When is a Fresher not a Fresher? Welcoming Postgraduate Researchers

By Dr Joanna Royle, Researcher Development Adviser for PGRs

4 students chat together.

Like lots of us, I have warm, if fuzzy, memories of my undergraduate Freshers Week. A chaotic jumble of queuing with forms; signing up for a dozen student societies I would hardly attend; cake crawls; parties; and haplessly trying to seem cool to other equally nervous freshers. Many universities have well-established mechanisms for welcoming our undergraduates, but for those starting a postgraduate research journey there has not always been such an immediate sense of community and belonging.

As the pandemic pivoted us all into online spaces, and without course structures to scaffold introductions, new postgraduate researchers were hit particularly hard. Peer communities are crucial for learning the ropes in the early months of a doctorate: without physical academic neighbourhoods there was a risk that new researchers would flounder as they sought to navigate the hidden curriculum (Elliot et al, 2020) of doctoral life. 

Welcoming to the UofG community

Buoyed by the success of the pandemic-response ‘PGR@Home’ programme, the Researcher Development and Graduate School Teams worked together to see how we could give incoming researchers something structured and supportive, that centralised community building, for their remote start. 

Historically PGR induction at UofG tended to be a day-long in-person event – localised in colleges and institutes. This had clear advantages. In these snappy events, disciplinary connections were made, and information about local systems and processes were the focus. We wanted to design an institutional induction for PGRs that complemented this set up, and enabled new PGRs to meet non-disciplinary peers, and build a sense of community through active engagement across the university.

Based on the PGR@Home themes, we created online spaces where researchers could interact with the colleagues across different professional services, who smooth the doctoral journey. Most importantly, we wanted researcher ‘freshers’ to feel welcomed, cared for, and equipped to navigate their new life in #TeamUofG.

An ecological approach

PGR induction is a week-long programme which runs in October and again in January, and takes an ecological approach, by complementing the structures and opportunities within the Colleges, and other central teams. Led by the Researcher Development Team in close collaboration with the Grad Schools, the programme supports new PGRs across the different layers of their institutional experience, and incorporates space for Colleges, Schools and Institutes to hold welcome events. 

The week includes many things you might expect in a welcome programme: talks from senior college figures and university services, wellbeing activities, campus tours, and peer-community events. It also has ‘Chat Cafes’: a hybrid-format making use of online stimulus materials followed by discussion sessions led by an expert from professional services, covering themes from literature reviews, to data management.

Conferences are a big part of how the academic community communicates, so we built one into PGR induction. This PhD Life is a one-day ‘by-researchers-for-researchers’ online symposium where year 2+ researchers give short talks on what the doctoral journey is really like. From time-management, to supervisors, to loneliness, Glasgow’s researchers have been generous with their experience and goodwill, bringing to the table things they wish they had heard as first years, and passing on this knowledge to the ‘next generation’ of PGRs.

Have we achieved our induction aims?

That we are successfully meeting out aims for PGR induction is evident in the positive feedback from attendees, and also from our colleagues across the university. The inclusion and accessibility benefits of a predominantly online programme have been significant, and engagement is high, with 390 researchers attending in October 2021. 

This size of cohort means that we now duplicate events into a flexible mix-and-match programme for researchers to pick sessions that meet their interests and needs. The online learning materials bank grows iteratively, giving asynchronous alternatives to live sessions and a lasting reference for participants to revisit. We have also added provision for particular cohorts, such as MRes meet-ups and sessions from the International Service. 

Having the Researcher Development Team as a friendly ‘face’ of the programme has helped to bring all these elements together. Our PGR Interns play an important role, bridging the space between researchers and the institution across the full process from planning to facilitation, to analysis of the evaluation data. They are invaluable hosts at This PhD Life. This PGR-led event enjoys the most effusively positive feedback, and we are delighted to see participants returning as speakers as they progress in their doctorate.

While it is a great example of working across professional services which allows us to pull together in the pursuit of our strategic priorities of Creativity, Collaboration and Careers, there is always room for better alignment of timing, communication, and messaging. There’s bound to be more we can do to promote inclusion, accessibility, flexibility and choice too, we are striving to create an engaging, complete, and navigable self-paced version of the programme.

Where next for 2022?

As we move back to campus, we want to respond to rising requests for in-person social events. This needs our careful consideration as so far there has been high attrition from sign-up to attendance at on-campus meet-ups: a pattern reflected across the sector. Judging the right balance of in-person and online-live is a challenge for our October induction. As well as these immediate plans for making induction 2022 the best it can be, we have some long-term ideas for smoothing the PGR transition experience. 

Firstly, we are keen to work more closely with other services involved in the PGR transition journey. A PGR recently told me that the information overload at the start of their PhD was “like being drowned in minestrone soup”: we would like to play our part in making it more like being canoed along a gently flowing river! 

Secondly, while running PGR induction week is brilliant fun, it is also resource-intensive. Over the long term, training and compensating our researchers to facilitate sessions could help with scalability and demand for strengthened disciplinary-focused content. 

Finally, the transition into year one is only the start of the journey. We think there might be value in offering a shared moment – a re-induction – and a chance to take stock at the start of year three. This could be a chance to re-orientate researchers to the skills they need for the final miles and make space for both peer-support and institutional encouragement. 

Whist this will be an iterative process of development, we are keen to know what would make your ideal induction experience? Let us know in the comments.  

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