PhD Experience Conference 8-10th February 2011
The initial conference in 2008 was the brain child of newly qualified Doctors Andrew Kythreotis and Theresa Mercer.
The mantle was taken on by Co-Chairs: Carol Lambert (Faculty of Health and Social Care) and Gill Hughes (Faculty of
Education) and the Committee: Janine Hatter, Ellie Cope (Faculty of Arts and Social Science) and Andrew Cressey
(The Business School). Andrew (Kythreotis) and Theresa provided unrelenting support giving generously their time
and their feedback from the first conference to ensure that the 2011 conference was the success it was
foregrounding the needs of PhD students.
“This was the best £10 I have invested in my life! – PhD Experience Conference 2011, University of Hull”
So much so that there were about half a dozen University of Hull students, across disciplines, who are passionate to
continue the conference ethos – ‘By students for Students’ and will form the next organising committee continuing
the aims below. The feedback from the participants at the conference is overwhelmingly positive and the key thing
for many has been the networking opportunity and recognising that they are not alone in their feelings and that
most students feel the same. Sharing experiences enables people to give themselves permission to be confused and
to not always be sure of their focus and that the end result may deviate. This is important and provides a feeling of
emancipation for the participants who recognise that they are not alone in their fears and feelings and can now
contact others who may feel similar to encourage each other on their long and winding trajectory to completion.
The Aims of the conference were:
To provide insight into the PhD process:
“There was a very good selection of themes covering every possible aspect of the PhD process.”
To provide a relaxed and friendly forum for attendees to share experiences and gain confidence within the
“I am determined to apply the knowledge I have gained here to my own life, especially the overall feeling that I can
To bring together interdisciplinary and experiential knowledge to promote collective learning:
“Everyone could relate regardless of discipline or department.”
To provide an opportunity to network with colleagues and peers and to widen and strengthen
“At the conference meal, between courses I moved table and talked to people I had not before. This
experience was very rewarding and I have made a friend from another university who I will be contacting
after this conference has ended.”
“I think attending conferences, like this one, is an excellent opportunity to talk to people and discuss your
The conference was organised by students for students.
The Conference drew in representation of students from over 25 universities, 7 different countries and
spanning 3 continents, illustrating how PhD students, both multidisciplinary and internationally, share the
same issues and concerns within the process
Supported by the VC Calie Pistorius, who spoke about the importance of knowledge development in
Universities and their global reach and how knowledge creation is a global endeavour. He suggested that the
students of today will be the leaders of tomorrow and that PhD students are the ‘lifeblood’ of the University.
The conference was funded by the Robert’s Fund. It was supported by The Graduate School with Dr Nigel
Shaw and Robin Thompson and his team of students who recorded the event. The Faculty of Education
generously gave administrative support and financial management of the internal budget together with
guidance from Professor Colquhoun and Dr Jo Pike. The Faculty of Health and Social Care provided
administration for registration and support from Professor Julie Jomeen.
Themes were made up from:
The Balanced Researcher, Networking, Reflection, The Research Process, Writing and Publishing, Research
Perspectives, The Viva Voce, Career Planning – the PhD and Beyond and view from a Post Doc Researcher.
PhD students contributed to each theme with two selected to complement the Academic theme leads.
Students also submitted posters under the themes for a competition judged by Dr Nigel Shaw of the
Graduate School, Dr Vicky Willett of Vitae and Professor Marlene Sinclair, University of Ulster.
Feedback was overwhelmingly positive from the students and demonstrated the need for such events. At
the end of the conference the next group of organisers were identified to carry this event forward.
The use of a reflective journal for students during the conference was used to capture individual thoughts,
ideas and reflections as they experience them. There is a possibility that the earlier conference in 2008 and
this conference, together with the personal insights of this conference’s student participants will be turned
into a book – with the same ethos as the conference - ‘for students by students’.
Tips and ideas for further initiatives were collected from the students to form the basis of the next
conference and for provision at the Graduate School
The conference drew great support from two Faculties: the Faculty of Health and Social Care, which provided
assistance with registration at the event (thanks to Jeanette Gilchrist); and the Faculty of Education which assisted
with the budget and financial transactions and administration on enrolment and registration (with particular thanks
to Tina Taylor and Grahame Penny). Professor Derek Colquhoun and Dr Jo Pike (Faculty of Education) provided
guidance, support and expertise throughout the organisation process, for which the team were very grateful.
They also gave generously of their time at the conference itself, with Jo giving a paper on Networking and the Viva,
Derek delivered the Viva Voce session at the end of the conference giving a paper and facilitating both a workshop
and a session on Viva Voce vignettes (with Drs Jo Pike, Andrew Kythreotis and Theresa Mercer) allowing the
audience to participate in problem solving for issues that may come through in a Viva process (chaired by Gill
Hughes). This session was much appreciated and dispelled myths around the process and tips for how to handle
various scenarios that might be experienced, the feedback was excellent for this session – it gave confidence to the
participants that there are ways to get through the most stressful part of the whole process. The four presenters
developed scenarios and asked the audience to discuss what they might do to resolve the situation. The three
Doctors later reflected on their own experiences and then suggested what they might have done differently with the
benefit of hindsight.
“The viva panel was the most interesting in my opinion.”
“It was refreshing to hear you emphasise that the viva can be an enjoyable experience – a chance to have a captive
audience allowing you to talk at length about your thesis.”
Co–Chair Carol Lambert (Faculty of Health and Social Care) opened the Conference and also introduced the Vice
Chancellor Professor Calie Pistorius, who spoke about the importance of knowledge development in Universities and
their global reach and how knowledge creation is a global endeavour. He suggested that the students of today will
be the leaders of tomorrow and that PhD students are the ‘lifeblood’ of the University. Carol welcomed participants
and conveyed that the representation of student from over 25 universities, 7 different countries and spanning 3
continents, illustrated how PhD students, both multidisciplinary and internationally, share the same issues and
concerns within the process and we hoped this conference would go somewhere to addressing these.
Carol also requested that participants completed a reflective journal during the conference to capture their
individual thoughts, ideas and reflections as they experience them. There is a possibility that the earlier conference
in 2008 and this conference, together with the personal insights of this years student participant’s will be turned into
a book – with the same ethos as the conference - ‘for students by students’. The journal and a top tips wall created
at the conference by students will assist in ensuring that current students provide insights for future students.
The conference seminars started with a presentation from Dr Vicky Willett of Vitae discussing the Balanced
Researcher. She was followed by Dr Andrew Kythreotis reflecting on his experience as a balanced researcher;
Andrew was one of the originators of the first conference in 2008 (together with Dr Theresa Mercer). Vicky discussed
a document provided by Vitae on the Balanced Researcher which contains a great many strategies to manage time
and the process. Andrew used humour with visual representations through cartoons to discuss his experience as a
“Dr. Willett was a great start to the conference, she speaks well and honestly and it was a very reassuring talk. I
haven’t talked to many people about the PhD process so it was good to hear her (and others’ opinions).”
Professor Julie Jomeen from Health and Social Care gave a paper on her personal reflections on her transition from
Supervisor to Supervisee, this session provided food for thought on the experience and expectations participants
should encounter. Clearly some students had very constructive relationships; others were given ideas of how they
might reframe their current situation to ensure that they gain the most from the relationship.
“It was an interesting presentation from both perspectives (student/supervisor)”
Also from the University of Hull Professor Majid Yar (Faculty of Arts and Social Science), who led a session on The
Writing Process and Publishing whilst Doing a PhD: Possibilities and Pitfalls, was joined by Mary Aherne (Department
of English, Faculty of Arts and Social Science) and James (Jimmy) Turner (Department of Social Science, Faculty of
Arts and Social Science) and chaired by Gill Hughes. This session enabled participants to think through the process of
writing, with tips and techniques and an examination of the benefits of publishing as you go particularly for future
careers where a CV would have the benefit of publishing records. Mary provided some very useful ideas that she has
used over her PhD journey and Jimmy delivered an interesting paper on his experience of collecting narratives from
his participants and the dilemmas that this can bring with emotional stories, ethics and reproducing material which
does justice to the people interviewed.
“What I learnt from this session is that most other people are having the same problems as me.”
There was a strong representation of students from the University of Hull who bravely gave their experiences of
undertaking a PhD with James and Mary above and Philip Coombs (The Business School), Stephanie King (Sports
Science) who both spoke on The Research Process led by Dr Kevin Morrell (University of Birmingham, Business
School) and chaired by Janine Hatter. Kevin provided a presentation which gave depth to the process of the whole
PhD and gave permission to participants to be, at times, confused. Philip discussed the process in realistic terms in
working in/with organisations and the importance of gaining an ‘inside player’ to aid/assist in the process. Stephanie
gave an overview of her experience and her suggestions of how to cope which included rewarding yourself for
productive session and ensuring that you timetable in ‘life’.
“An eye opener.”
“Morrell had a very pragmatic view of the PhD and I have learnt to monitor my learning and be strategic”.
Nassima Marref (Manchester Metropolitan University) spoke on Networking with Dr Jo Pike which was led by
Professor Paul Crawford (University of Nottingham) and chaired by Ellie Cope. Paul gave an interesting perspective
on the use of coffee houses as the place to develop collaborative relationships and gave evidence of his experience
of setting up interdisciplinary centres by coming out of his ‘silo’ and crossing the campus to meet other departments
over coffee (or tea!). This has been extremely fruitful for his research on the use of language amongst other things.
Nassima gave the audience a very different perspective with her experiences of using social networking to establish
her participants, again which has been successful for her. She particularly recommends ‘academia.edu’ and
‘Linkedin’. Jo was able to provide a guide to conferences and the pitfalls that can sometimes ensue. She gave a
valuable warning about protecting your assets as in, ensuring you are ready to publish if you have some new insights
to ensure that other listeners do not take away your ideas and reproduce as their own, which she had sadly
“Very interesting to hear of the hundreds of networking sites!”
Tina Fanneran (University of Staffordshire) and Chris Dalton (University of Reading, Henley Business School) spoke on
reflection, led by Professor Marlene Sinclair (University of Ulster) and chaired by Carol Lambert. Marlene was a
dynamic speaker exploring the nature of reflection and reflexivity. She tested out the participants in her workshop
with a task which was designed to see if the audience would disobey her instructions to work alone she was pleased
that people broke free to begin discussions. She used many visual images to tell her stories which were inspiring.
Tina gave an overview of her first six months on the PhD, she reflected on the issues around self esteem and self
belief that can impact on progress, she felt that being thrown in at the deep end was actually productive for her. She
explored her learning style in connection to established theories of learning from Kolb and Schon. Chris used a
unique method in the month before his presentation - he put up a blog to gain feedback and reflections. His
presentation explored identity and how you get to where you are. He discussed that his field of management rarely
utilises reflection, seeing it as something that is contemplated in private, yet he promoted its effectiveness for the
“Prof. Sinclair’s presentation was dramatic and her workshop was interactive in the way she was able to engage us.”
Tina South (University of Thames Valley) and Lisa Procter (University of Sheffield) spoke on research perspectives,
led by Professor Ann Cunliffe (University of New Mexico) and chaired by Andrew Cressey. Ann led the audience
through a discussion on choosing research perspectives to form the methodology which underpins the methods
chosen examining whether the researcher is an insider or an outsider. Tina gave her story of how she came to be
where she was and how she had undertaken a course in philosophy to assist her in developing a phenomenological
approach centring the participants in the research to determine what will be examined and how she would construct
the questions. Lisa gave an enlightening presentation of self examination in terms of the emotions that researchers
feel when engaged with examining social life and in her particular case the young people she is working with. She
provided much to think about in terms of the subjectivity that cannot be avoided by being involved but by self
questioning and using reflection to examine the part the researcher plays the impact this might have on the
approach and reactions to observations.
“Fantastic. Totally relevant and illuminating, many thanks.”
The conference dinner enabled more networking and the University hospitality provided a lovely meal, much
Following all of the academic themes it was felt important to have the perspectives of people who have taken their
PhD’s outside of academia. Professor Stephen Swailes, Professor of Human Resource Management (University of
Huddersfield), Dr Paul Ellis Research & Development Director New Technologies Group (Reckitt Benckiser) and Dr
Andrew Taylor, Assistant Director of Public Health Science and Health Economist (Hull Primary Care Trust). Andrew
and Paul provided interesting insights into their own journey and how they have used their qualification. Both
highlighted their subject matter and how it continues to excite them in the work they do. Stephen used his
presentation to examine what employers will be looking for and used his current research interest in talent
management to explore what participants can do to succeed. The presenters also took questions and answers at the
end illustrating the importance for participants to plan ahead their employability with advice on keeping the CV
short and how to sell ‘yourself’ in the first half page.
Dr Theresa Mercer closed the sessions with a paper on her transition from PhD student to Post Doctoral Researcher,
which gave the highs and lows of the process, delight at gaining a doctorate but then the uncertainty of not having
the close supervisory relationship which provides the safety net of advice, support and encouragement. Not that this
isn’t available afterwards but not to the same level. Post doctoral researchers do have support but they are expected
to be more independent and to take initiative to a greater degree. There is also the uncertainty of gaining work with
the current climate. Theresa cautioned that it will become even more competitive. Importantly she did show that
there is life after the PhD!
“Very useful to hear about postdoc life because that is something I don’t know anything about. Would have
liked more from her!”
Professor Colquhoun then led a final plenary where students drew out ideas for future conferences and asked any
last questions. The Conference was closed by Co-Chair Gill Hughes who summed up and gave thanks to all involved.
It has been a valuable conference. I have learnt a lot about doing a PhD.
“The conference inspired me to conduct this kind of conference.”
The papers for the conference were chosen through a peer review process they were submitted under the themes,
the conference team appraised them and then the Academic theme lead made the final choice of two student
papers to complement their own paper.
In addition to the papers there was a poster competition, posters under the conference themes were submitted and
judged by Dr Nigel Shaw from the University of Hull Graduate School, Dr Vicky Willett and Professor Marlene Sinclair.
After much deliberation the first prize of a £50 Waterstones Book Voucher was awarded to:
Sujan Shrestha (University of Thames Valley). His poster provided a brief overview of his research interest which is
about providing an access to digital resources to teachers and students in public schools that lack access to ICT. The
poster mainly focused up on his experience of doing his PhD so far. It highlighted his background, the context of his
research, his expectations, the reality of his PhD and what his achieved are so far.
The second prize of a £30 Waterstones Book Voucher was awarded to:
Wuri Handayani (University of Hull). Her poster explained how in spending a lot of time at the library searching for
resources, she felt like she was drowning in an ocean of information and did not know whether she was heading in a
right direction. Attending 2 day induction sessions helped her to find the answers she was looking for. She found it
very beneficial and she gained awareness about the PhD journey. Sharing knowledge and skills and understanding
the training needed helped her to plan her journey and inspired her to re-evaluate her strategy and begin to think
like a researcher. The panel struggled to choose their winners as they were impressed with the other posters so
decided to refund the conference fee to the other non committee poster participants. The posters were a visual
representation of the themes and will be displayed in the Hull University Graduate School for all to see.
The conference was supported by The Graduate School especially Dr Nigel Shaw and Robin Thompson. The
conference was resourced through the Robert’s Fund. Shortfalls were filled with the ten pound charge to
participants and additional funds were provided by the Graduate school for purchasing conference bags for
participants and ordered in bulk to further promote future conferences. Nigel gave the initial opening of the
conference and welcomed participants and closed the first day. His requested feedback from the Hull participants in
suggesting what they needed from the Graduate School was successful and suggestions were collected on post-its
together with participants ‘top tips’ for doing a PhD. Robin assisted in the development of the web pages via the
Graduate School pages keeping it up to date as information was made available and continues to keep this up to
date following the conference with all conference resources. He put together a team of post graduate students to
video the whole conference and gave a presentation on the Virtual Graduate School. Both Nigel and Robin were
around for the majority of the conference and responded promptly to requests to provide credits for attendance for
Hull students following submission of the students learned experience and certificates of attendance for non-Hull
In addition a great deal of support was given by Mark Mullaney, Assistant Director Commercial Services and Jill
Mason, and their team they ensured the smooth running of the hospitality for the conference and the dinner. Mark
was extremely helpful throughout the planning process and gave generous support in time and resources. Jill
ensured that the refreshments were timely and met all of the required needs. Both ensured that additional requests
were catered for and went above and beyond to ensure that the event was a success. A thank you is due to all in
Staff House, as the layout and additional assistance in printing for speakers demonstrated the willingness of all staff
At the end of the conference a number of students came forward to carry on the initiative and ensure that the
University of Hull continues to be at the forefront of providing PhD students with the support and learning
opportunities that will assist them to complete. The current conference organising team have committed to pass on
all of the resources developed such as the web-site, the calls for papers and application forms, planning timelines
and crucial partners. This will be together with their support and assistance, which they gratefully received from
Andrew and Theresa. This will ensure that the initiative lives on at the University of Hull demonstrating its
commitment to supporting a culture that ensures high quality research is produced and disseminated to create
gch/cl 18th Feb 2011