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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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How poster competitions can support postgraduates

by Ben Archer and Jill Dickinson

The challenges presented by the higher education environment, including students’ mental wellbeing and doctoral completion rates (Cage et al, 2021; Rooij et al, 2019), have been compounded by Covid-19. Pre-existing concerns around the potential isolation of the doctoral journey have become more prevalent since the pandemic (Börgeson et al, 2021; Pollak, 2017). Within such an environment, opportunities for building postgraduate students’ communities of practice, networks, and self-efficacy have become even more important (Lamothe et al, 2018; Lui et al, 2020; Wazni et al, 2021). In this blog, we examine one such opportunity, a Postgraduate Research Showcase and Poster Competition. After outlining the event, we identify some of the challenges around managing the event, explore the benefits of the event for key stakeholders, and consider the potential for further developing the event both in-house and in collaboration with other institutions.

Presenting research via a poster at the Society for Research into Higher Education Conference inspired Jill Dickinson to apply for funding to devise a new Postgraduate Research Showcase and Poster Competition. The aim was to provide an accessible space for students at all stages of their postgraduate studies to share their research, discuss their ideas, prepare for assessments, develop their employability skills (Disney et al, 2015), and build networks. Jill secured internal funding through both the Graduate School and through her role as a Fellow of the Sheffield Institute for Policy Studies, and worked with a colleague from the Department of Psychology, Sociology and Politics (PSP) to launch the event. Recognising the importance of creating opportunities for postgraduate researchers to develop their research profiles, Jill also secured external funding from key organisations, including Oxford University Press, Palgrave, and Blackwells.

Following the trend towards interdisciplinary collaborations (Bridle et al, 2013), students from the Departments of Law and Criminology, Natural and Built Environment, and PSP, and the Centre for Regional, Social and Economic Research were invited to participate. To reflect the conference process, students were asked to submit abstracts for review. Fourteen students presented their work to an audience that included external organisations, doctoral research supervisors, and fellow students. The posters were judged by a panel who awarded prizes for both academic significance and potential impact. One of the winners noted ‘unlike formal conferences, the SIPS PhD Student Poster Event gave presenters the opportunity to engage with attendees on a relaxed one-to-one level. I received plenty of invaluable advice and suggestions which have shaped my PhD going forward.’ After 93% of delegates rated the event as either good or excellent, the initiative became established as an annual event in the Graduate School’s programme.

Since its launch, the event has been developed:

  • with additional funding provided by other organisations, including Emerald and Policy Press;
  • to provide opportunities for all postgraduate researchers from all disciplines across the University;
  • to include a programme of workshops to provide support for students in developing their posters;
  • to encourage the audience to vote on their favourite poster for a Delegates’ Choice Award; and
  • to become a self-perpetuating initiative that is led by, and for, postgraduate researchers.

Over the past five years, the event has provided notable benefits for those involved, including the development of skills, knowledge and experience around: consolidating and presenting ideas in a creative way (Etter and Guardi, 2015; Rowe and Ilac, 2009); explaining research findings in an accessible format for a lay audience; and strengthening confidence in public speaking, which can be particularly helpful for supporting newer student researchers with their teaching responsibilities. Furthermore, postgraduate students have described the event as a key milestone for developing their self-efficacy, particularly around helping them to prepare for their confirmation and viva stages. More broadly, the event recognises the longevity and challenges of postgraduate studies and provides an opportunity for the wider research community to celebrate research success through encouraging positive reflections on what student researchers have done, not what obstacles remain (Batty et al, 2019; Pyhältö , 2012; Sverdlik et al, 2018).

In line with the Students as Partners model (Healey, Flint and Carrington, 2014), Jill invited postgraduate students who have participated in the event to join the organisational team. For example, Ben Archer, co-author of this blog post and winner of the 2019 Delegates’ Choice Award, co-organised the event in 2020. Ben has since led on the arrangements for the 2021 event, inviting other postgraduate student researchers to join him, and the team are already planning next year’s event.

Navigating the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic over the past two years has, however, proven tricky. The April 2020 showcase had been thoroughly planned, with poster submissions received, rooms booked and display boards pre-ordered, but the organisation team worked quickly to identify and realise an opportunity to incorporate the event within the University-wide Creating Knowledge online conference programme. Following the success of this format, and given the continuing uncertainties presented by the pandemic environment, the organisational committee decided to retain, and further develop, the event within this virtual format. For example, the team extended the time for this year’s event from one hour to three hours to encourage more discussions between the presenters and all members of the audience. In addition, the posters were made available on the SIPS website for two weeks prior to the event to maximise opportunities for receiving feedback and development of profiles. Against a backdrop of reduced networking opportunities necessitated by the pandemic, the continuation of this event facilitated peer-interaction and community-building which can be particularly important given the potential issues identified earlier around postgraduate students’ feelings of  isolation, lack of confidence, and mental health (Hazell et al, 2020).

Building on the event’s sustained success, and despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, the organisational team are exploring opportunities for its further development. One idea is to host a blended event that combines an on-campus poster display with online, follow-up presentations. The aim would be to maximise accessibility and engagement with an increased audience that could further build postgraduate researchers’ confidence, employability skills, networking opportunities, and profiles. Additionally, the organisational team are looking to collaborate with other institutions to host a larger scale event that further recognises the breadth and value of social policy research within higher education.

If you are interested in finding out more about the event and ways within which you could get involved, we would really like to hear from you!

Benjamin Archer is a Lecturer in Law at Sheffield Hallam University. He is a Sheffield Institute for Policy Studies and Doctoral Training Alliance joint-funded PhD student, examining the introduction of Public Spaces Protection Orders. Ben’s research interests include anti-social behaviour and the management of greenspaces and high streets. Twitter @benjaminarcher_

Dr Jill Dickinson is a Senior Lecturer in Law at Sheffield Hallam University, who is currently on secondment with the Student Engagement, Evaluation and Research Team. As a Senior Fellow of the HEA, Jill’s research interests include professional development and employability, and she sits on the England Committee for the International Professional Development Association. Twitter @jill_dickinson1


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Redrawing research methods and rewriting data

by Kate Carruthers Thomas

The call for papers for the SRHE 2019 Conference slid into my inbox not so long ago, marking the point in the year when the mind must focus in the short-term, in order to benefit from all things Celtic Manor in the longer term! The conference theme: Creativity, Criticality and Conformity in Higher Education invites debate on transcending the traditional and building an innovative research culture. The theme is timely in view of my own recent experiments involving graphics and poetry in social sciences research.

One year ago, I sat with a mass of rich qualitative data I’d collected for Gender(s) At Work, a research project investigating gendered experiences of work and career trajectory in higher education (HE). I’d interviewed 50 members of staff, identifying as female, male and gender non-binary, working in academic and professional services roles within one UK university. I set about analysing the data using Massey’s theory of geographies of power operating within space. I wanted to explore ways in which gender operates as a ‘geography of power’ within HE and the extent to which participants’ diverse and complex lived experiences trouble the prevailing career narrative of linear, upward trajectory.

Clear space soon emerged between the rhetoric of gender equality and lived experiences in the workplace and throughout working lives. Despite decades of equal opportunities legislation and institutional equality policies, the glass ceiling remains a feature of our sector. Elements of less familiar career archetypes: the glass cliff (Ryan and Haslam, 2005; Bruckmuller et al, 2014); the glass escalator (Williams, 2013; Budig, 2002) and the glass closet (Merriam-Webster, 2018) also surfaced in the transcripts.  These metaphors, archetypal and architectural – were something of a gift to a researcher concerned with the relationship between space and power. I found myself experimenting – you might call it doodling – with visual representations of the glass ceiling,  escalator, cliff and closet.

Using the visual was not completely new territory for me; as a doctoral student I had employed visual mapping as a research tool (Carruthers Thomas, 2018a) and tentatively used abstract diagrams as aids to explaining my theoretical framework and findings (Thomas, 2016), but I hadn’t picked up a pencil with intent since school art lessons. Nevertheless, four cartoon characters emerged from my doodles; embodiments of gendered dis/advantage in the HE workplace.

Throughout the Gender(s) At Work project, I had been disseminating emerging findings through conference papers and PowerPoint presentations. I had written a chapter about my research methodology (Carruthers Thomas, 2019a). As academics we anticipate and reproduce such formats; they keep the academic wheels turning and form the building blocks of academic credibility. With data collection complete however, I was unsure that the temporal and structural constraints of these conventions were going to do justice to the volume of complex personal narratives entrusted to me by research participants. I was also becoming increasingly drawn towards McLure’s argument for

immersion in and entanglement with the minutiae of the data … an experimentation or crafting … a very different kind of engagement with data from the distanced contemplation of the table that is the arrested result of the process.

(McLure, 2013: 174-175).

In March 2018, the Sociological Review explicitly invited unconventional contributions to its conference: Undisciplining: Conversations from the Edges. Still enjoying my experimentation with cartooning, I decided to explore the possibilities of communicating my research findings through a ‘graphic essay’ entitled My Brilliant Career? An Investigation. This would be in the format of a large-scale, hand-drawn comic strip conforming to the structural conventions of an essay or article. My proposal was accepted and the work began! The learning curve was precipitous!

 In June 2018, I exhibited My Brilliant Career? An Investigation at Undisciplining (Carruthers Thomas, 2018b) in the impressive surroundings of BALTIC Gateshead. The four A2-sized panels remained on display throughout the three days of the conference. It was strikingly different, communicating my research this way rather than hothousing it in a 20 minute Powerpoint presentation. Many delegates returned to the exhibit several times to look, bring colleagues, take photographs, ask questions. I engaged in discussions not only about the medium, but about the research process and findings too. And I myself engaged anew with the work, as an exhibit, rather than a cherished work in progress. I later translated the four panels into an A1-sized academic poster, displayed at the SRHE 2018 Annual Conference.

Meanwhile, another call for unconventional conference contributions in the form of poetic and performative work, had come from the Art of Management and Organisation (AoMO). This triggered a second experiment in creative criticality resulting in Glass, a long poem also based on the Gender(s) At Work data. Unlike graphic art, in poetry I do have a track record (Carruthers Thomas, 2018c), but had not considered blurring the boundary between poetry and academia until this call. Yet, as an academic my research practice involves collecting, analysing, distilling and presenting data. My research is a form of enquiry seeking enhanced intelligence and evidence to advocate organisational, structural and cultural change. As a poet, I follow a similar process to create a poem. More, or less, consciously I collect data: ideas, questions, emotions, sense phenomena, then manipulate language and sound to distil the data into poetic form. Glass brings these practices together.

To write it, I returned yet again to the interview transcripts, creating a poem comprising four sections – ceiling, escalator, closet and cliff – using participants’ words and a narrative framework featuring the researcher’s voice, using original poetry. Glass was deliberately written as a piece to be performed, another first, as I had only previously written poems for the page.

Even now, even now in my meetings

I’m still faced with wall to wall suits.

And I still hear my colleagues repeating

the proposal I tried to get through weeks ago

Great idea!

                                                                                (extract from Cliff, Glass 2018)

Glass and My Brilliant Career were created independently of one another, in different media but they draw on the same research data. This is not all they share. Both involved an extended process of analysis and representation; repeated revisiting of the data and work in painstaking detail. Both explicitly draw on and draw in, the affective, bringing the potential for surprise, humour, anger and pain into the room without apology. Finally, both also required me to allow myself to be vulnerable to audience resistance, discomfort, critiques on multiple levels and questions of academic validity.

Largely positive responses to the graphic essay and the research poem at those conferences set me thinking about ways to signpost the potential of creative approaches in social science research more widely and led to another experiment in academic practice.  I designed a multi-modal dissemination programme to take the findings of Gender(s) At Work out to UK universities and research institutes.  The programme featured six ‘options’ from which host institutions could select, mix and match: the exhibit My Brilliant Career? An Investigation; the research poem Glass; a conventional Powerpoint presentation of the research findings: The Workplace Glassed and Gendered and another giving an illustrated account of my emerging graphic social science practice: The Accidental Cartoonist. Building on both the research findings and visual methods, I also designed two participative workshops. Mapping Career challenged participants to develop meaningful visual alternatives to the reductive metaphors of career ladder and pipeline and On The Page explored the way simple visual and graphic methods might be used in research and teaching. I publicised the programme via email across the UK HE sector.

The response was extraordinary. Since November 2018 I’ve visited universities and research institutes from Edinburgh to London; Cambridge to Bangor. Audiences have included academics in all disciplines, professional services staff, senior management, conference delegates, Athena SWAN teams, women’s networks and mentoring groups, postgraduate and undergraduate students. I called the initiative the ‘gword tour’ after my blog the g word (that’s g for gender).   Six months, 30 ‘gigs’ – all that’s missing is the T-shirt!

One day I might be discussing Gender(s) At Work aims, research methods and findings to Athena SWAN leads and women’s networks; on another I’ll be delivering the Mapping Career workshop at a staff conference. I’ve presented The Accidental Cartoonist to academic developers and EdD students and encouraged academics to experiment with visual methods in their research and teaching practices in the On The Page workshop. Glass has been performed at some unlikely venues, including the Wellcome Sanger Genome Campus, the Stansted Airport Novotel – and to audiences somewhat larger than those at the average poetry reading!

How will you crack the glass enclosing some,

exposing some, blinding others

to their privilege?

Reflect on it.

                                                                                (extract from Epilogue, Glass 2018)

Throughout the gword tour I have diligently handed out structured feedback forms (in return for a free postcard), providing me with a continuous feedback loop and resulting in adaptation and tweaking of individual sessions throughout. Now the tour has concluded, a large pile of completed forms await me and I’m looking forward to getting the bigger picture. Meanwhile I’m already musing on two questions which have arisen throughout the past year. Firstly, whether and how addressing familiar topics through unfamiliar media can disrupt audience expectations and dislodge habitual responses to tricky subjects such as gender equality; secondly, whether what I have described in this blog constitutes being ‘differently academic’. 

By ‘differently academic’ I mean taking the opportunity to sit with our data for longer, deliberately to approach it from different angles, to explore its creative dimensions. I mean bringing data to diverse audiences, in diverse ways over an extended period, a process which has only further energised and deepened my engagement in the original research questions. Audience after audience has grilled me on my research rationale, process, findings, limitations and implications. Each time, their questions, comments and challenges have pushed my analyses further and opened new lines of enquiry.

I fully intend to publish my reflections on these questions in conventional academic formats: papers, articles and chapters.It may be that creative, critical work in our field can only gain academic legitimacy through this route.Meanwhile, other opportunities have arisen. Glass was published in the Sociological Fiction Zine in May 2019 (Carruthers Thomas, 2019b). I am currently working on a set of visuals for a new academic research centre and will be poet-in-residence at an academic conference in November 2019. The SRHE call for papers defines creativity as ‘transcending traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships’. I hope to continue to be creative and critical in my academic work, not for transcending’s sake, but ‘to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, and interpretations’.

SRHE member Dr Kate Carruthers Thomas is Senior Research Fellow and Athena SWAN Project Manager at Birmingham City University  kate.thomas@bcu.ac.uk  @drkcarrutherst Blog: – the g word https://thegword2017.wordpress.com/

References

Bruckmüller, S, Ryan, M, Rink, F and Haslam, SA (2014) ‘Beyond the Glass Ceiling: The Glass Cliff and its Lessons for Organizational Policy’, Social Issues and Policy Review, 8(1): 202-232

Budig, M (2002) ‘Male Advantage and the Gender Composition of Jobs: Who Rides the Glass Escalator?’, Social Problems 49(2): 258-277

Carruthers Thomas, K (2018a) Rethinking Student Belonging in Higher Education: From Bourdieu to Borderlands, Abingdon: Routledge

Carruthers Thomas, K (2018b) My Brilliant Career? An Investigation. Graphic Essay exhibited at Undisciplining: Conversations from the Edges Sociological Review, Gateshead, BALTIC.  June 2018

Carruthers Thomas, K (2018c) Navigation, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Cinnamon Press. 

Carruthers Thomas, K (2019a) ‘Gender as a Geography of Power’ in G Crimmins (ed) Resisting Sexism in the Academy: Higher Education, Gender and Intersectionality, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Carruthers Thomas, K (2019b) Glass. Sociological Fiction Zine, Edition #5 http://www.sofizine.com.

McLure, M (2013) ‘Classification or Wonder? Coding as an Analytic Practice in Qualitative Research’, In Coleman, R and Ringrose, J (eds) Deleuze and Research Methodologies, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.  Chapter 9. pp.164-183.

Merriam-Webster (2019). [online] Available from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/glass%20closet Accessed 28 May 2019.

Ryan, M and Haslam, A. (2005) The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions, British Journal of Management, 16(2): 81-90

Thomas, K (2016). Dimensions of belonging: rethinking retention for mature, part-time undergraduates in English higher education, PhD thesis, Birkbeck, University of London

Williams, M (2013) ‘The Glass Escalator, Revisited. Gender Inequality in Neoliberal Times’, Gender & Society 27 (5): 609–629