’A friendly reminder than although a PhD can be lonely, you are not alone.’ - Cecilia Liszka & Kris Sales
The majority of the first cohort of EnvEast PhD students are now well into their first year and have successfully run the sometimes intimidating gauntlet of the First Year Review – an important milestone to review progress with supervisors and get that vital reassurance that we’re doing OK. Although it feels to most like we’ve just started (time seems to fly when you’re busy!), across the cohort students have been jetting off all around the place.
Some have been out on fieldwork expeditions like tracking birds in Iberia, assessing volcano risk in Dominica or researching plankton in the Southern Ocean. Others have participated in conferences including our very own EnvExpo. Many have learnt nifty new skills on a plethora of training courses. A couple have even had great opportunities such as shadowing the Director of Innovation at the British Antarctic Survey!
As a group we are based across five institutions and, with so much going on, it can sometimes be tricky to keep everyone in contact. As part of the EnvEast DTP, we have some obligatory cohort training activities – the first of these being our induction week at Flatford Mill, and the week long Summer School combined with a prospective winter retreat – but for those based outside the main Norwich campus, we’ve had to be more creative.
A great way of keeping everyone connected has been the use of a dedicated Facebook group; this has been a constant source of information about training courses, seminars and, of course, who’s meeting for lunch or keen for a post-work pint! However, something more structured and ‘face-to-face’ has also been needed to address other issues – for example items requiring more discussion, or a means to present work to cohort members at other institutions. To address this, one thing we’ve been trialling is the use of interactive ‘webinars’ – effectively an online seminar that allows us all to interact from the comfort of our own offices!
We’ve had two webinars so far based on Microsoft Lync, now known as Skype for Business. Despite some teething issues, it serves its purpose as a way for people to present and discuss across the ether. Discussions have lasted for about an hour, and we’ve had around a dozen participants at each of our webinars. To try to keep meetings focussed and relevant, the students are canvassed for agenda items and we attempt (albeit sometimes unsuccessfully&hellip to stick to this during the webinar.
After a brief spell of manic hand waving and a chorus of ‘Can you hear/ see me?’ we begin; the agenda tends to start with any significant news like expeditions, fieldwork and conferences, followed by flagging any hits and misses on software and training courses. Talk flows into current academic issues we are experiencing, any upcoming cohort events or impending deadlines, and how things are going in general for students.
Whilst it would be a misnomer to say that the process of getting the webinars working smoothly, organising talks, chairing meetings and writing up the minutes has been easy, it’s been a useful experience of cross-institution collaboration and has often been fun; the cohort chats are chilled and funny, they inevitably bring up more points of discussion than we planned for, and for students based outside Norwich, are a great way to feel connected to the EnvEast student community. Importantly, they’re also providing a useful information exchange between students and the DTP team:
”Thanks very much for the valuable summary of the webinar. There is much of interest and plenty of food for thought. These sessions look like a really useful communication tool.” – quote from DTP supervision team member.
In reality, there are still some issues to overcome: the quality of the call is not always perfect and there have been the standard ‘technical hitches’; it can also be a challenge finding a time that suits everyone (but when isn’t it?!), and a web platform doesn’t suit everyone as a means of communication. However, the value of communicating with other students from the programme, sharing concerns and worries, and keeping in touch with each other’s progress, cannot be underestimated: a PhD can be a lonely task, and these webinars a way of reminding you that you’re not alone!