Life Beyond the PhD Conference at Cumberland Lodge (2)

Cumberland Lodge is a charity that empowers social progress through dialogue and debate, to build more peaceful, open and inclusive societies. Each year, the organisation holds ‘Life Beyond the PhD’, a conference aimed at helping doctoral students prepare for their future. This year, for the second time, Brighton Doctoral College ran a competition offering one of our students the chance to win a fully-funded place at this annual conference. Below, winning entrant, Tochukwu Ozulumba, PhD student in the School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences, tells us about her experience and shares some of her stunning photographs.

Life Beyond the PhD conference
Tochukwu Ozulumba

Tochi Ozulumba profile photoI could hardly contain my excitement when I received the mail from the Doctoral College to say that I had won the competition to attend the ‘Life Beyond the PhD’ conference from 13 – 17 August, 2018. This annual conference attracts PhD students and early career researchers from different UK universities to celebrate the postgraduate research culture through sharing their experiences, workshops and discussions on the value of the PhD.

Not only was the prospect of interacting with researchers from diverse disciplines for 4 days quite interesting, this also presented a perfect opportunity to take a break from the routine of #phdlife. And what better place to be than the historic Cumberland Lodge, nestled in the beautiful and serene Windsor Great Park?

Upon arrival, we were given a tour of the Lodge followed by a welcome talk by Dr Rachel Smillie, the Lodge’s Education Officer. In the first workshop, ‘Research Culture in the UK’, the talks by Prof Dorothy Bishop (Council for Defence of British Universities) and Prof Rosemary Hunter (Queen Mary University) addressed key issues in the UK research environment including grant funding, publishing, journal access and the Research/ Teaching Excellence Frameworks (R/TEF). Also, I learnt about ‘Academics Anonymous’, an anonymous blog series for academics to tell their stories, from Rachel Hall (Editor, Guardian Higher Education Network). The night ended with a trivia quiz and fortunately, my group won the coveted prize of chocolate!

Day 2 was quite intense with workshops on self-leadership, mental health, writing and speaking. Dr Steve Joy (Head of Researcher Development, University of Cambridge) highlighted the importance for early career researchers (ECRs) to have more breadth i.e. a range of experiences and a diverse professional network. In his words, ‘Self-leadership is about good choices, with good intent. Choose to be creative about your futures’. The next talk by Katie D’Arcy (Independent Careers Advisor) on speaking was particularly stimulating as we learnt about using non-violent communication techniques in research. Also, she emphasized the need for presenters to always ask, ‘What is the one thing you want the audience to remember?’ To quote her, ‘The end of a presentation is the beginning of a new conversation’. Being self-reflective, stress management during the PhD, building a support network, giving constructive feedback and dealing with imposter syndrome were highlights of the session on Mental Health led by Prof Gina Wisker (University of Brighton). The final workshop on writing was hosted by Katie and she explored the writing process, structuring tools and research proposal writing. An interesting part was the ‘free writing’ session where everyone had to write on their motivations for completing a PhD for five uninterrupted minutes in absolute silence. It was amazing to see how much progress we made in such a short period without distractions!

Day 3 started with delegates giving non-specialist research presentations in smaller multidisciplinary groups. It was interesting to listen to diverse talks ranging from Chinese medicine to needlework to Greek literature. We also received feedback on our presentations from one another, which was helpful. In the next workshop, ‘Views from the Recent Past’, Dr Becky Black (Social Researcher, Government Equalities Office) and Dr Bill Bruford (Independent Scholar and Musician) talked about their experiences during and after the PhD. Personally, the take-home message was to be proactive and strategic about my future beyond the PhD. After the talk, we had free time and I chose to explore the Park with other delegates over the very attractive option of Yogalates. We walked past the Ox Pond through the Deer Park right up to the Copper Horse statue of King George III atop the Snow Hill where we could see Windsor Castle in the distance. After the wonderful barbecue dinner in the garden, we headed in for the workshop on ‘Public Engagement’ led by Dr Hannah Rose Woods (Cultural Historian and Journalist) and Prof Helen Nicholson (Vice Principal, Royal Holloway, University of London). This session was very enlightening and touched on different modes of communication and engaging stakeholders who are resistant to public engagement.

The early hours of Day 4 were greeted with rain. However, it got off to a good start with a group task on developing an interdisciplinary approach to surviving a hypothetical ‘zombie apocalypse’ in Coventry. In her introduction to the ‘Interdisciplinary Research Proposals’ workshop, Dr Smillie explained the difference between multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity using the ‘fruit salad and smoothie’ analogy which I found very helpful.  We spent the whole day in different groups collaborating on an interdisciplinary research proposal which incorporated the expertise of all group members. It was good to experience first-hand the challenges of working with researchers from diverse disciplines and learning how to work around these challenges to achieve a common goal. Group task over, I went on a walk with some delegates around the estate including the Guards Polo Club.

The last day started with the group interdisciplinary presentations before a mock grant panel comprising Canon Dr Ed Newell (Principal, Cumberland Lodge), Dr Jan Mock (Programme Director, Cumberland Lodge), Dr Smillie and Dr Joy. Fortunately, my group, Flitcroft, won the competition for our proposal aimed at ‘Increasing access for children and adolescents living in Newham social housing to Universities’ and yet again, the prize was chocolate! The conference came to an end with a stimulating talk by Dr Owen Gower (Director, UK Council for Graduate Education) on ‘Why is a PhD worth it?’ where he discussed recent trends in the UK postgraduate research landscape and the value of the PhD. I was particularly inspired by a quote from his talk attributed to Prof Glyn Turton – ‘A PhD is for life, not just for academia’. Afterwards, we had group photographs, lunch and said our goodbyes.

I would like to thank the staff of Cumberland Lodge for the platform to discuss varied subjects in a supportive environment in addition to the wonderful food and accommodation. I would also like to thank the Doctoral College for the opportunity to attend the Life Beyond the PhD Conference. It was a great learning experience and offered the opportunity to share experiences with a diverse cohort of ECRs.

Conference photo gallery

To find out more about Tochi and her work, take a look at her LinkedIn profile and visit her on Twitter.

You might also like to check out another report on ‘Life Beyond the PhD’ from our first conference attendee, Uschi Klein (now Dr Uschi Klein).

Meeting unknown gods (or presenting at an international conference for the first time)

Gemma Williams, first year Linguistics PhD student based in the School of Humanities, recently presented at an international conference for the first time — just a few short weeks after delivering her first-ever conference presentation in the UK.

Below, Gemma shares her personal experience (and some beautiful Andalusian photos) of how she approached this exciting and somewhat daunting event in Seville.

Meeting unknown gods

Gemma Williams

The week preceding my trip to Seville was one full of intense angst and apprehension. Gemma of the past had thought it a good idea to submit an abstract to present at the 8th International Symposium on Intercultural, Cognitive and Social Pragmatics (EPICS VIII), if only as a helpful exercise in ordering my ideas as concisely as possible, with little expectation of being accepted. Gemma of the present was freaking out.

I’d had the pleasure of attending my first academic conference — ‘Beyond Meaning’, co-organised by my supervisor Tim Wharton — purely as a consumer of knowledge, in Athens the previous summer so I had some idea of what to expect in terms of conference mechanics, but as the date approached my nerve gradually evaporated as the reality of standing before experts in the field and touting my fledgling ideas loomed increasingly. Something about deciding to put myself among these knowledge-shapers suddenly seemed incredibly ‘bold’, though perhaps, I tried to reassure myself, this thinking was simply a result of good old Imposter Syndrome. In order to quell the fear a little, I gave myself a mind-trick. I would see it all as a symbolic act. My talk would be my offering at the feet of unseen knowledge-keepers, and the room a temple of knowledge. Clearly bonkers, but somehow this felt less frightening than facing a room of potentially hostile, and certainly very clever humans.

I arrived the evening before the conference began, and took myself out for a romantic stroll in large central park, packed with parrots mimicking the traffic crossing signal and a meal of tapas and beer, kept company by my book (note to solo travellers, always have a good book). People were out late, the rain spell rolled elsewhere to allow a warm sunny evening to break through and it was true! Seville does smell of oranges. I was enjoying myself. How did this happen? (Draw your own conclusions as to whether a pre-conference beer is advisable.)

The venue for the conference was the old 18th Century Royal Tobacco Factory in the centre of Seville, now part of the university, and allowed my temple fantasy to run wild. The high, ornate brick building threaded through with open courtyards and fountains provided a most exquisite backdrop to all the coffee-break chats and encounters that really make a conference. I was happy to see some familiar faces from the conference I’d attended last year, and most people I spoke to seemed to know my supervisor in one way or another. I found myself out for dinner the first night with a lovely bunch of individuals from different countries and specialisms, several of whom will be at the next conference I plan to attend too. People were friendly, supportive when they heard I was giving my first talk, and open to conversation. The impression I came away with was one of a network of warm, intelligent and curious people that wasn’t in anyway clique-y.

Gemma presenting
Photo credit: Ryoko Sasamoto

When I came to my talk itself, I can’t say I fully tricked myself out of the nerves. My advice would be, if you too are prone to anxiety, don’t drink the free and delicious conference coffee on the day of your talk. The audience wasn’t huge, but not too small — just the right number really, to allow for a convivial Q & A session post-talk. Unlike in my fearful imaginings, the questions and feedback that came were both insightful and encouraging. I found myself really enjoying the back-and-forth, and being able to enthuse about something I’m passionate about with others with knowledge and experience in the field. One audience member asked some particularly helpful questions which I took in the same relaxed way as the whole questions session had gone, only later realising that she was in fact one of the plenary speakers and someone who’s work I’d read and admired! Unknown gods indeed.

Seville photo gallery

To find our more about Gemma and her work, you can visit her new blog (which includes a recording of Gemma’s presentation) and follow her on Twitter.

Starting a PhD at Brighton

Abby Barras is a full-time, first year PhD student based in the School of Applied Social Sciences. Her research focuses on transgender and gender non-conforming people and their experiences of participation in grassroots sport in the UK. She is also a co-rep for PhD students on the Centre for Transforming Sexuality and Gender Management group.

Below, in a post republished from her own blog, Abby reflects on her first term of doctoral study at Brighton and shares some approaches she has found invaluable.

The Ocean is not a Swimming Pool

Abby Barras

Profile photo of Abby BarrasLiving by the sea, I don’t have to look very hard for metaphors when writing about my PhD journey. The title of my blog (Sink or Swim) gives it away. I wrote in my first post that my blog would be about my PhD journey, and what happens when you start (and hopefully finish) a PhD. What do you actually do?

So one term in, and this is what I have done.

The first three months have consisted of plugging myself into the PhD matrix, kindly constructed and maintained by the University’s Doctoral College. And it is a kind construction, the mother of all frameworks to cling on to, to stop you being cast, Odysseus like, too far from the shore. The university wants to look after you, keep you close – but here’s the thing: a new kind of effort is required. Making an effort sounds simple enough, but at this early stage it can be hard to understand what your tasks are exactly.

Being a compliant soul, I don’t mind the effort, so I appreciate this framework. I eagerly attended all of the development and training sessions which run all year round, on topics such as literature reviews, the importance of impact and understanding ethics. I took notes and went home and looked stuff up. I went to masterclasses and got my mind blown on topics such as phenomenology, gun crime and the philosophy of the PhD. I listened to talks given by real-life rock stars: Prof Gillian Bendelow, Prof Peter Squires and Prof Etienne Wenger-Trayner. I was even lucky enough to hear Distinguished Prof Kathryn Stockton Bond talk about queer theory and attend a workshop with her and others.

I completed a training needs assessment, to identify my knowledge gaps, and was warmly welcomed to a module on research methods in sociology, an invaluable asset, if, like me, you need to plug some worryingly large gaps. I found it helpful to read blogs by people such as Pat Thomson and PhD Forum, and find other networks to seek support from, not just other feminists, but other disciplines.

But this term has been about two main things: my research plan and my first writing task. Your research plan is a living document, it’s never really finished, but is an ongoing process of refinement and revision. I am currently on version four, though really this is about version twenty, as my original one was written for an (unsuccessful) funding application. It goes back and forth between me and my supervisors, each time we add something or take something away. It’s a roadmap, and an anchor, but it’s also a learning tool. It has helped me to identify my weaknesses (I feel like I will never understand methodology) and worry less about other things (finding an appropriate writing style, for example).

My second main thing has been a writing task, 5,000 words on two very specific questions. This was, I quickly realised, a very smart move by my supervisors. I went away and read an ocean of classic texts and papers by authors and activists I had never even heard of, as well as work by my own supervisors. It was like writing a masters’ size essay in a month, but because I am a full-time student, the experience was more immersive, more constant, sometimes out of control. It took a lot of effort.

So, what has been key this first term? One of the pieces of advice which is repeated again and again, is to keep a research diary. It has both a practical function and is a crucial reflective tool. This can take any form: mine is a notebook, which I then transcribe to a spreadsheet, and tracks what sessions I have attended, who I met, what I learnt, books to seek out, and how I feel. I have (of course) bigger, more detailed notebooks for longer sessions, but this diary is a constant snapshot. Some days it just has one entry and a smiley face. There are quite a lot of confused faces. Others are more detailed – books to follow up on, concepts and terms to grasp, action points. I am using it for this blog – it is already worth the effort.
Drawing of three children in swimwear holding a sign bearing the words 'The ocean is not a swimming pool'.

Walking along the beach over Christmas, thinking about how my first term has gone, I saw the sign above. The ocean is not a swimming pool. More coastal metaphors. But it reminded me of something my former tutor and feminist powerhouse Prof Alison Phipps once told me. She said that doing a PhD taught her how to think. At the time I just nodded, having no idea what she meant. But I think I am starting to: nobody comes to academia fully formed. You must learn this stuff, you have to make an effort. If you want to progress from the pool to the ocean, you need to put some work in if you want to get the most from this experience.

Here are the ten things I think have helped me to keep making an effort.

  1. You will never ever get this opportunity again. Three years on one research project, managing your own time and a universe of resources and knowledge in your lap. Do not squander it. Does this sound cheesy and pompous? Probably. But it’s what drives me.
  2. Everybody else’s project will sound better than yours. Everyone else will sound like they know what they are doing, and have lots more experience than you. In my case, everyone is at least 20 years younger.
  3. You hold the centre of your research. This does not mean that you know it all. It means that it’s up to you make the most of your PhD, your colleagues and resources.
  4. Talk to other students. You will learn more from them than from anyone else.
  5. Don’t isolate yourself: I work two days a week in my school student area. This means not only can I use the resources (photocopier, printing), I get to chat to others, including more experienced PhD students. It sounds corny, but being visible makes a difference. I am hoping for a job after this; it makes sense to be a familiar face.
  6. Go to any module that might help you, at whatever level. You might not grasp it all, but file it away, and come back to it.
  7. Start off organised. Create an online library (I use Mendeley, which is free). If you read an article, store it there. Talk to your university library about free software and training. Do it now, whilst you have the time.
  8. Don’t undervalue thinking time. Yes, it sounds ridiculous at this stage, but we are told again and again that when it comes to the viva, understanding concept formation and demonstrating that you can think matters.
  9. Respect your supervisors, and go to meetings prepared. Be engaged. Their time is stretched, you will learn so much from them if you are making an effort.
  10. Don’t give up.

The spring term begins next week, and with it some bigger writing tasks, ethics approval and the literature review. I will write again soon about these processes from a student perspective, as well as what it feels like to be a PhD student representative and starting a student hub with others.


To find out more about Abby and keep up with her progress, visit Abby’s blog, Sink or Swim.