Welcome, New Students!

It’s the end of September: the leaves are starting to turn, our morning commutes to work are dewy and brisk, and summer feels like a half-remembered dream. But it’s not quite autumn yet, and in the world of academia this can only mean one thing: WELCOME WEEK! That’s right, the time has arrived for the annual inundation of new faces and minds across University of Bristol’s campus, freshening the scene with the enthusiasm that typically accompanies new beginnings and opportunities. We at the Bristol Doctoral College love this time of year because we can feel new students’ anticipation for the year ahead, and more importantly, because it doesn’t only mean the arrival of 8,000 undergraduates but also the arrival of a large portion of our postgraduate researchers. Amidst the daunting undergraduate crowd that typically dominates Welcome Week, it can sometimes be a struggle to find what the University and city have to offer its new early researchers, and so we’re here to help you navigate your way.

First and foremost, the BDC is a portal for all questions and queries regarding the postgraduate researcher experience. See our ‘about’ page for an overview of our values and objectives. We are delighted to announce the roll-out of our new website, which offers a comprehensive and up-to-date overview of the latest news, events and opportunities, as well as an insight on the goings-on in PGR life around Bristol. Recent highlights include the development of our Information Hub, an essential guide to all things PGR-related, and the results of our “Where In The World Are You?” survey we conducted via facebook and twitter, through which we marked a map to trace the exciting research-related travel of all our PGRs over the summer.

The BDC is also a central provider of your personal and professional development. We believe everyone can build their desired experience whilst at Bristol, and we are here to provide the tools and resources for you to do so. Whether it is a specific research tool you need to learn in order to conduct your work, or the chance to teach in schools, or an ongoing opportunity to develop a personal goal, we are here to help you. Check out our entire catalogue of training & development through STaR, our Skills Training and Review tool. For more information about STaR, we are hosting a STaR drop-in sessions on Friday 25 September, Wednesday 30 September and Friday 2 October  from 12-2pm in the lower study area of Senate House.

Finally, we’d like to extend a warm “HELLO” to all of our new postgraduate researchers, and a thank you for choosing to study at Bristol. Be sure to read through the latest Bulletin so you can plan your diary around the exciting events coming up: the Festival of Ideas kicks off this week and runs through October, and the Bristol Bright Night this Friday (25th September) is a wonderful research-oriented introduction to the harbourside and local Bristol treasures. We hope that you can find something to suit your wants and needs in these coming weeks, and that your transition into PGR life at Bristol runs smooth. Between us and the PG-specific Welcome Week events, we are sure you are busy already exploring the city and getting to know your way around campus, meeting fellow researchers and setting up appointments with your supervisors!

Welcome, and in the words of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, “and now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been”.

The art of writing

tessa profile v3Tessa Coombes is a first year postgraduate researcher in the School for Policy Studies. Her research will explore housing policy and agenda setting during the Bristol Mayoral election next year. The research stems form a desire to develop a better understanding of the role local elections and new models of local governance have on framing policy agendas.

I’ve always enjoyed writing, even if I don’t always do it well. I find it a creative process, that brings to life all those thoughts and ideas, commentary and debate that whirl around in my head, but frequently have no real outlet. Writing has been a part of every job I’ve had, in different ways and for very different audiences. I’ve had to adapt and develop my own style to respond to the demands of others, and to work to other people’s deadlines that often serve to stifle my own creative process. But, nonetheless, I enjoy writing. I write for fun and have my own blog. I also write contributions to local news websites and magazines, such as Bristol 24-7 and The Bristol Cable, and for the professional press like the Planner Magazine. All of these provide an opportunity to write about things of interest to me, sometimes related to my research but often not, where I can freely express my opinion. That’s part of the fun of writing.

Over the last couple of years I have had to get used to a different kind of writing, one that is more controlled and evidenced, that fits with particular conventions. Last year, when doing an MSc, back in the academic world for the first time in over 20 years, I had to complete formal assignments and a dissertation. This involved a form of writing that was entirely different to anything I have done in a long time.  Then this year, embarking on my PhD, I have once more had to develop my style further into academia, a style change I find both challenging and rewarding. Challenging because my inclination is to keep things simple, use simple language and keep away from jargon. Rewarding because when it works and I can combine simplicity with complexity there is a real feeling of achievement.

My approach to writing is to see it as a creative output, something that occurs naturally for me in response to learning. After all, what’s the point of all that learning if you can’t share it with other people? A blank page, for me, is an opportunity to articulate and share, rather than something to be scared of. Writing is like creating a painting, there are different layers that are needed to build the picture, which on their own make little sense, but together they can evolve into something worthwhile, a masterpiece that others will enjoy. I view writing my PhD in a similar way. There are layers that I will write at different times, continuously throughout the process, that need to come together into a coherent story at the end. There’s a complexity to this writing process, in terms of debate and argument, analysis and detail. But there’s also a simplicity about it, where carefully crafted pure and simple arguments can be brought together into quite a simple story. A story that will grab the readers attention, and will slowly but surely take them through the complexity in a way that makes sense. In a way that brings them to your conclusions with a sense of understanding and agreement.

There’s lots of advice to students about how to write, much of which suggests you set yourself a daily writing target, which you then stick to no matter what. I can see why the discipline of this is important and why it must work for many people, but I’ve tried this approach and for me the writing that comes from it is stifled, boring and constrained. If I’m not in the mood to write, then forcing myself to write just doesn’t work. I’ve written assignments like that and when I go back to read them I can tell that it was forced rather than creative thoughts that made up the report or essay. The work is dull and it’s lacking in energy, even if the points made are the right ones, the style is very different. I prefer an approach that feels more creative, one that has routine, but is based on my preferences, rather than someone else’s (there’s a good discussion here on creating routine when writing, drawing on the work of Ronald Kellog).

When I first begin the process of writing something new I try to avoid the clutter and distraction of notes generated from my reading. I start with a blank page. I then try to form my thoughts on what I have read into a short discussion of key arguments, issues and themes. I do this without the clutter of referencing and acknowledging who said what and how. I do it from memory, from thoughts that occur to me from reading my notes and I do it when I am feeling creative and able to write fluidly. For me this works, most of the time! Of course, sometimes the creativity is just not there, it’s beyond my grasp, I can’t think where to start or how to structure my thoughts. I’ve come to recognise those times and instead I do something else with my time, like more reading, organising files, and literature searching. All the time continually mulling over the story I want to tell and trying to work out how I can construct it. I may also use this thinking and reflecting time to write something else, something less constrained, where I can write freely without the confines of academic convention – something like a blog maybe! Eventually, often after much reflection, I am ready to write and can go back to the writing that needs to be done.

The challenge of writing is an integral part of any PhD. The only advice I have on writing is to do what works for you, try different approaches and look back on what’s worked when you’ve written things before. But above all, enjoy it, it’s a precious opportunity to express yourself, articulate your thoughts and tell the story of your PhD for others to enjoy.

Getting to grips with your subject…

tessa profile v3Tessa Coombes is a first year postgraduate researcher in the School for Policy Studies. After recently completing the MSc in Public Policy at the University of Bristol, she decided to stay on and continue her research interest in politics, policy process and housing. Her research is focused on how housing policy is treated at a time of political change. Using the Bristol Mayoral Election 2016 as the basis of her study she will look at agenda setting, influence and policy change in Bristol.

I’ve just about reached the half-year mark in my PhD, that is, I started my PhD just six months ago. It seems like longer but also like no time at all. Over the last month or so I’ve been putting together a PhD plan to identify what I need to do, and when, over the next three years. This is just an initial sketch and broad outline, but is a guide to setting more detailed objectives, something I have now done for the next six months. The thing that struck me most is that three years isn’t very long. When you begin to break it down into small chunks of work to be done before you start the fieldwork, the first 12 months vanish very quickly under a myriad of literature, methods, organising and planning.

One of the things I realised very quickly when drawing up my plan, is that I don’t really quite know what my research is about. Well, I know the broad area I’m interested in and I know what I want to study. But I’ve a long way to go before I am fully cognisant with the existing literature in my field and before I fully appreciate the complexities of specific methods of research. I’ve started that process of understanding but have so much more to learn. Indeed, I spent much of the first six months studying research methods through taught courses and assignments. About five months too long in my view, but a necessary evil and a key part of any PhD programme.

I have now begun the topic-based literature search process in earnest. I’m trying to use some of the things I learnt during my research methods training to ensure I undertake a somewhat more systematic approach than I would normally adopt. I’ve set out key search terms, established where I’ll search for information, decided on exclusion and inclusion criteria and I’ve set up a comprehensive system for logging all the information I collect throughout the months of searching and reading. That’s far more organised than I’ve ever been in the past when it comes to seeking out literature.

Now I’m a month or so into the process I am beginning to feel slightly overwhelmed – not just by the amount of literature that I need to consume but also by the complexity and language used in some of it. Once more it leaves me feeling a little stupid and frequently bemused. I find myself asking the following question regularly:  “why am I doing a PhD, what on earth made me think I was clever enough to try?” Maybe this relates to the “imposter” syndrome others have mentioned in their blogs and I guess most researchers will ask themselves that question, or something similar, throughout their research. It could be seen as a negative thought process but for me it’s a useful prompt, that pushes me harder to prove a point, that yes I can do this but it’s going to be tough.

So, what am I actually doing and what is my PhD about? I feel like I am getting closer to the answer to that and I feel a little more comfortable that I have a topic worth researching, that might even be of interest to someone other than me. Over the last month or so I’ve tried out a few different versions of my response to this question in order to see which works best and how people respond. I’ve come up with a variety of short answers, depending on who is asking. For now, I’ll say my PhD is about agenda-setting, power and influence, using the Bristol Mayoral election in 2016 as a case study. I’m doing an ethnographic study, which seeks to provide a better understanding of the tactics used by different actors to move housing issues up (and down) the political agenda. I am interested in how actors at the centre of the action perceive and respond to influence and lobbying and how the newly elected mayor will decide on policy priorities and change. I’m hoping it will be of interest to scholars of the policy process, to those with an interest in political change and will also help practitioners to understand how power and influence works at a local level.

That’s what I’ll be spending the next 3 years learning all about and I’m both excited and daunted by the prospect. A PhD is an individual learning process and one where I am in the driving seat. It’s totally different to what I have been doing for the last 20 years in work so it’s challenging, which is part of what makes it worth doing. But above all, it’s interesting, as my PhD brings together, in one study, many of the things that I find fascinating: housing, policy, politics, and Bristol.

The journey is only just beginning

TessaCoombesTessa Coombes is a first year postgraduate researcher in the School for Policy Studies. After recently completing the MSc in Public Policy at the University of Bristol, involving a dissertation on affordable housing, she decided to stay on and continue her research interest in politics, policy process and housing. Her research is focused on how housing policy is treated at a time of political change, using the General Election 2015 and Bristol Mayoral Election 2016 as the basis of her study she will look at political influences on policy formation and change.

I started my PhD in October this year, just a couple of months ago. My journey to this point started out in full time work, as a Senior Manager, thinking about all the things I’d rather be doing and wondering why I’d ever left the academic world some 20 years ago. I then travelled through the pain of redundancy and the challenge of a year doing an MSc and here I am now, signed up for three years full time to do a Social Policy PhD – how did that happen?

Well, the starting point for this phase of my journey was the rapid realisation, during my MSc year, that I really enjoyed the studying, the learning and the intellectual challenge of being in the academic world. I also realised that my frustrations with the MSc dissertation process were about not having enough time to properly delve into the literature, to do the research I wanted to do, or to really understand the issues that arose during interviews. Four months was just not long enough.

During my MSc year various people had asked me if I was considering doing a PhD and my response was largely to laugh at the idea – me, do a PhD, at my age? But then I got to thinking, about how much I still had to learn, how much reading I still wanted to do and how I wanted to challenge myself more in a different way, and the idea began to take hold. Maybe I could do a PhD after all? From that point forward, it was actually quite an easy process from taking the decision, putting together a proposal and completing my application.

Everyone in the School for Policy Studies was incredibly helpful and encouraging, from administrative staff and existing PhD students, to lecturers and the Head of the School, they helped me to make sense of the process, complete the online forms and shape a proposal that at least would act as a starting point for discussion. And so, here I am now, a few months into the programme, doing taught units and assignments on research methods and developing my research proposal further.

My ascent from MSc to PhD was almost seamless; as I finished one course I was starting on the next, so there was little time for a break or to reflect. But in the first few months I have picked up some sound advice and guidance from supervisors and existing PhD students and have equally learnt a little from the MSc process. So, for anyone who is thinking about doing a PhD or just embarking on the first stages of their research, here are three of the key things I have learnt in the first few months that are already beginning to make the process easier and more enjoyable: get organised, get visible, and get trained.

  1. Get Organised – a critical piece of advice shared by others who had embarked on doing a PhD and also emphasised by my supervisor. This I interpreted partially as working out what bits of kit and software I should become familiar with to help me collate, organise and annotate all the information I was likely to collect throughout my research. I personally have hooked up with Zotero for citations and referencing; Evernote for saving web based information and annotating it; and Scrivener to help organise my thoughts when developing coursework and writing. I’m sure there are many others that are available and just as good, the key point here is about finding out what works best for you and getting to know your way around it as early as possible.
  1. Get Visible – this was advice I was given by a very good friend when I first lost my job; don’t disappear she said, keep your profile! Sound advice which I think is just as relevant now that I’m embarking on a new programme of research and a new stage in my own personal journey. It’s about sharing that learning and research, and making contact with others with similar research interests. I find social media extremely useful for this, I use twitter (@policytessa) and run my own blog site (www.tessacoombes.wordpress.com) to share my views and connect with others; and I use LinkedIn groups to engage in discussion and debate. All are useful ways of making contact with others and putting your views out there for challenge and feedback. It can be scary to begin with but extremely useful once you start and get the hang of it. I have engaged with many who share similar interests through discussion on twitter and my blog, who I now meet in real life regularly to debate and discuss issues with. I have also in the last month or so learnt about new engagement platforms such as ResearchGate which has a much more academic focus. This is only the first step, getting published and speaking at conferences has to be an aim, but I see that as something further down the line.
  1. Get Trained – this is something I am only just beginning to get to grips with, but as a PhD researcher the opportunities for development and training appear to be endless. In over 20 years of work I can’t ever remember being given the chance to engage in so much ‘free’ training, which ranges from formal training sessions to informal seminar series. I plan to make much more use of this over the coming months, to get up to date with all sorts of things I’ve never had the opportunity or time to engage with before. I have the opportunity to learn how to deal with issues I will undoubtedly face over the next few years and to overcome things I am not good at now. The training is there to help me both through the Bristol Doctoral College and the School for Policy Studies. There are opportunities to engage with other PhD students from different subject areas, to widen my knowledge and learning beyond my own field of study.