Ailsa’s ‘ExPhDition’ — why a PGR illustrated her route to a research degree

Ailsa Naismith is a volcanologist in the School of Earth Sciences who’s approaching the end of her research degree. In July 2020, Ailsa created an illustrated map of her PhD journey that received over 400 likes on Twitter. Below, she shares some of the map’s ‘points of interest’ — and explains how drawing the ‘ExPhDition’ helped her to reflect on her experiences as a postgraduate researcher.


Hello! I’m Ailsa Naismith. Since 2016, I’ve been researching volcanic risk mitigation — specifically, eruptive activity and human experience at Fuego volcano in Guatemala.

In practice, this means that I’ve been using a wide range of methods (including scientific reports, seismic data and interviews) to help forge a holistic impression of volcanic risk. The ultimate goal of my research (and recently completed thesis!) is to present the myriad perspectives of risk that coexist around a single volcano.

The 'ExPhDition' — an illustrated 'map' of Ailsa Naismith's journey through her research degree. Image by Ailsa Naismith

Illustrate to the point

I started making zines in January. I’ve always been interested in uniting art and science, so creating small pieces of illustrated text that communicate a concept feels instinctive to me.

I spent June toiling over my thesis: no zine-making that month! But then my good friend Bob suggested I illustrate my PhD journey. It was a fantastic idea, and once I agreed, the image coalesced almost instantly in my head.

Central America is both the location of my research fieldwork and an apt metaphor for the narrowing of focus during the course of a PhD. However, my course has often felt much less than focussed! I’ve met many diversions and setbacks along the way, hence the winding path I follow in the ExPhDition above.

Illustrating the journey has provided a great opportunity to reflect on these diversions, and those who helped me through.

Notes from an ExPhDition

1. FFT swamp / valley of shit

In my first year, I seized on a research idea which seemed both novel and certain to give good results. I invested a lot of time on it, gained a lot of input from other people, and realised around five months in that it wasn’t going to produce fruit. This culminated in a comment in my second-year assessment that I was a whole year behind on my research (yikes!).

The difficulty here is that you have to follow the diversion in order to retrace your steps. Even though such diversions seem like a waste of time, ultimately they helped me because they motivated me to seek help from more experienced academics. I also learned the value of having a mentor in-house who has experienced such diversions before. I was fortunate that I already had a mentor in the form of my supervisor Matt (major thanks!).

In the situation where your supervisor can’t offer this role, I suggest seeking the support of a sympathetic older student, postdoc or academic in your field. If not available in-house, perhaps look outside your department, or even beyond Bristol.

2. 3rd June 2018

Not many people can say “my volcano erupted in the middle of my PhD”. Fuego erupted on 3rd June 2018 with devastating consequences. I found it hard to process. Whatever your discipline, it’s likely that you will invest a lot of emotional capital in your PhD. Some people would say this a bad idea, but I disagree: you should own it.

For me, work is easier when you care, although caring can hurt when things don’t turn out as planned (see 1). In my case, I found that investing emotional capital was easier when I collaborated with other people that cared. Then, when I felt demotivated in my work, I could rely on discussion with those colleagues to reinvigorate my desire to contribute something towards our shared passion. And that contribution would be achieved through my PhD.

3. Chile

Geologists are suckers for an international conference, and I am no exception. I’d planned to attend a conference in Chile in November 2019 when demonstrations nationwide cancelled it. I read the cancellation email while in transit through the Bogotá customs queue.

Another piece of generic PhD advice is “Welcome the unexpected”. It’s true! If you can, when an unexpected twist places you in a new environment, search for opportunities for collaboration in your new environment. Perhaps this will show you a new career direction. For me, it kindled an interest in disaster risk reduction policy.

Drawing to a close

Reading this over, I can see this is ridiculous — how could this advice be useful for anyone except “past me”?! The PhD process is so individual.

Really, the advice I have given (follow diversions, own your emotional investment, welcome the unexpected) is quite generic. It has to be, because the specific experience that a PhD student learns cannot be generalised to others’ journeys.

But you may find that during the course of your own ExPhDition you agree with my advice, because any PhD is really an experience in gathering anecdotal evidence to support the clichés.

If you are also near the end of your journey, I encourage you to make a map of your own. It was a wonderful way of finding resolution to this huge chapter of my life.


Find out more about Ailsa’s research on the University’s Research Portal — and follow her on Twitter at @AilsaNaismith.

How do you support postgraduate researchers during a global pandemic?

The BDC team on a zoom call
The Bristol Doctoral College team on a Zoom meeting.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Bristol Doctoral College team have been working to provide our postgraduate research community with the support, tools and information they need to stay well, progress and adapt.

This blog post outlines a number of areas where we have adapted our provision. We hope our activities might provide inspiration for others; we also encourage our postgraduate researchers (PGRs) to engage with the changes we are making. If you have any questions or suggestions please do get in touch.

PGR Hub: from a physical space to a virtual place 

With campus closed, we have had to adapt activities that would have been run at our PGR Hub to digital-only formats.

Sarah Kelley
PG Researcher Development Advisor, Sarah Kelley, introducing an online Writers’ Retreat.

Our Personal and Professional Development programme was swiftly transferred to online platforms. Since lockdown began, there have been 369 participations in 14 online  sessions, from ‘Getting Started with Academic Publishing’ to Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Researchers. PGR feedback has been positive: 

“The course online worked really well and it was possible to interact with other students in the chat groups.”

“Thank you. Very appreciative of the time/effort put in by the facilitator and support staff to swiftly move this to a webinar format under difficult circumstances.” 

We even moved our popular Writers Retreats to Zoom, providing those writing up with some structure and companionship during a day of typing at home. These retreats have been well received and demand has been so high that we increased the capacity and frequency of these sessions. 

However, whilst online training going out live (synchronously) serves a useful purpose, there are other varied approaches to bringing the community together. Recorded resources that can be accessed by the PGR community in a more flexible manner are now high up in our priority listWe recently converted our popular “Thesis mapping: planning your PhD in its entirety” workshop to a recorded webinar, with complementary resourcesWe are also in the process of creating a Sharepoint site for PGRs, which will provide materials and opportunities for asynchronous peer interaction.

Enabling our community 

Midnight Traveller
An online film screening of Midnight Traveller, directed by Hassan Fazili, and organised by postgraduate researcher Jáfia Naftali Câmara, with funding from the PGR Community Fund. Screening with permission of Dogwoof.

During lockdown, we adjusted promotion of our Community Fund to focus on digital events led by PGRs. We’ve seen nearly 200 attendees at community-building events since lockdown began, including virtual quizzes, our online Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, film screenings and PGR Book Group. 

As well as funding these events, we’ve been developing a range of tips and tools to enable our postgraduate researchers to adapt to the new normal: see our tips and tools webpage. 

Virtual Pub Quiz
A virtual pub quiz hosted by postgraduate researchers Ailsa Nailsmith and Jacob Wood, funded by the PGR Community Fund.

We have also been hosting online drop-in sessions to provide help and technical advice for PGRs running digital events and webinars.

 

Research without Borders  

RWB showcase
Research Without Borders virtual showcase entries

With all mass gatherings across the university cancelled, our flagship festival of PGR research, Research without Borders was adapted in a number of ways:

  • The Research without Borders Showcase became an online virtual showcase.
  • Our 3MT competition was conducted via Zoom and then screened on Facebook Premiere and YouTube. 
  • Our evening discussion events are currently being adapted into online events or podcasts. 

Partnerships and scholarships 

We’ve also been supporting our scholarship cohorts to continue with their research, sustain connections with their peers and stay in touch with their supervisors. Kennedy Kipkoech Mutai, a Cotutelle PhD Student based at the universities of Bristol and Cape Town said:

“The university has been greatly supportive in the course of this pandemic.  The support from my supervisors (and Infectious Disease Modelling group) has been immense. The team managing the Cotutelle Programme led by Professor Robert Bickers, Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor Postgraduate Research, Dr Kevin Higgins, and Alex Leadley have been of enormous help. The team relentlessly scheduled meetings with our cohort of Cotutelle students, where several aspects of our PhD life were discussed. My fellow Cotutelle students have become a family, with weekly catch-up meetings! To this point I am grateful, to all who have ensured a seamless continuation of my PhD during this globally challenging times!”

Looking to the future 

Whilst the circumstances are challenging and have been exceptionally difficult for so many of our PGRs, we hope that the work we’ve undertaken over the last few months will mean we can support a wider pool of PGRs beyond lockdown. Focusing on digital resources means we can provide better support for our part-time students, those on other campuses and those working remotely or with caring responsibilities.

This crisis has handed us an opportunity to support more of our PGRs and change the way we work, while continuing with our core offering. 

Remote supervision: 7 tips for successful and productive supervision during lockdown (and beyond)

With supervision via videolink now the status quo, how do you keep your supervision meetings running smoothly? The Bristol Doctoral College asked Dr Jonathan Ives  (Bristol Population Health Science Institute) and Dr Ben Pohl (Department of History) for their tips for supervisors and postgraduate researchers alike. 

1. Have an (ongoing) conversation about touchpoints

You may now have been working remotely for several months (or longer if you are on a distance learning programme). However long it’s been, ensure you keep a dialogue open about the effectiveness of your supervision meetings: 

  • Should you be meeting more or less regularly?  
  • What time of day seems to work best?  
  • Are differences in time zone making things difficult?  

Don’t be afraid to keep returning to these questions.   

Supervisors: Depending on their approach to work, your PGRs might find the idea of a fortnightly phone or video call stressful, or on the other hand they may feel abandoned without regular contact. Make sure you have the conversation and find out what is right and realistic for you both. 

 2. Find time for informal conversations

Without corridors, common rooms or coffee machines available, we’ve lost the chance to bump into each other in an informal context. Try and compensate for this by making time for an informal chat. Don’t be afraid to stay in touch with each other, but find an approach that works for you.  

Supervisors: you may want to set up a weekly online drop-in session for discussions about more practical challenges such as access to resources, hitting targets or motivation; this could be a chance for students to share their experiences and troubleshoot issues. 

3. There are some upsides to remote supervision! Embrace them. 

It might be difficult at times but try and make the most of the circumstances. For example, you may have struggled to coordinate a time to meet both of your supervisors together – with more flexible schedules, now could be the opportunity to get everyone together. 

4. A well-structured supervision session is always important 

Whether in person or onlinethe importance of a focused and well-structured supervision is critical. Make sure you have an agenda agreed beforehand, send any items for review in advance and have all the materials ready to go through together. Follow up by sending your supervisor an email to confirm what was agreed and what the actions are. STaR can be a useful tool for keeping records, but email or Sharepoint also work fine. 

5. Set small and manageable tasks

Work with your supervisor to set some smaller goals as well as the bigger ones – these could be informal or formal, such as a mock or actual book/monograph review. Tasks like this are supplementary to your main research but emulate the critical engagement with scholarship that will help keep your brain active. 

6. Get used to screen-sharing

It’s a really helpful way to look at the same thing at the same time. 

7. There are lots of formats for virtual supervision

BlueJeans, Skype, Zoom and Teams are all words we’ve become very familiar with, but what about if your internet is slow or you don’t have a quiet space to have a conversation? Don’t be afraid to go back to basics and explore whether telephone or email would work better for you. Be flexible and don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor if you need help, financial support or equipment to make your supervisions possible. 


Student perspectives on remote supervision 

“For me, the most valuable thing during Covid-19 has been regular contact with my primary supervisor and his valuable guidance. I made use of remote supervision to communicate my concerns and work together on solutions. For example, I was worried about not being able to collect data for the research project, about me not being productive as before and about the Covid-19 situation in general, etc.  In this case, my supervisor supported me a lot to adapt to the situation.”

Krishani Vithana Pelpita Koralalage, Population Health Sciences Institute

“I think remote supervision has been useful in some respects, as it seems that supervisor and student are now usually working to the same sort of schedule and in the same manner (ie. working digitally). I have found this means both my supervisors have been very accessible and easy to contact.  

“My advice to other students would be to use supervisions as waypoints to keep you working as best you can and build a routine (they’re also great opportunities for just catching up and general human interaction!). Also, keep a record of each meeting and what you talked about, as these discussions might become useful or relevant to later work.” 

Dan Booker, Department of History 

 

Research without Borders 2020 Virtual Showcase: online competition

Research without Borders 2020

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

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

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

The challenge 

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

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

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

How to enter 

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

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

Ways to share: 

Judging 

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

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

Prizes 

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

Example entries

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

See also some examples on Twitter:

Terms and conditions

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

Any questions? 

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

Top tips for a successful videolink viva

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


Debbie Daniels, School of Biochemistry 


Why did you have to do your viva by videolink? 

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

How did you prepare?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Catherine Chan, School of Humanities  


Why did you have to do your viva by videolink?
 

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

How did you prepare and what did you learn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jon Prager, Bristol Veterinary School 


How 
has COVID-19 impacted on your viva? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vivian Kong, School of Humanities 


What was your experience and how did you prepare?

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

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

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

How did it go in the end? 

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


Hang Yee Leung, School of Education


Why did you have to do your viva by videolink?

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

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

How did you prepare for it?

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

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

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

What are your thoughts, looking back on the experience?

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


Find out more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting out of the writing bubble

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

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

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

Sharing research with diverse audiences

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

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

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

A rewarding experience

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Support, encouragement and fresh perspectives are vital

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

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

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

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

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

2. Working together can help create a sense of community

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Teaching can enhance your skills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

A prize-winning partnership — our Data Challenge story

Nina Di Cara and Tiff Massey at the Office for National Statistics Data Science Campus
Nina Di Cara and Tiff Massey at the Office for National Statistics Data Science Campus [Photo: Tiff Massey]
In early September, the Jean Golding Institute announced that its 2019 Data Challenge competition, held in partnership with the Office for National Statistics, had been won by Nina Di Cara and Tiff Massey.

Nina, a PGR in the Bristol Medical School, reflects on what she learned from entering the competition — and what it meant to win it.

The challenge…

Earlier this year, the Jean Golding Institute (the University’s centre for data-intensive research) and the Office for National Statistics announced a joint ‘Data Challenge’, inviting teams to find out if loneliness was associated with movement for the purpose of education using ONS open data and their newly created ‘Loneliness Index’.

The entry had to lay out the analysis you had used in the form of a blog post. My PhD research focuses on applying data science methods to data about mental health, so I was keen to get involved!

Planning our entry

Following the initial information session, my friend Tiff and I decided to enter — though with her living and working in London and me living in Wales, we knew it would be a bit of a challenge to find opportunities to actually do the work.

In the end, we both worked remotely to decide on which datasets we would use and how to analyse them, and then came together for a weekend to do the actual analysis we had planned.

After a couple of late nights working on our entry, we were pretty pleased with what we’d achieved in the time that we had. We both learned a lot about working with government data, and both of us picked up a lot of R tips and tricks from each other; Tiff knows a lot about data manipulation and interactive data visualisations, whereas I knew more about the statistical modelling side. What I learned from Tiff also ended up helping me out with some data dilemmas I had been having in my research.

What happened next?

Finding out we had won was very exciting for us both — we had had a lot of fun working together on our entry (as someone has since said to me, only two mathematicians would call a weekend of data analysis ‘fun’), so were really pleased that the JGI and ONS liked what we came up with.

Later, we were told that they particularly liked the novel metrics we had created with the data, and that we had presented the results as reader-friendly for a non-expert audience. The outputs from the competition have been passed on to the team in the ONS working on this project, so hopefully some of our ideas will be taken forwards.

Of course, the prize money was very exciting for us both, but we also got the opportunity to visit the ONS Data Science Campus for the day and give a presentation about our results (I was very thankful for all the presentation practice I’ve been making myself do this year). On our visit, we also met with staff working at the Data Science Campus and got to hear about some of the cool projects they are working on, with a view to using data science for public good.

Would we do it again?

Definitely! I would really recommend getting involved next time if it’s something you are considering — sometimes it’s just nice to have a project outside of your PhD research to give your brain a chance to work on a new problem for a while, and I think that’s one of the main benefits I personally got from taking part.

If you’re interested in seeing our entry, it’s currently on our GitHub page and is also due to be published on the ONS website shortly.

Find out more about Nina’s research on her personal blog — and by following her on Twitter.