Discovering the unknown unknowns

Black cat hiding among red tulipsWhenever you start something new, whether that’s a new job or joining a membership society for the first time, there’s a lot of learning to do. What are the requirements? What are the expectations? Do I have the equipment and/or the skills that I need? Where can I find out all this stuff? Much of this learning is set out for you through formal channels, but often we learn some of the most valuable information informally, stumbling upon it while looking for something else, or while gossiping with a peer.

A research programme is no different (you probably saw where I was going with that!). And in 2020, there are new ways of working for us all.

If you are one of our new PGRs, you are likely to have already completed the formal induction events organised by your School and College. But no doubt you still have a lot of questions, and possibly some “unknown unknowns”, where you are not even aware yet of which questions to ask. First of all, don’t worry. No-one expects you to magically understand everything, or even really to remember anything you were told during induction. The main thing to remember is that the people around you want you to succeed, and are very happy to answer your questions – keep asking!

In addition, there may be “hidden” information which no-one will think to tell you. Here are some ways to leave yourself open to discovering many of these things.

  • Develop your social networks. Make a conscious effort to extend your social network to include people in the same situation as you. If you are able to do this in person, great, but if not, make good use of the online networks available to you. A few places to start: UoB PGR Common Room Project, PGR Community Hub @UoBGradSchool on Facebook, #PhDchat on Twitter.
  • Read a lot and write a lot. It’s difficult to explain how to do good academic writing, particularly at postgraduate research level. You can learn a lot about what good academic writing looks like by reading a lot in your discipline. When you come across a piece of writing you particularly enjoy (or hate!), take a little time to analyse the writing approach and style, as well as the content, to work out if you want to apply (or avoid!) any of these techniques in your own writing. Practice your own writing often, and get regular feedback from your supervisor and your peers.
  • Discuss expectations with your supervisor. Your relationship with your supervisor is unlike any you’ve had before, and sometimes a mismatch in expectations between supervisor and supervisee causes frustration. Use this document as a way to stimulate discussion.
  • Complete your DNA/GRS1 form thoughtfully. The Development Needs Analysis form uses Vitae’s Researcher Development Framework specifically to help you uncover skills, knowledge and behaviours that you don’t yet know you need. More support.
  • Review your Canvas notifications. More and more communication to PGRs is coming through Canvas. Make sure you’re receiving these communications in the way you want to. You’ll find out about workshops and events to attend (which have the added benefit of allowing you to chat to other PGRs) and many other nuggets of useful information.

What do you wish you’d known sooner? Where did you find out otherwise “hidden” information/understanding about your research discipline and programme? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Helen Kara

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