A PhD student guide to Twitter

Sarah_JoseSarah Jose is third-year postgraduate researcher in plant science. Her research focuses on how plants limit water loss by producing a waterproof coating and pores that can close to prevent water from leaving the leaf. She spends a lot of time looking down the microscope at nail varnish impressions of leaves!

Think Twitter is for keeping up to date with the latest from Taylor Swift and One Direction? Think again! Twitter can be a quality tool for networking, keeping up to date with the latest news in your academic field and more! Read on to see how you can use Twitter to your advantage.

Twitter feed
Use Twitter to keep up to date and get involved in your research community.

Getting started

I’m going to assume a basic understanding of Twitter here, so if you need an introduction to the topic then check out Twitter’s guide for beginners.

To make the most of Twitter as a PhD student, you’ll need to set up a reasonably professional account. The odd tweet about your cat is fine, but if the majority of your tweets are about your life as a #belieber or how many pints you can drink before you fall into the Floating Harbour then consider creating a new account. Check out this guide for more information.

Why should PhD students use Twitter?

By selecting who you follow, you create a personalised news feed that you can access whenever you like. Don’t feel intimidated if your feed contains more information than you can ever get round to reading. The most important news will be retweeted or reposted several times, and by checking out the main hashtags for your field (e.g. #plantsci for plant biology!) you can keep up to date with the latest trends in just a few minutes a day.

How do you find the most interesting people to follow? Try adding researchers you met at conferences or those whose work overlaps with your own. For publication news, follow some of the important journals in your field, or some of the major organisations, for example if you’re a scientist you might follow the Royal Society (@royalsociety). If you’re just starting out, look at who your colleagues or collaborators are following and choose some of those accounts. I use Twitter as my main source of science news, and it takes far less time than trawling through news sites, blogs and the journal news sites. You will likely also come across funding opportunities that you could apply for to travel to conferences or organise an event.

One of the great things about Twitter is the sense of community. When you start to get involved in online discussions, you’ll realise that even the biggest names in your field are just real people – almost everyone is happy to talk to PhD students and share advice. Just make sure you’re using your community’s hashtag so that others are more likely to see your tweets!

Getting involved in the community can also be great for your career. You’re getting your name out there, and can promote your own research and any publications you might have. There’s some debate about whether or not Twitter mentions can influence the number of citations your paper will receive, but any potential extra exposure can’t be a bad thing. Catching the eye of a potential new employer can’t hurt either!

Top tips for Twitter

You’ve got 140 characters to play with in a tweet. Images take up 23 characters, but are worth including where available as they increase your tweet’s visibility and almost double the likelihood of it being retweeted.

Make sure you keep your content balanced; tweeting about your own work is great, but promoting others is just as valuable and will get you noticed. Be aware, though, that an account full of retweets and no original content will not attract many followers as it looks like you have no interesting ideas of your own.

Don’t just follow thousands of people in the hope of getting reciprocal followers. Those who do this will not be interested in your content, plus your news feed will be overflowing with more information than you could ever hope to read.

What to tweet about?

Need some ideas for tweets? How about:

  • Your work. Got any interesting research methods or findings, publications etc.? You could even link to a poster you made or a presentation you’ve given and uploaded to SlideShare, assuming you have your supervisor’s consent!
  • You could tweet a day in your life using the hashtag #brisphdlife.
  • Publicise an event or article that’s caught your attention, with a comment about why it appeals to you personally. Make sure you use hashtags and @ mentions so that more people will see it!
  • Ask a question. If it’s about PhD life, try #phdchat. If you have a question about a particular paper, find out if the author is on Twitter and then ask them directly. It’ll make you stand out and they’ll appreciate the chance to talk about their work.

Twitter photo

A note about live tweeting conferences: There has been a lot of debate online about whether or not people should live tweet at conferences. My advice is that tweeting the title of the talk, general comments about the field and previously published results are fine, but DO NOT tweet results that are unpublished. Read this great post for more information.

Don’t overdo the live tweeting anyway. Followers who aren’t interested in the conference will probably unfollow you rather than scrolling through 50 posts about the minutiae of the event.

Nature article on why academics use Twitter
Why do academics use Twitter? A Nature survey of 330 academics with Twitter accounts revealed that following discussions, promoting content and discovering peers were some of the most common reasons. http://www.nature.com/news/online-collaboration-scientists-and-the-social-network-1.15711

Want to know more?

Check out the following articles for more information:

Making Sense of Science

Madeline_BurkeMadeline Burke is a third-year postgraduate researcher in the department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine.  Madeline did her undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering before switching disciplines when she started a PhD with the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials (BCFN). She is currently building a 3D bio-printer that can create human tissue by printing stem cells. Madeline’s research is interdisciplinary, using concepts from chemistry, cell biology and engineering, to design matrices for stem cells that not only support the cells, but cause them to grow into desired tissue such as cartilage. Most of her time is spent in the lab, designing new experiments and building her 3D printer.

As a PhD student I’m always worrying. I worry that I’m not doing enough work, that I should be getting in earlier, that I should be working “smarter”, that my experiments aren’t working, that I must be doing something wrong because they should be working by now…you get the point.

Sometime during my first year I thought to myself ‘there must be other researchers out there who are worrying about the same things that I do’. Like all good researchers who don’t know the answer to a question I turned to Google to see if I was right, if there were other students out there who were worrying as much as I was about everything PhD related. Much to my relief I came across a whole host of blogs dedicated to people that felt exactly the same as I did! PhD students who weren’t sure research was for them, students who loved researching but had an unshakeable feeling that they weren’t good enough, students who were questioning why they were doing a PhD.

It was an amazing feeling – I wasn’t alone! Other people were having the same problems as me, but even better, they had advice for how to deal with these problems. I found one blog dedicated to writing a thesis in three months, I found another on how to deal with a difficult supervisor (not that my supervisor is difficult I would like to point out!) and another on finding jobs outside research after your PhD has ended. I found more blogs then I could mention, written by struggling PhD students on their experiences in research and academia. These blogs all helped me to make more sense of my PhD. I could relate to what other people wrote and look up ways of coping with PhD stress and expectation. I started to realise that sometimes I enjoyed reading these blogs more than I enjoyed my PhD, but still I did nothing about these feelings – I just got on with my research while moaning to everyone around me who would listen.

After going through a particularly bad spell of results a few weeks ago and really questioning whether this was what I wanted to do with my life, a friend approached me and told me about a media course run by Sense about Science, a London based charity whose aim is to equip people to make sense of science and evidence. I have been on a few media courses before, including one very enjoyable course run by Imperial, but this was different.

We got to quiz a panel made up of both researchers and journalists on their experiences with science and the media, including (to name a few) an assistant news editor at Nature, an Infectious Disease Epidemiologist in the World Health Organisation and a freelance journalist who writes about the science behind the beauty industry. We were told not to be afraid of the media when it comes to our research – by doing a PhD we will automatically know more than most people about our fields and we shouldn’t be afraid of using the media to promote our research. A valid point. I, for one, would worry that my opinion was not ‘expert’ enough. The panel also advised having three points and sticking to them – even if that’s not what they have asked you – a good point for any form of communication, really. I left wondering if that would work in a viva!

The journalists shared how they put a story together, including what they would need from scientists. For example, they need someone who would be readily available to give a quote and that the quote would be easy to understand. Finally, the day was rounded off with a Research Media Officer giving us some tips on how to get involved in science communication. One of the common themes of the day was to get involved and make your voice heard. We were told unequivocally to join Twitter and another piece of advice I really took to heart was to start a blog. I had toyed with the idea before but the Voice of Young Science media workshop really gave me the push I needed to get started.

The internet is such a powerful tool, so use it! How can you get your voice heard? How can you motivate yourself when you research just isn’t working? What if academia just isn’t for you? There are loads of websites out there answering these questions, just start Googling.

On Mourning the PhD

Yiota

Yiota Demetriou is completing a PhD in the Department of Drama researching performative approaches of staging oral history archives and employing media such as sound art, live art, video, photography  and installation. Her work facilitates a cross-fertilization between the fields of  oral history, performance, philosophy, interaction design, sound art, sound engineering, memory studies, museum, curatorial and archival studies. 

I’m on Chapter Five – Conclusions and Findings, and I’m staring intently at the computer screen reluctant to type a word.  I realise that finishing this means it is over…What are my conclusions?! What are my findings?! Instead of finishing the chapter, I get distracted with writing this… I’m tearful over my PhD and I have yet to submit it!

I was warned about this from more experienced colleagues. Apparently, it is like overcoming a long and intense relationship before it’s actually over…it may also seem like giving birth and giving the child away…obviously it is not the same, but my project is my baby, my ideas are a part of me, they were nourished inside of me… Does any of this make any sense? Is this why I keep distracting myself, or keep going over and over it, because something, somewhere inside of me doesn’t want it to finish? In a way I’m delaying the process, my project is done and although it is ready to move on, I on the other hand may not be on the same page. I suppose the question to ask is: am I really not ready to move on?! Perhaps I’m scared, as I am used to being part of a rigorous educational framework that makes it difficult for me to step foot in the outside world, that isn’t academia.

Obviously, it’s not over yet – I still have a final push (or several), the viva, the corrections…I’m sure there will be a few. Some days I feel exhausted, other days, I find myself in shock, how could I have possibly come up with all these words – words that actually mean something. I’ve enjoyed my PhD journey, the best years of my life. I have met like-minded people, I’ve been to places, mingled with renowned academics and learnt things that I wouldn’t have imagined learning otherwise.

I do feel tired though. Self-funding a full-time PhD is not an easy process, as you have to constantly self-discipline, four or even five times more than a fully-funded PhD for time management.  This of course depends on the person, and it is heightened if you are like myself, fully involved in a range of projects simultaneously (outside the PhD); self-discipline and time management are crucial qualities. However, these are valuable skills definitely worth developing and attaining for any context.

I certainly won’t miss the state of confusion when entering the outside world that follows consecutive days of being locked-in studying and writing. Nevertheless, I’m not the only one, and it is good to meet with other people in the same boat, even if they are not from the same field and support each other, through the process. Most importantly, it is inspiring to see female academics and other fellow PhDers, who are further into the PhD journey, studying for their doctorate alongside being in full-time employment and with children.

Our supervisors, along with the whole department, and our PGR Theatre group, have been supportive all the way. And even though I need to catch a breath and I’m due to embark on an additional journey of stress and anxiety about what I am going to do next with my life, in general, the exhaustion was worth it! I worked hard, in a few jobs, to fund myself through it; I did this for myself so I have no complaints or regrets, I enjoyed every minute of it and I thank those who have helped me through it.

Hopefully this will not form part of my acknowledgments in the actual thesis, but I appreciate all the help that has been given to me: From my friend that gave me a place to stay when I arrived to Bristol as a stranger, on the 5th Dec 2011; to the middle-aged guy who gave me a temporary job at the kebab shop until I got on my feet; my supervisor that took care of my sanity and kept pushing me to expand my ideas as well as keeping me from distracting myself, (which I am doing now, I’m sorry Paul); to the head of our department who has been supporting us all the way; to the amazing PGRT community and friends (most of whom have moved on now) that welcomed and gave me an insight into how things work; and to friends and family who have dealt with my frequent work-related mood swings and tantrums. Bear with me a little longer, I have a final submission date, I’m nearly there!

Moving on

Photo of Richard Budd

Richard Budd was awarded his PhD in September 2014, having successfully defended his thesis a few weeks beforehand. Based in the Graduate School of Education, he conducted a comparative case study of how German and English undergraduates understood and negotiated their respective higher education contexts. This required implementing a qualitative research design, conducting in-depth interviews with students at universities in each country. 

I dotted the last ‘i’ and crossed the last ‘t’ on my PhD seven months ago; it seems like aeons ago. It’s developed into a platonic thing now where our time together is infrequent. I’m afraid we simply grew apart. The attraction that emerged after initially circling each other cautiously was followed by a period of intense and all-consuming passion, a long stretch of easy cohabitation, then increasingly frequent rows and finally, heartbreak. What remains is respect and a shared history, but the viva was a counselling session when my examiners highlighted what I already suspected: the writing was on the wall. No hard feelings; I’m a better person than I was before and am very grateful for that. For a time this was the centre of the universe, and then there was the sudden realisation that the orbits had shifted, leaving a (mostly) fond memory and a reference in my bibliography. I haven’t got space for that kind of relationship any more. I’m just juggling too many different things nowadays.

My last blog in this series looked at what you need to do to boost your post-PhD employability. I was doing well enough back then, and three months later, I’m pleased to report further progress. I’m working part-time as an RA on a project that looks at maths teaching and widening participation (WP). We’re currently analysing data from group discussions with the teachers who participated in our study. It’s complex, challenging and interesting, and is clocking more miles on the research tachometer. We’ve had a symposium with some other WP projects accepted at a big national education conference in September. I’m also giving a paper of my own at the same conference – this way the project pays for me to go and I get to fly my own flag, too. I’ve had the same paper admitted at a European conference, and have been awarded funding to attend that. This one is particularly handy because it’s profile building, networking, and a small tick against the ‘garners funding’ box. Oh, and it’s in Budapest!! I’ve also drafted an application for money to put together a seminar series on graduate employability, and this is about the only other type of funding I can apply for as a part-time, fixed term researcher. It’s a slow burner, though, because the person I need to help me polish it up for submission is simply too swamped with other stuff to be able to help for the time being.

What else…I’m supervising a Master’s student, which is great. My supervisee is, thankfully, engaged, energetic, and receptive to advice. Helping others develop their projects is rewarding and helps me realise how much of the research process is second nature now. My blog, Stuff About Unis, is attracting a steady level of traffic, and I’ve been out in schools delivering a workshop I put together on the nature and results of educational research. I submitted my first paper in February, and I’m expecting to hear back from the editors in about June. They say that your first review is a bit of a (painful) rite of passage. Provided they accept it, I’m braced to have quite a bit of work to do before resubmitting it. Then it gets read again, further changes recommended, back and forth, until it’s finally done. I’ve got another paper I’m looking to submit in June, and again this’ll be subject the same prolonged period of negotiation. I might have two of my own publications by Christmas. I also work part-time for GW4, coordinating academic staff development projects across the four universities. Working with people in four different organisations, all in separate geographical locations, is challenging, but it’s providing an inside view of academic careers, collaborative projects, and doctoral training, as well as an education into how universities function behind – or alongside – the academic work. This is all really useful as much of it taps into things that I’ll be expected to have experience of in the future.

Something that’s struck me over the last few months is how incomplete my understanding of the academic job market was. Most of my knowledge has been picked up piecemeal, from conversations, CPD sessions, and staff developers. Particularly since the introduction of tuition fees, student satisfaction, and employability ratings on the league tables, there’s an enormous emphasis on undergrad career support. In comparison, postgrads get a raw deal in my view. We are supposed to be more independent and seek things out ourselves, but some structured, clearly available support wouldn’t go amiss. For example:

  • What is an academic CV supposed to look like? You could possibly hunt down some of the examples buried in the Vitae website, but did you know that our own HR pages have useful information on this? I found out about this from a mentoring circle. It’s intended for internal promotions, but gives a really good template of what needs to be on there.
  • Where do you look for jobs? I knew about jobs.ac.uk, which should cover the UK, but only last week a friend mentioned Euraxess, which has positions all over Europe. AcademicKeys might be of interest: it’s mostly US-focused, but also has jobs around the world.
  • How do you put an application together? Some of it is simply filling in boxes, but the personal statement is an art form that a friend of mine recently talked me through. You have to be absolutely explicit about how you satisfy all of the essential criteria (what’s on the last blog, and probably more), and hopefully a good proportion of the desirable ones. You also need to look at the teaching/research profile of your potential employer and make it very clear how you would fit within this.

Seven months out, post-PhD life is more or less on track. All I‘ll need is time, elbow grease, and the planetary alignment of a job whose requirements I meet more than the competition. Don’t ask me what the interview might look like or what I’m expected to wear, though, I’ve no idea. Answers on a postcard, please…

Representing the misrepresented

Wingrove_1Louise Wingrove is a third-year postgraduate researcher in the department of Drama: Theatre, Film and Television. Her research is focused on how the lives of working women were represented by serio-comediennes on the Victorian music-hall stage, using the characters and careers of Jenny Hill (1848-1896) and Bessie Bellwood (1856-1896) as case studies.  Most of her research is archive based, piecing together long lost careers, songs and venues through files of reviews, photographs and sheet music.

This is Louise’s third entry for the ‘Year in the Life of a PhD’ blog. Her first entry, entitled ‘Belonging in archives’, discussed the challenges of finding your niche as a researcher and the joy of learning new skills, and Louise reflects on her experiences and what lies ahead in her second post ‘New Year’s revelations’.

Entering my write up stage, I am strangely surprised to find that the clichéd phrase “the time will fly by” uttered to me so many times at the start of my PhD is completely true.  It has been a whirlwind of nineteenth century studies, learning curves and more personal realisations than I can count and I have loved it more than I ever imagined.  Now, having felt and acknowledged the imposter syndrome and panic attacks, it is a preoccupation with preconceptions, clichés and misrepresentation that is currently plaguing me.

I am a Chihuahua owning, dyspraxic, ex-bibliophobic PhD student with an almost unhealthy sitcom and RuPaul’s Drag Race obsession.  Each of these things in isolation are pre-loaded with assumptions and clichés about my personality, whether representative or not.  Even my choice of Music Hall comediennes as a topic for research comes with many preconceptions – something I am sure we all find when trying to explain the nuances of our study to someone else.

My clichéd preoccupations initially began after realising that I had had the following conversation to the point of it becoming a cliché:

Lovely person who doesn’t realise the can of worms they are opening:  “So, how many words do you have to write for a PhD?  Really?  How can you write that much?”

Me:  *not at all trying to be smug, but maybe with a little too much pride*  “Well, it’s more like how can I possibly fit in all I have to say – I have too much material and not enough room!”

I heard people answer in the same way before I started my PhD, and I have fallen into the cliché myself.  What I don’t say, however, is that at each stage I too have wondered how I would make the word count.  By studying performers whose huge popularity is now largely forgotten, I (secretly) worried that I would be lucky to scrape enough material together.  Then I learnt more about their careers, their personal lives, the importance of placing their work within a social historical context and the separating of truth from urban myth, and I soon discovered there was a lot to cover.  This resulted in my choosing only two performers to research.  This again filled me with a “not enough material” panic until I went even deeper and found myself surrounded by so many different spreadsheets and case studies that were “vital” that I couldn’t possibly cut it down without major tantrums.

During this, I found the truth in another piece of advice given to the point of it becoming a cliché –the importance of your relationship with your supervisor. I have always said I have been exceptionally lucky to have such an amazing supervisor, but it was at this point I really began to understand the importance of this relationship.  Her ability to both calm and offer constructive suggestions of ways to order and present the wealth of research obtained in an archival approach has been integral to getting me through my study.  My research content continually shifts, affecting the usefulness of different ways of presenting the data.  However, each way we discuss has made it clearer to me whilst allowing me to follow my instinct and calmly continue on to my next hurdle.  This stable relationship has even enabled me to send work off to be looked at without the crippling fear that I will get an email back simply saying “Why?” and “Give up!”

But it is now that I am facing my biggest cliché, preconception and misrepresentation hurdle of all – how to represent Jenny Hill and Bessie Bellwood.  On a simple level, I am myth busting; showing how preconceptions surrounding these comediennes careers and materials are flawed.  It’s about showing how performers engaged and reflected a variety of social issues and me challenging assumptions surrounding the working methods of these women and what they wished to represent to an audience.  On a more complex level – I have fallen in love with Hill and Bellwood!  I feel like I know them exceptionally well, making me overprotective of them.  This makes me want to include every tiny thing I know about them and cut nothing so as to build a full picture, highlighting their good and explaining any ‘questionable behaviour’ as I don’t want people to form assumptions about them.  I wouldn’t only want to be remembered and represented by one aspect of my life, which could skew understanding of my complexities as a person.  I’m not only a Chihuahua owner!  I must remain objective, documenting their career development and material and, ironically, the ways in which their reputations were possibly misrepresented by the press to keep them within social ideals and constructs.  To represent them properly, I must learn to distance myself as I am building a picture of them based on archive materials, not on my first hand knowledge of them as living people.

So now, I must face up to the biggest drama cliché of all and “cut my baby,” represent them as best I can and stay thankful to all the support around me.  And possibly buy shares in Rescue Remedy for all the tantrums!

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

www.thelandofthesummerpeople.org

Barnaby Dobson – 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.

lotsp-posterHaving worked on the early stages of this project researching the history and hydrology of flooding and drainage in the Somerset Levels I thought I was well prepared for the art stages to follow. I was decidedly wrong! The first workshop involved making a standard engineering-style poster containing information in the area our group had chosen to focus on; in my case the future of flooding in the region. This was a pretty standard summary of climate change impacts, land use change and a critique on the present policy which will shape the region over the next 5-20 years.

The next workshop saw us transform this information into a more ‘arty’ format. We chose a newspaper style article from 5 years in the future. In civil engineering (my undergraduate background) there’s a strong perception that the public don’t know anything about engineering and that they demand only bottom-up management towards their own interests; and this was definitely present in my article. Regardless of the truth or fallacy in this assumption, taking this attitude will not gain you public support for your project and, importantly, you will very likely miss out on important information that stakeholders could provide you with.

Each group began work with a Somerset artist to create art out of their topics and ideas. Our group is currently putting together a ‘flood survival kit’ containing items which aim to bring together ideas about the impacts and mechanisms behind flooding. Putting this together has been constant interplay between engineers looking to add purpose to items and our artist looking to reduce purpose with a much heavier use of metaphors/symbolism. Items include purpose-heavy hand-made water filters (from drinking bottles and sand!) and metaphor-heavy sponges and boats (made from Somerset clay).

Additionally our group will be inscribing rocks around Somerset with a text-number which will provide flood relevant proverbs or information when a message is sent to them. This was inspired by tsunami warning rocks in Japan!

tsumani-rock
An original tsunami warning rock in Japan courtesy of the Huffington Post, 4th June 2011.

On 25th March, all the groups presented their projects in an exhibition in the Exeter Community Centre.

Our most valuable return on these projects are the skills in working with the public we will gain. After all, even capital projects designed with a stakeholder’s desires and demands in mind won’t work if the stakeholder rejects them. The pre-industrial history of the Somerset Levels illustrates this perfectly as drainage works in the region have typically been vandalised and prevented from working due to public opposition (an interesting contrast to the present dredging-heavy mentality!).

 

Getting to grips with your subject…

tessa profile v3Tessa Coombes is a first year postgraduate researcher in the School for Policy Studies. After recently completing the MSc in Public Policy at the University of Bristol, she decided to stay on and continue her research interest in politics, policy process and housing. Her research is focused on how housing policy is treated at a time of political change. Using the Bristol Mayoral Election 2016 as the basis of her study she will look at agenda setting, influence and policy change in Bristol.

I’ve just about reached the half-year mark in my PhD, that is, I started my PhD just six months ago. It seems like longer but also like no time at all. Over the last month or so I’ve been putting together a PhD plan to identify what I need to do, and when, over the next three years. This is just an initial sketch and broad outline, but is a guide to setting more detailed objectives, something I have now done for the next six months. The thing that struck me most is that three years isn’t very long. When you begin to break it down into small chunks of work to be done before you start the fieldwork, the first 12 months vanish very quickly under a myriad of literature, methods, organising and planning.

One of the things I realised very quickly when drawing up my plan, is that I don’t really quite know what my research is about. Well, I know the broad area I’m interested in and I know what I want to study. But I’ve a long way to go before I am fully cognisant with the existing literature in my field and before I fully appreciate the complexities of specific methods of research. I’ve started that process of understanding but have so much more to learn. Indeed, I spent much of the first six months studying research methods through taught courses and assignments. About five months too long in my view, but a necessary evil and a key part of any PhD programme.

I have now begun the topic-based literature search process in earnest. I’m trying to use some of the things I learnt during my research methods training to ensure I undertake a somewhat more systematic approach than I would normally adopt. I’ve set out key search terms, established where I’ll search for information, decided on exclusion and inclusion criteria and I’ve set up a comprehensive system for logging all the information I collect throughout the months of searching and reading. That’s far more organised than I’ve ever been in the past when it comes to seeking out literature.

Now I’m a month or so into the process I am beginning to feel slightly overwhelmed – not just by the amount of literature that I need to consume but also by the complexity and language used in some of it. Once more it leaves me feeling a little stupid and frequently bemused. I find myself asking the following question regularly:  “why am I doing a PhD, what on earth made me think I was clever enough to try?” Maybe this relates to the “imposter” syndrome others have mentioned in their blogs and I guess most researchers will ask themselves that question, or something similar, throughout their research. It could be seen as a negative thought process but for me it’s a useful prompt, that pushes me harder to prove a point, that yes I can do this but it’s going to be tough.

So, what am I actually doing and what is my PhD about? I feel like I am getting closer to the answer to that and I feel a little more comfortable that I have a topic worth researching, that might even be of interest to someone other than me. Over the last month or so I’ve tried out a few different versions of my response to this question in order to see which works best and how people respond. I’ve come up with a variety of short answers, depending on who is asking. For now, I’ll say my PhD is about agenda-setting, power and influence, using the Bristol Mayoral election in 2016 as a case study. I’m doing an ethnographic study, which seeks to provide a better understanding of the tactics used by different actors to move housing issues up (and down) the political agenda. I am interested in how actors at the centre of the action perceive and respond to influence and lobbying and how the newly elected mayor will decide on policy priorities and change. I’m hoping it will be of interest to scholars of the policy process, to those with an interest in political change and will also help practitioners to understand how power and influence works at a local level.

That’s what I’ll be spending the next 3 years learning all about and I’m both excited and daunted by the prospect. A PhD is an individual learning process and one where I am in the driving seat. It’s totally different to what I have been doing for the last 20 years in work so it’s challenging, which is part of what makes it worth doing. But above all, it’s interesting, as my PhD brings together, in one study, many of the things that I find fascinating: housing, policy, politics, and Bristol.

So you’re going to a conference…

University of BristolJames Hickey is a final year PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences. His research is 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.

Throughout the course of a PhD, it’s highly likely you’ll have the chance to present your research at a conference. The lead-up to a conference can be a little stressful as you (probably) rush to get your poster or presentation finished. This is especially true if the abstract deadline was 6 months before the actual conference and you ambitiously included work that wasn’t quite finished (or even started) yet (I may or may not be speaking from experience here…).

As I’m now reaching the end of my PhD journey I thought I would share some hints and tips that may be useful for new (or experienced) PhD students facing up to an imminent conference.

So, in no particular order, and with the proviso that I am certainly no conference-specialist:

1. Plan!

This is a bit boring, but it definitely helps. Before you go, search through the sessions and work out what talks and posters you want to visit. Start by targeting specific sessions and then go into the details. Getting this stuff done early will help you to identify times when you’re going to be most busy with science, and the other times where you can be open to other opportunities.

2. Who else is going?

A second part of the planning stage should be to work out who else is going to the conference. Maybe the person you’ve been citing repeatedly in a literature review is going to be there, or perhaps you’ve been using a method developed by someone who is also going to be there. Figure this stuff out and make an effort to speak to them. Then, on a more social side, if any of your friends from undergraduate studies (or otherwise) are also going, it’s the perfect chance to catch up over dinner while your supervisor (hopefully) foots the bill.

3. Network!

This point also links to the one above, and is extremely important. Meeting new people and expanding your network is key. Speak to students and professors alike, within and around your specialised field. The advantages are numerous: new working collaborations, contacts for future jobs, contacts to provide references, people to review your publications, people to chat about your results with… The list could go on… University Careers Services often offer workshops to improve your networking skills.

4. Name tag visibility is key!

Simple, really. Make sure your name tag is visible at all times so people know who you are and where you’re from. This may mean shortening a neck tie if you’re somewhat vertically challenged and don’t want the name tag hanging around your belly-button…

Name tag
Sort out your name tag, and please don’t be that guy(#3)! Image credit: Pete Etchells.

5. Non-specialist sessions.

Many conferences offer a myriad of extra sessions. Search these out and see if anything takes your fancy. For example, there are often talks and workshops related to things like science communication, science policy, careers in academia, careers outside of academia, getting a postdoc, and such like. These can all be very useful.

6. Get away for a bit.

Leave yourself some time to take a step-back and get away from the intensity of the conference. Your plan from number one will help with this. If you have a spare afternoon or two, explore the city you’re in, go shopping, visit a tourist hot-spot, go for a run, or whatever is going to give you a chance to chill out and recharge your batteries.

7. Student events.

Any student-organised or student-only events are a great way to make new friends who know exactly the same struggles you’re likely to be going through, or about to go through. Free food and beer is also a usual double bonus!

8. Make second base…

I’m talking about following up on your new networking activities here. In the evening if you have time, or after the conference if you’re rushed, drop an email to the interesting people you’ve met and chatted with. This gives them your contact details if they didn’t already have them and will help no end if later down the line you want to contact them about something more important.

9. What to wear?

A complicated one for so many reasons… My PhD is geology related so it’s no surprise to see people walking around in hiking boots and trekking trousers! Personally, I stay as far away from this fashion debacle as possible. But what to wear depends a lot on the nature and topic of the conference. I usually err on the side of caution and lean towards the smarter side of things(*), as I don’t know who I’m going to meet on the day – this figurative person may just happen to have the perfect job opportunity I’m looking for… Alternatively, you could ask someone who’s been to the conference before, or search for photos, to see what the general dress code is.

(*)P.S. For me this means a shirt, smart jeans or chinos and a nice pair of shoes.

10. It’s impossible do everything.

Don’t get high hopes of being able to do everything – it won’t work out. Curb your expectations and prevent disappointment. Equally, however, be prepared and adaptable to do stuff you didn’t plan on.

11. Free Stuff!

Everything’s better when it’s free. If you’re down a pen, or need a USB memory stick, you’re likely to be able to pick one up from conference sponsors or exhibitors.

12. Post-conference travel!

My personal favourite! If you’re lucky enough to go to conferences in new countries, then take full advantage of it. Your flights are likely to be paid for, so if you can, give yourself at least a few extra days after the conference has finished to travel around your new surroundings and take in as much of the local culture as possible. These opportunities won’t be as readily available in the future, especially if you leave academia!

13. Branch out…

Time may not allow this, but if it does, then try and take in some sessions that may not be related to your own studies. You may find some overlap you didn’t know about, or learn about new techniques that could be applicable to your own work with a slight modification.

14. Business cards?

Some do, some don’t. They’re not hugely common in science but they have their advantages (e.g., networking). Maybe this one will just come down to personal preference.

15. Save your slides as a PDF!

Computer compatibility can still be an issue, even in this day and age. Regardless of what program you use to make your presentation slides, if pays to save them as a PDF so when you open them on the other side of the world, on some one else’s computer, everything still looks the same.

16. Back-ups!

Have back-ups of your talk in case you lose a memory stick (or similar). It’s also useful to carry copies of your recent work and results in case you want to show them to someone you get chatting to.

Backups
Be prepared, and try not to worry. Image credit: Jorge Cham, PhD comics.

17. Bring spare posters.

If you’re presenting a poster then it can be handy to print out a bunch of spare posters in A4 and pin them beside your actual poster. This way people can take away a copy of your work if they’re interested.

18. Eat and drink!

Carry some water and snacks with you. You never know how long you might go without food if you get chatting to someone about your work or otherwise. Keeping hydrated and fed will ensure you have the energy to last the day.

Science & Art – Land of the Summer People

www.thelandofthesummerpeople.org

Wouter Knoben (Engineering PhD candidate with the Water Informatics: Science and Engineering (WISE) CDT

Working together at the first workshopThe 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, its present condition is unstable and its future uncertain. Winter 2013-14 for example saw extensive floods in the Levels that attracted a great deal of media attention and conflicting opinions on what to do how to prevent this from happening again. The Science & Art project brings engineering PhD students together 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, in an effort to make discussions about the area’s history, present and future more accessible and enjoyable.

Coming from an engineering background, the prospect outlined above slightly scared me at first. As an engineer, you rarely use art as a tool in your work and, funnily enough, doesn’t appear during your university courses either. The few interactions with artists (as colleagues in a bar) and art (sporadic museum visits) left me very sceptic as to the success of this cooperation. Sure, art can be nice to look at, but what is the point of it when you’re trying to convey the results of your studies on flood risk?

This project is divided into a couple of workshops, and the differences between engineers and artists was apparent right from the start. We (the engineers) tried to convey as much knowledge about the Somerset Levels as we could cram onto our posters. Dates, history, water safety plans, references, whatever information was available. The artists then showed us some of their work. We saw sketches of landscapes reflecting in water, paintings of local soldiers in shoe polish and visual representations of sound waves to name a few things.

For the next workshop we were asked to change our original posters in any way we saw fit, based on the things we picked up from our first art workshop. This turned out to be not as easy as we’d hoped. After years of being trained to present information in a thorough and accurate way, making the necessary switch to create something that could be called artistic is difficult. We mostly managed to present the, admittedly dry, material on the posters into a somewhat more appealing way. The idea to do something else than conveying information was still difficult to bring into practise.

As the artists kept reminding us, it is not always necessary to convey knowledge to the viewer of our work. Sometimes it is enough to make someone think about a certain topic you think is important, or to simply present some specific theme in an intriguing, appealing or interesting way. In the third workshop we began to form ideas based on this line of thinking. Transferring information and creating knowledge for the viewer are still important parts of the work, but they have become secondary rather than primary objectives. Now we’re hard at the work to make our ideas become reality!

These workshops have been good to show some perspective. As a specialist, you would normally want to present as much of your gathered information and knowledge as you possibly can, but this quickly becomes overwhelming for someone unfamiliar to the topic. Collaborating with artists can be a good way to introduce a specialised topic to a wider audience in an entertaining and accessible way, while at the same time teaching us how laypeople might think about our subjects.

lotsp-poster

Learning to Teach

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.

At its heart, a PhD might seem quite a simple thing. Bumble around in a lab for a few years, try to find conferences in the most exotic corners of the Earth, write a few things down. However, as well as the exciting cutting edge research, there are a whole host of other opportunities to challenge yourself with, including trying your hand at teaching.

Some people might consider teaching a waste of time; after all, you won’t have much of a PhD if you don’t have a tome of research to submit at the end. However, it can be an excellent way of developing your confidence, learning about some new subject areas and picking up some so-called ‘employability-skills’ if you are ever planning on leaving the realm of perpetual studenthood. You might even find teaching motivates and helps with your research work, rather than detracting from it.

If you’re looking back on your first year undergraduate studies with a warm sense of nostalgia, longing for the days when you thought you knew everything, then perhaps teaching is also for you. But how do you go about getting involved and more importantly, how do you start becoming an effective teacher?

Choose your Audience

There are a huge number of opportunities available for teaching, both in and outside of the university. Maybe herding groups of undergraduates and their chemicals back to the fume hoods, where they belong, sounds like the challenge for you or maybe you’d rather try to instil a love of maths in the younger generation. Regardless of what size groups or subjects you want to teach, you can probably find something to suit.

If you fancy venturing outside of the university, the market for GCSE and A Level tutors is huge. It is even possible to teach online now. However, it is worth doing your homework if you are planning on tutoring through an agency to ensure that they are reputable and exactly what cut of your earnings they take. Although perhaps less lucrative, schools are often keen to get support with after-school science clubs or additional support for students.

Most departmental opportunities are advertised by email but it can be worth keeping an eye on opportunities on a university level as well as via Widening Participation and the Careers Service.

Be Prepared

It may seem obvious, but the better you know the material yourself, the better you will be able to deliver it. The more thorough your understanding, the easier it will be to come up with alternative explanations to try and make sure all your students understand the material. If you have a feeling for what students typically find difficult on a course, it can be worth preparing extra questions or examples to give them more opportunity to practice and feel more confident.

However, no matter how hard you’ve studied the subject, some enthusiastic student will come up with a question you had no way of anticipating. Cue desperately trying to remember what you definitely knew four years ago to avoid shattering the naïve illusions of undergraduates that think you are the font of all knowledge. On the plus side, getting used to thinking on your feet in these situations makes question time at conference talks seem like a breeze.

If avoiding working with projectors and computers is impossible, turn up to the room three hours early, preferably with someone from IT in tow. The closer it is to the start of the lesson, the greater the likelihood that the computer will refuse to log on, decide that .ppt is an unknown file extension and delete all your files.

Seek Help

If you are completely new to teaching and have no idea how to cultivate the aura of calm and knowledge that your lecturers seemed to manage so easily, there is a lot of help out there. The University runs several ‘Starting to Teach’ courses specifically to address this problem and course organisers are normally only too happy to help, as if you fail to answer the students’ questions, they’ll only get asked them later.

Course organisers and other PhDs typically know what the most common issues and problems are likely to be or if you’re helping with practical sessions, ten different ways to switch the equipment off and on again to get it to work. Your supervisor might have some sagely tricks of the trade to share as well.

It can be nervewracking standing up in front of a class, hoping that after an hour, the whiteboard of algebra will suddenly make sense to everyone but it can be immensely rewarding seeing students making excellent progress. Being a researcher means you can often give a unique perspective of where a lot of theories are actually used and bring some seemingly useless topics to life. Sometimes the answer will be ‘I don’t know’ but you might find yourself learning as much as your students do.