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.

Public Engagement with Research: The Personal Development Holy Grail

This week James Walker, a postgraduate researcher in the Centre for Doctoral Training in Fuel Cells and their Fuels in the School of Chemical Engineering, shares his public engagement experience with us…  

Ever been at a party and killed a conversation in ten seconds flat when asked “so, what do you do?” If so, you’re probably also a postgraduate researcher (PGR) – or perhaps a town planner. My heart goes out to my peers who are both! I used to get as far as “oh I’m doing a PhD in Chemical Enginee-,“ before I’d notice the glazing over of the eyes of what had been my audience. “You must be very smart,” they all say, before suddenly needing to nip to the loo. Now I lead with “well I make really tiny renewable energy catalysts and look at atoms using fancy, expensive microscopes that look like weapons in a Bond villain’s arsenal!” Suffice to say, the second response engenders significantly more discussion. The subtle difference is in knowing your audience and tailoring your delivery, I’d say. These are among a crop of new skills that I’ve picked up since becoming heavily involved in public engagement with research and I’m writing this to tell you how you too can revolutionise your personal development simply by talking about the thing that you spend most of your time doing. Convenient eh?

I recently hosted a workshop as part of the University’s Arts & Science Festival. Entitled “In The Chemists’ Kitchen,’ my workshop invited a group of unsuspecting adults for a look behind the scenes in our labs in the Birmingham Centre for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Research. Workshop participants joined in in preparing nanoparticle ‘soup’, made microwavable ‘ready meal’ silver nanoclusters and recrystalised a copper sulphate ‘cheesecake’. It might sound wacky to use cooking metaphors to communicate scientific concepts but it occurred to me that while my lab is veritably inaccessible to the public, most people have at some point made a pot of soup and can relate to chopping up vegetables and boiling them to release the tasty goodness – usually as per the secret family recipe. When I synthesise nanoparticles, I boil up chemical compounds in a broth-like solvent until bonds break and smaller fragments assemble as desired, and I am usually following a recipe handed down ceremoniously in Nature Chemistry. The parallels are clear – to me at least!

James Photo

So what did I learn from developing my workshop, I hear you ask? First of all, independently developing and hosting a workshop required a significant amount of planning and project management. Keeping the activities and briefing engaging required a very critical assessment of my aims and objectives for the workshop, and a shrewd review of the way each concept would be communicated. I could not have achieved this alone – my workshop developed iteratively through inputs from experienced Public Engagement with Research Committee and Cultural Engagement staff, as well as technical suggestions from colleagues and the School’s health and safety officer. On the night of the workshop, I was ably supported by four PGR colleagues. I think the term “collaboration” is overused but in all reality my event would not have been nearly as successful were it not for my collaborative working with each of the above individuals – from encouraging me to be creative in my approach to physically assisting participants in their experiments. Finally, my colleagues and I were shocked by just how awe-inspiring routine and frankly boring aspects of our day-to-day work (using a magnetic stirrer, for example) were for the workshop participants. This new perspective well and truly answers the “surely people won’t find this interesting?” question that is such a barrier to getting researchers involved in public engagement.

To summarise, then, organising and hosting my workshop offered me an all-encompassing opportunity to develop my communication, team working and project management skills. It’s easy to get bogged down in the pursuit of data for that all important PhD thesis, but I think it’s also prudent to remember that there’s life after the viva and these kinds of transferrable skills will stand anyone in good stead for just about any career that I can think of.

We’ll be discussing the pragmatic personal development merits of getting involved with public engagement and highlighting just how fun bringing your research to a wider audience can be at an upcoming coffee morning for PGRs and ECRs. Please join us! The aim of the coffee morning is to encourage a collaborative and peer-supportive approach to PGR/ECR-led public engagement activities so some things to think about – how can we best assist each other to deliver impactful public engagement? How can we organically foster an interdisciplinary/cross-college approach to developing these activities?

For their kind assistance with his workshop, James would like to gratefully acknowledge Caroline Gillet, Jon Wood, Laura Milner, Kaye Winwood, Aimee Jackson, Laura Allerston, Pete Mardle and Alan Stephen.

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?

Why you should take part in the Research Poster Conference

Presenting your research in a poster format might seem like a daunting task, but there are many reasons that this is an essential task for PGRs. Jenna Clake, from the College of Arts and Law, shared her experience of participating in the Conference with us…


I presented my research at the Research Poster Conference last year, with a poster entitled ‘Do You Think I’m Crazy?: Feminine and Feminist Humour in the Absurd’. As a Creative Writing PhD researcher, sometimes it is difficult to gain the opportunity to disseminate my research to a wide audience. My research focuses on two main areas: my ‘creative’ work (poetry) and my ‘critical’ work (researching literary theories and trends). I rarely have the chance to talk about the latter, especially to academics and researchers outside my specialism, so the Research Poster Conference offered the chance to receive some much-needed peer review.

The exercise of creating a poster to share your research is helpful in terms of identifying the key aspects and terms of your project. Firstly, you must engage your audience! I was encouraged to think of an interesting title for my poster to gain attention. By asking a question (‘Do You Think I’m Crazy?’), I managed to engage a variety of people – they were intrigued, and wanted to know the answer. You have limited space on a poster, so you must identify the key points of your research: this is incredibly helpful, as it reminds you of the key ideas behind your project. Once you have identified these, you can start thinking about discussing your project with a variety of audiences. Posters shouldn’t be too text-heavy, so after identifying the key points, you can think about how to sum up your research succinctly and clearly: this will certainly help in future discussions about your work!

When presenting at the Research Poster Conference – whether to judges, other researchers, or members of the public – it was essential that my presentation was accessible. I quickly learned that what thought was ‘accessible’ might not be to people outside my discipline! I learnt to adapt very quickly and explain some of my key terms in a comprehensible way. It is important to think about the impact that your research has (or will have), and the impact of your research will certainly increase if you can share it with more people.

I previously mentioned that peer-review was a major benefit of the conference. The Research Poster Conference draws a large and varied crowd; this meant that many people saw my poster and presentation, and could offer feedback. It was incredibly helpful to see my research from another perspective: some people were able to question my conclusions and the logic behind them, whilst others allowed me to defend my point of view and articulate my reasons. As a result, I was able to highlight areas of my research that needed work, and also interrogate my arguments to ensure that they were sound. I came away from the conference with some clear ideas about what I needed to do to improve my thesis.

The Research Poster Conference offers you a great chance to engage in your development as a researcher; you will disseminate your research to a large and varied audience, consider the key ideas of your research, and receive feedback on your work.

This year, the Research Poster Conference is taking place on 15th June 2017, and applications for abstracts are currently open until 3rd April 2017.

If you would like to take part this year, you can find more information about applying to the Research Poster Conference at the University Graduate School website