Being a Midlands 3 Cities Student

Karen Patel’s research is carried out with the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research. She is looking at how creative and cultural workers in a particular city use social media, and questioning its role in their personal and professional lives.

Karen previously completed her BA and MA with the Birmingham School of Media, and also currently works in the Research, Innovation and Enterprise department at Birmingham City University, running the web and social media presence for Research.

Last week we had our residential induction for the Midlands 3 Cities Doctoral Training Partnership in Nottingham.It was a fantastic two days that made me feel really lucky to be a part of this prestigious and unique scheme.

For a bit of background, Midlands 3 Cities is a new scheme with the usual features of a studentship (such as an annual stipend and fees paid for) but you also get the benefits of working across six universities in three cities in the Midlands. These are Birmingham City University, University of Birmingham, Nottingham Trent University, University of Nottingham, De Montfort University and University of Leicester. This means we can access training and expertise from all of those universities, and work collaboratively with fellow Midlands 3 Cities students on funded projects.

The projects were a particular feature of the residential, we spent most of the time working on our ideas for a Cohort Development Fund, which is available for us to carry out projects and events which would be of benefit to postgraduate researchers (PGRs) across the six institutions. My group, which included PGRs from all types of backgrounds (from poets to historians to musicians) came up with an idea for a series of workshops to help researchers with public speaking, media handling and communicating their work to a wider audience. We’re working on submitting our application formally, so fingers crossed! What we wanted to emphasise is that any events/workshops should be made available to all PGRs at all institutions, not just Midlands 3 Cities students.

There was also a talk by artist Bill Drummond, who talked about his ten commandments of art. He asked us to think of our own ten commandments then agreed with Sharon, the Midlands 3 Cities Director, that he will meet up with us all in 3 years’ time to paint our commandments underneath Spaghetti Junction. They shook hands on it, so expect a blog post about this in 2017!

What was apparent from the two days was the sense of collegiality amongst the group; everyone got along really well and everyone is so enthusiastic about their research. I personally feel I could work with anyone in my cohort. That can also be said about PGRs in the faculty of Arts, Design and Media. So far it’s been an enjoyable first few weeks as a PhD student and I’m looking forward to the next three years.

Applications for the 2015 cohort of Midlands 3 Cities is now open, visit the website for more information.

PhD blog: Identifying a focus and staying on topic

By Carolyn Blackburn, PhD student, School of Education

Identifying a focus

One of the most challenging initial tasks a PhD student is faced with is identifying a topic to be studied that is sufficiently focused to be manageable and ‘doable’ but not so narrowly focused that it feels like a straight jacket and inhibits creative lines of inquiry. The focus can arise from personal interest, from work you’ve been involved in and are motivated to extend, from listening to experts in a particular field or from discussions with your supervisor.  Regardless of its origin, the focus must be justified by identifying gaps in the current literature so that you ensure contribution to new knowledge and avoid ‘re-inventing the wheel’.  It’s crucial at this point to ensure you’ve really explored the relevant literature including original sources and keep-up-to-date with new and emerging research in the field.

Staying on-focus

Once a focus is identified, it’s a challenge to follow the multiple lines of inquiry necessary to systematically review the literature whilst at the same time not becoming distracted and diverted by areas of interest that are complimentary to your study, but nevertheless outside the scope of what you intended to study.  If you’re not careful it’s easy to write a whole literature review that neither aligns with your research aims, title or questions. Similarly when you collect data and analyse it, keep your research questions in mind. It’s easy at this stage to become distracted by something that would be really interesting…if you were doing an entirely different PhD.

Regular meetings with your supervisor will help with this, but I found it useful to keep talking about my research to diverse audiences.  Make sure you present at research cafes and other internal mechanisms for dissemination, but also try to talk about your research at external conferences. The more you talk about your work in relation to existing studies in the field, the more you can see any pitfalls with your chosen topic. In addition conference audiences can help to identify where you’ve strayed too far from your aims and questions in a supportive and collegial manner.

Once you’re confident about your topic and have presented at some informal research events, submitting your early thoughts to a journal in the form of a research paper is another effective way to get peer review and identify any deviation between your aims, questions, literature, methodology and findings.

Above all, enjoy the process of becoming an expert in your field.

My PhD love-hate relationship

Rachel-Ann Charles

By Rachel-Ann Charles, PhD student, School of Media

I come from the beautiful twin island of Trinidad and Tobago, filled with a rich, exotic culture. However, many social issues, such as poverty, crime, sexually-transmitted diseases and the likes cripple our society. As a result of this, during my final year of my undergraduate studies I decided to utilise my skills in helping young people particularly in at-risk situations to become empowered and be the best they can. So in order to assist them I felt that I needed to fully grasp the theory and practice in this field in order to provide useful solutions to youth in need. I pursued an MSc in Poverty and Development in the hopes of understanding my target group. However, I needed to conduct some specific research based on existing media for social change programmes that currently exist in Trinidad and Tobago. I took a leap of faith and applied to the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research at the University as I felt the centre was equipped with the required expertise.

Starting my PhD

I embarked on my PhD journey in February 2012 with so much excitement, drive, and determination, and went ahead full speed. I spent most of my time working on my PhD with absolutely no social life. By the end of the seventh month I was drained and extremely exhausted. Within that time I changed my research topic at least twice and was very much concerned about whether I was behind my PhD schedule.

I had massive anxieties about this, not realising that this process is fairly normal and is in fact part of the PhD development. During that time I spoke with as many people as possible, such as my supervisors, colleagues on PhD programmes and external researchers in my field, as I had quite a number of questions and concerns.


Reflecting on my experience – which is still happening – I often refer to it as a love-hate relationship. Some days I am passionate about my research and everything that comes with it, while on other days I say to myself, “what did I get myself into”. After which I positively affirm my thoughts by thinking “the end justifies the means.” Well that’s my hope anyway. At the start of the process, I can recall researching on ‘what doing a PhD entails’ and I also conducted some specific research into my area of study. I assumed that I understood what I was getting myself into, but it was only when I was on the journey that I started to really understand the PhD process.

There have been quite a number of obstacles in various areas of this process. I think the first hindrance was that I didn’t really know what studying a PhD at Birmingham City University would involve.  My second major problem is that I did not embrace the journey; I started off as if it were a race. However, the PhD requires so much love and attention, in order to mould it into something spectacular. I also think that at the start it’s easy to get lost in the literature but realising that the PhD can only cover so much, sooner than later, aids with managing a wide array of materials.

Why I research

What I love most about researching media for social change is the impact on local, national and international communities. Knowing that my research can impact on youth policy and programmes within Trinidad and Tobago. Knowing that the overall society can be improved…as the youth are the leaders of tomorrow. Those are the factors that keep me going when I encounter obstacles. Media for social change is a fairly new and growing field and my research has wider implications on the teaching and research. I also love that the PhD process allows me to discuss my research through platforms such as research seminars, conference presentations and publications. These dialogues enhanced the overall quality of my research.

Tips for PhD students

My top tips for anyone thinking of doing a PhD are:

  • Find out as much about the process as possible before embarking on the journey
  • Ensure that you are researching something that you are passionate about
  • Embrace your research journey
  • As soon as any issues are identified, take them up with your supervisor(s) immediately
  • Don’t be afraid to discuss your issues with other academics in your department
  • Identify and liaise with an external mentor in your field

The benefits

PGRNet-logoThe best kept secrets are the benefits of studying at Birmingham City University. I became involved in the Postgraduate Research Network (PGRNet) when I started my PhD and this has provided me with enormous experiences. I have managed to network with people from all faculties, and that has contributed to having a well-rounded experience. I have also gained teaching experience, and career experience on campus. Overall I have developed as both a researcher and a professional. I plan to continue research in the area of media for social change, and also develop an organisation that utilises the findings of the research for the greater good of society.

My PhD experience, second year in

By Alison Edwards, Faculty of Health

My journey towards commencing a PhD at Birmingham City University was filled with trepidation and questions. Amongst many others I questioned whether would I cope doing a full time job too? What exactly was expected of me? and would I look stupid because my knowledge of research is pretty limited?

I’m not sure that two years in I can answer any of these questions but what I do know is that I have been caught up in the desire to make a difference, no matter how minor.

To have come up with an answer to a question, which adds to the body of current knowledge is no small thing and the journey to that point is in itself both challenging and daunting but at the same time exciting.


Life as a PhD applicant began with the somewhat bewildering concept of choosing what to study. I had some vague ideas around my choice of topic, but what I have learnt through the previous months is that you needn’t stress about it as the vagueness actually isn’t a problem. If anything, it’s an advantage, as the study I am now embarking on bears little resemblance to where I started initially. It’s actually beneficial to be able to toss ideas around with others and be able to adapt.

It’s also proved invaluable to access the knowledge of those around you. Apart from the basics within my master’s degree and various modules, my in-depth knowledge of research was lacking. You soon however, begin to develop your skills in this arena, not least from reading the copious amount of literature already out there. The main driving forces supporting me through this however, have been my supervisors. Without their knowledge and support I wouldn’t have got to the point of registration to undertake the study for real.  Access to an expert and very approachable statistician was also incredibly helpful if not essential and especially important to my chosen methodology.

Balancing work and study

Working a full time job alongside study has been the most difficult aspect. It hasn’t been possible to fully engage with the activities that go along with doctorate study, let’s face it getting even free time to read can occasionally be impossible, and so you can expect to feel a bit isolated and lost at times.  You need to look for alternative routes of support and keep the goal in sight. Having a picture of myself in a borrowed graduation out stuck in my folder just gives me the right kind of reminder why I’m embarking on this adventure.

Next steps

My next steps are into the foggy world of ethical approval. Yet another complex and tangled web of forms and new terminology.  It’s yet another process which scares me, but I know once I’ve got over the hurdle I’ve made the next step towards my ultimate goal and it’s that thought I’m holding onto.

Alison is a senior lecturer in midwifery. For more information about research in the Faculty of Health visit their dedicated research website

If you’re a research student and would like to share your experiences with our research community, email Karen Patel