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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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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#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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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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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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Building your research community

In this post, Raeni, a PGR in the Department of Accounting, and Isbahna Naz, a PGR in the Department of Management, share some tips that they found beneficial in developing their sense of community during their PhDs.

3- 4 years doing a PhD is a long time. Some may say, “Life is on hold while doing my PhD”.

We are, of course, all on different journeys but with the same aim. Before COVID-19, we have a study space in the Muirhead Tower, where we could meet, interact and create a community within our cohort even though we are from different research interests. Having a sense of belonging with our peers alongside the journey is essential in numerous ways.

A pre-COVID-19 reading group session – Raeni is at the far right.

Being a member of a research community allows us to stimulate research progress, access an excellent seminar programme, discuss opportunities, and recognise other organisations beyond the campus. The community also sometimes directs us to get opportunities, for instance, acting as teaching or research assistants. Keeping us busy while engaging with others also helps our wellbeing.

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Online groups for international networking and collaboration

In this post, Joanne McCuaig, a distance learning PGR in the College of Arts and Law, explains how and why she set up online discussion groups using Twitter.

I’m a part-time, distance student in my 2nd year, in the department of English Language and Applied Linguistics. I’m a Canadian, living in South Korea, studying with a UK institution; I wanted to take advantage of any networking opportunities. First, I set up my Academic Twitter account – regular Twitter but used as a research profile to share about your skills and work.

Joanne McCuaig's Twitter profile, @JoanneMcCuaig3. 🇨🇦 in 🇰🇷 PhD student 🇬🇧. #Linguistics research, how medical terms are used by academics, media, & the public #CorpusLinguistics and #DiscourseAnalysis

I then decided to start two different student groups. I got the idea after attending an online conference that had breakout sessions for PhD students. It was energising to be able to share about our research, ask questions to others, and offer suggestions for literature, methods, or approaches.  A few months after the conference I contacted, via Twitter, a few of the students I’d “met” at the conference to ask if they wanted to continue the conversation. 

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