Welcoming new doctoral students #uwegradschool

The word welcome created from 3 dimensional letteringThis week the UWE Graduate School put on a welcome event for new doctoral students. The turnout was really good and it was great to see so many enthusiastic and excited doctoral students (or “PhDers” as they have affectionately become known!) eager to understand what lay before them.

In a tried and tested format we put on a number of short sessions interspersed with free food to settle the new arrivals into the world of doctoral study.

We began with a brief introduction and tour of the UWE Library and the support that researchers can expect from Jenni Crossley.

Following lunch I asked the Director of the Graduate School to give a brief overview and welcome to the new starters, here’s what he had to say:

We then moved on to what is probably the most useful section, I’d invited some current PhDers to talk about their experiences and to offer their advice to new starters; I only provided the title “What I know now that I wish I’d known when I started”. 

Graeme Whitehall

Graeme’s presentation was followed by talks from Milena Popova (Twitter; blog) and Jackie Barker who gave frank and sometimes humorous accounts of what it is like to do a PhD. Milena has written her talk as a blog entry “I accidentally a PhD – one year on”

We moved on from there to present a picture of the overall support available to doctoral students across the institution beginning with a short presentation from Dr Tilly Line, a researcher and careers adviser (@UWECareers) about what Student Services can offer.

Next up was Lauren Conen (@vpeducation) , the Vice President for Education at the Students’ Union at UWE who gave an overview of the services and support offered by the Students’ Union.

Then it was the turn of Dr Paul Spencer (@paulspencer42) to give an overview of the UWE Graduate School skills development programme

I finished up sharing the thoughts of Matt Might using his excellent Illustrated Guide to the PhD

Let us know your thoughts, comments, questions about what we are doing at UWE with the graduate school. Why not follow @uwegradschool on twitter to keep up to date with all the things we are doing?

Further links that might be useful!

The UWE Graduate School website

UWE Researcher Skills Events Diary

UWE Graduate School Facebook Group

UWE Graduate School Twitter

Piled Higher and Deeper (PHD) Comic Strips

Digital Researcher #druwe

Social media on electronic displayThis week I ran a workshop at UWE on the use of social media in the context of research. This workshop is along similar lines to a workshop that I ran in February 2012 for researchers and a workshop at the Vitae Conference in September 2012 for researcher skills developers from across the country.

Some context then about this workshop; researchers are changing the way they use digital tools in the context of their research. There is lots of work going on as part of the wider JISC Developing Digital Literacies programme including work being carried out by Vitae to better understand the development needs of researchers.

I’m interested in the digital literacy of researchers for a couple of reasons:

1) It surely makes sense to better understand how researchers use digital tools in the context of research so that we are better able to support them

2) I believe that these digital tools are key to researchers building their own professional profile in an increasingly competitive academic research environment.

The slides I used to support this workshop are below.

Prezi for #druwe

Prezi for #druwe


We started out the morning by highlighting some of the hopes & fears that researchers have about using social media tools… I predicted that the fears would fall into three broad categories:

  1. Information overload – the fear that engaging in social media would be too much information to keep track of
  2. Digital Identity – concern over what to share about oneself, privacy issues and the blurring of private versus professional
  3. Data/intellectual property concerns – what happens if I share something that someone else exploits/stealing of ideas
Hopes and fears

Hopes and fears


Basic overview of what is out there

Getting research out there

To become more aware of others with similar interest & activities to my own

Catch up with colleagues who use twitter/blogs naturally

Which button do I press?

How to quantify opinion (or research data) gathered via social media tools


Maintaining privacy

Managing a digital reputation

How do I edit the digital me?

Will this become another distraction?

Digital Identity

We spent some time discussing online identity, how to balance the “personal me” vs the “professional me”, how different tools lend themselves to different purposes and how actively managing information about yourself is a good thing to do.

“We don’t have a choice on whether we do social media, the question is how well we do it”.Erik Qualman



We asked the participants to use twitter to interact with their networks using the hashtag #druwe


Power of networks

We discussed a little bit of network theory, illustrated by this video for a TEDx talk by Zella King

Managing information overload

We had a look at portals and aggregators to help manage information streams.

Using social media tools in research

There is increasing concern about ensuring rigour when using digital tools to gather research data. At UWE, we have some guidance available on the Research Ethics pages. I think there is still some way to go to understand better how this area of social media use can be supported.

We discussed how research is social & iterative, the benefits of engaging with folks far and wide about your research outputs and how to use tools to make the finding out about knowledge a little easier. We had a play around with some social citation tools, e.g. CiteULike, Zotero & Mendeley


We discussed why folks blog – a variety of reasons including:- organising thoughts, mind dump, getting feedback at an early stage etc.

This blog is a just one such example!


Summed up with “Common sense!”

Other sources of information

Here’s a list of things that I have come across recently on the topic of social media in research (clearly not exhaustive!):-

A blog about blogging in an academic research context from Imperial College – some really interesting advice and guidance here.

The Networked Researcher blog site which promotes the use of social media tools for researchers – “Digital Professionalism – what not to share”

The British Library – Help for Researchers – “Web 2.0 as a social science research tool”

The Guardian Higher Education site – discussing benefits of blogging as a researcher – “How blogging helped me find my research voice”

The Research Information Network site – “Social Media: A Guide for Researchers”

The Vitae/Open University “Social Media Handbook for researchers and supervisors”

Thanks to the researcher who attended both physically and virtually!

The progression exam

Under the spotlight

Under the spotlight

This week I ran a workshop for our research students entitled “The Progression exam”. This is a formal milestone in the research degree journey that pretty much every doctoral candidate at any university will have to overcome. Some call it a “transfer” exam, others a “progression viva” but whatever the nomenclature they all have an aim similar to the following: –

a formal test of progress in the early stages to ensure a suitable basis for continuation on the programme has been established

I have run this workshop numerous times in the past and there have been one or two changes in how progression at UWE is now monitored.

Whenever I run a workshop on this topic or the related “Writing up” or “The Final Viva” workshops I always try to do two things:-

1) Provide knowledge about the process

2) Reduce anxiety by reassuring doctoral candidates

Recently at UWE we established a Graduate School at UWE with a new (and hopefully improved) web presence that puts all the information about research degrees in one place. We have created sections that relate to the major milestones including the progression exam.

Disclaimer: One should read my post in conjunction with the latest rules governing PG Research study.

Those rules are set out in section K of the UWE Academic Regulations here.

The slides that I used in the workshop are below:

Recent changes

From October 2013, all new research degree candidates will be subject to a slightly amended progression exam process where the option of re-submission (a time limited referral step) is now available to the examiners. Full details about this are on the  Graduate School website. Other recent changes are summarised below.

  1. When a progression report has been submitted, a viva will automatically follow
  2. Two independent examiners are appointed for a progression exam, one of whom will be designated the Principal Reviewer
  3. The Principal Reviewer may be used in subsequent progress review stages including the final viva voce examination if this is appropriate

Any queries about how the progression exam is arranged, the paperwork etc can be found by contacting the team in the Graduate School Office

Director of Studies Update

Successful supervision of research

Successful supervision of research

This week the Graduate School ran a short session for experienced doctoral supervisors who perform the role of Director of Studies (DoS) at UWE, Bristol. The intention of these sessions is to provide a way for colleagues to bring themselves up to speed with the changes in postgraduate research study, particularly with respect to the policy landscape and the institutional response to those changes.

We started out with a wide lens, how the Bologna Process has shaped a number of things at doctoral level and moved onto how the regulatory bodies in the UK assess compliance and/or adoption of these principles. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) have a Quality Code that sets out the expectations of UK universities who offer research degree programmes.

The presentation that I used to support the session can be found by clicking on the image below (redirects to the prezi website).

DoS update

We spent a little time talking on how support for postgraduate research study has been reorganised at UWE with the creation of the Graduate School and the associated website that has all things relating to the doctoral process on it including guidance and regulations, all the forms for research degrees and a whole programme of skills development events.

The session moved onto reflecting on the changes that have been implemented around recruitment and selection, project registration, progress review, teaching support and the final assessment process (appointment of examiners, submission of the thesis etc).

During the session, we shared some of the results and subsequent actions in light of student feedback, principally via the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) conducted in 2013. This survey will run again in 2015 and will provide us with some feedback about how the Graduate School is impacting on PGR provision.

One of the areas that many universities struggle with is the section on research culture. It is the theme which scores lowest across the board when looking at the aggregate data. It is hard to understand what can be done to improve the situation because I believe there are many factors that contribute to research culture – it’s partly about the status of PhD students (are they doctoral candidates, students, early career researchers, valued members of staff?), partly about facilities and infrastructure (do I have an office, computer, desk – somewhere to call my own?), partly about the sense of isolation in carrying out doctoral research (the top complaint about being a doctoral researcher) and partly about the role played in university structures (in departments, research centres and/or groups).

At the Graduate School we are continually trying to improve the sense of community of doctoral researchers by using online tools where possible. The skills development offering are mostly available via video conference as well as face to face, a twitter presence, a facebook group and this blog.

There is clearly some way to go but I think we are moving in the right direction.

Perfect Posters! A guide for researchers

The perfect poster guaranteed!

The perfect poster guaranteed!

This week I ran a workshop at UWE on the topic of putting together posters for the purpose of presenting research at conferences. I deliberately called this “Perfect Posters” because I had a sneaking suspicion that it might draw folks in and it did! So I began by telling the researchers that there probably isn’t such a thing as a perfect poster, there is no ‘right way’ or ‘wrong way’, just a range of approaches that are more effective than others at communicating the intended message.

Researchers are often confused about what posters are for, so I spent some time discussing, debating and/or arguing about what they are & why conferences increasingly have them as part of a programme.

Posters are a way of presenting one or two central themes of your work using images and text with the objective of encouraging conference attendees to enter into a dialogue with you about your research. It is hard enough to achieve this in an ideal setting but the additional challenge for poster presentations are that they are often held in less than ideal conditions. It was also discussed at some length what they are not, they are not simply a reorganisation of a journal article onto one sheet of paper, they are not the same as an oral presentation. It requires a different way of thinking and, honestly, a lot of preparation time in order to put one together.

Here is an audiocast of the main themes contained in the prezi (which is embedded below). I hope you find it useful.

Here is the prezi I used, embedded below.

The rest of the session was covering hints and tips for putting together posters, here are those tips: –

1) Think about your purpose. What are you trying to achieve? Try to avoid presenting everything that you have done, think of a take home message and build from there.

2) Think about your audience. It is unlikely that your audience will be all in the exact same area of research as you, it more likely that some will be in broadly the same area, some will be in related areas and some will be non specialist. This means think about the language and/or jargon that you use or rather do NOT use. Use of plain language is not the same as dumbing down, if noone understands your research, how will it be useful??

3) Think about your space. Find out how big your display area will be before you start to put the poster together! An obvious tip perhaps but one often ignored.

4) Think about pictures. The saying goes “a picture is worth a thousand words” so consider the use of images, diagrams, photographs that can give the reader information better than reading lines of text.

5) Think about text size. Bigger is better! A poster is not the same as reading from a page, it is read from a distance so text needs to be increased accordingly.

6) Think about using less verbiage. Think back to your central message, edit, edit, edit and then edit some more. If anything doesn’t back up the central message then dump it.

7) Think about colour. Some colour is good, it can help to orient the reader around your poster and make things stand out. BUT be careful, many posters can be hindered by garish colour schemes!

8) Think about where to place different sections in your poster. Use headings to help guide the reader. Popular convention appears to be to arrange images and words in the same format as a magazine article, broadly in columns. However there is no rule that states you have to follow this convention, organise your poster in a way that maximises impact but make sure that the reader is left in no doubt of where to look, you need to provide a visual grammar so to speak.

9) Think about titles. Academic convention seems to be that the longer a title is, the more impressive it is. In fact, many go as far as inserting a colon into the title so that it can be made even longer! Think about your purpose, you want to attract people to read your poster and talk to you, not run a mile from an incomprehensible title, so keep it short, intriguing and inviting.

10) Think about doing the small things. Can you take a handout of your poster and/or a relevant research article that explains something in more detail to give to interested people. It will free up your poster to focus on the main message without getting bogged down. Be enthusiastic about your research, no matter how many times you have to explain the same thing. It matters.

These are just a few tips to be going on with, I dipped into a few resources to help me with this:-

Creating effective poster presentations – George Hess, Kathryn Tosney & Leon Ligel

How do I create an effective scientific poster? – Bandwidth Online.org

Preparing Scientific Illustrations: A guide to better posters, presentations and publications – Mary Helen Briscoe

P.s. I also trawled Google Images for some examples of research posters which I now include below. I shall call this, “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly”. You can decide for yourself which ones are which, okay?

The final viva voce examination

Under the spotlight

Under the spotlight

As a follow on to the workshop on writing up the thesis, I ran a session on the final examination process for the research degree at UWE.

What I try to do with these sessions is two-fold:-

  1. Knowledge is power – much of the process is organised by others but if the doctoral candidate knows who is supposed to be doing what and when it makes it easier for them to keep things on track (i.e. nudge their supervisors..)
  2. Reduce anxiety – there is a lot of uncertainty around the viva, most people will never have had experience of an oral examination so I try and say as much as I can about how it will be conducted

The workshop slides I used are below and the first half sets out how it is done at UWE (it may be slightly different at other HEIs) with the second half being dominated with as much advice as I could muster about preparing for and surviving (!) the viva. More recently, a scholar who writes about the doctoral journey, Professor Gina Wisker, presented some of her work to research students in the Department of Arts. Some interesting observations about What Doctoral Examiners look for.

The basic hints and tips are these:-

  • know your field
  • know your thesis
  • be clear about your ‘significant contribution’
  • be enthusiastic!

A question that often comes up is “what questions will be asked?”. Unfortunately I don’t have the power of prediction and every viva is different, however the opening exchange will always be around giving you, the candidate, the opportunity to summarise your thesis. This is something you can prepare for by talking to people about your work as an overview, what’s the big idea, what excites you about it, what are the key things that have come out of it etc.

Again there are some great hints and tips out there to draw upon, here’s a few…

Some final thoughts:-

Although the viva is a hurdle to overcome, try to think of it as a golden opportunity to have a good natter about your research. It is unlikely that you will ever have this much attention from other scholars who are interested in your work! Many fruitful collaborations begin after a viva exam, it could take your research down a new avenue.

I also think it is important to try to stay cool (I know that’s easier said than done) and to ask for clarification on questions you don’t understand by saying things like “I’m not sure if I’ve understood, are you asking…?” Don’t be tempted to launch into an answer to a question that wasn’t asked!

If you are a UWE researcher, then have a look at the research degrees webpages and read the document that is given to independent chairs (at UWE we have an independent chair to facilitate the exam process to ensure that candidates are given fair treatment) as it sets out exactly how the examination will be conducted from a practical point of view.

Last words:- Be confident, you wrote the thesis and you know more about it than anyone else. So demonstrate confidence with authority, you’ve earned it!

Writing up a PhD – The final straight?

Hand typing at a keyboard

Tapping away

This week I ran a workshop for research students on the topic or writing up the thesis. I remember my own journey well and how exhausting it all seemed. I, probably like many other research students, did not relish the prospect of turning my research into a well crafted piece of writing so I procrastinated.. a lot! Much of my written work was completed in a matter of weeks right at the end only because I was given an immovable deadline, just what the doctor ordered for a classic last minute type of person.

I set out to try and help research students understand that it doesn’t (and probably never will) feel comfortable to approach such a seemingly daunting task as producing a thesis and I set about imparting as much wisdom, hints, and tips on writing as I could. This has led to this particular workshop being quite content heavy as it has been added to over the years (so any thoughts on streamlining the content will be appreciated!) incorporating bits and pieces from the Vitae Resources repository as well as nuggets collected from far and wide.

Two things I think are important about writing a thesis:-

  1. Writing should be thought of as being integral to the research, not as a add on activity
  2. The purpose of the written thesis is to convince the examiners that you meet the criteria for the award of doctorate – so clarity is important!

Here’s the slides.

Further resources

Throughout the session I made reference to a number of blog posts which I think are worth highlighting here:

The Thesis Whisperer – Edited by Dr Inger Mewburn; this is an excellent resource for folks navigating their way through a doctorate).


Patter – Professor Pat Thomson‘s blog – This has to be one of the best places to read up on the many challenges of academic writing.

There are some great hints and tips in the postgrad researcher section of the Vitae website on the topic of completing your doctorate that are well worth the time to read.
Finally, if you have any comments or advice about writing up then I’d love to hear them.

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 skillsdevelopment@uwe.ac.uk

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: