GCfE 9th Annual Conference: How to get the most from your PhD experience

The GCfE has had a bit of a longer holiday than previously planned, but we are still aiming to get updates about our conference onto the blog shortly. For anything that doesn’t make the blog we hope to have featured in the final newsletter of the year. Check back in a few days for a cfp for newsletter articles if you are interested in putting forward a short piece on anything related to Europe, including what’s going on in the UK.

Re-capping the conference in a bit of a reverse order, this post is dedicated to a summary of our second roundtable featuring guests from The University Graduate School, Careers Network and an academic speaker. This session focused on how to tackle the thesis, relationships with supervisors, conference opportunities and how to mentally cope with the pressures of graduate level research.

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Our first speaker was Jim Bell, the Marketing and Events Officer of the University Graduate School. The Graduate School have always been a great support to the GCfE and it was great to have Jim join us for this panel. Jim kicked off the session with his 3 key ideas for how to get the most from your PhD.

1. Start off doing stuff

2. Organisation
-> figure out your motivation, why you’re doing the PhD and your end goal

3. Take ownership of your PhD
-> Don’t just do what your supervisor says, the PhD should be a conversation between you and your supervisor.
-> Be proactive, responsible and self-promoting
-> UGS offers several resources, including inductions and skills sessions
-> You need to decide what you want to take advantage of

Next up was Holly Prescott, who finished her English Literature PhD in 2011 and is currently the Careers Network Postgraduate Liaison with primarily taught students. Prior to this she worked in postgraduate recruitment. Three was a popular number for the panel as Holly also came along having prepared 3 key things. For Holly these were a bit more of abstract ideas than an active to do list.

1. Do not isolate yourself
-> Don’t let your circles get to narrow, especially if you aren’t planning to go into academia
-> keep your career options open
-> Allow yourself different types of models, influences and opportunities

2. Don’t put up too many barriers
-> Take a wide view and don’t limit opportunities to what fits your research

3. Smash your comfort zone
-> PhD offers an independence not available in other parts of life, take advantage.

Our final roundtable participant was Dr Isabelle Hertner, a Politics Lecturer in German. She’s been with the University of Birmingham for 4 years now, and has chaired about 4 or 5 Vivas. Currently she is supervising 4 PhD students, with her first supervised student competing the Viva this past December. As a PhD supervisor it is probably obvious that her first piece of advice was that the PhD must come first, but it’s also a good point to be reminded of. She goes on to say that you need to know what you are doing, but in today’s academic climate the PhD is just not enough anymore. Teaching is a good way too boost the academic CV as well as offers an opportunity to practice your presentation skills. Just remember to not take on too much as, of course, the PhD comes first. PhD candidates will also want to take the opportunity to publish (keep an eye out for our upcoming publishing roundtable post), but within the parameters of your PhD rather than new material which will take a significant amount of time away from your research. Finally, she offered a few comments on the relationship between the supervisor and student. One thing you’ll want to be clear on is the expectations from both the student as well as the supervisor. The relationship is one of time management on both ends.

The roundtable then opened the floor for a bit of Q+A, and this post will conclude with a recap of a few of the most stimulating questions.

Q: How should you approach the Viva?
A: (Jim): UGS used to run a preparation workshop but the feedback was that it wasn’t discipline specific enough so for now there is an online course available to help with preparation, see the UGS course page for details.
(Holly): Distance yourself from the horror stories and just focus on the task at hand. Don’t compare yourself to others and give yourself spatial isolation (e.g. work in a space where you can avoid the noise). Most importantly, keep in mind that this is the only examination that you will ever take that is on a book you wrote. View it as an opportunity to talk in depth with people who have looked closely at your work.
(Nick, GCfE academic adviser): Also keep in mind that you have a choice in your examiners.

Q: Regarding the job market as you are close to submission. You have no publications but are running out of money. Submit or starve, what should you do?
A: (Jim): You have to consider which direction is your end goal, academic or not. (Holly): If it is not academic than take an opportunity to go into that area and gain some experience and potentially an income while finishing.
(Isabelle): If the aim is academic, apply for academic jobs you are qualified for and want to do, e.g. temporary lectureship. Don’t waste your time going for things you aren’t suited to, and look into whether you can start a position before the Viva as some opportunities will offer more flexible start dates.

Q: Thoughts on other activities and responsibilities during the PhD?
(Nick): Do mix with non-PhDs. You want the thesis in and passed as quickly as possible but at the same time you’ll need to have other interests and activities, which will help you to reach the primary goal. (Holly): It is re-invigorating and motivating to have more than your thesis in front of you.

Q: Interview advice?
(Isabelle): Develop and demonstrate skills, e.g. conference organising, managing a budget, etc. (Jim): Interviews, whether academic or not, are about providing evidence that you are qualified, but evidence can come in a variety of different forms.

We hope those of you who made the session found it fun and informative, and that those of you that weren’t able to join us have found this re-cap to be of interest. Of course the GCfE again wants to thank Jim, Holly and Isabelle for taking the time to put together this interesting and useful session.

For more on what the University Graduate School has to offer please visit: http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/postgraduate/support/dr/graduateschool/index.aspx

For the Careers Network please visit: https://intranet.birmingham.ac.uk/as/employability/careers/index.aspx

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