From stitching to stretching — your PGR self-care tips

A ball of wool on a sheet

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

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

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

Nicola

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

Niels

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

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

Suzanne

‘Knitting and Lego.’

Mary

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

‘Also knitting.’

Pam

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

Jane

‘I go to yoga class.’

Demi

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

 

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

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.”

Tried and Tested: PhD is the New Boss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A PhD student guide to Twitter

Sarah_JoseSarah Jose is third-year postgraduate researcher in plant science. Her research focuses on how plants limit water loss by producing a waterproof coating and pores that can close to prevent water from leaving the leaf. She spends a lot of time looking down the microscope at nail varnish impressions of leaves!

Think Twitter is for keeping up to date with the latest from Taylor Swift and One Direction? Think again! Twitter can be a quality tool for networking, keeping up to date with the latest news in your academic field and more! Read on to see how you can use Twitter to your advantage.

Twitter feed
Use Twitter to keep up to date and get involved in your research community.

Getting started

I’m going to assume a basic understanding of Twitter here, so if you need an introduction to the topic then check out Twitter’s guide for beginners.

To make the most of Twitter as a PhD student, you’ll need to set up a reasonably professional account. The odd tweet about your cat is fine, but if the majority of your tweets are about your life as a #belieber or how many pints you can drink before you fall into the Floating Harbour then consider creating a new account. Check out this guide for more information.

Why should PhD students use Twitter?

By selecting who you follow, you create a personalised news feed that you can access whenever you like. Don’t feel intimidated if your feed contains more information than you can ever get round to reading. The most important news will be retweeted or reposted several times, and by checking out the main hashtags for your field (e.g. #plantsci for plant biology!) you can keep up to date with the latest trends in just a few minutes a day.

How do you find the most interesting people to follow? Try adding researchers you met at conferences or those whose work overlaps with your own. For publication news, follow some of the important journals in your field, or some of the major organisations, for example if you’re a scientist you might follow the Royal Society (@royalsociety). If you’re just starting out, look at who your colleagues or collaborators are following and choose some of those accounts. I use Twitter as my main source of science news, and it takes far less time than trawling through news sites, blogs and the journal news sites. You will likely also come across funding opportunities that you could apply for to travel to conferences or organise an event.

One of the great things about Twitter is the sense of community. When you start to get involved in online discussions, you’ll realise that even the biggest names in your field are just real people – almost everyone is happy to talk to PhD students and share advice. Just make sure you’re using your community’s hashtag so that others are more likely to see your tweets!

Getting involved in the community can also be great for your career. You’re getting your name out there, and can promote your own research and any publications you might have. There’s some debate about whether or not Twitter mentions can influence the number of citations your paper will receive, but any potential extra exposure can’t be a bad thing. Catching the eye of a potential new employer can’t hurt either!

Top tips for Twitter

You’ve got 140 characters to play with in a tweet. Images take up 23 characters, but are worth including where available as they increase your tweet’s visibility and almost double the likelihood of it being retweeted.

Make sure you keep your content balanced; tweeting about your own work is great, but promoting others is just as valuable and will get you noticed. Be aware, though, that an account full of retweets and no original content will not attract many followers as it looks like you have no interesting ideas of your own.

Don’t just follow thousands of people in the hope of getting reciprocal followers. Those who do this will not be interested in your content, plus your news feed will be overflowing with more information than you could ever hope to read.

What to tweet about?

Need some ideas for tweets? How about:

  • Your work. Got any interesting research methods or findings, publications etc.? You could even link to a poster you made or a presentation you’ve given and uploaded to SlideShare, assuming you have your supervisor’s consent!
  • You could tweet a day in your life using the hashtag #brisphdlife.
  • Publicise an event or article that’s caught your attention, with a comment about why it appeals to you personally. Make sure you use hashtags and @ mentions so that more people will see it!
  • Ask a question. If it’s about PhD life, try #phdchat. If you have a question about a particular paper, find out if the author is on Twitter and then ask them directly. It’ll make you stand out and they’ll appreciate the chance to talk about their work.

Twitter photo

A note about live tweeting conferences: There has been a lot of debate online about whether or not people should live tweet at conferences. My advice is that tweeting the title of the talk, general comments about the field and previously published results are fine, but DO NOT tweet results that are unpublished. Read this great post for more information.

Don’t overdo the live tweeting anyway. Followers who aren’t interested in the conference will probably unfollow you rather than scrolling through 50 posts about the minutiae of the event.

Nature article on why academics use Twitter
Why do academics use Twitter? A Nature survey of 330 academics with Twitter accounts revealed that following discussions, promoting content and discovering peers were some of the most common reasons. http://www.nature.com/news/online-collaboration-scientists-and-the-social-network-1.15711

Want to know more?

Check out the following articles for more information:

So you’re going to a conference…

University of BristolJames Hickey is a final year PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences. His research is focused on unravelling the mechanisms that cause volcanoes to become restless prior to eruptions. Ultimately, the aim is to improve our understanding of precursory signals to enhance forecasting and mitigation efforts.

Throughout the course of a PhD, it’s highly likely you’ll have the chance to present your research at a conference. The lead-up to a conference can be a little stressful as you (probably) rush to get your poster or presentation finished. This is especially true if the abstract deadline was 6 months before the actual conference and you ambitiously included work that wasn’t quite finished (or even started) yet (I may or may not be speaking from experience here…).

As I’m now reaching the end of my PhD journey I thought I would share some hints and tips that may be useful for new (or experienced) PhD students facing up to an imminent conference.

So, in no particular order, and with the proviso that I am certainly no conference-specialist:

1. Plan!

This is a bit boring, but it definitely helps. Before you go, search through the sessions and work out what talks and posters you want to visit. Start by targeting specific sessions and then go into the details. Getting this stuff done early will help you to identify times when you’re going to be most busy with science, and the other times where you can be open to other opportunities.

2. Who else is going?

A second part of the planning stage should be to work out who else is going to the conference. Maybe the person you’ve been citing repeatedly in a literature review is going to be there, or perhaps you’ve been using a method developed by someone who is also going to be there. Figure this stuff out and make an effort to speak to them. Then, on a more social side, if any of your friends from undergraduate studies (or otherwise) are also going, it’s the perfect chance to catch up over dinner while your supervisor (hopefully) foots the bill.

3. Network!

This point also links to the one above, and is extremely important. Meeting new people and expanding your network is key. Speak to students and professors alike, within and around your specialised field. The advantages are numerous: new working collaborations, contacts for future jobs, contacts to provide references, people to review your publications, people to chat about your results with… The list could go on… University Careers Services often offer workshops to improve your networking skills.

4. Name tag visibility is key!

Simple, really. Make sure your name tag is visible at all times so people know who you are and where you’re from. This may mean shortening a neck tie if you’re somewhat vertically challenged and don’t want the name tag hanging around your belly-button…

Name tag
Sort out your name tag, and please don’t be that guy(#3)! Image credit: Pete Etchells.

5. Non-specialist sessions.

Many conferences offer a myriad of extra sessions. Search these out and see if anything takes your fancy. For example, there are often talks and workshops related to things like science communication, science policy, careers in academia, careers outside of academia, getting a postdoc, and such like. These can all be very useful.

6. Get away for a bit.

Leave yourself some time to take a step-back and get away from the intensity of the conference. Your plan from number one will help with this. If you have a spare afternoon or two, explore the city you’re in, go shopping, visit a tourist hot-spot, go for a run, or whatever is going to give you a chance to chill out and recharge your batteries.

7. Student events.

Any student-organised or student-only events are a great way to make new friends who know exactly the same struggles you’re likely to be going through, or about to go through. Free food and beer is also a usual double bonus!

8. Make second base…

I’m talking about following up on your new networking activities here. In the evening if you have time, or after the conference if you’re rushed, drop an email to the interesting people you’ve met and chatted with. This gives them your contact details if they didn’t already have them and will help no end if later down the line you want to contact them about something more important.

9. What to wear?

A complicated one for so many reasons… My PhD is geology related so it’s no surprise to see people walking around in hiking boots and trekking trousers! Personally, I stay as far away from this fashion debacle as possible. But what to wear depends a lot on the nature and topic of the conference. I usually err on the side of caution and lean towards the smarter side of things(*), as I don’t know who I’m going to meet on the day – this figurative person may just happen to have the perfect job opportunity I’m looking for… Alternatively, you could ask someone who’s been to the conference before, or search for photos, to see what the general dress code is.

(*)P.S. For me this means a shirt, smart jeans or chinos and a nice pair of shoes.

10. It’s impossible do everything.

Don’t get high hopes of being able to do everything – it won’t work out. Curb your expectations and prevent disappointment. Equally, however, be prepared and adaptable to do stuff you didn’t plan on.

11. Free Stuff!

Everything’s better when it’s free. If you’re down a pen, or need a USB memory stick, you’re likely to be able to pick one up from conference sponsors or exhibitors.

12. Post-conference travel!

My personal favourite! If you’re lucky enough to go to conferences in new countries, then take full advantage of it. Your flights are likely to be paid for, so if you can, give yourself at least a few extra days after the conference has finished to travel around your new surroundings and take in as much of the local culture as possible. These opportunities won’t be as readily available in the future, especially if you leave academia!

13. Branch out…

Time may not allow this, but if it does, then try and take in some sessions that may not be related to your own studies. You may find some overlap you didn’t know about, or learn about new techniques that could be applicable to your own work with a slight modification.

14. Business cards?

Some do, some don’t. They’re not hugely common in science but they have their advantages (e.g., networking). Maybe this one will just come down to personal preference.

15. Save your slides as a PDF!

Computer compatibility can still be an issue, even in this day and age. Regardless of what program you use to make your presentation slides, if pays to save them as a PDF so when you open them on the other side of the world, on some one else’s computer, everything still looks the same.

16. Back-ups!

Have back-ups of your talk in case you lose a memory stick (or similar). It’s also useful to carry copies of your recent work and results in case you want to show them to someone you get chatting to.

Backups
Be prepared, and try not to worry. Image credit: Jorge Cham, PhD comics.

17. Bring spare posters.

If you’re presenting a poster then it can be handy to print out a bunch of spare posters in A4 and pin them beside your actual poster. This way people can take away a copy of your work if they’re interested.

18. Eat and drink!

Carry some water and snacks with you. You never know how long you might go without food if you get chatting to someone about your work or otherwise. Keeping hydrated and fed will ensure you have the energy to last the day.

Facing up to the big V

StamperCharly Stamper, an ex-experimental petrologist from the School of Earth Sciences, originally wrote this entry on the Between a Rock and a Hard Place blog. Charly used to make pretend volcanoes; now she works in renewable energy.

The nights are getting shorter, the air is getting fresher and here in Bristol it seems like viva season is in full swing. Enough time has elapsed since my own viva that I thought I would share my thoughts about what to expect on the big day.

PhD comic
Credit: PhD comics/Jorge Cham

Whilst everybody’s experience is different, from talking to fellow alumni there do seem to be some common themes:

Your examiners are human. The main thing to remember is that the examiners really just want to have a stimulating and thought-provoking discussion, followed by a trip to the pub. It’s also true to say that never again will somebody be so interested in your thesis (in fact, the examiners will probably the only two people to read the thing cover to cover), so try to make the most of it.

Make chit-chat. The literal translation of a viva voce is “with living voice” – i.e., you’re there to talk! Most vivas begin with an initial 10 – 20 minute chat about the overall project. At this point the examiners will have read your thesis but may not know anything about you or about how you have approached your research, so expect overarching questions and to give a summary of your entire project. Although it’s not easy to think so broadly about work that you’ve lived and breathed every minute of, the few weeks of R&R since hand-in should give you the space you need. Some examples might include:

  • What big question were you trying to answer?
  • What was your initial hypothesis?
  • How did you test this hypothesis?
  • Describe your conclusions in a few sentences
  • What went wrong?
  • What would you do differently if you could start again now?

Know your work. After the initial openings, the examiners will move on to scrutinising your thesis chapter by chapter. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably find that re-reading your thesis after hand-in will be a fairly torturous experience; however, the number one answer guaranteed to rile your examiners is “I can’t remember”.  As well as being well-versed in your own research, make sure you’re familiar with any underlying concepts, equations and principles that you’ve used.

Be prepared to justify your methods. You can rest assured that if your examiners agree with everything you’ve done, they will be playing the part of devil’s advocate in the viva. Alternatively, it’s not uncommon to have contradicted or even explicitly criticised at least one of your examiners’ work in the course of your thesis! Either way, expect some uncomfortably probing questioning on the more controversial parts of your research. You’ll need to demonstrate logic and reasoning behind your decision-making and back that up with evidence.

Be passionate! Even if it’s just for those few hours. It’s fair to say that most people feel a little jaded with at least some aspect of their research by the end of the PhD, but try not to let it show. If you can channel the eager and twinkly-eyed optimism you had at the beginning of the project, then the experience will be more of a two-way discourse than an excruciatingly cringe-worthy inquisition.

Be honest. If something didn’t work during the project (or you’ve since spotted a mistake) then there’s no point trying to skirt around the issue. Explain what you would do now, with the benefit of hindsight, and bear in mind that the examiners may ask you to incorporate some corrections into your final thesis. That’s not to say you should bring these things to your examiners’ attention, but sadly most of them seem to be pretty eagle-eyed!

Enjoy it. Nothing can beat the feeling of relief when you’re done. Just don’t forget to update your social media status – if you’re lost for words then “Dr :)” is a pretty safe bet.

PhD cake
No viva party would be complete without cheese, wine and a themed cake (in Charly’s case the Lesser Antilles in Victoria sponge). Photo credit: Charly Stamper. Cake credit: Kate Hibbert, KT Cooper, Elspeth Robertson.

Reposted with permission from Between a Rock and a Hard Place blog.

Right, you’ve got your doctorate. Now what?

Photo of Richard BuddI don’t know how common this is, but I gave no thought to ‘post-PhD’ when I started out. I was mostly interested in the field and wanted to see if I had what it took to do a doctorate.  Job thoughts came later, with an academic career emerging as the frontrunner by several lengths. I love my area of research, I really enjoy teaching, and there’s no ceiling as to how far you can develop intellectually. I had a good job for a time before I started my postgrad studies – interesting, well paid, international travel, nice people – but after a while I wasn’t getting any better, just learning more facts. The next options for me were to go into management or get involved in more advanced kinds of research. It was a no-brainer: I had to go back to university.

So, here I am, with my PhD, and looking at the job market. It looks like getting from a freshly passed viva to a lecturing post requires having a few things on your CV:

  • A doctorate;
  • Research experience (in addition to your doctorate);
  • Teaching experience;
  • Conference presentations;
  • Journal publications, and preferably a book;
  • Successful research funding bids;

I’ll go through the list, in principal and in (my) practice.

You didn’t always have to have a PhD/professional doctorate but you probably do now. It might not be as important in some subjects like nursing, teacher training, or architecture, but having one in those will certainly not count against you. In most subjects, though, it’s a case of no doctorate, no entry. For me, that’s a check.

Getting research experience – preferably as part of a research team – seems to be pretty important. Not many have the opportunity to do this before their doctorate and you can’t always squeeze it in during. You might get to be involved in other people’s work if you’re in a lab in your research group, but this is not an option for everyone. Teaching is readily available if you’re studying in a department that has undergraduate students, less if you’re not. I had a career in non-academic research before I came back to university, managed to get a few cameo research jobs during my PhD, and am now working on a research project. My department was a graduate school and you couldn’t teach until you upgraded from MPhil to PhD, but I previously taught English in Japan and then accumulated quite a few bits of bobs after my upgrade, too. So far, so good!

Most people do conference presentations as they go along. They’re nerve-wracking, but you get to share your research, pick up new ideas, and often meet some interesting (and perhaps useful) people. You can start off small, presenting at student conferences or at the ‘early career’ section of a major one, and then at some stage move into the bear pit with the grown-ups.  It’s all a practice thing and I did a few of these every year, some of which went well, some of which didn’t. Still, I learnt from it, quite enjoy it really, and that’s another box ticked.

Publishing is tricky, particularly during your PhD, unless you’re involved with someone else’s research project. Like me, you may not have anything new to say from your doctorate until you’re near the end of it. You can do book reviews, though, but I’m personally not sure how much this counts. There can be quite a lead time on journal publications: a few months to write, share, revise and then submit them, then a few more until they’re reviewed and sent back. Then you have to address their suggestions and resubmit it, provided they didn’t reject it outright in the first place. Only after all of that – once it’s all been approved, of course – can you put that precious ‘Budd (forthcoming) Catchy But Serious Title, Prestigious Journal, 3 (1), pp.34-52’ on your CV. Books are another option, at least in the social sciences. Unfortunately, you can’t just send the editor your final thesis copy, it’ll need months of rejigging and then more editing. Publications are where I fall flat at the moment. I have one that I’m working on by myself, two collaborative ones from other work I’ve done or am currently doing, and then at least three more from my PhD. In a year from now, it’ll all look rosier, and in two years, peachy!

Research funding is a bit of a Catch-22 in that you can’t get funding without a permanent job or a permanent job without funding! The ideal route is that you get a two to three-year ‘post-doc’ soon after your viva that brings everything on the list with it – research, teaching, presentations, publications, and research funding. People in the sciences tend to do a few of these before getting a permanent job, but in the social sciences it’s usually one, and there are far less of them around. They’re often not that well paid and/or quite short term, which is completely unhelpful if you’ve got a family and can’t move around every six to 12 months.

I hope most people are more informed about what happens after the doctorate than I was four years ago. I did manage to work most of this out as I went along, though, and am now only a few publications short of the next stop on the ladder. Some people I know have moved from their doctorate to a lectureship almost seamlessly, but this is pretty unusual. It’s probably good to be aware that there is a bit of a chasm between completing your thesis and The Job. You may have to fill the gap with part-time and/or short-term contracts, and you’ll need to collect certain building blocks to construct your bridge to the other side. Good luck…

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.

Stellingen: The ten most important propositions from my PhD journey

University of BristolDominika Bijoś is a final year postgraduate researcher from the School of Clinical Sciences, based in the School of Physiology and Pharmacology. She studies smooth muscle contraction and examines how other cell types influence it in bladder tissue and in the whole organ. Initially, she used molecular and cell biology techniques, but spent last year watching and analysing moving bladders and the conclusion was – they dance the samba!

Getting a PhD is a ritual. Different countries have their own customs surrounding the process, preparations, ceremony, and so on. The thesis I spent the past three and a half years doing experiments for and writing up (like Richard), is an impressive brick containing over 40 000 words and 50 data figures. Let’s be honest: despite my best efforts to make this book readable, accessible and nicely presented, not many people except for my colleagues and examiners will read it. To ease this problem, Dutch tradition has a solution – stellingen (propositions).

In the old days, the 10 propositions (stellingen) would have been the ten statements of the thesis you actually defend. Nowadays, they present the most accessible summary of a few years of work and characterise the PhD candidate: their values and reflections regarding their work. So, I decided to borrow this custom to say what it is that I have learned over the past few years, not only scientifically but also personally. If you would like to know what I spent over 3 years researching, you can watch me tell the story in 3 minutes.

The top 10 messages of my thesis are:

1) A PhD is a Gesamtkunstwerk (from my friend Babett)

This German word describes a piece of art which uses many forms, a total artwork. I see my PhD as a total artwork: the art of honing my microsurgical skills, the creativity of troubleshooting, the beauty of statistical significance stars, the poetry in writing papers and reports, etc. The endless hours, months, years of perfecting all the techniques culminating in the thesis and title of “Dr”. The PhD is an all-together-piece-of-art.

2) If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? (Albert Einstein)

Doing postgraduate research is about answering questions NO ONE, not a single person in the world, knows the answer to. I often felt dumb (just like Madeline), and I didn’t always know what I was doing. Technical learning challenges were huge, data analysis difficulties were even harder. I struggled; I fought hard to trust the method, to distinguish a real effect from the noise. I won and I found out something no one knew.

3) Ano1 in juvenile rat urinary bladder (my thesis)

This is the title of the paper I published in the open access journal PLOS ONE. Getting my research peer reviewed and published makes my contribution to world knowledge publicly and freely accessible (and makes life easier for my examiners).

4) Movement depends on initiation, propagation and tone. (my thesis)

Although my research was on the movement of the bladder wall, what I learned throughout the project was that every action needs to start (initiate) and then be followed through (propagated). I made action plans, but they only mattered if I executed them.

There were times when I worked too much… and I also learned that constant contraction of the system is impossible. You need to relax too! This is a tricky balance, but when achieved, it gives happiness 🙂

5) In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm…in the real world all rests on perseverance. (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Science isn’t achieved easily, but enthusiasm and perseverance drive it.

For me, it was curiosity and love of discovery during the good times, and perseverance all the rest of time, learning to take things one step at a time (just like Rhiannon!)

I told my friend Bartholomew, we get the PhD for surviving the process rather than the actual achievement. It isn’t entirely true, but because in science we do so much more than the world will ever see, it cheered me up on many occasions after failed experiments. Every step, even failure, was a part of figuring out how the world works.

6) Your life, your PhD, your problem

I had problems. If you’re doing a PhD – you will have problems. It is your life, so take control over your career. Being at Bristol, there are plenty of options to solve the problems you might have: technical or personal. You’re not alone! Take control and act – plenty of opportunities land in your mailbox every week.

7) Curiouser and curiouser(Alice in Wonderland)

During a postgraduate degree, we are surrounded by loads of amazingly smart and passionate people. During my PhD I had the chance to hear about fascinating science and meet inspiring scientists. Did you know that this year’s 2014 Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, Edvard Moser, gave a talk in the Neuroscience department exactly two years ago (19 Nov 2012)?

I got my nose out of the lab and went to seminars to hear what else is out there and asked colleagues what they do. For science, one of the best forms of communication is coffee breaks, so use them – not to network, but to make friends. It worked for me – thanks to this I have an entire thesis chapter based on collaboration!

8) Communication – the human connection – is the key to personal and career success (Paul J Meyer)

So you are a rocket scientist? Well, unless you can write a paper about it, give a talk I can follow and understand – no one cares.

Writing is difficult for everyone, but you can learn to be an effective writer and better communicator. Online courses, onsite courses, practice, practice…There are plenty of options at Bristol Uni. Writing well and speaking well are assets, whatever you do.

9) Constitutive response to when something turns up is YES (Jim Smith)

When an opportunity came – I said yes. I had a chance to do something for others and created a yearly meeting for early career researchers in my field (the Young Urology Meeting). Saying yes to new opportunities gave me experience and created even more opportunities.

10) To pee or not to pee? (adapted from Shakespeare)

My research has contributed a tiny bit to the understanding of how the body works and parts of this might be used to answer the existentially painful question of patients in the clinics with bladder problems. But it left me perpetually full of questions no one knows the answers to. So for me, the only option is: Science: yes or KNOW!

Getting a PhD is a journey full of obstacles and interesting people, struggles and discoveries, dumb moments and personal growth.

My journey not only pushed the knowledge boundaries of the field, but most definitely pushed me. It pushed me to be at my personal best: in the lab and in the office, to be a better person, to be a thorough and tireless researcher and to be in charge of my project, my time and my life.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Top Tips

“Between a Rock and a Hard Place” began as an Earth Science PhD blog in February 2013, as a place to ramble on about PhD life and general science topics. Almost two years later, some of the contributors have finished, others have submitted, and the rest are nearing the end.

Together, they have compiled a list of their best moments and top tips, to showcase just how varied experiences can be, even within one department.  

Piston cylinder
Sorcha using the piston cylinder apparatus in the Petrology labs at the University of Bristol. She is manually topping up the pressure (to 30 kbar, equivalent to ~100 km depth!) whilst checking the run temperature recorded by the thermocouple – lots of multitasking!

Sorcha

PhD highlight:

Working in the lab was both the most exciting, and most frustrating, aspect of my PhD. Rather than jetting off to exotic field locations, I spent most of my days heading downstairs to the basement to carry out experiments on a piston cylinder apparatus to provide insights into deep mantle melting. Despite shedding blood, sweat and tears down there, the satisfaction of deliberately ending a successful experiment is hard to beat! Lab work was made all the more fun when shared with fellow experimentalists – discussing similar experiences, particularly failures (unfortunately rather common!) proved to be incredibly useful in planning future experiments and trying different approaches to improve methods.

Top tip:

My top tip is to talk to lots of people in the lab, and attend lots of seminars/discussion groups, about different techniques that you could possibly try out on your samples. Most lab-based PhDs tend to be a case of trial-and-error for the appropriate method so the more options that you are aware of, the better!

Charly

PhD highlight:

Bristol itself!

Having completed my undergraduate at Bristol, I never intended to remain in the same city for my PhD. Then up came an opportunity that was too good to turn down.

By the time I finished my PhD, I’d been in the same department for 7.5 years (!), but I definitely don’t regret being flexible and being prepared to stay. Bristol has a thriving academic scene and throughout my research I was able to interact with a constant flux of interesting and cosmopolitan people. Outside of my studies I got involved with student sports, which helped to prolong my undergraduate experience (even if my nickname was inevitably something along the lines of ‘grandma’), and Bristol itself is an evolving and exciting city – in my time here I’ve seen so much change that there hasn’t been a chance to get bored.

I know that some people in academia say that you shouldn’t do your undergraduate and PhD at the same place, but I truly feel like the most important aspect is have a stimulating project and inspirational supervisors. For me, this just happened to be at Bristol.

Top tip:

One of the best things about doing a PhD is the flexibility of (generally) being able to work whenever and wherever you want; however, most people find that slogging away in the early hours of the morning isn’t always the most productive approach. Try and treat the PhD like you would a job. Having a routine means that you’ll keep going even when lacking motivation, and limiting work to regular office hours during the week means that it won’t become an all-consuming, isolating experience.

Melanie

PhD highlight:

Whilst my research didn’t involve fieldwork in exotic places (or anywhere, for that matter), I was lucky enough to be able to attend conferences and see volcanoes up close in both Mexico (Cities on Volcanoes 7) and Japan (IAVCEI Scientific Assembly); they are most definitely the highlight of my PhD! Presenting and discussing my work, receiving feedback, and seeing others’ findings with the backdrop of an active volcano is a pretty unbeatable experience. The social side is great too – I’ve made lots of friends from all over the world at international conferences!

Top tip:

Take ownership early. Obviously your supervisors are academically senior to you, but it’s your project and end decisions are ultimately yours. Take guidance, not orders!

Elspeth

PhD highlight:

I have lots of little highlights: celebrating friend’s vivas; submitting my first paper; getting that code to finally work; and discovering something unusual and interesting in the data. The PhD process is long, very long and I’ve found that lots of little achievements have kept me motivated. In general, I think the aspects I thought would be the easiest during my PhD turned out to be the hardest, whilst the bits I thought would be hard were also hard! A PhD definitely requires commitment.

My best highlight was a great month on fieldwork in East Africa. Nothing beats seeing the volcano you’re studying up close and personal. Sure it was challenging and exhausting (working day-to-night for a month), but completing the fieldwork came with a great sense of achievement. As a bonus, climbing up volcanoes each day forced me to get into better shape!

Top tip:

Read blogs like this to get insight of what a PhD involves!

Fieldwork
KT demonstrating the fieldwork essentials: penknife, string, gaffer tape and a bored looking field assistant! Photo credit: Didi Ooi

KT

PhD highlight:

One of the best parts about being a geologist is the travel.  As an undergraduate you get the opportunity to visit some amazing places on fieldwork and for me this has spilled over to my PhD studies.  A significant part of my project has been based on North Andros in the Bahamas, and although I have been protesting for a long time that fieldwork isn’t a holiday, it is still a breath-taking location to work.  One of my favourite things has been sharing the experience with field assistants and watching their reactions as we reach the island for the first time; the people may be different but the reaction is the same – awe.  Field assistants are also great at keeping you relatively sane when you have been sampling (in the rain) all day and filtering most of the night.

Top tip:

Say yes (to most things).  I view the PhD as a training ground for a career, either in or out of academia, and that saying yes can help give you experiences and skills, which can be invaluable further down the line.  But be careful not to overstretch yourself too much because you still need time to finish the PhD!

Hickey

PhD highlight:

By a long stretch, the best part of my PhD has been the travel I have been able to do as part of my research. I’ve been lucky enough to do fieldwork and attend conferences in all corners of the globe. My fieldwork has taken me to South America (Bolivia and Ecuador), Asia (Japan), Europe (Italy) and the Caribbean (Montserrat and Dominica), while I have been to conferences in the USA, Japan and (less glamorously) different parts of the UK. On top of this I did a study visit at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Admittedly, my carbon footprint is probably huge, but the experiences, skills and network I’ve built up are priceless.

Top tip:

Take all your opportunities, and then make your own. While you’re doing a PhD there are numerous chances to attend extra conferences and workshops on various things. These are a great way to develop new skills. Plus, by talking to different people you can create your own opportunities for extra fieldwork and study exchanges.