Earlier on this year, I answered a call asking for PGR students to be part of the conference organising committee. I love conferences and I especially love organising so I jumped at the chance. Somewhere between my first meeting with the committee and the event itself, I also stood (rather unexpectedly) for the role of PGR Officer with the Union and - in an uncontested election - won!
I’ll admit to knowing very little about what the Union can do for PGR students prior to election. If your undergraduate experience was anything like mine, the SU (as it was back then) was the place to go for cheap Malibu & coke and cheese toasties. Whilst I’m still partial to a cheese toastie, drinking at lunchtime is now slightly less acceptable. It turns out that there’s actually a lot the Union can do in supporting us. They are independent from the University and exist to support the interests and protect the rights of ALL students.
Yet there’s a challenge: despite there being around 400 of us in the University, the lesser-spotted PhD student can be a somewhat lone wolf, drifting between the library, our offices and the place where they sell the magical life-giving, energy-restoring coffee bean. Many of us also live off campus or away from Derby entirely, have family and professional lives that require our attention and often need to juggle multiple internal and external commitments with the demands of studying. This presents the PGR community, the Union, and the University with a challenge: how to engage such a diverse group that - often through no fault of their own or specific intention - engage very little with university life?
A key message of my manifesto for election was done WITH us, not TO us. I believe that we are the ones who should lead the ways in which we engage with each other and the wider academic community. I pledged to proactively create a greater sense of PGR community, where voices would be heard and, most importantly, listened to and acted upon. We’re a pretty clever bunch and who better to direct the change than the ones it affects the most? With this in mind, I invited the Student Voice team who are part of the Union to attend the conference to help in gathering the student experience with a view to using this to shape things going forward.
The Voice team jumped to the challenge and came up with a range of ways to engage with students. A chance opening in the programme also gave me an opportunity to facilitate an open trouble-shooting session where all attendees were able to submit a question anonymously to be answered by the delegates. This session was empowering and eye-opening. It showed that we have staff who are committed to supporting and mentoring students through their PhD journey. It also showed that we have students who are feeling lost, unsupported and frustrated. As I was going round collecting the post-its, one comment stood out:
“Is this going to be read out? In front of everyone? Good. I want everyone to hear this.”
The question was: Why isn’t my voice heard as a PGR student at UoD?
Feedback immediately after the session was extremely positive
“The range of questions asked including the answer to my own that was read out made me feel like I am not alone in this journey even though I often I feel I am. At times I have felt isolated and there has been many tears shed (already!) it was good to be with others from the PGR community instead of crying in a corner alone.”
Now, the downside; the event was attended by 48 students. That’s 12% of the total number who are enrolled on a doctoral study programme. We have proven that there are voices out there, but in order for whispers to become roars, we need an even greater number.
What comes next?
The feedback from PGR students will be compiled and written up into a paper that will be presented at the next University Research Council. URC is sat on by members from all research colleges and the University’s executive board. There is no better place for your voice to be heard.
We are proposing to keep the Padlet open indefinitely at https://padlet.com/l_reardon/PGRconference.
Use this as a place to submit your questions, thoughts and ideas and we will continue to gather these and use your voice to inform our conversations with college and institution executives.