Helen writes: #AcWriMo productivity vs procrastination

Writing Skills Advisor Helen Williams continues her occasional series during #AcWriMo with her thoughts on ways to deal with a tendency to procrastinate.

I recently read this column in The Guardian on procrastination – most likely when I should have been doing something else – and started thinking about the relationship between productivity and procrastination. When I speak to students about procrastination, they often seem to think they need to change a lifetime of habits, how they approach their work, and even the type of person that they are. Of course, this in itself becomes a mammoth (and impossible) task. Much more effective, as the article says, is to start changing the smallest possible habits that you can. If you’ve been taking part in Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo), you may already have started to form a few new habits that can help with productivity, but if not, here are a few suggestions.

Baby steps: start by making small changes to your habits
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Taking Part in #AcWriMo: Reflections and Responses

November is Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo) and in this post, Liam Knight, a PGR in the Department of English Literature and a Westmere Scholar, reflects on his experience of participating in last year’s event.

Back in 2020, I took part in AcWriMo, a month-long writing event in which people working within academia set themselves goals to accomplish over the month of November (e.g. write X000 words, collect X amount of data sets, read X number of papers, etc.) and then use their local and online academic communities to keep themselves accountable and supported and ensure that they reach those goals (or come as close as is reasonably possible)!

Join the University Graduate School for Shut up and work sessions every Tuesday (09:30-13:00), Thursday (13:00-16:30) and Saturday (10:00-12:30) during November 2021, Academic Writing Month.
Details of this year’s #AcWriMo at UoB, hosted by your Westmere Scholars
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The only way out is through (part 1)

Sara Corpino is a distance learning PGR in the Department of Modern Languages and in this first part of a two-part post, she gives her tips on how to overcome difficulties and get through the PhD.

If I only had listened…

I have thought about applying for a PhD in Modern Languages for years before being brave enough to send my first proposal. I remember my academic colleagues telling me how difficult it would have been doing a PhD, but I was really motivated. Plus, I was not scared, as I thought that obtaining the PGCE in Modern Languages – which I had just finished – would have been the toughest experience in my life, until…I started my PhD first year. If I only had listened to those people preparing me, would I have changed my mind? Not at all! And would I have been more psychologically prepared? Possibly yes, but I could have been even too scared to take my first step into what has been the most rewarding – and of course challenging – experience of my life so far.

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The Value of Research Placements for PGRs

In this post, Laura Clark, a PGR in the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, shares her experience of undertaking a placement in the Home Office during her PhD, and the skills she developed as a result.

I began my PhD with a vague idea that I would look for a placement without any specific thoughts about what, where, or the things I would like to get out of the experience. After a year of trying to find something suitable, I came across the URKI Policy Internships Scheme, a three-month placement at an influential policy organisation in a parliamentary department, government department, or non-government body. It was based on the needs of the department, which meant I did not need to spend a lot of time planning out the placement, and my research topic was irrelevant providing I could demonstrate I had the required skills. I applied and, after a long process, was offered a placement with the Home Office.

The headquarters of the Home Office, in London, which Laura didn’t visit because her placement took place during COVID-19 restrictions.
Photo credit: Steve Cadman
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First, recruit your team

When you’re at the very beginning of a research programme, it can feel like there’s an overwhelming amount of stuff that you are encouraged to engage with (including induction and Welcome) on top of getting started on your research.

Image credit: Montclair Film

My advice? Prioritise the activities that will help you build relationships with people. Yes, sometimes even over your research activity. It’s the people around you who can make all the difference to your PGR experience.

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Resilience during a pandemic

In this post, Simona Scanni, a distance learning PGR from the Department of Modern Languages, shares her challenges and the ways in which she has built her resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic.

You will feel alone. Nobody will understand your research work, nobody will ask you about it. So be prepared to feel alone as a part of the journey.

A photograph of Chancellor's Court at the University of Birmingham, showing the entrance to the Aston Webb building.

This was, more or less, the advice we were given by some PGR fellows during the very first residential week in September, on my first year as a PhD student. At the time, I opted for the distance learning programme, so I was already prepared about the idea of being far away from the campus and university services, and somehow isolated from the campus life. My research is about online learning which, ironically, was something existing but still “remote” for many people. The pro was that I could actually conduct my research from home or from any part of the world.

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The changing Open Access landscape

In this post, Mike Dainton, Head of Scholarly Communications Services, brings us up-to-date on the Open Access landscape – an essential area of knowledge for anyone hoping to publish their research. For a basic introduction to Open Access, see the Library Services webpages.

The announcement of Plan S in 2018 heightened discussion about Open Access (OA) amongst research communities.  A key tenet of Plan S is to cease using public money to publish OA in journals that also charge a subscription fee to libraries (so called ‘hybrid journals’).

It is acknowledged that flipping to Fully OA will take time, so an interim option for publishers is the ‘Transformative Agreement’ (TA). These should allow libraries to move spending from subscriptions to OA. Typically, an upfront fee provides read access and covers the cost of OA publishing, across a publisher’s complete journal portfolio. We’ve entered into many such agreements over the past year, significantly expanding options for all researchers, including PGRs, to publish OA. You can find further details here.  Currently, Wellcome funded authors must abide by a Plan S aligned OA policy and a new UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) policy will come into force in April 2022.

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Helen writes: find the gap

Continuing her occasional series, Writing Skills Advisor Helen Williams reflects on what it means to find a gap when writing your literature review.

The fact that doctoral research must be original and fill some kind of ‘gap’ in the literature is trotted out all the time, particularly to PGRs in their first year or so of study who may still be grappling with all the existing research on their topic. But how do you search for an absence? How do you identify something that isn’t there?

It can feel like a somewhat impossible task, especially if there are reams of articles, chapters and books that have been written on your topic. One answer could be changing the parameters of your research slightly; focusing on a specific and under-researched angle might tick that ‘originality’ box in a field that is saturated with research. However, if this isn’t practical, or you’re already fairly set on what research you want to carry out, it might be that you need to try to record your reading in a way that makes that gap more obvious.

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#PROWSS2021 – Cracking the Code

12-16 July was the Postgraduate Researcher Online Writing Summer School 2021 (or #PROWSS2021) and Bridget Blankley, a PGR from the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies, reflects on her experience of attending.

PGR Writing Summer School logo

Why is it that life as a PGR that means learning to write all over again? Just as you think you have got the hang of writing essays suddenly, there are a whole new set of things that you have to write; abstracts, literature reviews, conference papers and even, whisper it softly, grant proposals. What’s worse, each one seems to have its own set of, often secret, rules that you have to learn. Well, at least that’s how I felt before I attended #PROWSS2021 this year. It was four days of ideas and advice followed by a full day of Shut up and Work – a great way to put into practice some of the ideas that you picked up earlier in the week.

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We’re just talking, what could possibly go wrong?!

Many researchers have had to pivot their research methods as a result of the pandemic.  In this post, Ciara Harris, who previously shared her tips for presenting online, shares her experience of conducting research interviews online.

I have completed a number of research interviews recently, and not all of them have gone smoothly.

Anyone starting to use research interviews for the first time will, I’m sure, have read plenty about them and talked to experienced colleagues and supervisors. One piece of advice that you are likely to come across – it’s certainly one I heard a lot – is: Be Prepared (like the Scouts!). I thought that I was reasonably well prepared when I started a recent round of virtual interviews for two projects I’m involved in. However, I still had a few issues that I’d like to share with you, along with some suggested solutions, in case you come across them in your own research.

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