Abandoning the plan

Alex Smalley is a PhD Researcher at the University of Exeter. His research is exploring how immersive digital experiences of nature can impact wellbeing.

My PhD is centred around asking “Can technologies like virtual reality bring the natural world to people in ways which benefit their mental health?

I think that’s an important question to ask because whilst a decent body of evidence shows that spending time in nature can boost health and wellbeing, many people don’t have access to the natural world when they might need it the most.

For people in long term care, those recovering from major surgery, or workers in stressful jobs, contact with nature is often irregular, inadequate or impossible. And whilst immersive technologies give us a way to overcome these barriers, we understand very little about how to design and deliver truly restorative ‘virtual nature’ experiences.

When I wrote my PhD proposal, I had a pretty tight plan for how it would unfold. I knew where the gaps in the literature were; which questions I wanted to ask; and the kinds of experiments I was likely to run.

But 3 weeks before I was about to start, one meeting in Bristol changed everything.

I’ve been part of research at the University of Exeter for several years, and had been collaborating with the BBC Natural History Unit on another virtual reality project. In September 2018 they began work with BBC Radio 4 to produce an ambitious new drama, and wanted to weave science and research throughout the programme.

The new eco-thriller was going to explore our relationship with nature, and would focus on the sounds its protagonist encountered. It would also provide a unique ‘3 part offering’, with each episode of the drama accompanied by a science-based podcast and an immersive soundscape; Forest 404 was born.

The BBC wanted me to help with the science, but how could this fit with my research? Several creative discussions later, we decided to launch a national experiment alongside the drama, asking the British public to help us understand how people respond to the sounds of nature.

My PhD plan was out of the window!

Suddenly I was leading a research partnership between the BBC, the University of Bristol and the University of Exeter, as well as helping the Open University to develop their new citizen science tool (which would host the experiment).

Yet far from throwing my research off course, the Forest 404 Experiment has forced me to think differently about how people experience the natural world. It’s opened my ears to a rich seam of research possibilities, and highlighted nature-based sounds as a research avenue which has been largely overlooked.

Crucially, working with incredible teams at the BBC, Open University and the University of Bristol, has meant that I’ve been able to conduct an experiment which has been created by the very best in the business. It’s also operating on a scale which is unprecedented in soundscape research—we’ve already had over 7,000 people take part across the UK.

But it hasn’t always been easy. I’ve often been gripped by anxiety, imposter syndrome, and straight up panic—there was a week in April when just the Forest 404 theme tune would bring me to tears! But by talking about my research on the radio, in podcasts, and on the TV, I’ve had a chance to raise awareness of the study, and engage with a broad audience we never would have reached otherwise.

I’m also incredibly grateful to my supervisory team, without whom none of this would have been possible.

The take home message? Don’t be afraid to let your research take you in unexpected directions, and grab every opportunity that arises—even if they scare you!

Alex is funded by the Wellcome Trust and based at the University of Exeter’s campus in Truro. You can find out more about Virtual Nature at virtual-nature.com.

A Tale of Two (PhD) Sisters

Katie Newstead passed her PhD in Film Studies at the University of Exeter last November, and now teaches there in the English and Film departments. Her thesis was on contemporary Hollywood female stars, archetypes of ageing femininity, and the cinematic fairy tale reboot. Katie is a wheelchair user and keen disability and mental health activist; running @everydayableism on twitter under her own username of @whatktdoes_now. She is also a trustee for the charity Magic Carpet (@EX1MagicCarpet). 

Gemma Edney recently completed her PhD in Film Studies, researching the relationship between music and adolescent girlhood in contemporary French cinema. During her PhD she taught on Undergraduate modules in French and Film studies, and as a PhD tutor for The Brilliant Club Scholars’ Programme. She currently works as the Graduation lead for the University of Exeter. 

The relationships you make within the PGR community can be a vital lifeline: Dr Katie Newstead and Dr Gemma Edney reflect on the importance of peer support and friendship in their PhD experiences.

Doing a PhD can be a lonely and isolating experience: this is the warning issued to most new PGRs. There are pages and pages of articles, blog posts, and websites devoted to the problem of PhD student loneliness, and the issue is only made harder if, like Gemma, you work while studying, or, like Katie, you do most of your work at home rather than on campus.

The PGR community in Humanities at Exeter is a great antidote for this: the conferences, coffee mornings, lunches, and shared office spaces for students on campus, are great for making friends, and it’s possible to make amazing, life-long friendships this way. But this post is about one friendship in particular, in a tale of PhD sisterhood…

Annoyingly, neither of us remember exactly when we first met, but we were both always aware that the other existed. Being in the same department, with the same supervisor, we “knew of” each other from the beginning. We probably met in person at a conference buffet – because free food is a brilliant way of bringing people together – and the rest, as they say, is history.

We had the exact same supervisory team during our PhDs, which led Katie to dub us “PhD sisters,” and there was never a better way of describing our relationship (though how our supervisor feels about being the notional “mother” in this relationship is yet to be determined!). As we went through our PhD journeys, we often experienced the same highs, lows, frustrations, disappointments, and celebrations. Thankfully, we were usually on opposite trajectories with these experiences: when one of us was struggling, the other would be on an upwards curve. As one of us had usually already been through what the other was battling, we were able to lend sisterly support and advice. The only way out of the dark times is to get through them (this pearl of wisdom is stolen from our PhD supervisor), but sometimes you need someone to help light the way (this wisdom is all Katie’s). Who better than someone who knows exactly what you’re going through

No PhD experience is exactly the same: everyone goes through different personal and academic struggles, but knowing that we were at around the same stage in terms of submission was such a big help and provided a real boost, especially in the final few months. We were able to swap chapters and conclusions, share funny (or frustrating) supervision stories, vent about problems, and talk through worries and fears. Whenever one of us thought we couldn’t or wouldn’t, the other was there to say we could and would. Well, it turns out we both could and did: we passed our vivas within months of each other, and will be graduating together in July. We both agree that those last few months would have been hell without the other’s sisterly support: the checking-in, the reassurance, the humour, and the knowledge that someone had our back.

The PhD is an experience like no other, and can be a lonely process that makes you doubt yourself on a near-hourly basis. Then, you finish; and you feel like a superhero (according to Katie, anyway. All Gemma felt like was a nap). But, like all the best female superheroes – Buffy, Captain Marvel, Supergirl, etc – you need your girls by your side, and we had each other.

Written By: Katie Newstead and Gemma Edney. Find more about their research by following them on Twitter @whatktdoes_now and @GemmaEdney.

Researching the impact of plastic on the Antarctic marine food web aboard RRS Discovery

Emily Rowlands is a PhD Researcher at both the University of Exeter and British Antarctic Survey. Her research explores the impact of nanoplastic in the Antarctic marine ecosystem and assesses levels on nanoplastic within the Southern Ocean water column and sea ice. As a first year PhD student within the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, this is Emily’s blog about her first polar research cruise aboard RSS Discovery.

Setting sail from the Falklands, I was slightly apprehensive about the upcoming 40 days at sea on my first research cruise. Amongst the chaos of preparing for leaving port, I paused to reflect on the first Antarctic expeditions aboard the Discovery and the apprehensions of the living conditions and weather were immediately put into perspective… I was as ready as I’d ever be!

RRS discovery docked at Port Stanley, Falklands. Photographic credit: Phil Keating

With so many helping hands, the ships labs were transformed from blank canvases to fully functioning faster than I had anticipated. Ready to go, I could focus on my purpose for being on board.

So what is ‘nanoplastic’? Its plastic particles less than 0.001mm, that’s at least 2000 times smaller than a grain of sand! Because of their size, nanoplastics interact differently with the particles in the sea and within the bodies of animals that eat them, compared to larger plastics.  We don’t yet know how much nanoplastic is in Antarctic waters and we know little of how they impact zooplankton. This is what I hoped to address with my research on board.

The first hurdle was catching pregnant female krill, to look at how nanoplastics impact the eggs their eggs. Each day, nets were deployed, hurled back on-board and the contents emptied into buckets. The scientists then searched for their focus species whilst trying not to block the little light we had, since fishing often took place throughout the night.

Recovery of the RMT fishing net. Photographic credit: Alejandro Ariza


Sorting the catch from an RMT net. Photographic credit: Alyasa Hulbert


















When the day came in which pregnant females were found, the waiting game began for the females to spawn. There was plenty to keep me busy however, and I spent much of my time helping with other sampling efforts and catch sorting. Being in the Southern Ocean, there were of course some amazing sights to see too. We were lucky enough to see Humpback whales, a Blue whale and plenty of penguins when we reached South Georgia! The sight of icebergs never got old, and one evening we had stunning views of lenticular clouds from the ship too.

When the eggs finally hatched, I quickly set-up my experiment my next job was to document how the eggs developed every 12 hours. In the early stages krill eggs develop very quickly however soon the development slows and my observations at 2am, in a 2◦C lab became more tedious.

On night four of my experiment, at 2am, I put on my salopettes and headed to the lab. After a particularly tiring day, and contending with the movement of the ship, it took me a minute or two to bring the microscope into focus. When I did, I discovered that some of the krill eggs had hatched. After documenting the development, I headed out of the cold into main lab to send emails back home. With everybody else in bed, it was eerily quiet. I shared the news of the krill hatching, amused by the fact that family and friends back home may not find it quite as exciting as I had.

The next morning, I showed the baby krill to the other scientists on-board and we celebrated the hatching of the krill. That’s when I realised that one of the greatest things about being on a biology research cruise in the Southern Ocean is being with others just as passionate about the Antarctic marine ecosystem as I am.

Written ByEmily Rowlands. You can find out more about Emily and her research by following her on Twitter @EmilyRowlands89



Preparing for academic job interviews

Dr Gavin Buckingham is a senior lecturer in Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Exeter. His research examines perception, illusions and sensorimotor control during object interaction, surgical learning, and virtual reality.

This blog post has been taken from Gavin’s personal blog Making it as an Early Career Academic

This post is about how to prepare yourself for a job interview in a UK psychology department, but I suspect that some of this advice might well generalize to life sciences in general (I, for example, work in a Sport and Health Sciences department). It will be of most relevance for those applying for a first or second lectureship in a combined research and teaching role (i.e., the majority of advertised positions).

Originally, this post was going to be about the whole job application process but a quick tally of my application:interviews ratio suggests that I could do with some improvement on that front myself (since 2010, 48 applications:8 interview requests). So I guess all I have to say on that front is that you should only expect to be shortlisted for ~15% of your applications, and closer to 10% if you are applying fresh from a postdoctoral position rather than making a lateral move (as I did in 2016).

Out of my eight interviews I have been asked to attend, I have attended six of them (one wouldn’t pay my flight costs from Canada, which I felt wouldn’t bode well and one came after I’d already accepted a job). From these six interviews I have been offered jobs twice, both times accepting the offer. So I’ve been through this process a fair few times. It’s worth noting at this point that I’ve never been on an interview panel for a lectureship position, so my perspective is completely naive in some respects (although I do talk a fair bit to colleagues who are on interview panels to prep for these things).

The process in the UK is startlingly different from in North America. In the US/Canada, you’ll typically spend several days at the institution during which time you’ll meet individually with everyone in the department, give an hour-long seminar, and perhaps a demonstration of your teaching. In the UK, they’ll fly you from wherever you come from for, at best, a 20-minute talk to the department and a 20 minute interview. And I mean at best. My first interview was a 12 minute (!!) job talk to the interview panel, followed by 15 mins of interview, costing the hosting department about £1000. Better-organized places might have lab tours/meetings organized for the candidates, but don’t take that as writ – I’ve had to organize my own ‘tour’ of the department’s facilities and meetings with staff more times than not. I always found this a bit disheartening but it’s usually just down to the difficulty in getting the interview panel to agree on a day, and that day is rarely convenient for everyone.

You will be given a title for your talk, and a duration. Stick to the title (don’t just give a research seminar) and get the time correct. Make it engaging – this talk will be the primary way in which they evaluate whether you’ll be a good lecturer – a skill increasingly valued by the UK market. After you’ve finished your talk, the people in the room need to understand what you do, where you aim to go, and what you’ll add to the department. Given that the time constraints are so tight, you have the option to give a very broad-brush overview of everything you do, or a deeper ‘case-study’ of your major project as an exemplar. Having sat in many job talks I’ve seen both work well. I tend to take the (slightly breathless) broad-brush approach, but be sure to include some actual data if you want to go down this road. Don’t neglect to talk about your teaching skills and show you’ve made an effort to identify your fit. Try to come across as friendly and approachable (what helpful advice..) – a good talk won’t get you a job, but a bad talk can certainly sink your chances.

Your interview may occur immediately after your talk, later on that day, or a different day altogether. Seems obvious but pay attention to your scheduled slots – I’ve seen candidates assume that the talk and the interview would be at the same time each day, subsequently missing their interview. The panel will be made up from at least one big shot (head of college or higher), the head of department, and various other important members of the department. They’ll all know the contents of your CV and will probably already have a preliminary (and unspoken) ranking of the candidates they are going to interview. Typically, they’ll invite you in to take a seat, introduce themselves, and then start asking questions one at a time. You will be nervous, and they will be tired. You will want to ramble, but try to resist that urge. Before attending the interview, you will need to do some homework and practice articulating your answers a bit.

  1. Try to identify the first grant you will apply for (funding agency, value etc), along with some detail about the research project. You will be expected to be applying for grants from the word ‘go’, so worth showing that you won’t have to spend too long finding your feet.
  2. You will probably have to answer some variant of the old chestnut: ‘where do you see your career in 5 years time?’ or ‘what will you hope to have accomplished by the end of your career?’. I have no idea how to answer these well. Try not to say something stupid, and be aware that these are distinct questions (nice little anecdote from my first interview: got asked the 5-year question. Gave a rambling answer. Asked follow up question asking ‘what I would hope to have accomplished in 10 years’. Totally blanked. Awful).
  3. Know which of your current papers you’d submit to the REF (you will likely only need to submit 1 or 2, but have four ready to articulate just in case). Don’t know what the REF is, or the criteria for entry? Then spend some time on the internet finding this stuff out.
  4. Figure out what new course you’d like to develop and what existing courses you’d like to contribute to (stats is always a popular one here). Have a look at the undergrad-facing side of the website so you can get a sense of the course structure and the taught content.
  5. Figure out who you’d like to collaborate with in the dept because (1) it might come up in the interview and (2) you might like to sound them out for advice before the talk/interview anyway – if you want to collaborate with them then they are likely keen for you to get the job.
  6. Have a think about what administrative ‘opportunities’ you’d like to take up. A good one is organizing seminars. Another good one (which I’ve always done) is managing undergraduate dissertations. Regardless, come up with something to say.
  7. For every answer, try to elaborate a bit beyond the question asked. I like to think that the panel are not asking a question to find out the answer, but to find out something about you. Every answer you give should be an opportunity to impress them (bear in mind this doesn’t mean gloating about your accomplishments – this rarely goes over well in UK academic settings).

Miscellaneous points:

  1. Often a point of contention, but I’d always suggest wearing a suit and tie (advice geared toward gents obviously – I have no insight into what female candidates should be wearing).
  2. Bring your passport, even if you’re a UK person who has driven to the interview – it’ll be needed for admin stuff.
  3. You may get the opportunity to go for dinner with some members of the department. Don’t get drunk. Don’t voice your edgy views on non-academic topics. You’re still being assessed.
  4. You may get the opportunity/be forced to interact with the other candidates. This can seem weird at first, but is actually quite fun – they are almost all at the same career stage as you are and having a similar set of emotions. Be supportive of them. I’ve stayed friends with several who I’ve met at job interviews, and you are all likely going to be ending up attending similar conferences eventually.

Written ByDr Gavin Buckingham, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Health Sciences. Find out more about Gavin and his research on Twitter @DrGBuckingham

The ever-elusive PhD work-life balance

Gemma Delafield is a third year PhD student at the University of Exeter’s Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute. Her research focuses on determining where in the UK to locate future energy infrastructure particularly with regards to the impact on the natural environment.



Can I do a PhD and still have a life? This was the question I asked myself three years ago when I was deciding whether to apply for a studentship or not. The very thought of entering back into the all-consuming academic lifestyle that I’d witnessed whilst at university wasn’t very appealing. I did not want to spend the next four years of my life feeling guilty for not having done enough work.

So I made a pact with myself, I would apply for the PhD if I promised to treat it like a job. I would work 37 hours a week, take the annual leave I was entitled to and not work evenings or weekends.

I actively prioritised a work-life balance from day one. For me, this means:

  1. I start early and finish early as I know my brain doesn’t function properly after 4pm.
  2. As strange as it sounds, I record what I’ve worked on and how many hours I’ve worked each day. This helps me remind myself that I’ve done enough. I deserve that beautiful guilt-free evening/weekend/holiday.
  3. I book annual leave into my diary and politely decline if someone tries to sneak something into my calendar.
  4. I do not look or reply to work emails outside of office hours.
  5. If I’m having a day where my brain is so befuddled nothing is happening I either go for a walk to clear my mind or I call it quits and go home.
  6. If I work extra hours one week, I ensure I take time off the week after.
  7. I write a to do list to break down the day/week into manageable tasks to stop myself feeling overwhelmed.
  8. I remind myself that a PhD isn’t just about conducting research. A well-rounded PhD also offers you the opportunity to build academic networks, teach, attend conferences and communicate your research with stakeholders – there is no need to feel guilty for doing these ‘additional’ things.

I know the way I work wouldn’t work for everyone. If you work in a lab or have a family it might not be possible to work standard hours or it might be that your brain doesn’t actually start functioning until 4pm. But whatever your working style, find a schedule that works for you and stick to it.

I believe that research culture plays a big part in whether people feel like they can prioritise a work-life balance. Find the strength to say no when people ask you to work extra hours. Look out for your peers, remind them they do not need to feel guilty for prioritising their wellbeing over their work.

Most importantly be kind to yourself. Take breaks, whether that is a walk or a week’s holiday, so you can come back to your research refreshed.

Written By: Gemma Delafield. You can find out more about Gemma and her research by following her on Twitter @G_Delafield


Benefits of the ‘Researcher Development Programme’ – an ECR perspective

Marco Palomino is currently a Senior Lecturer in ‘Information Systems and Big Data’ at the School of Computing, Electronics and Mathematics at the University of Plymouth.

Before this, Marco was a Research Fellow at the University of Exeter Medical School, based at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health in Truro. His research and teaching focuses on the acquisition and analysis of real-time, web based information and emerging trends, opportunities and constraints that might affect the probability of achieving management goals and objectives. Marco had previously worked at the University of Westminster as a Visiting Lecturer after he gained his PhD in Computer Science from Downing College at the University of Cambridge.

One of Marco’s publications for work conducted whilst he was at the University of Exeter was selected by the publishing house’s editorial team as highly commended. He puts part of his success with publications, public speaking and his career progression down to the training he took place in, whilst at Exeter.

Whilst at Exeter Marco took the opportunity to engage in as much development as time would allow and came to several of the Researcher Development Programme sessions that are tailored towards Early Career Researchers (ECRs).

The training courses for early career researchers at Exeter are brilliant – entertaining, informative and applicable

I found the sessions on giving presentations and visualising data particularly useful. Indeed, one example which has stayed with me to this day, used the London Underground map as a reference point. It was a perfect way to demonstrate how information visualised for a particular audience, should often be adapted to suit the needs of a different group of users, even if the underlying data is the same.

The training and development sessions at Exeter were also immensely useful when I subsequently went to conferences to give presentations and now for giving and preparing my lectures. Things that I learned from the Researcher Development Programme keep coming back to me on a daily basis and have really enhanced the way that I work. They were also fun to take part in and highly applicable.

Sometimes these are simple things like ensuring that my slides are being understood by the audience by reducing the amount of text, maintaining clarity and simplicity. This is advice has also been of equal use for when I prepare my online teaching materials.

However, some advice I gained has been fundamentally more important to my career, in general. I was always quite nervous speaking at conferences, but the advice I received whilst at Exeter about how to start a presentation, introduce myself and the content of the talk has proved essential. I use this now every day when I start my lectures and it has also aided in my preparation. Moreover, I used the technique for the interview for my current role, so it seems to work well.

My advice to current ECRs at Exeter is to make as much use of the training on offer from the Doctoral College as you possibly can, it really is excellent and can make a difference to your research activities as well as securing future roles. Finally, I am really happy to hear the plans for the future of ECR development at Exeter. The ‘ECR Hub’ and more bespoke training in the form of ‘Researcher-led Initiatives’ sounds like they are excellent additions.

Written By: This blog article has been compiled by Dr Chris Wood, Research Staff Development Manager in the Doctoral College, based on a discussion with Marco Palamino in February 2019.

Ways to be kind to yourself

The way we think and feel about ourselves significantly affects our wellbeing. We can be harsh and critical or kind and compassionate towards ourselves. For a lot of people, self-criticism is the default setting. This makes life harder and less pleasurable. Research has shown that if we are kind and compassionate to ourselves, even when things are going wrong, we are more likely to cope with life’s difficulties and be happier. Below are some ideas which you can implement to start being kinder to yourself and developing your self-compassion:

  1. When something goes wrong, forgive yourself. Move away from self-blame. Everyone makes mistakes. Accept these as ways to make progress.
  2. Notice what you are feeling without judging yourself. Everyone has difficult times in their lives. Our emotions are the result of a complex mixture of factors which are not our fault and over which we may have little control.
  3. Gradually train yourself to become more aware of your thoughts, especially those that are negative and self-critical. Mindfulness meditation practices can really help with this such as those on the Headspace app which offers a 10 day free trial or the guided audios on mindfulnessforstudents.co.uk.
  4. When you notice negative and self-critical thoughts, pause for a moment and then imagine that it is a friend of yours in your situation as you speak to yourself in your mind. We are often much harsher in the way we speak to ourselves than we would ever be with other people!
  5. Try to refrain from saying “I should”, “I must” or “I ought to” statements to yourself.
  6. Try not to compare yourself with others. Comparing how you feel internally with how others seem externally is likely to make you feel worse about yourself. Often people will hide their struggles so we can’t really know what’s going on for them.
  7. Let go of the expectations of others and of excessively high expectations you have of yourself. It’s good to aim to do well but putting too much pressure on yourself will have the opposite effect, causing anxiety and often lowering performance.
  8. Spend 5 minutes in the evening remembering kindnesses which occurred in the day.
  9. Focus on the progress you have made each day and appreciate even small achievements, rather than fixating on the tasks that are still on your “to do” list.
  10. Spend time with people who are supportive of you and help you to feel good about yourself.
  11. Plan at least one enjoyable activity for each day, even if it’s just something small like phoning a good friend for a quick chat or having a relaxing bath. Taking regular breaks from work will help improve your wellbeing as well as making you more effective when you are studying – it’s a win-win!
  12. Each day aim to do one thing, however small, to help you reach a long term goal.

If you would like to learn more about how to be kinder and more compassionate towards yourself, then you can book onto the one-off workshop “Being kinder to yourself” offered at the Reed Mews Wellbeing Centre by visiting the Wellbeing workshop page on the website. The Wellbeing Centre also provides a six week Compassion Focused Course for those who feel they would benefit from exploring this area in more depth. This can be accessed by booking a Telephone Referral Appointment (TRA) with the Wellbeing Centre.

Written By: Sarah Lane, Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner

How Can We Have Better Conversations About Mental Health?

Daisy Parker is a third year PhD student at the University of Exeter College of Medicine and Health. Her research focuses on developing training to support general practitioners when they’re talking to patients with emotional problems.



I have studied psychology in one way or another for over ten years, but that still didn’t prepare me for finding out that somebody I loved was suffering from depression. That gut wrenching feeling of knowing that a person you care about is in pain, but feeling powerless to do anything about it, is a feeling I’m sure I have shared with many other people. Having that conversation is not easy for any of us – including doctors. That is why for my PhD, I am investigating ways to help GPs have better conversations with patients with mental health concerns. But you don’t have to be a doctor to have a helpful conversation about mental health. Here are a few tips, based on my research:

  1. Listen attentively. Turn off any distractions, put down your phone, face the person with your whole body. Encouraging noises, such as ‘mhm’, lets them know that you are listening and encourages them to talk. Don’t be afraid of silence, try to avoid filling the gaps and allow the person to be able to gather their thoughts.
  2. Provide reassurance, and validate their feelings and decision to open up to you. It is often difficult for people to share their mental health problems. They may be ashamed or embarrassed, or feel that they are bothering you. Phrases such as “that sounds tough for you”, “I’m here for you”, and “I’m glad you reached out” are simple but effective ways of providing reassurance and validation.
  3. Remind them that there is help out there. Often, people do not feel that they deserve help, or that no-one can/will help them. Gently encouraging them to speak to their GP, or seek help from a charity such as Samaritans (call 116 123 in the UK) can be the endorsement they need. The university provides a number of sources of support which can be found at http://www.exeter.ac.uk/wellbeing/. You may also wish to offer to come with them to their doctor’s appointment for support.
  4. Don’t feel that you need to fix them. Simply being listened to, reassured, and supported is therapeutic on its own. Unless you are asked for advice, give it sparingly. A non-judgemental approach will help you to keep those channels of communication open.
  5. Finally, look after yourself. Listening to and supporting someone who has mental health concerns can be emotionally draining. You cannot pour from an empty cup, so make sure that you look after your own wellbeing as much as you can.

Find out more about Daisy and her research by checking out her University profile or following her Twitter @daisy_parker2



Doing a PhD when your personal life is falling apart

Catherine is a PhD researcher in the Centre for Research in Ageing and Cognitive Health (REACH) at the University of Exeter. Her PhD research examines how people with dementia use social media. In 2016, Catherine graduated from the University of Bath with a BSc (Hons) degree in psychology. She is a cyberpsychologist interested in online communities and health research. She is also interested in internet-mediated research ethics, digital methods, and body image. Catherine is also the Vice-Chair of PsyPAG, a national organisation for postgraduate psychologists.

Dear Blog,

It’s been a while…Over the Christmas break, I received some news which has completely thrown me. The safety net has been dragged right out from under me and everything I once thought to be stable, is now a shattered mess on the floor. After taking time off at Christmas to relax, I came back to my PhD exhausted, distracted, and more stressed than I was before the holidays. I have nine months left of my PhD. I wanted to come back to work and hit the ground running, but instead, I feel overwhelmed and have zero motivation to get anything done. I like to think of myself as a bad-ass researcher, but just lately, I feel anything but bad ass.

One of the hardest parts of doing a PhD isn’t the content itself, but the process of keeping up momentum. So what do you do when you’re drained and feel like you have no momentum left? This must be a problem that affects so many PhD students. We aren’t just researchers who only exist within the realm of academia; we are people with our own dysfunctional lives, and sometimes the dysfunction of it all coupled with the culture of academia is too much.

I’m still working through my problems and, quite frankly, I feel drained. My cognitive and emotional load is at full capacity and I feel like I’m going to explode at any moment. I fluctuate between being super high-functioning and productive to being a total mess.

So, how am I coping (or not coping) during this time?

I’m trying to be kinder to myself, which was one of my new year’s resolutions. I’ve had my share of 2019 negativity and I don’t want to add to it by beating myself up about my PhD work. I’m trying to engage in lots of self-care and I have set myself realistic, achievable work expectations. If I’ve felt a bit low, I have taken a mental health day. The advantage of doing a PhD is the flexible working hours, so I am trying to work at times that are best for me. I am trying to celebrate the little things and not look at the bigger picture right now. I am also spending lots of time with my super supportive friends and keeping myself distracted.

I recognise that the next few months are going to be an emotional rollercoaster, but I am finally starting to pick up momentum and sometimes feel like my old self again. Life happens and there is nothing I can do to stop that, so I am going to continue making ‘me’ a priority and live by my new year’s resolution of being kinder to myself. Watch this space.

C xx

Blog post taken from Catherine’s personal blog: https://catherinetalbotcyberpsych.wordpress.com/2019/02/06/doing-a-phd-when-your-personal-life-is-falling-apart/

Written By: Catherine Talbot, PhD Researcher in College of Medicine and Health. You can find out more about Catherine and her Research by following her on twitter @Catherinetalb


PGR Disability Network

Debbie Kinsey is a PhD researcher at Exeter Medical School examining museum programmes for people with dementia, with a particular focus on how including caregivers has an impact on the person with dementia, the carer, and the relationship between them. Her broader research interests include living well with chronic health conditions (particularly those acquired in adulthood), the arts and health, and accessibility in its many forms.


Dealing with a chronic illness or disability as a PGR involves many of the same issues as those without an illness/disability – finding balance between work and life, managing differing expectations, project managing (perhaps for the first time), etc. But those issues are often magnified for those of us who also have a health condition. For example, you may be more likely to need to take sick days or need to work less hours in a day. And there are also additional issues like navigating support services (or lack thereof depending on what you need), considering whether to disclose to supervisors or wider teams, and dealing with working in perhaps a very different way to your colleagues.

It can be quite isolating at times, particularly if you need to work from home or others around you don’t understand the difficulties of doing a research degree with a chronic illness or disability. But there are more of us out there than it can seem.

I’ve started a network for PGRs at Exeter with a chronic illness or disability, so we can find peer support, share experiences, and perhaps think about if there’s anything we would want to try to change or add to in the way the university (or funders) supports PGRs. It’s new, so we’ll work out what we want as we go. We might want to stick to just having an email list where people can post, or we could have a some coffee meet-ups, or we could invite university staff to talk to us about how they navigate academia with health conditions, or we could lobby the university to make changes in policy based on our experiences. It’s completely open and up to us.

Initially, the email list is set up on JiscMail. It’s set to private, which means that only those on the list can read the archive (past messages), and the list can’t be found in searches on the JiscMail site. The privacy settings are intentional, so that people feel able to talk openly. And though the doctoral college supports this network, it’s not run by them or any member of staff, which, again, hopefully helps people to feel they can be open without worrying that supervisors (or potential future employers) will read it. But we can decide as a group if we want to change that in the future.

If anyone wants to join, you can sign up via the JiscMail link below. Because the list is private, you have to be ‘approved’ by me to join, but I will do this automatically for Exeter University email addresses. You don’t need to provide ‘proof’ of your condition; you don’t need to be ‘bad enough’; you don’t need to have disclosed an illness or disability to the university or your supervisors. All that’s required is that you feel you would benefit from peer support and/or networking around coping with chronic illness or disability as a PGR at Exeter.

Click this link to sign up to the JiscMail.

Please feel free to email or tweet Debbie if you have any questions: