PhD Chats: (re)connecting with the PGR community

Faith Van Horne, a PGR in the Department of Theology and Religion and Diana Cruz de Oliveira, a PGR in Mechanical Engineering introduce PhD Chats, informal, guided conversations reconnecting PGRs.

When Faith started her PhD program, one of the first events she attended was a PhD Chat, an informal guided conversation to discuss some of the challenges associated with the often-lonely PGR journey. As Westmere Scholars, Diana and Faith are part of the team leading the current PhD Chat series. All of the sessions fit the theme of (Re)Connection. As pandemic restrictions lift, many of us are curious about how we will connect again with the PGR community (or for the first time, if we’ve had trouble establishing those connections already). Last week was the initial chat in the series. This was a very informal check-in, just to see how PGRs were doing, and their hopes and fears about (re)connecting with the larger community.

Diana (left) and Faith (right), Westmere Scholars
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Caring for PGR carers

This week, 7-13 June 2021, is Carers Week. Carers look after a family member or friend who has a disability, mental or physical illness or who needs extra help as they grow older. Carers make a significant contribution to their families, communities and society, so it’s important to recognise the valuable work they do, and to make sure they receive the support they need. This is particularly true for PGRs who are carers and are juggling the dual challenges of research and caring.

Carers Week logo

I cannot claim to have first-hand experience of the challenges of caring, but here are some of my thoughts on the ways in which we, as members of the UoB PGR community, can support our PGR colleagues who are also carers. Although Carers Week focusses on caring for those with a disability, mental or physical illness, many of the suggested actions here apply equally to parents or guardians of young children.

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Shut up and focus on mutual encouragement

In this post, Mustafa Coban, a PGR from the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in the College of Arts and Law shares his experiences of Shut up and work.

Shut up and work was for me initially, Shut up and write, though I’ve come to appreciate the ‘work’ phrasing is much more apt since there is all sorts of work involved in study and research before, during and after the writing process. It was, and still largely is, a time dedicated to writing, editing, and proofreading. A friend who was leaving the university after completing her studies told me about Shut up and work as I was starting my PhD programme. It took me some time to seek out a session, but once I found one, I found it immediately useful.

University of Birmingham University Graduate School. Shut up & work co-working sessions for PGRs. Weekly Thursdays 1pm-4.30pm; Monthly Mondays 10am-5.10pm. Tackle your to-do list and get more done!

I wasn’t entirely sure of what I expected. But I knew I wanted a time dedicated to writing and only writing. I imagined it as time free not only from reading, but the endless loops and interesting dives into reading, that only seemed to snowball as I chased one footnote, idea, or curiosity after another until I had a folder of pdf articles becoming too big to manage. That was in the early days of my programme, and while I still chase footnotes, through “shutting up and writing” I’ve become better at not trying to cover everything I’ve read.

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We need to talk… about PhD student mental health

Just in time for Time to Talk Day on Thursday 4 February, Samantha Sandilands, a PGR from the School of Management, talks about some of her early warning signs and the value of support networks in matters of mental health.  A fuller version of this post can be found on LinkedIn.

The PhD process has been amazing in so many ways. What nobody can prepare you for however, is how much it challenges your mental health.

Concrete shaped and painted to look like a pumpkin
Samantha’s concrete pumpkin

Eight months in, I attended a session for PhD students at a conference, delivered by the amazing Beth Patmore, about mental health during your doctorate. I could relate to so much of what she was saying, but I never really associated it with poor mental health. Procrastination, strange sleeping patterns, putting on weight, overeating, feeling guilty for having a day off… in my group we all agreed that we could relate. As Beth read out some of the signs, ripples of agreement travelled through the room, some uncomfortable laughter, nodding, awkward silences. Even at that stage, the signs were there but I brushed it off… “I’ll be fine”.

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New year, new lockdown

Happy New Year! This isn’t where we’d hope to be at the start of a new year, but there is relief in having got through 2020 and in knowing that vaccines are on their way. While we wait, 2021 will have to be about being kind to ourselves, leveraging the self-knowledge we have gained in 2020 to cope with local restrictions, protecting our mental health, and taking steps forward with our work.

A family in a house cradled between hands, surrounded by coronavirusEngland is in the process of entering a third national lockdown. Those of us living on or near campus must stay at home except where necessary (necessary activities include work, grocery shopping and exercise). We’ve done this before, and the familiar rhythms of daily exercise, meal planning and Zoom calls are already established. Think about what worked and what didn’t work for you during previous periods of restrictions and use that knowledge to get through this one as best you can. If you’re not in England, check your local restrictions.

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Putting dark days behind us

And so we are approaching the end of 2020. The days are getting short, and I am prioritising getting out of the house for a walk (however briefly) during daylight hours to help me get through. Only one week left before the winter solstice in the UK, and the longer days start to bring hope of spring and a COVID-19 vaccine roll-out.

Stonehenge, photographed at sunset close to the Winter Solstice (2009)
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Survive and Thrive: Adaptability and Resilience

Continuing her occasional series, “survive and thrive”, Katie Hoare from Careers Network explores a key skill sought after by employers in the post-COVID-19 world.  It’s likely that you are already developing and using these highly transferable skills in your research.

What

A chameleon (decorative)According to The Cambridge Dictionary, adaptability is “an ability or willingness to change in order to suit different conditions”.  The term can be applied to people, businesses, physical spaces and technology.  If something or someone is not adaptable, its use and benefit can be short lived.  Resilience has become a buzz word in recent years.  It can be defined as the “ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” (Merriam-Webster).  In order to be resilient, you need to be adaptable.

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Ten tips for organising an online conference

We are all learning to do more online, including conferences. In this post, Sharon Smith, a PGR in the School of Education, shares her experience of organising an online conference. For more detail, see Sharon’s full post on her personal blog.

Laptop screen showing faces attending an online conferenceAt the beginning of September, a friend and I ran an online postgraduate conference for students studying philosophy of education. We initially started thinking about the conference late Spring, but decided not to rush into hosting it, choosing a September date for the event to ensure we had sufficient time to plan for it. This meant that we could attend other online webinars and conferences to see what the common issues were, and to understand the experience from the perspective of the attendee.

Here are ten tips for anyone wanting to organise an online conference:

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Back on campus: quiet but productive

In this post, Caitlin Thornton, a PGR researching thyroid cancer in the College of Medical and Dental Sciences, describes her return to campus and her laboratory-based research.

On the first day back after lockdown I arrived half an hour earlier, presuming there would be a queue to collect our lanyards and lab coats. Queuing on stickers places two meters apart was part of the “new normal”.  Instead, I walked straight into the Institute of Biomedical Research, helped myself to a squirt of hand sanitizer, collected two lab coats and went up to our lab on level 2. I thought this was weird at the time – maybe I had got the return day wrong? – but really it was a hint of what labs are like after COVID. Quiet.

Caitlin and two colleagues, wearing masks and socially distanced, in their lab
Caitlin and colleagues in their lab

There aren’t more than around 10 people on our floor at any time. Sometimes we will grab 10-minute chats in the corridors holding thermos flasks of coffee because there’s no access to fridges to keep milk to make drinks at work. A lot of our friends and colleagues are still redeployed in the hospitals. Our large communal office which is usually buzzing with people and activity is a graveyard, sometimes if you are drinking a coffee at your desk all the lights go out because no one is walking around to activate the sensors.

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Spotlight on the RDF: “Responsiveness to change”

In one of our occasional series of spotlights, we take a closer look at a specific descriptor from the RDF.

In this series of “Spotlight on…” posts, we’ll be delving into the detail of the descriptors in Vitae‘s Researcher Development Framework (RDF).  Each one of the sixty-three descriptors is a characteristic of an excellent researcher, and we’ll be looking at how UoB PGRs can develop these characteristics.

Embed from Getty Images

In 2020 so far, we have all been responding to changing circumstances as the global pandemic unfolds and lockdowns are imposed and eased in different locations around the world.  Over the last 17 weeks or so, this blog has featured a number of posts from PGRs responding to this change so this feels like a good moment to take a look at the RDF descriptor responsiveness to change.  Rather than thinking about further development in this area, I want to recognise how far we have all come. Continue reading “Spotlight on the RDF: “Responsiveness to change””