8 things we learned from our PGR panel

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

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

But first, some introductions. The panellists were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Collaboration creates confidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Take opportunities to push yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Academics are there to help you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then and now: a look back on the Year in the Life of a PhD

University of Bristol

Over the course of the past year we have brought together a diverse group of researchers, each completing a doctoral degree across a range of subjects, and at various points in their studies. Each of these researchers have provided unique insights into what completing a PhD is like, as they shared their experiences from week to week. As the ‘Year in the Life of a PhD’ draws to a close, we caught up with some of our researchers to reflect on where they were a year ago and to see how far they have come over the past year.

Wingrove_1Louise Wingrove, third-year postgraduate researcher in the department of Drama: Theatre, Film and Television.

A year ago I was nervously waiting to deliver a my first paper at a conference (which quickly became three conferences!) and was about to start teaching.  Although these things were important to me, and I was really looking forward to them, the health problems I was also experiencing at the time and fact that I was approaching my final year did worry me more than I allowed myself to admit.

In the last year I have thoroughly enjoying delivering my first conference papers and teaching on my first module.  I have seen my writing published for the first time in the wonderful ‘What the Frock book of funny women’ and been offered further writing opportunities.  Most importantly, I have learnt to be far kinder to myself and accept my limitations, which has in turn resulted in a massive improvement in my productivity and thesis work.  Through writing blog posts and agreeing to collaborate on a play about Jenny Hill for the excellent HIDden Theatre company I have begun to see how my research can be seen by and interest the wider world and, though the obvious concerns of post PhD employment still plague me, I feel excited and hopeful to see what the future holds.  Providing I can get the thesis written and handed in of course!

Photo of Richard BuddRichard Budd, recent graduate from the Graduate School of Education

A year ago I was just about to submit my thesis, and was more or less at the end of my tether, having a young family, full-time work, and finally, finally, finally getting my PhD to the stage my supervisors were happy with. The year since then has mostly been about passing my viva, working, developing my profile through CPD and publication/impact activities, and applying for jobs. In a way it’s been frustrating because I didn’t know much about post-PhD employability back then but I certainly do now. Then, in the space of three weeks from the end of April this year, we welcomed our baby girl to the world and I was offered a (permanent!!!) job as a Lecturer in Education Studies at Liverpool Hope University. We’re moving house in about six weeks and the new job starts in September! I’ve barely had a chance to draw breath.

Madeline_BurkeMadeline Burke, third-year postgraduate researcher in the department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine

A year ago I was very worried about my PhD, whether I was doing enough work, was I good enough, etc. But over the past year I’ve really learnt to manage my demons. It really helped reading other people’s blog posts and seeing how they were handling the aspects of the PhD that I found hard!

Sarah_JoseSarah Jose, third-year postgraduate researcher in plant science

A year ago I was halfway through my PhD with a lot of questions and not many answers. Now I am heading towards the final stages of laboratory-based research, and have started to get some answers that inevitably lead to more questions! At first this was causing me a lot of stress, thinking I’d never be “finished”. Now I realise that’s the nature of novel research – it’s based on exploring interesting questions unearthed by previous work. I’ve still got a way to go before I’m satisfied with the answers I’ve got though!

University of BristolRhiannon Easterbrook, second-year PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History

This time last year I was spending long days in the Grad School, preparing my upgrade material and wondering if I would ever see summer.  Not only did I get a break but the work paid off. I passed my upgrade before launching myself into a year of new experiences: organising and presenting at conferences, teaching undergraduates, and significantly refining my approach to research. Now I’ve a good few thousand more words under by belt and much greater appreciation for both the range of duties academics cram into their time and my own resourcefulness. Still can’t wait for a summer break though.

University of BristolElspeth Robertson, final-year PhD candidate in the School of Earth Sciences

This time a year ago, I had three half-finished chapters and I was starting to knuckle down for the final slog. I was quite intimidated by the thought of how much I still had to do (both actual science  and writing), but I was starting to get a nervous excitement about the prospect of finishing. During the course of the year, I have handed in, successfully defended my thesis, submitted my corrections and I am due to graduate this month. Currently, I am relieved it is all over!

University of BristolDominika Bijos, final-year PhD candidate in Physiology and Pharmacology

A year ago I won the 3MT competition during the turbulent summer of writing my thesis. Final stages of writing coincided with fast-tract realisation that life post-PhD might not be easy. I submitted, defended (no corrections!), moved cities, went to Canada as a visiting scientist, came back, graduated in February and worked on a new project for a few months still in Bristol. I co-organise (4th year running) a conference for early career researchers in my field – all of it from attracting funding to on the day details – it’s my contribution to the community 🙂 Now I work on my CPD.

I enjoyed writing for BDC so much I started my own blog at www.scienceyesorknow.com.

University of BristolRebecca Ingle, second-year PhD student in the Bristol Laser Group in the School of Chemistry

In a year, it doesn’t seem like a lot has changed. This time last year, I was working in Japan and now, I’m back there again, trying some new and exciting experiments. The end of the second year of my PhD is drawing worryingly close and sometimes, given the slow nature of research, I find myself wondering what I’ve actually achieved. However, when I attend seminars or look at new experimental set-ups, it’s clear that I’ve actually learnt a huge amount since I started. The challenge for me this coming year is more of the same, keep persevering, learning everything I can and writing things up.

University of BristolJames Hickey, final-year PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences

This time last year I was scrambling around to gather the data for my final thesis chapter, whilst simultaneously working on the penultimate chapter. I was also lucky enough to take a 6-week study visit at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, which was the perfect way to escape the rigours of my regular office/email/department and solely focus on my own work.

Nine months later I was finished and submitted my thesis. I am now waiting to graduate and working as a postdoc with my PhD supervisor to finish off some side projects and write up some papers. I’ll then be moving to Clermont Ferrand in France to take up a new postdoc position at the University of Blaise Pascal (while frantically searching for the Holy Grail – a permanent position…!).

The whole experience has been stressful, exhilarating, exhausting and manic in equal measure. But I’m glad I did it.

tessa profile v3Tessa Coombes, first-year postgraduate researcher in the School for Policy Studies

Just 1 year ago I was in the middle of writing my MSc dissertation, whilst also thinking about applying to do a PhD. It seems like a long time ago now, but also it’s gone really quickly. I can’t quite believe I’ve nearly finished my first year (surely I should have made more progress than this in a year?). I’m currently at the stage of putting together all the documentation I need for my “Progression Review”, what they used to call an Upgrade Report. So I’m grappling with writing up my theoretical framework and methodology, along with a recognition of the ethical implications of an ethnographic study! All this so I can actually begin my fieldwork in time for the lead-in to the 2016 Mayoral election in Bristol.

I’ve really enjoyed my first year, there have been ups and downs, but I would expect that. It’s been challenging but also exciting, interesting and thought provoking. I’ve learnt so much in what is actually a short space of time, but I have such a very long way still to go. If anything, my interest and excitement about my research has continued to grow throughout the year and I can’t wait to get started on my fieldwork.

It’s not just all about the data

IMG_1192Emily Hicks joined the BDC as Postgraduate Research Data and Partnerships Officer in March 2014, moving internally from the Student Data and Information Team. Before that, she worked in local government. In her BDC role, she produces reports on all aspects of postgraduate research student data and information as well as administering the PRES survey, developing the PGR Directory, supporting the doctoral training partnership portfolio and generally getting involved in lots of different aspects of the BDC’s work.

Since joining the University in January 2013, my roles have always meant that I primarily deal with students as numbers in a spreadsheet. Obviously, this is not how I see students: for example a trip to Sainsbury’s at lunchtime definitely reminds me that this is not true!

As PGR Data and Partnerships Officer at the BDC, I have been able to look closely at the way students are recorded in the University’s database and create reports to find out more about the make-up of the student body. What strikes me is that our postgraduate research student profile is not easy to define in data terms, as there are so many different paths and journeys that you are all going through.

It would seem unusual for me to write a blog post without sharing a bit of data, so here are 5 facts about University of Bristol’s PGR student body in the 14/15 academic year so far:

  • 54% of PGR students identify as male
  • 37% of PGR students are not from the UK
  • 25% of PGR students are studying for an award in something other than a PhD
  • PGR students represent a total of 103 different nationalities
  • The Faculty of Science is the largest faculty with 29% of the student body, following by Social Sciences and Law (22%), Engineering (18%), Arts (13%) and Medical and Veterinary sciences and Medicine and Dentistry (9% each).

As much as I enjoy looking at these data snippets, I often find myself thinking about the people behind the numbers. No more so than these past few months where I have been privileged to administer the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey 2015. I say privileged because reading through the comments and results have given me a real insight into the issues, concerns, priorities and feelings that you have. Some of the comments have been really interesting and will shape how I think about the postgraduate research experience. I have not done a PhD myself – I would love to one day – but I feel a responsibility to learn about these issues and ensure that I consider them in all I do – even data reporting. There were so many comments about finding a sense of community, and looking to network academically or interact socially outside of usual research group or school. Bristol Doctoral College recognises this and it has been great to attend recent events such as the Festival of Postgraduate Research and the 3MT where students from all across the university could interact together.

This upcoming year is going to be very different for me as I am going on maternity leave at the end of July. This is an exciting, new challenge in my own life and career path. It got me wondering how many postgraduate research students also have children at home – or how many are expecting a baby throughout their studies? This may seem like a thought in the distant future for many of you, but for a number of students balancing books and babies is the norm. Despite the wealth of data available to me, sadly I am unable to get a percentage figure of the number of PGR parents we have at the University of Bristol.

Rather than just sit and wonder quietly to myself, I wanted to do something. What started with a small notice in the BDC Bulletin asking if there are any parents out there who may want to get together, now has become a ‘Google Group’. Its aim is to bring together postgraduate research students who have children: mothers, fathers, expectant parents or even those just thinking about it.  It is still early days and there is a lot of potential for it to grow. Anyone can join the group and post useful tips, ask advice and arrange get-togethers.  I see this as your group – I just happened to have set it up.

Please take a look and request to join:

Web link: https://groups.google.com/d/forum/bristol-pgr-parents

Or Google groups:https://groups.google.com/search: Bristol-pgr-parents

It seems clear that everyone’s experience can vary from faculty to faculty, so having a shared forum will hopefully mean that you can get some friendly advice from those who have gone through a similar time. One of the things I have achieved, working with the Equality and Diversity team, is widening Maternity Connections to PGR students. This is an initiative whereby staff, and now PGR students, can contact those who are prepared to share their experience of life as a working parent. There are some academics, breastfeeding experts, as well as professional staff who have undertaken postgraduate research study involved as well. This has only recently been opened to PGR students and I hope this can be a useful source of information for you if you wish to use it.

If you are curious, then please request to join and hopefully this will continue to grow and develop.

So, as I approach my final few weeks before maternity leave, I would like to say thanks to the Bristol Doctoral Team for being great colleagues, and good luck to everyone for the next academic year.

The art of writing

tessa profile v3Tessa Coombes is a first year postgraduate researcher in the School for Policy Studies. Her research will explore housing policy and agenda setting during the Bristol Mayoral election next year. The research stems form a desire to develop a better understanding of the role local elections and new models of local governance have on framing policy agendas.

I’ve always enjoyed writing, even if I don’t always do it well. I find it a creative process, that brings to life all those thoughts and ideas, commentary and debate that whirl around in my head, but frequently have no real outlet. Writing has been a part of every job I’ve had, in different ways and for very different audiences. I’ve had to adapt and develop my own style to respond to the demands of others, and to work to other people’s deadlines that often serve to stifle my own creative process. But, nonetheless, I enjoy writing. I write for fun and have my own blog. I also write contributions to local news websites and magazines, such as Bristol 24-7 and The Bristol Cable, and for the professional press like the Planner Magazine. All of these provide an opportunity to write about things of interest to me, sometimes related to my research but often not, where I can freely express my opinion. That’s part of the fun of writing.

Over the last couple of years I have had to get used to a different kind of writing, one that is more controlled and evidenced, that fits with particular conventions. Last year, when doing an MSc, back in the academic world for the first time in over 20 years, I had to complete formal assignments and a dissertation. This involved a form of writing that was entirely different to anything I have done in a long time.  Then this year, embarking on my PhD, I have once more had to develop my style further into academia, a style change I find both challenging and rewarding. Challenging because my inclination is to keep things simple, use simple language and keep away from jargon. Rewarding because when it works and I can combine simplicity with complexity there is a real feeling of achievement.

My approach to writing is to see it as a creative output, something that occurs naturally for me in response to learning. After all, what’s the point of all that learning if you can’t share it with other people? A blank page, for me, is an opportunity to articulate and share, rather than something to be scared of. Writing is like creating a painting, there are different layers that are needed to build the picture, which on their own make little sense, but together they can evolve into something worthwhile, a masterpiece that others will enjoy. I view writing my PhD in a similar way. There are layers that I will write at different times, continuously throughout the process, that need to come together into a coherent story at the end. There’s a complexity to this writing process, in terms of debate and argument, analysis and detail. But there’s also a simplicity about it, where carefully crafted pure and simple arguments can be brought together into quite a simple story. A story that will grab the readers attention, and will slowly but surely take them through the complexity in a way that makes sense. In a way that brings them to your conclusions with a sense of understanding and agreement.

There’s lots of advice to students about how to write, much of which suggests you set yourself a daily writing target, which you then stick to no matter what. I can see why the discipline of this is important and why it must work for many people, but I’ve tried this approach and for me the writing that comes from it is stifled, boring and constrained. If I’m not in the mood to write, then forcing myself to write just doesn’t work. I’ve written assignments like that and when I go back to read them I can tell that it was forced rather than creative thoughts that made up the report or essay. The work is dull and it’s lacking in energy, even if the points made are the right ones, the style is very different. I prefer an approach that feels more creative, one that has routine, but is based on my preferences, rather than someone else’s (there’s a good discussion here on creating routine when writing, drawing on the work of Ronald Kellog).

When I first begin the process of writing something new I try to avoid the clutter and distraction of notes generated from my reading. I start with a blank page. I then try to form my thoughts on what I have read into a short discussion of key arguments, issues and themes. I do this without the clutter of referencing and acknowledging who said what and how. I do it from memory, from thoughts that occur to me from reading my notes and I do it when I am feeling creative and able to write fluidly. For me this works, most of the time! Of course, sometimes the creativity is just not there, it’s beyond my grasp, I can’t think where to start or how to structure my thoughts. I’ve come to recognise those times and instead I do something else with my time, like more reading, organising files, and literature searching. All the time continually mulling over the story I want to tell and trying to work out how I can construct it. I may also use this thinking and reflecting time to write something else, something less constrained, where I can write freely without the confines of academic convention – something like a blog maybe! Eventually, often after much reflection, I am ready to write and can go back to the writing that needs to be done.

The challenge of writing is an integral part of any PhD. The only advice I have on writing is to do what works for you, try different approaches and look back on what’s worked when you’ve written things before. But above all, enjoy it, it’s a precious opportunity to express yourself, articulate your thoughts and tell the story of your PhD for others to enjoy.

Closure: the thesis and the viva

University of BristolJames Hickey recently completed his PhD in the School of Earth Sciences. His research focused on unravelling the mechanisms that cause volcanoes to become restless prior to eruptions. Ultimately, the aim is to improve our understanding of precursory signals to enhance forecasting and mitigation efforts.

It’s been a long and winding road, but I’ve reached the final hurdle – minor post-viva corrections. So while everything is still fresh (or permanently etched into my mind!) I thought I would share some of my thoughts on the thesis write-up and viva process.

I didn’t have a long write-up period at the end of my studies – I started writing in my first year, and continued to write throughout in the form of a series of papers. I think this helped keep me slightly saner at the end of the 3.5 years, but don’t get me wrong; the last few months still weren’t easy!

My supervisor was very proactive from the start at getting me to think of my work in terms of publications, and this soon bore fruition. I managed to publish 3 papers before I started writing my thesis proper, with my fourth and final science chapter/study now currently in prep for publication.

When it came to the piecing together of my actual thesis I made sure I was being as efficient as possible with my time. As I still had a few models to run for my final science chapter, I used this time to simultaneously start formatting my thesis. I used LaTeX for this, which has numerous advantages over something like Microsoft Word – this could be a blog post in itself, so I won’t go into it here. But if you are thinking of using LaTeX I’ve made my thesis template freely available online, and it meets all of the University of Bristol rules and regulations (as far as I’m aware).

In the end, my thesis consisted of three science chapters from my papers, plus one additional science chapter. To me, I think this is roughly where the end line should be drawn. I feel like the additional chapters (introduction, methods, conclusions, etc.) are mostly unnecessary. Each science chapter usually has its own introductions, methods, and conclusions – so why the need to repeat? At the end of the day, maybe 5 people maximum are going to read the full thesis (the student, maybe two supervisors, and two examiners), while (hopefully) many more people will read the science chapters when they’re published. I feel it would make much more sense to be able to simply submit 3 or 4 solid science chapters, with maybe a couple pages each for some pre- and post-amble that ties things together in view of an overall bigger picture. No waffle – just good, original, science. (N.B. I can’t speak for the process in faculties other than science, where concepts, logistics and PhD theses may be vastly different.)

My viva came a month and a half after my thesis hand-in. A few days before I got ‘the fear’ – something I’ve not felt since I sat my (somewhat underprepared) undergraduate exams. I had spent most of my time trying to write a paper that my viva crept up on me, leaving me with just two days either side of a wedding weekend to ‘prepare’. Naturally I googled ‘viva prep’, which mostly suggested a week or so of going through potential questions and preparing answers. I instead used my time to read through my entire thesis, and think about it in a critical way; assessing where it could be improved and how it fits into the broader scientific picture I was addressing.

Going into my viva I was hoping that the 3 published papers in my thesis would be mostly free from the examiners onslaught. I was wrong.

My two examiners went through my thesis from cover to cover and picked everything apart: “why did you do this?”, “why did you choose this value?”, “why didn’t you do this?”, “I don’t really like this”, “you could have done this”, “why didn’t you do this?” (again). It’s like they don’t know that we’re mostly scrambling to get the thesis finished in as close to the 3 or 3.5 years of funding we are afforded (with 4 being more like the normal PhD timeframe in my department these days). I know some people say they enjoy their viva, but I was unfortunately not one of them – 2.5 hours with next to no positive comments for the amount of work put in was somewhat demoralising (and also slightly off-putting of a future career in academia).

I did stand my ground, however. On more than one occasion I even had to interrupt the examiners and ask to speak as I had the rebuttal on the tip of my tongue but was struggling to squeeze a word in. In other cases, it was only after my viva that I thought of the most scientifically appropriate comeback. You win some, you lose some. I guess it is a defence of your work at the end of the day…

Defense
Maybe this would have been a better approach. Image credit: XKCD.

I eventually emerged victorious (yay!), to bountiful cheese, wine, olives and Jagermeister – subject to minor revisions that is. If only the post-viva period was like a paper review and I could write back with my rebuttal arguments for the points where I couldn’t think of them during the viva. Oh well. I was also asked to lengthen my conclusions and methods chapters (boo!). I still don’t understand why, and I probably never will, especially as only the internal examiner and myself will ever see them.

Regardless, I’ll look back on my PhD journey as a positive one. I have improved myself in many ways, met some amazing people, and travelled to some incredible places. I will also be able to address myself as Dr if I so please.

To anyone nearing the end – hang in there. It may not seem like it right now, but it will all be worth it.

Viva celebration
A good viva celebration makes it all worthwhile. Image credit: Fabian Wadsworth.

So long, farewell, and thanks for all the cake

University of BristolRebecca Ingle is a second year PhD student in the Bristol Laser Group in the School of Chemistry. Her research involves studying photodissociation dynamics in both the gas and solution phase using a combination of laser experiments and computational chemistry methods.

Avid followers of Chemistry’s ‘Friday Good News’ might know that it has been a rather busy week for the Bristol Laser Group, with three PhD vivas in two days. Apparently, the book of Guinness World Records doesn’t have an entry for ‘most PhD vivas completed in a week,’ but I suspect we’d be in the running for the record.

Vivas mark the end of the huge amount of work involved in a PhD and are strange times for everyone involved. For the candidates, there is the whole gamut of emotions, from the terrifying pre-viva wait to the exhausted relief when it is all over. For the older PhD students, it is an uncomfortable reminder of data that has yet to be collected and experiments that are yet to work. As well as being a celebratory time, it is often a sad goodbye to colleagues.

Post-viva
A post-viva Steph modelling a stylish ‘I <3 Lasers’ hat – coming soon to all good designer boutiques near you

Sometimes academia can feel a bit like a revolving door of new colleagues and contacts. New students roll through the doors in September, the Master’s students disappear in May and throughout the year, both PhDs and postdocs move onto pastures new. Both friends and collaborators tend to live at the opposite end of the country (if you’re lucky) or even on different continents.

Cake
The obligatory three-tier celebratory cake left in the presence of PhD students for five minutes

As part of a PhD, you will end up meeting an overwhelming number of people and it quickly becomes impractical to keep in contact with most of them. I’ve met so many people over the last 18 months that I’m surprised I can remember half their names. To avoid this, a lot of networking courses recommend keeping a ‘Stalker Book’ (not the phrase they use). You use this to keep note of everyone you meet on the conference circuit, as well as various details about them. To me, this sounds rather creepy but the idea of this circumvents the embarrassing situation where you meet someone who knows you and your research well but you have no idea who they are, which has thankfully only happened to me once.

Email is a wonderful thing for keeping in touch in the modern era of mobility and conferences will become a great time for catching up with others in your field. Generally I find most people in academia understand that a quarterly email and biennial visit is the foundation of a solid friendship. Don’t be surprised, though, if any social correspondence continually ends up being prefaced with ‘I’m sorry for the late reply but…’ though do be warned, these tactics may not work so well on family members.

Congratulations to our three new doctors!

Bringing science and art together with the ‘Land of the Summer People’ project

www.thelandofthesummerpeople.org

Ludovica Beltrame – Engineering PhD candidate with the Water Informatics: Science and Engineering (WISE) CDT

The Somerset Levels and Moors are a low lying region prone to frequent flooding due to a range of environmental and human factors. The history of drainage and flooding in the Levels is rich and unique, yet its present condition is unstable and its future uncertain. Winter 2013-14 for example saw extensive floods in the Levels that attracted significant media attention and triggered debate on how such events can be mitigated in the future. The Land of the Summer People Science & Art project brings together engineering PhD students with local artists to increase public awareness and understanding of the Somerset floods. Scientific understanding and traditional engineering tools are combined with the artists’ creativity to prompt discussions about the area’s relationship with floods in a medium designed to be accessible and enjoyable.

Working at this project was an unprecedented experience. Not only it was a chance to explain something that we do to a wider public, but also an opportunity to learn something ourselves that we do not usually learn from data and numerical analyses.

The topic my group chose to focus on is the future of flooding in the Somerset Levels and Moors. The starting point was our scientific knowledge about the topography of the area, the current action plan, and climate and land use change potentially impacting flooding in the future. From here, guided by the artist we were working with, we went through a process thinking about how we could convey this information. How do we communicate to the future? How do we communicate to the present to shape the future? There was the need of some research and experimentation, but in a new different way compared to what we are used to. This time it was all about thinking about how to engage with the public, what techniques to use, what materials to employ.

lotsp-3

We came up with the idea of making a flood survival kit, containing several items bringing together ideas about causes and impacts of flooding in the area, as well as symbolic tools for adapting to floods. The plan was to give our kits to people walking on the street and start conversations about flooding, aiming at raising awareness on the topic and stimulating interest and responses. The performance took place in Taunton on March 17th. At first, it was exciting and scary at the same time: howto approach people? Will they be keen on talking with us? What will they expect? What will they tell us? However, very soon we felt much more comfortable and giving our kits not only provided us with the chance to talk about our project, but also opened the opportunity for establishing deeper connections with people, sharing stories and memories. Studying the physical processes of floods or the topography of the area does not make you aware of the experience of flooding and the effects the local communities have to cope with. Most of the people we met and talked to had actually experienced flooding or knew someone who had experienced it and it was interesting engaging and listening to their stories.

For us engineers, finding an alternative way to talk about flooding was challenging. However, using art to communicate with people turned out to be a nice way of generating interesting discussions and adopting a different perspective helped us understanding aspects of what we study and work on that data cannot teach us.

Bringing science and art together with the ‘Land of the Summer People’ project

www.thelandofthesummerpeople.org

Laurence Hawker – Engineering PhD candidate with the Water Informatics: Science and Engineering (WISE) CDT

The Somerset Levels and Moors are a low lying region prone to frequent flooding due to a range of environmental and human factors. The history of drainage and flooding in the Levels is rich and unique, yet its present condition is unstable and its future uncertain. Winter 2013-14 for example saw extensive floods in the Levels that attracted significant media attention and triggered debate on how such events can be mitigated in the future. The Land of the Summer People Science & Art project brings together engineering PhD students with local artists to increase public awareness and understanding of the Somerset floods. Scientific understanding and traditional engineering tools are combined with the artists’ creativity to prompt discussions about the area’s relationship with floods in a medium designed to be accessible and enjoyable.

After months of work, the day of the exhibition finally came. With a sense of curiosity mixed with a dose of trepidation, we met at the Exeter community centre to set up. As we were uploading the works and strategically positioning in the room, I was struck by the diversity of works – from drawings that exuded characteristics of medieval maps to mobile numbers engraved on stones that replied with informative quotes. Yet they all had a common theme in their interactivity showing how this common space between art and engineering can be used to convey a message. It was also interesting to note that despite the works being completed, the presentation and organisation within the room was carefully considered in order to not only look aesthetically pleasing but to also effectively communicate our work.

Comments expressed during the exhibition were encouraging with healthy interaction between the public and exhibitors. On the most part, the visitors seemed to understand the messages being conveyed, which was certainly aided by the artistic element. Visitor feedback was positive and certainly builds a solid foundation for future projects which is thankfully being planned. Apart from being informative, the exhibition created a friendly, relaxed atmosphere in which the presented concepts could be discussed.

On a personal note: whilst all of us are a part of our particular departments we are also part of a wider university and even society as a whole. Thus, sometimes we need to dismantle our boundaries and prejudices to other disciplines and areas to take in their ideas so more people can understand our research. Ultimately, if no one can understand our work it is futile. Thus, even though projects like the Land of the Summer People are not all always available, it is still easy to read papers or attend lectures from other disciplines, and I would highly encourage anyone to do this. Even from my limited experience of coming from a geography background into engineering, I can safely say that I have taken a lot from both disciplines. This doesn’t make me any better than someone who has stuck to one discipline, but it has opened my eyes to different practices and language that are used. You never know what you might learn!

Never JUST a PhD student

University of BristolDominika Bijoś recently received her PhD in Physiology and Pharmacology. She studied smooth muscle contraction and examined how other cell types influence it in bladder tissue and in the whole organ. Initially, she used molecular and cell biology techniques, but spent last year watching and analysing moving bladders and the conclusion was – they dance the samba!

Whether you are at the beginning of your PhD journey or finishing up, remember: never be JUST a PhD student. I’m speaking from experience. Throughout my PhD journey I hated that pitiful statement: “oh, you are just a PhD student”. Out of this frustration two things came out: I became MORE than a PhD student and I realized you should never let yourself be JUST a PhD student.

Let me explain.

The “just a PhD student” can come from two sources:

The general public still think you are a student

First are friends and family, who attribute the word STUDENT to a NON-REAL profession. I had to explain that I work usually more than 35h a week, sometimes during the weekends and I am a real member of the workforce. I convinced friends that my job is to research how and why X works and why it is important for real life application. To make sure you are taken seriously by the general public might be the easier task of the two.

Fellow scholars might overlook you at times

The second group who will call you JUST a PhD student (in my experience) are SOME fellow scholars. They might not realize it or (rarely) do they do it on purpose, but some will treat you as a lower level worker due to your lack of experience. Without PhD students, research would have gone nowhere. Sometimes being JUST a PhD student means that your problems are considered less important. I have asked my share of questions that showed I lack the deep understanding of the subject, but also a share which were dismissed just because I asked them. The philosophy doctorate doesn’t write itself on OLD stuff. You need new discovery and discussion to get it. And I suspect that at times, more experienced members of scholar family might JUST not remember that. NEVER get discouraged by that.

Drop the JUST – you are the expert now

It might sneak up on you that you become an expert as colleagues ask your opinion more and more, but for me it was a breakthrough. I visited a group in Canada (like Rebecca, I escaped MY lab). In Toronto, my task was to teach a technique my PhD was based on. I soon realized that for them I was never JUST a PhD student. I was the expert of the technique. On top of that, I was a new but experienced perspective, so they asked my opinion on everything from how I design an experiment to how I present the results. It was my experiment so I knew what I was talking about, just the confidence part was new. I designed the experiment, conducted it, taught other researchers, analysed the data etc. It was a breakthrough in my perception of my PhD life. I definitely became more than JUST a PhD student.

Just a PhD? – never!

On top of science and technical know-how, this experience made me realize you should never let yourself be JUST a PhD student. In the process of your PhD you will become the expert scholar on the topic, but you should challenge yourself to be a good researcher and do all things that come with it: communicate, write, network…explore all the unexpected benefits of the PhD life.

Get better at what you do

You can call it enhancement of your transferable skills, the continuous professional development or whatever you want, but identify where you can improve and act. Whatever your passion or inclination do other good in the world outside of your research topic: be a leader of a hockey team, play cello, organize a conference for your fellows, write a blog, start a journal club, start sewing, learn Spanish, pursue a project outside the lab and improve there.

What I did? Well, first I got totally down with being JUST a PhD student. And on top, I felt guilty for always not doing enough research (sounds familiar?). But then I realized that I had founded a society for those in my field, advocate for open access publishing, and mentor others. I took part in the 3MT Bristol Competition (great fun, do it!). All not quite strictly research, but all making me a bit more than just a PhD student.

Why it matters? Because after a PhD is said and done, in (like Richard) or outside of academic research, you want this experience to make you more than just a PhD student. Passion, excellence, self improvement and constant growth is what makes you more than just a student. It gives you the PhD.

The PhD student as political animal

University of BristolRhiannon Easterbrook is a second-year PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History. Having gained degrees from Cambridge and UCL, she took a few years out to work but is delighted to be back in academia. Her work is on classical reception in performance and performativity in Britain, 1895-1914. She is interested in how the Edwardians used ideas from the ancient world to think about embodiment, gender, and sexuality.

I read Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha Nussbaum back in 2011.  At the time, we were looking towards the increase in tuition fees to £9000 and the drastic cuts to teaching grants for arts and humanities degrees. While I didn’t agree with every word in the book, Nussbaum’s impassioned argument in defence of the humanities as a vital component in the education of democratic citizens inspired me.  It can come as no surprise that, as a Classics student, I have a long-held belief in the benefit of humanities degrees: as an undergrad, I was challenged to develop my analytical skills to be as rigorous as possible, exposed to different ways of experiencing and understanding the world, and driven to re-evaluate what it means to be human. As far as I can see, all three of these outcomes have a political implication: how do we process the information about policies and politicians presented to us? In a heterogeneous group, what kinds of differing perspectives must we accommodate? If we are entitled to certain rights based on being members of humanity, then what does that say about being human and who gets to decide? It was unquestionable to me that studying a humanities degree was not just personal choice but a deeply political one.

But, if studying for a humanities degree is a political choice, then why have I spent so much of my PhD so far feeling like I was failing as a political animal? When climate change is an ever-present threat, conflict rages across the world and hundreds of thousands of people are using food banks in this country, studying for an advanced research degree about some classical-ish plays put on a century ago can feel at times like an indulgence and that I should somehow be going out and helping change the world.  Plus, having to juggle so many different commitments in order to stay afloat and work towards my intended career requires a great deal of attention.  (I’m aware I’ve complained about this on the blog before).  Staying focused on research and worrying about income are not necessarily conducive to staying politically active and tuned in. It also doesn’t help that the classic imposter syndrome – the plague of so many PhD students – has come along and infected this part of my life too, leaving me feeling that there is always someone else better qualified and informed to talk about the issues of the day.

Yet at the same time, I have been much more conscious of how my work as a scholar reflects my political and social interests.  Feminism has been extremely important to me since my teens. In the last few years, I have begun the process of reassessing my stance on several issues and have developed an interest in intersectional feminism. This has led to the conscious incorporation of intersectional feminist analysis in my research.  Now this has come full circle and I am ploughing what I learned in theory back into practice.  Along with a group of excellent colleagues, I am working towards establishing a society for women Classicists. An awareness of intersecting oppressions has meant that we advocated establishing positions on the committee for other minorities: people who experience oppression as women, whether they’re disabled, LGBTQIA or BME, all deserve attention paid to their specific experiences and we all need to develop our understanding of where we may be a bit more privileged.

While this only a small step in a society which is riven with so many inequalities, I hope that I can begin to do my bit. Part of this is about reaching out and keeping discussions going.  I am honoured to know so many thoughtful, insightful people – including a considerable number of brilliant women who offer mutual support and advice – people whom I would never have met had I not started my PhD.  Whether I’m marching with them at Reclaim the Night or chatting about our theses in the pub, this community inspires me to be a better person and a better researcher.

As the future of the Human Rights Act looks uncertain questions of what it means to be human may gain more attention. But as I think again about the humanities and their role in this discussion, it is now clear to me that it’s not just why we do the humanities that’s important, it’s how we do them. It’s about re-evaluating our own subject-positions and how they influence our research, remembering that there is no neutral position. It’s about the voices we privilege and the voices we sideline. How often is it acceptable to have all-male panels, for example? Do we make our work and teaching accessible? We all have to live and right now, I have chosen to live as a researcher.  However, that does not mean that I’m isolated from what happens outside the Graduate School.  I’m beginning to see more and more how, while academia might feel like part of a strange bubble, it’s really part of a much wider community, capable of reproducing social problems and able to speak in dialogue with different parts of society, like any other sector. It could well be that very few people will ever read my thesis but I know that I can take what I learned me as I go through the world.