Centre for Doctoral Studies

Equipping research students to excel

Independence in your PhD: a positive or a challenge to manage?

Dr Nicola Byrom is Lecturer in Psychology at Kings’ College London and is conducting research into wellbeing and mental health issues for PhD students. 

In this post, Dr Byrom reflects on some of the issues and advantages that come with the experience of being independent during the PhD.

Dr Nicola Byrom

As part of an Office for Students / Research England funded project with Derby University I’ve had the opportunity to interview PhD students about their experience. It seems a time packed full of challenging balances to navigate. Many students point to the freedom that they have as one of the best parts of being a PhD student; you have the opportunity to create your own profile, to manage your own time, to follow your own interests and motivations.

As with any long project, there are peaks and troughs. At the peaks the independence is exhilarating. In the troughs, the independence can feel overwhelming.  With independence comes a real sense that “this is on me;” that if you don’t work out how to make the experiment work, or how to get a project running, no one else will.

Students have talked to me about the challenges they face around training. Even when working in a large and supportive lab group, it can be hard to find someone to help when you get stuck. It feels like this is because, as everyone specialises, there may genuinely be no one within the group who really understands what you are doing and why you are stuck. Reflecting on this experience, students see the positives; these experiences teach you to have self-confidence – you can, eventually, solve problems on your own. If grit wasn’t a pre-requisite for a PhD, it seems to be something most students feel they’ve developed.

When you are independent, you are also responsible. When things are going well, this can feel great. When problems arise, experiments don’t work, or your line of inquiry hits a dead end, it can feel awful. At these points, it can be difficult to separate personal responsibility for errors (the self-doubt can be quick to creep in) from the reality of research; failure is common. After nearly a decade working in research, I’ve learnt that the only certainty seems to be that most things fail! Failure is part of the process, it is something that we can learn from, but that reality doesn’t make it much easier to bear your first failures.

The feeling of independence, and the positives that accompany this, was not universal. Two situations seem liable to curtail independence. First, where a student has transitioned from working as a research assistant in a laboratory group to completing his/her PhD in this group, there can be challenges making the transition to independence. It can be difficult to let go of previous projects and papers to find time to carve out for your own work. Second, where students have industry funded PhDs and spend some of their time in industry, there may be conflicting ideas about the purpose of a PhD, with industry partners expecting to have more influence over the focus of the research and even the day-to-day activities.

Finally, most PhD students that we’ve spoken to so far identify that there is a limit to this independence; their studies are, after all, directed by their supervisor. Interestingly, students in their later years of study have been describing a process of learning to manage their supervisor; there is a process to work through from looking to the supervisor for direction to truly feeling you own the project.

As a PhD student, do you have independence? Is this a positive thing? Or can it be a challenge? You can share your experience and help us better understand how to support PhD students by visiting our survey page.  

Represent your PGR Peers & Colleagues – Become a KDSA Representative

The King’s Doctoral Students’ Association (KDSA) is the recognised representative body of the Postgraduate Research Student community. It is an autonomous body within the KCLSU representative structure. All doctoral students at King’s are automatically members of the KDSA.

The KDSA seeks to make a difference to you and your peers’ education experience, drive change, and bring the postgraduate research student community together.

With a new website that will be ready to launch by end of the month, King’s Doctoral Students Association (KDSA) is recruiting Faculty Leads who will sit on the board of KDSA. The leads will be responsible for and in charge of student welfare for their respective Faculties and will closely work with Departmental Reps.

Roughly, the duties entail:

– Attending monthly KDSA meetings to discuss and approve motions proposed by yourselves/members

– Coordinate with Departmental Reps as the need arises

– Meet Faculty Vice Deans/staff from Centre for Doctoral Studies if need arises

– Attend quarterly PaRC or an equivalent meeting at Faculty level

– Feedback to KDSA Chair/board members on the progress of your work/project on a monthly basis

KDSA is also recruiting two GTA Reps, two Events Coordinators and a Social Media Officer.

The Event Coordinators would plan and implement various events/socials that it will be hosting while the Social Media person would manage the accounts.

These vacancies represent a  fantastic opportunity to gain leadership, decision-making, and communication skills. Beyond that, joining the KDSA board offers you to shape KDSA operations and drive changes in the PGR student experience, and thus allow you to support your peers and colleagues.

You do not need to have prior experience to suit a particular role perfectly as training would be provided but a strong commitment is required from the very beginning.

If you are interested in any of the above positions, please email kdsa@kclsu.org with a brief paragraph (max 200 words) explaining your suitability to, and motivation for the role by end of day on Friday 7th September 2018. 

 

 

We need you – to help develop wellbeing resources for PhD students!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that doing a PhD will enrich your life, improve your career, and make you a better, happier person.

Isn’t it?

Certainly, there are few other pursuits that will allow you to dedicate yourself so single-mindedly to a research project, academic question, or experimental project in a field of your choosing. And while many PhD graduates do not go on to become full professors or lecturers in their specialism, the PhD develops to a high degree many of the skills and competencies most valued by employers.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that for many of of the students that do go on to study for a PhD that an improvement in one’s general mental wellbeing is far from guaranteed. As a recent article in the Guardian put it, mental health issues among postgraduate research students are becoming so common that they are now an accepted feature of  academic life. Studies from UC Berkeley and the University of Ghent back up this article with statistics, suggesting high levels of depression, anxiety, and mental distress among PhD students.

We believe PhD students should not have to sacrifice their wellbeing in order to reap the significant intellectual and professional benefits of their doctorate. This is why King’s College London is working in collaboration with the University of Derby and the UK student mental health charity, Student Minds, are working on a major project to develop effective resources that can improve the wellbeing of postgraduate research students.

In order to make this project work, we need you, current PGR students – from as diverse a range of backgrounds possible – to join a student panel at KCL.

Participants on this panel will be asked about:

  • Their experience as a PGR student
  • How research has changed their relationships
  • And how the academic process has affected their work/life balance

Throughout, participants will be asked to reflect on both achievements and challenges in their experience of life as a PGR student.

If you are interested in taking part in this project and sitting on the PGR panel, you can fill out an application form here. This page will also provide you with full details, dates, and other information on the project.

If you have any questions, please contact Dr Nicola Byrom

 

FREE PhD 5-Aside Football – July & August @Tabard Gardens

Fancy yourself something of a Socrates on the football pitch?

Or perhaps you’d prefer to stay in goal like Niels Bohr and Albert Camus? 

Either way, King’s BeActive is inviting all postgraduate and postgraduate research students the opportunity to play FREE 5-Aside Football this Summer in Tabard Gardens!

The 5-Aside pitch is available to all PG students on Tuesday evenings from 5pm-6pm from the 31st of July until the 28th of August.  King’s Sport will provide a ball and some bibs, so you all you and your team of football-philosophers need to do is turn up, organise yourselves into teams, and self-referee.

If you’re interested in playing,  contact beactive@kcl.ac.uk to book the pitch and arrange picking up the ball and bibs.

If interest in 5-Aside for Postgraduates continues, we may continue to book a space beyond August. So make sure to get in touch! 

 

Mental Health and Wellbeing – Key Online Resources for PGRs

As a postgraduate research student (PGR) at King’s, reaching this point in your career is itself a major achievement – and cause for celebration. You have successfully managed to complete an undergraduate and a postgraduate degree, and now you’re embarking upon the highest qualification that university education has to offer.  In addition, the years that you spend researching, thinking, experimenting, and writing your PhD can be some of the most rewarding and intellectually exciting years of your career. Not only will you spend your years as a postgraduate researcher working in a focused way on your distinctive contribution to knowledge, but you will learn host of professionally valuable skills, have the opportunity to meet and collaborate with a wide range of peers, and be exposed to a multitude of academic, professional, and personal opportunities.

And yet, PhD research can be a real challenge and can exert a serious toll on your mental wellbeing. For many postgraduate research students, the pressure to excel can cause anxiety and stress. For others, working independently can cause loneliness and isolation. And for many doctoral students, beyond the challenge of the PhD thesis itself, external factors can worsen the stress of postgraduate research. Many PGRs are carers, parents, or work part-time outside their studies, and have financial and caring responsibilities in addition to their research.

We recognise, therefore, that as well as being a privilege and a major educational and professional milestone, studying for a  PhD can also place significant stress on your wellbeing, in particular your mental health.

Take Time Out!

That is why, on the 11th of July, the Centre for Doctoral Studies is putting on a special, PGR-focused “Take Time Out” event, designed to help you meet your peers, move your body, and rejuvenate your mind – and above all, to encourage you to take a break from your busy schedule and re-focus on your own personal wellbeing.

To register for Take Time Out: PGR Wellbeing, go to our Eventbrite page.

You can register for the whole day or pick and choose the activities you want to attend.

Three Online Resources for PGR Mental Wellbeing

Taking time out of study for yoga, mindfulness practice, or just to rest is an excellent way to maintain balance in your work life as a PGR, but sometimes things aren’t so simple and we need other resources to help us through difficult periods.

King’s has a range of services, including Student Advice,  Wellbeing Coaching, counselling, and therapy groups to support you with any issue or to help you through a crisis.

However, if you can’t make it to a campus, work part-time, or simply feel uncomfortable talking to somebody face-to-face, King’s also has a number of online resources that can help you with a range of difficulties.

Big White Wall 

Big White Wall is a 24-hour online support service that provides a safe, anonymous, and supportive space in which to get things off your chest, share your experiences and difficulties, and engage with others experiencing similar issues.

As well as offering a platform in which you can express yourself, Big White Wall offers a range of online courses on dealing with stress, anxiety, and negative thinking, and allows you to take self-assessments with which to monitor your progress.

All King’s students and staff have access to this service for free. This platform is moderated to ensure total anonymity and safety for its users and is available 24/7.

Counselling Service Helpsheets

If you’re experiencing a specific issue or you wish to seek help from a service outside King’s and don’t know where to turn, the King’s Counselling service has a range of online Helpsheets on a range of specific issues – from bereavement to addiction.

These provide some key facts and point you towards a range of resources and other services where you can seek the help you need.

Blackbullion 

This service, available via King’s, is designed to help you with a specific but all too common cause of stress and anxiety: money. For many PGR students, managing the financial challenge of undertaking a PhD is a source of considerable stress. For some students, the PhD will be the first time they will have managed a significant budget.  For others, the financial burden of a PhD is one of many other budgetary concerns, including childcare, housing, travel, or other responsibilities.

Blackbullion is an online service that offers courses on budgeting and managing your finances as an international student. If these seem a bit basic, Blackbullion provides courses and information on more advanced financial topics including taxation, investing, and risk management.

It also offers a budget management tool that will allow you to get a better view of your financial status, and allow you to take the first positive steps towards managing your money and gaining some peace of mind.

If you are experiencing any of the above issues and need support for any reason do not hesitate to contact Student Services. They will be able help you access the support you need.

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