Supervising Neurodiverse PGRs

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

Awareness raising

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

ILPs can help – but make use of the Supervision Agreement

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

Engage in meta-communication

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

Be prepared to challenge academic conventions and ways of doing

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

For further insight, why not listen to the podcast?

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

Exploring the Key Components of Public Engagement

Megan Maunder is a third year PhD student in Mathematics, CEMPS at the University of Exeter. She is the beneficiary of an STFC studentship for a “Multi-Spacecraft Investigation of Solar and Heliospheric Plasmas”.  A strong believer in engaging the wider public in the scientific process, she runs a variety of outreach and public engagement sessions with the University’s Widening Participation Team and external groups. She is currently the Advocacy Team lead for the Royal Astronomical Society’s Early Career Researcher Network, working to creating more inclusive and accessible environments within Astronomy and Geophysics.

Throughout June the Researcher Development and Research Culture team ran events as part of a new series funded by the Association of Commonwealth Universities, exploring the key components of Public Engagement:

  • An Introduction Public Engagement and Evaluation for Engagement
  • Creative Engagement Methods
  • Co-production in Research
  • Impactful Public Engagement with Research

The four sessions were led by public engagement experts from across the University and showcased a range of disciplines, activities, and approaches including multi-disciplinary and co-produced public engagement case studies. A variety of career researchers attended, from those getting started to those looking to develop new projects and hone their expertise.

Here are some Top Tips from our sessions to help guide you:

  • Make sure to have an ‘elevator pitch’ Prepare a few sentences to describe your research in jargon-free language for a non-specialist audience. Having this ready to go is a good foundation for starting your public engagement journey.
  • Ask around, find out what projects already exist, and talk to those already involved. There are often meaningful funded opportunities for early career researchers to start their own projects or get involved in existing ones. Learning about what others are doing can be a source of inspiration and advice; there may be existing projects you can get involved in.
  • Focus on your audience. The ‘public’ is not a homogenous group; there are different types of publics, think about what group you specifically want to target, what you already know about them, and why they might interested in your research and how that fits in a broader context. Your sessions and plans should be aimed at this group. This is key to developing meaningful engagement.
  • Think about your motivations. Why you want to get involved in public engagement, what you hope to get out of it? You may even focus on working with a group that can help you with your work and focus on creating co-produced research creating a clear two-way dialogue with your target group. Using Logic Models may help with this as you develop your plan.
  • Think about the logistics, not just costs, locations but evaluate how much of your time you can commit to a project. How much time is involved in preparation and development, delivering content and hosting events, and then time spent on post-production like editing and impact evaluation?
  • How are you going to evaluate the impacts of your activities? Think about what evidence you might need and how you are going to store and analyse any data, especially if this is required by your funder. Remember to check if you need ethics approval!

A huge thank you is extended to all our session presenters and to those who presented their work and case studies.

A suite of resources exploring these concepts in more detail, developed by Megan, will be available on our ELE page in the coming weeks.

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!

Writing non-academic job applications

This post is written by Cate Bennett, Researcher Development Manager (ECRs) and is part of our new PGR Career Planning Guide.

Just like your CV an application form is your personal marketing document. It is your opportunity to introduce ‘you’ to a potential employer and therefore your first opportunity to showcase the relevant skills, experiences and personal attributes that you have and that they are looking for.  Your key focus must be to tailor your application to the role.

Before you compose anything, have you …

1.    Carefully read the form, accompanying documents and instructions through from start to finish? Ask yourself: do I have all the information to hand that I will need to complete this form successfully?

The above may sound obvious, but you’ll be amazed at how many people don’t do this and then find they are wasting time hunting for key pieces of information, for example; key dates, names of qualifications, examining body details, employers’ addresses and strong examples to showcase evidence. Remember, follow instructions to the letter and don’t leave sections blank, unless you really have nothing relevant to say.

On top of all of this, many forget to seek the permission of their potential referees. It is vital that you ask whether they are happy to be your referee; if you don’t, you may find that a reference won’t be forthcoming!

2.    Carried out your research? Ask yourself: what do I know about this organisation and the sector it operates within?

Your research should not be limited to the organisation’s website and application materials. Often you can find out a lot about an organisation through following them on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook etc. Read the press and sector specific magazines and journals.

You may, through reviewing your own network, identify individuals who have knowledge of your organisation of choice. Using LinkedIn Alumni may help you identify graduates from the University of Exeter who are working within the sector you are trying to break into and even the company you are applying to. Why not use your common experience of studying/researching at Exeter as a way to connect through LinkedIn and start a conversation!

Attending employer events and fairs run through the University and elsewhere will also provide you with opportunities to have key conversations with recruiters.

3.    Identified the key elements your potential employer is seeking? Ask yourself: if I was the recruiter what would make this application form stand out for me?

Pay very close attention to the advert, job description and person specification.

If, in the advertising materials for the post, you are offered the opportunity to find out more about the role before applying, embrace it! Make contact with the person listed and prepare for your conversation in advance. Don’t ask questions for which the answers could be easily found through the website, or application materials. Think about what you need to know to support your decision making around whether the role and the organisation are right for you and to help you target your application further.

4.    Explored and understood the language of the sector and organisation? Ask yourself: does this organisation use an applicant tracking system (ATS)?

An applicant tracking system helps companies organize candidates for hiring and recruitment purposes. These systems allow businesses to collect information, organize prospects based on experience and skill set, and filter applicants’. 

Although you may not be able to find out whether an ATS is used (currently, it appears to be large organisations that utilise them), taking time to do your background research and looking at the language in the recruitment literature and on the organisation’s web pages will give you the opportunity to use the language that an ATS will be looking for. Try to weave this naturally through your application form and remember:

  • No spelling mistakes! The ATS will miss important keywords if misspelled.
  • Consider the keywords, buzzwords, technical terms, experience and skills used in the organisation’s recruitment material and in the industry
5.    Identified your skills and personal attributes and the experiences you will use to evidence these? Ask yourself: what are the essential and desirable criteria for this role? What else have I learnt about this role through my research and discussions? What experiences will therefore allow me to evidence my most relevant skills and personal attributes?

Don’t just consider standard work or study based examples; what other things have you done or do you do that makes up who you are? Always keep in mind relevance; you are looking for examples across your various experiences that will allow you to evidence skills, experience, enthusiasm and potential. Don’t forget that some experiences that, on the one hand, may not seem related to the role, on the other may be ideal for showcasing the development of key transferable skills that you can’t showcase from more directly related examples.

6.    Considered the language you will use to confidently convey your potential and enthusiasm through the examples you use?

Make it positive, for example, don’t use ‘I feel’, ‘I think’, ‘I had to’. You need to confidently convey your actions using ‘power verbs’. You may find the information found via this link will help you get into the swing of this technique:#.

 

Now that you are ready to start composing your personal statement and/or answer questions posed by the employer on the application form, consider the following …

1.    If the application form comprises a personal statement section i.e. the blank box which gives you the opportunity to explain why you are applying for the role and why you are suitable, how will you design it so that it’s easy to see how you match the key criteria laid down?  Below is just one approach you could consider:

  • An introductory paragraph that sets the scene i.e. explains why you are interested in the organisation and role;
  • Followed by a themed approach to showcasing how you meet the essential and desirable criteria. i.e. can you theme the elements of the desirable and essential criteria into simple headings and then provide the relevant evidence as to how you meet the criteria? Although theming may not always be possible, where it is, it will may make it much easier for the recruiter to spot how you meet their requirements, rather than trawling through long paragraphs of text trying to identify them. Unless instructed otherwise, it is often suitable to break-up paragraphs with bullet points, allowing you to highlight the key elements you want to stand out. When providing an example to showcase skills and experience, consider using the STAR technique (see section 2 below for details);
  • Brief summary, but not a repetition, of your interest in the role and organisation.

Remember: make the recruiters life easy, don’t write a novel, use a logical structure, be succinct, to the point and provide evidence to back-up your claims. Follow instructions, including those relating to word count or number of pages! If there are no such instructions, often 2-3 pages of A4 is suitable, but if in doubt you can always contact the organisation for clarification.

2.      You may find that the application form contains competency based questions. To answer these successfully you’ll need to identify the specific competency/competencies sought. Where this/these may not be obvious, you may find it helpful to refer back to the person specification and job description. Your next step is to pick a strong example from previous or current experience that will help you evidence not only the skill, but the level of your competence in using it. Read the question carefully, if you are being asked for ‘an example of a time when you …’ use one example only.

To help you with structuring your answer and writing succinctly, try using the STAR technique:

S – briefly describe the Situation

T – briefly describe the Task (often you can combine the S&T)

A – clearly explain the Action you took. This is the section in which you provide the detail of what YOU did. Here you must talk about ‘I’. The recruiter needs to know what you did to be able to identify your skills and personal attributes. This is the part of your answer you spend the most time on.

– explain the Result/s of your action/s. Most people forget to include the outcome of their actions. Don’t skim over this!

Sometimes it may be appropriate to add a second ‘R’ = Review to explain what you’ve learnt or done differently since this experience to showcase your development.

Often competency questions are word limited – remain within the word count!

An infographic of the STARR technique - Situation, Task, Action, Result, Reflection

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.      Strength based questions are more commonly asked at interview but may sometimes be asked on application forms. These questions are used to identify candidates whose own strengths and preferred working style matches the job role, therefore trying to ensure higher motivation and performance in successful candidates.

  • Utilise strong examples of when you have used the specific strengths asked for and     articulate, where appropriate, how they could be of benefit to the organisation
  • Make sure you draw on experiences from all aspects of your life – academia, voluntary work, clubs/societies, paid employment, gap year / travel etc.
  • Just like every other aspect of the application process make sure you answer honestly. If you pretend to be someone you’re not and are successful in securing the position it may not be a good fit for you. 

 

Final Words of Wisdom

  • Wherever possible, give yourself plenty of time to carry out the background research and the drafting of your application; it can take hours to write, so don’t put yourself under pressure. It is wise to take a break, once you’ve written your first draft, and then come back to it to read it afresh, you’ll often find that you can hone it further.
  • Whether the application requires a personal statement or answers to specific questions which are word limited, draft in Word first, then spell and grammar check; not every online form has a spell checker.
  • If you decide to copy and paste from a previous application form be very, very careful that you are copying the right information! It is more common than you think for applicants to copy across the wrong information, including the name of the previous organisation. It is often better to re-type than copy and paste from an old application form.
  • In Word use the word count checker for the elements of the form that are word limited, not every form will cut you off when you have reached the maximum words allowed. Anything written in excess of the word count is unlikely to be read!
  • Be aware that when copying and pasting into the online form, formatting may change. Make sure you give yourself time to go back through your text to reformat where necessary – visual impressions do count!
  • Don’t lie, be positive, clear and concise.
  • The careful use of bullet points can help draw the eye to key elements of your experiences. They can also help you stick to the facts rather than writing a novel. They help breakup blocks of text which are onerous to those who have very little time to read your application.
  • Proofread – you first then others.
  • If you would like to find out more about disclosing a disability at application stage, please visit the following web pages and listen to the podcasts.
  • Without fail, tailor your application and always follow instructions!

‘Ten top tips’ for designing a research poster

Rebekah J White (she/her) is an evolutionary biology and genetics PhD researcher in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Exeter. Her current project involves exploring the genetic basis of ageing, late-life disease, and lifespan extension in nematode worms, using a range of laboratory-based techniques. Her previous work has included emerging zoonotic diseases and transmissible cancers. Rebekah has a passion for communicating research both to the public and to researchers in other fields through many mediums, including podcasts, social media, and interdisciplinary conferences. She co-delivers the Designing Effective Research Posters course for the Exeter Doctoral College. Twitter: @rebekah_jwhite

Shahan Choudhury (he/him) is an Applied Linguist and a postgraduate researcher in Education. His PhD focuses on children’s and teachers’ understanding of English grammar in reading and writing contexts and how grammar is used. He is a part-time lecturer in Academic English at Anglia Ruskin University. At Exeter, he co-delivers Designing Research Posters, Writing Journal Articles and Academic Writing. His aim is to help others improve their reading and writing through the understanding of grammar.

 


If you are considering designing a research poster, get started with the ten top tips below developed by the Designing Effective Research Posters skills training leads.

  1. The key aim of a research poster is to summarise research results in a concise and attractive Always keep this point at the forefront of your mind during the design stage. Totally stuck for ideas? Have a look at some research posters online, or perhaps stroll through some University buildings which sometimes have them up, such as the hallways of Hatherley or Washington Singer on Streatham.
  2. One of the most important stages is planning and thinking things through. Ask yourself the following questions – having clear answers to these questions will help you throughout the design process.
    1. Why am I doing this poster?
    2. What is my core message?
    3. Perhaps most importantly – What do I want to achieve (e.g., sparking discussion, networking, attracting funders)?
  3. Try and first design a draft outline of your poster. Start with a blank sheet of paper/open up a new PowerPoint slide and jot down the following titles, along with bullet points on what will be included in each section: Background/ introduction, Aims, Methods, Results and Conclusion. Make sure you include…
    1. The university logo (and funders’ one, if applicable), which you can access from here: https://www.exeter.ac.uk/departments/communication/communications/design/downloads/
    2. Your name with an asterisk, and others that contributed to the project
    3. Contact information of all contributors
    4. References
  4. Adapting your message to your audience: If your audience is all within your discipline, how would you change what you say, for example for an interdisciplinary conference? Think about things you would need to do to make it accessible for each audience.
  5. Think about language. This will depend on your audience – will it be interdisciplinary, field-specific, or industry-based? Spending time on what you write is just as important as you are looking to communicate your research in an easy-to-understand manner. Do think about:
    1. The words you will use. How much / what jargon is appropriate?
    2. Sentence length – short is preferred!
    3. Keep it formal
    4. Keep explanations as simple as possible
    5. When using images and diagrams, are they self-explanatory, or is a little annotation needed?
  6. Looks matter: How will your poster look? Make sure to check on specific conference requirements for layout or size (if there are any). Take care with the design, making sure that:
    1. Font is clear and legible
    2. Images​ are appropriate and relevant
    3. It is not over-crowded
    4. It is not text-heavy
    5. You use colours that complement each other
  7. It takes time! Give yourself plenty of time to work on it – it is fun but can take longer than you think.
  8. Reuse your templates! If you have done steps 1-3 above, you should be well on your way to designing your personalised template. Remember, you can re-use it each time you do a different poster.
  9. The extra flair: Give your poster an edge by adding ORCiD, QR codes, or even a link to a video!
  10. And finally: show your poster to a friend, colleague and family member even, asking them what they think of it – you might be pleasantly surprised at how much you learn by getting other peoples’ views!

We hope this helps. Enjoy getting started with your research poster!

Thinking about entering 3MT? Here are our top tips.

 

Jennifer is now a third year PhD student in the biosciences department. Jennifer looks at how elevated CO2, commonly found in fish farms, impacts lumpfish growth and behaviour. Lumpfish are farmed to be deployed into salmon pens across the U.K. Jennifer won the UoE 3MT competition in 2019.

 

Isabel Sawkins is a third year PhD student, based in the History Department at Exeter and the International Politics Department at Aberystwyth. Issy’s project investigates the contemporary memorialisation of the Holocaust in the Russian Federation, specifically how it has been represented in museums, film, and education.

 

 

Thinking about entering our 3 Minute Thesis competition? PGRs Jennifer Finlay and Isabel Sawkins, who run our presentation skills training, have developing this infographic with some top tips! Don’t forget to apply online by 30th April!

 

Getting started with your research degree

As part of our Induction for new postgraduate researchers we ran a question and answer panel on Getting started with your research degree. It was a fantastic session, and many thanks go to our panellists Cathryn Baker, Jamie Cranston, Fatima Naveed, Malcolm Richards, Sarah Richardson and Jo Sutherst for their time, advice and candor. For those who were unable to attend the event live, it is available as a recording summarised for your below.

Getting started with your research degree – advice from researchers

  1. A research degree can feel really overwhelming, especially at the start. Remember everyone feels like this, and your are not alone!
  2. Make your project more manageable by breaking it down in to smaller chunks and settings achievable goals.
  3. Your supervisors are your anchor – use them!
  4. Build a supportive academic community that helps you to dare to dream big, but also grounds you.
  5. Don’t compare yourself to people around you. Their project, supervisors, research methods and working habits are completely different.
  6. Don’t keep your worries to yourself – talk to your supervisors, your PGR pastoral tutor and your peers.
  7. Remember the research degree is the start of your academic journey – not the destination.

 

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.