Postgraduate Research at Queen Mary

Postgraduate Research at Queen Mary


The Doctoral College is here to oversee all aspects of PhD research here at Queen Mary, from admissions to the awarding of degrees. Starting a PhD can be quite daunting, especially if you’re new to the university. Every university is different and finding your way around a university can take a good few weeks, so one of the things a Doctoral College does is in the first few weeks of arrival, hold a college-wide induction for all our students. The best thing about coming to Queen Mary for PGR study is that Queen Mary have a really structured introduction to PGR studies. So there’s lots of pastoral support, networks, welcome lunches and registration days. And there’s also chances to socialise with all the other new starters at the same time, there’s drinks events and things, and I’ve made a lot of friends in the first week that I was here that I’m still friends with now and that’s good. Some of the best ideas in research come from leftfield, from places where you don’t expect them to emerge. So it’s important that our students have opportunities to talk to people in other disciplines to shed a new perspective on the problem they may be working with. I think that collaboration between researchers is very important, for a number of reasons, but in my research particularly, I look at migration studies and this is an area that you need to look at from many different perspectives, you can’t just be in your little disciplinary bubble, you have to have input because there are so many factors influencing migration, and I think that Queen Mary is actually very aware of this and is very keen on projects which foster inter-disciplinarity. That can be through large events that bring students from across the college together on one of our cohort days for example, or it could be something as simple as our new events calendar, which allows students to go online and to see all the research events happening across the college on any one day. So, the Doctoral College events range from our monthly ‘Café Scientifique’ which enables students from different schools to come together and discuss their ideas. We have an annual debate where we have distinguished speakers from around the world coming to talk about issues that will interest people from a range of disciplines. And we support a range of student initiatives, which students themselves come up with and put on but which we fund and support. The ‘winning words’ competition was a project run by students but with funding from the Doctoral College, and it aimed to get PhD students writing in a way that was engaging for a lay audience as though they were writing an article for something like the Guardian or the Economist. So you had to write a thousand-word piece aimed at this kind of audience, explaining your research. And, I thought this was a great challenge because it can be very difficult to explain what it is that you actually do. But obviously, it’s fundamentally important. I think it’s really important for new students to take a look at the Students’ Union and see whether there’s stuff in there that they’re interested in getting involved with. There’s so many different areas, you can join a society or join a club. The role of the postgraduate research rep is a really interesting role because there’s sometimes less interaction between postgraduate research students and the Students’ Union. The Doctoral Student Society started quite recently and the aim of it is to bring PhD students together from all three faculties. It’s run by PhD students, so the committee members are PhD students from different years, from all three faculties, and at the moment we’ve done some social events, just to get people together and talking to each other. The ‘three-minute thesis’ is a competition that started in Australia, it’s been adopted in the UK. And it challenges PhD students to explain their research topic to an intelligent but non-science audience in less than three minutes. Which is quite a tall order because when people finish their PhD they produce their thesis, which is basically a textbook with all of their work. And we have to cut that down and cut out all the jargon and then explain it in three minutes. It teaches students at the start of their research career how to engage with the public about their work. We are funded by the public and so we have a responsibility to engage with the public and tell them basically what we’re doing with their money, what is this research that we’re doing. And it also kind of helps, at least in my field, combat that kind of Frankenstein effect where people are sometimes scared of research because they don’t understand it. The university is quite close to central London which is pretty good from a research point of view because there are quite a lot of symposia happening in London, often at the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry and those places are quite accessible. And often, there’s an event going on every week or so. My working relationship with my supervisor is fantastic. It’s really been helpful to me – very very helpful. In my first year, I met with my supervisor fortnightly, then in my second year while I was away on field work, we met my Skype fortnightly or once a month at least. And since coming back from field work again we’re meeting fortnightly or monthly, and she’s very responsive, she’s not just concerned with my academic progress, she’s also concerned with my welfare, which is great, to have someone who is effectively your boss who worries about you like that. I would say that my supervisor is very supportive and he’s a very interactive person, he likes to communicate. From the careers service, I had quite a lot of support in writing my CV and cover letters. The careers service also do mock interviews, I found that quite useful in the long run and it was a really good experience. The careers advisers actually pointed out the strengths and weaknesses of my performance. In addition to this, the careers service also advertise part-time positions that are available during term time. The consultancy project that I took part in was extremely helpful. I got to to look at things from a completely different point of view, because up until then I was looking at things purely from a research perspective. What a lot of people don’t realise is that the most important resource for scientists is the tea room. Absolutely, without a doubt, some of my best ideas or ideas for experiments have come from me chatting with my colleagues over a cup of tea, just sharing ideas. One of the things that, as a supervisor I always advise my students to do, right from the beginning, is simply to join in. To try and join in with their wider research community, not only within Queen Mary but nationally and internationally, so, join a learned society, make sure you go to conferences, workshops and seminars elsewhere in the UK and even overseas. And of course one of the things the Doctoral College does is provide financial support to enable our students to do that. I think that if you take advantage of the support that is offered – because there is support offered – then it will make things a lot easier for you. Attend the events on offer, definitely, and that will help you. And as I said, don’t panic.

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