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Writing Accountability Groups – why they can make a huge difference in your program

Writing Accountability Groups – why they can make a huge difference in your program

Vevila Dornelles, PhD Candidate @ University of Reading

It’s your first PhD year, you’re meeting new people, maybe at a new city and new University, taking classes, lectures, workshops, everything sounds amazing. Then the second year comes bringing reading, fieldwork, writing and loneliness. Writing is the one activity that follows you from day one, and separates a PhD student from a doctor – after all, you can only grab that diploma if you write that thesis. Alas, academic writing is very difficult, and although solitude is necessary for the development of complex ideas and abstraction, good learning rarely thrives in loneliness. One simple technique can help you solve this: getting together. In this post, I show you how my friends and I organised a writing accountability group, and how it helps me get those bloody words down on paper, and feel more like a human being as a bonus.

  1. Listen to your heart (or gut): last summer, I was writing my conceptual framework – or was I? I had the most intense writers block ever, and when I started to worry about my progress, I noticed that I could actually write on paper, not on my computer. I ran to the stationery cupboard, grabbed beautiful notebooks and my favourite mechanical pencil and went to the park, where actual words started to show up. Sometimes, it’s better to do it all by hand and write good, useful text, than to stare at the screen and feel horrible. Learn and listen to your needs.
  2. Find your squad: ideally, a good writing group is diverse – people from all walks of life, different fields and topics. This is interesting because someone from another field is probably able to see your writing with fresh eyes and comment on stuff you didn’t see at first. Or they can bring new dynamics to your work and life habits: if you’re not really a morning person (guilty), knowing that your friends will be at the cafe/library/workspace at 9am may effectively drag you out of the bed earlier.
  3. However, bear in mind that, sometimes, this system works better in a 1-to-1 scheme, as some of us tend to feel more comfortable sharing our work and struggles with only one person. Choose what’s better for you.
  4. Set goals and a dedicated time slot for writing: this has also to do with your organisation system. Break your work in bite size tasks, think of the time needed to accomplish it, organise the materials… a good organisation system will help you with that (I give some tips on how to develop your own system here). Ask your supervisor for help if you’re a bit chaotic and tend to feel anxious (guilty); they will be able to guide you to the next step and, more importantly, set deadlines. That being done, agree with your friends on one week day (or more) and time slot just for writing – no office stuff, no e-mails, no home/family matters, just writing.
  5. Checks & balances: before the scheduled time, share your day’s writing goals with your friends, whether it is an abstract, a paragraph, a draft paper or a whole chapter (who knows!). You should be able to take note of what your friend intends to do as well, as you will chase each other by the end of the day to check on your performance.
  6. Write away: doesn’t matter if you and your friends are together in the same room. This can be done remotely, through things like Telegram or if you need (but agree on that first!). When the time comes, head to the workspace, get together, set your intention and WRITE THAT SH*T. A good technique that always gets me going is Shut Up and Write: working in pomodoros, you focus on writing for 25 minutes and take 5-minute breaks to stretch, get hydrated and check on your friends. After a whole cycle, take a longer break to get comfortable and relax. Some of the most useful things I learned in my course so far were brought up by people in my circle, during those breaks. Sometimes, actually talking about your struggles can really go a long way.
  7. Share: by the end of the day, check on your friends and be checked by them. It is important to be honest about success and failure, tell them whether you achieved your goal, if you strayed, if you need more time. This will help you reassess your task list and get ready for another session, and for when you have to work on your own. Whenever you need help with a draft, ask your friend to review it – and do the same for them when they need it.
  8. Go to the surgery: agree on emergency procedures to help each other when one (or some) of you is really struggling, stuck on a task. That can be a group brainstorm, a presentation practice, sharing literature, really anything that can help someone out of the maze. And learn to ask for help when you need it – a PhD or, for that matters, any academic and creative work is rarely done in isolation.
  9. Make friends: yes, I mentioned friends all the time but, at least in my case, those were made through the group.

I hope these tips are useful, and that you can find joy in this feared, but gratifying, immense part of academic life.

Are you part of a writing group (formal or informal)? Do you have an accountability system in place? Tell us more on Twitter.

See you later, and WRITE ALONG!

37. 5 reasons to consider attending a conference as a masters student

In this post, committee members who attended conferences whilst completing their masters degree reflect on their experiences…

  1. Networking – days at conferences aren’t just full of talks, they’re also timetabled to include a lot of time to network and meet interesting people who work in a similar area to you. There’s no better way to feel part of a research community than discussing your work with other students who are all in the same boat, or get some top tips from academics conducting similar research to your own. Networking opportunities often extend into the evenings of multi-day conferences too, with research groups and committees organising meals or drinks to offer people a chance to get to know one another in a more informal setting.
  2. Confidence – presenting at a conference is the perfect opportunity to build your confidence. Giving presentations at postgraduate level can be a bit of a step up from your experiences during your undergraduate degree but giving a presentation is a sure fire way to help develop essential presenting skills and confidence for the future! The support you receive from peers and academic staff throughout the writing process and during the presentation itself is also a real boost as it confirms you’re heading in the right direction!
  3. A CV boost – giving a talk at a conference shows your dedication to your studies outside of the mandatory elements of your degree. Putting the hours into prepping a presentation of your work and then committing to attending a conference will show you’re keen to contribute to your chosen research area. Showing a willingness to get involved at this level is particularly important if you’re applying for PhDs – having a conference presentation on your CV will help you stand out in a competitive process!
  4. New ideas / familiarity with your subject – attending a variety of talks can give you access to a lot of new ideas or ways of thinking that you can then apply to your own work. It’s worth dropping into a few sessions that sit outside of your main research area, as they’re often thought provoking and very interesting! Equally, attending presentations which are based on a similar topic to what you’re working on is also incredibly valuable, as it gives you a chance to gain familiarity with your topic, and ask questions of people who are working on similar things to get a deeper insight into the work they’re carrying out.
  5. Deciding what to do next – if you’re not sure the PhD/academic life is for you, then attending a conference can give you an insight into what to expect if you do continue onto a PhD, where getting involved in conferences is actively encouraged! If you struggle to engage with the material being presented, you should probably think about whether or not you’d be ready to engage with it at this level for 3 more years! But, if you enjoy your first conferences as a masters student and find presenting your work is something you get a lot out of, then pursuing a PhD could be the right choice for you!

Of course, there are a few things to consider when deciding to attend a conference, not least the costs! However, that’s where RGS research groups and the PGF can give a helping hand. Many working groups offer specific postgraduate bursaries to attend certain events, with some being specific for masters students. It’s always worth checking conference and research group websites to see if there is funding available. Another way to attend conferences free of charge or for a reduced fee is to work on their organising committee. Whilst this can often involve an extra bit of work in the lead up to the conference itself, it’s a valuable experience in itself and means you won’t have to worry as much about the cost of the event!

If you’re thinking of attending your first conference, why not make it the RGS-PGF Midterm at Manchester Metropolitan University, Wednesday 24th to Friday 26th of April 2019. This conference is a great opportunity for all postgraduate students in any discipline of geography, human, physical or environmental, to present their work in a friendly and supportive environment. It is an excellent place to get feedback on your work, network, and practice your presentation skills! To find out more visit the dedicated pages on this website, and for further tips from previous PGF students, check out the top ten tips page for ‘Postgrads attending conferences’!

Questions for PhD students from Master’s students (or is a PhD like a tortoise wading through gloop?)

Our Master’s rep Beth has driven this fascinating conversation, with contributions from the PGF committee and Twitterworld. It’s turned about to be a pretty major piece, and while it probably won’t answer all of your questions, hopefully it will give you a good flavour of what’s it like to be a PhD student.


  1. How do you manage to sustain motivation in your research area?
  • Phil Emmerson: This is hard to answer. The short answer is I just do. I love what I do, it simply interests me – the more I work within the area, the more questions and answers start to emerge which keeps you going. The best way to sustain motivation is probably as simple as picking a topic that you find truly interesting and intriguing, then follow it and see where it goes?
  • Maddy Thompson: Yeah, very hard to answer at the moment as I’m month 4 into at least 15 months of writing… It can become hard to keep motivated. I tend to get around this (although I probably wouldn’t suggest this to everyone!) by trying to take on smaller activities. So I’m part of the PGF, and the SCGRG, I took a small teaching qualification last year, and I do around 5 hours of teaching a week. This means I’m always busy, and I can often get stressed about the lack of time I spend on the PhD BUT, I am the type of person who thrives on having several things to do. Plus, when I really can’t find any motivation, doing another task for an afternoon gets my mind off things, and makes it much easier to come back to.
  • Jen Owen: I’m definitely the same as Maddy and can stay more motivated when I have multiple things on the go at once. Obviously this can carry more stress because you are juggling commitments but it works for me! Saying that, I think it comes down to loving my research topic and wanting to do it justice.
  • Lucy Baker: I like to keep speaking to the people involved in my research; key stakeholders and my supervisors who are really interested in my topic. I have a motivational picture board by my desk too. One image is of possibly the best pancake I’ve ever eaten and one is of the Alps, but the rest are all the fun times I had on fieldwork and most importantly the people I met during interviews whom I can’t let down by not completing!
  • Tim Fewtrell: My research looks at young British Muslims, so I am very lucky in the fact that my research area is constantly within the public eye, particularly within politics and media. These constant reminders of the relevance of my research is a motivation for me.
  • Chris Martin: I’m kinda with Phil on this. My research is based on an adventure playground and I’ve been involved in playgrounds for a few decades and I’m passionate about the subject area. I am a mature student and am studying half time while working, and while this is sometimes a tricky balance it means I don’t get bored. I also have multiple things on the go which usually helps but sometimes does make life confusing and complicated. What also drives me on is coming across new ideas and ways of looking at things.
  1. Do you enjoy doing your PHD? What part of it do you enjoy most?
  • Kieran Phelan: Of course! It is having the freedom to spend time doing what you love that is the best bit- even if writing and getting your ideas down on paper is sometimes frustrating!
  • Phil: Big picture: LOVE IT!; Small scale: sometimes hate it (never lasts long). The most enjoyable aspect for me is getting the smallest spark of an idea and then kicking it around with colleagues, through literature, on paper, in my head until it works and makes a real contribution to my work.
  • Dan Casey: I especially like the opportunity to teach undergraduates and masters students and organise my own events. The ability to travel to new and exciting conferences is also great. Writing up, like Kieran, can be really frustrating – particularly as I try to be a perfectionist. However, I’m hoping at the end it will have been really worth it!
  • Lucy: Be realistic. Don’t expect to enjoy the whole thing and don’t worry if you’re going through a rough patch, we almost all do. But choose something you really want to find out more about.
  • Tim: I love the flexibility you get and the autonomy you have with your own work. I like talking to people and broadening my understanding of complex issues within my own research, and also learning from my peers.
  • Chris: I absolutely love it even though at times I feel like I’m really thick and I don’t understand some of the shiny new concepts everybody else seems to be spouting about. At the end of the day my passion for learning and my subject area wins through and eventually by asking what I consider to be dumb questions and persevering I usually end up getting the gist of most concepts. I enjoy the thinking and writing most.
  1. What reasons did you have to undertake a PhD in Geography?
  • Phil: I enjoyed my undergraduate dissertation, I enjoyed my masters one even more, I was quite good at geography, I didn’t want to stop doing it, I still had stuff to learn…
  • Maddy: Same… plus I just love Geography!
  • Wilbert den Hoed: I really started to enjoy getting out there to do research during my masters (in Geography and Planning) so I decided a PhD would help me get more experience in that direction. Besides, Geography always has new research frontiers and is very relevant societally.
  • Dan: I love Geography – the diversity of topics and the way the subject looks at societies and the environment together and the links between both really enticed me to continue studying in a Geography Department. Someone’s always researching something you’ve never heard of before or thought about! Makes it interesting.
  • Lucy: Avoiding a 9-5 and I love to travel.
  • Tim: I am similar to Phil in that, for me, the best part of undergrad was the dissertation. Working on a single project  with a larger scope and the time and resources to actually produce something that I can be proud of (hopefully) is appealing. There also aren’t that many opportunities in life where you can get paid to get a qualification.
  • Chris: I wasn’t going to do one as I couldn’t afford it! When I finished my Masters, which I was only able to do as I got made redundant and got a redundancy payment and other support, the idea was to get a ‘proper job’. My supervisor was an external verifier for my MA and over a number of months talked me into doing one and found some funding to pay fees (but no living expenses 🙁 ). Hence I have to work but my research is exactly what I want to do and builds on my MA. In terms of Geography,  in all honesty that was just where my supervisor was coming from, but I am now a convert!
  1. How do you manage the deluge of emails?
    1. Maddy I don’t…
    2. Phil me neither…
    3. Jen: You could spend whole days dealing with emails particularly if you are arranging fieldwork or teaching! Therefore I try to set aside email-free hours where I turn off the notifications and concentrate on other things, and then blitz the backlog in one go.
    4. Dan: Usually try to look at the subject line or who the email’s from to see how important it might be first. However, I’m always usually on email trying not to miss anything – my friends sometimes get a laugh out of it as they always see me on my emails!
    5. Tim: I am really bad with my emails, but I do try to make sure that I have nothing outstanding at the end of each day (even though I usually fail at this).
    6. Chris: I try to set aside email free chunks of time but not very successfully. I tend to ignore ones that aren’t from people I know or seem relevant by the subject header.
  1. Do you get any holiday as a PHD student?
    • Maddy: Yes! This is probably one of my favourite parts of the PhD. With my funding body (ESRC) I get up to 6 weeks of holiday a year, which I only have to organise with my supervisors (funding continues as normal). Opportunities for conferences and fieldwork also means I can often get the unviersity to pay for flights, attend a conference, then hang around and explore the place myself afterwards. Through this, I’ve been to the Philippines, Australia, San Francisco, Poland, and now Canada!
    • Wilbert: Equally to Maddy, my funding body (social science faculty) states 6 weeks, as long as you notify your School and supervisors. Also the conference opportunities got me to travel to the US and much of the UK (may not be special to most, but 2.5 years ago I had never been on this island).
    • Lucy: Yes and make sure you take them!
    • Tim: I’m sure it is different for everyone doing a PhD, but for me it has been really easy to take holiday when I want. It is a pretty flexible lifestyle really. I think it is a much easier transition from undergraduate/masters than for people who have gone straight into a full time job.
    • Chris: Holidays, yes I get them, but I tend to not take them as it’s not always convenient to fit them in with my work. I also like going to conferences and using that as an opportunity to look around. I’m off to California in the middle of February and Calgary in September, and I travel around the UK quite a bit too.
  1. To those that study part-time, do you find it manageable?
    • Anja McCarthy: You do what you can! I’ve been part time (2.5 days/week) then full time, then back to part time (1 day/week) while writing up. It was definitely more challenging at the beginning doing my literature review on a part-time basis when I had to remember where I left off each week. It’s relatively easier to write up my analysis in small chunks, though there never is enough time! Less time for procrastination, in theory anyway!
    • Chris: Manageable is a bit like the length of  a piece of string. I find that I absolutely have to put in the hours and have to be pretty strict with myself. I do often feel like I’m running to catch up as work sometimes needs to be a priority. At the end of the day I always meet deadlines and get really good feedback for what I do so it is do-able. I’m not actually the most disciplined person either so I do find it hard. The other thing is that I live in Devon and go to Leicester Uni, so often feel isolated as well. Not sure that it’s actually much different for full time students actually, at least if you’re part-time you do have longer to complete things, which can be a blessing as well as a curse.
  1. How did you decide where to study? What is most important to look out for?
    • Wilbert: Newcastle is where my funding and wider research project were. The city itself is very important, you have to ask yourself ‘Can I live here for 3+ years?’, also if it’s lively enough and well connected to home or other places you frequently visit.
    • Kieran: For me, the most important thing was the expertise and my supervisors. If you have poor supervisors, then your project won’t be as successful as you’d like it to be. Secondly, I would say look out for the general feel of the place. Is it sociable? Does it provide opportunities to do the things that are important to you (academic and non-academic)? Ultimately, can you see yourself calling the place home for the next four (ish) years?
    • Lucy: I stayed close to home and where I did my Masters. It’s less exciting, but I have a good support network around me of family and friends.
    • Tim: Staying at the same place as I did my undergraduate has positives and negatives. I am very comfortable, I have many friends and I am involved a lot in the sport here. However I will have been here for almost 7 years before I leave, so I think I will definitely be ready to move on!
    • Chris: As I mentioned previously, I was persuaded by my supervisor to do a PhD so didn’t really even think about locations. If I had to choose I would have chosen Exeter, as the geography department is good and it’s close to home!
  1. How much support do supervisors offer within your PHD and how often are you able to meet with them?
    • Maddy: Most institutions will advise 1 hour a month with supervisors for at least 10 months a year. On top of this, they also read and provide feedback on your work. Depending who your supervisors are, you may see them a lot more than this. I for example bump into mine in the coffee room and occasionally have mini-informal progress meetings with just one of them. My supervisors are of the opinion that they will help me as much as I ask. They don’t give me deadlines (but I can request them if I wish), and generally just let me get on with it.
    • Kieran: Whilst most institutions suggest 12 over the course of the academic year, in practice it is often much more regular. At the University of Nottingham, we have an open door policy. If my supervisors are in and have the time, they will sit down with me to talk through ideas that I’ve had or offer their opinion on my work. I have a really good working relationship with my supervisors, who are regularly in contact with me to see how I am getting on. They often email things of interest to me throughout the week and we meet informally at the various research seminars the school. Being in the department helps a lot, as you find informal corridor conversations fuel great ideas. The Geography Department at the University of Nottingham has a great social feel, and good supervisor-student relationships seem to be the norm.  Supervisors are there to help you get as much out of the PhD process as you can, and are there to bounce ideas off of.
    • Phil: I am required to meet with my supervisors ‘officially’ once a month but in reality I see them a lot more often (pretty much whenever I need or want as long as they are in the building). It seems to be customary these days to ‘invade’ one of my supervisor’s offices every friday afternoon along with all of his other PhD students which means we can also discuss things as a group too. While my supervisors have always been supportive, the kind of support has changed over the last 2 and a half years. At first it was very hands on, reading lots of my work and setting me tasks every month to be completed. These days my task for the month is generally “carry on doing stuff! ” and they trust me to send them stuff when I want it to be read but don’t worry if I don’t send them anything. They have also been hugely helpful in mentoring me and pushing me to do things outside of the PhD thesis itself.
    • Lucy: It depends what’s going on in the PhD, but I expect at least 1-2 hours per month as well as comments on drafts. I advise against having a professor as a supervisor because they are too busy (although well connected). Make sure you have at least one supervisor who is always there for you at least by email and responding in a couple of days (unless on leave).
    • Chris: Same as everyone else above, and my supervisors are really supportive and generally happy to provide what support I need.
  1. How did you approach prospective supervisors?
    • Wilbert: They approached me.. Well, basically there was a vacancy coming out from the School and I applied. Generally I think most universities have a small number of funded PhD spots where the topic is more or less defined. Keep an eye out on those!
    • Kieran: I read widely and engaged with the work of potential supervisors. I then looked at where they were based, and which research groups they were in. I was really lucky that my supervisors were based in my original undergraduate institution so I just asked them whether they would consider supervising me. But my peers who were not, often emailed speculatively to departments and to individual academics with project ideas and arranged to meet them/skype them to talk further. One American colleague arranged a trip to visit the campus and meet with potential supervisors staff over coffee- they said it was invaluable to get a feel for the place and the team.
    • Maddy: I didn’t really do much approaching… One was my undergrad and Masters supervisor. And he suggested the other one as they have worked together well before and the research interests fit my own.
    • Jen: I approached potential supervisors when applying for the PhD place and funding, and identified them by looking up their research interests and publication histories to see if they aligned with my research idea. The responses I had were varied, some did not respond and with others I had long phone calls and received advice on my proposal.
    • Lucy: I applied for an open PhD topic and then sent an email asking a suitable lecturer in the University, it wasn’t planned very well and I got lucky.
  1. What other things have you participated in and opportunities have you had from completing your PhD  other than completing your own research?
    • Maddy Being involved with the PGF has been a great opportunity as I’ve organised a conference, led the committee, and get lots of chances to meet the wider geography network. I’ve also had a 6 month fieldwork visit in the Philippines, as well as a 3 month overseas institutional visit in Canada. Both of these trips were fully paid for by my funding body, and are not things I would have been able to do in most other jobs.
    • Phil: Many things. I have been involved in both the Postgraduate Forum and the Social and Cultural Geographies Research Group, been to conferences, organised a workshop, written blogs, written academic papers, reviewed academic papers, presented my research as stand-up comedy, talked to prospective students, done teaching for undergraduates both in the UK and on field trips to Berlin… (probably more than that too).
    • Jen Loads! In our School PhD students have many opportunities to get involved with teaching, so over the last couple of years I have run seminars for a range of modules, taken a lecture and assisted on three UG field study visits (Hong Kong twice and Amsterdam). During my second year I was one of our School’s PGR representatives which gave me chance to bring issues and recommendations to the Heads of School. Also being part of the Mid-Term Conference Team is definitely also proving to be a great experience.
    • Tim: For me, the most important thing I have been involved in, outside of the research project itself, is teaching. At the University I am at there are many opportunities for PhD students to assist in practicals, seminars and field trips. These are always good fun and very rewarding.
  1. When writing, what is the level of feedback you receive before the finalised piece?
    • Maddy First of all, finalised piece is probably not something you’ll have until the last couple of months! I tend to submit drafts to my supervisors which they read and provide annotated comments throughout. We then meet together and discuss the comments. Unless there are HUGE changes to be made, I then move on to the next written piece. My plan is to go through all comments at the end when I know the overall thesis structure. However, they are willing to read several drafts of any chapters, and give very detailed feedback.
    • Kieran: I try to think of writing as an ongoing process until submission. You are not done until you are done. My approach to writing tends to be broken down into bite-sized chunks. Every couple of weeks I work on a theme, which often feeds into broader discussion points. I then aim to collate them all. Each of the themes act as little pieces that I can then re-jig and re-shuffle into a coherent order. When at a workshop, one person described the writing process as having a jig-saw puzzle without the picture on the box. You work at piecing them all together, talking with your supervisors and getting their feedback, until it actually looks like something recognisable. I took comfort from that- especially at times when you feel you aren’t really getting anywhere.
    • Lucy Same as Maddy, but realistically you may not be able to change everything they comment on and I don’t think they expect you to. The feedback is often what comes off the top of their heads and you can always challenge it in a follow up meeting if you don’t agree.
  1. What is the biggest difference of studying your Masters to your Phd? How do they compare?
    • Maddy No classes for the PhD, so all of your time (is/can be) dedicated to the thesis. At the same time, there is much less structure than with the Masters so it can be easy to fall off track.
    • Wilbert The freedom of defining your own project. This is both good and challenging. You stop ‘studying’ and start becoming responsible for an own contribution to knowledge.
    • Kieran: I have recently just finished my Masters. I have found the transition quite difficult. There is no one telling you what to do. It makes ‘work’ very difficult to detach from. As, in theory, all of your time is ‘work’ time, I have found myself feeling a little guilty when I have time off. And when I am not productive, I feel guilty that I am not utilising ‘work time’ to the best of my abilities. I have also found that previously, when I completed master’s modules, I knew where I was, and I could see what it contributed to. I knew that if I did an essay, it would be X percentage of the module grade, which fed into an overall accreditation. With a PhD I have found I can spend a week or so on an idea that actually just doesn’t work. Whilst that isn’t a bad thing, you can sometimes feel frustrated when you are used to the formulaic module routine.
    • Phil: I think the biggest change for me has been the timescale of the project and the lack of obvious “wins” whilst doing it. Seeing my project come together is hugely satisfying but it is an incredibly slow process. I have been doing the project for 27 months and am only just starting to see it hold together as a single thing (and even this feels like mere glimpses). When doing my MRes there were essays and assignments that you had to do in relatively short timescales. They would then be marked and generally I would get a good mark which lifts and motivates you. I really lacked this in my first year of PhD but have found new ways to get those “wins” – being accepted to a conference, good feedback on a presentation, getting a paper reviewed by a journal etc. These help you to see your project and academic abilities progress even if your thesis still feels far away.
    • Dan: I found the first year pretty difficult – especially as I was still exhausted after my masters and I was trying to read and learn loads of new stuff. However, the lack of timetable and having to be self-disciplined I struggle with the most. It’s really easy not to do much haha! And there’s a need to balance the thesis with other stuff you might want to do.
    • Chris: I think there’s a big difference. It seems like there’s a lot more expected from you at a much higher academic level, and you are expected to drill down deeper and provide a much more robust theoretical basis for your thoughts. There’s also lots more freedom and need to drive yourself forwards.
  1. Would you recommend doing a PhD at your institution in Geography?
    • Kieran: Absolutely! I have stayed in Nottingham since my undergraduate studies. Whilst I think moving away would have been a good opportunity to build a larger network, I think that I wouldn’t really want to be anywhere else. The department is great, sociable and supportive. Plus, in terms of supervision, my supervisors are second to none!
    • Phil: Yes, the PhD environment here is superb with many opportunities and a great set of PhD offices full of interesting and lovely people. If there is a supervisor at Birmingham who you want to work with in particular, I don’t think you would regret it.
    • Maddy: 100%! Newcastle has a great postgraduate geography community (we’re the envy of the politics and sociology departments), amazing friendly staff, and it’s in a great location being a city centre campus in the UK’s friendliest city! We’re quite a critical department, mainly focused on human geography, although the physical side has grown a lot in the last few years. We also have BIG undergrad cohorts, which means lots of opportunities for teaching (and lots of opportunities to make extra money as we get paid £25/hr for teaching!)
    • Jen: Definitely! Our School at Cardiff University has vibrant research group series’ which provide a chance to mingle and share ideas with other PhDs and staff, and there are lots of opportunities to get involved with teaching. Also as those attending the Mid-Term will find out for themselves, we are very lucky to be situated in such a beautiful green and walkable capital city. Also who doesn’t want to work in the building used for filming Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes!
    • Dan: Sheffield is a great place – particularly, for me, when it comes to developing your teaching portfolio (I get paid a significant amount of money less than Maddy for my teaching per hour haha :() but I’ve been given the awesome opportunity to teach in Tanzania on a masters fieldcourse, mark first year exams, lead seminars and I’ve been able to reach Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA) with the help of development schemes at Sheffield. Also, we try to bring PhD students together through socials and monthly training activities, promoting a friendly and sociable atmosphere.
    • Tim: Completely! The postgraduate community at Loughborough is very sociable and very supportive. It’s a great environment to work in with many opportunities beyond the thesis itself.
    • Chris: Even though I don’t get up to Leicester very often, it’s a great place and I totally recommend it.
  1. If you could describe your PhD in one word what would it be?
    • Tortoise – It takes long but gets you there (Wilbert)
    • Jelly – Constant state of gloopy-ness and feeling that things are not coming together but wait long enough and it finally sets into something that’s ‘whole’!
    • More results from the Twittersphere:
      1. Adventure. A bold, usually risky undertaking, with an uncertain outcome (Stefan Rzedzian, probably with help of a dictionary)
      2. Bothersome (Matthew Scott)
      3. Rollercoaster (Melissa Dickinson)
      4. Long (Alexander Macleod)
      5. Mammoth (Wilbert den Hoed)
      6. Ceaseless (Greg Thomas)
      7. Frustrating; banter (Fraser Bell)
    • Evolutionary – the variety of things you can do during your PhD studies are always changing and you’re constantly developing and learning about new ideas (Dan Casey)
  1. What use does your PhD have in your future career goals?
    • Maddy I want to work in academia, so a PhD is basically an essential qualification.
    • Wilbert I’m intending to work outside of academia, in that sense it adds to my knowledge and working experience in my field – working experience in the sense you’ve set up an own project around it and got to engage with several other projects (especially in an interdisciplinary PhD)
    • Kieran: I must admit I don’t like thinking of its ‘use’. At least not yet as I’ve only started. I am doing a research project on Harris Tweed; it’s kind of niche. I find it interesting and that is all I feel I need to justify it.  I think that if you view what you value of your PhD as the ‘end goal’, you miss out on valuing it for what it is; a process. Naturally, if you want to go in academia, it is a staple, but I think it is better to view it licence to enjoy studying what you want. Having the time to fully immerse yourself in what interests you most. Once you have finished, you will find you have accrued transferable skills and ‘employability’.
    • Dan: Like Maddy, I’m looking to stay in academia. I really love teaching, but want to do this at University level, so the PhD is a must. Equally, the opportunity to balance teaching whilst still doing some research and advancing subject matter is a real draw for me.
    • Tim: I am thinking of going into teaching so the many experiences I have gained throughout my PhD will hopefully put me in a good place for that.
    • Chris: I’m also hoping to stay in academia. I started my PhD as it was too good an opportunity to pass up, but as a mature student I don’t fit the usual mold so think I will have to combine academia with other related interests when I finish. One of the advantages of being part time is the ability to develop that in a complementary fashion.

Postgraduate Forum Logo Competition

The Postgraduate Forum of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) is pleased to announce a postgraduate open competition to design a new logo. The logo will appear on our website (, social media and publicity materials. The winner of the competition will receive a years RGS-IBG Postgraduate Fellowship.

We are asking for entries to provide both a colour and black & white electronic version for reproduction. The following restrictions apply to its design:

  • It should not infringe on any copyright;
  • It should be square (ideally for use on Twitter);
  • It should be designed for reproduction against a white background;
  • It should be designed for reproduction at 150 × 150 pixels and 300 × 300 pixels, but be reasonably legible at 48 × 48 pixels; 77 × 77 pixels; and 88 × 88 pixels.

Entries should be submitted to Greg Thomas by email ( by 15th August 2016.

Committee Positions 2016/2017

The RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum (PGF) is currently seeking committee members to complete its committee from September 2016 – September 2017. We will be holding a short business meeting and postgraduate tea party during the lunchtime session on Friday 2nd September 2016 at the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference.

During this meeting we hold elections for the PGF Committee roles from which current members are stepping down. We are currently seeking: Social Media/Website Officer and Annual Conference Sessions Co-Ordinator.

Social Media/Website Officer

This role involves jointly working with a second social media/website officer to ensure that the website of the PGF ( is kept up to date, and that our social media channels (Facebook and Twitter) are kept updated with content relevant to the postgraduate community.

Annual Conference Session Co-Ordinator

The annual conference session co-ordinator works closely with out members of the committee, research groups, and postgraduates in order to convene the PGF sessions at the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference. This role involves arranging the call for sessions, calls for papers, and the selection of presenters/chairs for each session. This role can be done by individuals or as a group.

If you are interested in either role, please get in touch to find out more.

Forthcoming RGS-IBG Events…

21st Century Challenges Public Event – Panel Discussion: Life off the ladder

Wednesday 15 June 2016, 7pm, Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

There are 11 million people in the UK off the housing ladder and in private renting, up dramatically from previous generations. Over half of Londoners rent. Whether through choice or necessity, more people are renting and for longer. Should we accept that Britain’s home-owning dream has ended? Can we improve rights for renters so life off the ladder in the 21st Century can be something to celebrate not commiserate? Join us and our inspirational speakers to discuss the rise of the long-term renter.

Tickets: £10 | £7 RGS-IBG members | Students £5

Tel: 0207 591 3100 or book online:


21st Century Challenges Policy Forum: Affordable, timely and sustainable housing for London’s workforce: Seeking common ground? (professional interest required)

Monday 20th June 2016

The evening begins with an expert panel discussion and audience Q & A from 5.30pm until 7.15pm, followed by networking drinks.

 The Housing and Planning Bill/Act and current Greater London Authority initiatives will, at best, only partially address the substantial need for genuinely affordable, timely and sustainable housing – for rent and for purchase – for London’s workforce now, and in the future. The new Mayor, Local Authorities and the government will continue to face significant challenges for many years.

The Policy Forum will hear from a panel of leading experts in the housing sector: Nick Raynsford, former MP and Minister with responsibilities including housing, planning, construction and London; Barney Stringer, Director at Quod; architect Lynne Sullivan OBE, Chair of the RIBA Sustainable Futures Group and of the Good Homes Alliance, and Professor Paul Cheshire, London School of Economics.

The panel will consider the realistic potential to meet London’s housing demand, in terms of:

  • How – the capacity to build at the required volume;
  • Where – the locational opportunities, constraints and possible priorities;
  • With due environmental care – can affordable growth be accommodated sustainably and with good quality design?
  • Can we identify common ground and what are the implications?

Please visit our website for more information about the panel, and how to book a place. There is a small charge to attend the Forum to help us cover administrative costs, as a charity.

The Forum is an integral part of the Society’s activities as the UK’s learned society and professional body for geography. Its purposes are to convene and stimulate thoughtful and evidence-led discussion, from different perspectives, on matters that have strong geographical dimensions; to brief policy makers where appropriate; and to promote networking. The Policy Forum is part of the 21st Century Challenges programme of policy and public events.


People, Politics and the Planet: Any Questions?

Britain in a Changing Europe

21 July 2016, Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

We would like to invite you to join the Sibthorp Trust, the British Ecological Society and the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) for the first opportunity to debate the future of UK environmental policy in the aftermath of the EU referendum. This event is organised with support from the Society for the Environment and the Wellcome Trust.

The EU referendum presents a crossroads in the course of environmental policy in the UK. Vote leave, and we enter a period of profound uncertainty outside the reach of well-established European policies. Vote remain, and the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss lose none of their urgency.

Chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby, People, Politics and the Planet: Any Questions? will bring together a panel of leading politicians including Kerry McCarthy MP (Labour, Shadow Environment Secretary), Baroness Parminter (Liberal Democrats, Environment Spokesperson) and Natalie Bennett (Green Party, Leader), to answer your questions.

Tickets are available at £10 for BES/RGS-IBG members and concessions, or £20 full price. Book your ticket now

Postgraduate Forum Logo Competition

The Postgraduate Forum of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) is pleased to announce a postgraduate open competition to design a new logo. The logo will appear on our website (, social media and publicity materials. The winner of the competition will receive a years RGS-IBG Postgraduate Fellowship.

We are asking for entries to provide both a colour and black & white electronic version for reproduction. The following restrictions apply to its design:

  • It should not infringe on any copyright;
  • It should be square (ideally for use on Twitter);
  • It should be designed for reproduction against a white background;
  • It should be designed for reproduction at 150 × 150 pixels and 300 × 300 pixels, but be reasonably legible at 48 × 48 pixels; 77 × 77 pixels; and 88 × 88 pixels.

Entries should be submitted to Greg Thomas by email ( by 15th August 2016.

Interdisciplinary Methodologies: Across Scales and Cultures

Interdisciplinary Methodologies: Across Scales and Cultures

University of Birmingham

7th June 2016

Deadline for Registration: 20th May 2016

This one day workshop will focus on methodological tools and approaches for interdisciplinary research in the fields of energy, water and food. The workshop is hosted by the Adapting to Energy and Environmental Uncertainties research group in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences and part funded by the ESRC Sharing Futures research project.

Drawing on current research speakers will address the opportunities and challenges of interdisciplinary research and think methodologically about how researchers can understand complex societal problems experienced by individuals and communities, across scales (from the body to the national) and cultures.

Delegates will be invited to submit their ‘Methodological problems and questions’ in advance of the workshop, to be discussed on the day.

The day is aimed at researchers at any stage of their career and throughout there will be opportunities for networking, discussion and reflection.


Arrival, registration, and coffee


Keynote: Dr. Julian Clark (title tbc)


Dr. Steve Emery
Interdisciplinary approaches to flood resilience and preparedness: experiences from the floods in England 2013/14’


Dr. Mel Rohse and Dr. Rosie Day
‘Energy and everyday life: using story-based methods to explore society-energy relations’


Lunch Break


Dr. Surindar Dhesi, Dr. Arshad Isakjee and Dr. Thom Davies
 Food in the Calais Refugee Camp: an interdisciplinary investigation’


Professor Peter Kraftl and Dr. Sophie Hadfield-Hill
‘Using mobile technologies to explore the food-water-energy nexus’


Workshop on ‘Methodological problems and questions’


Workshop ends

Workshop organisers:
Dr. Sophie Hadfield-Hill (University of Birmingham)
Professor Peter Kraftl (University of Birmingham)
Katie Oliver (University of Birmingham)

To register for this event please email Katie Oliver ( by 20th May, 2016

DARG Postgraduate Workshop – 25th May 2016 (Speakers Confirmed)

The Developing Areas Research Group of the RGS-IBG are holding a one day event to explore the application of academic research and research skills to different sectors beyond academia. The event will be held at Senate House, London on 25th May 2016 and will include speakers from public, private and non-profit sectors.

The day will include panel discussions on the relevance of research for impact, policy and programming with a focus on how the skills you have learned during your PhD can be adapted to these areas.

Additionally, there will be expert speakers presenting on how to effectively communicate your PhD research outside of academia.

Confirmed speakers are:

Stacey Davies │ Managing Director at Practical Action Publishing

Jenny Cann │Head of Research, Migration & Borders Analysis at the Home Office

Natalie Neil │ Senior Research & Impact Manager at the Fairtrade Foundation

Tim Unwin │UNESCO Chair in ICT4D, and Emeritus Professor of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London.  He is also an Honorary Professor at Lanzhou Univeristy in China.

Jay Mistry │ Professor of Geography at Royal Holloway University  │ Jay was the Coordinator of Project COBRA – Future Challenges, Local Solutions, an EU-funded project working with Indigenous groups in the Guiana Shield of South America.

Lydia Tanner │Consultant at Jigsaw Consult │Lydia specialises in leading complex, innovative research studies and conducts research and evaluation work relating to primary healthcare, education, community resilience and local responses to emergencies and conflict.

John King │Post Graduate Student at Royal Holloway │His research explores the relationships between social science and public policy making.

Nelly Ali  │Post Graduate Student at Birkberk │ Nelly Ali has conducted a two year ethnography with street girls and young street mothers in Cairo, Egypt and has been an extensive blogger throughout her PhD.

Katie Turner | Research Officer | Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR)

To book and to see updates on the confirmed speakers, please see the Eventbrite page here.


PGF Chairperson 2016/2017

Following a formal election, the votes for Chairperson of the RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum for 2016/2017 have been counted and verified:

There were 80 votes cast, of which 3 were removed as ineligible, leaving a total of 77 votes:

  • Maddy Thompson, Newcastle University – 46 votes (60%)
  • Phil Emmerson, University of Birmingham – 31 votes (40%)

Maddy Thompson is therefore elected as the new Chairperson of the RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum.