different degrees.

“What I’m trying to say is: just have general idea of what you want to do and understand what has been done around it before, and you’ll present a strong argument when you submit your proposal.”

6. Academics are there to help you

Milo: “I did apply with a particular research topic — and then, about two weeks before I’m supposed to start my course, completely changed it to something absolutely, completely different.

“It was an area that I’d never really looked at before, and I went to my proposed supervisor with this new topic that I was completely unfamiliar with, but he still looked at it and said ‘there’s a lot of promise here, we’ll develop the bits we need to, we’ll cut out what doesn’t need to be in here, but there’s a lot of promise’.

“And I think academics look very scary from the student perspective, but the more you kind of associate with them you realise that they’re there to help you and they want to help you, and so they will look at the ideas and they’ll try and guide you the way you want to go. So you have some autonomy as well, you can say ‘no, I want to do this thing’.”

7. Being challenged isn’t bad — and will help you grow

Sam: “When I was an undergraduate, I was quite successful. I got a first, I was doing quite well. I went to do a PhD and thought ‘oh, this is going to be easy, I’ll walk through this’. And there’s a lot of people who are the same level as you — or smarter. And you’re interacting with them a lot. And you do find times when your ideas will be challenged. A lot of the time you’ll be surprised how often you aren’t challenged. But if you are challenged, you will find that it’s not as bad as you think.

“I think some of the situations where I’ve grown the most are where — with my research, or papers I’ve published, or conferences — I’ve been questioned thoroughly about what I’ve done and had to justify it. And sometimes I can’t justify it 100%. But if you can justify it 80–90%, that’s still good. Especially in academia, you’re never going to be able to satisfy everyone.

“You have to satisfy yourself, I think, and that’s the important thing.”

8. Be open to new input — because research develops quickly

Isabella: “I think one of the main obstacles [for PGRs] is if you learn something differently and then you kind of hold on to that too much. And research develops quickly, so you might hold on to something that’s old, that’s outdated — but, because you’ve learned that and you feel like you’re in control of that, you hold on to it.

“So I think that’s one of the main obstacles, if you’re not open enough to input. Because you’re there to learn. You’re not there to know everything. You’re not there to end up with a PhD but say ‘oh, I could’ve got the PhD at week three because I know everything I know now’.

“You’re there to learn. You’re there to be taught, and to be guided. And I think that’s probably one of the great things, that you have to be open for it as well. Otherwise, you’ll probably run into some quite severe difficulties pretty soon.”

Researcher reflections — how working with young offenders changed me

This guest blogpost is a personal reflection by Adeela ahmed Shafi, a PhD candidate in the School of Education. Adeela is also Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Gloucestershire and Vice-Chair of the Avon & Somerset Police Powers Scrutiny Panel.

If you’re a researcher, there’s plenty of literature available on how to be ethical; how to reflect and acknowledge your presence in research, in terms of research design, data collection, analysis and indeed the claims made.

However, there’s not much out there on how the research process actually impacts on the researcher.

My research contributes to the intense political debate on youth justice by exploring the nature of disengagement in young offenders in a secure custodial setting and how this group can be re-engaged.

What I would like to do here, though, is talk about the challenges — methodological, ethical and personal — that I needed to navigate in order to get to the findings.

Challenges, dilemmas and adapting your approach

For me, there were many personal and methodological challenges in working with incarcerated young offenders.

For example, I had prepared all manner of interview aids to help me elicit data from my participants — all derived from the literature in terms of the best way to interview children and vulnerable participants. However, I ultimately found that these were all quite superfluous and in themselves made many assumptions about my participants.

In the end, then, I found I had to ditch these and just use myself as the main resource. This involved having to reveal some of my own vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and in doing so redress the power imbalance between myself as a researcher and the incarcerated participants, who had very little power or autonomy. I hadn’t actually planned that in my data collection prep work!

Having got myself in a position where my participants were willing to trust me and open up, I felt myself amidst an array of ethical challenges and dilemmas. Not least of these was that I was now in a privileged but weighty position of responsibility, with a duty to tell the story of a ‘doubly vulnerable’ group who had little voice in a society that had already passed judgement on them.

Retaining and representing what’s been shared

Because of this sense of responsibility, I felt that the handling of the data had to avoid fracturing the essence of what had been shared. I found my memory, emotions and the field notes of each interview were essential in this, because I could recall the additional aspects of the interview not recorded in transcriptions to enter the analysis — in particular, the body language and the atmosphere in the room during the interviews. Even now as I write this, I find myself transported back, and I remember how riveted I felt when listening to them.

My experiences also reinforced the criticality of the researcher in the generation of data, and in ensuring that this data was represented in a way that captured the richness of it. I didn’t see it as data ‘waiting to be gathered’, because my participants indicated they’d never had the space to give thought to their educational experiences in the way that engagement with the research had enabled them.

In short, working with these young people meant I was able to get a glimpse of their potential.

But I feel guilty.

In participating in the research, I was showing these vulnerable participants what could be — but what was not to be. Being unable to facilitate the potential I witnessed beyond the scope of my research stung.

I realised then that research can change you.

Your wellbeing wisdom — self-care tips for PGRs, by PGRs

To mark self-care week, an annual event that encourages people to manage their day-to-day wellbeing, we asked Bristol’s PGRs what helps them unwind, de-stress and forget about their research.

The ‘top tips’ we received were varied — from dancing to dog-walking — but being able to take a break without feeling guilty was a common thread, as was scheduling time off.

Also: Netflix. (Well, who doesn’t love a box-set binge?)

As Gwen from the School of Veterinary Sciences put it in her thoughtful reply: ‘It doesn’t matter what you do, the important thing is to switch off entirely and not feel guilty!’

Wise words.

Your self-care tips

‘I sleep well. I eat well. I celebrate small victories.’
Jane, School of Education

‘Spending free time outside with animals. Dog walking or horse riding would be my choice. 🐶🐴☀’
Marta, School of Economics

‘I go outside, go for a run, walk, meet up with friends, dance, increase physical activity, eat healthy. Also, simply focusing on my breathing when I’m stressed helps me feel better.’
Lily, School for Policy Studies

‘I make sure I build in the time for myself into my schedule, that way I don’t feel guilty as I know I have the time for it! In terms of what I do it can vary from a Netflix binge to a nice long shower to baking… <3’
Sarah, SU

‘Promising myself one guilt-free hour a day to do something completely non-PhD related. Usually this is practising guitar, walking the dog or just having a nap. It doesn’t matter what you do, the important thing is to switch off entirely and not feel guilty!’
Gwen, School of Veterinary Sciences

‘Remind myself constantly that putting myself first is not selfish. Remember to be grateful for all the good things I have. Move slowly and take more rest than I think I need! Oh, and sometimes a nice G&T!’
Emma, School for Policy Studies

‘If you need a break — hours or days, take it. Burnout can lead to drop out, be kind to yourself and binge that Netflix show, take that trip. Then come back when you’re feeling refreshed and with fresh perspective.’
Tina, School of Arts

What would you add? Tell us in the comments or share your tips on Twitter or Instagram using #selfcareweek.

When you think all hope is gone during your PhD

This post by Paul Spencer, PGR Environment Development Manager at the Bristol Doctoral College, originally appeared on his Digital Doctorate blog.

It was January 22 and a little before 4.30am when the phone call came. It was my step mother ringing to tell me that my dad had died suddenly of a heart attack. At that moment my whole world collapsed.

This is a personal post that has surfaced some painful emotions for me (see below for how I’m dealing with that right now) but one that I want to write about because it’s an opportunity to highlight a couple of things about sticking at something when all seems lost.

That tenacity and persistence are crucially important qualities in succeeding during a doctorate, moreso than being super smart. It also brings home how pivotal the people around you are who offer support so I think it a story worth telling.

It is forefront in my mind now because I have been spending a lot of time in the last two weeks standing in front of hundreds of postgraduate researchers who are about to embark on their own doctoral journeys.

Why do a PhD?

As part of these welcome events I’ve been asking the question “why have you signed up to study for a doctorate?” I believe that connecting with the motivation for doing so is profoundly important when things aren’t going so well.

I’ve also been reflecting on what was driving me on, how key people around me helped in me at my lowest point and how all this has shaped my identity. What I have been totally unprepared for is how raw, painful and very real that the emotion of grief and loss feels to me right now as I recall that cold January night 17 years ago…

My motivation

It was the year 2000, the millennium celebrations were slowly ebbing away and I was in my third year as a PhD student studying how oral microorganisms contribute to bad breath.

I hadn’t planned it this way, I’d always wanted to emulate my dad and become a pathologist. He was my hero and I thought medicine was going to be my true calling. Rather unfortunately though I found it difficult as a teenager to work hard in school and, almost inevitably, I flunked my three science ‘A’ levels which all but ended any ambition to apply to medical school. So I had to find a different path.

Many teachers reckoned it was a shame because they thought I was bright and gifted in natural sciences but just unable to apply myself. I just wanted to prove to them that I could do it and most of all wanted my dad to see me graduate with a Doctor of Philosophy to my name.

I was truly devastated, my dad was 63 years old, had not long retired from being a pathologist and was using all of his experience in helping the bereaved by volunteering with The Samaritans at the time of his death. He would never get to see me in my floppy cap and gown at a PhD graduation. I was consumed with grief, a relationship I was in ended soon after and I had serious thoughts about quitting the PhD. In an instant, my main motivation and purpose was gone.

Key people

My supervisor was brilliant with me; he was understanding, listened with kindness and tried not to put too much pressure on me whilst the fog of grief slowly lifted. Close friends rallied round too to keep me company and just to be there.

And then a few months later I met someone who quickly became my rock [let’s call her Jessica to save any embarrassment]. Jessica was my soul mate, my best friend and a true love. She helped me see that I was doing this PhD for myself, that I could succeed, that she was walking beside me all the way. I don’t think I would have gotten through the incredibly tough last 18 months of the PhD without her. She featured heavily in the acknowledgements of my doctoral dissertation. I will be eternally grateful for her support, love, companionship and emotional connection in the time we were together.

Moving on

My PhD graduation was a bitter/sweet day, I was overwhelmed by the sense of achievement and pride yet dominated by the sense of mourning and loss. Sadly Jessica and I had parted ways; she was/is ten years my junior and we found ourselves at very different life stages post study. Letting go of someone so special so they could pursue their life dreams was really hard to accept.

But life moves on and we adapt, grow and find new purpose. I am in a very different place now, I have a young family of my own and a job that gives me the opportunity to do something I am truly passionate about. I guess this is why I feel uneasy at how much I am being affected by events in my distant past.

Making sense

At the top of this post I said that I had been unprepared for the intensity of the emotions, thoughts and feelings I have surfaced and this has unsettled me a great deal. My natural tendency is to internalise, to try and logically examine what is going on before finding some resolution to my conflict. However, this is really hard because these are things that I had thought were resolved and accepted long ago. So I have been taking a different approach and I want to share it in case it helps you too.

Changing the perspective when it all becomes too much

Many people have told me about the Headspace app, a way of learning about simple meditation techniques that helps to change our perspective to those thoughts and feelings that can make us feel anxious and upset. I think the analogy that has struck me most is the idea that these are like traffic whizzing by, blaring their horns and dominating our focus. But it doesn’t have to be this way… I have been trying to learn to sit back and just notice these thoughts, acknowledging them but then just letting them pass and returning to the present, the here and now. Andy Puddicombe explains that much better in this animation.

 

What I think is important to mention, is this meditation technique is good preventative practice at keeping our thoughts and feelings from dominating our present focus and not a solution in an acute crisis.

Advice to those who feel that all hope is gone

  1. Realise that you are not the only person to experience this, talk to your peers, friends, loved ones. It really makes a difference.
  2. Keep pushing! Persistence can and really does pay off.
  3. If you have encountered a significant life event and you don’t know how to deal with it, seek help from your local wellbeing service [this is the Bristol one but there will be similar set-ups in your own institution]
  4. Try not to be too hard on yourself, self-doubt and imposter syndrome affects pretty much everyone
  5. At some point with the writing, you will probably loathe the thesis. This is okay. The mindset you have to adopt is not when will it be finished, or perfect, no you have to get to the point of “That will do”.
  6. Take a look around you, see who else has got their doctorate and tell yourself, “if they can do it, then so can I”
Dr. David Spencer
Dr. David Spencer (1936 – 2000) R.I.P.

Is Ada Lovelace Day a paradox?

For Ada Lovelace Day, Dr Aby Sankaran of the Bristol Doctoral College reflects on the characteristics that have helped her as a PhD student, during her career as an engineer — and beyond.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of Women in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths & Medicine). It is held on the second Tuesday of October each year and this year I have been invited to write my very first blog about it by the Bristol Doctoral College!

The invitation is bittersweet; on the one hand I am pleased to have been asked to write about this topic, but on the other, I feel uncomfortable that in this day and age we still need such occasions to mark and highlight female accomplishments.

To me, celebrations like this are a paradox — they propel women forward and showcase their achievements but simultaneously highlight a society where women are not considered equal.

I also feel unqualified to write this blog as I don’t think of myself as an appropriate role model. But this is perhaps my mistake, not celebrating my own accomplishments or valuing my self-worth. I would be doing myself a disservice if I said my career was a product of serendipity, but in reality, it has come about as a result of feeding my curiosity.

I am therefore going to focus on certain key characteristics that have helped me along my career, and hope they will help the future generation of female (and male) researchers too.

Blood, sweat and PhDs

Being an Engineer and having done a technical PhD has meant that I was predominantly around male engineers, but I adapted to the circumstances. I enjoyed a supportive and nurturing environment (mostly) where I have learnt from my male counterparts. However, some women may find it necessary to see female role models as they provide inspiration and demonstrate that it is possible to overcome gender barriers.

I have yet to meet anyone who has had a trouble-free PhD and there is a key difference between failing at various stages of your PhD and failure. Without true grit, I would frankly have struggled to see the end of my PhD.

Back bone, wish bone and a funny bone

When things are not right, fix it. Don’t be afraid to stand your ground, if you see bias at work or demeaning behaviour — call it. It can be as simple as hogging time using equipment in the lab or authorship over publication (male or female).

Most PhDs are at the brink of the unexplored and a motivated, blue-sky approach is needed to see the day. And when things don’t work out as planned, learn to roll with the punches. This was a valuable lesson when I was facing redundancy a year into a new job in a new city!

Be an opportunist

Big goals and bigger picture. Ultimately everyone around you wants you to succeed. Call in favours, ask for help and work your network. There is nothing wrong with seeing an opportunity and seizing it. Being a female does not make you any less entitled to success or its extent.

It’s easy to live in the here and now and not pay attention to the long-term plans, but setting (realistic) long-term goals might exactly be the drive you need to propel yourself forward.

Find a hobby that empowers you

You don’t have to be chained to your desk or feel guilty about doing non-PhD things. Pursue a hobby that lets you de-stress, boosts your confidence and allows you to disconnect. It can be cycling, running or knitting — anything that you fancy.

For me, it was climbing. It has given me time to think (while clinging on for dear life on a rock face), tremendous confidence and at times a much-needed way to vent my frustration.

Dr Aby Sankaran climbing in the Cheddar Gorge
Dr Aby Sankaran climbing in the Cheddar Gorge

Be your own hero

Break the stereotype — we limit ourselves mentally more than we are capable of. Don’t create your own glass ceiling, pick yourself up and be the strong person you need to rely on to see you through difficult times.

In an ideal world, men and women would be equal and we would not need to emphasise female accomplishments — instead, every day would be a celebration of human accomplishment.

However, women are underrepresented in a number of sectors and, in order to address the imbalance, we need reinforcements like this to encourage progress.