As we prepare for this year’s GuildHE Research Doctoral Festival, to be held at on 16-17 April 2024 at the University of Winchester, we asked PhD Student Susan Birch to reflect on her experience of last year’s event. All our member institutions are eligible to send students to the event – find out more on the Doctoral Festival event listing.

Susan has recently joined us as one of two volunteer coordinators of our PhD Peer Support Community. Susan is undertaking a PhD at University of Winchester on the history of family planning 1945-1955.

Three women seated as a panel talking about their experiences as PhD students, in front of a screen

I attended the GuildHE Research Doctoral Festival on 24-25 April 2023 at Corsham Court, Bath Spa University. I was invited through my university, University of Winchester, and must confess to knowing little about GuildHE prior to attending. My university sent me an email about the event and I thought it sounded a rewarding experience with a variety of different talks and activities. I am pleased to say that it was much more than that! The wide variety of talks and speakers was engaging for both I and other participants and it gave me the opportunity to discuss my research with other students and network in a supportive environment. I found the activities particularly encouraging for my research and my development as a researcher.

Encouraging my research 

On the first day we were asked to discuss our research in three minutes with the rest of our table. I found this a really useful exercise, as I have had few opportunities to present my research to new students who know little about the project. Following this experience, I have competed in a three minute thesis competition at my university, something that I don’t think I would have tried before. It made me think about discussing my research to different audiences and achieving this with time restrictions. Similarly, taking part in a collage-based activity towards the end of the first day made me reflect upon visual representation. This is something I thought about when creating the PowerPoint slide for the three minute thesis competition, and I purposely chose pictures that were eye catching and encapsulated my research visually. For instance, I included a portrait from the National Portrait Gallery of a woman that had supported family planning (my thesis topic). The picture looked visually beautiful and allowed me to ask questions about the woman that connected into my main research questions.

The talk from the Wellcome in London also furthered my research. I had visited the Wellcome several times for primary research material but knew little about the different research projects connected to the Wellcome. The talk went through how students had accessed the collections in their research and presented them in different formats, for example through poetry. Before the event, I knew very little about the opportunities they offered PhD students, including workshops and flexible support. I have since contacted them about these opportunities and thank both the Wellcome and GuildHE for making me aware of them.

Previously I thought very few projects connected to UK Parliament would be interested in my research… However, I am now doing further research to contact them which is something, prior to the event, I never thought I would be doing.

Susan Birch, PhD Student, University of Winchester

Development as a researcher

The workshops offered at the festival aided my development as a researcher. For example, I am utilizing primary research material from archives and did not immediately think about ethical considerations. However, as the talk on ethics was done in a question format, it made me consider ethical questions. For instance, how would I manage a situation where a relative was unhappy about how their family member had been depicted in my research following publication? The session made me reflect on new questions that I will be considering throughout the rest of my PhD.

The workshop from UK Parliament Knowledge Exchange Unit also made me think about new questions and directions. As my research is a historical project on family planning from 1945-55 I did not think that the project would connect to the UK Parliament or policy. Previously I also thought very few projects connected to UK Parliament would be interested in my research. However, the workshop gave us time to examine different projects and I did find one parliamentary group on sexual and reproductive health. I am now doing further research to contact them which is something, prior to the event, I never thought I would be doing.

Lastly, I found the talks by previous PhD students from GuildHE member institutions really helpful. Not only did they give us practical tips, for example the importance of backing up your work, but they also gave us insight into job opportunities. One of the speakers, Dr Verity Postlewaite, talked through opportunities she had taken on her PhD that had aided her work following completion. In particular, she discussed the work she had done with GuildHE and how they had supported her. I found this really encouraging and have since contacted GuildHE about the annual doctoral programme and other activities. I have also discussed peer sessions which offer informal support to students. It was because of these talks that I contacted GuildHE and reflected upon my own PhD development.

An invaluable experience

Overall, I found the festival invaluable as a networking opportunity and for my research. It has given me real impetus on my PhD journey both on my thesis work and my development as a researcher. I am really pleased that I attended and will be accessing other connected activities. Because many events are face to face, as a distance learner I often have to choose which events to attend. So, the fact that the peer sessions are online offers opportunities for me and other students, and I am looking forward to accessing other events and workshops through GuildHE.

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