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:

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.

It’s not all about you: How to make some sweet non-academic CV music

PGR Careers Adviser Holly Prescott explains how a quick change of perspective can make all the difference when writing a non-academic CV…

As a PGR Careers Adviser I’ve learnt to spot some classic PhD CV errors quicker than Theresa May can call a snap election. Something that really interests me though is one of the most popular questions I get asked by PGRs, which is…

‘What should I include in my CV?’

A relatively understandable and inoffensive question you might think?

Well… What I find interesting about this question is that the person asking it seems to be approaching their CV in a very specific way that comes from the self: what have I done? What should I write?  When we’re thinking in this way though, it then becomes easy to forget that our CV isn’t a summary of our life story: it is a marketing document strategically written for a particular target audience.

The CV mind-set shift we’re thinking about here is:

Moving from ‘what should I include’…

To thinking instead… What does this recruiter want to know about me?

This is why, in order find out what we ‘should include’ on our CV, we first need to know:

  • For what kind of opportunity are you using this CV?
  • What is involved in the role?
  • What essential and desirable skills and experience is the employer is seeking?

Think of your skills and experience as music (bear with me…). Your potential employer’s job description and person specification are musical scores. Once you know what’s written on those scores, you can hit all the right notes. Without knowing or paying attention to what’s on the scores, your chances of reeling off a Beethoven-standard application are pretty slim. So, the answers to these key questions become our blueprint on what the employer wants to know about us… and hence, what to include in our CV or application. So, we know what the employer is looking for, and hence have some good clues as to which of our skills and experiences should take priority on our CV. Cue the next inevitable question…

What about my PhD?

How can we effectively communicate our PhD skills and experience to match what it is that an employer wants to know about us? Especially when applying for non-academic jobs where a PhD may not speak for itself?

Mike graduated with his PhD from the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences in 2016 and wanted to take his PhD outside of academia. He secured a place on a Graduate Scheme, and has some useful advice for current PhDs applying for jobs beyond academia.

‘When talking to people (including employers) who haven’t been through the PhD experience, it can be quite hard to convey what is involved in a PhD and how hard it is,’ says Mike. One way that he addressed these difficulties in communicating the value of his PhD to non-academic employers was to include his PhD under both the ‘education’ and the ‘work experience’ sections of his CV. ‘Under “education” I’d give the working title of my thesis and a couple of bullet points covering the main points and achievements. What was far more substantial though was what I wrote about my PhD as “employment.”’

Here, Mike used his PhD experiences to pick out key skills relevant to the employers he was targeting. ‘I presented my PhD experience in terms of competencies relevant to that employer. I looked back on the PhD and times when I’d showed qualities like leadership or team work. Then, I gave demonstrative examples of when I’d showed these competencies: for example, coordinating a team of volunteers during fieldwork.’

So there you have it… those key competencies and skills that the employer is looking for are our ultimate guide on what to include in our CV and how best to present our PhD experience to that recruiter. If you want to know more about how best to nail your non-academic applications and interviews, join us for our workshop ‘Successful job applications outside of academia: a complete guide for Postgraduate Researchers’ on Friday 26 May.

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


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

Publishing during your PhD

We all know that getting your work published during your PhD can be a tough process, but it is possible…In this blog post Elaine Mitchell, a part-time postgraduate researcher from the College of Arts and Law, shares her experience with us…


As well as pursuing my PhD on gardening and horticulture in eighteenth-century Birmingham in the Centre for West Midlands History over the last year, I’ve worked on two publishing projects with my supervisor. Here are a few reflections on the experience.

Like the best projects I’ve been involved with they have drawn on existing abilities but presented me with new challenges. These new challenges have tested my ingenuity, persistence and skills of persuasion – to name a few things! At the same time they have shown me when to compromise and when to stand back and know that what I have done is enough – not perfect but, in the face of a deadline and a budget, the very best I could do.

Both books required me to think about images. As Picture Editor on the new history of Birmingham – Birmingham: the workshop of the world (Carl Chinn & Malcolm Dick, 2016) – I researched and supplied over 200 high-resolution copyright-cleared images to the publisher. These were not just to illustrate points in the text but to enlarge upon them and add a new visual dimension that would draw in the reader and make them want to stop on the page. It made me think about the most important themes of the text.  What, if you just looked at the pictures, would you draw from the chapters and, if you took the text away, would the images focus on and project those same key themes? How would you sum up your research in an image?

As well as expanding my knowledge of copyright legislation (which we all need to know about) my work on the book made me delve deeper into the University’s own collections – a rich source for the history of Birmingham and many other topics. Images from the University were sourced from The Cadbury Research Library, Research and Cultural Collections and the Phyllis Nicklin archive and all these are worth exploring for visual sources (but do check copyright and seek permissions). The Cadbury Research Library also has a Flikr stream with themed albums.

The second book, Gardens and Green Spaces in the West Midlands since 1700, is for University of Hertfordshire Press and I’m co-editing it with my supervisor Dr. Malcolm Dick. This not only requires me to think about images but also to develop my editing skills and, having written a chapter myself for the book, to expose my own writing to editing and critical assessment before finalising the text. Despite a dose of imposter syndrome, I took up friendly offers to read my drafts and the result is a much-improved, tighter piece of work; a valuable experience that I can recommend and shall certainly now repeat. It’s useful to have one or two people beyond your supervisors who will read your work and offer constructive criticism.

At times these projects have seemed like an indecently long haul but now that I have held one of the books in my hands I see the results of piecing together this jigsaw bit by patient bit and somehow the outcome is more than the sum of its parts. It occurs to me that this is not unlike producing a PhD thesis and it is possible when you are prepared to work hard and receive the help offered by colleagues around you.

So what do you think about publishing during PhD? Do you have any tips or advice on getting published?

Spotlight on the RDF: “Responsiveness to opportunities”

In the third 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.

There’s a quote, which has been variously attributed to Oprah and Seneca, which goes something like this:

Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity.

If you want to be “lucky” enough to get the job you want, you need to be prepared to respond to opportunities as and when they arise.  So your responsiveness to opportunities is very closely related to your preparedness.  What does it mean to be prepared to respond to opportunities?

Continue reading “Spotlight on the RDF: “Responsiveness to opportunities””

New beginnings…

A warm welcome to new PGRs at the University of Birmingham.

So, the new academic year is about to start and this week we are welcoming new students at all levels across the University of Birmingham.  New postgraduate researchers are arriving, finding accommodation, meeting with their supervisors and wondering what they’ve let themselves in for.

welcome-sign-760358_640No-one is born as the perfect researcher, so new researchers have a lot of knowledge, skills, and behaviours to develop over the next few years (as, indeed, have all researchers as they move through their careers!).  This blog, and other support available across the University, will hopefully support that process.  Of course, this blog is also quite new, so we’ll be learning and developing together. Continue reading “New beginnings…”