Working from home

This week Jonathan Ward, who is part of Liveable Cities team in Civil Engineering, shares his experience of working from home as a postgraduate researcher…

working from home

Doing my PhD from home has given me an opportunity to reflect on a few things which I’d like to share with you. It brings benefits, but also pitfalls.

At first the freedom of the PhD brought excitement, possibilities. In time, I noticed a self-inflicted loss of identity. I didn’t go out to work; gone were my responsibilities: a humble student, hidden from view. I had met my ego, and had to make peace with it.

Being useful. What could I show for my day except some notes and pages of reading? Especially when my partner has a frontline occupation. They weren’t judging me, I was. I would start doing DIY and chores to show I was ‘useful’.

After the guilt came the feeling of treading water– PhDs are unlike normal jobs. It’s full of non-linear progress and periods of stasis. By yourself you can lose perspective. A sense of completion, of impact, seems essential for the wellbeing of many of us and to keep motivated.

The freedom of unbounded time and space, ironically, became a prison of inertia.  As much as I tried to confine my work to an office in the house at certain hours, mentally it followed me everywhere, nagging, making me less productive at everything. PhDs always want more from you; without discipline it will cause guilt and interfere with the rest of your life.

Isolation. If you spend most of your week at home alone four walls can feel pretty close. I was surprised at how much I needed both company and communication as a person and student. Research is done in a community, but I was closed off. This impacts on work and mental wellbeing.

What wisdom can I impart from my experiences?

  • Value your PhD as an opportunity and for the contribution you will make
  • Get regular feedback
  • Recognise your own work patterns – where, when and how best do you work.
  • Home reminds of us of other tasks that are not normally tempting, but are when faced with the PhD. Try changes of scenery.
  • Be aware and accepting of your social and mental health needs. Humans generally like company, even if just a café environment.
  • PhDs are your own work, but doesn’t have to mean working by yourself. Collaboration and discussion helps shape ideas, provide feedback, and overcome isolation. Find peers and make time to meet them.
  • Breaks to use social media or phone so you can reconnect with the world without distracting yourself.
  • Designate space for working and don’t take it elsewhere in the house.
  • Routines are often helpful, but when flexibility is required, limit your hours. Know what is enough.
  • You’ll get more done and feel better, and able to separate from your PhD if you make realistic aims and reflections at the start and end of each day. Try bullet journals or put one key task in Outlook.
  • Balance your day with other activities that provide for your wellbeing. Have the opportunity to do something practical, visible and tangible.

Do you have any other tips? Share them with us in the comments below!

If you would like to share your experience as a postgraduate researcher, please get in touch with Dr. Eren Bilgen to become one of our guest bloggers.

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How to find your tools of the trade

In this blog post Patricia Herterich, the Research Repository Advisor in the University of Birmingham Library, provides a summary and reflection of the Writing Summer School session “Navigating the maze of research and writing tools”…

Using the right tools is crucial to make your research and writing processes as efficient as possible. There are plenty of tools to choose from to support the full research life cycle from discovering literature related to research to publishing and promoting your own works. To get a better understanding, Bianca Kramer and Jeroen Bosman surveyed the tools used by researchers around the world for 9 months in 2015/16. The more than 20,000 survey answers can be accessed for detailed research and inspired some workflows based on e.g. services offered by the same provider or services that support the ideas of Open Science.

In general it can be said that the more of these systems work together, the easier your work. Thus, the first part of the session focused on getting attendees to think about the tools and systems they use and which of them can exchange data. Some examples were shared on Twitter:

https://twitter.com/Coralfrog/status/877534652625539072

https://twitter.com/Fi_na21/status/877505738700148736

The second half of the session was filled by group discussions about the participants’ favourite tools, and criteria that make us choose certain tools or stop us from using them.

Writing Tools Photo

Important criteria for workshop attendees were that tools were free (or cheap) to use or licensed by the university, come with a friendly user interface, and work on several operating systems and are thus compatible with private and university computers. Furthermore, students counted on recommendations by others (e.g. in their research group) so they can share knowledge with other people in their department and collaborate more easily. Tools should also be open source, be easily connected to other programs, and allow for content to be exported to other systems. Even better if there’s training available on campus or online!

Some of the attendees’ favourite tools included the reference manager Mendeley because its user friendly interface outweighs occasional synchronisation issues between desktop and cloud hosted versions of the software. Quirkos was mentioned as it supports qualitative analysis in a visual way, but do not underestimate more traditional tools such as NVivo or Excel.

Still looking for the right tool to use? A full database with tools you can use (that can be filtered by e.g. discipline) can be accessed here. Why not set yourself a challenge and use one of the next shut up & write sessions to try and familiarise yourself with a new tool?

Most important however is to back up whatever you do and regularly export your work in open file formats in case you lose access to the tools. While Dropbox and GoogleDrive might be great, we recommend using the University of Birmingham’s BEAR DataShare service, especially if parts of your work cover sensitive and personal data that needs to be stored in line with the Data Protection Policy.

Do you have favourite tools or advise to share? Let us know in the comments below or comment on the slides from the session or notes from the group discussions.

Turn your research into a course!

Carol Gray, a doctoral researcher at Birmingham Law School,  shares her experience with us on designing online courses…

“To teach is to learn twice”, as the saying goes.

Have you ever found yourself explaining your research to other people, then wondering how much they have taken in? Ever been tempted to set them a quick quiz to test this? (Okay, that’s probably going a bit too far….)

What about your key stakeholders or colleagues? Wouldn’t it be good to share your results with them in a format that allows the learning to count as Continuing Professional Development (CPD)? Many professionals are now required to complete a certain number of hours of CPD per year, and this can be a powerful recruitment tool for short courses.

So, why don’t you think about turning your research topic into an on-line learning module? On-line learning has become a hugely popular form of learning, either on its own or mixed with face-to-face sessions as “blended learning.”

How do you start to design a course?

Tip number 1: find a high-quality course provider to work with.

I was lucky that an ex-colleague is now running a company that provides on-line CPD for veterinary nurses. She sounded positive about my ideas to turn my research on informed consent into an on-line module, targeting vets and vet nurses.

Tip number 2: get to know the course platform before you start designing the module.

I volunteered to act as an additional course tutor for an existing on-line module, to see how presentations, discussion boards and assessment tasks worked.

Tip number 3: sign up to do the “Managing your research project” PGCARMS module!

There is nothing quite like a looming assessment deadline to get your creative juices flowing. The project management module has been eye-opening, and crucial to developing the “completer-finisher” skills that were sadly lacking in my skills set. The module requires you to justify what you are doing, to plan it down to the last detail and to anticipate problems and risks, all of which are central to the completion of a project such as this. I failed to spot the main risk involved in my plan, which was that my supervisor was less than enthusiastic about the whole idea! After some negotiation, we managed to reach a compromise that allowed me to develop the module (and use it for the PGCARMS module assessment) but not to run it until I complete my PhD.

Tip number four: make use of the many MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that are available, and free!

I participated in a “Designing e-learning for health” course run by the University of Nottingham on FutureLearn, and it was a great way to try novel approaches, share learning with others and add specific skills to my learning development kit. You can also pick up some “best practice” ideas for on-line learning.

So now I have a module that is ready to run, has been approved by the on-line CPD business owner, and will be available to both vets and nurses in the (hopefully!) near future. I am excited to think that I can share my passion for informed consent with other veterinary professionals, and would encourage anyone else with a topic that would work as an on-line course to investigate this possibility.

Your PGR skills: from feeding bees to being the bees-knees…

PGR Careers Adviser Holly Prescott and current PhD researcher Nick Howe discuss how to get to grips with transferable skills as a PGR

Bee

The term ‘transferable skills’ often elicits either:

  1. Yawns
  2. A flashback from a cringe-worthy team-building day
  3. Utter bemusement

So let’s think about it in another way.

Imagine your postgraduate research degree wasn’t just about writing a however-many-thousand-word thesis. Imagine that, at the same time, you were also becoming a proficient project manager, an expert in conveying complex information in an accessible way, and a skilled diplomat capable of managing a whole host of potentially tricky professional situations and working relationships.

Call it selling yourself, call it ‘spin,’ call it whatever you like… but there’s no imagination required. As a PGR, you are already ALL OF THESE THINGS. And, chances are, much more besides. When it comes to considering potential careers and applying for jobs then, the trick is being able to reflect not just on what we know as PGRs, but what we can do.

Currently undertaking a PhD looking into the recent decline of the honey bee, Nick Howe talks about how attending the University’s Postgraduate Enterprise Summer School (PESS) helped him understand the skills with which he was armed as a PGR.

‘It’s sometimes hard to see what skills you are gaining when you spend a lot of time doing esoteric things, like feeding nectar to bees,’ says Nick. ‘I assumed my PhD was only teaching me how to be a better scientist, and why shouldn’t it? But as someone who has realised that academia isn’t for them, I began to worry if this was enough. Would I be able to work in the “real world”’?

On PESS, Nick worked in a team of researchers on a problem set by Innovate UK to design a solution to improve the wellbeing of freelance workers. ‘The time-management skills that I’ve gained during my PhD really paid off in PESS,’ says Nick. ‘In fact, I feel that they were crucial to my team’s success.  A PhD gives you a range of skills that employers like, such as good self-awareness and self-reflection. Working with supervisors is also good experience in dealing with managers. Tenacity, time-management and working independently are all in there too.’

As Nick attests, effectively communicating your skills to potential employers, investors or other key people is all about audience. How can you translate your skills to business and industry? How do you show your ‘audience’ what you can do in a way that means something to them? There are some useful tips on this in pages 9-10 of this Career Planning for PhDs e-book written by Postgraduate Careers Consultant Jayne Sharples.

In addition, investing some time in a team activity outside his research showed Nick that he possessed some skills that he had never previously had the chance to showcase. ‘During PESS I began to realise that I had skills which I didn’t even know I had, like a talent for design work.  This has actually translated well to my PhD with some pretty nifty poster designs.’

So there you have it… it’s not just about feeding bees. It’s about stepping outside of yourself to see just what you’re capable of and why others should/will be interested in what you have to offer. For help with this and for some great experience in growing your transferable skills (who knows, maybe one day you’ll talk about it in an interview…), make like Nick and apply for the Postgraduate Enterprise Summer School. Nick says:

‘I highly recommend PESS. It’s a lot of fun and is great for improving team-work: something in which many PGRs get little practice. I didn’t realise all the skills I had until I had an opportunity to use them. PESS gave me that opportunity.’

PESS 2017 will be taking place from 17 – 21 July 2017. Registration is now open; click here to find out more. For more information, contact Holly Prescott, PGR Careers Adviser

Happy New Year!

janus_
The Roman god Janus, often represented with two faces looking both forward and backwards.

Welcome to 2017!

The month of January is named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, endings, and transitions, and is often a time when we resolve to do things differently.  Are you considering any research-related resolutions for 2017? Continue reading “Happy New Year!”

Merry Christmas!

During the Christmas period (23rd Dec – 3rd Jan inclusive), most of the buildings on the University campus will be closed.  This is a perfect time for you to take a proper break away from your research.  Breaks are an important part of the research process, as they allow you to recharge your batteries, and keep you refreshed and enthusiastic about your research.  They also allow you to return to your research with “fresh eyes”, and you may see things from an angle you hadn’t considered before, or immediately find a solution to a problem that had previously been intractable.  Note that the University’s Code of Practice on the supervision and monitoring progress of postgraduate researchers states that you are entitled to up to eight weeks holiday each year (see section 2.29), including public holidays. Continue reading “Merry Christmas!”

So, what’s this Shut up & Work all about?

Eren Bilgen, PGR Community Development Officer in the University Graduate School, runs regular “Shut up and Work” days at Westmere and here she tells us what goes on…

Shut Up And Work Graphic
An idea that started in San Francisco became a popular activity among writers around the world and transformed writing from being an isolated activity into a social experience. You probably came across “Shut up & Write” sessions for researchers in different universities. We call ours “Shut up & Work (SUW)” because working on your PhD involves many other activities as well – reading, data analysis, thinking, planning and so on.  We all know that shutting up and working is what we need to do to get our work done, but let’s face it; this is easier said than done. Somehow, the magic happens when it becomes a collective activity. This is how it works. Continue reading “So, what’s this Shut up & Work all about?”