This is a guest post from Elizabeth Adams who manages researcher development opportunities for early-career researchers at the University of Glasgow, from postgraduate research students to academic staff. Elizabeth previously worked for the Royal Society of Chemistry and has a PhD in polymer chemistry.
Working out of a central office in the University, I often feel a conflict between thinking about the individual PhD experience and about the systems and processes to ensure consistency for all of our 2,400 PGRs. Is there a place for central support or ‘community-building’ activity or should we focus our efforts on the policy?
I think most people would agree that supervisors and local staff in a department are hugely important in making new researchers feel a welcome part of a research community. But what about where that isn’t working well or where the individual’s research area is so different to what those around them are studying that they feel like a fish out of water? What about interdisciplinary research or where people are looking for connections and advice specific to their personal circumstances rather than subject? Are these the opportunities for central support and activity? The obvious thing here would be to ask the researchers what they think. However, my worry is that maybe we’re not asking people in quite the right way.
One of the most commonly used ways to get feedback and data on the PGR experience is using the PRES survey. In my institution, we tend to get a high response to this survey and my feeling is that the data broadly reflects our strengths and weaknesses in relation to the PGR experience. It backs up what I hear anecdotally, and the data is good evidence that will encourage action.
However, I often wonder whether some voices just aren’t coming through in these surveys. For example, a look at our 2015 PRES survey showed that a lower proportion of our international population completed the survey compared with ‘home’ students. If someone thinks they are in a bit of a unique situation and there’s nobody else like them then I wonder whether they feel there is less point in them filling out the survey.
I think we can do more to let people know that there are others like them out there and that their voices are valued. Whether that’s about being the first in their family to do a PhD or it’s that they are based at a distance to their institution, juggling employment and catching up with thesis writing after the kids have gone to bed. Maybe once people see that there are others like them, they’ll feel more empowered to speak up about some of the challenges they are facing and how institutions might practically be able to help them with these. And make them feel more a part of the research community.
Whilst PRES is a useful tool it needs to be used alongside other means of dialogue…student reps, student-led journals or reading groups, webinars, focus groups and I’m sure there must be other, more imaginative ways. We started a PGR blog last year, with the aim of helping new PGRs navigate their way through the University’s complex structures and processes. This was in response to PRES highlighting that students found it difficult to know where to go for information.
One of the unexpected outcomes of the blog is that our guest bloggers have been submitting articles on the things that they want to discuss, rather than what ‘the institution’ thinks are the hot topics. This has given our PGR population a platform and voice to raise concerns that has previously not existed. Posts have been submitted on dealing with mental health issues, tackling isolation as a distance learner or international student coming to the UK for the first time and about becoming a parent during your PhD. In turn, this has resulted in some thoughtful and informed discussion and is leading to changes to the PGR training programme.
I would like to see institutions do more with the data they have (PRES, participation in training etc.) to look at the experience of minority groups (in the broadest sense). And also look for more imaginative ways to engage with students and really listen, particularly to the researchers who start their emails with ‘I’m probably the only one in this situation but…’
And if you are one of those researchers, let us know what would make the difference for you and give you a way to connect with other researchers.