Presenting posters to parliamentarians — Kate’s ‘STEM for Britain’ story

Kate Oliver at the STEM for Britain event
Kate Oliver at the STEM for Britain event [Photo: STEM for Britain]
Kate Oliver, a PhD student from the School of Physics, shares a first-hand account of her visit to the UK Parliament for the STEM for Britain exhibition.

On the 12th of March I went to Parliament, for the second time in my life, this time accompanied by a rolled up piece of A1 paper. I was going to ‘the major event bringing early career researchers and parliamentarians together’, STEM for Britain*.

This poster session, now in its 21st year following its founding by Eric Wharton MP, invites around 50 exhibitors in each of Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Engineering and Biological sciences to explain their work to the employees of Parliament and a panel of expert judges. Five of us from Bristol had been selected to present — around a third of applications are successful — all in different categories, and we had been preparing our two-minute pitches for a few weeks, with the help of our supervisors, university support staff, and patient friends.

A particular challenge of this event is that it is judged by scientists — who selected the posters that made it to the event, and decided who would receive each of the three gongs available per subject — but targeted at MPs and policymakers. Therefore, we needed to show our technical chops, but put the applications and relevance or our work front and centre for people who have slightly wider horizons.

All the posters and presenters took a very different route to achieving this goal, and there was an amazing diversity of work and approaches on show. Sadly my poster didn’t pique the attention of the judges much, but I did manage to buttonhole Professor Dame Julia Higgins, President of the Institute of Physics, and chat to the MP for Glasgow North East, Paul Sweeney. We agreed that science had a great potential to improve human well-being, so now we just need to do that!

However, the University did well overall: Dr Celine Maistret, senior research associate in the School of Maths at Bristol, won the gold De Montfort medal for her work on the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture. I shall have to get her to explain what that is to me at a time when she is not surrounded by enthusiastic fans.

I only got a small glimpse of the corridors of power due to the rather tight security, but it was still good to feel involved in a small section of the machine that runs the country. Government can feel very opaque and jargon-rich — perhaps almost as much as our specialist subjects — but we need to interact with it for our findings to have maximum impact. I reckon any opportunity to share what we know and cross barriers is worth taking. Plus, I’ve now got an extremely well-honed pitch that I can fire off at anyone.

*Formerly known as SET for Britain — science, engineering and technology — but maths have successfully lobbied for inclusion. Fair enough, you can hardly define a set without them.

A new chapter for greenhouse gas emissions — how a Bristol PGR’s research had real-world impact

Eleni Michalopoulou (centre) with project partner Tim Arnold (left) and Prof. Mike Czerniak (right).
Eleni Michalopoulou (centre) with project partner Tim Arnold (left) and Prof. Mike Czerniak (right).

Eleni Michalopoulou, a third-year PhD student in the School of Chemistry, explains how she came to be a contributing author on an important Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change report.

I think now, looking back a year later, it was my inner physicist that helped me look at the problem from a different perspective.

‘The problem’ here was why there was such a big gap in the measurements of CF4 — a nasty greenhouse gas, historically emitted by the aluminium and the semiconductor industries, that has a global warming potential (GWP) of 7360 and a half-life of 50,000 years.

This perfluorocarbon is the focus of my PhD research in the Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group. In particular, I’ve been trying to work out why there’s quite a big gap between what we call a top-down estimate, which broadly means the amount of CF4 we measure in the atmosphere, and the bottom-up inventories, which are compiled from several bodies and/or different industries.

These three years that I have been working on my project, which is sponsored by Prof Mike Czerniak and Edwards Ltd, have been wildly interesting. I had the opportunity to look very closely into the aluminium and semiconductor industries and their emissions, how their technology has changed over the time and how geographical shifts of the industries had an effect on the emissions of CF4 and other PFCs.

However, the more I read about the industries, the more it seemed like there was something missing — something that would help explain the gap and the discrepancies. No matter how we looked at it, the emissions that came from the aluminium and semiconductor industries alone were not enough to explain those discrepancies.

Since there was no explanation for the gap, given what we had already found and what we already knew, I started to look in the literature for other sources, either less known or less likely.

Eventually, I found the work of Hanno Vogel at TRIMET Aluminium, which involved estimating PFC emissions that came from the rare earth smelting industry. I was so excited when I found that — mostly because I had taken the risk of spending quite a lot of time looking into something that could have been just a wrong idea or a bad hunch.

Once we started the discussions with Hanno, it became very clear to us that we were both on to something. From his side, it was a ‘bigger picture’ point of view; from my side, the discrepancies and that gap now made so much more sense.

Very soon afterwards we joined forces and started presenting our work at conferences. I think what really helped us make our case regarding the PFC emissions from the rare earth smelting industry was that his work combined with mine made a really good, logical argument — and good, logical arguments are always great when you are trying to do science!

The best moment was when we presented our work to the head of the greenhouse gas section for the U.S Environmental Protection Agency. What we were suggesting about the contribution of the rare earths to the PFC emissions seemed to make so much sense to so many people.

Not too long after that, we were notified that the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) was considering adding a brand-new chapter regarding PFC (and other greenhouse gas) emissions from the rare earth smelting industry, as part of its 2019 Refinement of the 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories.

We were, of course, absolutely thrilled to hear that! Along with the news of the new chapter came the nomination for both me and Hanno to be included as contributing authors for that new chapter on rare earth smelting and its associated PFC emissions. Eventually, we received the email from the lead authors confirming both of us as contributing authors for the chapter. I can’t speak on behalf of Hanno on this, but I sure spent a significant part of that day just absolutely bouncing around with joy.

There is still a lot of work to be done of course, but I think it’s a great start!

6 reasons to apply for Research without Borders

By now, most Bristol PGRs will (we hope) have heard about Research without Borders, the University’s festival of postgraduate research.

You might not have heard, though, that there are a lot of good reasons why it’s worth your time — from communication training to making new connections.

So, ahead of the closing date for applications (11am on Monday 5 February!), we thought we’d share a quick round-up of the benefits of taking part. (Of course, if you’re ready to apply now, you can just pop over to our Research without Borders page.)

1. It’s a chance to showcase your work to potential employers

We’ll be welcoming a wide variety of visitors to both the Colston Hall exhibition and the discussion series — from academics and industry contacts to fellow PGRs and school pupils.

If you’re keen to share your research with the wider world, then, Research without Borders is an amazing opportunity to make connections with audiences that otherwise would be hard to reach.

Want to get a flavour of the festival? Watch this round-up video from the 2017 showcase.

 

2. You’ll get £30 to develop your display

We’re encouraging all our exhibitors to come up with creative and imaginative displays — above and beyond the standard academic posters.

We know that this kind of creativity comes with a price tag, though, so every PGR who takes part in the showcase event will get £30 that they can use for materials or equipment.

But what happens if you have a particularly ambitious idea for your exhibit? We’re keen to encourage innovative approaches — so, during the training phase, you’ll be able to apply for up to £200 to make it a reality.

3. You’ll sharpen your communication skills with free training

Every PGR who takes part — whether they’re exhibiting at the showcase event or presenting during the evening discussion series — will receive a bespoke package of training that’ll help them structure and communicate their ideas.

Alfie Wearn quote: “The training was very useful — especially on speaking with the public and making a potentially complicated topic into an interesting story.”

4. It can open up new opportunities

It’s not just a fun event in itself; Research without Borders can also be a springboard for PGRs who want to communicate their work to the world.

After last year’s festival, some of the participants went on to talk about their research on podcasts, at public events, conferences — and even on television.

5. It’s recommended by other PGRs

It’s no secret that we think Research without Borders is a fantastic opportunity for Bristol’s PGRs.

You don’t just have to take our word for it, though. Watch Jessye Aggleton, who took part in last year’s festival, share some of her reflections on the event.

6. You might win an iPad

Interested in taking part in the showcase event? If you do, you might win the coveted title of ‘Most Engaging Exhibit’ — an honour that comes with a free Apple iPad. Other prizes on the day will include money for researcher development activities.

You can find even more reasons to take part — and submit your application — by visiting our Research without Borders page.

Hurry, though! The deadline is 11am on Monday 5 February.

9 highlights from the Bristol Doctoral College’s busiest year yet

As 2017 draws to a close, we thought it would be fun to look back over a fast-paced twelve months and select (in no particular order, honest) nine highlights that reflect the sheer range of activity within the Bristol Doctoral College (BDC) team.

Of course, as our work is all about Bristol’s postgraduate researcher (PGR) community, we also want to know what your highlights have been.

Feel free to share them in the comments — or, better still, pop over to our Facebook page and add them to our competition post for a chance to win 10 Bristol pounds. (The competition will end at 5pm on Saturday 30 December 2017.)

1. Bringing research into the heart of Bristol


May’s Research without Borders wasn’t the first festival of postgraduate research coordinated by the BDC — but it was the biggest and best yet, showcasing the work of almost 100 postgraduate researchers through an evening discussion series, an afternoon showcase exhibition at Colston Hall and the finals of the prestigious Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition.

Afterwards, PGR Katiuska M Ferrer told us how event had helped her to make connections: “On a personal level, I had the opportunity to make friends with engineers, vets, and biologists — a crowd that, as a sociolinguist, I do not normally mingle with.”

Interested in taking part in the 2018 festival? Keep an eye on our Facebook page during January.

2. A warm welcome at the Wills Memorial

Welcoming new PGRs? We’ve got it all wrapped up.

OK, so November’s researcher inauguration event wasn’t just about the free scarves; it was also an opportunity to get over 300 new PGRs together, encourage them to explore connections between their chosen topics and give them a warm welcome them to Bristol’s vibrant researcher community.

But yes — the scarf-waving moment, prompted by BDC Director Dr Terry McMaster, is a 2017 highlight in itself. Thankfully, as you can see from the video above, we were in the right place to capture it for posterity.

3. Sharing your stories


Bristol has an amazingly vibrant researcher community — and, throughout the year, we’ve had the privilege of being able share some of your stories on Facebook, Twitter and the BDC blog.

The video above — Astronauts star Tim Gregory reflecting on his final frontier — was just one of the PGR profiles that we posted during 2017. You can watch our other interviews, including Alfie Wearn on his well-earned place in the UK Three Minute Thesis final and bio-archaeologist Cat Jarman on her BBC Four appearance, on our Facebook page.

Also, on this very blog, you can read 8 things we learned from our PGR panel at November’s PG Open Day.

4. A dual-doctoral deal

The Macquarie University delegation at the University of Bristol in September 2017
September saw the UoB make a landmark agreement with Macquarie University — one of Australia’s top universities — to create 25 fully-funded dual doctorates over the next five years.

What’s so significant about this new Bristol-Macquarie Cotutelle programme? For one thing, it’ll offer PGRs access to state-of-the-art facilities at two universities renowned for their research excellence — and enable them to receive a PhD from both. It’ll also act as a model for future collaborations with institutions around the world.

The BDC conceived and co-managed the project with Macquarie University, so we’ll be sharing much more about it during 2018. Look out for details!

5. A zinger of a session with Inger

Dr. Inger Mewburn
In December, we were lucky enough to welcome the renowned Thesis Whisperer herself, as Inger Mewburn visited Bristol to hold a special ‘What Examiners Really Want’ seminar with PGRs.

For Sabrina Fairchild, the BDC’s PG Researcher Development Adviser, helping to coordinate the seminar was her professional highlight of the year. As she noted afterwards: ‘de-mystifying the viva is crucial to decreasing the anxiety of research students and Inger did that with Star Wars-themed flair.’

Interested in reading Inger’s slides? May the course be with you.

6. A block-busting Boot Camp

Multi-coloured blocks

All of the courses and resources in the BDC-curated Personal and Professional Development programme are designed to be useful to Bristol’s PGRs — so what was it that made this session a particular highlight?

For one thing, it was the first time we had actually run a Thesis Boot Camp. For the BDC’s Paul Spencer and Anja Dalton, this meant creating an environment where PGRs could spend an entire weekend writing — without even having to think about making their own meals — and encouraging them to put aside perfectionism so they could push ahead with that all-important first draft.

Did it help the PGRs, though? Well, the tweets about ‘#bdctbc’ were certainly encouraging.


Interested in taking part in our next Thesis Boot Camp on 23–25 February? Visit the BDC website to submit your application.

7. Meeting and mingling over mince pies

China Scholarship Council PhD scholarship holders with Pro Vice-Chancellor Prof Nishan Canagarajah and BDC Director Dr Terry McMaster

The special celebration that we held for the current group of China Scholarship Council PhD scholarship holders was very recent — literally in the last week — but it was such a fine, festive occasion that it easily makes our list of 2017 highlights.

Although the mince pies and mulled wine were fantastic, the real treat was the positive feedback that we got about UoB, the city and the scheme itself. As one PGR put it: “I hope more students will come to Bristol and enjoy their life as a researcher as much as me.”

Interested in finding out more about the China Scholarship Council-University of Bristol Joint PhD Scholarship Scheme? Pop over to the CSC-UoB page.

8. A pilot programme for industrial-strength skills

'Courage, creativity, collaboration' caption at the Research without Borders festival

Did you know that we launched a pilot Industrial PhD Professional Development Programme in 2017

If you’re a doctoral researcher who’s funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Doctoral Training Partnership, you’ll be able to build your skills and expand your future career options by signing up for entrepreneurial training, industry placements, a summer school — and, as we announced a few weeks ago, a skills development workshop on 23 January.

The pilot programme came about after the EPSRC awarded the UoB funding to support new and current PhD studentships in science and engineering (as part of the National Productivity Investment Fund).

Much more news will follow in 2018, so keep an eye on our Skills for industry page if you want to know more.

9. And finally… building a bigger and better BDC

The Bristol Doctral College team at November's researcher inauguration
It’s perhaps more of a theme than a specific highlight — but, for the BDC, 2017 was all about expansion.

A huge part of our work centres on enhancing the environment for our PGRs, and on that front we welcomed Paul Spencer (PGR Environment Development Manager), Anja Dalton (PGR Development Officer, covering for Loriel Anderson), Sabrina Fairchild (PGR Development Adviser), Patrick Ashby (BDC Administrator) and Robert Doherty (Communications & Engagement Assistant).

The work that we do to support the growth of our PGR community is equally important, and new team members Kevin Higgins and Aby Sankaran joined the team during 2017 to lead on, respectively, the Global Bristol PhD Programme and the Industrial PhD Programme.

Of course, it would be remiss of us not to mention the esteemed colleagues who moved on this year — and who played a huge part in making the BDC what it is today. So thanks and best wishes to Bea Martinez Gonzalez and Charlotte Spires. (The much-missed Loriel Anderson will be back with us in summer 2018.)

How Thesis Boot Camp helps PGRs to beat the block

Dr. Paul Spencer, the Bristol Doctoral College’s PGR Environment Development Manager, took some time during December’s Thesis Boot Camp to reflect on the aims of the weekend — and why it’s so beneficial for the postgraduate researchers who take part.

It’s a Sunday morning in mid-December, I can see great big flakes of snow falling outside the window to my right and I’m writing away along with 25 postgraduate researchers who are making stellar progress on writing that thesis. Why? Well, the Bristol Doctoral College (BDC) is running our first Thesis Boot Camp here in the School of Education this weekend. The BDC will run two more in the coming months, so I thought I’d take the time to explain what it’s all about.

What is a Thesis Boot Camp?

Dr Paul Spencer at December's Thesis Boot Camp

Simply put, it’s about getting late stage postgraduate researchers together in a peer group and setting them a seemingly impossible target of writing 20,000 words between Friday evening to Sunday evening.

Many postgraduate researchers find themselves writing alone, struggling to make progress on what can feel like an unreachable goal. Thesis Boot Camp turns that on its head and brings people together to harness the power of collective motivation and progress.

Why Thesis Boot Camp?

All creative ideas involve some sort of theft, and so it is with Thesis Boot Camp. There are many writing retreats that groups of authors often engage in and this is just an iteration of that. It’s really quite simple: provide some comfortable space, food, drink, an empathetic ear, plenty of opportunity for connection and just let the postgraduate researchers write.

What key things are we trying out here?

The key concepts that we ask the participants to experiment with are things that experienced writing tutors may be familiar with.

  1. That writing in a group, especially of like-minded individuals, can be hugely productive.
  2. Often the sense of perfectionism that doctoral researchers aspire to can get in the way of writing productively, so neatly described in Katherine Firth’s blogpost on ‘The Perfect Sentence Vortex’.
  3. To be productive, you first need quite a lot of material to begin with — make a big mess first and then tidy it up!
  4. Preparation is crucial, so participants are given lots of ideas and suggestions on how to plan and be ready for Thesis Boot Camp before it happens. This involves a bit of planning — to really think about what each chapter is trying to achieve and how it fits into an overall argument or thread that forms the backbone of the original contribution claim in a doctoral dissertation.

So, how is it going?

The first thing that has really struck me this weekend has been the overall enthusiasm and positive approach from the postgraduate researchers on this Thesis Boot Camp.

The willingness to lean into the discomfort of trying out unfamiliar approaches to writing, the collegial nature of the interactions, the supportive conversations that I’ve witnessed. It really drives home the absolute key ingredient for me, and that’s the importance of a community of writers/peers who offer each other encouragement and support collectively whilst pursuing their own writing goals.

Key ingredients

Here are a few things that really help make a Thesis Boot Camp work.

  1. A good, flexible venue. In this case the entire top floor of the School of Education in Berkeley Square — self-contained and able to support a DIY approach to the provision of copious amounts of tea/coffee (essential!).
  2. Regular meal times. A good range of wholesome food — and being able to eat together without effort — is crucial for the community dynamic. Plenty of snacks in between is also essential. Boot Camp runs on biscuits!
  3. Taking regular breaks. We took full advantage of our great location and went for a walk to the Cabot Tower on Brandon Hill on Saturday afternoon, and on Sunday with the sleet and snow falling, it was easy to pop over the road to the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. As one participant said, viewing the dinosaur bones certainly brought a sense of perspective to the thesis writing.
  4. The rewards! I know it seems silly, but squeezy coloured Lego bricks at regular word-count milestones (5,000, 10,000, 15,000 and 20,000) are a real symbol of progress and productivity and the participants really took to the concept. The real magic of these is that you take them home, pop them on your desk and they serve as a reminder of your achievement to inspire you during the writing times to come.

And that of course is the most important part of Thesis Boot Camp: the legacy. Creating ways for postgraduate researchers to remind themselves and each other of their progress during just one weekend helps inspire them to continue to meet, talk, write and encourage each other to get to that dreamed of finish line. Being part of that is something pretty special.

The next Thesis Boot Camp will take place over the weekend of 23–25 February 2018. To find out more — and submit an application to take part — visit our Thesis Boot Camp page

8 things we learned from our PGR panel

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

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

But first, some introductions. The panellists were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Collaboration creates confidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Take opportunities to push yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Academics are there to help you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Researcher reflections — how working with young offenders changed me

This guest blogpost is a personal reflection by Adeela ahmed Shafi, a PhD candidate in the School of Education. Adeela is also Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Gloucestershire and Vice-Chair of the Avon & Somerset Police Powers Scrutiny Panel.

If you’re a researcher, there’s plenty of literature available on how to be ethical; how to reflect and acknowledge your presence in research, in terms of research design, data collection, analysis and indeed the claims made.

However, there’s not much out there on how the research process actually impacts on the researcher.

My research contributes to the intense political debate on youth justice by exploring the nature of disengagement in young offenders in a secure custodial setting and how this group can be re-engaged.

What I would like to do here, though, is talk about the challenges — methodological, ethical and personal — that I needed to navigate in order to get to the findings.

Challenges, dilemmas and adapting your approach

For me, there were many personal and methodological challenges in working with incarcerated young offenders.

For example, I had prepared all manner of interview aids to help me elicit data from my participants — all derived from the literature in terms of the best way to interview children and vulnerable participants. However, I ultimately found that these were all quite superfluous and in themselves made many assumptions about my participants.

In the end, then, I found I had to ditch these and just use myself as the main resource. This involved having to reveal some of my own vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and in doing so redress the power imbalance between myself as a researcher and the incarcerated participants, who had very little power or autonomy. I hadn’t actually planned that in my data collection prep work!

Having got myself in a position where my participants were willing to trust me and open up, I felt myself amidst an array of ethical challenges and dilemmas. Not least of these was that I was now in a privileged but weighty position of responsibility, with a duty to tell the story of a ‘doubly vulnerable’ group who had little voice in a society that had already passed judgement on them.

Retaining and representing what’s been shared

Because of this sense of responsibility, I felt that the handling of the data had to avoid fracturing the essence of what had been shared. I found my memory, emotions and the field notes of each interview were essential in this, because I could recall the additional aspects of the interview not recorded in transcriptions to enter the analysis — in particular, the body language and the atmosphere in the room during the interviews. Even now as I write this, I find myself transported back, and I remember how riveted I felt when listening to them.

My experiences also reinforced the criticality of the researcher in the generation of data, and in ensuring that this data was represented in a way that captured the richness of it. I didn’t see it as data ‘waiting to be gathered’, because my participants indicated they’d never had the space to give thought to their educational experiences in the way that engagement with the research had enabled them.

In short, working with these young people meant I was able to get a glimpse of their potential.

But I feel guilty.

In participating in the research, I was showing these vulnerable participants what could be — but what was not to be. Being unable to facilitate the potential I witnessed beyond the scope of my research stung.

I realised then that research can change you.

Your wellbeing wisdom — self-care tips for PGRs, by PGRs

To mark self-care week, an annual event that encourages people to manage their day-to-day wellbeing, we asked Bristol’s PGRs what helps them unwind, de-stress and forget about their research.

The ‘top tips’ we received were varied — from dancing to dog-walking — but being able to take a break without feeling guilty was a common thread, as was scheduling time off.

Also: Netflix. (Well, who doesn’t love a box-set binge?)

As Gwen from the School of Veterinary Sciences put it in her thoughtful reply: ‘It doesn’t matter what you do, the important thing is to switch off entirely and not feel guilty!’

Wise words.

Your self-care tips

‘I sleep well. I eat well. I celebrate small victories.’
Jane, School of Education

‘Spending free time outside with animals. Dog walking or horse riding would be my choice. 🐶🐴☀’
Marta, School of Economics

‘I go outside, go for a run, walk, meet up with friends, dance, increase physical activity, eat healthy. Also, simply focusing on my breathing when I’m stressed helps me feel better.’
Lily, School for Policy Studies

‘I make sure I build in the time for myself into my schedule, that way I don’t feel guilty as I know I have the time for it! In terms of what I do it can vary from a Netflix binge to a nice long shower to baking… <3’
Sarah, SU

‘Promising myself one guilt-free hour a day to do something completely non-PhD related. Usually this is practising guitar, walking the dog or just having a nap. It doesn’t matter what you do, the important thing is to switch off entirely and not feel guilty!’
Gwen, School of Veterinary Sciences

‘Remind myself constantly that putting myself first is not selfish. Remember to be grateful for all the good things I have. Move slowly and take more rest than I think I need! Oh, and sometimes a nice G&T!’
Emma, School for Policy Studies

‘If you need a break — hours or days, take it. Burnout can lead to drop out, be kind to yourself and binge that Netflix show, take that trip. Then come back when you’re feeling refreshed and with fresh perspective.’
Tina, School of Arts

What would you add? Tell us in the comments or share your tips on Twitter or Instagram using #selfcareweek.

Being open to the idea of open

In the run up to International Open Access Week, Dr. Paul Spencer, the BDC’s PGR Environment Development Manager, shares his thoughts on why openness matters.

I’m an enthusiastic advocate of Open Access — the free, immediate, online availability of research articles coupled with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment. I believe this paves the way for positive changes to how research is conducted and disseminated that facilitate breakthroughs making tangible differences as we face challenges in modern society.

But I realise that not everyone thinks the same way I do. There are some folks in academia that baulk at the idea of transforming a long established model of scholarly publishing for fear that it destabilises the way that academics are recognised and rewarded for their contributions in research. I think this is particularly difficult for postgraduate researchers who often receive conflicting advice on how to take the first steps in getting published.

In a few days it will be Open Access Week (23–29 October 2017), an international celebration of the progress made in open access. This year the theme is to highlight the facilitative nature of open access by asking people to complete the sentence “Open in order to_______”.

What follows are my responses to that call.

Open in order to establish yourself as a researcher

The academic research environment is undeniably a crowded and competitive space. It is imperative for those who are taking their first steps into this arena to leverage all they can to establish themselves as researchers in their speciality.

I believe that having a strong digital identity is immensely helpful. The first place is to set up a digital identifier for yourself as a researcher so that you can ensure all of your outputs are connected to you and your digital identity. It’s called ORCiD and it’s very simple to set up. Do it now.

Open in order to make a difference

I believe that most researchers do what they do not because they want to be rich and famous, most do it because they want their ideas, research, suggestions, theories to make some sort of difference to the world.

This is in essence what a doctorate is all about, producing an original contribution to knowledge and therefore furthering our understanding about how things are. Therefore it becomes really important that we do what we can to ensure that our outputs are not placed behind restrictive paywalls.

Open in order to further your career

“Publish or perish” is a well worn phrase when it comes to progressing an academic research career. One school of thought on this is to only target the most prestigious journals in your field and publish there at all costs. The downside of this approach is that it is a risky game to play, especially when you are an early career researcher as what you really need is quality outputs that are visible and are being cited.

Making your research articles open access increases your citation rates and is therefore good for your career!

Open in order to make connections

Establishing your reputation as researcher is a key element in a digitally connected world and there is good evidence that being able to write and share work that is in progress or in print via a number of social media platforms is now part and parcel of a modern academic’s scholarly life.

Open in order to agitate change in scholarly publishing

A little further up this post I linked to an article entitled Untangling academic publishing: A history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of researchI think it is important to understand how the scholarly publishing landscape has evolved over the past 25 years (and why) so that researchers who are starting out understand just how it works, especially when it is your labour that is being profited from.

Most of the economics of publishing are largely hidden from the academic community and is increasingly under the control of four very large commercial organisations. But it doesn’t have to be this way – the power to influence and change is your hands, the early career researchers who will be the research leaders of the future.

So, there are a few things to start you thinking. Are you being open to the idea of open?

The Bristol Doctoral College would love to hear your thoughts about this.

 

Header image: ‘Open’ sign — CC BY-NC 2.0, Niklas Morberg (bit.ly/2xQlggD)

When you think all hope is gone during your PhD

This post by Paul Spencer, PGR Environment Development Manager at the Bristol Doctoral College, originally appeared on his Digital Doctorate blog.

It was January 22 and a little before 4.30am when the phone call came. It was my step mother ringing to tell me that my dad had died suddenly of a heart attack. At that moment my whole world collapsed.

This is a personal post that has surfaced some painful emotions for me (see below for how I’m dealing with that right now) but one that I want to write about because it’s an opportunity to highlight a couple of things about sticking at something when all seems lost.

That tenacity and persistence are crucially important qualities in succeeding during a doctorate, moreso than being super smart. It also brings home how pivotal the people around you are who offer support so I think it a story worth telling.

It is forefront in my mind now because I have been spending a lot of time in the last two weeks standing in front of hundreds of postgraduate researchers who are about to embark on their own doctoral journeys.

Why do a PhD?

As part of these welcome events I’ve been asking the question “why have you signed up to study for a doctorate?” I believe that connecting with the motivation for doing so is profoundly important when things aren’t going so well.

I’ve also been reflecting on what was driving me on, how key people around me helped in me at my lowest point and how all this has shaped my identity. What I have been totally unprepared for is how raw, painful and very real that the emotion of grief and loss feels to me right now as I recall that cold January night 17 years ago…

My motivation

It was the year 2000, the millennium celebrations were slowly ebbing away and I was in my third year as a PhD student studying how oral microorganisms contribute to bad breath.

I hadn’t planned it this way, I’d always wanted to emulate my dad and become a pathologist. He was my hero and I thought medicine was going to be my true calling. Rather unfortunately though I found it difficult as a teenager to work hard in school and, almost inevitably, I flunked my three science ‘A’ levels which all but ended any ambition to apply to medical school. So I had to find a different path.

Many teachers reckoned it was a shame because they thought I was bright and gifted in natural sciences but just unable to apply myself. I just wanted to prove to them that I could do it and most of all wanted my dad to see me graduate with a Doctor of Philosophy to my name.

I was truly devastated, my dad was 63 years old, had not long retired from being a pathologist and was using all of his experience in helping the bereaved by volunteering with The Samaritans at the time of his death. He would never get to see me in my floppy cap and gown at a PhD graduation. I was consumed with grief, a relationship I was in ended soon after and I had serious thoughts about quitting the PhD. In an instant, my main motivation and purpose was gone.

Key people

My supervisor was brilliant with me; he was understanding, listened with kindness and tried not to put too much pressure on me whilst the fog of grief slowly lifted. Close friends rallied round too to keep me company and just to be there.

And then a few months later I met someone who quickly became my rock [let’s call her Jessica to save any embarrassment]. Jessica was my soul mate, my best friend and a true love. She helped me see that I was doing this PhD for myself, that I could succeed, that she was walking beside me all the way. I don’t think I would have gotten through the incredibly tough last 18 months of the PhD without her. She featured heavily in the acknowledgements of my doctoral dissertation. I will be eternally grateful for her support, love, companionship and emotional connection in the time we were together.

Moving on

My PhD graduation was a bitter/sweet day, I was overwhelmed by the sense of achievement and pride yet dominated by the sense of mourning and loss. Sadly Jessica and I had parted ways; she was/is ten years my junior and we found ourselves at very different life stages post study. Letting go of someone so special so they could pursue their life dreams was really hard to accept.

But life moves on and we adapt, grow and find new purpose. I am in a very different place now, I have a young family of my own and a job that gives me the opportunity to do something I am truly passionate about. I guess this is why I feel uneasy at how much I am being affected by events in my distant past.

Making sense

At the top of this post I said that I had been unprepared for the intensity of the emotions, thoughts and feelings I have surfaced and this has unsettled me a great deal. My natural tendency is to internalise, to try and logically examine what is going on before finding some resolution to my conflict. However, this is really hard because these are things that I had thought were resolved and accepted long ago. So I have been taking a different approach and I want to share it in case it helps you too.

Changing the perspective when it all becomes too much

Many people have told me about the Headspace app, a way of learning about simple meditation techniques that helps to change our perspective to those thoughts and feelings that can make us feel anxious and upset. I think the analogy that has struck me most is the idea that these are like traffic whizzing by, blaring their horns and dominating our focus. But it doesn’t have to be this way… I have been trying to learn to sit back and just notice these thoughts, acknowledging them but then just letting them pass and returning to the present, the here and now. Andy Puddicombe explains that much better in this animation.

 

What I think is important to mention, is this meditation technique is good preventative practice at keeping our thoughts and feelings from dominating our present focus and not a solution in an acute crisis.

Advice to those who feel that all hope is gone

  1. Realise that you are not the only person to experience this, talk to your peers, friends, loved ones. It really makes a difference.
  2. Keep pushing! Persistence can and really does pay off.
  3. If you have encountered a significant life event and you don’t know how to deal with it, seek help from your local wellbeing service [this is the Bristol one but there will be similar set-ups in your own institution]
  4. Try not to be too hard on yourself, self-doubt and imposter syndrome affects pretty much everyone
  5. At some point with the writing, you will probably loathe the thesis. This is okay. The mindset you have to adopt is not when will it be finished, or perfect, no you have to get to the point of “That will do”.
  6. Take a look around you, see who else has got their doctorate and tell yourself, “if they can do it, then so can I”
Dr. David Spencer
Dr. David Spencer (1936 – 2000) R.I.P.