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. 

7 tips for creating a successful online presentation

If you’re taking part in a communication contest like Three Minute Thesis (3MT) — or even just sharing your research with an audience of non-specialists — how can you ensure that your presentation is accessible and engaging? And how can you adapt your approach for virtual environments?

Dr Elizabeth Mamali, Postgraduate Researcher Development Officer in the Bristol Doctoral College, shares her top tips in a post that originally formed part of the BDC’s training for the University’s 2020 3MT competition.

1. Your voice is your greatest strength use it effectively

Your voice is a powerful tool in every presentation, but in a virtual environment in particular it becomes the most important part of your delivery.

Unlike face-to-face presentations, where stage presence can be an effective way of capturing your audience’s attention, in virtual presentations it is your volume, pace and pitch that are more likely to score you points for the ‘Engagement and Communication’ category of 3MT’s judging criteria.

Use volume to emphasise important parts. Quicken your pace to convey enthusiasm or urgency, and slow your pace when you introduce a new point.

Public speaking anxiety (and a burning desire to convey as much as possible about your research!) tends to make presenters talk too fast for the audience to absorb the information conveyed. Pay attention to your speech rate, a simple metric for how many words you speak per minute (wpm), and avoid going above the conversational speed of 120-150 wpm.

Lastly, avoid “ums” and instead pause. Strategic pauses prompt your audience to reflect on what you just said and enable them to follow what comes next. Used in the right way, a pause can have the same dramatic effect as a very loud noise.

2. Consider your language

You will be addressing a non-specialist audience, so opt for language that is neither subject-specific, nor replicating stilted conventions loved by academics all over the world such as Zombie nouns.

Language highbrow-ism *pun intended* has no place in the 3MT. As this excellent example of science communication demonstrates, it is possible to be technically accurate and accessible at the same time.

It is of course sometimes necessary and even interesting to use jargon in your presentation, but if you choose to do so you should devote time to explain the concept and why the audience should care. You may also set yourself a challenge: try to ensure that your three-minute talk is conducted within the 10,000 most-used words, which is not as easy as it sounds! Remember that language accessibility is part of the ‘Comprehension and Content’ marking category of the competition.

Last but not least, keep your sentences in active voice as this is more suitable for the spoken word and contributes towards reducing your wpm count.

3. Before you compete… warm-up!

Warming up before physical exercise is meant to prevent injuries and make the main workout more effective.

Warming up before your presentation has the same effect. If public speaking makes you anxious and you dread those minutes before you go on the stage (virtual or otherwise), one simple exercise to take you out of your misery is power posing.

Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School, argues that posing for two minutes in stances associated with confidence and power lifted chest, arms high up or propped on the hips and head held up high —  before you give a talk produces sufficient physiological differences in your body (increases in testosterone and reduction in the stress related cortisol hormone) to improve your performance. You can also try voice warm-up exercises to get your vocal cords rolling.

4. Don’t throw jelly at people

It is a given that during the 3MT you will need to communicate the significance and purpose of your research, and this will be assessed by judges under the ‘Comprehension and Content’ category.

How to go about communicating that is not straightforward, though and researchers do have a tendency of explaining things in a way that doesn’t necessarily correspond to how the audience wants to hear them.

Communications specialist Andy Bounds identifies the practice of saying too many irrelevant stuff as a common barren communication tactic, equivalent to “throwing jelly” at people and hoping that something will stick.

Instead of trying to convey every piece of detail about your project, focus on the bigger picture of why we should care. The Thesis Whisperer, Inger Mewburn, refers to this as the helicopter view of your work: how could your research change the way we feel/think/act in the future? What could it help us create or build? It may be that your research only makes a small contribution towards some bigger change that might occur one day, but that doesn’t mean you should shy away from explaining that connection and using it to elevate your pitch.

5. You only get a single visual aid get it right

The 3MT only permits you a single slide as visual aid, one with no transitions, animation or sound. The slide itself is part of what you will be judged upon under the ‘Engagement and Communication’ criterion, so it is important that you make it intrinsic to the presentation. Your visual aid doesn’t have to be complicated to be impactful.

No one demonstrates this better than Rosanna Stevens, the 3MT winner of the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences final 2014, who used an empty white slide to illustrate “white” ways of doing things that white people fail to recognise as such. What this example teaches us is that whatever is in your slide should serve a purpose. For example, it might be that your visual explains something about your research to participants that your words can’t, help you explain the story of your project through a metaphor, or induce some humour in your presentation.

6. Stage your virtual presence (before the presentation)

Stage presence can be as important as content in face-to-face presentations and the 3MT is no exception. This is another aspect that will gain you points towards the ‘Engagement and Communication’ category.

But how do you create impact when your stage is your kitchen and you are no more than a 16-inch video on someone’s screen?

For starters, consider your surroundings. A quiet room (carpeted is ideal as you will avoid echoey sound!) and a neutral background will help the audience to focus on you only. If the latter isn’t possible, just make sure your space is tidy.

You should also take care with where you place your streaming device. Use boxes or books if needed so that your webcam is at eye level, if you are presenting seated, or high enough if you are presenting standing.

The last element of staging is the lightning. If it isn’t possible to use a room that receives good natural light then consider having a desk lamp directed towards you.

7. Stage your virtual presence (during your presentation)

There are also things that you can do during your presentation to improve your stage presence.

While it is counter-intuitive not to look at your video image while talking, to create impact you should look directly into your web-camera. This will make your audience feel like you are addressing and looking at them directly.

Another aspect to consider during your presentation is you hand movements. Whether you are sitting, or standing, don’t be afraid to use your hands as you would in a face to face presentation. Research suggests that presentations where hands do some of the talking are far more popular than those featuring idle hands.


Want to find out more about the University’s 3MT competition? Visit the Bristol Doctoral College’s Three Minute Thesis page.

7 steps for planning a successful live webinar

A virtual chat involving four cartoon PGRs

Do you have teaching responsibilities, or are you thinking about putting together a PGR-led seminar or writers’ retreat? Read our top tips for leading a live webinar.

1. Plan your content as well as modes of interaction

Keeping participants’ attention during a webinar is hard work, but a clear structure for the session and well-planned interactions can help mitigate that. Organise your content in clear themes/parts and let participants know upfront what the flow will look like.

There are many forms of interaction that you can build into your session depending on the platform you are using. Consider including opportunities for participants to ask questions via their microphones, setting them short tasks and asking them to contribute via the chat box (this encourages those that are less forthcoming to interact as well).

Through some platforms, such as Zoom, you can also put participants in smaller ‘break-out’ style web-rooms to enable small group discussion.

2. PowerPoint is your friend … most of the time

Even if you are leading a session that is not content heavy (for example, a writers’ retreat), sharing PowerPoint slides during your session is a good way of ensuring that participants know what is happening at all times. For example, you can use a PowerPoint slide to signpost that you are ready to receive questions, to specify the requirements of an interactive task, to indicate that it is break time (and at what time you will resume), etc.

However, keep in mind that sharing PowerPoint slides takes up a large portion of the screen and in some cases it might be preferable to shut it down, allowing a ‘gallery’ style view of participants’ web cameras to create a stronger sense of community.

3. Practise

Before leading a live session, you should practise managing the platform of your choice. Consider organising a test-run with a few friends or colleagues. You don’t need to replicate the full session but you should go through the key motions, including any planned points of interaction.

Alternatively, if you have access to a spare laptop, use it as a ‘faux’ participant and place it next to your main device to see how things will look like for your participants.

4. Send out joining instructions

Sending out simple joining instructions will help manage your participants’ expectation. How will they access the platform? Will they be expected to use their microphone? Will they have to put their web camera on?

You should also encourage participants to join the session a few minutes before the start time so that they can test their audio/visual.

5. Provide guidance on webinar etiquette at the start of the session

Devote a few minutes at the start of the session to taking participants through your webinar etiquette. You should explain upfront what forms of interactions they can expect, how and when you will take their questions, as well as a quick overview of the key controls of the platform you are using.

6. Get yourself a ‘wingman’

If possible, ask a fellow PGR to be your session wingman. This means that you have someone ready to step in and help if any of your participants have connection issues or if you need a hand with managing conversations in the chat box.

A wingman can also help you fill any awkward silences as you are waiting for all participants to join at the start of the session, as well as during the breaks. Initiating small talk with your wingman during downtime will encourage others to participate as well and help foster a sense of community that is much needed at the moment.

7. Follow up with participants if needed

Managing time during live sessions is a tricky business and issues with technology can also eat up delivery time. If this happens to you, then don’t stress. Tell your participants that you will follow up with some written notes on content that was not covered, or send them a voice-over-PowerPoint recording. If you didn’t have enough time to take questions then encourage participants to put their queries in the chat box or email you, and then follow up with a written Q & A.

Last but not least, remember that we have all been thrown into digital modes of learning and interacting very abruptly and making mistakes is expected. It’s all about progress, not perfection.

Stay tuned for more guidance on delivering digital content in future blog posts.

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

Five reasons to apply for our ‘Skills for the Future’ Summer School

Doctoral researchers at the 2018 summer school
Doctoral researchers at the 2018 summer school

For the second year running, the BDC is organising a skills-enhancing summer school — a free, three-day workshop that’s designed to help doctoral researchers learn how to build successful collaborations with external organisations and explore opportunities beyond academia.

Below, the BDC’s Industrial PhD Programme Officer, Dr. Aby Sankaran, explains why ‘Skills for the Future’ (1–3 July) will be beneficial for those considering entrepreneurial or non-academic careers after their research degrees.

Interested in applying for the summer school, which is open to doctoral researchers from all six faculties? Make sure you read to the end …

Reflecting on my own personal experience — and feedback from our previous year’s summer school — these are the reasons any doctoral researcher should apply for ‘Skills for the Future’:

1. You’ll learn about the support that exists within the University

Did you know that the University of Bristol was a top-ten university for spin-outs in 2018? Attending the summer school will be a great way to explore entrepreneurial ideas, get a better understanding of intellectual property (IP) — and hear directly from the Head of Commercialisation about what the University can do for you!

2. It’s hands-on learning about agile thinking

Everybody has great ideas (sometimes) — but what’s key is actually identifying the potential in these ideas, irrespective of the subject area. Evolving your thinking, and looking beyond ‘PhD’, ‘paper publication’ and ‘thesis’, is a step towards realising that potential.

At ‘Skills for the Future’, you’ll explore the key competencies required to work in a hybrid research/industry interface. Who knows? Your idea or research interest could be the next big solution to our global challenges.

3. You’ll hone your critical thinking and problem solving

There is no such thing as an easy PhD. Every project has hurdles, and the best-laid plans of mice and PhD students can get crushed.

How you cope with these issues, though, is what matters. Can you think critically to solve problems and convert threats into opportunities? The summer school is a chance to hear successful alumni share their experiences and the key lessons they’ve learned.

4. Wondering where to start with a start-up? This is Commercialisation 101

You’ve spotted a potential opportunity or you’ve had a superb idea. So what’s next?

The challenge is communicating this to different stakeholders to get their buy-in. What do you need to do to plan and prioritise? How do you raise funding and pitch your ideas? What tools do you have for negotiation? How do you sort out cash flow and finance? ‘Skills for the Future’ is an opportunity to explore, in detail, the issues you’ll face when you take an idea to market — and how you can start preparing now.

5. Meet and build a peer group of like-minded entrepreneurs

You may think that being an expert in your specific field is enough to succeed. Not so. You still have to work with a number of different people, whether it’s policy makers, HR, engineers, stakeholder, customers — or even the people in your own team. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a peer group that you can develop and share ideas with?

The summer school is chance to meet doctoral researchers, from a wide range of disciplines, who are on the same path. Who knows? You might even find your own team or next business partner at the event.


Ready to apply for three jam-packed days of activities and learning, all designed to help you increase the economic and societal impact of your research? Visit our Skills for the Future Summer School page and complete the application form before 9am on Monday 24 June 2019.

If you have any questions about the course, please contact Dr. Aby Sankaran.

Skills for the Future is organised by the Bristol Doctoral College, and facilitated by Spin Up Science and QTEC.

7 gifts the PGR Hub gave us in 2018

The PGR Hub with floating text: '7 gifts from the PGR Hub'

As the staff of the BDC reflect on the joys and tidings 2018 has given us and our wider PGR community, we can’t help but return to the one gift that has kept on giving: our brand-new PGR Hub space. It’s only been open since October, but it’s already had a huge (and positive) impact on Bristol’s PGRs.

Here are seven of our Hub highlights — and some ideas on how you can make the most of this new space in 2019.

1. Putting PGR personal and professional development front-and-centre

The University’s Personal and Professional Development (PPD) programme for PGRs is now based primarily in one central location, thanks to the establishment of the PGR Hub. Our research students can come along to one consistent space to find out what’s coming up in our schedule of over 100 free workshops, seminars and courses run around researcher development.

Since the Hub opening in October earlier this year, over 45 courses, workshops and groups in total have taken place in one of our dedicated training rooms. Highlights include brand new courses that focus on different stages of a research degree: ‘Getting going’, ‘Maintaining momentum’, and ‘Finishing up and forging ahead’ help you plan and manage your degree according to which stage you find yourself in. ‘Thesis Boot Camp’, a residential writing programme for those writing up, also took place over three days in November. Check out upcoming PPD courses through our online catalogue.

2. Not one – but two! – seasonal Hub Quizzes

The Hub isn’t just about training and development, though. Bringing together PGRs from different parts of the University to meet one another and have fun is a big part of the Hub’s mission. The BDC hosted two ‘Hub quizzes’ themed around Halloween and the winter festive season — opportunities for PGRs to take a break, tackle our trivia-tastic questions… and endure some truly terrible puns

As we enter 2019 and look ahead at our upcoming seasons — Valentine’s Day, the Easter break, maybe even an April Fool’s themed quiz — we’re asking our PGRs to volunteer themselves as host! Get in touch with us if you think you can outpun our punstoppable punchlines so far.

3. WriteFest

WriteFest 2108 logo | cartoon person typing on a laptop

November saw researchers and research students alike join in with Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo). The University joined in for WriteFest, a month dedicated to support around writing for academic purposes. Altogether, our PGRs who took part wrote a total of 349,229 over the course of 30 days — an astounding figure! A big part of how we achieved this was through hosting Thesis Boot Camp, Writers’ Retreats, and Drop-in writing days in the Hub.

Of course, WriteFest wasn’t just about hitting targets – but about developing healthy, professional writing habits. Check out our WriteFest roundup for our most important takeaways and tips. From January, we’ll be hosting regular drop-in writing retreats every Friday in the Hub.

4. Calming Crafternoons

One of our favourite activities going on in the PGR Hub is the ‘calming Crafternoon’ – an afternoon dedicated entirely to mindfulness activities such as knitting, colouring, jigsaw puzzling or sketching. We provide the supplies, and our PGRs supply themselves! Even if you don’t want to take part in a specific activity, there’s free tea and coffee on hand to help you relax and unwind.

Do you have an activity you’d like to bring, a skill you’d like to share, or an idea for supporting mindfulness? Get in touch with us and let’s make it happen!

5. The introduction of our TA Talk series

A huge part of supporting our PGR community is to support doctoral researchers who teach. The Hub is host to the newly established ‘TA Talks’ series, which consists of loosely-themed sessions designed around peer-networking, support resources and development opportunities around the University. The first two talks featured appearances from the Digital Education Office and the Bristol Doctoral College.

The next TA talk takes place on 22 January, and invites early career academics from the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching (BILT) to discuss how their own teaching experiences influenced their research and career pathways. Sign up via Eventbrite.

6. Sharing PGR experiences in working with industry

PGRs Sam Brooks and Robert Dibble shared their experiences on placements they undertook this summer as part of the National Productivity Investment Fund. PGRs interested in learning more about the benefits of placement opportunities were invited to hear them speak and ask questions over free pizza in the Hub. The value of getting established in industry settings are that they open employability doors beyond the world of academia. Placements broaden your skill set, complement your research, and provide experience in a professional setting.

Our next discussion about placements features a special guest from Aardman Animations to share her experiences of working in Creative Industries. Join us in the Hub on 22 January.

7. Welcoming new PhD scholars to Bristol’s PGR community

China Scholarship Council – University of Bristol (CSC-UoB) Joint PhD Scholars

The Hub provided an ideal location to welcome to Bristol our new cohort of China Scholarship Council – University of Bristol (CSC-UoB) Joint PhD Scholars. Returning students were invited to share their experiences of Bristol both as a city and a research-intensive University, and new students were encouraged to share their hopes and ambitions for the next few years.

The Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise, Professor Nishan Canagarajah, welcomed the scholars with a heartfelt message about his own experiences as an international postgraduate scholar, and the importance of finding and building relationships and support systems within one’s wider research community.

Since this event, the PGR Hub has been a space dedicated to helping our PGRs build those relationships and establish those support systems for themselves and with one another.

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.