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

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

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

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

1. Bringing research into the heart of Bristol


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

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

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

2. A warm welcome at the Wills Memorial

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

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

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

3. Sharing your stories


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

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

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

4. A dual-doctoral deal

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

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

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

5. A zinger of a session with Inger

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

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

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

6. A block-busting Boot Camp

Multi-coloured blocks

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

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

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


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

7. Meeting and mingling over mince pies

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

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

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

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

8. A pilot programme for industrial-strength skills

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

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

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

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

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

9. And finally… building a bigger and better BDC

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

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

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

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

How Thesis Boot Camp helps PGRs to beat the block

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

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

What is a Thesis Boot Camp?

Dr Paul Spencer at December's Thesis Boot Camp

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

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

Why Thesis Boot Camp?

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

What key things are we trying out here?

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

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

So, how is it going?

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

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

Key ingredients

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

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

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

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

8 things we learned from our PGR panel

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

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

But first, some introductions. The panellists were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Collaboration creates confidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Take opportunities to push yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Academics are there to help you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wise words.

Your self-care tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Future challenges of doctoral training #vitae17

This post by Paul Spencer, PGR Environment Development Manager at the Bristol Doctoral College, originally appeared on his Digital Doctorate blog. The post was updated following the Vitae Conference on 11–12 September 2017.

A few months ago, I agreed to give a presentation at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference in September. It is scheduled for the half plenary session on the first afternoon and the title for my contribution is Future challenges in doctoral training. I have only 7 minutes to cover this topic so I am thinking about what I want to cover and what will have to be edited out!

In this blog post are is a work in progress as I sketch out some key ideas that I talked about. The slide deck used for the Vitae conference is embedded below:

Context

A bit of context in terms of the programme is probably good; there will be other presentations before mine covering the following things:

  • A history of the modern PhD
  • Understanding the [PGR] student journey
  • Academic Apprenticeships.

Future of doctoral training

It’s quite a big topic to talk about so here are my initial stumbling musings

  1. Back to the future – Any talk about the future probably ought to start with some recognition of the past – I talked about being like Marty McFly and drop in on the 2004 version of myself who was beginning to get to grips with the question of “how do we support PGRs for their future employability (even if that is outside of academia)? The first two presentations gave an overall history of doctoral education so I focussed instead on what’s changed between when I graduated and now. I think the important question that we asked ourselves as researcher developers then was “What is a doctorate for?”. This is still a valid question now.
  2. The contemporary research environment. I talked a bit about how the environment that researchers operate in now is different to how it used to be. The drivers, the strategies, the tactics, the reward system that many supervisors navigated in their careers are not the same any more. The pace of change toward open research, the transparency in how research is thought about, designed, implemented and disseminated are a world apart. Preparing doctoral researchers to succeed in that environment is challenging because it exposes the gulf between old and new.
  3. Professionalising doctoral researchers – We have slowly been inching toward a more professionalised system of support for doctoral researchers, e.g. parental leave for PGRs, annual leave entitlement, development support. However, PGRs are still in that middle ground, treated like staff when it suits institutions and students when it doesn’t. I think a good example of this is around PGRs who teach. We could and should do much better when it comes to getting the balance right there. Are we then going to grasp the nettle and turn the whole recruitment of PGR students on its head and move to employ postgraduate researchers to purposefully invest in that support?
  4. Cohort based doctoral training entities (DTEs) – an important element in the doctoral training landscape and there are some really interesting things coming about because of them, particularly the diversity of people, subjects and networks. But are DTEs the future for all doctoral training? Are there better ways as we move to the future?
  5. Innovation in researcher development. There is a golden rule in researcher development around not reinventing the wheel if you don’t have to. My call to action was to talk to people and find out what you can reuse, repurpose to support PGRs.
  6. Supporting academic writing. This for me is a high impact activity that should be on everyone’s agenda. Lots of practice out there from the likes of Peta Freestone, Inger Mewburn, Pat Thomson, Katherine Firth to name just a few.
  7. I think the future can be summarised in three Cs: Curation, Community and Camera. Programmes, workshops, action learning sets, e-learning modules. More choice, more workshops, more opportunities – this is good? Or is it? I think researcher developers have the expertise and experience to curate support resources from diverse sources and make these things as easy to engage with as possible. Video is king as the saying goes. It is becoming easier and easier to live stream video from all sorts of devices – this offers a wealth of opportunity to bring PGRs into a discussion, to build community, to help them with their development needs.

That’s all folks!

What do you think about the future? If you hopped into the time machine made from a DeLorean and dropped into 2027, what will you see?

Tried and Tested: PhD is the New Boss

On the 21st of September 2016, I marked one year at the University of Bristol. People have compared the first year of a PhD programme to the “honeymoon phase” after a wedding. Since I have never been on a honeymoon, I cannot relate to that metaphor. I can however assure you that it has been an amazing academic year with huge learning experiences for me. I like to think that I have become smarter than I was a year ago. You have to take my word for it though. My research proposal has also gone through some changes, a process similar to the metamorphosis of a butterfly. However, it doesn’t look as pretty as a butterfly yet, but I hope it will, in the coming months. The research problem that intrigued me hasn’t changed yet. I am only changing the ways I wish to address the problem. These changes have been necessitated by the need to clarify the focus of my research and fine-tune the research process. During this period, I attended several seminars, workshops and conferences, in addition to my compulsory coursework units. I can attest to the fact that all of these platforms equipped me with vital skills for doing research. Particularly, there was one seminar organized by the Bristol Doctoral College (BDC) for Postgraduate Researchers (PGRs), which literally changed my PhD life. It was held sometime in February 2016 and made significant impact on my attitude towards the PhD. They called it the ‘Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Researchers’ seminar with Hugh Kearns.

I will not give away too many details about the seminar, so that I do not ruin the experience for those who might be attending the next one. I will instead talk about the three important lessons I took away from the seminar. The first was to treat the PhD like a job, because it is a job. Prior to that time, I viewed the PhD programme as my ‘last’ schooling endeavor. I had resigned from my ‘job’ to go to ‘school’. That demarcating line meant I could afford some luxuries like procrastination and distractions. As a full-time student, it also meant that I was in full control of how I spent my flexible time. Of course, I was busy with lectures, pre-readings, assessments and preparations for supervision meetings, but most of it happened within a schedule that was subject to my whims. To treat my PhD as a job I had to have regular working hours and specific targets with deadlines. I had to be responsible with how I spent my time and self. I had to be accountable to the PhD because it was my new Boss. It put money in my account and paid my bills literally, courtesy of my scholarship. Would I spend all day browsing the social media around a Boss, in an organization where I was an employee? Would I still be in bed by 9am when that organization’s resumption time is 8am? Would I just decide to stay off work without a legitimate reason like ill-health? I definitely would not. To treat the PhD as a job, my ways had to change — and they did, gradually. Today, I am doing my best to please my Boss and show this Boss that I deserve to be here.  Treating my PhD as a job has engendered in me a high sense of responsibility and accountability for what I must do per time.

Jane's previous 'Home Office'.
Jane’s previous ‘Home Office’.

The second lesson for me was the need to write as I read, and not leave writing to a time in the future. Hugh Kearns problematized the notion of a ‘writing-up’ phase of the PhD and insists that writing must begin from the beginning – as we read articles, run experiments etc. This lesson has benefitted me a lot as it reduces the chances of me having a ‘writer’s block’. As I read articles or books, I review in writing the areas that are relevant to my research. Indeed, I end with MANY drafts but it’s a good thing for me because I also think by writing.

The third lesson for me was Hugh Kearns emphasis on the fact that the PhD is not the pursuit of a Nobel Prize. The aim of my PhD is not to submit a perfect thesis. Rather, it is to finish the PhD and submit the thesis. Therefore, my expectations of what I can and will accomplish within the three years of the programme must be realistic. I am grateful to my supervisors who spent our first meetings insisting that I narrow my research focus to something feasible within the timeframe I had.

I am also grateful to the BDC for organizing the seminar and numerous others that I have attended. I look forward to the new courses that I have booked to attend in the coming months. If I may ask, which seminar or workshop at the University has greatly impacted your PhD life?

The next ‘Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Researchers’ seminar will run on Friday, November 11, from 9:00-12:00 in the Helen Wodehouse Lecture Theatre, 35 Berkeley Square. Register via OnCourse.

Tried and Tested: Memorable moments at the 2016 Life beyond the PhD conference

This August Abi’odun Oyewole, a PhD candidate in the Graduate School of Education, went to the annual Life beyond the PhD conference at Cumberland Lodge. In this blog post she details her experiences and insights from her time spent at this interdisciplinary, knowledge-sharing and collaborative weekend. 

It was an absolutely lovely experience to travel to Cumberland lodge, Windsor for the 2016 Life beyond the PhD conference. I am using this blog to share some of my memorable moments at the conference to encourage whoever may want to attend the conference next year.

1. A celebration of doctoral students
The welcome session struck a note when Owen, the programme director at Cumberland lodge and our host, described the conference as a celebration of doctoral students. According to Owen, doctoral students forget to celebrate themselves and we were about to be celebrated by people who appreciate what we do and how much we have sacrificed to that cause. Did I feel celebrated after three days? I think the amazing scenery, beautiful accommodation, engaging customer service, barbecues and delicious menus, did justice to Owen’s hopes. The day before the programme ended, I was wondering how much I would miss the dreamlike package.

2. Getting vital information on career development
The conference included useful sessions on experiences of applying for a job, and working inside and outside the academia. It was really helpful to hear personal experiences of failure and mistakes and what we can do to avoid some of these experiences. Also, the common factor to all shared experiences was the fact that the speakers achieved their aims after sometime, with effort and dedication. I absolutely enjoyed listening to the dramatic journey of a chief inspector of police who had once studied a PhD in Bio-chemistry. I also enjoyed listening Professor Graham Smith who spoke about expectations for and the realities of working inside academia. His advice is to take some time off work to refresh – all doctoral students must keep this in mind!! The workshop on successful applications by Dr Steve Joy and Katie Hewitt offered valuable insight into the job application process. It was enlightening to understand the standpoint of the recruiters and the qualities they are ‘really’ looking for in a prospective employee.

3. Learning how to communicate research to a different audience
On the second day of the conference we had a session with Dr Geraint Wyn Story, on public speaking or in better terms ‘how to avoid speaking Greek to a non-Greek audience’. I must admit that I wondered if his ‘dramatic’ techniques of getting the message across would help doctoral students. However, there was an amazing difference between the speech given by a few doctoral students at the beginning of the session and at the end of the session. The next day I found myself using some of those dramatic tips to present my research to a group with different disciplines. It was a truly beneficial session.

4. Working on an interdisciplinary project

life-beyond-phd-2

Okay, I admit that this was my best moment at the conference and for a very obvious reason – my team won. Yayy!!! The background detail to this event was that we were split into groups and told to come up with an interdisciplinary research proposal. Imagine yourself working with researchers from a totally different field. I looked through the abstracts of my teammates the morning before the activity and got a headache. I just couldn’t see how our interests and skills would come together. However, my team mates quickly proved me wrong, it wasn’t about sole accomplishments but what the group could create and contribute to. In less than two hours, we came up with a project, the aims, rationale, research question, and schedule. We also had to present our proposal to other colleagues and the alleged sponsors, to compete for ‘funding’. I would say it was a tough competition but I’m really proud that my team got the chocolate box at the end of it all. We took a picture to celebrate. Haha!

5. Listening to experiences of the viva
On the final day of the conference, we listened to personal experiences of the viva voce and this was quite helpful. The speakers provided a balanced view of good and bad experiences of the examination. It was helpful to note mistakes to avoid at the viva, and understand the viewpoint of the examiners. The speakers also talked about experiences of selecting examiners. I liked the suggestion that we should not reject examiners that we disagree with, they might actually provide a more constructive critique of our research. Dr. Rachel Smillie also advised that we avoid assumptions about the examiners’ feedback.

Final words: Thanks to Cumberland lodge for organising this worthwhile experience and thanks to the Bristol Doctoral College for providing the opportunity to partake in it.

The organisers behind the Careers Beyond Biomedical Research seminar series

Sonam Gurung, postgraduate researcher in the School of Biochemistry, received the Outstanding Award for her work as co-organising the ‘Careers Beyond Biomedical Research’ seminar series in the Faculty of Biomedical Sciences. We spoke to her and her fellow organisers behind the successful series, Lea Hampton O’Neil, Sandra Berlau Neumann, Alice Fodder and Rachael Baker.

hp-slide-molecule
Cell slides from the Faculty of Biomedical Sciences

With a degree under your belt, while trying to navigate the postgraduate degree, looking into future careers and deciding whether to stay in academia or not seems particularly daunting. Three years ago, the Careers Beyond Biomedical Research (CBBR) seminar was created by a student, Laura Carney, to provide a platform for students to explore possible career options outside of academic research. Having had the opportunity to go to the seminars last year, we were all inspired to help when it came round to having a new committee.

With the help from the previous committee members, Anna Smith and Leila Thuma, we were quickly on our way. Prof Paul Martin was able to help us financially by getting in contact with the Wellcome Trust to ensure smooth running of the seminar series. Prof. George Banting and the Faculty of Biomedical Sciences very graciously also provided us with additional funding. Upon contact, Prof Patty Kuwabara and the heads of schools kindly offered their help to advertise the series to all the students across several faculties.

Organising the CBBR seminar was an amazing experience for all of us, as we had the full liberty to organise and curate the entire programme. As a team we were able to work together and push ourselves to come up with alternate career areas that would enable students to stay connected to science and still be able to use their degrees. This was also an eye-opening experience for us as we were amazed at the wide ranging opportunities available and how within even one field, this could be wide and varied. For this reason, we decided to invite several speakers who followed different career paths within a certain topic, which also gave us the opportunity to meet extremely interesting people from a wide range of careers.

Contacting speakers was often challenging, in particular having the courage to contact bigger names within the field. However, the positive and enthusiastic responses we got from the speakers added to our confidence. Most people were very happy to talk about their careers and help postgrads with their own. Most speakers had themselves come from a science background and therefore, understood the struggles students faced when thinking about the future.

hp-slide-collage
A collage of research images from the Faculty of Biomedical Sciences

We were truly impressed with the range of people who were interested in our events, from undergraduates to staff and from within Biomedical Sciences to Engineering and Chemistry. We felt we had given an opportunity to all the students to explore more career options, which was particularly evident during the smaller group sessions after the talks, where students got to talk with the speakers, ask questions and make contacts. Speaking to students after was always rewarding as many came out with new career ideas or how to go about following their dream one.

Organising CBBR has been a wonderful challenge which we hope helped the many hundreds of students who attended the events. The feedback, that the talks “reassured” or even “inspired” students to explore various career options, truly indicates to us that this was a worthwhile experience, which we hope will continue in the future.

Sonam received an Outstanding Award from Careers Service for her efforts in organising the seminar series. She is pictured above in the red dress.
Sonam received an Outstanding Award from Careers Service for her efforts in organising the seminar series. She is pictured above in the red dress.

The Bristol PLUS Award: Awal Fuseini

The Bristol PLUS Award recognises and rewards University of Bristol students who have gained significant professional and life skills through work experience, volunteering and other activities outside of their studies. The award is designed to help you enhance your CV, develop a variety of employability skills and be more prepared for the interview process. 

Awal Fuseini, a doctoral student in the School of Veterinary Sciencesshared his experience with completing the Bristol PLUS Award last year.

As a postgraduate research student, I am always on the lookout for any extracurricular activity that can improve my confidence, networking skills, presentation skills and add some weight to my CV, because I am well aware that recruiters/ employers are now looking beyond degree certificates. The activities leading to the award of the Bristol Plus Award certainly tick most of the boxes, hence why I decided to complete it.

The interactive nature of the workshops means all participants are encouraged to actively take part, this builds confidence and improves on team working skills. Some of the workshops eg the interview skills workshop gives participants useful information on what employers look for during interviews including body language skills, dress code and general interview skills. One of the most important workshops I attended was: The power of relationships in the work place.  After the workshop, I learnt very important skills that will enable me to work successfully with any difficult person in my future career no matter how complex the person’s life is. Other useful workshops included: Developing leadership skills and Clueless about your careers?

During the work experience aspect of the award, I was able to gain valuable work experience whilst getting paid and more importantly use it towards the award. My work experience was with a food certification company in London. My role involved visiting food processing companies and slaughterhouses to ensure that all procedures were consistent with the standards of the certification body. I did also do some administrative duties at the Head Office as well.

I have already encouraged some of my peers to complete the Bristol Plus Award and I will not hesitate in recommending it to the wider University of Bristol postgraduate research student community, it is a worthwhile award!

Curious? Think you can stand out from the crowd? Attend one of the Introductory talks hosted by the University’s Careers Service. For an overview of the award structure, see the below graphic:

New PLUS structure