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.)

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.

Never JUST a PhD student

University of BristolDominika Bijoś recently received her PhD in Physiology and Pharmacology. She studied smooth muscle contraction and examined how other cell types influence it in bladder tissue and in the whole organ. Initially, she used molecular and cell biology techniques, but spent last year watching and analysing moving bladders and the conclusion was – they dance the samba!

Whether you are at the beginning of your PhD journey or finishing up, remember: never be JUST a PhD student. I’m speaking from experience. Throughout my PhD journey I hated that pitiful statement: “oh, you are just a PhD student”. Out of this frustration two things came out: I became MORE than a PhD student and I realized you should never let yourself be JUST a PhD student.

Let me explain.

The “just a PhD student” can come from two sources:

The general public still think you are a student

First are friends and family, who attribute the word STUDENT to a NON-REAL profession. I had to explain that I work usually more than 35h a week, sometimes during the weekends and I am a real member of the workforce. I convinced friends that my job is to research how and why X works and why it is important for real life application. To make sure you are taken seriously by the general public might be the easier task of the two.

Fellow scholars might overlook you at times

The second group who will call you JUST a PhD student (in my experience) are SOME fellow scholars. They might not realize it or (rarely) do they do it on purpose, but some will treat you as a lower level worker due to your lack of experience. Without PhD students, research would have gone nowhere. Sometimes being JUST a PhD student means that your problems are considered less important. I have asked my share of questions that showed I lack the deep understanding of the subject, but also a share which were dismissed just because I asked them. The philosophy doctorate doesn’t write itself on OLD stuff. You need new discovery and discussion to get it. And I suspect that at times, more experienced members of scholar family might JUST not remember that. NEVER get discouraged by that.

Drop the JUST – you are the expert now

It might sneak up on you that you become an expert as colleagues ask your opinion more and more, but for me it was a breakthrough. I visited a group in Canada (like Rebecca, I escaped MY lab). In Toronto, my task was to teach a technique my PhD was based on. I soon realized that for them I was never JUST a PhD student. I was the expert of the technique. On top of that, I was a new but experienced perspective, so they asked my opinion on everything from how I design an experiment to how I present the results. It was my experiment so I knew what I was talking about, just the confidence part was new. I designed the experiment, conducted it, taught other researchers, analysed the data etc. It was a breakthrough in my perception of my PhD life. I definitely became more than JUST a PhD student.

Just a PhD? – never!

On top of science and technical know-how, this experience made me realize you should never let yourself be JUST a PhD student. In the process of your PhD you will become the expert scholar on the topic, but you should challenge yourself to be a good researcher and do all things that come with it: communicate, write, network…explore all the unexpected benefits of the PhD life.

Get better at what you do

You can call it enhancement of your transferable skills, the continuous professional development or whatever you want, but identify where you can improve and act. Whatever your passion or inclination do other good in the world outside of your research topic: be a leader of a hockey team, play cello, organize a conference for your fellows, write a blog, start a journal club, start sewing, learn Spanish, pursue a project outside the lab and improve there.

What I did? Well, first I got totally down with being JUST a PhD student. And on top, I felt guilty for always not doing enough research (sounds familiar?). But then I realized that I had founded a society for those in my field, advocate for open access publishing, and mentor others. I took part in the 3MT Bristol Competition (great fun, do it!). All not quite strictly research, but all making me a bit more than just a PhD student.

Why it matters? Because after a PhD is said and done, in (like Richard) or outside of academic research, you want this experience to make you more than just a PhD student. Passion, excellence, self improvement and constant growth is what makes you more than just a student. It gives you the PhD.

You are not alone

sophie-blog-photoSophie Benoit has worked at the University for over 10 years. She joined the BDC as the Skills Development and Communications Officer in January 2014, before which she had covered several roles supporting postgraduate researchers including managing the Bristol Centre for Complexity Sciences, and the UK-India Network for Interactive Technologies research project. In her role with the BDC Sophie supports skills training and researcher development across the University, working with faculties, schools and central services to raise awareness of available resources and leading the development of a central training and development programme for postgraduate researchers. She also manages BDC communications including web and social media activity.

When I sat down to write this blog, I wasn’t sure where to start. I don’t have a PhD, so I couldn’t share my own experience of completing a doctorate, though the more I thought about it, I realised that my degree in Knitwear and Fashion from Central Saint Martins in London does in fact have some elements in common with the process of doing a PhD:

1) There was little / no structured teaching – you were expected to put in your own ‘self-learning’ time to get to the expected level of performance at a world-leading institution;

2) Having put your heart and soul into everything you produced, you had to try not to take it personally when your tutors ruthlessly critiqued every aspect of your work;

3) You had to dedicate endless hours in your quest for the ‘holy grail’ of all St Martins graduates – an innovative and original portfolio of work illustrating a novel contribution to the field, worthy of the long line of celebrity alumni who had graced the corridors before you.

When you add to this mix having to work nights and weekends to cover the rent, as well as going through a break-up in the family, it’s easy to see, looking back, why the final year of my degree was the most stressful, demoralising, and intense period of my life. However, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and more than ten years on, I am able to appreciate how this rigorous and unyielding experience made me a better communicator, improved my critical thinking, helped me to understand my own creative processes, and forced me to developed a resilience which has helped me to pick myself up and dust myself off on numerous occasions since. Not to mention leaving me with some pretty useful knitting skills!

Doing a PhD is tough, and I’m sure my experiences only provide me with a small part of the picture, but since I joined the University of Bristol in the Autumn of 2004, I have been privileged to witness the other side of the story: as a sounding board; as a shoulder to cry on; as a counsellor, and as a friend, supporting the journeys of more than 150 PhD students. Many of these have suffered with personal tragedy, battled with ill health, or even had to start all over again, but have still managed to make it past the finish line with a little bit of help. There is nothing so heart-warming and humbling as being included in the Acknowledgements of someone’s PhD thesis when you know the challenges they have overcome.

What has become clear to me over the years is that every postgraduate research student experiences a different journey to those around them. Every PGR starts their research degree with a different set of skills, experience and knowledge, and therefore has a distinct set of needs – and that’s before you even bring in the complexities of relationships with [multiple] supervisors, exploring a new concept/approach/method that hasn’t been covered before, the particular requirements of different types of doctoral degrees and funded doctoral training programmes, studying part-time or away from the University, juggling caring responsibilities…the list goes on…

So there is no such thing as a ‘standard’ PhD experience, but it is safe to say that most PGRs will at some point feel like no-one understands what they are going through, that 99% of PhD students will wonder at various stages whether they have the motivation to keep going, and that every PGR could do with a helping hand sometimes. This is why it is vitally important for PGRs to have access to a wide range of resources and a network of support to help them not just ‘make it through’ their degree, but to make the journey as manageable (or even enjoyable*) and fulfilling as possible.

This is why I value my job at the BDC. I get to work with fantastic people across the University who are dedicated to ensuring that the PGR community is well supported, and although there will always be improvements to be made, and areas where some are better supported than others, it is inspiring to know that there are so many people who want to make a difference.

One of the biggest hurdles when you are working to support a group of over 3 thousand people with such a diverse range of needs is that it can be difficult to know what kind of support or activities would be most beneficial or effective. Surveys such as PRES are vital for helping us to build a picture of what is working and what the various central teams / faculties / schools should be addressing, but obviously this is less meaningful if only a small percentage of PGRs take part. So if you’re reading this and thinking that the University could do more for you, or that the support you get from your faculty / school / university is great, it really does make a difference if you can find 5 minutes to tell us about it!

And if you are struggling and your supervisor(s) and peers can’t offer you the support you need, have a chat with the staff in your school office / graduate school. They might not have all the answers at their fingertips, but they are very likely to be able to set you in the right direction.

The important thing to remember is that you are not alone.

*Yes – this is possible!

The school of hard knocks…

Throughout the coming year we will be showcasing the various members of the BDC team, so that you can learn our stories and get to know us a bit better. We’ll be kicking off these posts with Loriel Anderson, the Student Development Officer at Bristol Doctoral College. Loriel began working at the BDC in September, 2013, while writing up her dissertation. She completed her PhD in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Bristol in February, 2014.

I really love working for the BDC. Although this is not where I had thought I would be when I started my PhD, I find my work very fulfilling, which probably wouldn’t be the case, if my PhD journey hadn’t been so rocky.

I came to Bristol in 2007 to begin a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. My background was in History, not Ancient History, so I knew that I would have a lot to learn, and that completing a PhD would be a challenge, but I don’t think I realised just how challenging it would really be. My journey, like most others, was not a smooth one. In addition to the intellectual hurdles I encountered, which I had somewhat expected and prepared for, I had a number of personal difficulties to face as well. In January of the first year of my PhD my mother passed away very suddenly. I immediately flew back to Canada to be with my family, and consequently missed most of the second teaching block of my first year. With time I managed to re-focus and get my studies back on track, but then in March of my third year my father was in a very serious car accident and almost passed away himself. I again returned home and spent a month caring for him in hospital. Needless to say, the separation from my family while I studied has been one of the most difficult aspects of my programme. Given these family emergencies, and the fact that I was asked to return to my previous University to teach for a semester, I was granted a one-year extension to my programme.

I submitted my dissertation on September 30th 2012, went to Greece for two weeks to celebrate and relax, and then returned to Bristol to assist with delivering a Greek unit for a term while I prepared for my Viva. I had my Viva in January, 2013, and although I had felt quite prepared, and was proud of what I had produced, I failed. That’s a hard thing to admit. Anyone who pursues a postgraduate degree has undoubtedly done well in all of their previous studies. I had never failed anything and now I had just failed the most important examination I had ever faced. My examiners acknowledged that my research was interesting and innovative, and noted that I had made a significant contribution to our understanding of the field, but felt that I hadn’t expressed those findings clearly enough. I had been too diffident to other scholars in my field, too submissive. They wanted my “voice” to come through more clearly, and asked me to re-write my dissertation and re-submit it. As you might imagine, this was not an easy process. Having to pick yourself back up after this kind of a failure is extremely difficult. The disappointment and defeat you feel in yourself are not easy to contend with. Looking back on it, I can see that my examiners had a point – that’s also not easy to admit. I wanted them to be wrong. I wanted to feel that I had been cheated, that it was all some kind of horrible mistake. Once I got over myself, I was able to see what they meant, and I spent the next 9 months ruthlessly editing, revising, and re-writing my entire dissertation. And it passed, with no further corrections, and no need for another Viva. And so I received my doctorate.

But I still feel a little like they stole the joy I had felt in my research. I no longer love my research the way that I had, and I certainly have no desire to continue in academia, despite the fact that I recognise that I am now a much more rigorous scholar. What I do love is helping other researchers through their degrees. My journey was not a smooth one, but I did have a great supervisor and a strong network of friends and family who helped me through the process. I know that I would have benefited from the support that the BDC is now able to offer. Being a part of a research community, feeling like I wasn’t the only one who was struggling, the only one who ever failed, would have significantly improved my experience. I would have benefited from workshops on how to plan and manage your PhD, how to write your dissertation, how to manage your time. I suppose this is why I am so passionate about what I do now. I love working with other researchers, ensuring they have access to the resources that I didn’t know were available. I love helping others to tell their stories, so that no one else need feel so alone. I love being able to respond, when people ask for help, knowing where to point them to get the support that they need, or simply being a shoulder that they can lean on.

Not everyone’s experience is as difficult as mine was – indeed, I hope that no one else will have to go through the things that I did – but it’s also important to acknowledge that doing a PhD is never easy. And it wouldn’t be worthwhile if it was.