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.

10 things all postgraduate researchers at Bristol should know

Is it possible to condense everything that Bristol’s postgraduate researchers need to know into just 10 short points?

Not really — but our little list is (hopefully) a good place to start if you’ve just begun your journey, or a handy refresher if you’ve been on the PGR path for a while.

Do you think we’ve missed something major? If you do, please tell us in the comments.

1. You’re a researcher in ‘the best place to live in Britain’

The Clifton Suspension Bridge

Bristol ‘crams in all the culture you could wish for’. Not our words — the assessment of the Sunday Times Best Places to Live Guide, which crowned the city as the best place to live in Britain in its 2017 edition.

‘We sum the city up as cool, classy and supremely creative,’ said Sunday Times home editor Helen Davies. Who are we to disagree with that?

All research students automatically receive our BDC Bulletin, so you’ll get a round-up of what’s on in bustling Bristol — from film festivals to street-art strolls — every fortnight.

2. Bristol has a vibrant network of postgraduates

PG Network hiking expedition in the Cheddar Valley

Want to meet more of your fellow researchers and attend a wide range of events, including Pint of Science evenings, hiking expeditions to the Cheddar Valley (pictured above) or informal, fun get-togethers?

Joining the Bristol Student Union PG Network — a student-led initiative for all postgraduate students, both research and taught — is a great way to meet your peers and get involved in PGR community activities.

To get started and see what’s available, join the PG Network’s public group on Facebook.

3. You’re at a top 10 university

The University of Bristol

Ready for some stats?

According to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2018, the University of Bristol is number 9 in the UK — a spot we’ve held for six consecutive years.

Globally, Bristol is one of only 12 UK institutions in the top 100 universities.

All of which is just to emphasise that you are at one of the most popular and successful universities in the UK, and you should expect your time here to be both positive and productive.

4. Whatever stage you’re at, our free training and events can help

A woman writing

Postgraduate research is a marathon rather than a sprint.

The BDC isn’t here just to cheer you on; we curate an extensive programme of training and events that’s designed to boost your personal and professional development, whether you’re just getting started, you need to maintain your momentum or you have the finish line in sight.

Visit the Personal and Professional Development section of our website to find out how you can sign up for useful sessions on everything from kick-starting your thesis-writing to relaxing with mindful yoga.

5. Your wellbeing matters

A woman looking at the sunset

Life as a PGR can be challenging. Immersing yourself in research, lab work or field work can be very productive — but it can also be isolating.

Taking care of yourself, and seeking help if you need it, is an essential part of maintaining a positive and productive life as a PGR. If you need support, your supervisor will be your primary channel. However, a range of other services are also available — from the Expert Self Care app to the Students’ Health Service.

Visit the Health and wellbeing section of the UoB website to see what’s on offer.

6. There’s an online tool that’ll make your PGR life a lot easier

STaR online tool animation

Feeling daunted by your postgraduate research? The University has a resource that can help you.

STaR (short for ‘Skills, Training and Review’) is an online tool that enables you to manage, plan and track your development. You can save your work, share drafts with supervisors and — thanks to a link with the University’s PURE system — develop a public research profile.

Get a full overview of its features in the STaR section of our website.

7. You can showcase your research at our annual PGR festival

Research without Borders festival

Imaginative, interactive — and just downright fun — Research without Borders is the University’s annual showcase of postgraduate research.

As a PGR, the festival gives you an opportunity to present your work to the public and connect with other researchers from all disciplines. In May 2017, the special exhibition at Colston Hall that was held as part of the festival saw 74 postgraduate researchers showcase their work through interactive displays and activities.

Visit the Research without Borders page for more details on taking part in the 2018 festival.

8. Being an open researcher will help your reputation


Successful researchers know how to make their work discoverable and widely accessible. It’s not just good practice; it can help you establish a reputation early in your career.

The first step towards becoming an open researcher is to sign up for a free ORCiD account — a unique identifier for researchers that means all of your work is associated with you, regardless of any name changes or variations.

Once you’ve done this, you can learn about the online tools that interact with ORCiD and will help you boost your research reputation.

9. You’re in a multi-university alliance — and it has real-world benefits

Map showing location of GW4 universities

Did you know that, as a Bristol PGR, you’re a member of the GW4 Alliance?

If you haven’t encountered it before, the GW4 Alliance is a partnership between four of the most research-intensive universities in the UK: Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter.

The alliance has some tangible benefits for PGRs, including access to a collaborative network, expert training opportunities and shared resources. You can even access a wealth of rare and unique materials (the ‘GW4 treasures’) and a database of equipment.

Visit the GW4 website to find out more.

10. The Bristol Doctoral College team is here for you

The Bristol Doctoral College team

At the BDC, it’s our job to work with teams across the University to ensure that the PGR environment is the very best it can be so you can thrive during your research degree — and beyond.

In short: we’re here to support and champion you.

If you want to ask a question or flag an issue, please email us at doctoral-college@bristol.ac.uk or call us on (0117) 92 88105.

Putting Bristol’s postgraduate researchers on the map

We asked you to tell us where your research took you this summer — and your tweets, Instagram pics and emails didn’t disappoint, with tales of dashing to Denmark from Honolulu and popping to Patagonia for PISCES (a project to measure the impact of ice field shrinkage).

But who has won the (rather striking) University of Bristol scarf?

The pins on this Google Map show that some of our postgraduate researchers travelled pretty far indeed, with entries about journeys to Canada, China and Japan.

 

However, when Kacper Sokol told us about his trip to the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Melbourne, we knew that this would be difficult to beat. (According to Google, Melbourne is 10,599 miles from Bristol — giving it a 2,000 mile lead over our next-best entry, Sarah Tingey’s terrestrial work in Chile.)

Although it’s fun to see the pins on our map, the most impressive part of the competition has been the fantastic photographs that PGRs sent along with their entries. Some of our favourites are in the gallery below.

Thanks to everyone who took part in the #PGRtrek competition. Even if you didn’t win, you’ve helped to show that life as researcher really can (ahem) take you places.

 

Future challenges of doctoral training #vitae17

This post by Paul Spencer, PGR Environment Development Manager at the Bristol Doctoral College, originally appeared on his Digital Doctorate blog. The post was updated following the Vitae Conference on 11–12 September 2017.

A few months ago, I agreed to give a presentation at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference in September. It is scheduled for the half plenary session on the first afternoon and the title for my contribution is Future challenges in doctoral training. I have only 7 minutes to cover this topic so I am thinking about what I want to cover and what will have to be edited out!

In this blog post are is a work in progress as I sketch out some key ideas that I talked about. The slide deck used for the Vitae conference is embedded below:

Context

A bit of context in terms of the programme is probably good; there will be other presentations before mine covering the following things:

  • A history of the modern PhD
  • Understanding the [PGR] student journey
  • Academic Apprenticeships.

Future of doctoral training

It’s quite a big topic to talk about so here are my initial stumbling musings

  1. Back to the future – Any talk about the future probably ought to start with some recognition of the past – I talked about being like Marty McFly and drop in on the 2004 version of myself who was beginning to get to grips with the question of “how do we support PGRs for their future employability (even if that is outside of academia)? The first two presentations gave an overall history of doctoral education so I focussed instead on what’s changed between when I graduated and now. I think the important question that we asked ourselves as researcher developers then was “What is a doctorate for?”. This is still a valid question now.
  2. The contemporary research environment. I talked a bit about how the environment that researchers operate in now is different to how it used to be. The drivers, the strategies, the tactics, the reward system that many supervisors navigated in their careers are not the same any more. The pace of change toward open research, the transparency in how research is thought about, designed, implemented and disseminated are a world apart. Preparing doctoral researchers to succeed in that environment is challenging because it exposes the gulf between old and new.
  3. Professionalising doctoral researchers – We have slowly been inching toward a more professionalised system of support for doctoral researchers, e.g. parental leave for PGRs, annual leave entitlement, development support. However, PGRs are still in that middle ground, treated like staff when it suits institutions and students when it doesn’t. I think a good example of this is around PGRs who teach. We could and should do much better when it comes to getting the balance right there. Are we then going to grasp the nettle and turn the whole recruitment of PGR students on its head and move to employ postgraduate researchers to purposefully invest in that support?
  4. Cohort based doctoral training entities (DTEs) – an important element in the doctoral training landscape and there are some really interesting things coming about because of them, particularly the diversity of people, subjects and networks. But are DTEs the future for all doctoral training? Are there better ways as we move to the future?
  5. Innovation in researcher development. There is a golden rule in researcher development around not reinventing the wheel if you don’t have to. My call to action was to talk to people and find out what you can reuse, repurpose to support PGRs.
  6. Supporting academic writing. This for me is a high impact activity that should be on everyone’s agenda. Lots of practice out there from the likes of Peta Freestone, Inger Mewburn, Pat Thomson, Katherine Firth to name just a few.
  7. I think the future can be summarised in three Cs: Curation, Community and Camera. Programmes, workshops, action learning sets, e-learning modules. More choice, more workshops, more opportunities – this is good? Or is it? I think researcher developers have the expertise and experience to curate support resources from diverse sources and make these things as easy to engage with as possible. Video is king as the saying goes. It is becoming easier and easier to live stream video from all sorts of devices – this offers a wealth of opportunity to bring PGRs into a discussion, to build community, to help them with their development needs.

That’s all folks!

What do you think about the future? If you hopped into the time machine made from a DeLorean and dropped into 2027, what will you see?