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.”

10 things all postgraduate researchers at Bristol should know

Is it possible to condense everything that Bristol’s postgraduate researchers need to know into just 10 short points?

Not really — but our little list is (hopefully) a good place to start if you’ve just begun your journey, or a handy refresher if you’ve been on the PGR path for a while.

Do you think we’ve missed something major? If you do, please tell us in the comments.

1. You’re a researcher in ‘the best place to live in Britain’

The Clifton Suspension Bridge

Bristol ‘crams in all the culture you could wish for’. Not our words — the assessment of the Sunday Times Best Places to Live Guide, which crowned the city as the best place to live in Britain in its 2017 edition.

‘We sum the city up as cool, classy and supremely creative,’ said Sunday Times home editor Helen Davies. Who are we to disagree with that?

All research students automatically receive our BDC Bulletin, so you’ll get a round-up of what’s on in bustling Bristol — from film festivals to street-art strolls — every fortnight.

2. Bristol has a vibrant network of postgraduates

PG Network hiking expedition in the Cheddar Valley

Want to meet more of your fellow researchers and attend a wide range of events, including Pint of Science evenings, hiking expeditions to the Cheddar Valley (pictured above) or informal, fun get-togethers?

Joining the Bristol Student Union PG Network — a student-led initiative for all postgraduate students, both research and taught — is a great way to meet your peers and get involved in PGR community activities.

To get started and see what’s available, join the PG Network’s public group on Facebook.

3. You’re at a top 10 university

The University of Bristol

Ready for some stats?

According to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2018, the University of Bristol is number 9 in the UK — a spot we’ve held for six consecutive years.

Globally, Bristol is one of only 12 UK institutions in the top 100 universities.

All of which is just to emphasise that you are at one of the most popular and successful universities in the UK, and you should expect your time here to be both positive and productive.

4. Whatever stage you’re at, our free training and events can help

A woman writing

Postgraduate research is a marathon rather than a sprint.

The BDC isn’t here just to cheer you on; we curate an extensive programme of training and events that’s designed to boost your personal and professional development, whether you’re just getting started, you need to maintain your momentum or you have the finish line in sight.

Visit the Personal and Professional Development section of our website to find out how you can sign up for useful sessions on everything from kick-starting your thesis-writing to relaxing with mindful yoga.

5. Your wellbeing matters

A woman looking at the sunset

Life as a PGR can be challenging. Immersing yourself in research, lab work or field work can be very productive — but it can also be isolating.

Taking care of yourself, and seeking help if you need it, is an essential part of maintaining a positive and productive life as a PGR. If you need support, your supervisor will be your primary channel. However, a range of other services are also available — from the Expert Self Care app to the Students’ Health Service.

Visit the Health and wellbeing section of the UoB website to see what’s on offer.

6. There’s an online tool that’ll make your PGR life a lot easier

STaR online tool animation

Feeling daunted by your postgraduate research? The University has a resource that can help you.

STaR (short for ‘Skills, Training and Review’) is an online tool that enables you to manage, plan and track your development. You can save your work, share drafts with supervisors and — thanks to a link with the University’s PURE system — develop a public research profile.

Get a full overview of its features in the STaR section of our website.

7. You can showcase your research at our annual PGR festival

Research without Borders festival

Imaginative, interactive — and just downright fun — Research without Borders is the University’s annual showcase of postgraduate research.

As a PGR, the festival gives you an opportunity to present your work to the public and connect with other researchers from all disciplines. In May 2017, the special exhibition at Colston Hall that was held as part of the festival saw 74 postgraduate researchers showcase their work through interactive displays and activities.

Visit the Research without Borders page for more details on taking part in the 2018 festival.

8. Being an open researcher will help your reputation


Successful researchers know how to make their work discoverable and widely accessible. It’s not just good practice; it can help you establish a reputation early in your career.

The first step towards becoming an open researcher is to sign up for a free ORCiD account — a unique identifier for researchers that means all of your work is associated with you, regardless of any name changes or variations.

Once you’ve done this, you can learn about the online tools that interact with ORCiD and will help you boost your research reputation.

9. You’re in a multi-university alliance — and it has real-world benefits

Map showing location of GW4 universities

Did you know that, as a Bristol PGR, you’re a member of the GW4 Alliance?

If you haven’t encountered it before, the GW4 Alliance is a partnership between four of the most research-intensive universities in the UK: Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter.

The alliance has some tangible benefits for PGRs, including access to a collaborative network, expert training opportunities and shared resources. You can even access a wealth of rare and unique materials (the ‘GW4 treasures’) and a database of equipment.

Visit the GW4 website to find out more.

10. The Bristol Doctoral College team is here for you

The Bristol Doctoral College team

At the BDC, it’s our job to work with teams across the University to ensure that the PGR environment is the very best it can be so you can thrive during your research degree — and beyond.

In short: we’re here to support and champion you.

If you want to ask a question or flag an issue, please email us at doctoral-college@bristol.ac.uk or call us on (0117) 92 88105.

Research without Borders 2017: check out the highlights!

It’s over a month since our Research without Borders festival of postgraduate research took place across the Univeristy of Bristol and Colston Hall – so these highlights are a good reminder of what fun we had, how much we learned, and how hard our postgraduate research students are working each day of the week!

Pick up on the buzzing atmosphere from our showcase afternoon finale and hear from participants about why they got involved and what they learned:

Research without Borders: a blog from last year’s interactive display winner, Henry Webber

As our 100 postgraduate researchers involved in this year’s Research without Borders festival prepare their exhibitions, discussions and presentations, we took a trip down memory lane to last year’s showcase and talked to the winner of the prize for Interactive Display, Henry Webber, an Archaeology and Anthropology PhD candidate.

Last year I applied to display my research at the Research Without Borders festival. I wanted to use the process as an exercise for thinking about my ideas, and how to present and communicate these ideas to a mixture of people from colleagues to academics, to the general public and other industries.

My research involves connecting archaeology with agriculture. It is about learning what impacts humans have had on the landscape, the material remains left in the soil, and how these may be impacting state of the art farming techniques and agricultural knowledge in the 21st century.

Some of the main aspects that I wanted to convey were the material aspects of my research, the focus on soils and how they are central to both archaeology (for the study of the human past) and agriculture (for the future of society). In addition, I wanted to showcase how agricultural techniques are changing with the evolution of remote sensing data, and software and hardware development. With an increased focus on high resolution data and precise methodologies, such as GPS steering of tractors and variable rate fertiliser application, requiring ever more detailed knowledge of soil variation, the impacts that humans have had on soils are becoming increasingly more important.

To try to engage people in my display and demonstrate these ideas, I brought in real soil and turf blocks to replicate a field with a crop. I then stripped off the topsoil and recreated a miniature archaeological site with darker colours of soil representing high organic matter and nutrient levels such as phosphorus, which is often found in conjunction with archaeological sites. I used toy tractors from my childhood to demonstrate the actions and spatial connection that farmers have with archaeology and to explain some of the contentions that currently exist between farmers and archaeologists. Next to this I had printed images of my case study datasets and a projector with several videos showing high-tech precision spraying, laser weeding and autonomous vehicles. I also brought some actual geophysical equipment (Ground Penetrating Radar) for people to use. With Ground Penetrating Radar, it is possible to see objects below the surface, and in the display hall we could tell where pipes, electric cables, and solid floor supports were from the way they reflect radar energy. This sort of technique is also however, commonly used to discover buried archaeology.

After I found out that I had won the prize for best interactive display, I was delighted! I had certainly got a lot out of the event already from just the networking and discussions with people, but the prize was an additional bonus. The prize consisted of money to put towards training of my choice, which I decided to use to improve and continue my professional development in being qualified in agronomic advice.

I had already completed a course in fertiliser and agronomy advice as part of the PhD, but this extra funding helped me to continue to be professionally accredited and knowledgeable about current agronomic

Research Without Borders Event, University of Bristol/@Bristol

advice, issues, and legislation. This has great benefit for my research as, when talking to farmers, I can contextualise my research in ‘real life’ farming practices in the UK today. It has also helped me to engage with farmers and develop positive relationships around which my research can become much more reflexive. Finally, this training provides me with a qualification that will be useful in any future career path relating to food and farming and allow me to have a broader perspective.

The Research without Borders festival was certainly a great event and I am glad to see it continuing this year. It was worthwhile from many perspectives for me and I would encourage you to get involved to meet new people, try out new ideas and explore displaying your own research!

The showcase exhibition returns to Colston Hall frmo 2 to 5pm on 12 May in this year’s Research without Borders festival. Sign up for tickets via Eventbrite

Interests in Aid and Development: a talk with Myles Wickstead

Keri McNamara, a third year PGR student in the School of Earth Sciences, spoke to Myles Wickstead following his lecture on a life-long career in aid and development as part of the Cabot Institute lecture series. This blog has been reposted with permission by the Cabot Institute, and the original post can be viewed here.

Ever wondered what a career in aid and development is like? Or how the world’s current development programmes came into being? Look no further than this blog on Myles Wickstead who gave a Cabot Institute lecture and short interview on his reflections and experiences on a colourful career in aid and development.

Among Wickstead’s notable achievements are a position as head of British Development Division in Eastern Africa, coordinating a British Government White Paper on eliminating world poverty and now being an advisor to the charity Hand in Hand International.

An audio recording of Myles lecture can be found above. His talk focussed largely on the inception of the building blocks of international development; the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary fund. He began by turning back time towards the end of the second World War, in which the atmosphere of global reconciliation bred the need for trans-border institutions such as the UN that had the oversight necessary for peace to prevail.

Many years later, the UN decided to introduce development goals with the aim of reducing global poverty within a given time frame. The first of these was the Millennium Development Goals which were drafted in the UN head quarters with little external solicitation. In fact, Wickstead reminisced that environmental goals were almost completely overlooked and only added when a member of the committee ran into the director of the UN environment department on the way to the copier room…

Wickstead went on to add that a large parts of the Millennium goals were generally quite successful although there was still plenty of scope to be more inclusive. He also dwelt on the new Sustainable Development Goals drafted by the UN in 2015 and the Paris climate summit which, Wickstead claims, represent a much more integrated approach to propel international development into the future.

Below is my interview with Myles in which I question him on his talk and ask him about his career in aid and development:

You mentioned a fair bit in your talk about the importance of tying in environment sustainability with aid and development. How do you see that working in practice in a developing country when sustainable practices can be sometimes be quite anti-economic? 

Yes, the two things are brought together in the Global Goals for Sustainable Development agreed in New York in September 2015.  Let’s take an example of a country that’s well-endowed with forest resources. They could get rich quickly by chopping down the trees and selling the wood. You can’t expect those countries to simply say ‘we are not going to chop our forest down’. Firstly you need them to realise that for the long-term sustainability of their country they need to preserve the  forest. But second, because maintaining the forests helps protect us all from climate change they rightly expect some compensation from the international community to do so. There are (albeit imperfect) mechanisms in place for this. Despite this I do, on the whole, think they are being successfully implemented: take Brazil for example.

There are also examples where – often without the consent of the government – indigenous forests are being cut down to make way for palm oil plantations, with devastating consequences not only for the trees but the wildlife.  In these situations, governments need to be encouraged to take firm action against the individuals or  companies concerned, again with support from the international community as and if appropriate.

I work on volcanic hazard in Ethiopia and one of the things I’ve noticed is the more wealthy urban areas are developing fast with an expanding middle class, but the more rural areas are still subject to a lot of extreme poverty. What part should external aid play in helping this wealth filter down?

It’s a very important question and one I touched on when talking about the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which were in place from 2000-2015.  That period saw extraordinary progress, including halving the proportion of people living in absolute poverty, but many people (for example, those with disabilities or from ethnic minorities) were left out.  It is also the case that urban areas, with generally better infrastructure and more job opportunities, tended to make faster progress.  A lot of people in rural areas were in very much the same position in 2015 as in 1990. Within Ethiopia, a combination of rapid economic growth – supported both by investment and aid  – and good policies mean that the benefits are now being felt more widely.

The role of Chinese investment in infrastructure, particularly roads, has I think been quite a positive one. The Government of Ethiopia has a very clear five year growth and investment plan and they expect their partners to deliver; I remember one case of former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles requiring a Chinese company to rebuild a road they had just built as it was not up to standard; I am sure they were equally exacting of other companies from other countries.  Not all African governments have that kind of determination but on the whole I think Chinese engagement has been a good thing.  And the fact that Africa was largely unaffected by the global recession following the crash of 2008 was not only because it was not as connected to the international financial system as other parts of the world, but also because China and other countries in Asia continued to buy its raw materials.

What influenced your decision to have a career in Aid and development?

I had lived and travelled overseas a little.  My father was a marine biologist and as a technical expert worked for the predecessors of DFID and lived and worked overseas in places like Singapore, Tanzania, and Jamaica.  So I probably got some of the wish to live and work overseas from him – though alas didn’t inherit the science gene, which passed me by!

I went through the civil service fast stream process, and having successfully negotiated that had to make a choice about which Department I wanted to join.  It was then the Ministry of Overseas Development; a few years later became the Overseas Development Administration of the FCO; and in 1997 became a fully-fledged Department of State with its own Cabinet Minister. Interestingly, DFID remains the most popular choice of all government departments for fast-steam applicants.

Is there a defining moment in your career you want to mention? 

I have been extraordinarily lucky in the choices that I have made – or have been made for me – in terms of where I was at particular time. To have had the chance to run a regional office in Africa; to have been on the Board of the World Bank; to have worked closely with Ministers both as a Private Secretary and in coordinating the 1997 White Paper (the first in 24 years); and to be Ambassador to Ethiopia and the African Union – it was a huge privilege (and very hard work!) to be given these responsibilities.  I ran the Commission for Africa Secretariat in 2004/5, and I suppose one of the great moments was going to present a copy of the Commission’s Report ‘Our Common Interest’ in 2005 to Nelson Mandela.

Someone asked earlier today- how do you keep positive despite the gloomy state of much of the world? My answer would be that the world has made extraordinary progress over the past quarter of a century in pulling people out of poverty, and that we have a real chance of completing the task, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, by 2030. Of course there have been setbacks along the way, and there will be more – conflict and environmental challenges to name but two. But with political will, and by maintaining a positive focus, I believe we can aspire to a better world both for ourselves and for future generations.

 

BCFN Student Kate Oliver through to Famelab Regional Final

The Bristol heat of the international competition for communicating science asks working scientists and technologists to explain something about science in just 3 minutes. Kate spoke about the science of hairstyling and shape memory polymers, and is one of 4 to progress to the Regional final, which brings together talent from across Wales, the Midlands and the Southwest.

Famelab [http://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/about/famelab/] is a communications competition where entrants have no slides and only the props they can carry on with them. Participants begin with local heats, then work their way up through region and national to the international final at Cheltenham Science Festival. Taking part in Famelab has kickstarted the careers of many presenters and performers, from musicians to more traditional explosion-based science demonstrations.

Kate Oliver is in the third year of their time at the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials, and is working on 3D printing shape-changing materials. They also co-organise and regularly perform at local chaotic science cabaret, Science Showoff Bristol, [https://scienceshowoff.wordpress.com/] and are taking part in the Science Showoff Talent Factory [ https://showofftalentfactory.wordpress.com/ ]. Kate said:

“Today I spoke about the molecular action that enables hair to hold shapes – it’s called shape memory, and could be very useful in future technologies. Talking about science allows me to indulge my attention-seeking, outward going side – though I like being with my machines in lab too.”

Of 8 entrants into the local heat, 4 went through: in addition to Kate, Alex Lathbridge, Lon Barfield, and Alex McCleod will be joining another 10 at the Regional final, to be held in March. It’s free, and all are welcome to come down, watch, and offer their thoughts.

This post was originally published on the BCFN website, and can be viewed here.

7 things all Bristol PGRs should do in 2017

Make sure you start the year as you mean to go on by getting involved in the thriving research community here in Bristol. Here are some of the highlights coming up in 2017 that our postgraduate research students should watch out for:

1. Look after yourself by prioritising your self-care

We bet you didn’t expect to see this as number 1 on the list, but looking after yourself shouldn’t be forgotten. Life as a researcher can take its toll on your mental and physical health. In the depths of research – whether in the lab, the archives, or the field – it’s all too easy to get sucked away from the wider world. Take a quick look at our virtual resource hub for activities, events, information and news about mental health and general wellbeing.

http://www.bris.ac.uk/doctoral-college/healthy/

2. Celebrate the start of your research at our special inauguration event in February

If you’ve started your research degree on or after 1 August 2016 then come along to our special Researcher Inauguration event on Monday 6 February, 2017. Receive your official welcome from the Vice-Chancellor and President of the University, Professor Hugh Brady, and introduce yourself to the University’s rich and vibrant research community over a glass of wine and some nibbles. Sign up for your free ticket here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/researcher-inauguration-event-tickets-30551567561

3. Showcase your research at the BDC festival of research: Research without Borders 2017

Our flagship Research without Borders festival provides an interactive space for Bristol postgraduate researchers across all disciplines to come together and showcase their work to a broad audience from within and outside of the University. This year’s festival will include a whole week of interactive showcase events: an evening seminar series, the finals of the Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition and an afternoon showcase exhibition at Colston Hall on Friday 12 May. More than 100 PGRs shared their work at last year’s exhibition, through research posters, hands-on demonstrations, innovative research displays and lively discussions. Take a look at last year’s event to get a sense of just how special the event was – and help us make this year’s event bigger and better than ever! Keep an eye on the Bristol Doctoral College website to find out how you can sign up.

4. Sign up for personal and professional development training  

In an increasingly competitive environment there is a growing demand on postgraduate researchers not just to be qualified experts in their subject area, but to be highly accomplished individuals with the skills and attitude to communicate, innovate and adapt within a continually changing landscape. The Bristol Doctoral College runs a Personal and Professional Development programme with more than 150 workshops, seminars and online resources designed specifically for postgraduate research  students. Take a look at the full catalogue and sign up today!

5. Join the Bristol SU Postgraduate Network

The PG Network is a student-led initiative for all postgraduate students (both research and taught) that seeks to develop an active, strong and vibrant postgraduate community here at the University of Bristol. The PG Network organises events in Bristol and provides a real chance for students to work together to shape and develop Bristol postgraduate community life. Get involved and keep up to date by joining the group on Facebook.

6. Learn something new and see where it takes you

Keep your mind active even when you need a break from your research by going to a public lecture, talk or debate about something completely different to your main study area. There are numerous public talks and lectures in Bristol, and many of them are free to attend. The Bristol Festival of Ideas attracts experts from around the world to Bristol with an inspiring programme of debate and discussion throughout the year. The Arnolfini also organises regular talks and the Pervasive Media Studio at the Watershed holds a free lunchtime talk every Friday.

7. And finally, make the most of being in Bristol

Bristol has a wealth of cultural treasures and historic places to explore – from museums, art galleries and theatres, pop-up cafes, festivals and world-renowned graffiti. Make sure you make the most of studying in such a vibrant city and take some time out of your research to explore. Keep up to speed with what’s going by keeping an eye on Bristol 247 and Bristol Museums.

Global Researcher: fieldwork tips from Germany

doreen
Doreen Pastor, a PhD Student in German, travelled to Germany to collect fieldwork this summer. She recounts her trials and rewards, and offers a couple of tips for postgraduate researchers preparing to go out into the field themselves.

I am a part-time student in German Studies researching how visitors engage with ‘challenging’ histories at memorial sites in Germany. This required spending an extended period of time in Germany talking to visitors at the concentration camp memorials Flossenbürg and Ravensbrück, the Holocaust memorial House of the Wannsee Conference and the former Stasi prison Bautzen II.

So, with my clipboard in my hand, I set off to Germany in June 2016. I was incredibly anxious at the airport with all these thoughts going through my head. “Will the survey I prepared work? Or more importantly, will visitors actually talk to me?!” I was also wondering how I would cope with living in Germany for four months, something many of my friends could not understand as Germany is my home country. I moved to the UK eight years ago and although I have been back since, the UK felt much more like home now.

Flossenbürg concentration camp memorial, my first stop, was a tough site. Visitor numbers were low which meant I had to work very hard in order to achieve my sample size. I stood with my clipboard in the rain, in thunderstorms and in scourging heat, often wondering “Why did I decide to do a PhD?”

By the time I completed my research at Ravensbrück (my 2nd case study), a former concentration camp predominantly for women, my own mental health started to be affected. I had completely underestimated the impact of the loneliness during fieldwork combined with spending significant amounts of time at sites which represent one of the darkest chapters in human history. There were times when I was close to giving up, especially when I went to my 3rd site, the House of the Wannsee Conference, where my living arrangements (student residence halls) were awful. Thankfully, Germany’s summer weather had significantly improved by then and I was able to spend the majority of my time outside, so I could cope with the unpleasant living situation for a month.

My final case study was the former Stasi prison, Bautzen II, in the East of Germany. Interestingly, this was a return to home territory for me, as I am originally from East Germany. It was tough to conduct research in a former Stasi prison, as the history is so close to my own family history (my uncle was imprisoned by the Stasi albeit not in Bautzen). However, it was also an incredibly humbling experience as I met a few former prisoners who talked to me about their own experience of having been a political prisoner in the GDR. In fact, one former prisoner said to me “Your PhD is so important, we need to know how we can engage with visitors in the future when we are no longer here.” This comment gave me a much needed dose of motivation after four months of hard work. I completed my research successfully in October, and was even invited back to Ravensbrück for a presentation to the staff team about my visitor research.

Although, looking back, I enjoyed working at these different memorials, it was one of the hardest jobs I have ever done. I had to learn to cope with rejections and the unpredictability of primary research while also keeping up motivation. Therefore, my main two pieces of advice for any PhD student on fieldwork are:

1. Don’t take setbacks personally – unfortunately the nature of primary research is that it includes ups and downs.
2. As tempting as it is to keep on working, schedule regular breaks – these are vital for your physical and mental health.

Flossenbürg concentration camp memorial, where Doreen conducted fieldwork by surveying visitors
Flossenbürg concentration camp memorial, where Doreen conducted fieldwork by surveying visitors