PhD Life: The following gives an account of the online workshop “PhD Life”, organised by UCL Postgrad Urbanists — an interdisciplinary academic forum organised by students associated with the UCL Urban Laboratory — on 29th March 2022, for PhD researchers at UCL and beyond. This report was written by committee members Sidra Ahmed and Lu Mirza, PhD Researchers based in UCL Geography, to record and share highlights and resources from the afternoon.
PhD Life. If you’re a PhD Student reading this, you know all too well that the two words in the previous sentence are more than a hashtag we often see on social media. The life of a PhD Student is full of ups and downs, learning to prioritise your health once you’ve pushed yourself too many times, learning as much about yourself as you do your research topic, developing an original piece of research, picking up new skills along the way, presenting, conference-attending, note-taking, networking, interviewing, writing and so much more.
In order to facilitate a discussion space on all things PhD Life, UCL Postgrad Urbanists organised an afternoon workshop of four sessions for PhD Students from a range of disciplines. Over one afternoon we invited four speakers from across the UK to as far as Italy to join us and share their experiences, stories and advice. We were joined by over 20 PhD Students from nine different universities, attending our online workshop from an array of cities in the UK as well as Pretoria, Padua and New York. Our audience represented disciplines such as urban geography, architecture, planning, urban policy, and anthropology. We also welcomed UCL students from the Institute of Education, natural sciences, psychiatry, and the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction.
Session 1: Academic Wellbeing with Dr Beth Collinson
The first session of the afternoon was chaired by Clemency Gibbs, PhD student at the Bartlett School of Architecture, and Dr Beth Collinson. (Beth kindly stepped in as a replacement speaker that morning, for which we are very grateful). Having completed her PhD at the University of Derby five days prior to our workshop, her fresh reflections on the PhD experience were extremely insightful and elicited a lot of head-nodding and shared experience among the audience.
Beth currently works for the Phoenix Multisport in the USA, (a free sober active community),and her research focused on the importance of connection and personally meaningful activities in recovering from substance addiction. Those same aspects of wellbeing that she came across in her research turned out to be very important to put into practise during her PhD and beyond. The pandemic especially encouraged her, like many of us, to work on establishing a work/life balance and healthy boundaries. Beth emphasised to always take time out for yourself to do things that you really like doing be it a hobby, exercise or new habit.
On setting boundaries
Reflecting on the disorienting experience of lockdown, Clemency asked how Beth sets boundaries.
- Get into a zone of just being present in a moment where you can temporarily forget about the PhD. For Beth, that was through CrossFit and exercise.
- Set a timer for short periods during which you work with full focus, and then enjoy the rest of the day without guilt. Everyone works differently so structure your day and routine in a way that works for you and your commitments.
- PhD life is so amorphous that it’s easy to be hard on yourself if you don’t see day to day progress, and to feel accountable to nobody but yourself. But remember, you’re making progress with every little step.
- Beth realised over the 4.5 years of her PhD that she works better under external pressure than self-imposed deadlines. If you relate to this, ask your supervisor/s to set smaller deadlines. This will help break the work down to smaller achievements.
- Take that day of break before burnout is even on the cards. It’s harder to put in quality work on the PhD if your own fuel tank isn’t 100% full. And it’s not the end of the world if by doing so a PhD takes longer to complete.
Helpful habits and activities suggested by Beth and our audience
- Run timed Zoom writing sessions with other PhD students. The sense of community and having your camera on makes you feel more focused and accountable!
- Externalise the PhD by making diagrams, talk things through with friends who understand the PhD process, and try to explain things to each other to find the gaps you need to work on next.
- Beth kept a diary throughout her PhD which helped with the emotional labour of interviewing people in recovery. It also helped with writing a reflective section of the PhD which her examiners responded to very positively.
- Put a mix of social, leisure and work time in your daily calendar.
The supervisor relationship
“Be totally honest with your supervisor. They’re there to be your mentor.”
The conversation then moved to supervisory relationships and the importance of being honest about the things one needs to learn rather than trying to impress supervisors. When Beth had a full draft of her thesis, she was so overwhelmed by the idea of editing it that she took a break for a month and put off speaking to her supervisors. But when she did make contact, they helped break it up into manageable next steps.
Beth also proactively outsourced her support networks. Use the support that your department offers you. She also recommended @phdvoice on Twitter where you can ask open questions and get answers from other researchers as well as submit questions anonymously.
We discussed the anxieties that can come with sharing drafts with your supervisor and getting back lots of track changes. It is important to reframe this experience as constructive rather than demoralising. Your supervisors are there to help you. They took their time and expertise to look at your work and provide you with an opportunity to improve. Reframe your supervisory feedback as a resource of time and expertise you have received.
Beth spoke about her experience writing for journals and receiving feedback from peer reviewers that were totally external to her research. That experience helped strengthen her writing and confidence which made the cumbersome process of seeking and responding to feedback completely worth it.
PhD vs. Life
We finished the session with a reflection on reframing the common perception that your life can only ‘start’ after the PhD finishes. Is it okay to put your life on hold, put the work in to get the PhD done and only then start your life? Beth finds this attitude unhealthy because it suggests you shouldn’t believe in yourself and allows the thesis or a comparison to others dictate your life. Her advice is to be stubborn and passionate about your work/life balance, see your friends and family and don’t stop doing the things you love. At the end of the day, the PhD will eventually finish and disappear, but those other things that make you as a person won’t. The ‘what now?’ feeling when the PhD is submitted can feel like falling off a cliff but if you stick to doing all the things you love then that’s your point of continuity. So keep making time to do the things that make you, you!
Session 2: Public Speaking with Lynda Russell-Whitaker
Our second session on public speaking skills was delivered by Lynda Russell-Whitaker. Lynda is the founder of brainbank presents which specialises in coaching and advising business leaders, executives and researchers on public speaking, communicating and powerful presentation delivery. She is currently studying for a part-time MRes in Oratory & Rhetoric.
Lynda opened with an infamous clip from Jerry Seinfeld where he remarks on a study that concluded “speaking in front of a crowd is considered the number one fear of the average person. Number two is death.” Empathising with the feeling that public speaking can often seem like a different kind of death sentence, Lynda emphasises that there’s a lot you can do to improve your presentation delivery.
We learnt about the three modes of persuasion identified by Aristotle: ethos, logos and pathos. In other words, ethical appeal, the appeal to logic, and emotional appeal. Researchers are often experts in their subject matter but to persuade the audience to their point of view or call to action, they also need to present their credibility and humanity. These three proofs are used just as much in writing as they are in speaking — you’ll find them everywhere, including in academic writing, blogging and newspaper articles. Even your own papers!
Some key tips that Lynda shared:
- Clarify the objective of your presentation and present up to three key points.
- Consider that you might have more than one audience e.g. an in-person audience, those watching a live broadcast, or a later recording.
- Decide if you want to come across as spontaneous and refreshing (by ad libbing from notes and visual prompts) or write out carefully detailed scripts.
- Think of it as a spectrum; you will of course appear more spontaneous if you only use ‘thin’ notes than if you are, at the opposite end, reading from a script.
- If a speech is ad lib, impromptu or extempore there may be no notes at all. But you increase the risk of making mistakes or going off track if you are unscripted.
- Rehearse your timekeeping and how you will answer people’s questions.
- Walk the space where you might be speaking and become familiar with how your voice can be effectively amplified there. Establish if you will be using a mic or will need to project your voice, and how the acoustics might change when the space is empty or full of people. This preparation will help manage your nerves.
- Master your voice to effectively deliver your presentation.
- Avoid sounding monotonous.
- Increasing your volume can be jarring when overused.
- Use the ‘power of the pause’.
- Have a glass of water just before you speak.
- Breathe from your diaphragm.
- Although ‘up speak’ has become very popular, it makes one sound hesitant and as though everything is a question. Make your voice go down at the end of each sentence so it feels like you have made your point with confidence and finality.
- Match your facial expressions to your words and avoid unintentional incongruences like a ‘frown of concentration’ or filler words like umm or err.
- Be yourself!
Session 3: Maximising the impact of your PhD with Dr Christy Hehir
Dr Christy Hehir studies polar conservation and tourism. She is currently turning her research into a comic strip (above) about ‘polar alien hunters’ to encourage responsible tourism and conservation fundraising in Antarctica.
The ‘magic of research’ is being able to maximise impact. This was the topic of the following session with Dr Christy Hehir.
Dr Christy Hehir is an environmental psychologist, conservationist, polar alien hunter and lecturer at the University of Surrey, UK.
Christy has a PhD in Environmental Psych & Tourism and is the author of Arctic Reflections, her first book inspired by her polar expeditions to Antarctica with Students on Ice and Svalbard with the UNEP. Prior to academia, Christy has 10 years’ travel industry experience having held positions at Walt Disney World, Bournemouth Tourism, The Tourism Society, VisitEngland and VisitBritain.
For Christy, passion is what bridges the gap between industry and academic research. Networking has been key to building that bridge.
Here are the top questions Christy suggests we should ask ourselves:
- Why are you doing your research and what problem does it solve?
Christy’s PhD thesis was entitled ‘Last chance for wildlife: Making tourism count for conservation’. Her research focused on how tourism experiences can (re)connect tourists to nature and what triggers tourists to donate to conservation both during and after their trip.
In Christy’s case, her research is contextualised within a wider narrative and issues such as the tourism’s carbon impact, ‘last chance tourism’, overtourism and whether tourists should be banned from Antarctica. What is going on in the wider world that your research connects to?
2. Who cares?
Christy advocates for taking an approach where you are actively doing the ‘PR’ for your research and her top tips include:
- Expand the readership of your research — publish in academic journals, collaborate with key groups inside and outside of academia, write for blogs and niche platforms.
- Tailor the message to your audience — Christy tailors her writing depending on who is she is writing for — academics, tourists, tour operators, policymakers or the media.
- Publications are increasingly interested in impact — Christy has worked widely with her university’s internal media team and applied for open access funding scholarships. She has expanded her audience by getting involved with the Royal Geographical Society’s ‘Geographies of Leisure and Tourism Research Group’, and has written for the RGS’ Postgrad Forum blog, Arctic Forum, Weekly Academic Digest, and a physical science magazine called ‘Eco’.
Christy’s story showed how one opportunity can lead to the next.
3. Which channels?
Christy encouraged us to think about how creative we can be with research dissemination.
Can you merge your findings with specific industry groups or networks related to your field of research? Can you involve these groups as key stakeholders in your research? For example, Christy’s comic strip about ‘polar alien hunters’ will be put on ships in the December tourist season.
‘You might not be the best person for the job but you might be the most visible,’ Christy emphasised.
Use social media! You have no idea how many opportunities can be created due to a raised profile on academic Twitter and Linkedin (for industry).
Get involved… with Postgrad Urbanists 😉
Sorry for the plug but Postgrad Urbanists is one example of many! We’re a growing network and aim to provide opportunities for you to maximise your research’s impact:
- Get involved in our #myurbanlab initiative where you share an image of what your urban lab is, the subject of your research, on Twitter or Instagram.
- Write for the Urban Lab’s Medium blog about your research or an urban story.
- Get in touch with our Committee about an event, urban walk, or networking idea.
4. Which behaviours do you want to change with your research?
Christy encouraged us to think about making this change by acquiring introductions to contacts in our key audience groups and instituting ways of remembering notes about people, such as what evidence or backing do they need to trust your research message? What channels do they use, and what urgent or important agendas of theirs is your research relevant to?
Her top tip is that academia is slow, so be honest and realistic. Don’t wait until the end to share findings. For example, share top 10 insights from your literature review. Impact can feel like something else you have to do when you also have to get your PhD done and published. But the impact is what gives you the motivation and encouragement to get up in the morning and see the whole project through.
We finished the session by coming to back PhD Life and the importance of wellbeing. Christy reflected on how having a 9–5 job helped her keep everything in perspective because she saw the PhD as just another thing. She had ways to clear her mind like being outside in nature, doing 20 minutes of yoga, and walking her puppy twice a day during final year. You have to make time for yourself or else the PhD will eat you.
Session 4: In Conversation with Dr Giada Peterle, Editor of Narrative Geographies
Finally, our chair Sidra interviewed Dr Giada Peterle. Dr Giada Peterle is a geographer, research fellow and lecturer in ‘Literary Geography’ and ‘Creative Communication and Landscape Storytelling’ at the University of Padua, a comics illustrator and author, and newly appointed Director of the Museum of Geography. She is also the Editor of Narrative Geographies.
Giada has a PhD in Human Geography entitled, ‘Enacting Literary Geographies’, from the Department of Historical and Geographic Sciences and the Ancient World at the University of Padua. Her research looks at the city by employing narrative forms such as literature, comics and creative maps to understand how we represent and live in place. Giada is author of Lines, a geoGraphic comic novel, of the Italian book La Geografia spiegata a bambini (Geography Explained to Children), and her new book Comics as a Research Practice (Routledge 2021).
Given the rich conversation that we had with Giada, we have published the full version which we highly recommend reading for Giada’s stories, book recommendations, and her comics illustrations which she talked us through.
Below we include a few of the questions Sidra asked Giada:
Sidra: Your PhD was entitled ‘enacting literary geographies’. Can you give us a summary of that research project?
Giada: My PhD ‘Enacting Literary Geographies’ was a collection of 6 papers looking at different urban contexts and literary genres. It evolved in unexpected ways. Initially it aimed to reflect on the current state of literary geography, and the common vocabulary and concerns between cultural geography and literary studies. Gradually my focus and set of narratives expanded from literature to other areas where urban landscapes are represented like comics and graphic narratives. The idea of enacting geographies came from a seminal 2003 article about presenting and enacting the world by producing rather than reproducing. I thought those insights needed to be part of literary geographers’ practices too, to go from reading to producing urban texts.
Sidra: This event being the the PhD Life Workshop, what was the biggest lesson you learnt during your PhD?
Giada: The biggest lesson I learnt was that research is a wonderful journey but also a hard process of failures, mistakes and dead ends. Before the PhD I was a real perfectionist. But when you do multiple projects at the same time, you need to calm down and accept your work is good or excellent even if it is not ‘perfect’. So be lenient to protect your mental health and don’t ask too much from yourself.
S: You are the Creator, Editor and illustrator of Narrative Geographies. That’s how I first came across you. And it’s more than a blog. It’s a specific methodological, visual, creative perspective through which to look at and narrate urban space.
Can you define what Narrative Geographies is?
G: Narrative Geographies is about the narrative essence of spaces. I search for narrative geographies everywhere especially by moving through the material world. I see the city as a narrative archive containing palimpsests of stories which are there to be intervened in. For these stories to be created, you have to imagine them, plan them, reshape them somehow. I engage with these narratives as research practices, drawing them out and drawing on them and drawing spaces around them.
S: The city is a big source of inspiration. As a network we’ve just launched this year and we’ve run a #myurbanlab initiative where we share what ‘my urban lab’ means to us individually as researchers. What is Giada’s ‘urban lab’?
G: My urban lab is currently urban mobility and infrastructures of sidewalks, roads and bus stops. I see these urban spaces as narrative archives. The city is a palimpsest of city dwellers’ stories accumulated over years, like the way Michel De Certeau writes the city in The Practice of Everyday Life (1984).
Lines (2021) is a geoGraphic novel written specifically as part of a postdoctoral project about the Turku tramway which disappeared in the 1970s but is still a lively presence in people’s urban imaginations. It is available as a pdf download from my website. With a project like this, I use a comparative approach bringing together some historical and contemporary sources that I was able to collect during my fieldwork in Turku, in January 2020, to see how the memories of the ‘tram period’ changed over time.
Read In Conversation with Giada Peterle in full here.
We enjoyed this afternoon of talks and shared experience on PhD Life, learning tips on managing our wellbeing, public speaking, maximising our research impact, and hearing about Giada Peterle’s research story.
Thank you to our amazing speakers for their time and insight. Please do get in touch with them if you have any questions or want to learn more from our workshop and network — they’re a friendly bunch! Thank you to the Urban Lab and the Postgrad Urbanists Committee for their support. And thank you to all our attendees who joined us.
We hope this workshop paves the way for more events and initiatives where we connect with other postgrad urbanists in the same research boat. If you would like to get involved with Postgrad Urbanists, please drop us a message at email@example.com.