For many of us, the cold, dark days of a new year can be something of a slog. The festive break is a fading memory, your regular routine has resumed — but it can be a challenge to find your motivation and get back into the swing of things. Which is why we’re launching a competition that’s designed to bring some joy to January.
Yes, ‘PGR Pets’ is back — and, as in 2019, it’s really just an excuse to celebrate the furry/scaly/feathered friends that help you take a break from your research, or even just give you a little lift when you’re having a particularly frustrating day. The animal in question can be a cat, dog, fish, lizard — even a robin that you always spot on the University campus. If it belongs to somebody else, though, please make sure that you have their permission to share the photo.
To take part in our contest, and be in with a chance of winning a £20 voucher for Pets at Home or 20 Bristol pounds, just share a photograph:
as a comment on one of the Bristol Doctoral College’s #PGRpets Facebook posts
on Twitter or Instagram using the #PGRpets hashtag
The competition is open to all current postgraduate research students at the University of Bristol.
The closing date for entries is 5pm on Friday 31 January 2020.
The winner will receive a £20 Pets at Home voucher or 20 Bristol pounds. (The winner will be able to select their prize from these two options.)
The winner will be selected at random.
Multiple entries are permitted.
PGRs who took part in the 2019 competition can participate in the 2020 contest, as long as different images are submitted.
If a photograph features a domestic animal that isn’t yours, please ensure you have the owner’s permission to enter.
The Bristol Doctoral College may share images from the competition in a future blogpost and on social media. Entrants who don’t want their images to be used are asked to notify the Bristol Doctoral College.
Laura Fox's Research without Borders stall was entitled 'Nano: Nice or Nuisance?'.
As part of her interactive stall, Laura used balloons to represent a cell membrane.
The day was an opportunity for Laura to share her research with a diverse range of audiences.
Laura's stall won the Best-Communicated Exhibit prize.
Dr. Laura Fox, who recently completed her PhD at the University of Bristol, is a Development Scientist/ KTP Associate in the Physics department at the University of Manchester. In May 2019, when she was still a postgraduate researcher (PGR), she won the ‘Best-Communicated Exhibit’ prize at the 2019 Research without Borders showcase exhibition.
Below, she reflects on the festival — and why getting involved was such a positive experience for her.
I took part in Research without Borders (RwB) in the final year of my PhD (2019), while I was writing my thesis. I decided to take part mostly because I had gotten fed up with the daily slog of writing and sitting at my desk for weeks on end. Taking part in the festival let me have fun with my research again and view my work from a new perspective.
Getting out of the writing bubble
Coming to the end of a research degree sometimes feels like you don’t have time for anything else. You can feel like you should live and breathe your research, which you probably have been doing for 3/4 years.
When you have been working on something for so long, it can definitely start to feel a bit stale towards the end. Taking myself out of the writing bubble to view my research from the eyes of the general public really helped me to squash that feeling. I really enjoyed putting some creativity into the stall design, making colourful and engaging posters, displays and demonstrations. Sparking a bit of joy back into my research again.
The BDC provided some really helpful sessions to help us plan a stall design, discussing what had worked well before and how best to communicate with a wide variety of people that would likely visit us on the day. From these sessions, I learnt the importance of keeping it simple and how much people love to be quizzed!
Sharing research with diverse audiences
I had a bit of set-up to do on the day, as I had decided to make a display out of balloons to represent a cell membrane. Quite a few popped, as you can imagine.
I was ready to go as the doors opened with props and quizzes to describe what I had been doing for the last three years of my life! The first guests at my stall were a large group of retirees that took part in my quiz, ‘Nano: nice or nuisance?’. I was surprised at how much they already knew and they had some brilliant questions. This experience taught me never to assume someone’s knowledge! Within the group were people who used to be engineers and worked at NASA!
From then on, I had lots of visitors at the stall throughout the day — including four-year-olds, sixth-formers, teachers and industry professionals working in a huge variety of fields. Explaining my work to such a large range of people with different science capital was a challenge, but one I’d been prepared for.
A rewarding experience
The event was brought to a fantastic end by the final of the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, which I watched as part of the audience. At the prize-giving and drinks event afterwards, I won the prize for the ‘Best-Communicated Exhibit’ — and I got to use the prize money to attend a conference and give an oral presentation in Sofia, Bulgaria. I’m now happy to say I’ve since submitted my thesis and passed my viva!
Taking part in RwB gave me improved communication skills, the opportunity to network and, most importantly, renewed energy to finish writing up! It’s a fun day and a fantastic thing to put on your CV, so what are you waiting for? Apply!
As part of the University’s Postgraduate Open Day on 20 November 2019, the Bristol Doctoral College brought together a panel of PGRs — from a variety of faculties and at different stages in their research degrees — and asked them to share perspectives with an audience of prospective postgraduate students.
The session may have been brief, but it provided plenty of insights into the PGR experience. So much so that we’ve decided to round up tips and advice that might be useful to a wider audience — such as our new and existing PGRs.
However, before we begin our list, we should introduce our panellists properly. The four PGRs who took part in the event were:
Arsham Nejad Kourki, PGR in the School of Biological Sciences
Blanche Plaquevent, PGR in the School of Humanities
Angela Suriyakumaran, PGR in the School of Civil, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering
Trang Tran, PGR in the School of Education
The session was chaired by Professor Robert Bickers, Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor (PGR).
And, without further ado, here are their words of wisdom. (Quotes are verbatim wherever possible, but have sometimes been shortened or edited for clarity.)
1. Support, encouragement and fresh perspectives are vital
“In terms of support, my supervisor has played a key part in that role. Because I have a background in Chemistry and now I’m moving over to Mechanical Engineering, he’s helped me a lot to fill in the holes — fill in my knowledge base, basically.
So he’s been very supportive in terms of giving me the tools to work with my PhD, as well as encouraging me to go and try other stuff, such as going and doing outreach, placement opportunities — so actually helping me gain other skill sets.
“You need that support for four years, to be able to have someone there and some people there to count on — and to be able to say ‘you’re on the right track’ or ‘you’re not on the right track’, ‘maybe you’ve thought about this?’ and ‘maybe try other things’ as well.”
“Things you might be facing at the moment, a lot of postgraduates experience. It happens to everyone.
“Other postgraduates, especially ones in the years above you, as well as staff members, are a very good source of support.”
2. Working together can help create a sense of community
“I’ve found a very strong feeling of community among my peers. I think I wasn’t really expecting that, as I was doing a PhD in History. So I thought: ‘it’s probably even more solitary than any other kind of PhD, because you don’t work in a lab, you don’t need to necessarily all be in the same place of work.’
But actually, there’s been space provided for Arts and Humanities [PGRs]. It’s been a bit changing, but when there is this kind of space, connections get created very quickly and it really makes you feel supported. And I think it has enabled me to treat my PhD as an actual job — where I go every day, and go into a building and work. And that’s not really what I was expecting.”
3. Listening and presenting can help you see the big picture
“Get on to any reading group or any presentations that enable you to listen to other people’s work or present your own. Because one thing that happens in a PhD is that you lose your confidence a lot. Because you want it to be perfect, and when you’re with it in your head everything will go wrong compared to what you had in mind.
“So you really want to present where you are at the moment so that everyone else in your community will be able to say ‘oh, this is great — but this is how it could get better’.
“You also want to get on to those groups so that you can hear, right at the beginning, what other people’s work is about — so you can then say ‘OK, there’s a bigger picture. I have re-calibrated what my work should look like’.
4. Teaching can enhance your skills
“Teaching comes in very different forms. For example, I’m teaching in labs rather than going and helping with the workshops and stuff like that. And you gain a lot of skill sets from doing the teaching. You’re mentoring students, you’re helping them solve problems, etc.
“[They’re] quite good skill sets to build on — and for your future career path as well.”
5. Your research project will evolve — and that’s fine
“Don’t worry too much about the specifics of your project — even by the end of your first year.
“As long as you have an idea what it’s roughly going to be about, and as long as your supervisor is on board with that, you can generally make it happen.
Because a lot of it will change. Projects evolve.”
As well as holding relaxing events and activities in the PGR Hub, we used the occasion to ask Bristol’s postgraduate researchers a simple question: how do you look after yourself?
We received a range of insights into how you take breaks — from stretching to strolling to socialising — but the clear theme that emerged was the importance of giving yourself time to relax and wind down. And, if you’re keen to cut down on your screen time, bathtime can make for a perfect phone-free zone. (Bubbles and browsing don’t really mix, especially if your handset isn’t waterproof.🛀📱😧)
So, without further ado, here’s what helps you unwind, de-stress and step away from your research.
For me the best way to relax is yoga! I go to a weekly yoga session, and it’s heaven! It’s where I can be me, I am not a mum, or a daughter or a teaching assistant. I am able to forget about the outside world! Yoga forever!
I leave my office every day and go for a thirty minute walk. It always helps me to relax though it’s a bit less fun in this weather. 🌧
Got to say clean fresh bedding. Having to be clean getting in and reading or listening to a book.
Joan Getting into a freshly made bed after a hot bath is the absolute definition of heaven. I’ve also become very reliant on starting the day with a cup of coffee and ‘morning pages‘. Getting all my thoughts out at the beginning of the day sorts me right out.
I second Joan’s comment about baths! I find it’s really hard to keep away from my phone, but I’m always afraid that I might drop it into the bath, so having a bath becomes, of necessity, a phone-free zone! That makes it a great chance to get some quality time with a (non-work related) and keeps me blue-light free, which is really important for sleep hygiene.
I realise sleep hygiene sounds made up, but when I’m anxious I often suffer from badly disturbed sleep and following a sleep hygiene routine works (a bit). Whether that’s just because I’m doing any routine or because the specific “sleep hygiene” stuff actually works, I can’t say.
I have a nice hot bath.
Ensuring I give myself a good amount of time to wind down in the evening before bed. Watch TV/read/have a bath — strictly no work!
Talking and having a laugh with all of my doctorate course mates! We are all in the same boat and if it wasn’t for them I don’t know what I’d do!
The Bristol Industrial PhD Placement Fund is an EPSRC-funded scheme which pairs doctoral researchers with relevant industrial partners — funding placements in sectors ranging from start-ups to larger companies, government bodies and policy organisations.
In August 2019, doctoral researcher Henry Stennett joined Unit DX, central Bristol’s deep tech incubator, for a three-month placement. Henry shares his experiences below.
Why an industrial placement?
I was keen to get more science communication experience for my CV alongside my research work, so I dropped into a Q&A session about industrial placements run by the Bristol Doctoral College (BDC) at the PGR Hub.
A couple of weeks later, I took part in a ‘speed networking event’ which was a chance to meet companies offering placements. There weren’t many companies offering what I was looking for, but Aby Sankaran (BDC Industrial PhD Programme Officer) did a great job of ferreting out opportunities for me.
She got in touch with Adam, head of marketing at Unit DX. Unit DX is a deep tech incubator in central Bristol. They help science start-ups to grow, providing lab and office space, investment and mentoring.
Why science communication?
During the training period of my CDT course, we were encouraged to reflect on the relationships between science and society. I became interested in science outreach for a few reasons:
Synthetic biology is a touchy subject: it raises concerns that scientists are ‘playing God’ or profiteering, some of which are definitely valid.
We’re living through a crisis of trust: polling shows that people don’t trust institutions, experts, or even facts.
It’s a lot of fun: science communication lets you unleash your creativity, and embrace improvisation and performance.
Through volunteering and projects like the EU’s Horizon 2020 PERFORM, I learned that dialogues are more important than lectures and that there is no such thing as ‘the public’ — we communicate with diverse groups, and have to adapt our approach every time.
Why Unit DX?
I’d been vaguely aware of Unit DX for a while. My supervisor, Paul Race, and Martin Challand, a postdoc in his group, were spinning out their company Zentraxa when I joined. Harry Destecroix, Unit DX’s CEO, judged a competition during my PhD induction where we pitched synthetic biology start-up ideas. The best feedback he had for my group was that we were ‘realistic about the idea’s flaws’…
Adam reached out to me via email, but before I had a chance to reply, we met in person. Embarrassingly, I was rushing out of my flat with a tin of Stella, on my way to a Mos Def gig. Adam recognised me from my picture online, and asked if I was a PhD student — it turned out that we were next-door neighbours! I got back to him the next day and went down to Unit DX for a meeting.
I knew immediately that Unit DX would be a great fit. I’ve been allowed to independently develop my own projects and encouraged to get involved in anything that interests me.
What’s your role at Unit DX?
On a typical day, I’m working on one main project — researching and writing a piece of content and taking accompanying photographs. There’s a lot of ad hoc work too. Someone will appear at my elbow with a problem: a press release that needs writing or an event to publicise on social media.
My role involves talking to lots of people: in strategy meetings, during interviews for pieces I’m writing, or at graphic design workshops with Patrick Fallon, the lead designer. I also plan public engagement activities with Charlie Proctor, the outreach coordinator, and deliver them about once a week. Being involved in so many different projects keeps work interesting.
What have you learned from your placement?
The main thing I’ve learned is how to work quickly — often we get very little notice on the communications team! Adam has given me a book called ‘Writing Without Bullshit’ to read, which emphasises that your reader’s time is always more important than your own.
I’ve learned so much about writing that will help with my thesis: how to plan and structure a piece, and how to communicate ideas more effectively.
I’ve also developed my professional skills, and I hope to be more organised when I return to the lab, and better at working in teams.
I’d highly recommend applying for a placement. It’s a rare opportunity to try your hand at something that isn’t research and expand your skill set. And to be honest, it’s good to get out of the lab for a while!
Self-Care Week 2019, which begins on Monday 18 November, is an opportunity for all of us to take stock, think about our day-to-day wellbeing — and to make sure we’re taking breaks!
To mark the occasion, the PGR Hub (second floor, Senate House) will be hosting free events that provide opportunities to relax, ‘raise your gaze’ from your research and connect with other PGRs.
Here’s what’ll be happening during the week.
Board Game Café
Tuesday 19 November, 4–7pm
Three hours of pizza and play in the PGR Hub. We’ll be breaking out some classic and contemporary games — including Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, Apples to Apples and Scrabble — and bringing in some free refreshments. Find out more on Facebook.
Silent Reading Party
Friday 22 November, 1–4pm
A chance to read and relax in the Hub’s chilled ‘literary lounge’ — and to enjoy some healthy snacks. We’ll have free bookplates, BDC bookmarks and books of all genres (although you’re welcome to bring your own). Find out more on Facebook.
We’ll also be marking the occasion by asking for your self-care tips — and collating them for a BDC blogpost.
Whether it’s a technique that helps you to relax or an activity that gives you a break from your research, you can share your nuggets of wellbeing wisdom using one of the channels listed below. We’ll pick a tip at random at 5pm on Monday 25 November, and its author will win 20 Bristol Pounds.
You can submit your tip:
as a comment on one of the Bristol Doctoral College’s #selfcareweek Facebook posts
as a tweet with the #selfcareweek and #BristolPGRs hashtags
as an Instagram post with the #selfcareweek and #BristolPGRs hashtags
WriteFest 2019 begins on 1 November. Below, Dr Elizabeth Mamali, the Bristol Doctoral College’s Postgraduate Researcher Development Officer, explains what it’s all about — and highlights opportunities to take part in the University’s programme of writing-focused activities.
What is WriteFest?
November is Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo) — an academic write-a-thon inspired by NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but catering to the specific needs of academic writers.
The global academic community can pledge their writing projects, record progress and share thousands of writing tips via the #AcWriMo hashtag on Twitter.
WriteFest (#AcWriFest19) is our local University of Bristol contribution, and will bring together academics and researchers from across the University to recognise and celebrate writing. We encourage all academics, research staff and research students to join us and write!
WriteFest started at Sheffield University. This year, there are 11 partner universities contributing to the festival! Exeter, Bristol, Manchester, Kings College London, Keele, Sheffield Hallam, Liverpool, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Derby and Adelaide!
What is the University of Bristol doing for WriteFest 2019?
The Bristol Doctoral College will be posting information and useful resources in social media throughout the month to support you in all matters related to writing – and help you to take a break from writing!
Alongside Bristol Clear, who support Research Staff at the University, we have organised the following workshops and writing retreats. All BDC-run activities are free for postgraduate researchers to attend, and all Bristol Clear-run activities are free for academic and research staff to attend*.
All of our planned activities will take place in the PGR Hub, on the 2nd Floor of Senate House, unless otherwise specified.
*Please note that all Bristol Clear offers are in italics. If you are an academic or research staff member, find out more about taking part on the Bristol Clear webpage.
In early September, the Jean Golding Institute announced that its 2019 Data Challenge competition, held in partnership with the Office for National Statistics, had been won by Nina Di Cara and Tiff Massey.
Nina, a PGR in the Bristol Medical School, reflects on what she learned from entering the competition — and what it meant to win it.
Earlier this year, the Jean Golding Institute (the University’s centre for data-intensive research) and the Office for National Statistics announced a joint ‘Data Challenge’, inviting teams to find out if loneliness was associated with movement for the purpose of education using ONS open data and their newly created ‘Loneliness Index’.
The entry had to lay out the analysis you had used in the form of a blog post. My PhD research focuses on applying data science methods to data about mental health, so I was keen to get involved!
Planning our entry
Following the initial information session, my friend Tiff and I decided to enter — though with her living and working in London and me living in Wales, we knew it would be a bit of a challenge to find opportunities to actually do the work.
In the end, we both worked remotely to decide on which datasets we would use and how to analyse them, and then came together for a weekend to do the actual analysis we had planned.
After a couple of late nights working on our entry, we were pretty pleased with what we’d achieved in the time that we had. We both learned a lot about working with government data, and both of us picked up a lot of R tips and tricks from each other; Tiff knows a lot about data manipulation and interactive data visualisations, whereas I knew more about the statistical modelling side. What I learned from Tiff also ended up helping me out with some data dilemmas I had been having in my research.
What happened next?
Finding out we had won was very exciting for us both — we had had a lot of fun working together on our entry (as someone has since said to me, only two mathematicians would call a weekend of data analysis ‘fun’), so were really pleased that the JGI and ONS liked what we came up with.
Later, we were told that they particularly liked the novel metrics we had created with the data, and that we had presented the results as reader-friendly for a non-expert audience. The outputs from the competition have been passed on to the team in the ONS working on this project, so hopefully some of our ideas will be taken forwards.
Of course, the prize money was very exciting for us both, but we also got the opportunity to visit the ONS Data Science Campus for the day and give a presentation about our results (I was very thankful for all the presentation practice I’ve been making myself do this year). On our visit, we also met with staff working at the Data Science Campus and got to hear about some of the cool projects they are working on, with a view to using data science for public good.
Would we do it again?
Definitely! I would really recommend getting involved next time if it’s something you are considering — sometimes it’s just nice to have a project outside of your PhD research to give your brain a chance to work on a new problem for a while, and I think that’s one of the main benefits I personally got from taking part.
If you’re interested in seeing our entry, it’s currently on our GitHub page and is also due to be published on the ONS website shortly.
We asked postgraduate researchers at Bristol for their top tips for new PGRs. Here are their words of wisdom…
1. Work on campus as much as possible
“Just being among other PGRs makes a great difference.”
Trang Tran, PGR in the School of Education
2. It’s good to socialise and network with PGRs from across the University
“This is important! A PG course isn’t all about research, it’s about learning how to be an academic, and socialising is a huge part of that. I would advise new PGs to take this seriously. The BDC and the SU provide ample opportunities beyond your department, so don’t miss out on them!”
Arsham Nejad Kourki, PGR in the School of Biological Sciences
3. Make friends in your department/school
“PGRs who are above your cohort have valuable advice from their own experiences which you can learn from. Making friends with people finishing at the same time as you is great — these people will be dealing with the same pressures as you at the same time so will be most understanding (and probably in the same boat!).”
Helen Rees, PGR in the School of Biological Sciences
4. Do something outside of your research that you enjoy
“Having something to look forward to such as a sport, volunteering or activity with friends really helps if you are having an ‘off’ day with research. It also gives some balance to your life and allows you to de-stress and focus on something else.”
Angela Suriyakumaran, PGR in the School of Chemistry
5. Think about outreach and options beyond your studies
“Seize the opportunity for outreach events (Research without Borders is worth doing at least once), placements, etc. Also look for Quickfix events from the Career Services, especially the Careers beyond Academia, and CVs for non-academic and academic careers.”
Dr Eve Benhamou, recent PGR graduate from Department of Film & TV Studies
6. The BDC’s events and opportunities can help you connect with other PGRs
“Get involved with Bristol Doctoral College training sessions and events. The BDC sessions and the PGR Hub will help you to overcome the isolation and ‘impostor syndrome’ that are all too common among PGRs. Connecting with people from different disciplines and finding your mutual interests makes you feel like you’re part of one big doctoral community.”
Kit Fotheringham, PGR in University of Bristol Law School
On 10 July, the Bristol Doctoral College will hold its second annual Bristol Doctoral Teacher Symposium — a day of networking and knowledge-sharing that’s open to all Bristol postgraduate researchers (PGRs) who teach.
Below, the BDC’s GTA Scholars’ Scheme Coordinator, Dr Conny Lippert, explains why it’s worth booking a ticket for this free event at Bristol’s M Shed — and how, in addition to making new connections, it’s an opportunity to get practical advice on self-care and support.
1. You’ll learn about the support and training that exist within the University
And there is more of it than you might realise!
We’ve been working closely with Academic Staff Development, who look after the University’s ‘Starting to Teach’ and ‘CREATE’ programmes, to develop a stimulating programme for the day.
But a wide range of other services — including the Student Wellbeing Service, the Careers Service and the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching — will also be coming along to let doctoral teachers know what they do and how they can offer support.
2. You’ll meet other members of Bristol’s doctoral teacher community
At the University of Bristol, we have quite a variety of different doctoral teachers. There are PhD students teaching or tutoring small group seminars, demonstrating in the lab or undertaking field work — and some of you are even doing occasional guest lectures!
Whatever sort of teacher or demonstrator you consider yourself to be — or even if you’re just thinking of becoming one — this event is for you.
3. You’ll receive practical tips on how to safeguard your wellbeing
Doing a PhD can obviously be quite stressful. Being a doctoral teacher on top of that means your time is divided between even more complex tasks and responsibilities. How do you ensure you’re keeping not only physically, but mentally well during those particularly demanding times?
The symposium will be a great opportunity to learn what others are doing, what the science says about wellbeing and what the University offers that can help you maintain yours.
4. You’ll have a chance to discuss your experience with peers and experts
Guest speakers from other institutions, as well as experts and practitioners from our own, will be on-hand to share their knowledge — but also to hear about your experience as a doctoral teacher.
This is the perfect opportunity to widen your professional network and explore one of the most under-used support resources that’s out there: each other!