From UoB to UBC- a U21 fellowship blog


From Birmingham to BC

This blog will form a record of my Universitas 21  staff fellowship visit to the University of British Columbia  in May-June 2014. While I’m there Ill be researching personal and professional development for postgraduate researchers, including the Graduate Pathways to Success programme and academic writing support. I’ll also be attempting to not get lost in downtown Vancouver (much).

While I’ll be writing a formal report after the fellowship, I’ll be using this blog to record day to day thoughts, observations and reflections, and maybe even share a few photographs. If you’ve got suggestions for things I should see or do in Vancouver, let me know!


About me

As per my profile: Erika, Postgraduate Researcher Development Officer at the University of Birmingham. Creator/facilitator of University Graduate School development programmes. Interested in professional development, writing support, and cohort identity among postgraduate researchers. Enthusiastic knitter and accidental ice hockey fan.

Opinions are my own, not those of my employer.


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Back in the UK

So, after a fairly stressful flight back home last week (sprinting through Calgary airport is not typically how I like to spend my evenings, I only just made my gate) I’ve just about reset my internal clock to UK time. I’m working on the final report from my fellowship, deciding how I’m going to use what I’ve learned and how I’m going to maintain connections with the people I’ve met.

I’ll keep this blog going to talk about those things, but in the meantime, some pictures! Click on each picture to enlarge.

The Koerner Library, UBC

The Koerner Library, UBC

Koerner Library, the Main library on UBC Campus and home to the Research Commons and Firetalks series.

More pictures behind here Continue reading

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Bye bye BC

Sadly, my fellowship has come to an end, but not before I was able to achieve one of my original aims, finding out more about UBC’s writing provision.

In a show of poor timing, the GPS writing week is actually next week, but Meghan from the Writing Centre in the department of Continuing Studies (the brains behind Grammar Squirrel) kindly met with me to discuss the activities she and GPS hold on academic writing. The writing centre works with all types of student, but for grad students they offer a combination of one to one advice sessions, workshops, and small thesis writing workshops supported by an active member of faculty. These focus on peer support for writing and encouraging members to share their work and edit each other’s early drafts. Meghan said they’ve found this encourages accountability and helps people keep writing, even when it’s difficult. As I’m possibly planning on introducing a writing circle at UoB it was really useful to brainstorm some ideas with her!

They also have new sessions planned for autumn, including some on writing for publication, and more Grammar Squirrel videos. They are considering adding another character to the videos- may I suggest a Sentence Swan?

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Looking to the future

I’m winding up my time here at UBC, so it seems fitting that on Friday, I had opportunity to attend a symposium on the very future of the Canadian PhD itself.

The symposium “Re-imagining the PhD: new forms and futures for Graduate Education” was organised by the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. I assisted the GPS team on the day, taking notes for some of the sessions; it was a wonderful opportunity to get a sense of some of the current conversations surrounding graduate education in Canada.

Faculty, postgraduates and distinguished guests such as Dr
Andrew Szeri (UC Berkeley) and Dr Russell Berman (Stanford) met to discuss the different attributes PhD graduates need to succeed in diverse fields, how the PhD can serve the public good, and what barriers and challenges exist in reinventing or reimagining the PhD for the 21 Century.

As you might expect in an academic setting, there were a lot of different views, and some lively discussion! Appropriate vehicles of of assessment, the perception of non-academic careers as ‘failures’ and the need to collaborate across disciplines were all topics that sparked debates, as well as strenuous defences of the PhD as a research project rather than career preparation.

One of the issues identified was how to best take advantage of existing expertise in postgraduate development, and how to promote collaboration. There’s a lot of knowledge and expertise available, but it can be difficult to know how to access it. That’s where programmes and offices like the GPS office (and my own role at Birmingham) can be usful.

The day ended with lots of new ideas, and it seems that’s there’s some interesting conversions and projects still to happen. I’m sad I won’t get to see them played out here!

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Under construction


Apparently it wouldn’t be a real visit UBC without building work! This is the front of the building where I’ve been based. The car park is being torn up to be replaced with a garden. UBC is really committed to sustainability and aims to be a zero waste campus; I’ve quickly learned the ins and outs of separating out my rubbish, and catering even uses compostable pasta as coffee stirrers!

Yesterday I attended on of the CTLT Institute sessions. The Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology runs a series of sessions on teaching and learning, and I attended one on elements of an online, learner-centred course in bacterial infection. As we are looking to move some of our offerings online, I was interested to see what elements worked, and if I could learn from facilitator Niamh Kelly’s years of experience in offering this course. I can see I’m going to have to think very carefully about how to promote and facilitate peer discussion online, and be very explicit about expectations at the beginning.

In the afternoon Jacqui and I met with Jackie Amsden from Simon Fraser University, another University in Vancouver. SFU are still developing their postgraduate and postdoc professional development, but I really liked the ideas around peer sessions feedback on skills inventories and personal statements for job searching we discussed. I was also interested to talk with her about how she uses Canvas e-portfolios as part of the assessment process for certain workshops. Maybe this is something we could consider for PGCARMS? More to investigate when I get back!

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Three minutes and counting

Back in Vancouver for the second week of my fellowship. No photograph today, I’m afraid, but campus is looking really beautiful in the June sunshine, all the fountains are playing and the sun was making rainbows in the spray.

As the Three Minute Thesis competition is running next week at UoB I took the chance to discuss UBC’s support for 3MT with Jacqui Brinkman, who’s been my host for this fellowship.

3MT has a long history at UBC, and those of you who attended the workshop I ran last month may remember I played some videos from UBC finalists. Jacqui explained that they produce handbooks, example programmes and and templates for department/ faculty heats, and run training both as a face to face workshop and as a webinar. Participants have the chance to practice their 3MTs in coaching sessions, and receive honest, constructive feedback. Jacqui also invited last year’s 3MT winner to talk about his experiences in the workshop. I think this is a great idea, so look out for me asking for volunteers next year!

You can find out more about UBC’s 3MT here, including videos of this year’s finalists. Jacqui’s tips for 3MT? Stay calm and practice, practice, practice! Good luck next week everyone!


Home away from home

I’m taking a short trip to Vancouver Island and the city of Victoria. It reminds me of nothing so much as an English seaside town, really putting the ‘British’ into British Columbia.


Yesterday I met with Lisa Bronner, who helps international students at UBC feel at home through her work as an international students advisor. UBC has a very high number of international students, just as UoB has, and I was interested to find out some of the activities they can get involved with, including events to explore Vancouver. UBC has a beautiful campus but it’s away from the downtown area of Vancover, and it can be hard for students to find their feet in the wider city. As UoB has a similar location, I wonder if we should expand our campus tours to wider city excursions. Anyone fancy being a tour guide?

Today I visited colleagues at the University of Victoria to get a different perspective on researcher development. UVic is Canada’s largest provider of co-op programmes for postgraduates, which combine masters or doctoral research with paid, relevant work experience. This enables postgrads to develop professional and career competences, and well as seeing the impact their research may have in the wider world.

I also spoke with the Centre for Teaching and Learning about the LATHE programme of teaching development for PGTAs, a programme that emphasises pedagogical research as well as practical skills. They were also interested in our PGCARMS programme, so I told them a little more about it. Knowledge exchange in action!

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Step by step


Today I visited the beautiful Nitobe gardens on campus. The gardens are laid out in traditional Japanese design, and are said to tell the story of a journey. It’s up to the individual to decide if this is the journey of a day, a month, or a whole life. There are many different paths you can take, each giving you a new perspective on the garden as a whole.

The meetings I had today and yesterday concerned different stages of the postgraduate journey. They included orientation discussions to resume tutorials , via peer-led Research Commons workshops in the Koerner Library. Each activity is a different step on the path to a successful research degree.