a ‘STEP’ forward in smoothing PGR transitions

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You may have noticed that the postgraduate research experience is very different from the structured nature of undergraduate study. Many of the PhD success guides and much of the study skills advice aims to prepare students for the transition to doctoral level study, by prefacing their advice-giving with this same observation. A doctorate requires significant independent scholarship and isolated working. It’s exciting to ascend to a higher level of study, to embark on a worthy piece of real research, and to feel that ‘fresh start’ feeling as you crack the spine on your brand new notebook. However, transitions to doctoral education are complex, demanding and emotional and can be hampered by out-of-date narratives of success that position transitioning as an objective, academic progression, that comes easy to intellectually capable students.

Transitions involve learning new things, processing new information, and figuring out new ways of being and interacting. Necessarily, this will also involve some ‘letting go’ of old tried, tested and trusted study strategies and ways of structuring time and work. Independent working, self-governance, and the building of academic habits and practices replace the old last minute cram-and-memorise sessions and essay all-nighters. There’s a lot to be figured out, as these old strategies fall away, and confidence, self-belief and enthusiasm can be eroded as uncertainties and insecurities arise. High numbers of postgraduate students experience disorientation, stress and feelings of being overwhelmed as they get to grips with what is required of them as an ‘independent’ researcher. The academic culture of high-achievement and high workloads also creates an environment where wellbeing is more likely to be at risk and PGRs may feel less able to talk about their uncertainties, wellbeing and mental health, and so become isolated.

A new project that Chris Blackmore and I are leading on, asks — what can we do to facilitate transitions to PhD study in a way that is reflective, accessible, and engaging. We know that making sense of transitional experiences can be supported by good professional relationships, and the supervisor relationship is key (reiterated also here, and herein national reports). We also know that the range of players in these professional support relationships is broad, much more so than simply supervisor support. We want to connect researchers to each other, and help broader networks to form.

Peer networks and ‘unnoticed others’ in informal roles play a huge part in PGR support. This broader, more informal support network is what we aim to leverage with the Student Transitions through Engaging with Photography (STEP). The project is backed by our University Counselling Service, and, as the title indicates, uses photographic methods to allow new PGRs to think about and talk about transitions. Our eventual aim is to develop and launch an online platform (with institutional support via the Directors of Digital Learning and an upcoming Digital Commons Retreat) that supports a kind of expanded photo marathon. New PGRs, who can be based anywhere in the world and still engage through the online platform, will take photos that creatively interpret six ‘transition’ themes, but over six months instead of all in one day. They will post, share and comment on each other’s photos, and in doing so reflect, and support each other. But how?

We have taken a co-creative approach to understanding the transition support needs of new PGRs, and to set the design parameters of the online tool*. We are meeting with current first year students between May and September 2018 to develop the project through and between two photography workshops. The first workshop ran in May and covered some useful photography skills, the situations and emotions that photographs can represent, and how to convey a message within an image.  The workshops are led by local photographer (and soon to be PGR!) Steve Pool (part of Poly-Technic). Steve’s work is fantastic, and challenging, and our researchers found his energetic and relaxed approach very uplifting; we are all looking forward to workshop two! But before then, our student-partners have been involved in a photography-based task, on the theme of ‘in between’. Images are captured, and captioned, on a shared Padlet board (see the image above), with commenting enabled to allow questions and comments to expand the reflective practice.

*Some design parameters we will co-define with our student partners (please use the comments to tell us what we’ve missed):

  • Should we offer an ‘induction’ to photography or to the platform, or allow people to directly sign themselves up?
  • Should new PGRs opt in, or opt out?
  • What should the monthly photo ‘themes’ be?
  • What would work best? Small groups (i.e. 6 people assigned at random), department-based cohorts, mixed-discipline larger cohorts, or totally open sharing?
  • Should we facilitate commenting and ‘liking’ or allow each person to have space for private reflection?
  • Do Chris and I need to facilitate in the platform, or do we need to back off and leave the new students to it?
  • How do we set boundaries, help signpost, and keep an eye on conversations without prying or interfering?
  • Would a theme ‘winner’ or ‘best photo’ inspire people, or put people off?
  • Should any of the images generated be exhibited?
  • Should we prepare second or third year students to ‘mentor’ within the platform, and help signpost and support new PGRs?

Our second workshop is coming up next week, and will investigate students’ experiences of engaging with photography, and using the Padlet, for reflection. It will allow us to better understand how an image, shared with peers, can enable sense making and new understanding, and be useful in creating a sense of community and wellbeing.

We will keep you informed once our platform is built and launched.


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