International Conference in Developments in Doctoral Education and Training- day two

The second day opened with a talk from Janet Metcalfe on developing world-class researchers. As I go to a lot of Vitae events I was familiar with a lot of her talk and the statistics she included, but it was interesting to see her brief overview of doctoral training in other countries such as South Korea, America and Australia. She bought up the researcher development framework as a solution to challenges in doctoral training, but given the laughter from the room I’m not sure how well this was received…..

I stayed on for a talk from Prof Bernard Schissel of Royal Roads University, Canada, on challenges and issues around the Professional Doctorate. I found a really interesting talk. A lot of what he was saying around the multiplicity of identities in professional doctorate students and the challenges of integrating that into research really linked in with research I’m doing on part-time researchers at Birmingham. Students were anxious around research and writing as they were often coming back to it later in life after a break from academia. They could feel reluctance to act as professional/public intellectuals while still being uneasy about their own levels of knowledge, yet this was a role the university often expected of them.

He also found that students from First Nations families could feel a particular epistemological tension in reconciling traditional ways of knowing with the needs of the academy, and in balancing the influence of and respect for  both their supervisor, and community elders. The university has worked hard to find ways to deal with this, and to find ways to support the unique societal, cultural, academic and professional needs of professional doctorate students overall. They found that supervisors also needed to recognise these tensions and have worked on transmitting this. Often supervisors who were best at supporting professional doctorate students were retired emeritus professors.   Bernard suggested that this could be because they had more life experience to draw on. Definitely something for me to think about how that relates to our own support of part-time researchers, as many of the same issues seem to arise!

I found Prof Dina Iordanova’s talk on her personal experiences of doctoral training and developments and how it related to her own career interesting in its variety. She took a very different route to her peers after graduating with a doctorate and made the point that a PhD is the beginning of a career, a route into a place and the end in and of itself. As someone who also took a non traditional route to get where I am, this really resonated with me. She also made the point that a UK doctorate at between 3-4 years is significantly shorter than most doctorates awarded by American universities (which can easily be 7 years) and that one function of researcher development or doctoral training could be to close this potential skills gap. She cited development of teaching and course design skills and of knowledge and skills around HE admin as areas that PGRs who wanted a career in academia needed to develop. While I know a lot of our PGRs want the opportunity to teach, I’m not sure how many would agree on the admin part!

After lunch I went to a series of short talks on ‘new approaches to doctoral training’. Louisa Lawes of Edinburgh outlined a very intensive-sounding residential summer school for doctoral candidates which included sessions on collaboration, personality profiling and entrepreneurship. Dr Anna Lee talked about different methods of supervisor development. One Belgian university took all their supervisors to a spa! Maybe we should do that here to increase take up…. I did like her point that supervisor development could also be framed as developing research leaders, as a lot of the skills were the same. Now, if only we could find a spa…

The closing talk was a talk on the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate, from Dr George E Walker of Cleveland State University. I had to miss the end as we had to leave for the airport, but the beginning of the talk covered a research project on aspects of the doctorate with the aim of identifying what makes excellent researchers, and sharing ideas. The status of the Carnegie Institute meant that Universities were keen to be involved, if even no funding was available.  Sadly I left before he outlined the recommendations, but  apparently the presentation will be on the UKCGE website. I’ll certainly be looking out for them when the conference proceedings are published.

So that was the end of the conference. What did I learn? Well, that many institutions across the sector are seeing the same trends and challenges as we are at Birmingham. That people will generally assume I know what I’m talking about, so I should believe that too. That the doctorate is best seen as a beginning, not an end. And always wear brightly coloured tights. You never know when you might need to use them as a conversation starter.


International Conference on Developments in Doctoral Education and Training-Day one

Last week I went to Edinburgh for the UKCGE conference on Doctoral Education and Training. I’d been nervous the days leading up to it, not for the paper I was presenting, but because it involved a flight and I am, as anyone who has heard me talk about it will know, a nervous flyer.

Luckily the flight passed smoothly and we (me, and Catherine Mills, the UGS manager) made it to the conference venue in time for the second keynote speech, from Slobodan Radicev of Eurodoc. He had some interesting suggestions, including the removal of tenure for senior academics to free up career paths for post-docs; as could be imagined, this provoked murmurs of surprise across the hall! I could see that a lot of other people were tweeting the talk and a friendly Australian delegate next to me gave me the wi-fi code so I could get online. (note to self, when organising a conference, put the wifi code somewhere easy to spot)

The coffee break gave me my first challenge: networking. It’s something I always find hard, as I think a lot of people do. I was doing a scan for familiar faces when I spotted a name I knew. Dr Inger Mewburn, Editor of  The Thesis Whisperer (@thesiswhisperer). Summoning my courage I stopped past to tell her I loved both her tights (fantastic bright pink ones) and her blog!  We had a quick chat about my paper, her blog and the best place to buy coloured tights. Without the ‘in’ of being able to read the blog (which is fantastic) I would never have had the courage to say hello. I think this is one of the ways social media and blogs can really help at conferences – it gives people an excuse to talk to you and helps to make the initial introducing yourself aspect less awkward. It certainly did for me, at least!

Collaboration was the theme of the next three panels. I found Dr Irene Sheridan’s talk on how partners (in her example, industry partners) can support the creation of doctoral knowledge interesting, particularly as regards how we can recognise the learning and development that happens outside the University, and how this learning and development can be articulated. I wondered if the Researcher Development Framework could have a part to play in establishing a common vocabulary of skills.  Both the talk on collaborative skills training between the Universities of Aarhus and Edinburgh  and Dr Emer Cunningham’s talk on the Dublin Regional Education Alliance mentioned accredited skills training, something we traditionally haven’t done at Birmingham (although this is changing for some PGRs with the Postgraduate Certificate in Advanced Research Methods and Skills). While both talks were clear on the benefits of collaborative approaches to skills development, they also spoke of some of the challenges, particularly around administration across multiple sites.  I really liked the suggestion around specific sessions on academic relationships for International students, to help them acclimatise to the UK (or Danish, in the case of Aarhus) academic environment, although I think care must be taken to make sure attendees on such sessions don’t feel singled out. If you’re an international PGR, what kind of specific workshop would you have found useful at the beginning of your study?

My workshop, on academic writing, was after lunch. It covered some of the research and mapping on academic writing development I did last year, and outlined some of the changes we made as a result of that.  The room was pretty full, although of course some people might have been there to see the other talks on digital literacies or reflexive writing.

Although I only had ten minutes I felt like it went really well, and I had some interesting questions asked in the session.  It was also quite personally and professionally validating as I felt like I was one of the few people there without a higher degree, yet people took me and my work seriously and assumed I knew what I was talking about!  It was a nice antidote to the imposter syndrome I can quite often feel in these contexts, and we had a bit of an interesting discussion about how we can support Supervisors, as well as PGRs, in this area.  You can see the Prezi I used here 

I had more people approach me during to break to ask more questions about my research and recommendations, and what we are starting to do here at Birmingham. It definitely made me feel more involved in the conference and in the community, and meant I didn’t just lurk by the coffee table trying to work out how to talk to people. For that reason, if no other, I’d really recommend trying to give a conference paper, and I’m already considering topics for the Vitae international conference in September.

The day ended with a plenary on the Australian Cooperative Research Centre by Nigel Palmer and Dr Rachael Pitt (@thefellowette) and a keynote by Alexandra Bitusikova on developments in doctoral education in Europe. Both sessions looked at doctoral training  and measuring the impact of doctoral education and training. I was surprised (and not a little disheartened!) by one of Rachael’s findings, which said Australian Universities trained PhD students but then were not happy with the standard of PhD graduates they employed! I’m not aware of similar research being done in UK universities (if anyone is, please point it out to me) but this seems a slightly disturbing conclusion;  if even universities are not happy with the skills of PhD graduates, how does this affect those seeking work outside of academia? How should it impact on the kind of researcher development activities we offer?

The conference dinner was held in a gorgeous room in the Royal College of Surgeons, and included an impromptu lesson on Rococo architecture and plaster work from Inger, who ended up sitting at my table, along with Rachael.  Something Rachael said over dinner really struck me. I mentioned that I often feel out of place at events like these  because I’m not an academic. It can be hard to let myself ‘own’ my expertise and get over the feeling of being an imposter, that people will find out that really I don’t know what I’m talking about. She pointed out that a lot of people feel like this, and in fact, question what you know and how you know it is a really important part of academia. Anyone who doesn’t sometimes fear they don’t know everything probably isn’t very good at their job! It wasn’t an angle I’d considered before and it’s one I’m going to think more about.

So that was day one. Day two will be up later in the week if I can swing it. But in the mean time, what are your conference experiences? Do you find networking as tough as I sometimes do? And what do you do about imposter syndrome?

Tick tock- time management tools

Last week I ran a time management workshop, the second of this year. This workshop is always a bit of a challenge as people work in such different ways, so I try to concentrate on giving tips and ideas for things that I know work for me, or for colleagues.

Time management can seem a vague concept. The workshop is designed to get people thinking about how they spend their time, and how they can plan their day more effectively. As I mention a lot of computer and web-based resources in the workshop I thought I’d do a quick round-up here of some of them. Additional suggestions are welcome in the comments!


Working in short bursts, 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off, is a great tool for productivity and in beating procrastination. You can time yourself with a kitchen timer or a stop watch (I use the one on my phone) or try one of these tools.

Strict Pomodoro  Plugin for Chrome that gives you 25 minute countdowns, and also blocks distracting websites for those 25 minutes.

Tomato Timer Simple web-based pomodoro timer that pings when your time is up

Simple Timer Clean and simple Firefox timer plug in. This is the one I use when I don’t have my phone to hand.

Pomodairo Lightweight desktop timer. You’ll need to install Adobe Air to run this one

To do lists

For any time management strategy to work you need to know what you have to do, and when. Start off with pencil and paper, or try one of these.

Remember the Milk What started out as a shopping list tool is now a powerful cross-platform to list application. You can sync it with existing calendars and task software and there are also Android and iOS apps.

Todoist Task/to-do list manager that can be synced across devices and accessed from the web. You can also set it up to remember tasks by email, and colour code tasks. This can be useful if you have a to do list for your research, and another for paid work, for example.

Evernote  I included this here because you can use it for to do list, but Evernote also functions as useful note-taking software. The ability to create ‘notes’ from multiple sources and sync across different devices and platforms means that many people find it a useful way of starting to organise their research. The elephant is cute, too.

Avoiding distractions

Leechblock  Add-on for Firefox. If you just can’t stop yourself checking time-wasting websites while you are working, but can’t unplug your browser because you need access to the internet for research, this is for you. You can block access to specific at specific times of day, or restrict access to certain sites all together.

StayFocused Add-on for Chrome that works in a similar way to Leechblock. You can also specify the length of ‘productive’ time that must pass before you can access time-wasting websites.

Plotting your tasks

Freemind For me, nothing beats paper and felt tips for drawing mind maps. However, if you want to take the mindmapping approach and prefer to work on a computer, this is an option for you. It’s the one  I have on my work PC, but most of my mindmaps are still hand drawn.

Tom’s Planner Online Gantt chart creator, for if you prefer to use project management techniques in managing your time.

Gliffy You can create simple flow diagrams in most word processing packages, but if you want to try something different, this has a range of different templates to get you started.

Any other suggestions for time management tools are welcome in the comments. I’d especially welcome suggestions for different browsers and non-Windows operating systems, as well as smartphone apps.

Moving day

We recently had a bit of upheaval at the UGS as we moved offices.  We said goodbye to our big shared office in Aston Webb, and moved across campus to Ash House, right near the Guild of Students. You may have noticed more and more services being moved around (the student enquiries counter is now in the Main Library, for example). The reason for this is the redevelopment of C Block, with a new hub for student services and a lecture theatre planned.

This is obviously exciting but it does mean that our home for the next few years is a lot smaller than our old office, with a lot less storage space. I’ve been trying to condense my paperwork as much as possible. Most of what I have is paper copies of feedback forms, course registers and workshop handbooks, which are all now stored electronically.

I was looking for an alternative to storing my printed and annotated papers and journal articles, which tend to build up a lot on my desk. I’m an inveterate scribbler and doodler on pieces of paper – anything that stays still for long enough gets doodles added to it, and for me the act of annotating a piece is crucial in understanding and retaining  the information in it. This does prove a problem as I’m rapidly running out of space to store printed papers in the new office.

I decided to see if Diigo could potentially be an answer, or at least the beginning of one. I’d been using it to bookmark useful or interesting journal articles or webpages, and share them with colleagues inside and outside the university. The social aspect of the bookmarking is particularly useful to me as a researcher developer, as it’s a way of sharing ideas and examples of what did (and didn’t) work in terms of activities, and also in sharing the research and scholarly thought behind researcher development, which can be harder to filter. As Diigo also allows you to highlight and annotate webpages, I decided to see if it would work as replacement for printing out and annotating the article itself.

I found I could easily highlight pages and full text journal articles, but that the fact my comments and reflections on the content were hidden until I hovered over them meant that when I returned to the page it wasn’t always immediately obvious what my notes were. I found I missed the physical act of writing notes out by hand (something I already know works better for me, as anyone who has been to one of my speed reading workshops may remember me mentioning). However, having articles and webpages bookmarked and tagged meant they were easily filtered, so it was quicker for me to find something to refer to this way. Previously I would have had to sort through several folders worth of print outs, so this at least was an improvement.  You can see my Diigo bookmarks here  if you’re interested in what I’m reading!

Finding the best way to annotate on-screen, rather than on paper, is still a work in process. This week I’m looking at GoodReader for the iPad, which should allow me to draw and write directly on pdfs, which I’m hoping will be useful for journal papers that aren’t available as full text online.

What approaches to notetaking and annotating do you use? Share your good ideas below!

Guest post: Starting to write for your PhD

I ran the first ‘Starting to Write for Your PhD’ workshop on Monday.  The participants were an enthusiastic and talkative group which made for a nice re-introduction to facilitating this workshop for me.

The reflective pre-course assignment and pre-course reading seemed well received.  It was certainly a useful source of information for me to help guide the discussion during the workshop.  I also think changing the Elbow and Moxley articles to pre- rather than post-course reading helped participants to begin thinking about improvements they could make to their writing strategy even before they came to the workshop.  It also helped to streamline the workshop from three to two hours (a response to last year’s participant feedback).   Even with such changes though it was a packed session and I need to be aware of this and the impact questions and extended participant discussion will have on the timings of the workshop.  It was a desire to accommodate productive conversations between participants and answer any questions raised during the workshop which prompted my decision to send an online feedback survey rather than asking participants to complete the usual UGS hardcopy feedback form at the end of the course.

In addition to covering the standard course material around the writing process, identifying challenges/barriers to writing and offering some techniques and approaches to overcome these, the group posed a series of additional and very interesting questions on the issue of constructing a ‘voice’ in their academic writing (how to do so, what is allowed/appropriate?) and the new Turnitin plagiarism checking process the University has introduced.

The latter question led to a discussion about the use of Turnitin as a formative tool which could help identify academic writing issues and areas of necessary development.  This discussion chimes quite nicely with the arguments made in a number of research papers I have recently read exploring the role of Turnitin in preventing plagiarism and helping students to improve their academic writing.  This is something I am keen to investigate further with interested colleagues from CLAD, EISU, the Colleges etc to ensure our postgraduate researchers are making the most of the tools available to them and are receiving the support they need when it comes to their writing.

I also look forward to seeing how our new ‘shut up and write’ sessions and pilot peer writing groups in Schools work out this year.  I was especially pleased to be approached by a participant at the end of the workshop about the peer writing group she plans to set up with some fellow PGRs in the School of Social Policy.  These are very exciting new initiatives at UoB!

Catherine Mills


Presentation Skills

Last week I delivered the second of the revised presentation skills workshops we are running this term. While the previous version of the workshop generally got good feedback and was well-attended, there were frequent requests for a workshop where people could practice presentations. As this is a key skill for all postgraduate researchers I decided to redesign the workshop to include short presentations from each attendee.

The key factor in redesigning the workshop was time – the workshop lasts two hours and I didn’t want to increase it to a whole day as this would make it more difficult for people to attend.  In order to keep the workshop short moved some of the content on planning and structuring a presentation online as pre-course reading (this is an example of asynchronous delivery if we’re being formal) and included a pre course task – the creation of a three-minute presentation. Completion of the reading and the task are mandatory – participants have to do both before they attend the workshop.  I chose to use Prezi to deliver the pre course reading so that postgraduate researchers could experience a different method of giving presentations, as the main body of the workshop is delivered in PowerPoint.

I also decided to recruit a pool of PG training assistants to help deliver the workshop. This has already proved to be really beneficial, giving participants a range of experiences to learn from and discuss and enabling everyone to get feedback on their practice presentations. Participants split into small groups and get peer feedback on presentations, while the assistant (last week it was Pamela, a postgraduate researchers from the College of Social Sciences) and I circulate and give our feedback as well. As current workshops have had fairly low attendance this meant in practice that everyone got both peer and facilitator feedback. If numbers increase this may not be the case and I will have to decide how I want to approach this.

On the whole I felt the workshop went well. I really enjoyed having Pamela to work with as I felt the different experiences and approaches we bought to the workshop were useful for a mixed group. We spent longer on body language than I had anticipated thanks to the input of one of the participants, and I will make a note to include more on this in future workshops and possibly reduce the amount of time spent talking about PowerPoint, as there is already a stand alone workshop on presenting using PowerPoint that postgraduate researchers can attend.

I also need to take another look at how the pre-course task is stated. Participants must have a presentation to deliver at the workshop and both the pre-course reading and the confirmation email state that if they do not they will not be able to attend the workshop. Despite this several people had not prepared a presentation and I had to ask them to book on a different workshop. I feel that it is important that everyone give a presentation in order to get the most out of the workshop. Having everyone give a presentation also helps to create the feeling of a safe space to give and receive criticism; I don’t feel it is fair to the rest of the group if there are people who don’t take part in giving presentations. I have asked colleagues to look over the sections relating to the task and make sure that it is clear, as several people I had to turn away stated they didn’t realise it was mandatory.

Did someone say poster?

It’s that time of year again where I find myself planning and prepping for that special day that takes place every year that we all look forward to.  Of course you will all know I’m referring to the Annual Research Poster Conference.  The conference isn’t until June 12th 2013 however, being our flagship event, it’s large and complex and requires a lot of planning.  Applications have been emailed in for the Project Support Assistant (PSA) roles and the next stage is to shortlist these with my colleague, Erika Hawkes.  I have completed all of the project plans and will begin to put them into practice with my new A Team of PSAs in January.

The Research Poster Conference 2012

The Research Poster Conference 2012

What is the Research Poster Conference I hear you ask?  Well, it’s a great opportunity for postgraduate researchers (PGRs) to practice talking about their research and to people of all levels, become familiar to a conference environment and generally develop skills.  It’s a busy but fun day where PGRs have the chance to be recognised by the University and wider community and celebrate all of their hard work and achievements.

Last year was a great success with over 250 PGRs presenting (the largest number we’ve ever had!) and trying to improve on it will be the challenge for 2013.  (Take a look at the photographs from last year) I’ve already planned several changes including reverting back to a simpler judging system.  For 2012 my team of PSAs and I experimented with a complex system of judging which ultimately created huge amounts of work for us (and one PSA in particular who probably hasn’t been near a spreadsheet since)  and, after reading feedback, seemed to be disliked by some presenters.  Another major change for the 2013 event will be, for the first time, a filtering system whereby we will only chose the highest quality applications to go forward to present at the conference.  This is due to the increasing number of applicants each year with the Great Hall finally reaching capacity at last year’s event.  We’re also looking to invite a greater variety of external guests to add more networking opportunities for our PGRs.

If you are thinking of applying to present (and I think you should!) the applications will open in February.  If you are accepted you will be expected to submit your poster by April and then you simply need to attend the conference on June 12th in the Great Hall.  Easy!  I’m always happy to receive suggestions and particularly of people to invite so please feel free to get in touch any time at .  If I don’t see you at a TGS Friday before the holidays, enjoy your time off and we will see you in the New Year.

Kimberley Loynes,

Marketing and Events project officer

University Graduate School

Speedy Reading

Four blue books in a pile

Reading piling up? The Speed Reading workshop helps develop techniques to get through text more quickly.

On Wednesday 14 November I ran the first Speed Reading workshop of the year. Speed Reading is the longest workshop we run at the UGS, lasting most of the day. As such it’s a challenge for both the facilitator and the participants. It can be tiring, but feedback generally shows that people value what they learned in the workshop.
I had a smaller group than I had expected recurring power cuts on campus may have influenced some people’s decision to stay home! While they were quiet at first they did seem to enjoy the small group discussions about reading styles and their attitudes to reading, and fed back some interesting points.  I encourage people to reflect on their reading habits which is often something they have previously given much thought to- when was the last time you thought about how you read, rather than what you were reading?

The majority of the day is given over to trying out different speed reading techniques- using a pacer or pointer, grouping words, or focussing on moving forward through the text. After each technique is introduced I ask the group to do a one minute reading test, and capture their reading scores. This is really useful as it gives the group concrete evidence that their hard work is paying off. At the end of the day when they compared their final score to the baseline exercises we do first thing in the morning, it was really satisfying to see that several people had doubled or even tripled their read speed, and that everyone was reading more quickly.

One of the concerns raised in the workshop was around the issue of comprehension several PGRs were concerned that they were reading quickly, but not always retaining or understanding everything they read. I tried to  reassure people by pointing out that we were focusing on the technique, and that once that had been mastered, comprehension would rise again. I also recommended that they practice on material they were familiar with, or material in the language they were most comfortable reading.

We spent some time discussing different note taking techniques. I found it challenging to draw out people’s different approaches to note taking, and the section on Mindmaps (along with the lunchtime task to draw a mind map) seemed to be less well-received than it has been in previous versions. This could mean I need to think more carefully about how to introduce different concepts of note taking, and maybe include different examples of people’s note taking approaches in the workshop slides to stimulate discussion.
The main challenge I found in facilitating this workshop is the length and the amount of concentration it needed both on my part and on the part of the group. This made the workshop mentally and physically tiring and in the afternoon session it was clear that many participants were lacking in energy. It became harder to motivate participants because I myself was tired.  I finished the workshop early in part because of this, and also due to power cuts elsewhere on campus.  Feedback on the day indicated that a lot of the group found the workshop tiring. This confirms my observations over several iterations of this workshop, so I’m going to take time to look at the workshop and see if it could be condensed into a morning or afternoon session.

Watch this Space

I’m still getting everything set up around here but this will be the reflective blog for the Universtiy of Birmingham Graduate School. Expect to find reflections from trainers on our workshop and activities, discussions around postgraduate researcher development, and links to interesting posts elsewhere.

By using this blog to reflect on my practice, I’m hoping to gain deeper insights into how I facilitate training, and also give insights into some of our workshops. Comments and suggestions are welcomed!

Check back soon for reflections on the Speed Reading and Starting to Write Workshops. In the meantime you can check out our website or follow us on twitter @uobGradSchool.