How do you support postgraduate researchers during a global pandemic?

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

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

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

PGR Hub: from a physical space to a virtual place 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enabling our community 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Research without Borders  

RWB showcase
Research Without Borders virtual showcase entries

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

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

Partnerships and scholarships 

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

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

Looking to the future 

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

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

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

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

1. Have an (ongoing) conversation about touchpoints

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

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

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

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

 2. Find time for informal conversations

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

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

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

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

4. A well-structured supervision session is always important 

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

5. Set small and manageable tasks

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

6. Get used to screen-sharing

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

7. There are lots of formats for virtual supervision

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


Student perspectives on remote supervision 

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

Krishani Vithana Pelpita Koralalage, Population Health Sciences Institute

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

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

Dan Booker, Department of History 

 

Research without Borders 2020 Virtual Showcase: online competition

Research without Borders 2020

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

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

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

The challenge 

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

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

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

How to enter 

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

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

Ways to share: 

Judging 

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

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

Prizes 

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

Example entries

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

See also some examples on Twitter:

Terms and conditions

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

Any questions? 

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

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.


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