PGR Stories: Suzannah Young and researching the homeless

Suzannah Young is a postgraduate researcher in the School of Modern Languages. Her research aims to find out where help with language is needed in homelessness services in Bristol and Cardiff, and what support is already available to people who need it. She wrote a post for us discussing her research, its value and impact, and what her PhD process has entailed so far. 

Before starting at Bristol in September 2015, I worked for FEANTSA, the federation of homelessness services in Europe, for six years.  I am also a translator and have an interest in migration. My research project aims to find out where help with language is needed in Bristol and Cardiff homelessness services and what support is available to people who need help.

When people move to a new country, they can become vulnerable to poverty, isolation and discrimination.  If people who move country do not have access to employment or government help, or cannot find a place to live because landlords discriminate against them, they might end up homeless.  

Homeless people need to use services that give advice, defend their rights and provide material support like food, clothes and showers.  It can be difficult for people with low levels of English to use these services.  The services might not feel able to talk to these people either.  An interpreter (someone who translates a spoken message from one language into another) can help them interact with each other.  

When I was working at FEANTSA, I often came across research or reports on practice that said that language difference was a problem for homeless service providers.  It was a problem because they couldn’t communicate effectively with homeless people who spoke another language.  There wasn’t any discussion of what was done to solve this problem, though.  As I am passionate about languages and believe that everyone should have the right to a decent home, I wanted to set about finding out what was being done to help homeless people who speak other languages.

My research therefore looks at what is being done on the ground, in a context of squeezed budgets: whether people using homelessness services have access to interpreters or other types of language support, like staff who speak other languages, internet translation tools or peers (other service users) who act as interpreters.  The study compares the situations in Bristol and Cardiff.  It may discover good ways of working that services can copy from each other.

I would like to interview homelessness service users, homelessness service providers and language professionals to ask them about their experiences in this area – of accessing language support or of providing it.  The plan is also to ask service users to produce (anonymous if wished) video diaries in which they can say in their own language what they would have liked to have said if they had had access to an interpreter when using a service.  This would reflect their direct voice.  Asking participants to use visual representations also diffuses the tension of language – if they wish, they can ‘speak without words’.  

This project is multilingual because I will be interviewing people who speak a variety of languages.  This will mean that preparation and data collection will involve various time-consuming and expensive language-related tasks.  I will translate materials myself or through translators.  I will employ interpreters to mediate interviews.  I will use external transcribers to transcribe interview data and video diary entries in languages I do not understand.  I will use translators to check the accuracy of the interpreting for languages I do not understand and I will employ subtitlers to translate the video diaries for the languages I do not understand.

The results should reflect the multilingualism of the project itself.  I would like to provide a series of narratives for service users to take away, which can act as a guide to using language support services.  I will need to make this available in other languages (which would require money, time and proofreading).  The video diaries should be subtitled, and I hope the subtitles will be available in all the languages involved, not just in English.

The results of the study could be made available in a usable format to services for homeless people.  They could be made into a briefing document that gives examples of how to work with an interpreter or translator or how to deal with a communication problem.  Another briefing document for language professionals working for homelessness services can give specific guidelines about language requirements in homelessness services.

10 reasons to exhibit your work at ‘Research without Borders’

RwB croppedNot sure why you might want to showcase your research at ‘Research without Borders’? Here’s 10 good reasons why you might want to get involved:

1. Get out of the lab / library

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We spend so much of our time focusing on doing our research that we sometimes forget that there is a whole world of exciting opportunities for us to take advantage of! Take a break for a few hours and come down to @Bristol to tell others about what you’ve been working on. You’ll be much more relaxed and refreshed when you return to your work – and you might even have a few new ideas to try out!

2. Meet other researchers and connect with the wider Bristol community

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Postgraduate research is so specialised and individual that sometimes you forget that you are part of a community of more than three thousand research students. Come and meet one another, share ideas – you might even make some new friends!

3. Potential employers

This year you won’t just be showcasing your research to other PGRs and the Bristol academic community – we’ll also be inviting key external partners, including academics from other institutions, industrial partners, local community groups and organisations, the Bristol City Council – the list goes on and on. Let us know if there is anyone in particular that you would like us to invite. This is an ideal opportunity for you to network with these high-profile guests. You never know, this could be a foot in the door for your post-PhD career!

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4. Meet the people funding your research

We’ll also be extending an invitation to the charities and research councils who fund your research. This is your opportunity to show them what you have been doing with the money they have invested in you. It’s also a great opportunity for you to speak with funders about any ideas you might have for future research projects. It never hurts to make friends with the people who hold the purse strings!

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Jorge Cham, PhD Comics

5. Talk to interested people about your research

Your supervisors, parents, partner, and friends are probably all getting a bit tired of hearing about your work. This is an ideal opportunity to talk to others who haven’t yet heard all about it. Plus, it’s always a good challenge to try to explain your research in a way that others can understand it. Take advantage of the fact that you’ll have a captive audience on hand.

6. Explore interconnections between your work and others’

You won’t be the only one doing all of the talking – this is a great opportunity for you to find out what other people are working on. You might just realise that there are connections between your work and others. Breaking out of your research bubble is never a bad idea!

7. Generate new ideas and collaborationsBCCS4

Be an academic in action! Meet new people, develop new ideas, learn from one another – that’s what being an academic is all about! This is your opportunity to spark new ideas with people you might not encounter in your day-to-day work.

8. Apply your expertise to real-world problems

Not sure what kind of impact your research could have on global challenges? How about problems affecting the city of Bristol itself? In addition to the research showcase there will also be opportunities for you to contribute your expertise to addressing real-world problems. A series of ‘Grand Challenges’ will be running throughout the day, enabling you to see how your knowledge and experience can help to solve some of world’s biggest problems.

9. Win prestigious prizes 

In the past, we’ve given away iPads, ferry boat rides, restaurant vouchers, Amazon vouchers… you never know what you might win! This year is no exception! We’ll be offering prizes for the 3MT, best poster display and best interactive research display.

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*we’d like to confirm that, sadly, not everyone can win a prize www.quickmeme.com

10. It’ll be fun! 

With interactive maps, graffiti walls and quick-fire talks, this event is going to be jam-packed with fun activities for everyone! Free drinks and food are just the icing on the cake.

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Even the minions are excited for Research without Borders

So what are you waiting for? Sign up and reserve your place now!

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”.

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!

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.