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the lakeside view: PGR Blog

Part of the Courage Wellbeing Project about PGR life at UEA. 

Thu 12 Dec 2019

Spreading the word on Peer-Assisted Learning and the HUM Reading and Writing Café

This post is by Richard Daines, an Associate Tutor in HIS and AMA and a member of the AT Network. Find out more about the AT Network and how you can get involved by clicking here. Our AT Network comes off the back of our PhD Students as Associate Tutors research, and is part of the Courage Wellbeing Project. Please sign up to our mailing list here.

This year I have been volunteering on a new scheme to support student learning that’s being co-ordinated by the Learning Enhancement team in Student Services and the HUM Faculty. The project has been to launch a ‘HUM Reading and Writing Café’, a space for undergraduate students to meet, study together, and reflect on their academic reading and writing. The Café has launched this autumn and the big task is now to spread the word to students that it exists and is worthwhile!

The initiative is a form of ‘Peer-Assisted Learning’ (PAL), a type of student-led learning initiative that has grown considerably across Higher Education institutions over the last decade. The basic ethos of PAL is that students can develop their learning an awful lot by interacting with and learning from each other, in a way that complements (but does not replace) existing teaching and course contact hours. A big focus is on tacit knowledge and study techniques built up by peers through experience; issues which students might not think to ask lecturers about directly, might not have reflected upon, or might be reluctant to address for fear of ‘asking a stupid question’. Importantly, sessions are aimed at all students equally, rather than having a remedial philosophy. 

 

PAL sessions are facilitated by undergraduate student Mentors (currently second and third year HUM students from across different Schools), who are trained and supported by Student Services staff and volunteer Officers (which has been my role in this project). Mentors are trained to appreciate the goals and ethos of PAL, to think about organisation, teamwork, and inclusive interaction styles, but also to recognise potential wellbeing issues and signpost their peers to university support services where needed. Mentors therefore develop useful skills and employability points themselves, with their participation recognised in a ‘PAL Award’ system given by the university. The benefits of PAL are also social and pastoral, since student-led learning environments can foster a more informal atmosphere in which students can come together and meet in a more relaxed, low-pressure, safe space. As such, the venue for the Reading and Writing Café is not a regular teaching space – Bookable Room 2 in Union House – and students are welcome to drop in and out, with drinks and snacks provided to foster that casual Café atmosphere.

PAL can take various forms in practice. It can be subject- and content-focused, with sessions taking the form of something more like a revision session designed to solidify understanding of content already covered in lectures or tutorials. This is how it has been run in other faculties at UEA outside HUM. The Reading and Writing Café has initially been envisaged to be focused more on methodology, study skills, and reflective practice (although as PAL is student-led, the shape it takes will develop based on the Mentors’ own ideas and student demand). Topics and themes that our Mentors have chosen to focus on to begin with include ‘how to read an academic article’, ‘how to find resources in the library’, ‘how to deconstruct an essay question’ and ‘how to plan and write an essay’.

These are early days, but the scheme has a lot of potential to help students develop their learning and have a more rounded and deeper experience of their degrees. But the word needs spreading as widely as possible and the benefits of attending – social and for learning – really emphasised to students. For any of you who are currently teaching or will be in the future, please please please take a few minutes to tell your classes about the scheme and encourage them to get involved, as well as nudging individual students towards it, perhaps as part of feedback. The poster for the event is shared on the AT Network’s Teams group and sums up all the key details, so can be used as a handy reference point to show to students.

The HUM Reading and Writing Café takes place every Wednesday during term time in Union House Bookable Room 2, between 1pm and 3pm. Students are free to drop in and out throughout. Any queries (including those of students interested in getting involved as Mentors themselves) can be directed to pal@uea.ac.uk.        

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Wed 11 Dec 2019

Courageous Conversations - Giving Voice to PGRs

Courageous Conversations is a series of monologues that use real-life personal statements from UEA PhD students to form a narrative. This is the first in a series of four, all of which were originally performed during the Courage Festival in September 2019. The sources for these monologues are all anonymous; in publicising them we hope to draw further attention to the difficulties and troubles faced by postgraduate researchers as they navigate academic spaces.

My supervisor’s behaviour was notorious, that became clear when I started my PhD. Older students warned me about him but I didn’t get it. You see, you don’t understand it until you experience it. At the time I thought he was a perfectionist or something, someone who just really valued good science. I believed if I worked hard enough, he would appreciate it and things would be fine. But it was never fine, I never did anything that warranted praise, I’ve been there now for 3 years and I can only count a few instances where he ever said anything vaguely positive about me or my work.

People have many descriptions of what my supervisor was, they called him “hard to work with” or “scary” or “overly-critical”. What they mean to say is that he is emotionally abusive. It started off with little things: the emails I’d receive after work hours, the surprise meetings, the pep talks. During my second year it escalated. He would barge into the lab unannounced at 6 or 7pm and demand an immediate progress report. I’d be unprepared and caught off guard. I couldn’t tell him what he wanted to hear so he’d get angry and frustrated. He’d talk about how I was going to fail if I didn’t magically produce what he wanted. Every misstep I made, he was there to criticise it, tear it apart and paint a bleak future for me.

After a while I didn’t feel like I had any agency. I felt that my mind was not mine. I could almost feel him trying to get into my head and correct me as if I was a faulty machine. He made me feel like I was broken, worthless and small. After a while I became fearful of doing my experiments, I was second guessing everything I was doing. I couldn’t sleep through the night because I felt like I didn’t deserve to sleep. I’d wake up in the morning in tears, sick to my stomach. Sometimes I’d be too scared to come to work. It was like my body was rebelling, telling me it had had enough.

If I hadn’t come in for a day or two, I’d receive emails from my supervisor chiding me, accusing me of slacking. It would take every inch of will power to come in after that. The longer I’d leave it, the harder I’d be punished. When I’d finally come to the lab, after a period of absence, he’d be there waiting for me, demanding answers and would micromanage my schedule down to every half hour. No time for lunch, no time to think. I told him when I thought a task would take more time than he’d given it, he’d just say he didn’t agree and that was that. Naturally I made errors as it was work I was rushing to complete under the impossible time constraints. I’d send it to him, he’d send it back telling me how useless I was.

One day, and with enormous support from my friends, I decided to talk to him about his behaviour. I told him as clearly and diplomatically as I could that I was having difficulty working under these conditions. But something weird happened in that meeting, it was as if he’d prepared an answer for everything. He’d say that I was falling behind and that this was why he’d been working me so hard. It was to help me, he said. All that criticism, all the anxiety and depression he’d caused me, all the birthdays I’d missed, all the hours I didn’t sleep, all the friends I wasn’t responding to, all the pressure I put on my partner to support me, that was supposed to help me! He made me question my version of events: telling me I’d misunderstood when he yelled at me, that I’d misinterpreted the tone of his emails, that I’d wronged him in some way. Somehow we agreed at the end of the meeting that this was all my fault and I almost believed him. I walked out of that meeting and broke down. I felt hopeless and exhausted. I decided it was easier to carry on under this draconian rule than to fight it.

And people still ask me now: “why you didn’t go to the head of school or the PGR office… why did you allow this to happen?” I allowed it to happen because I learned the hard way that no one would help me. I remember trying to discuss the problem with my secondary supervisor, the person who I was supposed to turn to for help in these circumstances. I remember feeling like she was lying to my face, pretending my primary supervisor isn’t as bad as he is. She’d say “sorry, that you’re having trouble, how do you think you could improve the situation?”. She put the responsibility on me to change the behaviour of my supervisor. Every single person in that school knew what my supervisor was doing, they’d see it happen in front of their very eyes. The amount of times he’d criticise me in front of our lab, the amount of times he’d keep me late after work, the amount of times they’d see my face swollen from the sleeplessness and the exhaustion. No one said anything to him. No one intervened.

I started abusing study drugs. I knew people took them to help revise for exams or complete assignments, I was just taking them to get up in the morning. They didn’t necessarily make me feel happy or productive, just allowed me to feel detached. Allowed me to not feel. They would put me into a strange sort of dissociative state, in those instances I could handle more of the abuse my supervisor would level at me. But the problem was when the effect wore off I’d feel ten times more depressed, ten times more suicidal.

Over these last years, this PhD had eaten away at every part of my life, at the foundations of my relationships. I split with my partner. 9 years down the drain because I’d became a shadow of myself. What was left was this angry, sad, anxious person. That’s who I’d bring home every evening and who would cry into the early hours of the morning, needing constant reassurance. Of course it was too much for him to deal with. He deserved so much better and I’m blessed that he tried to stick it out for as long as he did. To lose someone important in your life like that at such a crucial point your studies was absolutely devastating. But it made me open my eyes and realise how much this PhD had cost me, how much it’s taking from me, how much it was consuming me. I realised that if I carry on this way, it was going to kill me. That was the first time I tried to seek some sort of medical help.

First, I went into the doctors surgery, completely exhausted, practically hallucinating from the stress. I tried to tell him what was happening. He asked me a few token questions about sleep and stress. Then he asked me, in this cold, clinical tone: “have you felt suicidal?”. How do I respond when someone is asking about the deepest, darkest parts of my mind with such carelessness? I don’t remember how the rest of the conversation went after that, because I felt too invaded. Because when things start to overwhelm me like this, I disassociate. I watch events happening to me as if I’m watching it unfold on TV. It’s easier to detach and watch your hopes being snuffed than to experience it. They didn’t even refer me for counselling, they just gave me some leaflets on sleep and told me to stop taking the study drugs. Considering this was about the fifth time I’d felt let down by the system, it honestly didn’t bother me, I almost expected it. I put those leaflets straight in the bin and popped another pill.

I remember when I finally told my friends about the severity of what happened. I just wish I talked to them sooner about all this, about how bad everything was. They convinced me to seek a therapist independently. It was costly, about £60 per session, but I felt like it was my only option at that point. I’ll tell you what though, that was the turning point for me, that’s what made the difference between me being here and not. My therapist convinced me to take a break from my studies. I never would have considered that before, I thought taking a break was almost an expression of failure.

Finding the interruption to study form was a minefield in itself, the website was just a mess. When I finally found it, it said I needed to wait up to 3 months for approval. 3 months to essentially sign a piece of paper. Can you imagine? I’m struggling to keep my head above water, I can’t wait another 3 months! I needed medical evidence too so I had to go back to the bloody doctor surgery. I was constantly asking myself if this was really worth it. My stipend was running out soon, was I even sure if I could afford to do this? All the while, I’m getting email after email from my supervisor about how much work I’m not doing. But my therapist and my friends were such an enormous source of strength and with that encouragement I found the will to do it. Really, they helped me through that process so much.

So I pushed ahead with this interruption to study, now I still didn’t have a straight answer about the 3 month turn around on this, but I decided that even if they don’t approve the form, it doesn’t matter. Sure I’d suffer a huge set back in my PhD if I took a 3 or 4 month break, but you can’t get a PhD if you’re dead.

Then I had to meet with my supervisory team before submitting the form and crucially I had to downplay my supervisor’s role in all this. So I blamed external factors, family issues, my inability to cope, anything to deflect away from what really happened, I felt almost dirty doing that. And I felt like my supervisor was revelling in how I was talking down about myself. He said that I can’t handle stress, that I’m too sensitive, that I shouldn’t have let it get to this point and that I should have talked to him earlier. I just let it slide, there was no point challenging him. The day after that meeting, I began my interruption. And I didn’t feel any sense of relief, just nothing at that point because there was so much loss I needed to confront.

Now, I’m coming to the end of my interruption—which they finally approved about 2 weeks ago. And things are better, I still don’t feel 100% right but I have started to feel some relief. Many people judge me for taking that time off, but they can go to hell, I’ve done what I have to do to survive, I don’t need to answer to them. Instead of study drugs I now take antidepressants. I’m sleeping better and I’m learning to love myself again and make amends with the people I’ve hurt. I’ve also made a big decision to return to study after my interruption. Maybe it’s just a case of sunken-cost fallacy, but I feel that I’ve fought too hard to throw in the towel now. I feel like I’m letting the system win if I disappear. I know that my supervisor will try and sink his claws into me when I return, it’s inevitable and I know there is nothing to shield me, to protect me.

So here I am, a lone soldier on this front, waiting for the next battle, knowing that no one is going to come to save me. I’m watching my enemies gather momentum on the horizon. I’m raising up arms, wish me luck.

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Wed 20 Nov 2019

The Courage Festival - A Retrospective Look

This post is written by the Courage Project's PGR Mental Health Coordinator, Bryony Porter.

In early August, Maria and I wrote a blog about the Courage Festival. As Maria described it, we hoped the day would be a festival...

"The word festival brings to mind positive connotations, right? This is the idea, this is the aim, this is the goal of Courage Festival; to not only celebrate our PGR experiences, voice our stories, mingle with our peers throughout the country and fill each other’s shoes, but to also change the rhetoric about doctoral studies. It should NOT be a nightmare, it should NOT be a war, it should NOT be a pain, and it should NOT break you. It ought to be a dream coming true, it ought to be a long fight to win, it ought to be the gain, and at the end of the day, it ought to be you unbroken."

Did we manage to achieve what we set out to do? Oh I think so. Over 75 PGRs and Staff working at UEA and universities across the UK joined us in a wonderfully unique event. The Courage Festival created a safe space for individuals to have open, honest and courageous conversations, learn a new skill, explore challenges of implementing interventions, understand our response to perceived failure and appreciate why you and the people around you every day are truly remarkable.

There were so many great moments throughout the day but a couple personal highlights for me were (1) Laura Haag’s ‘I am Remarkable’ session, (2) a powerful and emotive session called ‘Giving Voice to PGRs’ organised by Natasha Senior and (3) seeing people carry their potted seedlings of mint and rosemary home after visiting the PhDiggers stall.

The ‘Giving Voice to PGRs’ session, involved the presentation of anonymous monologues from PGRs, created as a result of a series of interviews Natasha undertook with UEA PGRs during her placement with Courage. We are going to be releasing each of the four monologues in a blog series over the rest of the semester.

Across the chairs set up in the Hive was the Lakeside View Blog Zine, created by Tarnia and showcasing some of the contributions to the blog over the past year (it is super beautiful and you can see copies of it in Scholars bar if you want to check it out).

Although, as ever, nothing is smooth sailing. When the idea of the Courage Festival was born, in one of our monthly strand leads meetings in the Spring, I took it upon myself to lead on the event, as the ideas naturally fell largely under the strands of work that I lead on. A great idea, I thought. A great idea until I finished work that day and had that sudden feeling of impending and overwhelming fear, stress and anxiousness. I’d taken on too much.

I’d agreed to lead on this event at the same time as doing the final reviews and edits to my thesis, which I was due to submit at the end of June, alongside my usual day-to-day work, that I was squeezing into the three days a week I was working at the time. What did I learn? That it is okay not to be okay, it is okay to say you’ve taken on too much. The sooner that you can be honest about this, the more opportunity there is to gather support and make adjustments. We postponed the Festival until September and gathered a committed and collaborative team of people to regularly meet to plan and implement the festival. In doing so, we did not leave anyone feeling overwhelmed or overworked, but left us feeling like we worked as team to create an event that we were proud of.

I would like to give my thanks to each and every one of the people who were involved in the development of ideas, planning, mind-mapping, organising, setting-up, taking-down, smiling, welcoming and committed people from the Courage Project team who made the festival a success. Particularly to each of the PGRs on our project team who have been doing placements with Courage who were involved in the planning and implementation of the day, including developing and leading sessions. A special thank you to Maria Tsimpiri who worked incredibly hard on the planning and organisation of the Festival during her Courage placement. Thank you to all the fantastic people who ran workshops, walks, runs, yoga, and bullet journaling and self-compassion and mindfulness sessions throughout the day. You made the day a success and a pleasure to work on.

#YouAreRemarkable

To see more of the Courage Festival held over the summer, check out uea(su)'s vlog of the event over on Youtube!

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Wed 13 Nov 2019

have your say in the uea(su) democracy review!

This blog post is written by Sophie Atherton, the uea(su) campaigns and democracy officer.

In the 2017/18 academic year, a policy looking into PGR engagement was passed, which you can find here! This allowed multiple PGR focus groups to take place to find out what would improve their engagement. This has been written up into a report and will be posted soon on the postgraduate(su) web pages.

On the topic of this report, a democracy review is taking place. This report has been fed into the review so should see positive PGR involvement in the process. Any of you who have been following my work since the beginning of the year, may have heard me mention this review quite a few times… I wanted to take this opportunity in the Lakeside View to explain the current timeline and scoping exercises that I’ve worked with other student officers on so that you can be up to date too.

Last year’s student officer committee agreed to have an external consultant support us with this work as this review is the largest for the last few years, and they will have visited us for the first time by the time you are reading this.

We will be having a conversation around what works well and could be improved within representation and decision making. This covers school and faculty convenors, as well as full-time and part-time officer roles. We’re going to be looking at lots of meetings that take place from societies and sports exec to Union Council. Fundamentally, we will be asking ourselves the question of should every part of the union have a democratic input?

In October, we ran several focus groups to understand and look into what democratic structures may work for us. Currently, a survey is live where you are able to feed in your own views. You can fill it in here! If you fill in, you are in with the chances of winning an SU Christmas jumper from the SU shop.

I hope to have a rough outline of potential changes by December, which I can update Union Council on and present to the Trustee Board with a steer to know if I’m going in the right direction for you! If you have any questions about the process or how you can get involved further, drop me an email.

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Wed 06 Nov 2019

Postgraduate Education Conference 2019

After the success of last year, we’re bringing back the Postgraduate Education Conference. We were genuinely delighted to see how you all engaged with the event last year, and the feedback was so great that we wanted to make it an annual occurrence. This year’s conference is mainly targeted at those currently in postgraduate study, but we’re opening it up to anyone who wants to go into postgrad study in the future too! As with last year, and everything we do, it’s absolutely FREE to register and attend you can register here. 

This year the conference will be focusing on issues around BAME progression and experiences of postgraduate study, and mental health. We’ll have sessions on the Decolonise UEA campaign from different faculties, and students, along with great sessions on privilege, and creating an anti-racist learning environment.  

We’re really excited for this year’s student research showcase section of the conference, we’ve already received some fantastic abstract submissions, but would love some more. Whether you’ve presented a loads of different conferences or this will be your first time, make the most of this opportunity to hone your skills of communicating your research to a lay audience. Not only this, but you could be in with the chance of winning a cash-prize for coming 1st or 2nd as chosen by the audience. If you’re interested in submitting an abstract you can do so by clicking here.  

As if it could get any better right? Well it does. Our keynote address will be made by the fantastic Dr. Jason Arday of Durham University whose research focuses on race, education, and social justice. He’ll be spending the entire day with us at the conference and getting involved in loads of the sessions. We can’t wait to have him along and hear what he has to say. You can find some of his previous work by clicking here.  

We received rave reviews of the food from last year’s conference and we’re hoping for much of the same this year as Namaste India will be supplying the food to keep you going at lunch! They're bringing a whole host of items for you to eat you can see their full menu for the day at: uea.su/pgedcon19. We’ll also finish the day off with a drinks reception in Scholars.   

Registering for the conference is absolutely FREE (you can sign up here) so come along, get involved in the conversations, support other postgrads, eat some fantastic food, and listen to some inspiring and challenging talks. You can email us at union.postgrads@uea.ac.uk if you have any questions. Follow and use #PGEDCON19 on social media to get involved in the conversation.

This post was written by Josh Melling, uea(su)'s Postgraduate Engagement Coordinator.

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Wed 30 Oct 2019

Vote Yes to Fight for a Better HE for Casualised Staff

Members,

I am sure it comes as no surprise that we are balloting once again. Your union nationally and locally is calling on you to vote in national ballots on pensions and “pay”. I, your Anti-Casualisation Officer, begin this post not with an inducement to strike but with an indictment of the state of higher education. Our working lives are blighted with increasing precarity, inequality and unreasonable workloads. Every year the demand on our time, capacity, and sanity are stretched beyond reasonable limits. Nowhere are the strains being inflicted on our sector felt more keenly than our casualised colleagues and comrades.

We know this instinctively, having worked under these conditions ourselves. Precarity is at an all-time high across the sector. Casualisation continues to be the tip of the neo-liberal spear that is exsanguinating our profession. It cuts to the very bone of our institutions. This modality of employment propagates and enforces pay inequality. It supports a structure of crushing workload and forces our institutions to run on the good-will of an increasingly exhausted workforce. It suppress our wages meaning more work for less pay. Casualisation is at the centre of our disputes over pensions and pay.

We must be clear that we will not tolerate a sector that is run like this. We must be clear that will not stand for increasing inequality in our institutions. We must be clear that we want academia to be a profession that is open to all, fair to its workers and free from exploitation. We must stand in solidarity with our precarious, casualised members. Members that came out in support of the USS dispute, many of whom cannot afford to contribute to the scheme itself. For these reasons it is vital that we, the members of staff that make UEA what it is, take a stand against rampant inequality, increasing casualisation, excessive workload and insufficient salaries. It is vital that we defend our pension scheme. It is vital that we vote yes and yes to strike action across both ballots.

In solidarity,

Michael Kyriacou (Anti-Casualisation Officer)

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Wed 16 Oct 2019

Electing a Postgraduate Committee: Why should I care?

Elections for the postgraduate committee have opened and you have the opportunity to choose the committee that will represent postgraduates for the academic year 2019/20. Often these elections have relatively low turnout, so I felt it was important to explain what the role of this committee is, how to vote, and why it is integral for PGRs to vote for who will represent them this year. I am not writing to recommend any one candidate, but it is important to think who will represent you in the discussions that will shape the way the SU interacts with the PG community.

What is the PG Committee?

The PG committee is a group of 6 PG students who control the five figure pg(su) budget. To ensure that there is greater representation within the Students Union, there are 4 protected places on the committee, two for women + candidates and two for postgraduate researchers. They meet around once a month, come to PG assembly to talk to PG students about issues they are facing, and represent PG students at the highest level of student democracy, Union Council. Not only does that mean they decide the balance between the social grant, research grant, and campaigns, it also means that they are able to hold the Postgraduate Officer to account. This is particularly critical for postgraduate students who are often on the edge between staff and student, resulting in ineffective representation.

Why is it important to have PGR representation in the SU?

This is going to be a critical year for the PGR community. Not only is this the year where the Courage Project will produce its findings about how to improve mental health on campus for PhD students, it is also a year where a strong PGR voice is going to be needed. Issues such as Associate Tutor casualisation, the provision of space on campus (in particular the SU should be involved in consultations with university over the building of the ‘Sky House’), discussions about the role of the Postgraduate(su), and the possibility of the formation of a Graduate Students Association. It is also critical to protect the research grant fund which is fundamental to the ability of students to develop both in terms of them as members of the academic community and in their future career. The postgraduate committee will act as your voice on these issues, representing PGR students to the students union.

How do I vote?

As in all Union elections, the election will be online at uea.su/pgelections! The voting will take place from Tuesday the 15th until Friday the 18th of October. All the manifestos will be online, so give them a read and make sure to vote!

This post was submitted by Matthew Gallagher, a postgraduate researcher in PPL.

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Fri 11 Oct 2019

World Mental Health Day 2019

This blog post was written anonymously.

I was tempted to write a little introspective blog post about World Mental Health Day, which was yesterday. As I was contemplating the first line – something about what it’s like to be struggling with depression while adding “make WMHD promo images” to your ever-lengthening to do list – I found myself getting more and more frustrated.

So, fuck it. I get that World Mental Health Day is about ending the stigma surrounding mental health in the wider community – but those with mental health issues shouldn’t have to bare their soul about their own personal problems in the hopes that things might improve. Given that mental health stigma does still exist, those who do reveal that they are struggling put themselves at great risk for very little reward, and I’m tired of seeing the ones who have the most to lose always being the ones who stick their neck out. I’m tired and I’m depressed and I’m anxious and I’m angry.

The services that the SU puts on – Advice(su)’s drop-ins, the Courage Project’s trips to the allotments, and such – are great, and a listening ear is invaluable when you feel isolated by your struggles. But I think there’s a tendency on days like World Mental Health Day to focus on the insular, little things that we can do at an individual level, while forgetting about the fact that our society needs systemic and cultural change to truly tackle the mental health crisis. For some, those individual changes may be all we can do. But to see those with the platform and the resources to implement systemic change encouraging us that ‘every mind matters’ in a system where every mind is not valued, and telling us to ‘get your mind plan’ when what we need (to use academia as an example) is more funding, more manageable workloads, teaching practices that account for all ways of learning, the abolishment of oppressive hierarchies, and an end to casualization… it’s insulting.

This World Mental Health Day, take care of those around you, interrogate your own practices, make small changes that could result in a big difference for your friends and peers. But also look at those above you, and remember those with the power to save us, who instead offer the equivalent of ‘thoughts and prayers’ as we are dying.

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Wed 02 Oct 2019

Being Well Again

A year has passed since writing my previous blog on Being Well. Looking back, I’ve accomplished a great deal since then, and all is well.

Armed with my recent experiences, I was full of confidence that I could face pretty much anything. This was strengthened that summer by being made an Honorary Professor in BIO and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology. Our labrador puppy, Stella, was full of enthusiasm, which was infectious. The new academic year had started well. There were lots of new initiatives and reviews going on. Despite the workload building up, tasks were being completed on time.

Oh, there is some detail I missed out. The workload built up to a point where I was working 10-hour days, five days a week, plus a half-day most Sundays. The training of the new puppy was hard, particularly since Stella was prone to scavenging disgusting things on walks and getting ill. The vet bills put extra financial pressure on a salary that had been going down in real terms over the last decade. And Brexit was a worry both professionals and personally. Within a few weeks at the start of 2019, my youngest daughter had an injury that became infected; my eldest daughter was hit on the way to school by a load slipping off a lorry; the heating broke down at home; there was a fire in the building in which I work; a car was completely burned out ten doors down our street in a feud between drug dealers; I aggravated an old back injury while gardening; and I developed a new age-related health issue.

I saw threats from everywhere. The resulting anxiety resulted in sever insomnia, which rapidly landed me back in a state of depression. Despite seeing potential warning signs in the autumn, I hesitated to seek help, thinking things would soon improve spontaneously. However, the events of the early New Year were unforeseeable. Only after going over the edge did I reach out at work and to a therapist.

My experience the second time around was remarkably like the first, except that I did not take antidepressants. Recovery took just as long, despite what I had learned. Time is therefore part of the healing process that cannot be rushed. It is now clear that I was burnt out and unable to cope with the unexpected challenges of the New Year.

What have I learned this second time? Like a back injury, the wrong move can flare things up again. However, if one can recover once, one can do it again. Moving forwards, one’s workload must be sustainable. Short-term stress is fine, but when days and weeks turn to months of pressure, this is not good. Seek help early to stay resilient. The irony is that I advise others to do this - but I now know how hard it is to judge this correctly. With my therapist’s guidance, I’ve understood better how one’s thoughts can all too easily become self-critical. I’ve also better understood how one’s catastrophising can tap into one’s deepest fears, bypassing the most robust logic. I’ve been very open with my colleagues about my mental health issues, unlike the first time around. Do I regret it? No. My colleagues have been very supportive. In fact, I should have asked for help when the workload was starting to get out of control. I’ve recently trimmed some of my responsibilities with the support of management, and this has helped enormously. Social isolation at work is something to avoid. I therefore take every opportunity to spend time with colleagues at work. For example, lunch alone at one’s desk is not recommended, as indeed a PhD student kindly pointed out to me recently.

My daughters thankfully recovered from their injuries. There have been no more fires, the heating is working and my physical health is better. We taught Stella to wear a muzzle, so no more scavenging and illness. And Brexit – well, the less said about that the better. Also, I am very grateful for the unwavering support my wife has given me throughout. I have indeed accomplished a great deal in the last year, and all is well - again.

With over twenty years of research into plant and microbial enzymes of relevance to health and agriculture, Steph Bornemann is the Postgraduate Research Director at the John Innes Centre.

 

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Wed 25 Sep 2019

welcome to the 2019/20 academic year!

First things first: welcome to all new and returning postgraduate students! I hope that the start of the new semester is going well for you so far, and that you are feeling good about the upcoming academic year! In an attempt to avoid the creeping dread of this likely being my final Welcome Week as a student, I am going to funnel my energy into writing a little guide for any new and returning postgraduates to glance over. Perhaps it’ll help you make the most of your time here at UEA.

  1. Build a community: when I began my PhD, I made the mistake of not getting to know my peers, thinking that I didn’t have time to focus on friendships with such a daunting task as my thesis hanging over my head. I ended up isolating myself completely, to the detriment of my mental health. With this in mind, my first piece of advice for postgraduates is to build your own community – come along to postgraduate(su) events, befriend those in your academic school and outside of it, and please: find things to talk about that aren’t your thesis. Future you will thank you!
  2. Join the UCU: as a postgraduate, chances are you may be doing some work as an Associate Tutor at some point during your time at the UEA. This work can be incredibly rewarding, but also notorious exploitative, underpaid, and overworked. The University and College Union is currently balloting on multiple issues that may impact you – including demanding a pay increase for academic staff, and an end to exploitative casualised contracts. Joining the UCU is free for ATs who are in full time education, and it means you will be able to vote on various union issues, receive representation during disputes, as well as participate in strike action if necessary.
  3. Learn what spaces are for you: in spite of all the new buildings in construction on campus, dedicated space for postgraduates is still lacking. Some schools have shared office space for postgraduates, see what yours has on offer for you, and then try to book a space. A dedicated desk in a shared postgraduate office space helps decrease feelings of isolation, as well as giving you a sense of belonging on an otherwise bustling and constantly moving campus. Aside from this, other postgrad-focused spaces include the Doctoral College Suite in Constable Terrace, the PGT and PGR study spaces in the Library, and Union House’s Scholars’ Bar.
  4. Don’t neglect outside spaces: the first days of Autumn are upon us, and while it may be tempting to stay inside huddled around the light of your computer screen for warmth, we wholeheartedly encourage you to ensure you allocate time to spend outdoors this semester. Regular breaks and access to green spaces have been found to help reduce stress levels and improve motivation and productivity – so putting down your pen and leaving the office for a while may actually help you do more work in the long run! The best way to spend your time outdoors on campus? Well, I may be biased, but you can’t go wrong with PhDiggers, our postgrad-focused gardening group. Not interested in getting muddy? Try out the Courage Project’s Walk & Talks, our PGRunners running group, or spend some time in the Silent Space by Earlham Hall!
  5. Branch out: keep an eye on the uea.su events page for new and interesting things that might interest you. Working on your thesis makes it very easy to get stuck in a repetitive cycle, going to events, trying new things, and meeting new people, may help you not get stuck in a rut. Sign up to the postgraduate(su) events mailing list or check out the events calendar here for more information.

There are, of course, many other things you should do as a new or returning postgraduate at UEA, these are just a few to get you started. Need help or have questions? Get in touch. :) Happy 2019/20, folks!

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Tue 13 Aug 2019

Welcome to the Courage Festival #couragefestival19

The Courage Festival is a one-day festival focusing on mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate researchers. This will be a day designed by PGRs, for PGRs and staff working with PGRs from UEA and across the country to participate, discuss and provide feedback on a series of activities designed by the Courage Project. The festival is also aimed at Giving Voice to PGRs and an opportunity to openly discuss your PGR journey. The ultimate outcome is a public statement addressing PGR mental health and wellbeing. 

In this blog, Maria and Bryony, who work on the Courage Project, share their thoughts about the upcoming festival.

Maria, PGR Placement, Strand H: Courage Festival Coordinator

Doing a PhD is a hard enough process in its own right, research is as demanding as is exciting. In the meantime, supervision happens, competition happens, financial obstacles happen, cultural shock happens, where to stop? Imagine, life also happens…

The Courage Project is here to offer help in a very specific way; create the circumstances to either relax and reboot your system before a burnout, or find a way to share your stress with others and lessen it, if not deal with it. Any problem becomes less of a problem with Courage.

A number of the outmost experienced members of the Courage Project team work together to support the PGR community, shape any advisory or guiding line according to PGR standards, and lay the foundation for a secure pathway towards postgraduate researchers’ mental health and wellbeing support. Join us on 11 September 2019 at UEA and explore what all the above is about during our Courage Festival!

The word festival brings to mind positive connotations, right? This is the idea, this is the aim, this is the goal of Courage Festival; to not only celebrate our PGR experiences, voice our stories, mingle with our peers throughout the country and fill each other’s shoes, but to also change the rhetoric about doctoral studies. It should NOT be a nightmare, it should NOT be a war, it should NOT be a pain, and it should NOT break you. It ought to be a dream coming true, it ought to be a long fight to win, it ought to be the gain, and at the end of the day, it ought to be you unbroken.

 

Bryony, PGR Mental Health Coordinator, Courage Project Lead, uea(su)

Although key to the aims of the project, what many people may not realise is that Courage is far more than a walk in the park or a trip to the allotment. It is also about using this time as a platform to have courageous conversations. It is a time to have your voices heard. Too often I work with PGRs who feel they have no power to speak out against the pressures and demands that are encroaching on their wellbeing, work-life balance and mental health. This is just the way it has always been, after all. This archaic way of thinking is unjustified will only continue to perpetuate the problems that were faced, are faced and will continue to be faced until the structure and systems adapt and change.

As part of my role and the role of my colleagues on the Courage project, including the 12 PGR placement holders working with us, we regularly work with PGRs who have experienced and are experiencing many challenges throughout their research (I doubt many PGRs go through their entire experience without this). One of the key outputs of Courage, although maybe understated and unrecognised, is that the project has provided an avenue for people to raise concerns in a safe, supported and non-judgmental environment. Through this, we have been able to support individual PGRs, provide advice, guidance and solutions.

Courage is about taking a small but vital step towards changing the academic and research culture around mental health and wellbeing. Many of you will become part of the next generation of academics, research group leaders, policy makers, managers, professors etc. and will be integral in the development of supportive working environments and research culture. What kind of research or work community do you wish to be part of in the next steps of your career?

I am delighted to be working with an incredible team of PGR leaders from across UEA, Norwich Bioscience Institutes and University of Suffolk in Courage and now on the development of the Courage Festival and I hope that you will join us in learning more about the Courage Project on this day and using this as an opportunity to have your voice heard.   

The Courage Festival is free to attend and includes refreshment breaks, lovely lunch, welcome and farewell drinks. For more details and for reservations, please sign up by 4th September by clicking here

#couragefestival19

 

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Tue 06 Aug 2019

Silence is Golden: Official Launch of UEA Silent Space

Many of us live hectic, noise-filled lives and rarely leave ourselves enough time to allow our brains to reflect and rest. It's in these reflective times that creative ideas and solutions to problems can bubble up to the surface. Spending time in a Silent Space is rather like being in the quiet carriage of a train but with the added benefit of a beautiful green setting and the sights and sounds of nature as gentle distraction. Spending time in nature is beneficial to our wellbeing and helps to increase our respect for the natural world.

Over a year ago I had my first phone call with Liz Ware, founder of the Silent Space project, to talk about the possibility of a space on a university campus being developed into a Silent Space.

Silent Space was an idea that Liz had for many years but it wasn’t until her mother was diagnosed with dementia that a change in Liz’s working pattern meant that she had time to pilot the idea. Liz’s mother was a keen gardener and even in the rapid decline that she experienced, Liz recalls how her mother remembered the project and stayed interested in its progress until the day she died. Silent Space became the focus of a friendship that developed between them after her mother has forgotten that Liz was her daughter.

In a rare moment of clarity, Liz’s mother came up with the strap line ‘Peaceful time in green places’ and she would be incredibly proud to see it appearing in gardens around the UK. Today, there are 40 parks and gardens around the UK involved with Silent Space.

When Liz and I first talked, I told Liz about the aims and motivations of the Courage Wellbeing project and we both agreed that the two projects were a natural fit and an idea was born. It was from this point that I met with the wonderful UEA Estates team, who were so enthusiastic about this idea, we walked and talked to Earlham Hall, to visit the area they thought would work for this space. It was perfect. A quiet corner of the University, naturally tranquil but in need of a little love.

 

In May this year, as part of the Courage Project work, a group of PhDiggers (allotment and gardening group for PGRs) worked with the UEA Estates team to clear, tidy and plant the space by Earlham Hall to create a place for calm in nature.

This Silent Space is the first one that has ever been created at a university and it is the first of its kind in East Anglia.

The space will be officially launched on August 14th 12-1pm at Earlham Hall and you are invited to come along to the opening. There will be refreshments, tea and cake, a chance to chat and a chance to enjoy the Silent Space. I hope that you'll be able to join us for this event. 

I would like to take a moment to thank each of our brilliant PhDiggers who came to work in the space in May, UEA Estates Team, Liz Ware and my colleagues in the Courage Project for supporting this project.

This blog is by Bryony Porter (PGR Mental Health Coordinator) and Liz Ware (Silent Space Founder). Contact bryony.porter@uea.ac.uk 

You can find out more about how to get involved with future PhDiggers projects, including our allotments here. 

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Wed 17 Jul 2019

the sound of silence

…to quote the title of a very old Simon and Garfunkle song! You will understand why I have chosen the title to this blog as you read on.

I have been working on the resilience strand of the Courage Project and I would like to thank the 18 PGRs that have come forward to be interviewed from both the UEA and the University of Suffolk. We have discussed what it is like being a PGR, how the UEA/UoS as institutions can help stop their resilience being tested, and the various training and activities offered by the Courage Project. I will be writing my report shortly.

I have noticed that some of the blogs written for the Lakeside View recently have been written anonymously, and when conducting interviews participants often double-checked that they would not be able to be identified. It is clear that while PGRs want to share some of the distressing experiences they have had while researching, they are fearful that speaking out will have a negative effect on either their PhD or future job prospects should their identity become known. It is also clear that these experiences, in many cases, have had severe negative consequences for their mental well-being.

While this fear persists and PGRs are only willing to speak out when studies such as the Honesty Project (which took place in 2015) or the current Courage Project are being conducted, many researchers will be suffering in silence. What would make you less fearful of making your voice heard? For example, does there need to be some kind of written and signed undertaking that should a complaint be made the complainant will not be discriminated against? I would be interested to hear your thoughts and suggestions (see my contact details below). This is a problem that needs solving and I cannot claim to know the answer, but it would be good to have your ideas towards a possible solution.

As you will see from various newsletters, we are holding a Courage Festival on 11th September. I look forward to seeing many of you there and will be happy to discuss my research with you.

This article is written by Linda Horsnell, Part-Time PhD candidate (LDC), Associate Tutor and Courage Project Intern.

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Wed 10 Jul 2019

improving the PGR research culture at the UEA

James Craske is a final year doctoral candidate working across the Schools of Education and Politics. He also works as a Research Associate at the Centre for Competition Policy and started his placement with the Courage Project in May. This placement is about building a research community culture across SSF, though its design allows for students in other Schools and Faculties.

Over the summer months, I will be running a series of activities for postgraduate researchers as part of my Courage placement. The idea is to create collaborative and supportive sessions that contribute to developing the research culture across faculties, bringing together PhD students as they develop essential and necessary skills for an academic career such as publishing and teaching.

Traditionally, training and personal development are often discussed in terms of competition, “finding-the-edge”, catering to individual needs, and the importance of good strategy. The sessions in this programme will be guided by a different set of ethics, including honesty, the role that luck can play, contingency, group-focused, collaborative, and conducted with a flatter knowledge hierarchy (with PhDs and academics sharing their experiences).

Within the current training and supervision practice, students can take on these activities with often little/no support, which can lead to lack of motivation, uncertainty or a sense of isolation. In some cases, there is a tendency for students to navigate the publication process or teaching without a broader network or the support they need.

This programme is intended to provide some space and support for PGRs as they go about completing activities within their doctoral programme.  

The Programme and Why it Matters

The Courage Project can only do so much, of course. Whatever thinking is done about the subject of “research culture,” we shouldn’t lose sight of the more significant institutional issues: things like precarity and overwork. This will be effectively dealt with by more substantive collective action and thinking. There is a benefit, however, in having honest conversations, problematising conditions and building up support networks that can help to mobilise alternative ways of working and thinking about research culture.

It is vital to have dedicated conversations about how difficult the research journey can be and to have some insight into the unpredictable nature of activities such as publishing given the expectation that postgraduate researchers should be able to just “pick these things up”. Developing a good research culture means high quality and competitive training, but it also requires being open and honest about how these things work. Sometimes a good strategy can lead to a publication failure, for instance. When is the last time your supervisor told you they had a paper rejected, or told you about moments when teaching went wrong? As such, the pilot I am running will provide an insight into postgraduate researcher’s views, and contribute to an evidence base for developing better provision in the future.

The Programme

These activities will run deep into the summer months – this is partly down to the circumstances of my placement – but I hope to catch people whilst they are working on “other things” besides their thesis. It’s also a reminder that PhD students are often still about, even if they are not visible. Embedded into the programme of workshops for the publication development and reading group will be a voluntary focus group session, where postgraduate researchers can feed into the evidence-base of a final report about how their current experiences and future expectations about postgraduate research culture.

Publication Development

The publication development sessions will aim to provide two things: a view of the underbelly of publishing and set time devoted to writing. On the first, I will ask academics and PGRs who have already published to talk honestly about the process of things such as peer-reviewing, the difficulties of selecting journals, the length of the process, and pressures to publish. The second part is to provide the structured time that PGRs can use to write their articles (whatever stage they are at) in a collaborative environment over a few months.

Reading Group

A PGR reading group will look at some of the “common” elements that come with the territory of a thesis. There will be a series of short writing prompts about these topics from different disciplines, on the topic of “writing and the PhD” and another session considering “researcher identity and the role of the intellectual/researcher” in today’s world and institution. We will decide on a third session will after feedback during the first two sessions. A series of blog posts will be created for the Lakeside blog to let others know what we have been discussing.

Teaching and Associate Tutors

I will use my placement to contribute to current conversations that are taking place to improve the support and provision of associate tutors. I will do this by speaking to staff members who lead associate tutor work, contracts and provision in their Schools, in order to find where there is good practice that can be shared.

Secondly, if there is a demand, I will look to feed into any existing associate tutor network in order to improve the communication of ATs across several schools and faculties. This could involve facilitating monthly meet up for associate tutors, who rarely get to share experiences across schools or faculties. I am particularly interested in talking to associate tutors in the Social Science faculty because so far, we have had fewer conversations with this group.

Sign up!

I’m still working on some of the final details of this programme of activities, which will be rolled out from late July. If you are interested in taking part in any of these sessions or want to find out more, then please use this expression of interest form to be added to the mailing list: https://bit.ly/2I7cHqa

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Wed 03 Jul 2019

learning to love hills: putting one foot in front of the other with the PGRunners

This week's blog post is a collaborative effort by three regular attendees of PGRunners - the Courage Project's running group for postgraduate researchers.

Zoe Jones (SSS/EDU)

PGRunners started running together on a chilly January morning, with a fresh sprinkling of snow on the ground of Earlham Park. I work in the Student Support Service and am also at the beginning of my Doctorate in Education. I’m a very enthusiastic runner too, so I was delighted to have the chance to lead a PGR running group for the Courage Project. It was a hardy group of nine runners who met that morning, although maybe the cold weather helped us to bond; not only did it provide a talking point, it also inspired us to keep moving in order to get warm! Our first session on the Couch to 5K plan required one minute of walking followed by a minute and a half of brisk walking, which we repeated eight times.

We followed through with our training plan and some of us ran the Colney Lane Parkrun at the beginning of April. This Parkrun is on campus and it’s such a lovely, friendly event. The course is all on trails with quite a big hill halfway through (which we try to remember to love, as running up it makes us stronger...).

Sometimes we really don’t feel like running (even me!) if we’re honest, but we’ve carried on since the Parkrun. Why do we do it? Well, we generally feel so much better for it; it’s great to be out and exploring our beautiful campus through the changing seasons and it gives us the chance to move our bodies before a day of being sedentary. We also get the chance to talk to other researchers: mostly we’re running at a pace where running and talking go alongside one another. Part of my role in Student Support is facilitating writers’ groups and retreats; it seems to me that the “power of the group” is as motivating in the running group as it is in those settings.

Anna-Grace Scullion (AMA)

As I’m in my third year, the past six months have been a particularly stressful period in my PhD studies, but the supportive, relaxed ethos of PGRunners has helped me through some very tough weeks. The PhD process can breed a tendency toward isolation and sedentariness, and at times of peak pressure I sometimes fall into a vicious cycle of feeling like I don’t have enough time to socialise or exercise, becoming even more stressed. PGRunners allows us to set aside time for both in a reassuringly structured, guilt-free way. The non-competitive, low-commitment focus makes the group feel quite collegial, and catching up with each other and encouraging each other with our work feels as important as the running; perhaps this is why, as research shows, group exercise is the most beneficial form of exercise for mental health. Making tangible progress in my running each week has given me a sense of satisfaction that is rare during the PhD, and the shared goal of the Parkrun provided a valuable non-academic achievement. The group has also built an hour of being outdoors into my week, whereas I rarely took advantage of the beautiful campus before. Overall I feel that the challenges of running have improved my mental capacity to deal with the demands of the PhD; Zoe’s mantra, “I love the hill, the hill makes me stronger” has great resonance.

Laurie Kerr (ENV)

At the risk of sounding corny, PGrunners has undoubtedly had a positive impact on my wellbeing. Doing a PhD can at times seem an all-encompassing pursuit, and it's easy for other things to fall by the wayside. PGrunners encourages taking time for yourself, but in a low-pressure way, and is something I believe I truly benefit from. Doing PGrunners is a great way to start the day, and I arrive in the office after feeling energised and yet calm.

Running is something that didn't come naturally to me, and I struggled through the first few weeks. But following the couch to 5k training plan meant it didn’t take long for me to see improvement, and that really helped my confidence. The friendly and supportive environment of PGrunners encourages everyone to find their own pace, and you never feel left behind or 'too slow'.

If someone told me 6 months ago that I would be at Parkrun most Saturday mornings I wouldn't have believed it for a second, but running has now become a part of my routine that I really value.

PGRunners meets most Wednesday mornings at the SportsPark @ 9am. Our summer sessions begin next week, on 10th July! If you’re interested in joining us, you can find out more about how to sign up on the Courage Project website or contact Zoe Jones for more information.

Parkrun is a free, weekly timed 5K run. There are four Parkruns in Norwich. To find out about these, including the Colney Lane Parkrun on campus, see the Parkrun website.

You can find out more about the Learning Enhancement Teams writers’ groups and retreats by searching for “UEA LET writers’ groups”.

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Wed 26 Jun 2019

bringing up babies

This post is written by Anna Blagrove, a part-time PhD researcher in Film, TV, and Media at UEA. Follow them on Twitter at @AnnaBlagrove.

It’s been an eventful few years for me to say the least.  It’s involved a wedding, a busy job, a PhD, teaching, and the birth of two babies.  I’m due to (finally) submit my thesis by the end of this year, and it’s been a long road but a fulfilling and largely positive one. I wanted to share this experience to encourage other women (and men) that becoming a parent and doing a PhD don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

I started my PhD here at UEA in 2012 at the age of 35, just after I got married. I decided to do it part-time because I wanted to keep doing the job that I loved – Education Officer at Cinema City. I wanted to see if I could have it all: a happy home life, a fulfilling career-job, and a fascinating PhD research project on young cinema audiences. A year and half later I was blessed with a baby girl. I took six months off from the PhD and thankfully this was fully paid as I had a UEA studentship. After this, I started back at the research and the job with the help of a very able husband, a wonderful mum (who lives locally) and a nursery place. Then some time later, my second baby girl was born. I took another six months off to be with my new-born and mercifully, again it was fully paid. Ironically, it’s actually been easier having babies as a (funded) PGR than if I was an early career academic having to cope with temporary contracts and minimal maternity benefits. When my youngest was six months old, I went back to the books and soon after, my eldest daughter started school. By then I had accepted a place for my youngest at the UEA Nursery – which is one of the best in the region – and I speak from experience as we had tried a few other settings before we got this place. Good childcare is expensive at approximately £60 per day at most settings, totalling between £500 and £1000 per month for most families. When I was receiving my studentship and earning from my job, this was affordable. I am now in my (un-funded) writing-up year however, and my income has plummeted. The saving grace has been the Child Benefit, Working Tax Credit, and Child Tax Credit that HMRC have awarded me; this pays all the childcare expenses. It seems that this financial help is largely unclaimed by a lot of families – there are various levels of eligibility - so I would recommend all parents look into it.

Being a part-time PhD researcher with two young children has specific challenges. I have found it almost impossible to work at home, even when the house is empty. PhD procrastination is very real, and when you have piles of dirty laundry and a kitchen littered with washing-up, these can easily become the priorities when instead it should be your thesis! This is why I’ve been so grateful for the chance to have my own desk in the PGR study space in the Arts building on campus. It’s a haven of peace and work – with no piles of laundry to distract. In the last two or three years I also feel much more connected to the PGR community, through regular contact with PGRs from all the different Arts and Humanities schools, that use the study space and common room. I’ve got to know colleagues from all over the world and I feel like I’ve made some friendships for life. 

Of course it’s been difficult at times. There are physical, psychological, and practical issues of pregnancy and motherhood that have to be balanced with the academic and administrative demands of doing a PhD and teaching. I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t be a perfect PhD candidate – I haven’t had the time or energy to write many articles or attend many conferences for example. Perhaps universities could support parents in academia further by offering childcare options for study days or conferences?

The hardest aspect about being a PGR parent in my opinion, is the constant tension you feel between wanting to be there for your little ones as much as possible and achieving goals for your own future. One day my children will be grown up and will leave home. I’d like to have my own life and successes in order to be a positive role model for my daughters, and not have to experience empty-nest syndrome. I am fortunate in that I am so well supported by family. My daughters are looked after in turn by myself, my husband and my mum, as well as school and nursery. This way they have a variety of close relationships with different family members, as well as the social and educational benefits of attending a good school/nursery.

Oh and did I mention that I was made redundant from that job I loved (regretfully the money ran out)? The silver lining though is that I have since become a co-director of a new business with some ex-colleagues. We have started ‘Reel Connections’ this year; a company that uses film, music, and heritage to engage and connect community groups including the young, the elderly, and those with mental health issues. It’s all very exciting but in the meantime, my thesis needs to get finished, and my girls just keep getting bigger, stronger, funnier, and more beautiful. It’s been a long and eventful journey, but a joyful and life-affirming one – and it’s not over yet!

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Wed 19 Jun 2019

the phd process - practice and performance

Frank Carver is a part-time PGR in CMP at University of Suffolk. As well as doctoral research into the environmental impact of software development choices, he teaches computer programming, runs a software development consultancy and is mentoring his two daughters through their own undergraduate degrees.

Although enrolled here at the UEA, I am working on my PhD research at the University of Suffolk. Compared to our “big sister” in Norwich, we are a small university with an even smaller graduate school, but this seems to be particularly attractive to mature candidates broader life experience than the average grad student. In my role as one of the UoS PGR student reps I have spoken to many Suffolk PhD students, and have noticed an attitude which seems very common among such researchers.

There’s a lesson here for all of us, though. Bear with me.

The kind of person who has been successful enough in the world of work to contemplate a break or career change to study for a PhD has usually brought a variety of significant projects to completion, and learned the skills of time and project management under commercial pressure. To such a person the idea of taking three (or even six!) years to gather a bit of data and write 80-100,000 words seems ridiculous. That’s a six-month project, maybe a year at most.

So our hypothetical doctoral candidate goes through the motions with proposals and Gantt charts, signs up to the doctoral programme, and meets with supervisors, all the while making internal plans to get the whole thing done within a year.

And then the frustration hits.

Everyone is busy. Resources are unavailable. The ethics process is fiddly and interminable. Nobody seems to know what needs to be done. There is no clarity about anything. Each person navigates a different collection of setbacks, but the whole system seems designed to fail. How can this possibly make sense?

After observing this process several times, I have come to a tentative understanding. It seems designed to fail because, in some sense, it is. But perhaps not designed so much as evolved.

If we take a step back from the grindstone of day-to-day research, it should be clear that in the great majority of cases, even if this is personally hard to take, the larger world has no interest in your detailed investigation into the which-ness of the why. And that’s as it should be. Yes, you have made a contribution to knowledge, but not usually one anyone else cares about. There’s a reason it is so rare to find citations of PhD theses.

A PhD is not a commercial project with a “bottom line”. It is not a government policy document or patentable invention. It is not a citable paper destined for a high-impact journal or conference. A PhD is a process which we do for the sake of doing. The end goal of the PhD is not a specific item of research but a researcher with some experience of the challenges to be found in a research career. If we think only of the tangible output of the PhD, we can fall into the trap of ignoring the benefits of the process.

Consider a musician, perhaps a violinist, looking forward to a concert. It would be easy to focus entirely on that hour in the bright lights, but that would be a mistake. To produce the very best music our violinist needs to work on skill and technique, alone and with others, long before stepping into the auditorium. This should not come as a surprise. Nobody would expect quality work from someone who has never done it before.

When the concert comes, it’s all about doing the best in the moment. Missed a note? Don’t stop to try it again, but carry on for the sake of the overall experience. In private though, the opposite is true. Try it again, multiple times. Build the muscle memory which will help get it right when it matters.

A PhD takes years, and is filled with obstacles because it is practice, not performance. Embrace the challenges, try different strategies, learn from both failures and successes, and take the opportunity to develop as a researcher.

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Wed 12 Jun 2019

implications of the augar review for postgraduate researchers

This post was written by an anonymous mature student at the UEA.

A few weeks ago the Augar Review into the funding of post-18 education was released. While its focus was on undergraduate fees and the wider further education sector, the ramifications of the review reach out further than one level of the higher education sector due to the very nature of the proposals and their effect upon PhD funding, and the courses that Associate Tutors teach on.

The headline proposal for the review is the lowering of tuition fees from £9,250 to £7,500 per year for all undergraduate students. While this sounds heavily enticing for undergrads who have been paying these ridiculously high fees since 2012, the cutting in fees will not be replaced with any further funding for the universities, meaning that they will find themselves with a £1,750 per student blackhole in their finances. When universities look to fill this hole, the first cuts will come to funding that doesn’t boost their rating under the Research Excellence Framework (REF), of which the metrics are skewed towards STEM rather than the Arts and Humanities. This combination of funding cuts and frameworks that are bias towards the STEM will see the number of funding opportunities drop for researchers in the Arts and Humanities, forcing them to rely on the PhD loans that the government offers or self-funding, both of which come with their own stressful implications. This is why it’s exceptionally galling that PhD funding is only mentioned once within the report, with a cursory reference to loans as an option for funding, but entirely failing to draw any links between the cuts and the likely uptake in government loans.

The knock-on effects go further than a decrease in funding opportunities. The fees of Arts and Humanities students at all levels is siphoned off towards the cost of STEM courses instead of ensuring that the departments within Arts and Humanities schools are sufficiently funded, meaning they are often on the edge when it comes to covering the cost of their own courses. A decrease in funding has the knock-on effect of staff and module cuts in an attempt to make up the black hole in their finances. Associate Tutors are the frontline staff that will see their jobs cut, with postgraduate researchers who teach being given less opportunities as the course become streamlined towards employability and ease of teaching for full-time staff. This is in spite of that fact that many ATs rely on teaching to be able to live, and use it for the experience in the next level of their careers even though it often involves accepting exceptionally poor contracts and even poorer working conditions. This will be compounded even further when institutions looks to merge departments or outright close them, something of which UEA has a sad history. This creates a perfect storm where PGRs face being limited in being able to earn both experience and money to be able to survive in a sector that is doing its utmost to make this as difficult as possible.

All this comes at a time when programs such as The Honesty Project has identified that PGRs face high amounts of stress that impact their mental health while studying and working, and other programs such as The Courage Project look to try and nullify the effect that the these stresses have on PGRs. These projects become even more important if and when the review is put into place, due to its complete failure to look past the undergraduate level of higher education or consider the wide-ranging impacts any changes at this level would have on other levels of the HE sector. As a whole, the review completely fails PGRs in every way possible and should be rebuked by every institution that represents them.

While this may all sound incredibly bleak, there are already moves within the sector to challenge the review and make it worthwhile, with the UCU describing it as a failure. The UCU are extremely active on our campus, fighting against casualisation and for PGR rights, as well as offering free membership to employed PGRs. They will be an exceptionally important player in fighting against this review and its after-effects, as well as in helping to ensure the Courage Project is successful, so if you haven’t joined as a member, join today to ensure not only a  healthier, more vibrant future for PGRs, but also for the entire sector.

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Wed 15 May 2019

PhDiggers - digging yourself out of a hole

Last week, the uea(su) Courage Project, the UEA Estates Team, and various postgraduate students came together for the first meeting of the Courage Project’s PGR gardening group, PhDiggers. When PhDiggers was first conceptualised, the Courage Project’s main objective was to offer postgraduate research students access to a natural space, an opportunity to participate in an activity that engages the brain and body in an objective way, and a break from the mental stresses of PhD research. In actuality, despite only having met one time so far, PhDiggers is already so much more than that.

This is not the first time that this blog has hosted posts about the mental health benefits of gardening. In March I wrote about how excited I was for PhDiggers after discovering how gardening was able to help me through a particularly bad bout of depression last summer. Over the Easter break, Briony Hannell wrote about her experiences of finding everyday solace in indoor gardening, an “embodied and tactile” hobby that counteracts the “intellectual and emotional demands of a PhD in the Arts and Humanities.”

Despite these posts, and the numerous social media updates I have scheduled in recent months explaining the links between gardening, access to green spaces, and improved mental health, I was still surprised at how calming the space was, and how cathartic it was to dig into the earth and pull up weeds, worms, and roots.

We were working on digging up the Dutch Garden – a walled garden space next to Earlham Hall with bordered plant beds that have sadly gone neglected for a little while – with the intent to turn it into a Silent Space. The day ran very casually: we had tea and snacks, and folks could attend for as much or as little time as they wanted. Some people chatted while they worked – discussing their PhD with their peers, talking to the lovely Estates team about the UEA grounds, or to Liz Ware (who joined us for the day) about the Silent Space project. Others took the opportunity to work silently and introspectively; the hedged flower beds, from which weeds were extracted and soil was tilled – provided a visual indicator of linear progress, something that is often sorely absent from PhD research.

Last week was a difficult one for many postgraduate researchers who are employed as Associate Tutors, as our previous blog post attests. Many schools released their calls for ATs for 2019/20, an application process that often pits PGRs against each other in competition for increasingly limited, increasingly casualised teaching spots; the changes to payroll and the sudden, clumsy introduction of timesheets has also been a source of stress for ATs in certain schools; meanwhile the end of the semester brings with it a looming marking deadline. Gardening cannot fix these problems, it is not a replacement for the better mental healthcare that university campuses need, and it is not a substitution for the structural change that is needed to address the causes of mental health problems among PGR students.

But folks, escaping from the stresses of a rubbish week by spending a few hours focusing on digging up mud felt pretty hecking good. And maybe spending some time destroying poisonous weeds so that something new and nice can be cultivated and grown in the Dutch Garden is the first step to that process beginning elsewhere, too.

PhDiggers is only just beginning, but like I said above, it’s already doing big things. The group’s first project is a collaboration between the Courage Project and the UEA Estates Team, building a link that we hope will continue to grow as PhDiggers continues. The project also adheres to the UEA’s Green Impact Programme, as well as builds on the amazing work that the Grounds Team have already done that has earned the university a Green Flag Award for the past two years. The planting design for the gardens – by Ruth Cooper of UEA Estates – was also developed following research into the garden’s history, using sources provided by the Norfolk Gardens Trust. As a result, not only is the PhDiggers’ first project an opportunity for PGR students to practice mental wellness and find peace through gardening, but it also builds connections between university groups, benefits the university environment, and reconnects the space with its heritage. Not to mention, in a university where – as has been mentioned previously – space is at a premium, having an area of campus where folks can go to be peaceful, sharing and respecting quiet time in nature, is nice.

Want to get involved in PhDiggers? We are returning to the Earlham Hall Dutch Gardens tomorrow and Friday to plant. We’ll be there from 10:30am until 4pm, there’ll be tea, snacks, and PhDiggers branded mugs and t-shirts for participants! We hope to see you there.

All photos by Alfie Kirk.

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Wed 08 May 2019

Associate Tutor Contracts and the Fight Against Casualisation at the UEA

This week's blog post comes from an anonymous Associate Tutor employed at the UEA.

I am sure many of you have seen the UCU posters talking about anti-casualisation, and I’ve encountered a couple of people asking what this issue is. Casualisation is an issue I have had personal experience dealing with as an Associate Tutor at UEA across whole ranges of teaching. It is one that is timely given the University’s move to timesheets which employs us PhD students effectively on zero hour contracts.

Anti-casualisation is as it sounds, a response to casualised labour. For a postgraduate student, casualised work can be seen as short-term, fixed/part-time employment. You might think this is just spiffy for us postgraduates as it provides us with the opportunity to teach in a related field to our research. What could be better than exposure? This leads us to the often prevalent opinion that casual work is a boon for any postgraduate.

Obviously, it’s not that simple. The idea that casualised work fits hand in glove with PhD research is both troubling and misunderstood. Postgraduate casualised work is an incredibly complex issue that cuts across students, the University (as an employer) and the sector as a whole. So, if we consider the contracted role of “Associate Tutor”, an ill-defined term that straddles all of our disparate communities, it raises two questions: What are the realities of Associate Tutor employment? What do we want to be done about those realities?

Associate Tutoring Means Working for Free

It’s a commonly acknowledged reality that the university runs on the willingness of its staff to work more hours than they are paid. This is prevalent even in the contraction of Associate Tutors. Our contracts give us one hour per week for teaching support activities such as lecture attendance or office hours. One hour – we can’t do both – so we work one of those hours for free. All of the pastoral care we provide is done for free. This is because we care about students.

The marking of scripts is set by seminar time taught rather than the number of students in the classroom. We are not paid to give each essay the amount of time it needs. This is covered by a maladjusted Senate Scale. We spend the extra hours marking formative (which we are not remunerated for) and summative assessments (which we are not effectively remunerated for) because we care about our students.  All academics will work more than they’re paid, this is true. But ATs have now been pushed onto effectively zero hour contracts.

Associate Tutoring Means You Can’t Plan Your Finances

Associate Tutor contracts are signed, often only a day before you start your employment. There are no guarantees in when and how you will get work. You will not be paid consistently or evenly each month for the work you do. This means we are disproportionally hit by taxation. What’s worse is it means that we have no financial security or potentiality to plan ahead. From my personal experience and the experience of others this is deleterious to our mental health, emotional well-being and personal lives.

Associate Tutoring Means You Are Neither Staff nor Student

We exist in an area where we are not quite treated as staff but have the responsibilities of staff. This is troubling as Associate Tutors provide over 50% of the teaching in some schools.

The current Associate Tutor contract does not reflect the complexity of university teaching. The current contract has no differentiation between the types of pedagogic framework being delivered. Sure, there are differences in rates of pay for demonstration and seminar teaching, but this discrepancy in no way accounts for the unpaid work and baggage which comes for each. We are now in a situation where the contract we work under is completely unfit for any Associate Tutor employment in the Humanities. In the Sciences there exists a different framework to one in the Humanities or Social Sciences. This difference is true for both funding and type of work, but the UEA has yet to truly recognise these distinctions and these play to the detriment of our colleagues in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

What Can Be Done?

Firstly, we need to think about how PGR Associate Tutor employment should best represent the environment and demands of ourselves as workers and students. We can consider this question with the help of organisations such as the Students' Union and the UCU, but what we will really need is the engagement of both the postgraduate community and the University to arrive at a decent solution. Associate tutors are a benefit to the University - regardless of discipline - and we care for our students. We need the University to talk to the SU and the UCU about casualisation. We need the Associate Tutor contract to be reformed in the interest of the worker and the student as opposed to the employer. We need Associate Tutors, the campus Trade Unions and students of all levels to come together to start thinking about what employment needs and what it should look like across the sector as a whole.

PhD students employed as Associate Tutors get free membership into the UCU - the University and College Union. Sign up here.

If you are interested in writing a blog post for the Lakeside View PGR blog, please get in touch via the Microsoft Form linked here.

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