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PhD Summer School: Tapping into vital support, opportunities and networks

PhD researcher, Danielle Bulter, reflects on the recent CaCHE PhD Summer School, which was delivered in collaboration with the Housing Studies Association (HSA) and The White Rose Social Sciences Doctoral Training Partnership (WRDTP).

In April, I found myself pen in hand, notebook on lap, and eagerly awaiting the start of the first session the Housing Studies Association (HSA) annual conference in Sheffield. Focused broadly on employability in the housing sector and drawing upon personal and professional experience both within and beyond academia, I found that first session energising, inspiring, honest, and incredibly useful. It included a number of speakers from CaCHE and this is how I came to learn about the Centre’s dedicated work to supporting, nurturing and celebrating the work of PhD students and early career researchers in housing studies.

Fast forward to July and I’m once again in Sheffield, but this time as part of a group of 20 PhD students attending CaCHE’s first PhD summer school: ‘Knowledge Brokerage and Impact in Housing Research’. Spread across two days, the summer school aimed to achieve two things: (1) to bring together doctoral students working across the broad and diverse field of housing studies, providing a relaxed, informal and supportive space to share the ups and the downs, and (2) given the Centre’s commitment to act as a bridge between academia and the policy and practice world, to provide those early on in their careers with the opportunity to learn about strategies for impact, influence and knowledge exchange.

From the introductions on day one, I was really impressed by how the event had brought together such a diverse mix of professional experience, disciplinary backgrounds, research topics, methodological approaches, and geographical scope of the projects being shared. As a group of PhD students, we were all at different stages, some just starting out, some in the depths of literature or fieldwork, and a few of us creeping ever closer to the finish line. The first day also focused on some basic principles and strategies for knowledge exchange, why it matters, carrying out rapid evidence reviews, and excellent tips for communicating your research.

Day two of the event turned its focus more towards the practical and the strategic, with a range of speakers from academic, policy and practitioner backgrounds all sharing notable successes in terms of impact and knowledge exchange. This included a joint session delivered by DWP representatives who outlined their ambitions to work more with academics, as well as highlighting a range of effective strategies for working with political institutions and public officials. We also heard from academics, Dr Kim McKee and Dr Beth Watts, Head of Policy for the Chartered Institute of Housing, Melanie Rees, and Head of Housing Research at Levitt Bernstein, Julia Park.

Reflecting on the two days, some of the key messages I took away were:

  • Where and when you can grab opportunities to step back from your research and learn about what’s going on more broadly in the field. Yes, it is necessary as a PhD student to become engrossed in a very narrow and specific area, but the summer school was a great opportunity to step back and take in a broader view of what’s going on in the wider world of housing studies. Over the two days, I furiously scribbled down top tips related to methodology, theory, practical steps in doing research, giving presentations, relevant conferences and events, useful contacts, and so many other useful pointers shared by the organisers, speakers and attendees alike.
  • Think about your research not only in terms of key messages but also as part of relevant conversations. In terms of communicating research, we need to decide upon and construct clear messages, which differ depending on the audience. However, the importance of thinking about communication as a two-way process and identifying the conversations your research can and will contribute to was noted several times. In terms of ongoing research reciprocity, not just with your findings at the end, consider also what you have to offer partners in policy and practice, instead of just asking what they can do to help you (for instance, in finding research participants).
  • Twitter is an amazing network, especially for users and producers of research, but sometimes nothing beats talking to people in real life. I’m a big fan of Twitter for learning about and sharing research. I’ve made connections via this platform that have led to some really exciting opportunities. However, I find that sometimes it’s stopped me from going up to that person at an event, introducing myself and engaging in a conversation that is more meaningful and stretches beyond the limits of 140 characters.
  • There really is no time like the present. Contact that person you exchanged cards with or spent ages talking to at an event. Write that blog post or briefing about your research, your thoughts, ideas, frustrations even. As Beth Watts noted at the event, a number of successful impact stories have been down to adopting a ‘fleet of foot’ approach, moving quickly where and when your experience and expertise have something valuable to add to the conversation. One pointer that particularly struck me, from CaCHE’s Communications and Engagement Officer, Claire Martin, was the importance of building in your strategy for impact and research communication from the very start, if possible, or to do so right now. Don’t wait for the end of the research. Know that there are numerous resources both built into the service offered at universities, as well as external contacts and resources to help with this – seek out support, be unafraid to ask for help.

While no two experiences of doctoral study are the same, there are definitely commonalities. Spending a couple of days in a room full of others who’re going through or have gone through something similar is incredibly helpful. Learning about tried and tested strategies for developing your work is superb for progression and productivity. I was reminded by the summer school (and in particular by CIH’s Melanie Rees) that we all get stuck in our work from time to time and talking most definitely helps. When behind the scenes you have a collaborative organisation, like CaCHE, that brings together academia, policy and practice, and is bursting with relevant experience and expertise, you find yourself as a PhD student with unparalleled access to vital support, opportunities and networks that might otherwise be extremely difficult to tap into.

Danielle Butler is a doctoral student in Social Policy and Associate Member of the Sustainable Housing & Urban Studies Unit at the University of Salford. She has longstanding experience working with Citizens Advice and is a founding member of the Fuel Poverty Research Network. She tweets @delisabethb.

To learn more about the PhD Summer School or to register your interest for the 2019 event, contact Dr Gareth Young.

 
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Date: August 8, 2018 1:38 pm

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