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

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…

publishing

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…

RPC2

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

Learning to think critically

Soon-to-be Dr Naomi Green, from the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, talks about developing critical thinking “through osmosis”.

I have just passed my viva for my PhD thesis in Biomedical Engineering and I have been reflecting on my postgraduate experience and the skills I have learnt.  One of the key skills all PhD students are supposed to pick up during their research is the ability to think critically. But what does critical thinking mean and how do you learn to do it? Continue reading “Learning to think critically”

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?”