The benefits of micro-mentoring

Léna Prouchet is a first-year PhD student based in the Environment and Sustainability Institute, Penryn Campus. Her research investigates strategies that could jointly address food insecurity and deforestation in the Peruvian rainforest.

“What on Earth is micro-mentoring?”

These were my first thoughts when I saw the Twitter post of the Exeter Doctoral College offering to book a micro-mentoring session.

Since this word aroused my curiosity, I took some time to elucidate what it meant. I was familiar with mentoring since I took part in such a scheme during my MSc. It was a great experience; I developed a fruitful relationship with my mentor who gave me useful tips and helped me with my PhD applications throughout the year.

But long-term relationships do not characterise “micro-mentoring” sessions. Indeed, the term refers to stand-alone mentoring events. Therefore, I was quite sceptical about the concept since I was not sure I would be able to learn much from a single discussion.

Nonetheless, I decided to give it a try since I felt I really needed some mentoring support at that stage of my research, and especially in relation to this unprecedented context.

Here are some indications on how I tried to best prepare for the meeting. This only comes from my personal experience so if you have any other advice you can share with me, I am happy to read them!

How to book a session?

I emailed to introduce myself and my research topic. I also gave some information about the issues I wanted to address during the mentoring session. This list included: questions on qualitative research methods, advice on how to efficiently plan my research, and tips to adapt to the new online working environment.

A few days later, I was put in contact with a mentor.

How to organize and prepare the meeting?

  1. I researched the profile of my mentor to understand her research topics and interests.
  2. I emailed my mentor to introduce myself (tip: you can send the link of your University profile) and briefly explain the topics I wanted to address during the session.
  3. We exchanged a few emails to arrange a Zoom meeting (in my first email I wrote I was open to any form of exchange – written or oral – and my mentor decided to organise a call).
  4. I created an agenda for the meeting. Usually, the discussion lasts no more than an hour so it crucial to know exactly what you will ask and in which order (tip: prioritise your questions since you are likely to not be able to ask all of them).
  5. I sent the agenda to the mentor a few hours before the meeting (if I attend another session, I will send it earlier so the mentor has more time to prepare).

How to make the most out of the discussion with your mentor?               

During the session:

After a short introduction, I started asking my first questions. I tried to take as many notes as I could. I was not able to cover all the topics I had planned to talk about since I had many follow-up questions. This does not really matter since I think it is important to adapt to your mentor and to the direction she/he is giving to the call.
Tip: time goes very fast, so keep an eye on your watch!

After the session:

A few hours after the call, I took some time to thank my mentor for her time and precious advice.
The following day, I read and reorganise my meeting notes. During the session, we identified key actions I could implement to tackle the challenges I was facing. From this discussion, I created an action plan with a detailed timeframe.
My “to-do” list includes:
*set journal alerts on relevant research topics
*write my literature review for 30 minutes per day
*read a book recommended by my mentor on qualitative research methods…

Tip: You can organize a follow-up session with your micro-mentor if you feel you need to discuss the progress you made with your action plan.

Would I recommend this experience?

Absolutely! I felt this one-hour call helped me answer questions and doubts I had had for weeks. It is always very helpful to have someone looking at your project with a fresh and watchful eye.

I think my action plan will take a few weeks to complete but I will be willing to renew this experience in the course of my PhD!

 

 

Written by: Léna Prouchet
Twitter: @LenaProuchet

My top tips for writing a thesis

Charlotte Chivers is a final year PhD researcher within the Centre for Rural Policy Research and is exploring the efficacy of agricultural advice surrounding diffuse water pollution. She is in the final throes of writing her thesis and is starting a position at the University of Gloucestershire in September. 

As part of the new PGR Online Resources (coming soon!), final year PGR Charlotte Chivers has developed her top tips for writing a thesis…from in the midst of finishing writing up hers! Watch this video for her top tips, or read them below.

Top tips for writing your thesis

  1. Start simple and then add detail; don’t run before you can walk! It may work best to draft your thoughts out first before adding detail
  2. Find out what your writing style is (see the academic writing resources in this e-module)
  3. Think about ways in which your research is novel throughout the process
  4. Talk to other PhD researchers at a similar stage to you
  5. Communicate with your supervisors
  6. Don’t be daunted by the scale of a thesis – break it down into ‘bitesize’ chunks
  7. Don’t rush – be systematic or you may have to do things again in the future which may be more time consuming
  8. Find a working schedule which works for YOU – everyone is different – try different things e.g. Pomodoro technique (see infographic within this e-module)
  9. Plan carefully (but don’t ‘over-plan’ – this can easily become procrastination!)
  10. Try to keep up with referencing as you write; writing a bibliography from scratch isn’t fun
  11. Back EVERYTHING up.
  12. Make yourself a schedule to aim for and send it to your supervisors so you’re held accountable
  13. Don’t overwork yourself
  14. Be kind to yourself – sleep, exercise, wash (!), eat healthy!

 

Written by: Charlotte Chivers

The alternative academic: celebrate your transferable PhD skills!

James Alsop is a Shakespearean researcher, and teacher of English at Torquay Girls’ Grammar School in Devon. James was awarded his PhD by the University of Exeter in 2015. His thesis, “Playing Dead: Living Death in Early Modern Drama”, examined the dramatic potential of “living death” in theatrical spaces. As a teacher, James is an advocate for the transformative power of Shakespeare in schools, and is committed to supporting student wellbeing at all stages of education. He regularly updates his website, WritusAndronicus.blog, with posts about education strategies, theatre and literature.

Towards the end of my PhD, I had a bit of a panic. I knew it was time to start applying for alternative academic jobs, but hadn’t yet given serious thought to how my “soft skills” might transfer to non-academic roles. Worse, my journey from undergraduate to self-funded doctoral candidate had, barring a succession of part-time jobs at shops and bars, left a seven-year employment gap in my CV that may not have compared favourably against applicants from other backgrounds. In short, I may have been a font of knowledge when it came to Shakespeare and early modern burial practice, but I didn’t have the foggiest notion of how to sell myself to potential employers.

If any of that sounds familiar, fear not! I promise you: whatever point you’re at in your doctoral programme, it’s a safe bet that by now you’ve already developed the kinds of useful and *demonstrable* transferable skills that employers love.

We’ll put aside for the time being the skills of specialist research and scholarly writing you’ve already spent years honing (and these are undoubtedly fabulous strings to your bow, especially if you have an academic role in your sights). Instead, I’d like to focus on four important qualities that, as a PhD student or postdoc, you showcase every single day. Not only will these skills prove to be invaluable in any alt-ac career – they’ll also distinguish you from the competition in the job market!

  1. You have DRIVE (and you have the thesis to prove it)
  2. You can Project Manage
  3. You can Innovate and Adapt with the best of them
  4. You possess *outstanding* Communication Skills – far more than you may realise!

These skills aren’t “fluffy” or abstract. They’re real, they carry weight. A PhD is a job (and a worthy one at that), but if you’re concerned that an employer may need some convincing, your on-the-job training will allow you to evidence these skills in ways that other applicants may not be able to.

1. Proven Drive

“Drive” is one of those maligned terms, like “grit” and “passion”, that you’re sometimes told to avoid when writing letters of application. Without clear evidence to justify their presence, these words can feel like hollow clichés, or make you sound like a candidate on The Apprentice. Fortunately for you, though, you can provide clear evidence! Pages and pages of it!

One cannot begin, let alone complete, a PhD without incredible determination and drive. By its very nature the doctoral programme is a largely (often entirely!) self-motivated uphill climb that requires researchers to document every hard-earned step. Every word that you’ve typed, every paper you’ve read, every task you’ve completed and every project that you’ve worked on is testament to your ability to convert energy into progress. A PhD doesn’t write itself.

If you consider for one moment everything you’ve achieved so far and the hard work it’s taken to get there, it’s easy to see why your application would be attractive to an employer. You’ve chosen to work for 70 hours a week to convince your lecturers, your peers, academic boards, conference organisers, and editors of publications that your subject contains true academic merit. Over the course of your programme you’ve produced a body of work that may have been commended by world-leaders in the field. You’ve written extensive, innovative, persuasive criticism – and perhaps you’ve done it while working two jobs and struggling in debt. How many books, manuscripts, and research papers have you synthesised into one coherent thesis? By the time you’ve completed your thesis you will have done ALL of these things and more in order to make an original contribution to a complex subject. They deserve to be mentioned – and you deserve to be proud of yourself.

Your drive, then, isn’t something waffly – it’s palpable. Let employers know that if they are willing to invest in your salary, you will pour the energy that you’ve put into academia into a new, exciting field.

2. Project Management…

…and all that this term entails!

It’s hard to imagine when you’re in the middle of it, but many people outside of your field, employers included, won’t always know what “doing a PhD” actually entails. They’ll probably have a good grasp of the concept – three more years, a labour of love, original research, big essay, series of experiments etc – but a lot of people may not realise just how well the day-to-day logistics of a doctoral programme might prepare somebody for a non-academic career. It’s important, then, to emphasise the strategic planning that goes into a successful doctorate.

Many people may claim that their degree taught them effective time management, but as a doctoral candidate you can back that claim up in ways that others simply can’t. To undertake a PhD is to take charge of an extended project that takes between three and eight years (if you’re part-time) to complete – and completion only occurs if the work is a high enough standard to satisfy an inspection by external moderators (the viva!). Your work is by its very nature multifaceted and finely-balanced, and success hinges upon you allocating appropriate portions of time to research, writing, administrative tasks, meetings with supervisors, teaching, workshops, conferences…

Moreover, the project is (more or less) entirely self-directed. Your supervisors require termly and yearly progress reports, and your long-term deadline will be dictated by factors such as funding and the academic calendar, but within these parameters the programme is yours to manage as you see fit. You have responsibility for the scope of the project, for identifying what does and doesn’t work, and for monitoring your own

By the end of your programme, then, you’ll have vital experience and a proven track record across the spectrum of project management. A PhD is about more than simply (ha!) turning around work within tight deadlines; it’s about developing a strategy and planning for the short-, medium- and long-term.

3. Innovation and Adaptation

You, dear reader, are that rare person: a true, successful, tried-and-tested innovator. According to the University of Cambridge, your PhD will make

“..a significant contribution to learning, for example through the discovery of new knowledge, the connection of previously unrelated facts, the development of a new theory, or the revision of older views.”

What this means outside of an academic context is that you’re trained to identify gaps in the market. Regardless of your discipline, your PhD is testament to your ability to analyse existing data in order to spot trends and patterns and, in doing so, identify opportunities for growth. These are exciting, valuable skills!

Your power to innovate goes hand-in-hand with your adaptability – your capacity to assimilate new information and act accordingly. In one sense this means that if you can handle a PhD, the chances are that you’ll be able to manage life in a fast-moving industry with varied demands and shifting targets. In another sense, though, it demonstrates the kind of initiative that employers love to see: you’re capable of assimilating new information and adapting your strategy accordingly. It’s one thing to follow instructions, but another thing entirely to make yourself truly useful. With a PhD under your belt, you can become very useful indeed.

4. Communication Skills

Communication is your *SUPERPOWER.*

To be more specific your PhD is proof positive of your ability to communicate complex ideas successfully, both written and orally, for a wide range of purposes while constantly adapting your style of communication to meet the needs of your audience. Over the course of your PhD you produce formal academic writing for your examiners; you compose funding / job applications for various institutions; you shape articles to suit specific journals; you trim conference papers to a handful of easy-to-follow key points and deliver them to diverse audiences.

As alluded to above, though, the success of your doctorate – the success of your innovation! – is as much a result of your ability to take on information as it is to share it. In other words, your PhD trains you to be an excellent listener, and to view topics and ideas from perspectives other than your own. This is particularly the case if you’ve had the opportunity to teach at all during your programme.

More than anything else, though, you have an unparalleled ability to ask questions. It’s the most useful weapon in your considerable communicative arsenal. If the aim of a PhD is to innovate, the methodology to a PhD must involve asking questions that have not yet been considered. Furthermore, the success of your doctorate is contingent upon you working tirelessly to ask the best questions to elicit the most fruitful answers. That’s not just useful in academia or teaching – every business needs people who can pose critical questions that get to the very heart of a topic. That’s you. You’re that superhero!

Wrapping up: the next mountain

To be clear: all of the above is based on conversations with colleagues and employers from several different alt-ac industries – including a good many of my PhD peers who have gone on to achieve great success. I’m also, of course, basing a lot of the advice above on my personal experiences of job-hunting and alt-ac employment!

It took me a long time to realise just how easily my skills as a PhD researcher could transfer over to careers outside of Higher Education. It took me an even longer time to work out how to accentuate my PhD strengths in ways that would appeal to employers! Once I worked out how to sell my abilities, though, the process of writing job applications became far less daunting, and my hard work was rewarded with interviews (some from a few surprising places) and job offers.

If you’d like more advice on how to translate PhD success into a new career, a swift search of the web will put you in contact with plenty of alternative academics willing to share their experiences – the good AND the bad.

After spending so much time and effort climbing the PhD mountain, it’s ok to feel – as I did – anxious about ascending a new one beyond academia. Whatever that next mountain is, though, you’re not alone – and you already have more tools to make the journey easier than you realise.

Good luck!

For more on alternative academic careers, and finding your post-PhD vocation, why not check out the From PhD to Life website, run by the very talented and super-motivational Dr Jennifer Polk (@FromPhDtoLife)?

 

 

Written by: James Alsop

This is the second in a series of posts covering the I wish I knew then what I know now!” aspects of PhD life.

If you were a brand what would you be?

 

Katherine Strick and Anastasia Voronkova are both PhD researchers. Katherine’s current research is investigating how meaningful occupation for people with dementia is perceived and the impact of this. She is presently working on the creation of a conceptual model.  Anastasia’s current research is investigating the interaction of health and wellbeing and environment conservation and sustainable exploitation (alternative livelihoods) in Indonesian Marine Protected Areas as part of the Blue Communities Project. Her field work concentrated on attitudes towards contraception and the environment.

At first, it seemed funny to think of ourselves as brands, but it was all about how we make an impact on social media and get noticed in the way we want to be. Thinking about brands helped us to think about our online personality and how we would write and share information online. For example are we quirky and virtuous like the brand innocent, or perhaps more serious and informative like the financial times. Communication consultant Kerri Hall led a workshop for Early Career Researchers and Post Graduate Researchers to build our social media confidence and help us to establish a following.

Social media can be a great way for people starting out in their research careers to get noticed. But what do you write about and how do you get people to follow you? What do you do before you have any results to share? As PhD students, our results were not ready to publish and we didn’t have followers in the field to read them when they were. Together we decided we needed help.

Help was at hand. We applied and were successful in receiving a Researcher Led Initiative grant from Research and Development, part of the Doctoral College at the University of Exeter. Thanks to the grant we were able to host a workshop to help people to develop new creative ways to promote themselves through social media.

It was all set for the 26th March, however, all plans were changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when virtual connections were really demonstrating how important they could be, we need to rethink! Our workshop was so interactive, would it work online? Thanks to technology we were able to plan an interactive workshop looking at building a profile that reflects our interest, starting by sharing others work and commenting on it, guest blogging and then creating our own blogs thus building our social media confidence as we build up our following.

Kerri demonstrated how different forms of social media can build on each other such as a twitter link signposting to a blog. This creates a holistic social media presence. The one really important thing for us to remember was to include an image to grab our follower’s attention.  Pictures could be hand drawn, writing in the sand or from a free online collection, but always add an image! The workshop was packed with tips from beginning to end and we each went away feeling inspired to try something new and think creatively about our posts.

Written by: Katherine Strick and Anastasia Voronkova