A prize-winning partnership — our Data Challenge story

Nina Di Cara and Tiff Massey at the Office for National Statistics Data Science Campus
Nina Di Cara and Tiff Massey at the Office for National Statistics Data Science Campus [Photo: Tiff Massey]
In early September, the Jean Golding Institute announced that its 2019 Data Challenge competition, held in partnership with the Office for National Statistics, had been won by Nina Di Cara and Tiff Massey.

Nina, a PGR in the Bristol Medical School, reflects on what she learned from entering the competition — and what it meant to win it.

The challenge…

Earlier this year, the Jean Golding Institute (the University’s centre for data-intensive research) and the Office for National Statistics announced a joint ‘Data Challenge’, inviting teams to find out if loneliness was associated with movement for the purpose of education using ONS open data and their newly created ‘Loneliness Index’.

The entry had to lay out the analysis you had used in the form of a blog post. My PhD research focuses on applying data science methods to data about mental health, so I was keen to get involved!

Planning our entry

Following the initial information session, my friend Tiff and I decided to enter — though with her living and working in London and me living in Wales, we knew it would be a bit of a challenge to find opportunities to actually do the work.

In the end, we both worked remotely to decide on which datasets we would use and how to analyse them, and then came together for a weekend to do the actual analysis we had planned.

After a couple of late nights working on our entry, we were pretty pleased with what we’d achieved in the time that we had. We both learned a lot about working with government data, and both of us picked up a lot of R tips and tricks from each other; Tiff knows a lot about data manipulation and interactive data visualisations, whereas I knew more about the statistical modelling side. What I learned from Tiff also ended up helping me out with some data dilemmas I had been having in my research.

What happened next?

Finding out we had won was very exciting for us both — we had had a lot of fun working together on our entry (as someone has since said to me, only two mathematicians would call a weekend of data analysis ‘fun’), so were really pleased that the JGI and ONS liked what we came up with.

Later, we were told that they particularly liked the novel metrics we had created with the data, and that we had presented the results as reader-friendly for a non-expert audience. The outputs from the competition have been passed on to the team in the ONS working on this project, so hopefully some of our ideas will be taken forwards.

Of course, the prize money was very exciting for us both, but we also got the opportunity to visit the ONS Data Science Campus for the day and give a presentation about our results (I was very thankful for all the presentation practice I’ve been making myself do this year). On our visit, we also met with staff working at the Data Science Campus and got to hear about some of the cool projects they are working on, with a view to using data science for public good.

Would we do it again?

Definitely! I would really recommend getting involved next time if it’s something you are considering — sometimes it’s just nice to have a project outside of your PhD research to give your brain a chance to work on a new problem for a while, and I think that’s one of the main benefits I personally got from taking part.

If you’re interested in seeing our entry, it’s currently on our GitHub page and is also due to be published on the ONS website shortly.

Find out more about Nina’s research on her personal blog — and by following her on Twitter.

6 top tips for new Bristol PGRs

Clockwise from top left: Angela Suriyakumaran, Helen Rees, Kit Fotheringham, Arsham Nejad Kourki, Trang Tran and Eve Benhamou.
Clockwise from top left: Angela Suriyakumaran, Helen Rees, Kit Fotheringham, Arsham Nejad Kourki, Trang Tran and Eve Benhamou.

You’ve read the University’s registration checklist and checked out the Bristol Doctoral College’s list of tips — but what about some advice from fellow research students?

We asked postgraduate researchers at Bristol for their top tips for new PGRs. Here are their words of wisdom… 

1. Work on campus as much as possible 

“Just being among other PGRs makes a great difference.”

Trang Tran, PGR in the School of Education

2. It’s good to socialise and network with PGRs from across the University

“This is important! A PG course isn’t all about research, it’s about learning how to be an academic, and socialising is a huge part of that. I would advise new PGs to take this seriously. The BDC and the SU provide ample opportunities beyond your department, so don’t miss out on them!”

Arsham Nejad Kourki, PGR in the School of Biological Sciences

3. Make friends in your department/school

“PGRs who are above your cohort have valuable advice from their own experiences which you can learn from. Making friends with people finishing at the same time as you is great — these people will be dealing with the same pressures as you at the same time so will be most understanding (and probably in the same boat!).”

Helen Rees, PGR in the School of Biological Sciences

4. Do something outside of your research that you enjoy

“Having something to look forward to such as a sport, volunteering or activity with friends really helps if you are having an ‘off’ day with research. It also gives some balance to your life and allows you to de-stress and focus on something else.”

Angela Suriyakumaran, PGR in the School of Chemistry

5. Think about outreach and options beyond your studies

“Seize the opportunity for outreach events (Research without Borders is worth doing at least once), placements, etc. Also look for Quickfix events from the Career Services, especially the Careers beyond Academia, and CVs for non-academic and academic careers.”

Dr Eve Benhamou, recent PGR graduate from Department of Film & TV Studies

6. The BDC’s events and opportunities can help you connect with other PGRs

“Get involved with Bristol Doctoral College training sessions and events. The BDC sessions and the PGR Hub will help you to overcome the isolation and ‘impostor syndrome’ that are all too common among PGRs. Connecting with people from different disciplines and finding your mutual interests makes you feel like you’re part of one big doctoral community.”

Kit Fotheringham, PGR in University of Bristol Law School

Looking for even more helpful tips? Check out our 2017 blogpost, ‘10 things all postgraduate researchers at Bristol should know’.

From stitching to stretching — your PGR self-care tips

A ball of wool on a sheet

We marked this year’s Self Care Week (12–18 November) by asking Bristol’s postgraduate researchers: how do you look after yourself?

The tips we received were varied — from baths to boundaries — but there was a strong emphasis on taking a definite step away from your research degree to do something different. And, when you’re in need of some peace, knitting seems to be a go-to pastime.

So, without further ado, here’s what helps you unwind, de-stress and forget about your research.

Nicola

‘My #selfcareweek tip for PGRs is to do positive affirmations. ‘I am doing well’, ‘I am worthy of this opportunity’, ‘I am making a valuable contribution’, etc. It’s amazing how they can people to rewire their anxious minds. Check out Louise Hay’s work on this if you want to know more.’

Niels

‘I like to make myself aware of the different ways creativity works.

‘Sometimes when you’re stuck at solving a problem or writing, just do something completely different. Your brain will continue to subconsciously work on the problem (and much more effectively than your conscious mind can), while you can do exercise, nap or eat. Consciously taking time out doesn’t mean you’re being lazy. In fact you’re being more productive, but also taking care of your own wellbeing.’

Suzanne

‘Knitting and Lego.’

Mary

‘Forcing myself to only work the 1 hour I am paid for preparing a seminar, or the 20 minutes I am paid for marking a paper, even if doing a good job means working triple that and working extra for free.

‘Also knitting.’

Pam

‘If your life is busy and full of thoughts and people, find a way to be quiet and alone once a day. I’m no good at doing nothing so meditation doesn’t suit me. Instead I like a hot bath (doesn’t need to be long), a little yoga or a walk in the fresh air.’

Jane

‘I go to yoga class.’

Demi

‘As research can be hectic at times, I try to involve myself in exercise classes throughout the week, taking a break away from my desk whilst meeting new people!’

 

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

Your #PGRtrek pictures — a globetrotting gallery

Whether it’s a quick trip to Trondheim or several weeks in Sri Lanka, many PGRs use the summer months to travel beyond Bristol for conferences, symposia and fieldwork. What better way to capture the diverse range of locations visited by these roving researchers than to round them up in a globetrotting gallery? (OK, so we could’ve made a map instead — but we thought this would be more visually appealing.)

Yes, the #PGRtrek competition returned for another year — and this year’s selection of shots didn’t disappoint, with photos featuring everything from frozen fjords to sun-kissed sands. A selection of our favourite snaps are below. Which one do you like the most? Tell us in a comment.

Celebrating the Olden times

Claire Williams submitted this image of a serene green lake, taken during her visit to Olden in Norway.

Trondheim travels

This year’s Inascon conference, held at NTNU Trondheim, gave some of our PGRs a chance take in the spectacular Geiranger Fjord in Norway — as captured in this photo by Victoria Hamilton.

Victoria Hamilton and Gary at Geiranger Fjord, Norway.

Rwandan roamings

This shot of a school in Gitarama, Rwanda, was submitted by Leanne Cameron, a researcher in the School of Education.

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Canadian crustaceans

This downtown crab was captured by Anouk Tleps whilst on a break from a conference in Vancouver, Canada. Although this wasn’t the farthest-flung location, Anouk was the winner of this year’s random draw.

Jassi’s epic journey

Although not a winner in this year’s competition, University of Bristol Law School PGR Jassi Sandhar deserves an honourable mention for submitting a stunning selection of images from her recent fieldwork in Rwanda, Uganda and Sri Lanka — featuring Buddhist statues, waterfalls and a particularly bovine beach. And how many people can say they’ve been photobombed by an elephant?

A statue of the Buddha in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Murchison Falls, Uganda

Cow on abeach in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

An elephant in Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka

The trees of Telok Blangah

Second-year PhD student Ashley Tyrer travelled to Singapore in June to attend OHBM 2018 — and, whilst there, took this striking image of Telok Blangah Hill Park. By our calculations, this lush foliage is over 11,000km from Bristol, making Ashley this year’s runner-up.

Telok Blangah Hill Park, Singapore

A quick hop to Honolulu

It was a close-run contest, but her trip to Honolulu, Hawaii for a conference — a journey of over 11,800km — meant Angie McFox was crowned this year’s #PGRtrek winner. Congratulations, Angie!

Thank you to everyone who took part! Whether or not you were a winner, we really enjoyed seeing your images and reflecting on how far PGR life can take you.

[This blogpost was updated on 10 September 2018 to include Angie McFox’s photo and to make it clear that this was the winning entry.]

Help us name your new PGR space

A banner collage of images, including two research students working together at a desk, a close up of a cup of tea held in someone's hands, and some laptops.We’re excited to announce the opening of a new space this October that is dedicated solely to the postgraduate research community. This new physical space in the refurbished Senate House (as part of the Campus Heart project) will offer a programme of events and activities designed to support, develop and connect our 3,000-strong body of postgraduate researchers, regardless of your faculty, funding, part-time or distance learner status.

Acting as a hub for all research students, this new space will offer:

  • Personal and professional development training
  • Bookable spaces for small research groups and cross-disciplinary meet-ups
  • Social activities
  • A quiet space to escape from the hubbub of campus life
  • Wellbeing support and resources

And more – we’d love to hear your suggestions about how we can make this valuable for you.

#MakeThisYours

The new PGR hub is a space dedicated to you and informed by you. Have your say and tell us how we can #MakeThisYours.

We invite you to #MakeThisYours before the space even opens by submitting a possible name for our new hub. Are there any famous research alumni who have inspired your journey? Could Hub-McHubFace be a serious contender? Send us your suggestions on social media or via email, and you’ll be entered into a random prize draw for one of two £25 Amazon vouchers!

We’ll put our favourite submissions to the vote in our next BDC Bulletin, due to land in inboxes September 14th.

Picture this — a gallery of your PGR pastimes

Last month, as part of our ‘Life Beyond the PhD’ competition, we asked Bristol’s postgraduate researchers to tell us about their hobbies. And, once again, our community didn’t disappoint …

The striking ‘PGR pastimes’ pictures we received showcased the broad range of activities that researchers use to take a break — from crochet to climbing, and from engine reconstruction to embroidery.

Below are a selection of the images that you shared with us, grouped into (slightly rough) categories. We hope you enjoy skimming through them as much as we did.

The Great Outdoors

Taking a break by climbing, exploring — or growing your own veg.🌶️

 

Making and mending

The relaxing effects of stitching, building, puzzling — or fixing a pianola.

My doctoral pastime… #PGRpastime #PGRpastimes

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Sewing by Naomi Clarke
‘I am a Social Work PhD candidate and my downtime/interests outside of my PhD is sewing! I get lost in the rhythmic, repetitive motion of hand stitch which provides an almost meditative experience as I fall into a rhythmic pattern which appeals to so many senses (audio, visual, tactile). It enables me to create a tangible beautiful object to show for my time and effort.’ Naomi Clarke

 

A pianola in the middle of restoration
‘[This is a] picture of the 1923 pianola which I am restoring at the moment. This was left to my family by my Great Grandmother around ten years ago, but unfortunately it was in a desperate state … So I decided to refurbish it after the last of my masters exams had finished last year, and turn it into the cherished family heirloom it deserves to be. Still a long way to go on it though 🙂 Much more woodwork and fun to be had.’ Mark Graham

Music and motion

Hobbies that are anything but … hum-drum.


Going for a spin (and flying through the sky)

The power of hitting the road, making waves or taking flight.

Skydiving image by Maneera Aljaber
A spectacular skydiving image by Maneera Aljaber

Seerat Kaur with her bicycle
Seerat Kaur with her cycle
Lingfeng Ge driving a boat
‘I love boat trips. And sometimes I drive the boat myself. This photo was taken when I was driving a leisure boat on River Avon in Bristol.’ Lingfeng Ge

How do you take a break?

With a community of over 3,000 postgraduate researchers, this selection is obviously just scratching the surface.

And, although the competition is over, we’d love to see more of your snaps — so please feel free to share them with us on Twitter and Instagram using #PGRpastimes.

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.

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.)

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.