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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Caring for PGR carers

This week, 7-13 June 2021, is Carers Week. Carers look after a family member or friend who has a disability, mental or physical illness or who needs extra help as they grow older. Carers make a significant contribution to their families, communities and society, so it’s important to recognise the valuable work they do, and to make sure they receive the support they need. This is particularly true for PGRs who are carers and are juggling the dual challenges of research and caring.

Carers Week logo

I cannot claim to have first-hand experience of the challenges of caring, but here are some of my thoughts on the ways in which we, as members of the UoB PGR community, can support our PGR colleagues who are also carers. Although Carers Week focusses on caring for those with a disability, mental or physical illness, many of the suggested actions here apply equally to parents or guardians of young children.

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We need to talk… about PhD student mental health

Just in time for Time to Talk Day on Thursday 4 February, Samantha Sandilands, a PGR from the School of Management, talks about some of her early warning signs and the value of support networks in matters of mental health.  A fuller version of this post can be found on LinkedIn.

The PhD process has been amazing in so many ways. What nobody can prepare you for however, is how much it challenges your mental health.

Concrete shaped and painted to look like a pumpkin
Samantha’s concrete pumpkin

Eight months in, I attended a session for PhD students at a conference, delivered by the amazing Beth Patmore, about mental health during your doctorate. I could relate to so much of what she was saying, but I never really associated it with poor mental health. Procrastination, strange sleeping patterns, putting on weight, overeating, feeling guilty for having a day off… in my group we all agreed that we could relate. As Beth read out some of the signs, ripples of agreement travelled through the room, some uncomfortable laughter, nodding, awkward silences. Even at that stage, the signs were there but I brushed it off… “I’ll be fine”.

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New year, new lockdown

Happy New Year! This isn’t where we’d hope to be at the start of a new year, but there is relief in having got through 2020 and in knowing that vaccines are on their way. While we wait, 2021 will have to be about being kind to ourselves, leveraging the self-knowledge we have gained in 2020 to cope with local restrictions, protecting our mental health, and taking steps forward with our work.

A family in a house cradled between hands, surrounded by coronavirusEngland is in the process of entering a third national lockdown. Those of us living on or near campus must stay at home except where necessary (necessary activities include work, grocery shopping and exercise). We’ve done this before, and the familiar rhythms of daily exercise, meal planning and Zoom calls are already established. Think about what worked and what didn’t work for you during previous periods of restrictions and use that knowledge to get through this one as best you can. If you’re not in England, check your local restrictions.

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Putting dark days behind us

And so we are approaching the end of 2020. The days are getting short, and I am prioritising getting out of the house for a walk (however briefly) during daylight hours to help me get through. Only one week left before the winter solstice in the UK, and the longer days start to bring hope of spring and a COVID-19 vaccine roll-out.

Stonehenge, photographed at sunset close to the Winter Solstice (2009)
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Life enclosed – creativity for wellbeing

PGRs Matthew McKenna and Chee Man Tang (Michael) from the Institute of Local Government Studies and the Department of Theology and Religion respectively, have been turning to music to support their mental health and wellbeing through the lockdown.

Matthew writes:

At the risk of sounding ungrateful for the privileged position I find myself in, it seems to me that I have experienced a double whammy of irony in the past few months. I finally moved out of the family home and moved to Birmingham to begin my PGR career into the study of public policy failure and just as I was beginning to settle into life at UoB, the world enters into the biggest global public policy failure seen in generations and I am back in the family home.

This has led to a drastic (and maybe permanent) restructuring of my daily routine and has required me to adapt and make peace with the psychological demands of sleeping, eating, researching and relaxing within the confines of a small selection of walls. A sense of hopelessness engulfed me to begin with (because who wants to conduct a three year PhD from their bedside desk?) but this has been mitigated through balancing my vocation as a researcher with my passion as a musician. Together with my good friend, Michael, who is also a new PGR at UoB and a talented producer, we have created the track Life Enclosed.

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Being remotely productive

In this post, AlAnood Alshaikhsaad, a PGR from the Department of Theology and Religion, shares their advice on remote working from their experience as a distance learning PGR.

A sketch drawing of AlAnood's workstation
AlAnood’s home workstation

To me, remote working is all about time management and prioritizing your tasks. What people tend to miss after jumping from their on-ground non-stop jobs to remote working is the predictable tasking structure a corporate or institution provides. While the flexibility of remote work is one of its most appealing benefits, people are used to a certain routine, and routine can still exist within that flexibility. For example, waking up at a consistent time, getting dressed, fixing a pot of coffee, running through your to-do list, breaking for lunch at noon, scheduling virtual meetings in collaboration with fellow peers or supervisors. Once you define your routine more clearly, stick to it. Continue reading “Being remotely productive”

Tips for Working from Home

Building on our previous post on working from home, Rachel Sargeant, a full-time, distance-learning PhD student in the Film and Creative Writing Department, draws on her experience to give some advice.  An adapted version of this post also appears on her personal blog.

Rachel's latest book, The Roommates.Although I only commenced my studies in January, I previously completed a distance-learning masters and have been working from home for over a year since I became a full-time author. This is what I’ve come to realise:

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Building a Supportive Network

In this post, Yaru Chen, a new UoB PGR in Corpus Linguistics, tells us about an event on “Building a Supportive Network” she attended in the College of Arts and Law on Wednesday 15 January 2020.

What was “Building a Supportive Network” about?

This event, organised by the Postgraduate Student Experience Officer (a recently graduated PhD from CAL, also a trustworthy person from whom I always seek advice) in the College of Arts and Law Graduate School, was designed to help us improve our networking skills and develop our supportive networks. These supportive networks are not only beneficial in offering us emotional and academic support during our PhD study, but are also helpful for giving us career support once we have graduated.

Yaru's Supportive Network, showing her supervisors in the centre and others (including family, friends and UoB staff) offering different types of social support
Yaru’s Supportive Network

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Happy New Year!

2019 has begun, and I hope you got what you needed from the recent Christmas break. Here’s looking forward to a happy 2019!

Have you made any new year’s resolutions for 2019? The New Economics Foundation have developed an evidence-based Five Ways to Wellbeing, and you may find inspiration for your resolutions here.

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