Help is at hand

To close out our day of discussing the silver linings of our Postgraduate Researcher’s work, and how they keep their heads up and stay motivated, we thought we’d offer a note about help.

PhD students are more likely to suffer from neglect, isolation, feelings of fraudulence and performance anxiety under pressure. They face an insecure economic future, and an increasingly unstable job market. It’s no wonder that mental health issues are on the rise amongst this demographic – and it’s time that we opened up the door to the fact that Higher Education has problems. We have to confront these painful truths and reach out to help. Institutions owe their students and their staff the appropriate resources and services to help them deal with mental health & wellbeing.

The University of Bristol offers a comprehensive counselling service complete with a list of group therapy sessions and personal wellbeing workshops. It  also has its own physical library and virtual resource centre. We also subscribe to the Big White Wall campaign, and recommend this online resource for anyone struggling to express themselves or reach out about a pressing issue that has been weighing them down.

The city of Bristol also has a host of services, mindfulness groups, helplines and charities available for all manner of support issues. Below is a brief, collated list of free helplines that are available (mostly) 24/7 that deal with some of the most prevalent issues PGRs tend to face in terms of mental illness and emotional support. This is by no means comprehensive, and it certainly doesn’t cover the entire range of issues that any individual may face. See National Mind’s tips for everday support, and this list of Local Mental Health Charities for further information.

Lastly, if you feel that your needs are not being met, please speak up. Never hesitate to get in touch if you don’t know where to turn, because there is always help at hand.

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”.

On Mourning the PhD

Yiota

Yiota Demetriou is completing a PhD in the Department of Drama researching performative approaches of staging oral history archives and employing media such as sound art, live art, video, photography  and installation. Her work facilitates a cross-fertilization between the fields of  oral history, performance, philosophy, interaction design, sound art, sound engineering, memory studies, museum, curatorial and archival studies. 

I’m on Chapter Five – Conclusions and Findings, and I’m staring intently at the computer screen reluctant to type a word.  I realise that finishing this means it is over…What are my conclusions?! What are my findings?! Instead of finishing the chapter, I get distracted with writing this… I’m tearful over my PhD and I have yet to submit it!

I was warned about this from more experienced colleagues. Apparently, it is like overcoming a long and intense relationship before it’s actually over…it may also seem like giving birth and giving the child away…obviously it is not the same, but my project is my baby, my ideas are a part of me, they were nourished inside of me… Does any of this make any sense? Is this why I keep distracting myself, or keep going over and over it, because something, somewhere inside of me doesn’t want it to finish? In a way I’m delaying the process, my project is done and although it is ready to move on, I on the other hand may not be on the same page. I suppose the question to ask is: am I really not ready to move on?! Perhaps I’m scared, as I am used to being part of a rigorous educational framework that makes it difficult for me to step foot in the outside world, that isn’t academia.

Obviously, it’s not over yet – I still have a final push (or several), the viva, the corrections…I’m sure there will be a few. Some days I feel exhausted, other days, I find myself in shock, how could I have possibly come up with all these words – words that actually mean something. I’ve enjoyed my PhD journey, the best years of my life. I have met like-minded people, I’ve been to places, mingled with renowned academics and learnt things that I wouldn’t have imagined learning otherwise.

I do feel tired though. Self-funding a full-time PhD is not an easy process, as you have to constantly self-discipline, four or even five times more than a fully-funded PhD for time management.  This of course depends on the person, and it is heightened if you are like myself, fully involved in a range of projects simultaneously (outside the PhD); self-discipline and time management are crucial qualities. However, these are valuable skills definitely worth developing and attaining for any context.

I certainly won’t miss the state of confusion when entering the outside world that follows consecutive days of being locked-in studying and writing. Nevertheless, I’m not the only one, and it is good to meet with other people in the same boat, even if they are not from the same field and support each other, through the process. Most importantly, it is inspiring to see female academics and other fellow PhDers, who are further into the PhD journey, studying for their doctorate alongside being in full-time employment and with children.

Our supervisors, along with the whole department, and our PGR Theatre group, have been supportive all the way. And even though I need to catch a breath and I’m due to embark on an additional journey of stress and anxiety about what I am going to do next with my life, in general, the exhaustion was worth it! I worked hard, in a few jobs, to fund myself through it; I did this for myself so I have no complaints or regrets, I enjoyed every minute of it and I thank those who have helped me through it.

Hopefully this will not form part of my acknowledgments in the actual thesis, but I appreciate all the help that has been given to me: From my friend that gave me a place to stay when I arrived to Bristol as a stranger, on the 5th Dec 2011; to the middle-aged guy who gave me a temporary job at the kebab shop until I got on my feet; my supervisor that took care of my sanity and kept pushing me to expand my ideas as well as keeping me from distracting myself, (which I am doing now, I’m sorry Paul); to the head of our department who has been supporting us all the way; to the amazing PGRT community and friends (most of whom have moved on now) that welcomed and gave me an insight into how things work; and to friends and family who have dealt with my frequent work-related mood swings and tantrums. Bear with me a little longer, I have a final submission date, I’m nearly there!

Moving on

Photo of Richard Budd

Richard Budd was awarded his PhD in September 2014, having successfully defended his thesis a few weeks beforehand. Based in the Graduate School of Education, he conducted a comparative case study of how German and English undergraduates understood and negotiated their respective higher education contexts. This required implementing a qualitative research design, conducting in-depth interviews with students at universities in each country. 

I dotted the last ‘i’ and crossed the last ‘t’ on my PhD seven months ago; it seems like aeons ago. It’s developed into a platonic thing now where our time together is infrequent. I’m afraid we simply grew apart. The attraction that emerged after initially circling each other cautiously was followed by a period of intense and all-consuming passion, a long stretch of easy cohabitation, then increasingly frequent rows and finally, heartbreak. What remains is respect and a shared history, but the viva was a counselling session when my examiners highlighted what I already suspected: the writing was on the wall. No hard feelings; I’m a better person than I was before and am very grateful for that. For a time this was the centre of the universe, and then there was the sudden realisation that the orbits had shifted, leaving a (mostly) fond memory and a reference in my bibliography. I haven’t got space for that kind of relationship any more. I’m just juggling too many different things nowadays.

My last blog in this series looked at what you need to do to boost your post-PhD employability. I was doing well enough back then, and three months later, I’m pleased to report further progress. I’m working part-time as an RA on a project that looks at maths teaching and widening participation (WP). We’re currently analysing data from group discussions with the teachers who participated in our study. It’s complex, challenging and interesting, and is clocking more miles on the research tachometer. We’ve had a symposium with some other WP projects accepted at a big national education conference in September. I’m also giving a paper of my own at the same conference – this way the project pays for me to go and I get to fly my own flag, too. I’ve had the same paper admitted at a European conference, and have been awarded funding to attend that. This one is particularly handy because it’s profile building, networking, and a small tick against the ‘garners funding’ box. Oh, and it’s in Budapest!! I’ve also drafted an application for money to put together a seminar series on graduate employability, and this is about the only other type of funding I can apply for as a part-time, fixed term researcher. It’s a slow burner, though, because the person I need to help me polish it up for submission is simply too swamped with other stuff to be able to help for the time being.

What else…I’m supervising a Master’s student, which is great. My supervisee is, thankfully, engaged, energetic, and receptive to advice. Helping others develop their projects is rewarding and helps me realise how much of the research process is second nature now. My blog, Stuff About Unis, is attracting a steady level of traffic, and I’ve been out in schools delivering a workshop I put together on the nature and results of educational research. I submitted my first paper in February, and I’m expecting to hear back from the editors in about June. They say that your first review is a bit of a (painful) rite of passage. Provided they accept it, I’m braced to have quite a bit of work to do before resubmitting it. Then it gets read again, further changes recommended, back and forth, until it’s finally done. I’ve got another paper I’m looking to submit in June, and again this’ll be subject the same prolonged period of negotiation. I might have two of my own publications by Christmas. I also work part-time for GW4, coordinating academic staff development projects across the four universities. Working with people in four different organisations, all in separate geographical locations, is challenging, but it’s providing an inside view of academic careers, collaborative projects, and doctoral training, as well as an education into how universities function behind – or alongside – the academic work. This is all really useful as much of it taps into things that I’ll be expected to have experience of in the future.

Something that’s struck me over the last few months is how incomplete my understanding of the academic job market was. Most of my knowledge has been picked up piecemeal, from conversations, CPD sessions, and staff developers. Particularly since the introduction of tuition fees, student satisfaction, and employability ratings on the league tables, there’s an enormous emphasis on undergrad career support. In comparison, postgrads get a raw deal in my view. We are supposed to be more independent and seek things out ourselves, but some structured, clearly available support wouldn’t go amiss. For example:

  • What is an academic CV supposed to look like? You could possibly hunt down some of the examples buried in the Vitae website, but did you know that our own HR pages have useful information on this? I found out about this from a mentoring circle. It’s intended for internal promotions, but gives a really good template of what needs to be on there.
  • Where do you look for jobs? I knew about jobs.ac.uk, which should cover the UK, but only last week a friend mentioned Euraxess, which has positions all over Europe. AcademicKeys might be of interest: it’s mostly US-focused, but also has jobs around the world.
  • How do you put an application together? Some of it is simply filling in boxes, but the personal statement is an art form that a friend of mine recently talked me through. You have to be absolutely explicit about how you satisfy all of the essential criteria (what’s on the last blog, and probably more), and hopefully a good proportion of the desirable ones. You also need to look at the teaching/research profile of your potential employer and make it very clear how you would fit within this.

Seven months out, post-PhD life is more or less on track. All I‘ll need is time, elbow grease, and the planetary alignment of a job whose requirements I meet more than the competition. Don’t ask me what the interview might look like or what I’m expected to wear, though, I’ve no idea. Answers on a postcard, please…

You are not alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Yes – this is possible!

The school of hard knocks…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The last year…and out of the other side

Photo of Richard BuddRichard Budd was awarded his PhD in September 2014, having successfully defended his thesis a few weeks beforehand. Based in the Graduate School of Education, he conducted a comparative case study of how German and English undergraduates understood and negotiated their respective higher education contexts. This required implementing a qualitative research design, conducting in-depth interviews with students at universities in each country. 

The last year of my doctorate presented challenges far beyond the intellectual. I started a part-time research assistant role a few months after my three-year scholarship ended, and this was then supplemented by an inter-university project coordination role a month later. Having the thesis, working full time, and having a young family, meant that I was working overtime for what seemed like an eternity. The workload was hellish, but I was still in love with my project; shaping it into a coherent narrative while reflecting on my academic development brought immense satisfaction, and this, along with supervisory support and desperately wanting to be finished, kept me going.

Tracking back a year from the end, I had finished the analysis and had well over half the thesis written. I presented some of the findings at a conference in the autumn and thought I‘d be done by Christmas. I’d underestimated how much was still to do by some margin! Some chapters were far from polished, while others were far too big, and it took me until the end of March to get to a full draft. By that point I’d been beavering away for 20-30 hours a week in addition to work, plus trying to be involved in family life. I had a little respite while my supervisors chewed through the draft, then it was another three months of the same. Draft Mark I went through various incarnations until it reached Mark III, and even then there were weeks of tweaking and tuning. Having thought for long periods that I was never going to be done, I worked through a final list of changes and suddenly, it seemed, it was off my desk.

One of the big problems for me over this period was not knowing where the finishing line was. Trying to work out what ‘enough’ might look like is pretty hard. Your supervisors have a good idea, but it is a tricky thing to articulate. Overall, in addition to the thesis being original and your own work, it has to be presented as a coherent, appropriately justified argument, and you need to know where it sits in the field/literature. These are big questions, and I’ve broken them down in more detail elsewhere: see ‘Unpacking the viva’ at ddubdrahcir.wordpress.com.

After submitting in July, I left it alone it for over a month. I needed to reconnect with family life, sleep, and revel in not feeling guilty for loafing about aimlessly in my free time. Free time! A few weeks before the viva, I read it through again. This was initially not very helpful, in that — in addition to the typos — I’d had time to reflect on the whole from a distance; you can’t do this just before submission because you’re too close, too caught up in the detail. I spent a few days worrying about how I could — should — have improved it, and one piece of advice really helped. This was that a PhD was always imperfect. It is supposed to be as far as you can go in the given time frame, and if you tried to perfect it, you’d never hand it in.

By the morning of the viva, I’d worked through rafts of potential questions and felt that I could answer them with confidence. Looking back, this was when I somehow knew that I’d (probably) pass; being able to field those questions made me realise the scale, depth and nuance I’d achieved in the thesis. The chief remaining question was the extent of the corrections: how much would be left to do? I was comfortable in the knowledge that I could have done some things differently; being aware of the pros and cons of all of your decisions over the lifecycle of the project is a key part of the process, not a sign of failure. I spent the morning talking it all through with a friend, and this warm-up — without any pressure — really helped. By the time I walked into the viva itself I was internally contorted with apprehensive tension, but then it got going and I was too busy thinking on my feet to have space for nerves. The defence took about two hours, although it felt like far less. The first half was heavy going and very challenging, but after a while it developed into something more conversational, a healthy exchange and discussion. After a brief break at the end, I was invited back in, was told I’d passed, and had pretty minor corrections.

The corrections took a (very long) day and now, a month after the viva, it has sunk in. At first I couldn’t believe that it was over, that this ‘thing’ I’d been gestating for years no longer needed any attention. I also missed it. There are publications and presentations to come, but the thesis itself is finished. Having it behind you is a serious fillip, a sign of being accepted into the academic ranks. It goes some way to assuaging the ‘imposter syndrome’ that I felt most of the way through my doctorate, that I was woefully short of some of the stuff I was reading, and my unmasking as an imbecile could come any minute. I’m still a little self-conscious about being ‘Dr Budd’, not quite used to wearing it, but it’s a marker of having changed. I’m intellectually unrecognisable from the person who walked into my first supervision meeting, and that’s the point of the whole exercise.

Festival of Postgraduate Research

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The Festival of Postgraduate Research took place on Friday 21st February 2014 and included stands run by postgraduate researchers and University services alongside a range of research posters, breakout presentations and workshops.

As we consider what went well and what we could improve for next year, we would welcome your feedback. If you attended or took part in the Festival let us know what you think we should repeat again next year, or what you feel we could do differently. If you chose not to attend, we would be interested to hear your thoughts on what would make it more appealing to you.