Centre for Doctoral Studies

Equipping research students to excel

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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! 


Networking, or how to talk to about your research in the real world

Daniel Glaser is the Director of Science Gallery London at King’s College London, which connects art, science and health, driving real innovation in the heart of the city.

Daniel is a neuroscientist by training and joins King’s from the Wellcome Trust where he headed up their engaging science work. He was the world’s first scientist in residence at an arts institution at the ICA in 2002 and was the first scientist to judge the Man Booker prize in 2014. He writes a weekly column in the Observer Magazine.

Daniel Glaser, Science Gallery London

Daniel Glaser, Science Gallery London

He recently gave a sparkling and important talk on helping PhDs and other researchers to confront their fears about that dreaded activity: networking —  both for academic or other career purposes.

We have summarised the key points of his talk below:

  • You have to talk to people in terms that they will understand and make sense of! Can you get them to be thinking about what you want them to say, before you even meet them?
  • Be proud of your specialism! By the time you’ve got to the end of your PhD or other research, perhaps only 100 people in the world will understand the real niche that you have created for yourself. In effect, you are ‘being trained to be incomprehensible’, and that is something to be proud of! Own your narrowness.  You have to learn the language of your research, to be a good researcher.
  • Try this exercise: work with another researcher, and get them to explain their research to you. Now, find someone else to explain your colleague’s research to.  Examine the language that you used in that description. It is probably a whole lot simpler than your colleague would use themselves to describe their work.  Apply the same technique to yourself when you are trying to describe your research.
  • When you start networking, imagine the positive outcome that you are trying to get to. Then break down the process it will take to get there. If you need help understanding this point, read Getting Things Done by David Allen which provides solutions for people to manage their time more effectively.
  • One way to start networking is to share your work online. Use publicly available images (e.g. slides) that are professionally produced, to help you look good; crucially, what you’re trying to do is to seek feedback from people. If you’ve got something interesting to say, pop it onto YouTube! Creating content is in effect sharing.
  • In terms of networking for careers, read What Color is Your Parachute by Richard Bolles. What you want to do is to be able to ask people the question: ‘what does what I like doing look like where you come from?’  Using this question means they have to be interested in you, and also that they have to talk about themselves and their work.  You are not asking them for a job, just for information.
  • Find a talk in a domain you’re interested in (use KCL CareerConnect, or the Londonist, EventBrite or Meetup): go, and then talk to the people there. They must have something in common with you or they wouldn’t also be going to the talk.
  • Come up with an opening line (‘What brings you here?’; ‘What are you working on at the moment?’) and use it for everyone at the event that you can talk to. An achievable goal might be just talking to three people you didn’t know before you arrived.  Tag team with a friend and leave the event when you’ve achieved your goal.
  • Networking could, in fact, make your boss look good. If you go and talk sensibly with another academic, they will automatically be impressed that your research group (and by extension, your group leader) produces such good researchers.  Hence, PIs or supervisors should be pleased that you are finding opportunities to go and talk about your work.
  • Daniel will have coffee with anyone: including you! The Science Gallery will open summer 2018 and will be looking for ‘mediators’ to collaborate and engage with.

Get in touch with the Science Gallery at King’s College London and with Daniel here.