STEM Gamechangers: Scientists Are Humans

Alison Young is a final year PhD student in Astrophysics. Her research involves working on computer models of star formation and, in particular, bridging the gap between theory and observation to verify our understanding of how stars are born.


Scientists are humans. OK, so what does it matter? Science can be tough. It is normal to put in long hours; we compete for grants and jobs; science careers often involve moving to different countries. Then there is the very evident lack of diversity. As humans, we all have lives outside of science and having a disability, caring for children, illness or being a minority at work, for example, can make it difficult for scientists to do their science well or even to stay in STEM. Scientists Are Humans grew out of a project I worked on at the STEM Gamechangers workshop at the Alan Turing Institute over two days in September and we’re interested in supporting the humans behind the science.

The aim of Gamechangers was to bring together people from all over the UK who are working on initiatives to increase diversity in STEM so that we could swap ideas and design projects to really make a difference. The room was filled with 40 truly inspiring people from undergraduates to business HR officers. There were women who had spoken out about harassment, a BME woman who had fought against sexism to study engineering and won Young Woman Engineer of the Year, and several people who bravely spoke out about their mental health difficulties. There was a founder of Pride In STEM; someone who teaches disadvantaged children to code; founders of several women’s networks… They spoke about their experiences candidly but not without humour. Many said this was the first time they had felt completely “at home” and accepted with other scientists.

Over the two days, my group developed the project “Scientists are Humans”. We realised that science could be far more inclusive if it was kinder and if we could share stories from real humans about their experiences and tips of how to make science better. We put together a manifesto for building a better STEM. The idea is simple: “Be more kind”. Expanded a little, this involves suggestions such as seeking to understand the experiences of other scientists; building kind teams where we support our colleagues; and developing a better work-life balance ourselves and helping others to do the same. We would love for every scientist from undergraduate to professor to sign up to this pledge.

We have put together a website to share stories and tips through short contributed articles, that scientists at all levels can use to help support themselves and to help understand how they can better support their colleagues and students. It is our hope that we can all build a better, kinder STEM through listening to each other’s experiences and supporting each other to achieve all we are capable of.

Written By: Alison Young, PhD researcher in Astrophysics. You can find out more about Alison and her research by following her on twitter @AlisonYspace.

You can find out more about Scientists Are Humans on their website, by liking them on Facebook or following them on twitter @scientistshuman.


Preparing For Your Viva – Our Top Tips

Kelly Louise Preece is the Researcher Development Manager for PGRs in the Doctoral College. You’ll recognise her face from workshops, her voice from WEBINARs, and her jokes from the 90s. You can follow her on twitter for musings about Researcher Development and the PGR experience…interspersed with tweets about superheros and sewing.


We’ve had a few PGRs tweeting us recently asking for viva advice and top tips. Although we have some great advice and resources of our Preparing For Your Viva ELE page, I thought it would be useful to write a short post about the advice we share in our viva workshops and WEBINARs. So here are our top ten tips:

  1. Before you start preparing, take a break. You have been working flat out on your research you at least 3 years, and have no doubt spent several intense months engrossed in the writing and editing of your thesis. Take some time away from it. Go on holiday like Dr. Emily Johnson did. Get perspective on your thesis to better enable you to defend it in the viva.
  2. When you’re reading your thesis, you’re bound to notice spelling, grammar and typing errors. It’s normal. Make a list of corrections, print them out and go in to the viva prepared to share them with your examiners.
  3. Re-reading the thesis is useful preparation, but it’s not enough.
  4. Do a mock-viva – with your supervisors, your peers, your friends, your family…practice talking about your research again after months of focusing on your writing.
  5. Practice summarising your research – vivas often beginning with a question asking you to summarise your thesis or key findings, to help settle you in.
  6. Prepare answers to your nightmare questions – whatever you fear being asked about the most, prepare and practice your answers. Chances are your nightmare questions won’t come up, but you’ll feel better knowing how to answer if they do.
  7. Read new material that has been published – your examiners may ask you how a new piece of research impacts on your thesis!
  8. Remember what is being examined – there is nothing mystical about research degree examination – your examiners assess your research according to a fixed set of criteria.
  9. Remember – you are the expert! Your examiners are experts in their field, and they may be an expert in yours – but they are not the leading expert on your research or thesis. You are.
  10. As much as you can, try and relax. Nerves are normal. You’ve done the hardest bit already – doing the research, writing the thesis. What an achievement! The viva is your chance to demonstrate and affirm everything you have learnt throughout your research degree.

Still have more questions? Why not download Preparing For Your Viva – Frequently Asked Questions, which compiles all the questions and answers from our Preparing For Your Viva Q&A Panels.

Written by: Kelly Louise Preece- Researcher Development Manager for PGRs

Working Well

Kelly Louise Preece is the Researcher Development Manager for PGRs in the Doctoral College. You’ll recognise her face from workshops, her voice from WEBINARs, and her jokes from the 90s. You can follow her on twitter for musings about Researcher Development and the PGR experience…interspersed with tweets about superheros and sewing.



I have been busy over the last few weeks delivering our introductory training sessions – we’ve run these so far on how to be an effective researcher, future proofing yourself and your career and getting started with your literature review. No matter the focus of the course, myself and other presenters have inevitably been asked about good daily work habits for PGRs. After a session at our Penryn campus I tweeted a few top tips, and thought they were worth sharing in a blog post.

These top tips do, however, come with a couple of caveats. The first is that I am not perfect, and although I know I should be doing all of these things…I don’t always do them. I contributed to a Guardian article about study habits earlier this year, and we recognised in our team the irony of some of my advice as I have a tendency to overwork. I’m human, you’re human. If you think you have bad work habits, or you don’t always do the things you know you should, don’t beat yourself up about it.

The second is that these are 100% borrowed from other people and sources. I’ll try my best to appropriately credit the person or organisation that shared this wisdom with me.

  • Treat your research degree like a job. Do 9-5 hours (or an 8 hour day at times that work for you) and protect your evenings and weekends as much as you can. You and your research will be better for it.  Credit: Gemma Delafield, PGR in the Business School. You can find Gemma on twitter @G_Delafield.
  • Dr. Kay Guccione’s mantra is #takebreaksmakebreakthroughs is all about making sure you have regular breaks, throughout your day, week, and academic year. Try to take a 5 minute break at least every hour. Go and get a cup of tea and speak to your colleagues. Lots of our departments have weekly coffee mornings – if yours doesn’t, why not set one up?
  • Have lunch away from your desk. You are more likely to have those ‘aha’ moments when you are not focusing on the problem at hand. It’s how we process information.
  • And always take your annual leave allowance – yes you have one!
  • Take up a hobby or a regular self-care activity. They really help with work life balance. I sew and read copious amount of fiction, both of which keep my brain engaged but on something other than work. And sometimes if I need to de-stress at the end of the day, I just take my brothers dogs for a walk. Nature and fresh air can do you the world of good. As of course, can a puppy.

A necessary pictures of said dogs, because sometimes only cute animal pictures will do

  • If you don’t have immediate access to a puppy, BorrowMyDoggy is a great way to fill the animal void in your life, or if you have a car Charlotte our PGR and ECR Experience Officer recommends a relaxing walk around The Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth. If animals aren’t your thing, Biosciences PhD student, Rebecca Millard, was awarded a grant by the University of Exeter Annual Fund to set up weekly indoor hockey sessions to enhance mental wellbeing for Exeter’s postgraduate researcher community.
  • We can’t be 100% focused and productive 100% of the time. It’s not how we are made. When making to do lists, list creative and mundane tasks – those that require our best thinking, and those that are glorified admin (or what Edward Mills @edward_mills termed Gradmin). That way, you gave tasks to do that move your project forward when you’re feeling highly focused and motivated, and also when you’re feeling a little bit sleepy after lunch. This is great advice I got from Vitae!
  • Talk to your peers, learn from each other, create support networks and communities to get you out of the office or help you procrastinate and laugh on a Wednesday afternoon – just like Humanities Office C when they created PhD the Musical!


But most importantly, look after yourself. You can’t do your research if you don’t do you first.

Career Profile – Anna-Marie Linnell


Name: Anna-Marie Linnell

Current Role: Regional Manager (West of England)

PhD Subject and Graduation Year: English literature, graduated 2016

How did you become interested in the area that you work in?

The Brilliant Club supports PhD researchers to design teaching programmes based on their research, that will inspire more pupils from underrepresented backgrounds to study at highly-selective universities. The idea is that pupils will have the chance to stretch themselves academically and think about their options after school in a new way, whilst we train PhD researchers to develop their impact. Throughout my PhD, I was committed to the principle that academics should be able to demonstrate meaningful impact from their research. I produced public engagement materials for the Stuart Successions Project and ran a community history project funded by RCUK. By doing this, I realised that with the best will in the world it’s hard for academics to be able to design and/or deliver meaningful programmes for social impact on top of their research commitments. It’s also difficult for academics to evaluate that impact and think about how it can be further developed. When I found out there was a charity that specialises in identifying the barriers and challenges that young people face within the school system, and then trains researchers to help tackle them, I knew that was something I wanted to be part of.

How did you get to where you are today? (i.e. a brief overview of your career trajectory to date)

I started an undergraduate degree at the University of Exeter in 2008 and continued straight through to a MA in English Studies. During my MA, I successfully applied for a doctoral studentship with the AHRC Stuart Successions Project. This studentship was supervised by Professor Andrew McRae (University of Exeter) and Professor Paulina Kewes (University of Oxford), and I taught as a Graduate Teaching Assistant at Exeter throughout. I joined the Brilliant Club as a Programme Officer for the South after completing my viva, and have since moved to be Regional Manager for the West of England.

What does your current role involve, any skills and/or personal qualities needed?  

The most important thing to my role is passion and commitment to the Brilliant Club’s mission. It’s a varied role, which means working with a range of stakeholders – including teachers, university staff and researchers – who all want to make a positive difference for the young people we work with. You need a lot of empathy and great listening skills, as well as excellent time management and the ability to work well under pressure. The skills I developed through my PhD are all useful; the ability to set your own deadlines, grasp and apply core information and concepts, and attend to detail, are all vital to keeping on top of the role.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

The amount I get to learn!

Are there any things that are not so good?

I’m lucky that the Brilliant Club has a flexible working hours policy and we are out on the road visiting schools and universities a lot – I find sitting at a desk 9am-5pm quite hard after years of independent study.

Has anything surprised you about your role?

Having worked at the charity for a year already, I was going in with open eyes.

What key tips would you give to any students who might be considering entering a similar field today?

The most important thing is knowing your stakeholders and being able to show consistent interest in the field you are applying to, as well as the skills to do the job. If you are a researcher interested in creating social impact, think carefully about what kind of impact you are interested in – is it working with schools and young people, engaging audiences through the media, or working with government bodies or industry groups? Seek out opportunities to develop in these areas, whether it’s an AHRC policy internship or relevant placement through your DTP. Funded work and paid opportunities mean more to a potential employer because it shows that your services were valued, so don’t do anything for free.