Postgraduate studies: Navigating university as a doctoral student by Florencia Botta

Five people all at laptops on a table. Some have headphones on
Graphic image of a woman with brown hair smiling with her thumbs up.

Student Engagement Ambassador, Florencia, discusses her journey as a Postgraduate student at the University of Reading and offers advice on how to navigate postgraduate studies. 

Doing a doctoral degree can be very different from attending a taught course. I cannot speak for everyone. However, even without the pandemic, I found the experience quite isolating. I concentrated on one single topic for years to the point that it became easy to believe it that was my entire life. My work-life balance, as well as my whole career outside my thesis, went out the window. Please, don’t misunderstand me. Finishing your dissertation is imperative, and this is not a long rant to justify procrastination. However, I thought about sharing some nibs of information I kept in mind when navigating my studies at the University of Reading.

My main priority was and still is my dissertation. I would never suggest otherwise. However, I also searched for opportunities that would expand my training and career, as well as having a personal life.

To select what I did, I asked myself the following questions:

“Why am I doing this degree, and what kind of job and life do I want after graduation?”

I didn’t have a specific answer to these questions, and I don’t think it is necessary to have a fully formed plan. I like keeping my options open. However, these starting questions gave me ideas for where to search. If you have an idea of the field or type of job you want to have, you can organise your activities to fit your needs.

These are some activities you can do during your PhD to enrich your experience:

  • Academic societies and conferences:These are perhaps the most obvious option. However, they must be mentioned. They are excellent ways to stay up to date with current research and networking for future collaborations and projects. Even if you are not interested in pursuing a career in academia, conferences can also be a great way of meeting people in the industry. The pandemic changed a lot of how we attend conferences. Although online networking is not ideal, attending and presenting at online conferences has become cheaper, reaching more people.
  • Internships:Internships, placements, or just shadowing someone can provide work experience and training, as well as give you a better image of different jobs. It can also help make contacts. Sadly, this is not possible for everyone. As an international student, my Visa did not allow for placements. For this reason, I tried to get a similar experience by volunteering in relevant areas and seeking training courses when possible.
  • Courses:This includes the available and mandatory RRDP courses, as well as other less known classes. In my case, I took classes in statistics and academic English. You can also take the chance to learn a new skill or language.
  • Demonstration and marking: Demonstrating and marking can be a great way of getting teaching experience. Working in different modules helped me a lot in understanding how to design a class. Additionally, if you want to pursue a teaching career in the UK, you can aim to be certified.
  • Public engagement and impact:Most of my writing experience is academic. However, I think it is important not to limit oneself. Public engagement has become very important inside and outside academia. I took the opportunity to share my thoughts and research through blogs (like this one), which provided valuable communication experience. It also allowed me to better look into the impact my research and experience could have. There are multiple possibilities at the university for similar work. This includes social media at each department, as well as the newspaper and tv station at the university. I was more comfortable with blogs and visual media, but you can try anything: podcasts, live streams, even Tik Toks. You can also use this opportunity to engage and help the community.
  • Support system:It’s completely normal to feel overwhelmed and sometimes isolated by your PhD. I certainly have. For this reason, it is fundamental to create a support system. Staying in touch with friends within and outside the university can improve the experience a lot. Similar to a healthy work/life balance, this does not only help your mental health but also improve your productivity. The Life Tools programme can also help you to connect with other students through discussion groups.

Although all the advice I have given so far has been centred almost exclusively on career advice, I think it is important to remember that your PhD is not your life. The university and Reading offer great chances to meet people and try new things. Remember that this is your life, and it is ok to relax and have fun!

I understand that everyone is different and has different circumstances. I am only sharing some tips which helped me. This may not apply to everyone, but I hope it may help someone.

Stay tuned to the Student life Instagram account for more tips about socialising as a postgraduate student at university!

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