How do you support postgraduate researchers during a global pandemic?

The BDC team on a zoom call
The Bristol Doctoral College team on a Zoom meeting.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Bristol Doctoral College team have been working to provide our postgraduate research community with the support, tools and information they need to stay well, progress and adapt.

This blog post outlines a number of areas where we have adapted our provision. We hope our activities might provide inspiration for others; we also encourage our postgraduate researchers (PGRs) to engage with the changes we are making. If you have any questions or suggestions please do get in touch.

PGR Hub: from a physical space to a virtual place 

With campus closed, we have had to adapt activities that would have been run at our PGR Hub to digital-only formats.

Sarah Kelley
PG Researcher Development Advisor, Sarah Kelley, introducing an online Writers’ Retreat.

Our Personal and Professional Development programme was swiftly transferred to online platforms. Since lockdown began, there have been 369 participations in 14 online  sessions, from ‘Getting Started with Academic Publishing’ to Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Researchers. PGR feedback has been positive: 

“The course online worked really well and it was possible to interact with other students in the chat groups.”

“Thank you. Very appreciative of the time/effort put in by the facilitator and support staff to swiftly move this to a webinar format under difficult circumstances.” 

We even moved our popular Writers Retreats to Zoom, providing those writing up with some structure and companionship during a day of typing at home. These retreats have been well received and demand has been so high that we increased the capacity and frequency of these sessions. 

However, whilst online training going out live (synchronously) serves a useful purpose, there are other varied approaches to bringing the community together. Recorded resources that can be accessed by the PGR community in a more flexible manner are now high up in our priority listWe recently converted our popular “Thesis mapping: planning your PhD in its entirety” workshop to a recorded webinar, with complementary resourcesWe are also in the process of creating a Sharepoint site for PGRs, which will provide materials and opportunities for asynchronous peer interaction.

Enabling our community 

Midnight Traveller
An online film screening of Midnight Traveller, directed by Hassan Fazili, and organised by postgraduate researcher Jáfia Naftali Câmara, with funding from the PGR Community Fund. Screening with permission of Dogwoof.

During lockdown, we adjusted promotion of our Community Fund to focus on digital events led by PGRs. We’ve seen nearly 200 attendees at community-building events since lockdown began, including virtual quizzes, our online Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, film screenings and PGR Book Group. 

As well as funding these events, we’ve been developing a range of tips and tools to enable our postgraduate researchers to adapt to the new normal: see our tips and tools webpage. 

Virtual Pub Quiz
A virtual pub quiz hosted by postgraduate researchers Ailsa Nailsmith and Jacob Wood, funded by the PGR Community Fund.

We have also been hosting online drop-in sessions to provide help and technical advice for PGRs running digital events and webinars.

 

Research without Borders  

RWB showcase
Research Without Borders virtual showcase entries

With all mass gatherings across the university cancelled, our flagship festival of PGR research, Research without Borders was adapted in a number of ways:

  • The Research without Borders Showcase became an online virtual showcase.
  • Our 3MT competition was conducted via Zoom and then screened on Facebook Premiere and YouTube. 
  • Our evening discussion events are currently being adapted into online events or podcasts. 

Partnerships and scholarships 

We’ve also been supporting our scholarship cohorts to continue with their research, sustain connections with their peers and stay in touch with their supervisors. Kennedy Kipkoech Mutai, a Cotutelle PhD Student based at the universities of Bristol and Cape Town said:

“The university has been greatly supportive in the course of this pandemic.  The support from my supervisors (and Infectious Disease Modelling group) has been immense. The team managing the Cotutelle Programme led by Professor Robert Bickers, Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor Postgraduate Research, Dr Kevin Higgins, and Alex Leadley have been of enormous help. The team relentlessly scheduled meetings with our cohort of Cotutelle students, where several aspects of our PhD life were discussed. My fellow Cotutelle students have become a family, with weekly catch-up meetings! To this point I am grateful, to all who have ensured a seamless continuation of my PhD during this globally challenging times!”

Looking to the future 

Whilst the circumstances are challenging and have been exceptionally difficult for so many of our PGRs, we hope that the work we’ve undertaken over the last few months will mean we can support a wider pool of PGRs beyond lockdown. Focusing on digital resources means we can provide better support for our part-time students, those on other campuses and those working remotely or with caring responsibilities.

This crisis has handed us an opportunity to support more of our PGRs and change the way we work, while continuing with our core offering. 

7 tips for creating a successful online presentation

If you’re taking part in a communication contest like Three Minute Thesis (3MT) — or even just sharing your research with an audience of non-specialists — how can you ensure that your presentation is accessible and engaging? And how can you adapt your approach for virtual environments?

Dr Elizabeth Mamali, Postgraduate Researcher Development Officer in the Bristol Doctoral College, shares her top tips in a post that originally formed part of the BDC’s training for the University’s 2020 3MT competition.

1. Your voice is your greatest strength use it effectively

Your voice is a powerful tool in every presentation, but in a virtual environment in particular it becomes the most important part of your delivery.

Unlike face-to-face presentations, where stage presence can be an effective way of capturing your audience’s attention, in virtual presentations it is your volume, pace and pitch that are more likely to score you points for the ‘Engagement and Communication’ category of 3MT’s judging criteria.

Use volume to emphasise important parts. Quicken your pace to convey enthusiasm or urgency, and slow your pace when you introduce a new point.

Public speaking anxiety (and a burning desire to convey as much as possible about your research!) tends to make presenters talk too fast for the audience to absorb the information conveyed. Pay attention to your speech rate, a simple metric for how many words you speak per minute (wpm), and avoid going above the conversational speed of 120-150 wpm.

Lastly, avoid “ums” and instead pause. Strategic pauses prompt your audience to reflect on what you just said and enable them to follow what comes next. Used in the right way, a pause can have the same dramatic effect as a very loud noise.

2. Consider your language

You will be addressing a non-specialist audience, so opt for language that is neither subject-specific, nor replicating stilted conventions loved by academics all over the world such as Zombie nouns.

Language highbrow-ism *pun intended* has no place in the 3MT. As this excellent example of science communication demonstrates, it is possible to be technically accurate and accessible at the same time.

It is of course sometimes necessary and even interesting to use jargon in your presentation, but if you choose to do so you should devote time to explain the concept and why the audience should care. You may also set yourself a challenge: try to ensure that your three-minute talk is conducted within the 10,000 most-used words, which is not as easy as it sounds! Remember that language accessibility is part of the ‘Comprehension and Content’ marking category of the competition.

Last but not least, keep your sentences in active voice as this is more suitable for the spoken word and contributes towards reducing your wpm count.

3. Before you compete… warm-up!

Warming up before physical exercise is meant to prevent injuries and make the main workout more effective.

Warming up before your presentation has the same effect. If public speaking makes you anxious and you dread those minutes before you go on the stage (virtual or otherwise), one simple exercise to take you out of your misery is power posing.

Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School, argues that posing for two minutes in stances associated with confidence and power lifted chest, arms high up or propped on the hips and head held up high —  before you give a talk produces sufficient physiological differences in your body (increases in testosterone and reduction in the stress related cortisol hormone) to improve your performance. You can also try voice warm-up exercises to get your vocal cords rolling.

4. Don’t throw jelly at people

It is a given that during the 3MT you will need to communicate the significance and purpose of your research, and this will be assessed by judges under the ‘Comprehension and Content’ category.

How to go about communicating that is not straightforward, though and researchers do have a tendency of explaining things in a way that doesn’t necessarily correspond to how the audience wants to hear them.

Communications specialist Andy Bounds identifies the practice of saying too many irrelevant stuff as a common barren communication tactic, equivalent to “throwing jelly” at people and hoping that something will stick.

Instead of trying to convey every piece of detail about your project, focus on the bigger picture of why we should care. The Thesis Whisperer, Inger Mewburn, refers to this as the helicopter view of your work: how could your research change the way we feel/think/act in the future? What could it help us create or build? It may be that your research only makes a small contribution towards some bigger change that might occur one day, but that doesn’t mean you should shy away from explaining that connection and using it to elevate your pitch.

5. You only get a single visual aid get it right

The 3MT only permits you a single slide as visual aid, one with no transitions, animation or sound. The slide itself is part of what you will be judged upon under the ‘Engagement and Communication’ criterion, so it is important that you make it intrinsic to the presentation. Your visual aid doesn’t have to be complicated to be impactful.

No one demonstrates this better than Rosanna Stevens, the 3MT winner of the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences final 2014, who used an empty white slide to illustrate “white” ways of doing things that white people fail to recognise as such. What this example teaches us is that whatever is in your slide should serve a purpose. For example, it might be that your visual explains something about your research to participants that your words can’t, help you explain the story of your project through a metaphor, or induce some humour in your presentation.

6. Stage your virtual presence (before the presentation)

Stage presence can be as important as content in face-to-face presentations and the 3MT is no exception. This is another aspect that will gain you points towards the ‘Engagement and Communication’ category.

But how do you create impact when your stage is your kitchen and you are no more than a 16-inch video on someone’s screen?

For starters, consider your surroundings. A quiet room (carpeted is ideal as you will avoid echoey sound!) and a neutral background will help the audience to focus on you only. If the latter isn’t possible, just make sure your space is tidy.

You should also take care with where you place your streaming device. Use boxes or books if needed so that your webcam is at eye level, if you are presenting seated, or high enough if you are presenting standing.

The last element of staging is the lightning. If it isn’t possible to use a room that receives good natural light then consider having a desk lamp directed towards you.

7. Stage your virtual presence (during your presentation)

There are also things that you can do during your presentation to improve your stage presence.

While it is counter-intuitive not to look at your video image while talking, to create impact you should look directly into your web-camera. This will make your audience feel like you are addressing and looking at them directly.

Another aspect to consider during your presentation is you hand movements. Whether you are sitting, or standing, don’t be afraid to use your hands as you would in a face to face presentation. Research suggests that presentations where hands do some of the talking are far more popular than those featuring idle hands.


Want to find out more about the University’s 3MT competition? Visit the Bristol Doctoral College’s Three Minute Thesis page.

7 steps for planning a successful live webinar

A virtual chat involving four cartoon PGRs

Do you have teaching responsibilities, or are you thinking about putting together a PGR-led seminar or writers’ retreat? Read our top tips for leading a live webinar.

1. Plan your content as well as modes of interaction

Keeping participants’ attention during a webinar is hard work, but a clear structure for the session and well-planned interactions can help mitigate that. Organise your content in clear themes/parts and let participants know upfront what the flow will look like.

There are many forms of interaction that you can build into your session depending on the platform you are using. Consider including opportunities for participants to ask questions via their microphones, setting them short tasks and asking them to contribute via the chat box (this encourages those that are less forthcoming to interact as well).

Through some platforms, such as Zoom, you can also put participants in smaller ‘break-out’ style web-rooms to enable small group discussion.

2. PowerPoint is your friend … most of the time

Even if you are leading a session that is not content heavy (for example, a writers’ retreat), sharing PowerPoint slides during your session is a good way of ensuring that participants know what is happening at all times. For example, you can use a PowerPoint slide to signpost that you are ready to receive questions, to specify the requirements of an interactive task, to indicate that it is break time (and at what time you will resume), etc.

However, keep in mind that sharing PowerPoint slides takes up a large portion of the screen and in some cases it might be preferable to shut it down, allowing a ‘gallery’ style view of participants’ web cameras to create a stronger sense of community.

3. Practise

Before leading a live session, you should practise managing the platform of your choice. Consider organising a test-run with a few friends or colleagues. You don’t need to replicate the full session but you should go through the key motions, including any planned points of interaction.

Alternatively, if you have access to a spare laptop, use it as a ‘faux’ participant and place it next to your main device to see how things will look like for your participants.

4. Send out joining instructions

Sending out simple joining instructions will help manage your participants’ expectation. How will they access the platform? Will they be expected to use their microphone? Will they have to put their web camera on?

You should also encourage participants to join the session a few minutes before the start time so that they can test their audio/visual.

5. Provide guidance on webinar etiquette at the start of the session

Devote a few minutes at the start of the session to taking participants through your webinar etiquette. You should explain upfront what forms of interactions they can expect, how and when you will take their questions, as well as a quick overview of the key controls of the platform you are using.

6. Get yourself a ‘wingman’

If possible, ask a fellow PGR to be your session wingman. This means that you have someone ready to step in and help if any of your participants have connection issues or if you need a hand with managing conversations in the chat box.

A wingman can also help you fill any awkward silences as you are waiting for all participants to join at the start of the session, as well as during the breaks. Initiating small talk with your wingman during downtime will encourage others to participate as well and help foster a sense of community that is much needed at the moment.

7. Follow up with participants if needed

Managing time during live sessions is a tricky business and issues with technology can also eat up delivery time. If this happens to you, then don’t stress. Tell your participants that you will follow up with some written notes on content that was not covered, or send them a voice-over-PowerPoint recording. If you didn’t have enough time to take questions then encourage participants to put their queries in the chat box or email you, and then follow up with a written Q & A.

Last but not least, remember that we have all been thrown into digital modes of learning and interacting very abruptly and making mistakes is expected. It’s all about progress, not perfection.

Stay tuned for more guidance on delivering digital content in future blog posts.

Five reasons to apply for our ‘Skills for the Future’ Summer School

Doctoral researchers at the 2018 summer school
Doctoral researchers at the 2018 summer school

For the second year running, the BDC is organising a skills-enhancing summer school — a free, three-day workshop that’s designed to help doctoral researchers learn how to build successful collaborations with external organisations and explore opportunities beyond academia.

Below, the BDC’s Industrial PhD Programme Officer, Dr. Aby Sankaran, explains why ‘Skills for the Future’ (1–3 July) will be beneficial for those considering entrepreneurial or non-academic careers after their research degrees.

Interested in applying for the summer school, which is open to doctoral researchers from all six faculties? Make sure you read to the end …

Reflecting on my own personal experience — and feedback from our previous year’s summer school — these are the reasons any doctoral researcher should apply for ‘Skills for the Future’:

1. You’ll learn about the support that exists within the University

Did you know that the University of Bristol was a top-ten university for spin-outs in 2018? Attending the summer school will be a great way to explore entrepreneurial ideas, get a better understanding of intellectual property (IP) — and hear directly from the Head of Commercialisation about what the University can do for you!

2. It’s hands-on learning about agile thinking

Everybody has great ideas (sometimes) — but what’s key is actually identifying the potential in these ideas, irrespective of the subject area. Evolving your thinking, and looking beyond ‘PhD’, ‘paper publication’ and ‘thesis’, is a step towards realising that potential.

At ‘Skills for the Future’, you’ll explore the key competencies required to work in a hybrid research/industry interface. Who knows? Your idea or research interest could be the next big solution to our global challenges.

3. You’ll hone your critical thinking and problem solving

There is no such thing as an easy PhD. Every project has hurdles, and the best-laid plans of mice and PhD students can get crushed.

How you cope with these issues, though, is what matters. Can you think critically to solve problems and convert threats into opportunities? The summer school is a chance to hear successful alumni share their experiences and the key lessons they’ve learned.

4. Wondering where to start with a start-up? This is Commercialisation 101

You’ve spotted a potential opportunity or you’ve had a superb idea. So what’s next?

The challenge is communicating this to different stakeholders to get their buy-in. What do you need to do to plan and prioritise? How do you raise funding and pitch your ideas? What tools do you have for negotiation? How do you sort out cash flow and finance? ‘Skills for the Future’ is an opportunity to explore, in detail, the issues you’ll face when you take an idea to market — and how you can start preparing now.

5. Meet and build a peer group of like-minded entrepreneurs

You may think that being an expert in your specific field is enough to succeed. Not so. You still have to work with a number of different people, whether it’s policy makers, HR, engineers, stakeholder, customers — or even the people in your own team. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a peer group that you can develop and share ideas with?

The summer school is chance to meet doctoral researchers, from a wide range of disciplines, who are on the same path. Who knows? You might even find your own team or next business partner at the event.


Ready to apply for three jam-packed days of activities and learning, all designed to help you increase the economic and societal impact of your research? Visit our Skills for the Future Summer School page and complete the application form before 9am on Monday 24 June 2019.

If you have any questions about the course, please contact Dr. Aby Sankaran.

Skills for the Future is organised by the Bristol Doctoral College, and facilitated by Spin Up Science and QTEC.

7 gifts the PGR Hub gave us in 2018

The PGR Hub with floating text: '7 gifts from the PGR Hub'

As the staff of the BDC reflect on the joys and tidings 2018 has given us and our wider PGR community, we can’t help but return to the one gift that has kept on giving: our brand-new PGR Hub space. It’s only been open since October, but it’s already had a huge (and positive) impact on Bristol’s PGRs.

Here are seven of our Hub highlights — and some ideas on how you can make the most of this new space in 2019.

1. Putting PGR personal and professional development front-and-centre

The University’s Personal and Professional Development (PPD) programme for PGRs is now based primarily in one central location, thanks to the establishment of the PGR Hub. Our research students can come along to one consistent space to find out what’s coming up in our schedule of over 100 free workshops, seminars and courses run around researcher development.

Since the Hub opening in October earlier this year, over 45 courses, workshops and groups in total have taken place in one of our dedicated training rooms. Highlights include brand new courses that focus on different stages of a research degree: ‘Getting going’, ‘Maintaining momentum’, and ‘Finishing up and forging ahead’ help you plan and manage your degree according to which stage you find yourself in. ‘Thesis Boot Camp’, a residential writing programme for those writing up, also took place over three days in November. Check out upcoming PPD courses through our online catalogue.

2. Not one – but two! – seasonal Hub Quizzes

The Hub isn’t just about training and development, though. Bringing together PGRs from different parts of the University to meet one another and have fun is a big part of the Hub’s mission. The BDC hosted two ‘Hub quizzes’ themed around Halloween and the winter festive season — opportunities for PGRs to take a break, tackle our trivia-tastic questions… and endure some truly terrible puns

As we enter 2019 and look ahead at our upcoming seasons — Valentine’s Day, the Easter break, maybe even an April Fool’s themed quiz — we’re asking our PGRs to volunteer themselves as host! Get in touch with us if you think you can outpun our punstoppable punchlines so far.

3. WriteFest

WriteFest 2108 logo | cartoon person typing on a laptop

November saw researchers and research students alike join in with Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo). The University joined in for WriteFest, a month dedicated to support around writing for academic purposes. Altogether, our PGRs who took part wrote a total of 349,229 over the course of 30 days — an astounding figure! A big part of how we achieved this was through hosting Thesis Boot Camp, Writers’ Retreats, and Drop-in writing days in the Hub.

Of course, WriteFest wasn’t just about hitting targets – but about developing healthy, professional writing habits. Check out our WriteFest roundup for our most important takeaways and tips. From January, we’ll be hosting regular drop-in writing retreats every Friday in the Hub.

4. Calming Crafternoons

One of our favourite activities going on in the PGR Hub is the ‘calming Crafternoon’ – an afternoon dedicated entirely to mindfulness activities such as knitting, colouring, jigsaw puzzling or sketching. We provide the supplies, and our PGRs supply themselves! Even if you don’t want to take part in a specific activity, there’s free tea and coffee on hand to help you relax and unwind.

Do you have an activity you’d like to bring, a skill you’d like to share, or an idea for supporting mindfulness? Get in touch with us and let’s make it happen!

5. The introduction of our TA Talk series

A huge part of supporting our PGR community is to support doctoral researchers who teach. The Hub is host to the newly established ‘TA Talks’ series, which consists of loosely-themed sessions designed around peer-networking, support resources and development opportunities around the University. The first two talks featured appearances from the Digital Education Office and the Bristol Doctoral College.

The next TA talk takes place on 22 January, and invites early career academics from the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching (BILT) to discuss how their own teaching experiences influenced their research and career pathways. Sign up via Eventbrite.

6. Sharing PGR experiences in working with industry

PGRs Sam Brooks and Robert Dibble shared their experiences on placements they undertook this summer as part of the National Productivity Investment Fund. PGRs interested in learning more about the benefits of placement opportunities were invited to hear them speak and ask questions over free pizza in the Hub. The value of getting established in industry settings are that they open employability doors beyond the world of academia. Placements broaden your skill set, complement your research, and provide experience in a professional setting.

Our next discussion about placements features a special guest from Aardman Animations to share her experiences of working in Creative Industries. Join us in the Hub on 22 January.

7. Welcoming new PhD scholars to Bristol’s PGR community

China Scholarship Council – University of Bristol (CSC-UoB) Joint PhD Scholars

The Hub provided an ideal location to welcome to Bristol our new cohort of China Scholarship Council – University of Bristol (CSC-UoB) Joint PhD Scholars. Returning students were invited to share their experiences of Bristol both as a city and a research-intensive University, and new students were encouraged to share their hopes and ambitions for the next few years.

The Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise, Professor Nishan Canagarajah, welcomed the scholars with a heartfelt message about his own experiences as an international postgraduate scholar, and the importance of finding and building relationships and support systems within one’s wider research community.

Since this event, the PGR Hub has been a space dedicated to helping our PGRs build those relationships and establish those support systems for themselves and with one another.

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.”