Goodbye from Helen – and welcome back Paul!



As today is officially the last day of my secondment to the UWE Researcher Development Manager role, I just wanted to say goodbye and to thank everyone – not least Paul – for all your help, support (and patience!) over the last six months, and for making this such an amazing experience. Thankyou so much for your participation, enthuisasm and generosity in sharing your experiences with one another and me – it really has been a delight to work with you all, I’ve learned a lot, and wish you all the very best for the future wherever life takes you.

One of my final tasks was planning next year’s workshop schedule, which is now live on the UWE Research Events webpage: there are a couple of small changes to last year’s programme, so do please take a look and book your places. So Paul – over to you now ….


Getting to grips with your research career

Getting to grips with career

Getting to grips with career

Recently we held our twice-yearly UWE research staff development event, this time on the theme of “getting to grips with your research career.” As the title suggests the event was a space for researchers from across UWE to get together and reflect on where they’re at in their career, where they might want to go, and how to get there.

Since the University is about to review the researcher role grading process, it seemed opportune to get some’ feedback via a short questionnaire, about how researchers themselves perceive the step up from Associate to Fellow – both the difference between these roles, and the application process itself. Pam has kindly collated the feedback (see separate document) for you to look at.

We then heard from three senior researchers, who had been asked to offer advice as if to their younger, less experienced researcher selves. Richard, Glenn and Darren were all very generous and honest with their insights, and you can see their presentations via the UWE Research Support webpages.

After “Dear Less Experienced Self”, it was time for “Dear Future Me”: for this, the group used prompt cards articulated to the Vitae Researcher Development Framework, to identify a skill or attribute they could do to work on in order to help their career progression – and, because we like to keep things positive, two things they’re already good at and would like do even better.

To help make the RDF feel a bit more concrete and ‘lived’ (and get us up and moving a bit!), each small group stood in a circle and threw a ball to one another: the idea being that when you get the ball, you have to say what card/skill you chose, why, and how good you are at it already – with examples if possible!

While one usually goes away from these events with genuinely good intentions, life – in fact, just the sort of the things w talked about in part 1 – does have a habit of getting in the way. So, to try and keep the good intentions alive, everyone was invited to complete a ‘postcard to self’ listing up to 3 small, practical things to do in the next couple of months to help them move forward on the skills identified in part 2.

Many thanks to all – the presenters, Glenn and the rest of the Planning Group and, most of all, to everyone who came along on the day, for joining in with such enthusiasm – I do hope you found it a worthwhile and fun morning, and we look forward to seeing you again at the next (whole day) event on 1 December 2014.

Summer Sessions 2014

gradschool sceneLast week was Summer Sessions 2014 – a four-day long festival of all the fantastic work being done by UWE PGRs, their supervisors and all the other folks who support them in various ways.

Monday saw the UWE round of the national 3 minute thesis competition, and we wish Davina the very best of luck as she represents us at the semi final in York on the 14th.

The next day we reprised three of our most popular skills development workshops: Progression Exam, Perfect Posters and Writing up. We had a good crowd for all the workshops, and I was inspired all over again by our postgrad researchers who are all, in their different ways, out there pushing the boundaries of human knowledge.

Then, on Wednesday, we were delighted to host mathematician-turned-viva-survivor Dr Nathan Ryder, for a thoughtful and positive set of workshops on preparing for and surviving your final viva. Nathan gave us lots of helpful hints and tips from his own personal experience, as well as his ongoing research on “how to survive your viva”.

Our final day saw contributions from current students, showcasing some of the amazing research which is going on within the UWE faculties. We also welcomed several of our recent alumni back to share their “best three things about doing a PhD”, aided and abetted by our very own Dr Paul Spencer, whose witty, yet profound reflections on “the secret diary of a postgraduate researcher” provided a fitting end to a successful Summer Sessions 2014.

Something happened to me yesterday…

…that I’d like to share with you, because it illustrates the importance of having your ‘research story’ prepared and ready to go at the drop of a hat. Out of the blue, I was contacted yesterday afternoon by a researcher working on a BBC Radio 4 documentary about something to do with funerals. Apparantly they were googling some keywords, my name came up and they thought I was worth a phone call.

Story about your research?

Story about your research?


Now, I’m not sharing this in order to show off – well, okay, maybe just a little bit… nor do I have any idea what, if anything, will come of this conversation. But the point is, I had a few sentences ready to go about what I research (Victorian funerals), and why it matters (because we’re all going to die, but the Victorians were better at it that we are). And I had the online presence to be findable in the first place.

So I think the lesson from this is, as the old Boy Scout motto goes, to “Be Prepared.”

Personal Development Planning for researchers

RDF Planner  Do you PDP…?

There was a time – not all that long ago – when an academic research career was often something that kind of happened: you did okay at your Bachelors degree, a bit better at your Masters, then by this time you were ‘into’ a particular topic so the PhD (or DPhil or Professional Doctorate) seemed like a good way of exploring that some more, then your supervisor suggested you should apply for this Postdoc that happened to be going… and so it went.
However those days are pretty much gone now so, whether you’re a doctoral candidate wishing to pursue a career in academic research, or an early career researcher looking to further establish yourself, it’s up to you to take charge of your research career, and this is where Personal Development Planning (PDP) comes in.
Here at UWE we encourage our doctoral and early career researchers to use the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF) as a PDP tool, because we think this is a particularly helpful way of visualising what makes a good all-round researcher, and identifying your personal strengths and development needs.
Recently Jen Reynolds from Vitae came in to run a workshop for us on getting the best out of the RDF, especially the new online, interactive version to which UWE subscribes. The RDF has no less than 64 descriptors of what makes the ideal researcher, which can make it feel a bit overwhelming, so Jen first showed us ways to identify and prioritise your own personal development needs at any given time.
Having each identified a personal development need, we then did some detailed benchmarking against the levels within each descriptor and made action plans for moving up to the next level. This is also a really good way of creating some ready-made examples for job applications!
Of course you can do all this with a pencil and paper; but the advantage of using the RDF Planner is that you build up an online, confidential bank of material, you can create reports and – perhaps most importantly of all – review progress and remind yourself just how far you’ve come in your development as a professional researcher.
Our thanks to Jen for a really interesting and valuable session: here are her slides

If you’re a UWE researcher at any level (including postgraduate researchers) and would like further information about the RDF, please do contact

Project Management in a Nutshell

PM in a nutshell

It's a nutshell

It’s a nutshell

Recently we ran our regular half-day workshop for researchers on “Project Management in a Nutshell”. The purpose of this workshop is to de-mystify some of the jargon which surrounds project management, and to consider some practical ideas for managing your project, be it a PhD or other research project. The discussion was very wide-ranging, so I’ll just summarise what I think were the key points:

Know who your stakeholders (the people and organisations who have some kind of interest in your project) are, and be aware of their expectations. We talked a lot about what happens when there’s conflict between the interests of different stakeholders, and between stakeholders’ expectations and how the project is actually developing. While there are no easy answers here, early recognition and honest communication are invariably key to resolving any issues.

The importance of planning. The earlier the better, but it’s never too late to start.

Project constraints. In an ideal world, we’d all have unlimited money, time, academic freedom etc. But realistically there will be some constraints, so be aware of them and plan your project accordingly

Breaking it down into manageable, measureable chunks.

Risk awareness. What might stop you from completing your project? What’s your Plan B?

Project planning tools. Most of us are (too?) familiar with the ubiquitous GANTT chart, but there are lots of other planning tools out there. We particularly talked about PERT charts, which factor in time and allow you to identify your critical task pathways. It really doesn’t matter how high or low-tech your planning tool is – a simple list on a piece of paper can be just as effective – whatever works for you.

Review progress as you go along, keep your plan updated and your stakeholders in the loop as things develop.

Most of all, be honest with yourself and your stakeholders about how the project is going.

On this final point, we talked about the fact that ‘honesty’ is socially and culturally constructed, which can be a particular challenge for international colleagues who find themselves baffled by the nuances of British work-culture. In particular, the fact that direct challenges are generally taboo and that weasel word “nice” which can mean pretty much anything. I can recommend no better reading on this subject than Kate Fox’s funny, astute book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2005).

Here are the slides:


The word welcome created from 3 dimensional lettering

We’ve recently welcomed our latest group of new postgraduate researchers: this happens three times a year (October, January and April) and the aim of the Welcome Event is to provide a space for our new postgraduate researchers from all over the university to get together and to find out who’s who and what’s what with regard to postgraduate research here at UWE.
Paul Spencer, doing an admirable job of standing in for Neil Willey, started us off with a general introduction to the Graduate School. Here are Paul/Neil’s slides:

Paul also showed the excellent Illustrated Guide to a PhD by Matt Might to help us put this “creating original knowledge” business into some kind of perspective.
Some of our current research students then passed on their thoughts about “What I know now, that I wish I’d known when I started.” The format is that we give some willing volunteers this title – but nothing else! – and ask them to just ‘tell it like it is.’ As always this was the highlight of the afternoon, and huge thanks are due to Niamh, Tori and Hazel for their time and effort in sharing such comprehensive, thoughtful and practical insights with the group.

We also heard from the UWE Students Union (UWESU) and from Dr Tilly Line of the UWE Careers Service, about the great advice and support on offer to PhD’ers in terms of representatio and career planning.
Finally I summarised our skills development programme for postgrad researchers and, with some tongue-in-cheek help from Piled Higher & Deeper, ventured to offer a few of my own hints and tips on how to survive your PhD:

Very best wishes to all our new postgraduate researchers – wherever your research journey takes you, professionally and personally, we look forward to travelling with you.

Future Directions

open-roadWhat do you want to be when you grow up?

How many of us honestly started out in life intending to do a doctorate? Like many of us, I have to admit that I kind of ended up doing mine because a) somebody said I could have a place to do it; b) it seemed like a good way of avoiding the corporate career path without having to actually say so; and c) I’d get to spend some quality time finding out about Victorian funerals (although you might wish to insert your own topic here!)  However we get here, though, there comes the point where we do finally have to face the question of what are we going to do with the rest of our lives post-doctorate.

For some doctoral graduates an academic career seems the obvious choice, while others are keeping an open mind – or are maybe thoroughly sick of academia and longing to get out there into the ‘real world.’  However even for those who’re intent on an academic career, the reality is that the jobs market is tougher than ever – so it’s still sensible to keep your options open and be prepared.

This week we ran our Future Directions course, the underlying theme of which was “challenging assumptions” about what doctoral graduates can go on to do careers-wise. In the morning Dr Tilly Line from the UWE Careers service talked about the reasons why doctoral graduates might go into non-academic careers, and the huge range of sectors and industries where their very special, high-level problem-solving, research and analytical skills are much sought after by employers. Tilly particularly tackled the common assumption that taking up a non-academic career represents some kind of failure – in fact over 50% of doctoral graduates are nowadays employed elsewhere so, if anything, it’s the norm!

In the second half of the workshop, we used the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF) for a spot of personal action planning. This is a useful tool for any researcher, whether or not they’re planning to stay in academia, to start developing some vocabulary for the kind of skills, behaviours and attributes they’ve gained through doing their research degree. Of course it can also be used to identify areas for further development, so to finish with we had a go at setting some S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realitic, Timebound) goals that the participants would take forward in order to develop their knowledge/skills in a particular area of the Framework.

So hopefully, next time you get asked what do you want to be when you grow up, maybe after this workshop you’ll have (some of) the answer.

The Effective Researcher: the middle years

Wood for the trees

Yesterday we ran our “The effective researcher – the middle years” workshop. This is aimed at PGRs who, having expended considerable time and energy passing Progression, are now experiencing the dreaded “second year slump” – when progress seems elusive, perspective fails, and you lie awake at 3am wondering why the h*ll are you doing this, will someone remind me please.

After introductions, we dug back into our memories of how it was in the beginning – the heady mixture of euphoria, excitement, fear of the unknown, new responsibilities but also new freedoms. Building reading stamina and developing one’s academic voice also came up. We spent quite a lot of time doing this, but I think it was worthwhile: judging from the smiles and nods, some of us at least were already beginning to recollect “why” we had ever embarked on this doctoral journey.

We then thought ahead to the final stages of the research degree, and this was a good opportunity to talk about the academic, procedural and also the emotional experience of submission, viva and post-viva.

Btw here are the slides, with due acknowledgement to Vitae for some of the materials:

Then we used some metaphors as a way of talking about “middle years” of a doctorate: juggling balls and spinning plates proved especially popular, and the mountaineering analogy also spoke to a lot of us. PGRs are a hugely diverse bunch, but it’s amazing how much common ground there actually is, and the relief of finding out that “it’s normal” and “you’re not alone” was palpable.

In the afternoon we discussed practical ‘strategies for success’ – defining the project scope and standards (with reference to the doctoral descriptor), having a system for organising your material, avoiding procrastination, finding and protecting writing time, and acknowledging the changing relationship with supervisors. Above all, being kind to yourself and finding a working routine that suits you. We finished off with some personal action planning.

As always with these events, there was huge value in just taking some time out to reflect on achievements so far, meet others in a similar position and identify some practical ways of keeping the momentum going. Very best of luck to all the participants with the next stages, and hope to see you again soon!

Hello from Dr Helen Frisby



Hello everyone,

My name is Dr Helen Frisby, and I’m absolutely delighted to have been appointed to look after Paul’s Researcher Development Manager role for the next few months whilst he covers our Graduate School Manager’s job.

Readers from the UWE Faculty of Business & Law might well recognise my name, because for the last four and a bit years I’ve been supporting their PhD programmes here at UWE – as Senior Research Administrator within the Faculty, then since 2012 as Graduate School Officer.

Meanwhile my academic journey has taken me from a first degree in Theology through to Social History: my PhD (Leeds, 2009) being on Victorian funerals. Since then I’ve continued to write and speak on this topic all over the UK and Europe – recent destinations including Transylvania and Vienna. I’m also an Associate Lecturer in History at UWE, and a Part Time Teaching Fellow in the Department of Social & Policy Science at the University of Bath where I teach on the UK’s only degree-level Funeral Directing programme. Other current projects include some collaborative oral history research into the practice and social/cultural significance of gravedigging. So, I guess I’m going to be kind of busy …

Anyway! That’s quite enough for now, except just to say how excited I am about this super opportunity to get out and about, work with and learn from you all over the next few months, and that I very much look forward to meeting you in person soon,


All the best,