Working well with your supervisors

Dondu Sarisen is a third year PhD student in Centre for Water System, CEMPS at the University of Exeter. After few years working in a company in Turkey, she decided to pursue her career in academia.

Working on a PhD project is like taking a journey. With your proposal, you know where to go / or where do you want to go, but you don’t actually know how to go. If you come across road closures, then it is your responsibility to change your approach, and sometimes this change might require you to wonder entirely new foreign roads. Supervisors are there to make your journey easier by guiding you.

They will question your work, challenge you, and their expectation will increase in time. But I have gradually realised that all of those led me to somewhere that I can see the rest of the road clearly.

There are many times I was anticipating the roads to be straight, but the reality proved to be the opposite, resulting in struggling across sinuous roads. Going through this contributed to my development both as a researcher and as a person. Sometimes I only focus on the progress that I have made and think that going through all these roads without reaching anywhere, without getting any results, is just a waste of time. In fact, they are all necessary to be able to walk faster. In this way, your progress speeds up in the late stage of your PhD.

Modest Recommendations Working with Supervisors

A PhD is your trip, and supervisors are there to help you; bear this in mind all of the time. Supervisors are aware of everything as they have lots of experience. They have done the PhD before, so they can easily empathise with you. They have also worked with or working with other PhD students so they know when to pressure you to work hard or when to give you some time off.

Here are some of my suggestions regarding working with your supervisors:

  • Some of you may find reporting to supervisors regularly stressful, but believe me, it is beneficial. You never know where the discussion goes and how useful it would be
  • Don’t skip any meetings even if you don’t have a lot to discuss. Show them what you have worked on and what are you planning to do
  • Don’t hesitate to discuss the topic. Supportive discussion contributes to your project
  • They may forget what you have discussed in the previous meeting. So remind them
  • Don’t expect them to know everything related to your project. You are the expert in this field
  • Write down everything that they advise you and try to stick with them by considering your own opinion
  • Be concise and to the point writing the email as they don’t have too much time to read
  • Be kind and patient. They are very busy, and your project is not the only thing they focus on

Remember, this is your journey, but you do not want to lose the opportunity of having an opinion of a wise person during your trip.

 

 

A fieldwork based PhD during the pandemic

Joanne Morten (@joanne_morten) is a third year PhD student in the biosciences department. Using biologging technologies such as GPS tracking devices, Joanne researches the foraging and migratory behaviours of two water bird species: arctic terns and oystercatchers.

The first lockdown started as I was preparing for my 18 month upgrade. With one successful field season for each of my study species in the bag (oystercatchers during the winter in the Exe Estuary and arctic terns during the summer in Iceland), everything seemed to be going to plan. I was excited for the key second arctic tern season in June. GPS tracking devices had been carried by arctic terns since the previous breeding season and were recording the routes taken during their migration from Iceland to Antarctica, which is the furthest migration recorded of any animal! The aim of the second fieldwork season was to find and retrieve as many devices as possible. These data would be the basis of my PhD, and any data contained on the devices are unobtainable without re-capturing the birds.

Despite there still being many restrictions in place at the beginning of June 2020, my supervisor, Lucy, our Research Assistant, Lee, and I travelled to a deserted Heathrow, boarded a practically empty flight and flew to Iceland where we entered a very strict two-week quarantine. However, with the exception of being unable to go food shopping, there was very little difference from the field season the year before! We lived in a house less than 20 m from the nearest arctic tern nest, and spent the days slowly cruising through the colony in our vehicle, with any venture outside being greeted by dive bombing or pooping arctic terns! (This quarantine was far more enjoyable than the two weeks spent in my flat in the UK upon return!) After our quarantine ended, we went on a celebratory trip to a bakery, which was full of people and came as a complete shock to us all. Iceland had so few cases of covid that life within the country was minimally restricted. The field season flew by and we even successfully deployed devices for a week to monitor foraging behaviour during the breeding season.

By the time the June 2021 field season rolled around, I didn’t imagine that we would still be wondering whether we could leave the UK or enter Iceland. But thankfully, with consideration by the university and travel exceptions granted for researchers by the Icelandic government, we could live and work in the arctic tern colony once more. By then, international travel had adapted to covid and despite a slight hiccup at the airport with the wrong form (quickly rectified at the check-in desk!), our team once again reached the arctic terns. This time I was joined by another member of the lab group, Jess, and Lee once again for his third trip to the colony. In 2021 our quarantine was shorter (only five days and a negative PCR test were needed), but we still had a post-quarantine celebration excursion. This time to the erupting Fagradalsfjall volcano, just down the road from our field site!

Arctic terns have a very short breeding window, and our only chance to catch them is whilst they are incubating their eggs. There were ethical concerns that if we didn’t reach Iceland, terns that had been carrying devices since 2019 would be burdened for another year. With the clock ticking and the first week of June approaching, our application for international travel was approved by the Research Restart Committee with little time to spare. As a PhD student whose project is entirely based on data collected during fieldwork, I was exceptionally lucky that this could go ahead. With a huge amount of gratitude to the Research Restart Committee, my supervisor, the Director of Research, our Icelandic collaborator and everyone who helped us through the mountain of forms, we travelled internationally TWICE during the pandemic affording the best opportunity to try to recapture terns who had carried tiny GPS backpacks across the world.

Arctic tern with leg flag for identification

The 2021 field team visiting the Fagradalsfjall volcano (L – R Lee, Jess and Joanne)

Arctic tern with the GPS device antennae just about visible!

Arctic terns in flight

The biologging devices (plus an example leg flag and ring on the right) deployed on arctic terns. All weigh less than 3% of the mass of the terns with the smallest only around 1 g!

The empty office: Re-building our academic support networks

Meaghan Castledine (@mcastledine96) is a 3rd year PhD student based in CLES at the University of Exeter, Penryn campus. Her research, funded by the Medical Research Council, explores the evolution of microbial interactions in community ecology and medicine. She has studied here since an undergraduate in 2015 and has settled into Cornish life. She loves taekwondo, reading and, most importantly, dogs.

“I’m really sorry to bother you…”

“I know you’re really busy but…”

“Please can you help…”

“Help…”

Developing an academic support network is hard and made harder in a time when knocking on someone’s door or hovering by someone’s desk is no longer a possibility. Offices that once facilitated support are now quiet ghostly places. The casual support groups we formed over cups of coffee have become strained by dedicated online calls. Especially for new students, asking for help has become significantly harder: who do you ask? Who has the time, or willingness, to share their skills?

I’ve been incredibly lucky, and remain grateful to, a number of mentors who took me under their wings at each stage of my academic learning curve. These were mentors who were not assigned to me by the university, but rather people who personally volunteered to share their skills and knowledge with me.

At undergrad, two postgraduate students taught me how to write essays, develop ideas and work in a laboratory. At PhD, a post-doc – Dr Daniel Padfield – has taught me how to code and analyse my data. Although the foundations for each of these skills were laid in my degree training, these mentors helped me refine my skills and gave me more confidence than any course or module could.

Since the pandemic started, translating such social interactions to an online setting has stunted the development of these casual support networks. To address this, we may, as a research community, need to advertise our skills more explicitly among our peers.

A recent initiative by Dr Daniel Padfield is an exemplar of how support networks may be set up in the current climate. As a coding and statistics expert, Dan is a “go-to” for those who need extra help. To make himself more accessible to students who may be too shy to privately approach him, Dan set up weekly help sessions in the medical school where students can drop in. These, in effect, replace the casual office atmosphere where people would drop by Dan’s desk to ask for help.

Opening up such sessions need not be a place where individuals have their work done for them. Instead, staff and students can learn how to overcome hurdles and barriers to their learning. Sometimes those barriers come from self-confidence and having a supportive peer can help them overcome that block. Personally, I now tutor undergraduates in statistics; helping students work-through their problems and relaying my own past struggles has helped some students drop the adage that they are simply “useless” at statistics.

Sign up to be a mentor/tutor, check in on your peers, set up a dop-in session. Sharing skills and knowledge is at the centre of what it means to be a researcher. If we are to encourage the next generation of scientists then we need to develop support networks between all levels of academia: from undergrad to masters and PhD, post-doc and beyond.

Why a PhD is the best thing you will ever do

Dondu Sarisen is a third year PhD student in Centre for Water System, CEMPS at the University of Exeter. After few years working in a company in Turkey, she decided to pursue her career in academia.

PhD is a love and passion rather than a pain! If you enjoy and love what you are doing, and if you trust yourself, you would never be put off by your mistakes and other people’s prejudices or misjudgements. On the contrary, you will learn from your experience to enlarge your capabilities.

Every one of us has different experiences, facing different challenges and different responsibilities. Some of us, including but not exclusively, are wives or husbands, mums or dads, international students or home students or professionals struggling with the burden of a daily job, with some handling simultaneously nearly of the roles I mentioned. I have been writing this blog in order to appeal to all of you, being in all hope that you will find useful.

I assume that the common question for all the readers of this blog post is “What it is like doing a PhD?.” I can only write based on my own experience and therefore I might be biased but you can all apply your critical thinking to make sense of the information presented here.

It is tough to decide where to begin talking about a PhD. Doing a PhD abroad in a 2nd language changed my life, contributed to my both personal and academic development.

I would like to start simply talking about “learning.” Human beings experience various pleasures in their life; the taste of learning is one of them. Contributing the broader body of knowledge is invaluable. In the PhD, you are learning, starting with general knowledge, and then diving into more specific information, you get to know every particularity related to your field. Additionally, the PhD is a big project where you are the manager. You are learning to manage everything including your time, social life, relationships, academic life, cleaning, shopping, etc. From the personal development aspect, you are learning to be patient, coping with failure, and dealing with being alone (for those of you having families, you will still spend a great amount of time alone for running experiments and performing research).

PhD helps with development of transferrable skills: problem solving, critical thinking, adaptability, teamwork, communication, writing, listening, creativity, attention to detail, so on so forth.

At The University of Exeter, you also have a chance to be a PTA (Postgraduate Teaching Assistants). Teaching is one of the best ways of learning. You also can learn from students during classes.

In summary, I have realised during my PhD that what you can achieve is even bigger than what you can imagine or even expect from yourself. When I say “achievement,” I do not only mean academic achievements. You can realise how strong and resilient you are as a person. These achievements bring happiness and joy to our lives and motivates us.

Early Career Climate Researchers: Why Our Voice Matters

On the 22nd and 23rd June 2021, a group of Early Career Researchers (ECRs) from GW4 universities organised a Symposium on Climate Change. After two days of insightful presentations and stimulating conversations, the organising committee and conference attendees gathered for a final roundtable. They discussed the roles ECRs should play in the next ten years of climate research, and why their voices should matter in this endeavour. The statement presented below is the outcome of this roundtable.

As humanity rounds off the first quarter of the 21st century, the effects of anthropogenic climate change are becoming increasingly pronounced, disproportionately harming the most vulnerable. These impacts will grow exponentially in the decades to come. In this context, academic research has a critical role to play in developing ideas and strategies that can help mitigate this crisis and adapt to its consequences.

As climate researchers in Ph.D. or postdoc positions, we are willing to contribute to this endeavour. In this statement, we present three reasons why ECRs are uniquely well-positioned to take part in this conversation, and why they ought to be listened to.

3 key commitments from ECRs to produce impactful climate research:

  1. We commit to adopting an interdisciplinary approach to understand and tackle climate change.
  2. We commit to place global ethics at the centre or our work, and to make research processes more participatory.
  3. We commit to communicating our research broadly and creatively to reach different audiences.

Primarily, ECRs tend to be newcomers to their respective disciplines, allowing them to position themselves more easily between disciplines, or offer fresh perspectives on their home discipline. This position allows ECRs to develop the interdisciplinary networks and skill sets necessary to tackle the next generation of climate research. In fact, while facing “wicked problems” such as climate change, siloed perspectives limit the creation of  holistic and long term solutions. An example of this interdisciplinary approach was the Climate Symposium we recently organised. The symposium’s organising committee members possess highly diverse backgrounds including ecology, engineering, combustion science, history, epidemiology, education and management studies. Capitalising on this opportunity to work with a breadth of experiences, the organising committee put together a symposium that foregrounded our common passion to address climate change, associated issues and improving society, rather than putting forward a specific discipline.

Furthermore, on average, ECRs belong to the generations who have lived and will continue to see the increasing effects of climate change and its social and economic consequences. Consequently, a central motivation is to elaborate concrete alternatives that can benefit society as a whole. However, although climate change is global, it is fundamental to mention that its impacts are not equally distributed. In the course of our conversation, we stressed the need to acknowledge our positionality and privileges as researchers based in the Global North. This requires us to adopt a global ethics approach and to put climate justice at the centre of our work. Another approach rests on the creation of global collaborations and networks with a variety of stakeholders, including civil society organisations, businesses and policy-makers, to ensure that our work is inclusive and impactful, in line with participatory research approaches.

Finally, we are keen to communicate our work beyond academia using a variety of tools. This includes social media, blog posts, policy-briefs and artistic productions. The Climate Symposium 2021 sought to develop such skills. In addition to providing a platform for ECRs to present their work, we partnered with Protect Blue, an ocean focused creative agency, who delivered a workshop on research communication. This gave us some critical tips on how to communicate our work more effectively and engage with a wider audience. Our key takeaways included the need to frame our message based on our audience, being solution-focused and to present challenges as opportunities, in order to give a sense of optimism about the impact of our projects.

If you are at the early stage of your academic career, and the arguments we brought forward in this text resonate with you, we would like to encourage you to speak up, now, because your voice matters.

Why we will continue to Shut Up and Write

Many of you will have seen on Twitter that we have reached the end of out University of Exeter Alumni Annual Funded Supporting PGR Writing Project. But never fear – the practice, and the community it has created, is here to stay. You will have noticed a number of changes over the past few months – a rebranding as Shut Up and Write (SUAW), a new name and logo for the Microsoft Team, a new webpage, and a new Twitter account. In response to MANY requests, we’ve even got our own T-Shirt, which you can now purchase from Inkthreadable (sold at cost price!). These changes are to help us – and by us I mean tour amazing PGRs – better communicate what we do to University of Exeter PGRs, and the rest of the sector.

As part of this, I will be working with members of the SUAW community to write a collaboratively authored journal article. This article will share the initial aims for the project, and how it changed and evolved due to a) COVID-19 and b) the PGR community. A large portion of the article will be auto-ethnographic stories and lived experiences of the PGR community, and the impact SUAW has had on them and their research.

To prepare us for our first ‘writing day’ on Thursday 26th August (email k.preece@exeter.ac.uk if you would like to join us!) we are asking the SUAW community to describe SUAW in 3 words. We are using Menti to collect and visualise the responses, and will use them alongside a literature review to develop collaborative writing tasks for the day. So we have a request – can you describe SUAW in 3 words for us please? So far we have 30 responses and some themes are already developing. Given we have over 200 members of the SUAW ‘team’, we would love to get over 100 responses to give us some robust, representative data to work with. Here’s what we have so far…

I want to end by sharing my heartfelt thanks to the PGRs who have embraced SUAW as their own, and made it in to the kind of vibrant, supportive community we couldn’t have imagined when the project started. The impact these sessions have had, especially during COVID-19, has been transformational. The journal article is being written collaboratively to truly represent what this project has been – a collaboration, made possible by our amazing PGRs. Thank you.

Kelly Preece, Researcher Development Manager

How to survive a viva: new online resources coming soon

Edward Mills (@edward_mills) is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures, working on the AHRC-funded ‘Learning French in Medieval England’ project. He completed his PhD at the University of Exeter in 2020, where he was an active member of the PGR community.

 

 

 

Regular readers of this blog will likely already be familiar with the range of workshops, and webinars that the Researcher Development and Research Culture team offers to PGRs. During the pandemic, a number of PGRs have been working with Researcher Development to add an asynchronous element to this suite of offerings, and have put together a wide range of resources for the Researcher Development ELE page on all aspects of the doctoral experience. These range from advice on working with your supervisors specific tips for writing journal articles; and as I write this, ten of these resources are available, with more to follow in the near future. All of these resources are built around the principle of being ‘by PGRs, for PGRs’; that is, they draw on our own experiences to ensure that they are as relevant and precise as possible. While (much to my surprise) I’m no longer a PGR myself, I have been delighted to be able to be involved with the project in a related capacity, and one that also draws on my own experiences: over the past few months, I’ve produced a virtual ‘workbook’ on the topic of the viva.

The resources will soon go live on the Doctoral College’s ELE site, and I’m really pleased with how they turned out. In putting my resources together, I tried very hard not to reinvent the wheel: since the viva’s such an established part of any research degree journey, there’s an enormous amount of fairly generic advice out there that can be found with even a cursory Google search, which didn’t need repeating in another format. Instead, I decided to focus in on the multimedia potential of resources on ELE, and chose to structure much of the resource around interviews with three experienced supervisors and examiners, interviewed by a recent ‘viva survivor’. Each of these academics — Bice Maiguaschca, in Politics, Jon Blount, in CLES, and Michelle Bolduc, from Modern Languages and Cultures — was incredibly generous with their time, and the end result is three fascinating conversations that really illuminate the more commonly-overlooked aspects of the end-of-thesis period. Is it possible to pass a viva if your examiners disagree with you? Does publising extracts of your thesis prior to the viva render you ‘intouchable’? How can you best handle in-viva nerves? Answers to all of these questions, and more, await your ears, and are available both as excerpts scattered throughout the the resource and as full episodes three episodes of Kelly Louise Preece’s podcast, R, D, and the In-Betweens.

I really hope that you find the resources useful, and that the podcasts make for interesting listening. As ever, feedback is more than welcome, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions, comments, or musings on all things viva-related!

Working with policymakers

Last week we ran a question and answer panel with some of our researchers about working with policymakers. Kelly Preece (Researcher Development Manager) developed the following infographics to summarise the key ideas discussed in the session.

With huge thanks to Dr. Jonathan Doney, Dr. Sariqa Wagley and Ellie Hassan for their contributions to the panel. You can also access a series of webinars on working with policymakers, developed by Jonathan, on our ELE page.

You said, we did!

We are always listening to your feedback. Here are a few ways we have responded to feedback you have given us!

 

Upcoming sessions

GraphPad/
PRISM

A brief introduction to using the statistical and graph making software GraphPad Prism. While more complex methods of data analysis are available, GraphPad is an excellent piece of software for many people to analyse their data and make high quality figures.

When? 22 June 2021, 2.00-4.00pm Book your place on My Career Zone.

Inkscape

Inkscape is excellent for creating charts, diagrams, and illustrations. During our upcoming session you will discover how to navigate the Inkscape interface, and find the tools you need!

When? 24 June 2021, 10.00am-2.00pm.  Book your place on My Career Zone.

Your feedback is vital to us so please do not hesitate to get in contact if you have any requests or concerns, 

Dealing with Challenges Using Lego Serious Play

 

A couple of weeks ago we held another of our popular Lego Serious Play sessions on dealing with challenges during your research degree. The session enabled PGRs to talk through their experiences with their peers and share strategies for addressing these problems. Attendees also learnt how to use Lego Serious Play to think about problems in a new way, leading to creative and innovative problem solving skills. Here are some of the models produced as part of the session!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Overall feedback in terms of coping strategies and actions when facing challenges were:

  • To remember the motivation for why you started your research
  • Set small achievable goals as bigger picture can be overwhelming
  • It is useful to talk with your peers, as you are living a shared experience
  • The importance of self-care and looking after your mental wellbeing
  • Strategies to overcome imposter syndrome (don’t forget to check out our blog post on our Encountering Imposter Syndrome session!)

We will be running this session again in the Autumn term – why not come along and learn a new problem solving technique, discuss and share experiences of the challenges of being a PGR – and play with Lego!