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!

Doing Interdisciplinary Research

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

With huge thanks to Dr. Victoria Omotoso, Issy Sawkins, Gemma Delafield and Léna Prouchet for their time and contributions to the panel!































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!

Why I go to Shut Up and Write

Sam Pullman is a second year PhD student in the Graduate School of Education.  After many years as a frontline social work practitioner, she has turned her attention to social work education. Her research explores the connections between sustainability as a wider concept and theory base to prepare social workers for practice.  Sam also enjoys volunteering with community groups and taking part in citizen science projects. She has a keen interest in ecology, people and place. You can contact Sam on: .

I initially sought out Shut Up And Write to provide a routine and structure during lockdown and working from home. I wanted to keep momentum regarding my upgrade paper, and dedicate a protected space to focus on my research. My aim was to engage in good study habits and shift my mindset from procrastination or looking for diversionary activities. I decided to use the sessions between 10 – 4 pm as my core hours.

The structure of SUAW was appealing because each session only requires 25 minutes of focus which, I felt was within my capability. Breaking a two hour session into short sections meant that I could realistically complete one task at a time such as, addressing feedback, focusing on a particular chapter of my paper, or editing.  Sometimes I would set a writing target for the whole session of 200 – 300 words.  SUAW became a time to reflect and be critical of my research. The key to success is that I only need to do this for a short time, and then use the five minute break to get a drink and just relax my thinking. I was surprised how well the sessions worked for me, and that I was achieving my goals. The small steps I was taking, led to the completion of my upgrade paper. I still use SUAW sessions when I really need to structure my projects and research.

SUAW Community

SUAW is an online space to work, but also to connect and informally network with other PGR’s. It reminds me of the bigger picture of a vibrant research community at the university. SUAW encourages users to enter in the chat box what they intending to work on during the session. There is some really interesting and exciting research taking place, and the chat box almost becomes a co-journey of PGR’s progress. I recognise that we are all at different stages of their research from planning, upgrade, and viva. There is great energy and enthusiasm which is reflected in the sharing of tips, hints, references and ideas are shared to motivate each other. I would definitely recommend that my PGR colleagues who are feeling a bit stuck in getting started come along to a SUAW session.

SUAW Facilitator

SUAW was only meant to be a short term option during lockdown. My intention was to dip in and out of sessions until campus options were up and running. However, I may not have gained the opportunity to become a facilitator and write this blog. I wanted to give back for the support I had received during the sessions, and I am genuinely interested in what people are researching and their progress. Facilitators run the session timers and it’s an opportunity to be creative with race names and engage PGR’s with the session. Facilitators also provide dialogue to the chat box in the five minute break.  I also think it’s really important to offer encouragement especially when PGR’s are struggling.  So why not come along to a session. I look forward to hearing from you in the chat box.

Podcasting in a Pandemic



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



Helping students to feel part of a community has been one of the main challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a Researcher Development Manager, I work with postgraduate researchers (PGRs), who already experience high levels of isolation as they are not part of a teaching cohort. They do not have timetabled sessions with other PGRs and often start their studies at varying points in the academic year. Instead, PGRs meet each other and develop communities informally, whether over lunch at induction, making a cup of tea at a training event, working in shared offices, or through asking questions at research seminars.  Through this they share their experience, their frustrations, their hopes and their fears – and they learn from each other. The pandemic has derived PGRs of these moments of serendipity and informal conversation, leaving them even more isolated, a state of affairs that has led to a negative impact on wellbeing, motivation, and progress. So how have we been working to combat this? We started a podcast. To be accurate, we started a second podcast.

Back in January 2020 (a different time!) we had started a monthly Doctoral College podcast called Beyond Your Research Degree, interviewing our doctoral graduates working beyond academia about how they moved from academia to industry, and what career opportunities ouThis picture is the logo of the Beyond Your Research Degree. tside academia are available to people with a research degree. The purpose of this podcast was not to build a community – instead, it was a to build a series of case studies for PGRs to access about the wealth of job roles and career opportunities available to them beyond academia. Similar podcasts exist across the sector, but we felt that they were too vague and did not get at the nitty-gritty of searching and applying for jobs outside of the academy. How do you format a CV for a non-academic job? How can you frame the skills developed during a research degree for a role where research may not be your main focus? These are important questions, and ones that we hoped to answer in a concrete way through our new podcast.​​​​​​​

​​​​​​​When COVID-19 hit, we were in a good position as a team to move our provision online. Working across all campuses and with large numbers of distance students, we were already offering our training and development opportunities online. This meant that we swiftly found ourselves in demand to support academic and professional services colleagues as they moved their own content online, and gave us the breathing space to look for creative solutions to our online problems – specifically, how to build a PGR community and recreate that experience of sharing and peer learning online.

With a growing listenership (and growing confidence in audio recording and editing), I decided to start a second, fortnightly podcast: Researchers, Development and the In-Betweens. Like Beyond Your Research Degree, this aim of this podcast was to tell stories and share experiences – but on a much wider range of topics and themes, about being ‘in the thick of it’ as a researcher. On the podcast we have talked about writing up your thesis in the time of coronavirusthe supervisory relationship, being a BAME researcherworking with an industry research partner, and – of course – having to adapt research projects due to COVID-19. But even though podcasts are a one-way format, R, D and the In-Betweens has filled the space left by those chance meetings by sharing experiences, advice and learning, and has done so informally, openly, and honestly. Podcasts are a form of social media, are easily accessible, and are an ideal way to take a break from the screen. Our PGRs listen to our podcasts whilst doing the washing up, taking their daily walk of just relaxing on the sofa. They fit easily into people’s lives. ​​​​​​​

Top Tips

  • We record all our podcasts over Zoom – online advice was clear that out of all videoconferencing tools it produces the highest quality audio recordings. We also record with cameras off to improve the audio quality.
  • As the host I use a Blue Yeti Microphone and pop filter to ensure high-quality audio. This cost the department £130, but often my guests are using the in-ear headphones they got free with their mobile and the audio quality is still decent.
  • edit all the recording in Audacitywhich is free, open-source, cross platform audio software. Zoom can produce an .mp4 file for each participant, which I convert online to a .mp3 to import into Audacity. I keep my editing as basic as I can. I cut out any notification sounds from Microsoft Teams, interventions from children or pets, or just the conversation going off on a tangent. We have a guide on our ELE page about basic editing in Audacity.
  • All episodes are then uploaded to a podcast host – we have a pro subscription to Podbean, but there are many options out there. The podcast host will produce an RSS feed of your episodes which you can submit to different podcatchers. We have feeds to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts and Amazon Music as the major platforms.
  • Finally, I use Panopto to create captions for the podcast episode, which I add to the show notes. I use the automatic captions but go through and edit any inaccuracies. (Incidentally, Panopto is still convinced the podcast is called ‘Audi and the Inbetweeners’.)

This post originally appeared on the University of Exeter Education Toolkit.

‘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:
    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!

Top Tips for Tweet Your Thesis

Thinking about entering this year’s Tweet Your Thesis competition? We’ve asked last year’s winners for their advice and top tips to help you craft that prize-winning tweet!


Ari Cooper-Davis, PGR in the Centre for Water Systems – 1st Place













Ari’s top tips

  • Assume your audience is not familiar with your subject area, so try to avoid acronyms or subject-specific vocab
  • An eye-catching photo can draw attention. If you’ve not got any you can find freely-usable images on Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay
  • Using whitespace to break up big blocks of text makes it easier to scan, and can make your narrative easier to follow

You can find Ari on Twitter @aricooperdavis


Kate Sansum, PGR in the Children’s Health and Exercise Research Centre – 2nd Place















Kate’s top tips

  • Keep the message clear and simple. Imagine you are explaining your research to a child/teenager as this helps to ensure anyone can understand what your thesis is about
  • Use emojis to help save characters when you are over the limit
  • Add a relevant and engaging GIF or photo to supplement the information in your text

You can find Kate on Twitter @KateSansum.

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!


Opportunity: NVivo Learning Materials Developers

We are looking to recruit a small group of doctoral researchers across the GW4 community, who are using NVivo in their research, to develop learning resources for other doctoral researchers to use. Ideally these learning resources should illustrate how you use NVivo within your research.

Successful applicants will be employed on a casual teaching contract and can claim up to 15 hours for developing the resource.

This opportunity has several benefits:

  • provides a fantastic development opportunity
  • uses the practical, ‘on the ground’ experience of our doctoral researchers
  • gives the resource ‘currency’ – made by doctoral students for doctoral students
  • provides a paid opportunity

More about the learning resources

We are looking to recruit around 8 students across the GW4 community to work on topics including, but not limited to:

  • theory- or data-driven data analysis (for example thematic analysis or grounded theory)
  • conducting literature reviews and working with NVivo and reference managers (EndNote, Mendeley, Zotero)
  • using queries and visualising data or coding
  • coding and analysing video and audio materials
  • importing and analysing survey data-
  • collecting and analysing social media data
  • creating coding frameworks
  • working with maps and diagrams
  • using case of file classifications
  • working with auto-coding
  • using a framework matrix
  • how to facilitate double-coding or teamwork more broadly
  • any other NVivo feature or trick that has been useful in your work

Applicants should ideally have some experience of online teaching and resource development (although not essential). Experience of producing videos, podcasts or posters will be an advantage.

The successful applicants will be expected to create online resources in a variety of formats, which could include including short video presentations, podcasts, infographics, exercise and task sheets and interactive pdfs. Technical support will be available, if required. The resources will be clearly credited and attributed to the creator.

This pilot project is part of new initiative to create a community of NVivo users.

How to apply

To apply for one of these positions, please fill in this application form.

The closing date for applications is 9 May.


In February we launched our PGR Careers Planning ELE page, with bespoke resources taking PGRs through the Career Management Cycle.

This blog post is an extract from this ELE page all about Networking, and was developed by Dr. Kate Massey-Chase, doctoral graduate in Drama.


We are currently surveying our PGRs and find out what other resources you would like us to develop to enhance our PGR Careers Planning ELE page and Beyond Your Research Degree podcast, and in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic through a brief online form here. 

Some people shudder at the word ‘networking’, picturing awkward drinks events where you have no idea who to talk to (or how to hold a drink and canapé and eat/drink/talk at the same time). But networking isn’t just about meeting people in the atrium of a conference or going to events with people in shiny suits, aggressively thrusting business cards at you. It’s simply about making and sustaining connections.

You already have networks around you: your supervisors, other colleagues in your department, your research student peers, research networks you belong to, conference working groups, social media groups… So you’re not starting from scratch. But: are you making the most of them?

Ask yourself:

  • Do the staff in your department, beyond your immediate team, know you by name?
  • Have you positioned yourself as someone who can be asked for a favour? If someone needed an extra pair of hands for an event or had an exciting opportunity to offer, would they think of you?
  • If someone in your department was writing a paper that overlapped with your research area, would they know it was your area too?
  • Have you attended events run by your College? Or offered to organise any?
  • Do you ever email someone after an event to tell them how much you like their work?
  • Have you nailed your academic Twitter game?
  • Do you forward opportunities to your peers, if you think they might be interested? Do you offer to proof-read their abstracts or applications?

From this list, we can see that networking is not about self-promotion; it’s about dialogue and connection. It’s about being proactive, helpful, generous and kind. You get out what you put in, so it’s up to you to create the research community you want to be a part of.

Of course, this might sound a) daunting, and/or b) horribly time-consuming. You also might feel it puts those with other demands on their time – such as caring responsibilities, part-time work and health needs – at a disadvantage. However, we are not advocating participating in a toxic culture of trying to push, push, push and be everywhere, all of the time, for everyone. We’re not suggesting that research students sign up for lots of unpaid labour (like regularly doing the washing up after events, if the paid staff aren’t also helping). But rather that you think strategically about what you get involved in – and this course aims to help you do that. And yes, for those with multiple demands on their time, it can sometimes feel like a lot to keep on top of. That’s why it’s important that it’s always dialogic and mutually supportive. It only takes a moment to forward an email to a peer telling them about a conference that you think they might be interested in; then, you never know: they might do the same for you.

The harsh reality is: if you don’t build networks, your work and your job prospects will suffer. Your research suffers because you have fewer people to ask for feedback, are exposed to fewer ideas, and are less likely to encounter research at the fore-front of your field. And your job prospects suffer because you miss opportunities and you have fewer people to recommend you.

So, what can you do to build your network?

  • Find out what your peers’ research topics are, if you don’t already know, and send them the next call for papers or job opportunity you think might interest them. If they never do the same back, it doesn’t matter because you have done a nice thing. Bonus points if they are students who have the potential to be marginalised in academia (women, disabled people, students of colour, international students).
  • Follow people that interest you professionally on Twitter and engage with them (see more about using social media to build your career, below).
  • If you are feeling shy at a conference/event, ask a friend or your supervisor to introduce you to people they know; don’t worry too much what you talk about – you don’t always need to do your ‘elevator pitch’ – just see how things progress naturally. If your working group is going for dinner one evening, be brave and don’t just sit with your friends.
  • Subscribe to relevant Jisc Mail lists – these are email discussion lists for UK Education and Research communities (you can find mailing lists by category, or ask around which ones your peers/supervisors subscribe to).
  • Keep talking! If you are passionate about your work, people will find it interesting (and show interest in others’ work in return). You never know what’s around the corner or who you might meet, so go ahead and chat to people on trains, in cafes, at the pub… This also helps you practice talking about your research in ways that are accessible to diverse audiences.

As well as building your confidence in reaching out to people, making contacts and then nurturing relationships, you can also make use of ready-made networks at the University of Exeter. Some of the networks are listed here, such as the Early Career Research Network, women’s groups and initiatives, and the Parents and Carers Network.

Networking at conferences

If you are looking for more advice about networking at conferences, Heidi Maurer from London School of Economics, offers some sage advice:

Do not make the mistake of thinking you are only there to present your research. You are there to become part of an academic community, what means that you need to invest time and engage beyond your own panel appearance. When you are part of the audience, show interest and ask questions. We all like engaging audiences, so be one. Also, do not only network with the “big names” in your field (i.e. professors), but also engage with your peers. These are the people with whom you will share the largest part of your career, and it is indispensable to learn, exchange and create supportive networks with one´s peers.

Read more of her advice in her blog: ‘Preparing to Present at an Academic Conference’.

The website also offers practical advice on networking as an academic in their blog ‘Networking: How to Maximize Opportunities and Boost Your Career Connections’, including the importance of opening conversations with questions to get things rolling. Remember: most people like to talk about themselves.