Little blocks of magic with LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®

Sam Pulman is a Postgraduate Researcher in the School of Education and a trained facilitator of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® method and materials

Many people ask what LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® is and how does it work? LEGO® was created by Danish carpenter, Christiansen, 1932. From humble beginnings as a toy made of wood, there are approximately 125 million molded plastic pieces produced each day. Made of crude oil, LEGO® has not always sat well with environmental groups but LEGO® is looking into petroleum alternatives such as making bricks from sustainable palm oil and recycled plastics. I wonder if you have noticed some of the newer blocks are not as shiny or smooth as older blocks because they have less oil. For all you etymologists out there, ‘Leg Godt’ is the Danish word for ‘play well’ and was shortened to the brand name LEGO®. Additionally, the Latin verb “legō” means ‘I put together.’ Both definitions aptly fit the LEGO® ethos of being creative and playful.

From 2001-2006, the imagination lab researched the use of LEGO® as a strategic business tool for productivity. After many years of success LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® materials and method became open source in 2010. LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® in its purest form would take several days to complete. For example, working through a series of builds to generate ideas, designing a product, testing out ideas, and refining the strategy to make it all work. LEGO® activities provided by the University of Exeter are a taster of core elements including construct, metaphor, imagination, and storytelling, which form the process of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®.

The beauty of LEGO® is its limitless application, particularly in higher education, and you do not need expensive kits for a session. A simple choice of blocks is enough to take part and enjoy LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®. Sometimes less is more, and fewer variety of bricks encourages participants to go back to basics, get creative and re-think the foundation of their challenge or task. Stepping back from online gaming, LEGO® blocks is a multi-sensory approach of touch, colour, and construction of a 3D model to bring abstract ideas into physical form. Dialogic learning occurs through participants storytelling behind the build and develops critical thinking and reflection for problem solving. You name it, and there is a LEGO® activity that can be created for specific scenario-based learning or part of a research project. For example, the Doctoral College, University of Exeter, delivers ‘Finding your way out of a rut’ and ‘Writer’s block’ through LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® activities. This starts with warm-up builds such as picking a shape that reflects something about you to share with the group, followed by builds to overcome specific challenges and develop postgraduate research skills. You might even argue LEGO® as a research method! There are several learning theories that support LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® materials and methods, based on how knowledge is constructed and experienced, which links with a myriad of pedagogical approaches but that is a blog for another time.

Having run several LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® type sessions, I have also seen the benefit of simply putting bags of LEGO® and base boards on a table and watching groups of students gather and talk whilst making free-builds. LEGO® busies the hands to free the mind and let the playfulness flow. Who can resist delving into a bag of LEGO®? Additionally, LEGO® is a fantastic way to ‘build’ connections across faculties, student groups, and add to the vibrant research community at the University of Exeter. LEGO® has no agenda, no barriers and is an inclusive approach to explore challenges, concepts, and learning opportunities. There is no right or wrong builds, just use your imagination, keep it fun, trust the process, and seriously, be playful!

If you want to know more about LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®, please visit and  You can also find LEGO® events on social media and university communications.

Postdoc experience as a member of the Developmental Intergroup Process (DIP) Lab

Bio: Tracey Warren is currently a postdoctoral research associate on an ESRC funded project within the Developmental Intergroup Processes (DIP) Lab (CLES) until the end of June 2022. Tracey is interested in research focusing on inclusion, diversity and equity in education and enjoys her time researching in schools, talking with parents and other stakeholders about their experiences within the education sector.

Having graduated with an EdD in December 2021 I was considering my future employment options as prior to writing up the thesis I had worked in pretty intensive education leadership positions, both internationally and within the UK.  After nearly five years of studying I really wasn’t sure what to do next: a postdoc or return to leadership posts within the primary or special education sector.  The post was advertised over the winter break and certainly hit all my interest requirements so I submitted an application.

The postdoc with the ESRC funded project ‘Bystander reactions to the intergroup exclusion of immigrants among British children and adolescents,’ under the guidance of principal investigator, Professor Adam Rutland, has certainly provided me with plenty of challenges, stretching my organisational skills, drawing on my knowledge within education and schools, as well as developing me as a researcher.  The Bystander project set out to inform educational policy and practice within schools which would encourage students to challenge discrimination, through social exclusion, and promote positive peer relationships. The project has drawn from the Social Reasoning Developmental (SRD) approach to social exclusion.

Since I took up post at the beginning of February 2022 a large part of my role has been liaising with schools, NGOs, practitioners (such as educational psychologists) and academics to set up seminars and workshops to disseminate the findings of this four-year project.  Along with these events there has been the opportunity to work within a project team to review the research findings, coding survey responses, discuss publications and further research study designs related to the initial project findings.

The role has also allowed me the opportunity to develop my own research ideas which have taken me into primary and secondary schools in and around Exeter to interview children and young people about their ideas on bystander responses. The focus groups and interviews are currently being transcribed and will inform a further study by another member of the project team, Ayse Sule Yuksel, that will take place during the second half of the summer term 2022.

Although the Bystander project is coming to the end of ESRC funding, the work continues as the team attend conferences to disseminate the work and articles are drafted, submitted and reviewed for academic publication.  If you are interested in the Bystander project findings you can find out more from the seminar and workshop at the Institute of Education on Friday 17th June, 2022, through the DIP Lab website and publication of the first article “Perceived Similarity and Bystander Self-Efficacy Increase the Likelihood of Youth Challenging the Exclusion of an Immigrant Peer” (in press) in

#research #psychology #education #inclusion #ESRC #bystander #bystanderresponses #schools #schoolsupport #immigrants #educationalpsychology #academicchatter #academia

A toolbox for overcoming challenges and finding your way out of a rut

Kelly Louise Preece is the Researcher Development Manager for PGRs and the Research and EDI Manager. You’ll recognise her face from workshops, her voice from WEBINARs, and her jokes from the 90s. You can follow her on twitter @Preece_Kelly and subscribe to her podcast for musings about researchers, development…and everything in between!  




Last week myself and my job share, Kathryn Coombes, travelled to Penryn to run a couple of face-to-face Lego Serious Play sessions. For those who haven’t attended one of our LSP sessions yet, LSP is a problem-solving methodology, developed by Lego. It is, quite simply, a tool to think through and reflect on problems. We use LSP to deal with some of the more challenging and ephemeral aspects of the PGR experience – for example dealing with writer’s block and finding your way out of a rut.

During the Finding your way out of a rut using Lego Serious Play session we develop a shared ‘toolbox’ for overcoming challenges. The toolbox developed in our sessions last week was particularly useful, and so we wanted to share it here.

  1. Before you start – stop and reflect. Rather than just diving in, think about the problem or challenge ahead of you and what you might need to do to overcome it.
  2. At this point, you may also want to identify your goal or outcome to help you focus on the problem more clearly. This may be setting a deadline, a particular ‘output’ (a presentation, journal article, draft of a chapter) or the answer to a question or problem.
  3. Break it down. Whilst have a goal is important, goals are often big and unmanageable – and therefore demotivating. If your goal is to write a draft of a thesis chapter, break it down in to smaller tasks – reviewing your notes, making a plan, writing individual sections. Smaller tasks are more achievable, less intimidating and help motivate us. You can find some useful resources on this in our Project managing your research degree online resource.
  4. Do your research. Use your skills and do what you do best. If you are stuck in a rut – perhaps you are struggling for motivation after your upgrade – do your research. What strategies exist for maintaining motivation? Can you undertake any training to help? (Hint you can – it’s called maintaining momentum and focus after your upgrade and you can watch a recording of the session on Exeter Learning Environment or access our online resources.)
  5. Talk to other people. Chances are someone in your immediate circle, one of your peers, a postdoc in your department, or even a friend of family member has experienced something similar. Talk the problem through with them. Ask them how they overcame it. What strategies did they develop? They may have helpful solutions – but sometimes just talking through a problem can help you think through a problem or feel less alone.
  6. Use your supervisors. Their role isn’t to solve the problem for you, but it is to guide you. They have oversight and perspective on your project or work as an outsider. Use it. They have also likely been through similar experiences – ask them how they dealt with it.
  7. Get creative. We tend to work in set ways, which work for us most of the time. You might have a set strategy for planning a piece of written work, for instance. But what can you do when it doesn’t work – if you get stuck? Do it differently. Simple tools like mind mapping, using post it notes, or even playing with Lego can help you visualise a problem differently, think critically and creatively and come up with solutions.
  8. Rest. We tend to think the answer to productivity or overcoming a problem is to keep working at it. But it isn’t. We need rest to recharge our literal and metaphorical batteries, but also to let our ideas percolate. There’s a reason why we have our lightbulb moments when we are doing something else – our brains are processing the information and making connections subconsciously. So having rest, and taking breaks, is one of the most important tools in your box. Kay Guccione calls it #TakeBreaksMakeBreakthroughs.
  9. As well as rest, relax. Rest and relaxation are not the same thing – something I have learned the hard way! Engage in activities that nourish and energise you – going for a coffee with a friend, binging the latest Netflix phenomenon, walking, reading, cooking, cycling…whatever floats your boat. For me, its all forms of crafting (knitting, crochet, sewing, embroidery…) and building Lego.
  10. When it’s over – stop and reflect. We learn more in our personal and professional lives from when things go wrong than when they go right. When you have overcome that challenge or got out of that metaphorical rut, reflect. What happened? What strategies did you use to overcome it? How did you cope physical and emotionally? What helped you relax? Who did it really helped to talk to? Through reflection, you can refine your toolbox and build something bespoke to you.

Tanya’s final model capturing both her rut, and strategies to overcome it.

With thanks to Raul Di La Fuento Pino, Hao Lu, Tanya Venture and Kathryn Coombes for the discussions and insights captured in this blog post.

Why do we need a Black Educators Book Club? 

Malcolm Richards is an independent doctoral research with the Graduate School of Education at the University of Exeter:




Camille London-Miyo is a PhD researcher with the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre De Montfort University, Leicester:

In the period following the murder of George Floyd (r.i.p) and the subsequent Movement for Black Lines protests across the United Kingdom between March and June 2020 (fire bun Colston), there has been renewed interest in the educational experiences of Black students, families, and educators. Here, Black (with ‘B’ capitalized) denotes peoples, cultures, knowledge, and communities of the African and African-Caribbean diaspora. Within this recent interest convergences, a variety of education institutions have sought to highlight their commitment to equality, diversity, inclusion, and anti-racist practices. Others have sought to ‘double down’ on their belief that institutional racism does not exist – or they can find no evidence to prove it. These are inevitably preoccupied with (small-c) conservative themes of migration, integration, and assimilation – though arguably grounded in (big-C) colonial and colonizing principles.

We maintain that the living experiences of Black educators have always offered a unique and central perspective in “exposing the tacit nature of racism and marginalisation in education” (Tembo, 2021).  Decades before ‘Small Axe’ (McQueen, 2020) and ‘Uprising (McQueen, 2021), Black and anti-racist educators have drawn upon the legacy work of social movements which were instrumental to the educational advances made across our educational community. A long and extensive history of educational discourse across Black communities has directly informed these movements, which has centring perspectives and lived experience providing valuable insights about the roles of equity and race in education (Andrews and Palmer, 2016). Some seminal works, such as “How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Subnormal by the British Education System” (Coard, 1971/2021) are becoming important reference points for new generations of educators and referenced widely within the teaching education and development profession. Other books have had recent reissues, such as Beryl Gilroy’s “Black Teacher” (1976/2021) or Heart of the Race (Bryan, 1985/ 2018), and place the importance of the vital contribution’s Black women centrally. There are so many other examples. We suggest that Black educators have long always formed part of a critical pedagogy, which is rooted in love, care and understanding for all. Yet within our respective universities, as we sought reading lists, academic events, and expertise to help us on our emerging academic endeavours, we found an absence of course content related to the experiences of Black educators. Instead, we were subjected to academic experiences which appeared, despite the best intentions of colleagues, rooted in deficit theorizing, or reduced into institutional pedagogical responses characterised as “the three S’s: saris, samosas, and steel bands” (Troyna, 1987). We had so many questions: how can emerging academics place centrally the counter-stories of Black educators who have directly influenced our academic works? Where can academics and educators engage with the significant research, teaching, resources, activism, community education and transformative practices which has emerged from Black educators and Black education spaces? What is this black in Black education, and who is this black in Black Educators?

Our response was small, but important. We created the Black Educators Book Club to encourage a intercultural, interdisciplinary space where colleagues can critically engage with such enquiries, while also centring, honouring, celebrating, and valuing some of the collective community praxis which we believe has emerged from it. The Black Educators Book Club is a virtual monthly lunchtime book club is open to staff, students, and professional service members at University of Exeter and De Montfort University, members, and affiliates of the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre (SLRC) and Race, Ethnicity and Education Network (REEN), as well as education staff in schools, colleges, academies, and other educational organisations.  In the words of our friend, colleague and first BEBEC guest, Zahra Bei (2021), our hope is to honour the “legacy works” of knowledge production, praxis and peoples which recognise that Black educators have little alternative but to be transformative (Osler,1997) in their practices.

#BEBC2021 Readings:

  • #1 – How the West Indian Child Is Made Educationally Subnormal by The British Education System by Bernard Coard (1971/2021)
  • #2 – Spaces and Places of Black Educational Desire: Rethinking Black Supplementary Schools as a New Social Movement by Professor Heidi Mirza and Professor Diane Reay’ (2000)
  • #3 – Black Male Teachers, White Education Spaces: Troubling School Practices of Othering and Surveillance by Dr Christine Callender (2019)
  • #4 – Visible and Invisible Barriers: the impact of racism on BME teachers by Dr Zubaida Haque and Sian Elliott (2017)
  • #5 – What is this Black in popular black culture? by Professor Stuart Hall (1993)


Andrews, K. & Palmer, L. eds. (2016). Blackness in Britain, 1st edition, Routledge.

Bryan, B., Dadzie, S. & Scafe, S. (1985). The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain. London: Virago.

Coard, B. (1971) Making Black Children Subnormal in Britain, Equity & Excellence in Education, 9:5, 49-52.

Coard, B. (1971). How the West Indian child is made educationally subnormal in the British school system: the scandal of the black child in schools in Britain. London, New Beacon for the Caribbean Education and Community Workers’ Association.

Gilroy, B.  (1976) Black Teacher, Cassell, 1976. Reprinted Bogle-L’Ouverture, 1994

McQueen, S. (2020). ‘Small Axe”, BBC Television, Available from:

McQueen, S. (2021). ‘Uprising’, BBC Television, Available from:

Osler, A. (1997). The education and careers of Black teachers: changing identies, changing lives, Open University Press, Buckingham, UK.

Tembo, S. (2021) ‘Black educators in (white) settings: Making racial identity visible in Early Childhood Education and Care in England, UK’, Journal of Early Childhood Research, 19(1), pp. 70–83.

Troyna, B. (1987) Beyond Multiculturalism: towards the enactment of anti‐racist education in policy, provision and pedagogy, Oxford Review of Education,13:3, 307-320.


Supervising Neurodiverse PGRs

Kelly Louise Preece is the Researcher Development Manager for PGRs iand the Research and EDI Manager. You’ll recognise her face from workshops, her voice from WEBINARs, and her jokes from the 90s. You can follow her on twitter @Preece_Kelly for musings about researchers, development…and everything in between! 





One of the challenges of PGR supervision is that it is a bespoke form of teaching, directed towards supporting an individual. Every PGR, and every project, will need the supervisor to reflect and modify their approach to ensure the success of the student and the project. This ‘bespoke’ nature of supervision becomes more complex when it interacts with some form of impairment from outside of the research process.

I spoke to two of our neurodiverse gradutes, Dr. Jane May Morrison and Dr. Edward Mills, about their experience of being a neurodivergent PGR for my podcast Researchers, Development, and the In-Betweens. From this insightful conversation, I have distilled some advice for supervising neurodiverse PGRs.

Awareness raising

 An important part of supervising neurodiverse PGRs in raising your awareness of the challenges associated with different conditions. Information is the key. You can do your own research but be aware that the media and popular culture tend to feed into stereotypes rather than representing the nuanced experience of neurodiversity (for example, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory is a classic example a one-dimensional representation of autism). The best thing you can do is talk to your student. Every neurodivergent condition, and every individual’s experience of that condition, is different. Your student is the expert, so just be willing to listen and learn.

ILPs can help – but make use of the Supervision Agreement

Individual Learning Plans are a challenge for PGRs because they tend to focus on undergraduates. Traditional recommendations for extra exam time don’t apply, but that doesn’t mean a discussion of adjustments isn’t helpful. Supervisors could us the ILP alongside the Supervision Agreement to discuss individual needs. For example, a student with ADHD might need more structured deadlines, and a student with autism might need clearer more direct communication. Teasing out these challenges can help supervisors and PGRs deal with them more proactively throughout the research process.

Engage in meta-communication

Something you may need to do with neurodiverse PGRs is engage in meta-communication. There are ways we traditionally communicate in academia, for example when giving feedback, that can be vague and obtuse for students with autism. Talking through and reflecting on the ways you communicate can ensure that advice, directions and feedback is clear and understood! This isn’t just the case with neurodiverse PGRs – meta-communication would benefit all PGRs to ensure clarity and more productive ways of working.

Be prepared to challenge academic conventions and ways of doing

A lot of neurodiverse PGRs face challenges due to academic conventions. They experience a lack of flexibility, or willingness to do these differently, based on the idea that ‘this is just how things are done’. This perpetuates an ableist idea that maybe academic isn’t ‘for them’. Be prepared to question why we do things in certain ways, and to find different ways of working where necessary.

For further insight, why not listen to the podcast?

Journeys with mindfulness

Bio: Chloe Asker (she/they) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Exeter, UK, funded by the South West Doctoral Training Partnership, ESRC. Their research interests centre around mindfulness, (self & community) care, therapeutic geographies, vulnerability, atmospheres and the breath.

Storytelling is ‘a way of redrawing maps and finding new destinations’ (Frank, 1995, p. 53), in that stories offer a way to reflect and come to terms with new ways of seeing ourselves and our lives (Salter and Newkirk, 2019). My doctoral research was based on lived experiences of, or journeys with, mindfulness. As part of the research I worked with a group of participants, tracing their experiences of mindfulness as both a meditation practice but also as a way of living. Over the course of two mindfulness courses and follow up interviews I witnessed the transformative effect that mindfulness had on their lives. Giving my participants a space in which to recount their relationship with the practice offered an opportunity to reflect on their journey, which in turn prompted them to realise the deep effects mindfulness had on their life. One participant was nervous to meet with me, she thought she had nothing to say about her relationship with mindfulness:

“I said to [my partner] “oh Chloe’s coming to see me, but I don’t think I’m going to be much of a project, to write about! I’m not that interesting, because I haven’t done anything else, any of the things!” But actually it’s been a revelation for me to talk to you cos I [laughs}….”

“Yeah, so it’s another blessing really that you’ve come, and I’ve been able to find inside me the things that mindfulness has done for me that I didn’t know.”

[Transcript from interview with a participant 5/6/2019]

As she spoke it became clear that her journey, although at times challenging, had certainly been transformative.

Frustrated with the unreadability of a 100,000 word PhD thesis, I wanted to create an output from the research that would be short, enjoyable to read, interactive and easy to share. I was keen to create something accessible that could communicate the transformative experiences that my participants had shared with me. I also wanted to gently push back against the overwhelming and overarching critiques of mindfulness as ‘McMindfulness’ (Purser, 2019), to show that the practice could be life changing for those involved. I decided to write a zine based on a chapter of my thesis that explores their journeys. I have experimented with the zine format throughout my doctoral research – finding the open format and structure useful to creative and participatory research. I was also inspired by Sarah Marie Hall’s (2017) zine ‘Everyday Austerity’. However, lacking in artist competency myself, I worked with an illustrator, Isabel Mae Abrams, to design the zine together. To fund the project I used a top-up to my Research and Training Grant (SWDTP, ESRC) to fund the illustration and publication of the zine.

The zine stories several journeys with mindfulness based on the participants’ stories (including my own). To make the booklet interactive and mindful in its format, we worked on a colouring page in the centre fold, along with pauses and a body scan meditation at the end. The zine also comes with three illustrated postcards – you can use these however you’d like. But one option is to write your experiences with mindfulness/meditation and send them back to us in order to continue the conversation on the benefits (or frustrations with) the practice (if you’d like to do this use our contact page to request more information).

Journeys with mindfulness is free to download here as a pdf, or you can read it on issu here. You can also request a printed copy of the zine and postcards here (these are free!)

We would love to know what you think of the zine! Get in contact with us here.

Please note: this blog post has also been posted on the SWDTP website.


Frank, A. W. (1995) The wounded storyteller: body, illness and ethics. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press.

Marie Hall, S. (2017) Everyday Austerity.

Purser, R. (2019) McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. Watkins Media.

Salter, L., and Newkirk, J. (2019) Collective Storytelling for Health: A Three-Part Story. Storytelling, Self, Society 15(1): 108–129.

Depression, anxiety and my PhD

Bio: Gemma is currently working as a postdoc within the Land Environment Economics & Policy Institute at the University of Exeter. Her research focuses upon the interactions between energy systems and the natural environment. You can follow her on twitter @G_Delafield.

Trigger warning- please note that this blog post may contain topics which some people may find sensitive.

In November I successfully defended my PhD. I am now officially Dr Delafield. However, if we rewind to December 2019, I was sat on a bench on campus crying on the phone to my partner discussing whether or not I should leave my program.

I have suffered from anxiety and depression for over 10 years and knew the potential threat a PhD might pose to my mental health before I had even started. It’s no secret that the culture of overwork in academia, alongside experiences of bullying and discrimination, contributes to 86% of PhD students reporting marked levels of anxiety.[1]

I am telling you my story to help tackle the stigma around mental health. If you are struggling, I want you to know that you are not alone. Seeking help is a strength, not a weakness and you should never feel shame in doing so.

Since starting my PhD I have actively tried to protect my mental health.[2] I disclosed my history of anxiety and depression to the university and my supervisor. I took the annual leave I was entitled to. I avoided working on the evenings or weekends. When problems arose I would approach my supervisor to try to work through them.

Despite my efforts, by late 2018 I found myself struggling. I was living apart from my partner and had taken on teaching work which I didn’t yet feel particularly confident in doing. I often felt a strong sense of imposter syndrome. I did not feel like I belonged and I started having difficult discussions with my supervisor regarding the direction I wanted to take my research in. I spent weeks at my desk getting very little done as most of my energy was going into trying not to cry.

I tried to access counselling through the university and my GP but had no success. The university’s counselling service was so oversubscribed at the time they had closed the waiting list and the NHS could not offer me the type of therapy I needed. I ended up using the money I was making through my teaching work to pay for private therapy (the irony of this situation did not escape me…).

With the help of therapy, I started to prioritise what I wanted to get from my PhD experience and took the pressure off of myself to achieve the ‘perfect’ piece of research. I started to reap the benefits of disclosing my disability to the university by attending Health, Wellbeing and Support for Study (HWSS) meetings and asking to be assigned a wellbeing mentor.[3] Most importantly I learnt the power of saying no and setting clear boundaries in an environment which (sadly) encourages overworking.[4]

All of these measures helped me considerably. However due to a lack of sick pay, I never actually took time off to fully recharge. By December 2019, a series of events culminated in me sitting on that bench, in tears, deciding whether I should leave my PhD program. I took Christmas to gather myself and be with my family. A stroke of good fortune occurred in January 2020 when I saw a tweet highlighting that UKRI had updated their sick pay policy which meant I was now entitled to 13 weeks paid sick leave per year. By February, I had made the decision to interrupt my studies.

In total, I took 15 weeks off from my PhD. For many weeks, my to do list consisted simply of: eat, shower, take my antidepressants and do some mindfulness or yoga. Some days I felt fairly content, other days I was plagued by feelings of guilt and shame. I was lucky enough to have a strong support network around me who reminded me that taking an interruption from (or even quitting) your PhD is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of great strength. At the end of the day looking after your mind and body is much more important than work. I started doing some volunteering which reminded me of the transferable skills I’d developed throughout my PhD.

Time away from the PhD allowed me to spend time looking after myself and put measures in place to ensure when I returned to my research I’d be better supported. I set out a clear plan for my remaining chapters, I brought onboard a new second supervisor, and arranged several HWSS meetings to check in on how I was doing. I started attending Shut Up & Write sessions with fellow PhD students to provide structure to my days. I felt empowered by my decision to put my health first and started campaigning to raise awareness of inclusivity issues within the university.

The final stages of my PhD were difficult, I cannot lie. I requested a 3 month COVID extension as lockdowns had heightened my sense of anxiety. In the last few months leading up to my deadline, I worked longer hours to ensure I finished on time. The physical symptoms of stress took their toll on me. Checking in with my wellbeing mentor every week however allowed me to note when I wasn’t taking good enough care of myself and put in place measures to manage my health. With the support of friends and family, I finally submitted my thesis. I celebrated by sleeping, sunbathing and listening to audiobooks for a solid 2 weeks.

I am proud of myself, not only for finishing my PhD, but for doing so whilst championing myself and my rights as a disabled individual.

I live in hope that the culture in academia will change. That more and more individuals will reject the expectation to overwork and fight for systematic change. That universities will work with the community to create an environment where everyone, no matter their disability, gender, race or sexuality, is supported to achieve what they are capable of.

Written by: Gemma Delafield (former PhD student in the Business School)

This blog post was written in affiliation with the Universities Disability and Chronically Ill network. The network is open to all and aims to provide a space for staff and students to connect, share experiences and information as well as provide support. Further details about the network can be found on their webpage.

We realise that through reading this article you may find some of the information distressing and/or may identify with some of the issues and therefore may need some support. Below is a list of support available to all PGR students at Exeter:

Wellbeing Support

  • Exeter based students- Speak to the University of Exeter’s Wellbeing team (available to all students on the Streatham and St Lukes campuses)
  • Cornwall based students- Speak to Fxplus wellbeing services (available to all students based on the Penryn or Truro campuses)
  • Speak to the PGR Education Welfare Advisor-
  • University Networks
  • Call Spectrum Life (available to PGRs and staff)
  • Speak to your GP
  • Call the Samaritans on 116 123
  • Details of all the support available to PGRs can be found on the Doctoral College website
  • If there is an immediate emergency please call 999. Further details about urgent support available please see the Wellbeing website.

Policies to support PGRs



[2] You can read my previous blog about work life balance here.

[3] You can find out more about HWSS meetings and Disability Support Allowance funded wellbeing mentors here and here.

[4] A useful TED talk about setting boundaries.

Finding community in writing

Umas Jin is a final year English PhD researcher, who is about to submit his thesis. His research looks at the intellectual resonances between Virginia Woolf and neuropsychologists of her time and those who came after her. It also touches upon how narrative can play an important part to better understand the mind-body relation as holistic and dynamic.

I would like to share my writing experience with the writing workshop Shut up and Write. In the pre-Covid lockdown era, I normally worked in the office with other colleagues as they gave me a sense of “togetherness”. Although we were doing our own research, we were working, basically, together in the same location and time. English is not my first language so I would have the opportunity to ask my colleagues in the office about grammar and language. At that time, I was aware of the writing group but I rarely attended. Looking back, I think I took it for granted. However, things changed when the lockdown began last year. I could not go back to the office and many of my colleagues moved back with their families, friends, and partners. I was thankful to my best mate Chris who accompanied me throughout the difficult times.

During the lockdown, the Shut up and Write group moved online. First, I doubted whether it would work for me as I prefer working with people and seeing them face-to-face. Nonetheless, it went pretty well! Because it is online, I’ve got to know people around the UK and even the Globe. People are very nice and welcoming to each other. I like how we split time into 25 minutes for work and 5 minutes for break, so we would not indulge too much in our own work but balance our time in a day. I decided to help hosting the online workshop which was a good experience. As we gradually walked out of the lockdown in April this year, I was able to do two in-person writing sessions in St Luke’s Campus. I was indeed keen on doing the workshop with peers and seeing faces. We chatted, ate cookies, and worked on our research.

In the PhD journey, we may feel isolated and lonely as we are doing different research, topics, and fields on our own. However, the purpose of Shut up and Write, I believe, is to help us understand that we are not alone and are supported by one another. In addition, the group also introduces us to people from various disciplines, ethnicities, and cultures, which I think can be inspirational for our own research and lives. Whether the group is online or in person, we are able to interact with others who are actually walking along with us in our journey.

With plans to restart the writing group in person next year, I would make the most of it and try my best to support peers. Community is what researchers need the most!

The PGR seminars of SITE, a new space for student engagement and visibility

Josep Pinyol Alberich is an ESR fellow at the Academy of Business and Society (ABIS) and a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter. Josep’s research project focuses on the analysis of the existing political discourses on the topic of Circular Economy in the European Union and the relationship between existing public discourses and policy change.

Professor Jing-Lin Duanmu joined the Business School in January 2020.  Her research interests include foreign direct investment, international trade, political relations, and corporate social responsibility. Her research has appeared in Strategic Management Journal, Journal of International Business Studies, Journal of World Business, International Business Review and World Economy.

Since March of this year, we have started a new series of webinars at the SITE department. This series of webinars allow our PGRs (MRes and PhD students) to present their research project to their peers and academics in SITE. This was also an opportunity for us to personally get in touch with all the PGRs and to get to know what their research projects are, and to both learn from it and from the feedback and opinions from our peers at SITE.

The PGR webinars were first announced on the 22nd of February, when a call of abstracts was made. The first webinar was made on the 3rd of March, and since then, we organized 8 webinars, and three more webinars are planned until November. Our objective is that at least, all PhD and most of MRes students present their research to SITE.

The PGR webinars of SITE addressed several topics, for instance providing new insights into different issues of leadership, public policy, and the circular economy. Thus, it provides an opportunity for all members of SITE to learn about what kind of research our PGR student are engaging and what methods they use, where they conduct their research, and how they have access to their data. This has been a highly inspiring experience, as it provided us a chance to learn more globally about the work that is being done in SITE, thus, acquiring a broader vision of the department’s work that we did not know before.

The organization of the PGR webinars in SITE has become highly valuable for all MRes and PhD students in SITE. First, it gives visibility to the ongoing student-led research, which helps all SITE members, especially students to better know each other and identify collaboration opportunities. The webinars are also a very valuable opportunity for early researchers to obtain feedback from the department. This feedback is an excellent opportunity for us to learn about potential literature that we may have missed, methods that we can experiment with, or data sources that we did not know about. Finally, to do these presentations is a great opportunity for students to gain experience in presenting their research.

In summary, the presence of the PGR webinars of SITE allows us to create a new space in SITE to give visibility to PGRs. This space enables students to connect and engage with the department, and for the department to know better our PGRs. This is mutually beneficial, as PGRs obtain valuable feedback and experience, and it benefits our research output, as it provides an opportunity to collaborate within the department. As organizers, this experience has been very positive, as it helped us to connect better within our faculty, and to obtain a better vision about topics and methods that we did not know about, and to learn from the feedback of our colleagues. Engaging in the discussions after the PGR presentations created an opportunity to enrich the students work with the experience and knowledge from the whole department, and an exciting opportunity for us to broaden our vision on diverse topics and to gain a department-wide perspective of how research is conducted in SITE.

Why Sharks?

A passion for the ocean and an activist-researcher for abandoned animals, Sarah Oxley Heaney works in the second field and has based her anthrozoology PhD project around the first. Sarah believes that more-than-human animals have intrinsic value and do not exist solely for our use; scuba diving with sharks, which is a passion she was fortunate enough to begin over 20 years ago. Additionally, Sarah is passionate about contributing her voice to those who fight for sharks, their aquatic environments and the effect their population decline has upon eco and planetary systems, through scholarly activism. Moreover, although Sarah is careful to not ‘speak for’ more-than-human animals, she does wish to add to literature reflecting more-than-human animal biographies and their lived experiences. Sarah can be contacted on and

Scuba diving changes your life. If you fall in love with diving, it can capture your imagination and redirect your life substantially. Not only does the sensation of being submerged underwater sublimely alter your sensual worldview, but your perspectives of the nonhuman animals, landscapes even plants that can be encountered on our spinning planet undergo serious metamorphoses.

Since I learnt to dive, in the UK in 1996 I have been fortunate to dive in many locations around the world: UK, Palau, Egypt, Colombia, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Sulawesi, Lembah Strait, Bunaken, Myanmar, Thailand, Egypt, Yap, Tobago, Malpelo and intend to explore many more places. My first encounter with a live shark was with non-captive sharks in the Maldives, where we saw many on most dives. I became mesmerised. ‘They are not interested’, ‘can they smell me?’, ‘will they come too close?’ The answer to the last question is in my dreams! Trying to dive with sharks has become a quest, to see them close in their own environment, but, in this quest have come to question their experiences of life, this is not, or should not, be about me wanting something from life without giving back.

The Maldives was my first international trip following cold-water dive training, sometimes in 6 deg C quarry water and a 99% of the time in poor-viz, cold water, big wind UK diving. Exhilarating and exhausting. We always rewarded ourselves with chips, mushy peas and a pint! UK diving can be incredible and I have been fortunate to have amazing, memorable dives with seals and other marine life, but there is a big difference between cold-water, drysuit, UK diving and encountering the Maldives tropical diving! The scenery above and below water took my breath away. I knew very little about tropical marine life on that first trip and seeing such colour and abundance (pre 1998 coral bleaching events) I was hooked! I realised that seeing sharks on that trip did not evoke the emotion that many people seem to feel about sharks, i.e. somewhere on the apprehensive to terrified scale, in fact to see any was incredibly exciting.

Without too much consideration for the sharks I was to encounter, I dived in a tank in the UK with tiger sharks. For my own entertainment, I am rather ashamed now, but, it helped lead me to this PhD, so perhaps there can be a giving back to those sharks’ free entertainment-for-humananiamals-labour. What I remember most was that the sharks were not at all interested in me. They were big, 8ft long perhaps? They swam over my head, with the distinctive ragged teeth, without looking at me. I had to duck a few times so they didn’t bump into me. It struck me, although this was an amazing experience their disinterest in me and their surroundings seemed unnatural. I am not sure what I expected at the time, perhaps I thought they would come over, ‘investigate’ this new presence but they just passed by. Were they displaying learned helplessness (Seligman 1972)? I don’t know, I don’t know enough about shark behaviour, but, I do know, in the oceans they keep their distance. They do not sneak up and bite people in the stereotypical way the media portrays. At that time I didn’t consider the sharks’ origins, although I do now as I wonder what their experience of life has been, how mentally and physically comfortable or uncomfortable they are. What are their biographies, their journeys to that tank? Their disinterest however, was not only a surprise and but an instant comfort to me as a diver as I immediately felt I would never have a fear of diving with sharks. I am still ambivalent about this experience, my perception of sharks was instantly cemented, possibly to the benefit of shark species in some form of conservation awareness, but at what cost to the shark? My research, in some ways, is payment to those unknown sharks. To offer some sort of recompense in trying to tell the stories of their Selachimorpha families.

Eventually, on our diving expeditions, my husband and I sought out diving with sharks, taking long, gruelling journeys to reach famous global dive sites. Simultaneously, I embarked on a journey of understanding, becoming aware of the dangers faced by sharks globally, as species and as individuals. My undergrad study taught me about oceanography; MA in Environment, Policy and Society introduced me to ethics. My MA in Anthrozoology continued that teaching and gave me tools to learn how to tell the stories of animals, how sharks and human-animals shape our planet and to look at shark-human encounters through an symbiotic-ethical, anthrozoological lens. These passions, diving, sharks, anthrozoology, the human effect on our planet and my believe that animals have intrinsic value, overlap and the intersection creates a space for my PhD research.

So now, in my second year of my part-time anthrozoological PhD with some shark-reading under my belt I begin to reach out and reveal my intended research plan. Watch this website or @kissingsharks on social media for the next stage in my multispecies ethnographic journey!