Reflections on SGSSS student-led symposium

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Picture credit Lyndsey Jenkins

As a student rep for the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science, you will be aware that part of my role was to help support the development of the student led symposium held at Glasgow University this week. I also attended the symposium as a student rep and a regular delegate so that I could get as much out of the sessions as possible.

I found the event particularly useful and some of the sessions even more so, so I thought I would share some of my own thoughts on the two day event. Please do note that this reflection is not feedback from everyone and it is my thoughts only on the event.

So some of the student reps living in Edinburgh set off early on Thursday morning so that we could get to the symposium to welcome others there. We managed to get there with no issues, manned the registration desk, enjoyed lunch and settled down for the first session of the day.

Rowena teaching her session
Prof Murray (picture credit Noor Saeed)

Our first session was very writing focused and was delivered by Professor Rowena Murray. The session focused on how to get us writing, and techniques PhD students could use when writing for themselves. Whether it be writing for a report, the thesis or a journal, Prof Murray took us through the techniques to help us see what would work best for us. I have to say that I really enjoyed this session because of the stage of the PhD I am at now. You might know that I am currently in the process of writing my first PhD paper and this has not been an easy task for me. I have struggled with motivation and my office is not the most ideal place for writing to take place so I have been looking for quiet spaces and times to get writing. Prof Murray helped me see that my efforts on this are now going to waste and that my efforts in having short writing times may actually work.  Prof Murray talked us through free writing techniques to help us ‘get into the writing mode’ knowing fine well that often we do everything else first (I’m obviously not talking about checking emails, Facebook etc…). We also talked through some more structured techniques, using prompts and words to help us along the way. I found this useful too as I have been stating to plan a lot of my writing out like this so that when it comes to the task, I know what I am hoping to write about. I heard a lot of positive feedback from that session as students felt it was beneficial and worth the time taken in class. This was then followed by a session to help us get out writing out there and to the wider audience…

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Sarah Burton taking her class (picture credit Noor Saeed)

Our next session was held by Sarah Burton, a student who has just submitted her PhD and is awaiting her viva. Sarah talked about things we could do to help us get out writing noticed and visible to the wider audience. This included things such as guest writing for blogs, journal articles, conferences and so on, various methods to help us get our research and writing noticed both formally an informally (such as the very much talked about social media). In my school, we are encouraged to do this by using our own blogs so that readers can see who we are and what we are doing in our own freestyle writing technique. We are also encouraged to publish in journals as this is how our research is seen by the academic audience. This session was good to understand what we can do to make our work visible, and it was good to hear this from the perspective of a PhD student who was coming to the end of the process herself.

We were then able to network over a coffee break before our keynote was delivered by Professor Steve Yearley from The University of Edinburgh. Steve’s abstract was as follows:

Can academic ‘engagement’ be enjoyable and can one prevent it becoming a new euphemism for marketing and self-promotion?

Matt and Steve
Matjaz introducing Prof Yearley

Description: Engagement, participation and stakeholder involvement have become mainstream over the last twenty years. They are now as likely to be an obligation as an aspiration. In this talk I want to reflect on my experiences with engagement – during and after the research process, with policy organisations, with community groups and with public audiences (at festivals, zoos and theatres). I hope to highlight the trends which are leading engagement to become routinised, and to suggest ways to avoid the routines and to promote rewarding forms of engagement.

Prof Yearley talked about engagement from research and how research can be applied to practice (and other settings). He gave specific examples of how his own research has been applied outside of the research context and helped students to understand the importance of impact in research, particularly if the research can be applied to the external context. This got me thinking about my own impact and what impact and engagement means to me. I know that my research had value within the academic community, but I need to work on its impact and value, and making sure the research outputs (in a couple of years’ time) have value to those who need it most. To do this, it is important that I engage with my academic and non-academic audience so they get to know who I am, what I am going and how my research is important to them. This was a good session to end the day and get students talking about impact and engagement at the event dinner which followed.

glasgow cup.JPG
picture credit Lyndsey Jenkins

Our second day was very career development and employment focused which is something I really needed the most. Firstly, Dr Philly Wiseman and Dr Richard Brunnar talked about dealing with supervisors and led a purely Q&A session from the audience. The students discussed what they thought supervisions should be and what they should not be to get an idea of different views and opinions on supervision itself. The session was very student led and I think it got students thinking about their own supervisions and how to address problems that arise. It appears that (compared to some others I talked to during the day) my supervisors put a hell of a lot more effort in than some supervisors and they even take time out of their day to make sure their students are okay. I have had recent examples with in-depth written work feedback, scheduling in meetings so that my supervisors can having some dedicated time and there was even that time I got admitted to hospital and my director of studies made sure I was okay every minute I was there and was in constant contact to keep things flowing on the academic side during my absence. Now not many supervisors would offer to bring your PJs to A&E if you’re suddenly kept in overnight!

We then heard form Dr Kirsten Jenkins (a previous SGSSS student rep) on how to survive the viva. Kirsten passed her viva last year and was able to share her experiences of what helped her along her viva journey and what did not. She explained what happened in her visa and process leading up to this. She talked about her preparation for the viva and questions she got asked in the viva itself. One of the best pieces of advice we were given is that students need to understand that everyone and everything in the thesis does not have to be perfect. Yes, you do have to prepare a lot and work hard to get where you are but part of the viva process is recognising if you spot a problem in your thesis document and being able to address this confidently if asked in your viva. It is this desire or

Reps and Jo
Dr Jo Farrie & Student reps (L-R: Matjaz, Noor & Lyndsey) – picture credit Noor Saeed

perfection which often pushes students to fall at the first hurdle instead of taking advantage of the critiques and making the most of the viva situation at all. Another good piece of advice was creating a plan of what you want to do with your thesis afterwards. Examples can be publishing in certain journals, creating another project form this so that the panel can see that you have plans after completing your PhD and that the PhD is going to be used in future plans. I think it was really important for Kirsten to talk form the heart, and that is exactly what she did. She helped reassure students who had concerns but also told us the truth when it came to things we should and should not do during the preparation phases.

We then heard form Harriet Waugh who talked about how to apply skills outside of academia. Harriet is a Social Researcher within the Scottish Government and explained what she does for her role and how skills we are developing could be applied to her role. Harriet explained her career journey before she got to where she is today. It was lovely to hear that she has taken a similar journey to me in that she started as an Assistant Psychologist after doing her degree, but felt her desire to do research was something that powered her career to take her where she is today. I feel this talk was one of the best (for me) as I went to the event now knowing options on what I could do after my PhD. This talk has helped me see that skills I am developing can be used outside of academic and we were shown how to go about searching for roles within the Scottish Government that I did not even know existed until now. I even liked Harriet’s practical example of a social research quiz to exemplify why social research is important in the Scottish Government and how issues within the government can influence the development of research itself.

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Reps manning the registration desk (R-L: Lyndsey, Noor, Sue, Matjaz, and Anna facing Matjaz)- picture credit Noor Saeed

After lunch, we had our two final sessions. Firstly, Dr Jo Ferrie talked to us about what academics expect from a personal specification on academic jobs. She did a great job of explaining: (1) what personal specifications look for; (2) what academic frequently hear form PhD students or early career researchers applying for these jobs and; (3) how we can improve our applications to emphasise our examples of the skills and qualities we have developed through our careers. For me, I needed this session more than I thought. I needed someone to explain what application reviewers look for and how this can be written in a way to make us look great. I have not had a lot of this type of teaching and learning through my PhD and I look forward to more sessions like this which are offered in the future.

Our final session of the two day event was a discussion on activism and the academic by Dr Mo Hume and Professor Colin Clark. They discussed how their academic work has used activism, from the perspectives of academy and non-academic work outside of the academy. They talked about how academic can include forms of activism and took questions from the audiences about the pros and cons of being an activist within research and practice. This gave good insight into how academic research can be both intriguing and dangerous at the same time and there are a lot of ethical considerations needed for this type of research.

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Session information – picture credit Lyndsey Jenkins

So overall, for me, the symposium was a success. I now know a lot more about writing, about career options and what I may do with my life afterwards which isn’t a bad thing considering I went to the symposium with no clue at all. I also understand that I have a good network of people and supervisors to support me and this is something I should appreciate as much as possible. I was also able to meet others and network with them and the other reps which has helped me explore and explain my research to people who now know who I am.

Now the job is to review feedback form students and work on the next hopeful symposium in 2018.

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