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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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.

Finding your way in the foggy road of data collection…

This week Coralie Acheson, a 2nd year PhD Researcher in the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage, shares her experience of collecting data for her research…

Iron Bridge Blog

My research is on how tourists encounter and negotiate the values of Ironbridge Gorge, a World Heritage Site in Shropshire; part of a collaborative AHRC-funded project looking at the communication of value to different communities of interest at the site. This was my first serious foray into the academic world of cultural heritage following years of studying and working commercially in archaeology. When I started, I knew I had a steep climb in terms of raising my knowledge base in terms of thinking about tourism theory but I hadn’t realised how much I also needed to learn about the actual practicalities of carrying out the research.

I am using a mixed-methods approach – my research involves trying to pin down something both intangible and ephemeral, the ‘communication of value’ to a difficult to define, constantly changing and incredibly varied group of people – so I needed to form a sort of research ‘pincer’! I am using:

  • Interviews – semi-structured, with both those working with tourists, and the tourists themselves;
  • Observation – both remote and participant;
  • Qualitative media analysis of materials produced for and by tourists – think Instagram, guidebooks, signage etc;
  • Visual field notes – a developing collection of imagery which tells a story about my site.

I am currently right in the middle of collecting all of this data and feeling rather swamped. It is like a juggling act trying to process already collected data into initial analysis of some form, carry out more research and preparing for things happening over the next few months. A complex and colour coded diary has become essential! I have found that writing things down has helped me get my head around where I am with my research – not so much for the output but the process of doing it helps me organise my thoughts and get control of the stress!

I have massively benefitted from research training from lots of different sources including an ‘interview for researchers’ course (AHRC), free online courses in social media analytics, one-to-one skill sharing with other PhDs as well as courses available through the university on Endnote and data management. This was all absolutely essential, particularly as I am effectively a social science researcher with an arts background and who is based in the College of Arts and Law. Ultimately, though, the best way to figure out how to do things is just to try them out – go to conferences and present, try different analysis methods you’ve only read about in books – just go for it (within the remit of your ethical approval!) and it will get easier!

Do you want to share your PhD experiences with other postgraduate researchers on this blog? Get in touch with Dr. Eren Bilgen to become one of our guest bloggers.