‘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.

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.

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.

6 top tips for new Bristol PGRs

Clockwise from top left: Angela Suriyakumaran, Helen Rees, Kit Fotheringham, Arsham Nejad Kourki, Trang Tran and Eve Benhamou.
Clockwise from top left: Angela Suriyakumaran, Helen Rees, Kit Fotheringham, Arsham Nejad Kourki, Trang Tran and Eve Benhamou.

You’ve read the University’s registration checklist and checked out the Bristol Doctoral College’s list of tips — but what about some advice from fellow research students?

We asked postgraduate researchers at Bristol for their top tips for new PGRs. Here are their words of wisdom… 

1. Work on campus as much as possible 

“Just being among other PGRs makes a great difference.”

Trang Tran, PGR in the School of Education

2. It’s good to socialise and network with PGRs from across the University

“This is important! A PG course isn’t all about research, it’s about learning how to be an academic, and socialising is a huge part of that. I would advise new PGs to take this seriously. The BDC and the SU provide ample opportunities beyond your department, so don’t miss out on them!”

Arsham Nejad Kourki, PGR in the School of Biological Sciences

3. Make friends in your department/school

“PGRs who are above your cohort have valuable advice from their own experiences which you can learn from. Making friends with people finishing at the same time as you is great — these people will be dealing with the same pressures as you at the same time so will be most understanding (and probably in the same boat!).”

Helen Rees, PGR in the School of Biological Sciences

4. Do something outside of your research that you enjoy

“Having something to look forward to such as a sport, volunteering or activity with friends really helps if you are having an ‘off’ day with research. It also gives some balance to your life and allows you to de-stress and focus on something else.”

Angela Suriyakumaran, PGR in the School of Chemistry

5. Think about outreach and options beyond your studies

“Seize the opportunity for outreach events (Research without Borders is worth doing at least once), placements, etc. Also look for Quickfix events from the Career Services, especially the Careers beyond Academia, and CVs for non-academic and academic careers.”

Dr Eve Benhamou, recent PGR graduate from Department of Film & TV Studies

6. The BDC’s events and opportunities can help you connect with other PGRs

“Get involved with Bristol Doctoral College training sessions and events. The BDC sessions and the PGR Hub will help you to overcome the isolation and ‘impostor syndrome’ that are all too common among PGRs. Connecting with people from different disciplines and finding your mutual interests makes you feel like you’re part of one big doctoral community.”

Kit Fotheringham, PGR in University of Bristol Law School

Looking for even more helpful tips? Check out our 2017 blogpost, ‘10 things all postgraduate researchers at Bristol should know’.

Positivity and the Potential of Giving

A woman holding a boxed gift | Give

‘Give’ is the final Five Weeks of Wellbeing theme — a chance to give yourself a break (more on that below), but also to reflect on ways you can express your gratitude and share your time. Carlos Gracida Juarez, a PGR in the School of Biological Sciences, shares some personal thoughts why we should give giving a chance.

In Western culture, materialism plays a significant role. We are used to collecting new items and accumulating material stuff — we confound being with having. Many of us have been taught that more money and amassing wealth is the real meaning of success. Being successful takes you to live the “good life”; and not being successful will make you struggle to survive, always chasing the money. At a certain point, it makes sense, but there are many more things that can give you a sense of realisation in life.

One thing that is probably underrated in our society is “the potential of giving”. Giving adds meaning to our life, filling it with love and compassion. By giving we are creating a positive impact on the person or group, and ideally improving our world at the same time.

Giving has a double function: it helps someone in need and makes yourself feel better at the same time. That’s why giving can be a tool for improving our lives in a connected approach.

But sometimes and for different reasons, it can be difficult to give. When we care for others they can take advantage or misinterpret our intentions. Or we are afraid that if we provide, we will end having less. Or maybe we have judgements about what people in need will do with what we give them. It’s OK to have these thoughts, but they’re not always are correct.

Not giving can result in the worst outcome of all, because we are solving nothing and we are losing the chance of improving our and others lives. Instead of simply not giving, we can learn to give wisely. We can instead learn how to give helpfully and how giving can cause a positive impact. Even if giving turns out to have been the wrong approach, at least we gave it a try and we learned.

We also might think that we need to have more in order to give, but this is not always true. Regarding money, you can give even if you don’t have much. You can provide some change to the homeless, give to a charity (some charities would really appreciate your £8 per month funding) or support some causes by buying related products.

Besides money, you are capable of giving time and energy as well. For example, a way to increase your positivity, you can brighten enough someone’s day by saying a kind word, smiling or help them out in a small task.

When you give, you open a channel to an abundance mindset. If you feel blocked in a specific area of your life, then give. Need more love? Give love. Need more attention? Pay attention to the others. Need more joy? Spread joy.

How does it make sense? When you give, it makes the impression that you have what you want to give. You are not in a state of shortage. You start to get used to this feeling, and in some way, you attract it back. If you give love and spread positivity you get used to this and people will start to react this way around you. If you offer free services to people, some will want to thank you by paying, and maybe you will come up with new ways to earn money.

Remember that true giving comes from the heart without expecting anything in return, but for sure it will.

When we give, we do it with affection. It may be hard at the beginning and may feel forced, but after you practice you start giving with love.

So what to do now? We can practise doing small things while we get used to the act of giving. Picking trash from public places, being kind and smiling to others, volunteering in local charities among many other options. (The Bristol Conservation Society and Helpful Peeps have made of an art of giving.)

Of course, you can take a few steps further and make something more significant. But remember that every action has an impact. Give wisely, and expect smiles back in your life.


Ready for the Five Weeks of Wellbeing finale? Here’s what’s happening this week in the PGR Hub.

  • Coffee and Cake Hour — Tuesday 12 March, 11am
  • Movie Night — Tuesday 12 March, 6pm,
  • Board Game Café — Thursday 14 March, 1pm,
  • Clothes Swap — Friday 15 March, 1pm.

And if that’s not enough, don’t forget that you still have a chance to win a £100 wellbeing hamper in our Five Weeks of Wellbeing competition.

To take part, just hand in your stamped ‘5wow’ card to the BDC office in the PGR Hub. Wondering how you can get a card? Just pick up a free zine from the Hub’s collaborative space and read to the end.

What I’ve learned about learning

Cartoon woman with a download cloud above her head | 'Keep Learning'

Week four of our Five Weeks of Wellbeing has focused on learning. Jacks Bennett, a Bristol PhD researcher looking at mental health and wellbeing in students, shares her reflections on why maintaining curiosity matters.

I love learning new things. Things about things (information), how to do things (skills), why things happen (knowledge), and what things say about other things (meaning). I’ve always been curious. As a child, I sat in the shed at the bottom of our garden, the walls newspapered with articles and the shelves littered with potions I’d made from fallen rose petals. From my musty office, I declared myself both writer and scientist.

More than four decades later — I have become, circuitously and arguably, both. At university first time around, I explored French, pretty fruitlessly I might add — c’est la vie. I then learned to write, research, and report at the BBC — where discovering new ‘things’ (in short bursts) became a way of life. More recently, I came back to university as a psychology undergraduate and now PhD researcher looking at student mental health — in at the deep end again. It’s become my raison d’être: get stuck in, ask questions. My family and friends variously call it: ‘enthusiastic’, ‘overthinking’, ‘nosy’, ‘earnest’. I prefer to think of it as meaningful engagement with my one short life.

My learning curves have come in all shapes and shades. I’ve learned how to interview prime ministers, how to make cheese, what to do in a police raid, and how not to be sick during a Hercules take-off. I’ve also learned that I’m not good with pregnancy, vodka, or arrogant people, and that I’m often riddled with self-doubt. But I’m also tenacious, great in a crisis, impossibly fond of communicating, and I can parachute out of a plane. The list isn’t exhaustive and doesn’t include life’s bigger challenges like learning to be: mother, daughter, wife, friend, employer, employee, student, citizen. I’ve also had to learn how to do all those things. I’ve sometimes learned the hard way and I’ve always had to work at it. I still do.

Learning the basics of who you are, what you like, what you need, and what you’re capable of — is all a journey. For me, that’s been critical for my wellbeing and equilibrium. I felt for years that I ‘should’ love to cook — mainly because cooking is wholesome, other people seem to enjoy it, and it helps with the whole feeding the family thing. Actually, I really hate cooking. But I do love to clean or tidy. Bad day at work? Imposter syndrome kicking in? My floors sparkle and my paperwork gets done. I feel better. A light-hearted example — but you get my drift?

It’s not just about self-awareness, there’s also learning for learning’s sake. I’ve made several sea changes over the years; and when I’ve been stuck in my head or in a job that doesn’t fit – I’ve usually signed up for a writing course, some voluntary work or a half marathon. I realise most of us don’t always have the capacity or resources to shake things up dramatically, but you can always do something. Walk a different route to work, strike up a conversation with the person next to you on the bus, head to the museum at lunchtime and temporarily lose yourself. You never know what may happen. Every time I look outward, my world becomes just a little bit more colourful.

Taking on a doctorate is my current curve ball. Commissioned by the University, the research feels pertinent and timely — ‘What type of support improves mental health and wellbeing in university students?’ Bristol aims to be part of an evidence-based solution to growing concern about young people’s mental health, and our students are sharing their experience in an annual survey, forming the spine of my project. I’m lucky to be involved — another steep learning curve. Those curves just keep coming.

What have I learned about learning (so far)? It matters that you try and work out who you are and how you tick. Align that with your goals and take some risks. Learn from your mistakes: outcomes can be good and bad — and believe me, I’ve experienced the latter — but every experience has shaped me. When life is good — savour it, and when things get tough — push through. Our time here is short and precious, and the world is endlessly interesting. Fill your toolbox with curiosity, kindness and respect, and then grab life by the scruff of the neck and shake out every last meaningful experience.


Want to get involved in our Five Weeks of Wellbeing? There are still plenty of events ahead, including a PGR Movie Night, a Board Game Cafe and a Clothes Swap. Read the full programme.

The discs and the doctorate — why I played Ultimate Frisbee whilst finishing my PhD

Sarah Garner with her Ultimate Frisbee team.

This week, our ‘5 Weeks of Wellbeing’ theme is ‘Be Active’. To kick us off, Sarah Garner, a final-year PhD student in the Bristol Dental School, tells us how she balanced the demands of her PhD with fitness training for the World Ultimate Frisbee Club Championships — and how that helped her get fresh perspectives. 

October 2017: I’ve just started the final year of my PhD. Whilst I’m not in dire straits, the lab work isn’t going as well as I’d hoped, and I definitely feel like I’m behind where I want to be. I’d had good intentions to write up as I went but this quickly fell by the wayside. So I feel the pressure is on, and time is limited. I have a new job lined up for next October and the start date is non-negotiable. But it’s fine, because I’m just going to spend the next year really focusing and putting in the hours on the PhD. Got a plan. Phew. A few 12 hour days in the lab and I’ll be fine.

November 2017: I find out that my club Ultimate Frisbee team has just qualified for the World Ultimate Club Championships in the USA in July 2018. I’ve played with this club for 12 years, captained it and coached. This is the culmination of a huge amount of hard work. I should be excited, right? Bubbles of excitement are spreading through my team. I really want to get excited about it too — there’s nothing like the thought of playing a world championship with a bunch of great friends to get the adrenaline flowing! But, having played at international tournaments before, I also know what’s involved in the preparation: a lot of fitness training! Two weights sessions a week, a conditioning session and anything from 2-4 team training sessions as well. Plus throwing practice, stretching, rolling and yoga. Oh, and a 5k run here or there if you fancy squeezing it in. They say it’s important to ‘stay active’ whilst you’re doing a PhD, but this is possibly a bit overkill.

How can I possibly fit this in around my PhD?

In my heart, I knew I desperately wanted to play, and I also wanted to be at my fittest and strongest possible, so I could play my best. So I’d need to put in the hours doing the fitness. I also knew how physically and mentally tired that can make me feel — not exactly conducive to high level PhD research and writing! So what to do?

I spoke to friends, teammates, my partner. I knew what I ‘should’ do — forget frisbee for once and concentrate on the PhD. I didn’t speak to my supervisors, as I thought I’d knew what they would say — it’s up to you, but the more time you put into the PhD this year, the better. I was torn between my head and my heart!

So what did I do?

I went to the world championships with my team. I reasoned that, if it was what I really wanted to do, I would make time for it, and it would be a useful way of switching off at the end of a long day in the lab.

How was it?

Really, really tough. The fitness programme we had was designed to make us ‘peak’ at the time of the championships, but we were told that up until then chances are we’d feel exhausted, ache in funny places, and be totally sick of frisbee. And we did.

How did I do it?

Every Monday morning, I sat down and looked at my week and decided when and where I could fit in each of the sessions I needed to. I did gym sessions before work twice a week. Sometimes it would really wake me up for the day, and other times when I sat at my desk by 9am I’d feel like I wanted to sleep. That’s where my good friend strong coffee came in.

In the summer we trained as a team twice a week after work. I usually managed to make it on time, but I made it clear that sometimes I wouldn’t be able to leave the lab bang on 5pm and I might be late. My teammates were very understanding and supportive. The other sessions I did ad hoc in evenings or at weekends when we weren’t playing tournaments. And if I missed the odd session for whatever reason, I didn’t beat myself up.

It was really hard to balance training for sport at a high level with trying to complete a PhD. But I also think it kept me sane; it gave me something else to think about and strive for, that had a definitive end point — unlike a PhD, where there’s always more you can do and so you never get that satisfaction of ‘I’ve finished’ until you’ve done the Viva.

Seeing all of my friends train and prepare around me whilst I wasn’t would have given me serious FOMO and probably would have distracted me enough that I would have lost almost as many hours to thinking about what could have been as I would have spent doing the training in the first place!

The final year of a PhD is never easy. Whilst I took the ‘keeping active’ part to the extreme, what I realised was that doing something that you enjoy — whether that’s a walk around the park at lunch or travelling overseas to play a week-long world championship, or anything in between — does help to keep you sane, as it allows you to think about something other than research, just for a bit. PhDs aren’t the be all and end all, and, whatever anybody tells you, the world will keep turning regardless of your findings.

Doing something that allows your brain to get away from the PhD for a bit is so important and will help you look at it with a fresh pair of eyes on your return. Sometimes I find getting the endorphins flowing really helps me kick start some lab work or writing. Find something that works for you and schedule it into your week — it’s as much a part of doing a PhD as being in the lab or library!


Want to get active yourself? Here’s the full list of activities that we’re holding as part of our ‘Be Active’ week. All activities take place in the PGR Hub, on the 1st floor of Senate House, unless otherwise stated.

Competition! Whether it’s jogging, juggling or jujitsu, we want to know how you take active breaks from your research degree. One random comment will be chosen at 5pm on Friday 1 March, and its author will win a free session with a personal trainer at the University of Bristol Sport Centre. (Please note that the competition is open to current Bristol PGRs only. To take part, see our posts on Facebook or Twitter.)

And remember to pick up a free 5 Weeks of Wellbeing zine from the PGR Hub! Collect a sticker for an activity each week and you’ll be entered into a prize draw — and you could win a wellness hamper worth up to £100!