In the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences (FEPS), we regard the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) as a really important source of information that shapes our priorities across the academic year. PRES results are analysed in late summer by Departments, Faculties and the Doctoral College, and action plans are shared with the PGR community. Now, in mid year, we are updating you on those plans showing where progress has been made or where further effort is needed.
For many of us, the response to the COVID pandemic has dominated the year, and we have prioritised both safe access to essential research facilities and additional support according to individual needs, to give you the best achievable situation that allows progress in these challenging times. I invite you to read the action plan updates from departments and research centres in FEPS, many of which are very detailed and tackle specific local issues as well as the common challenge of keeping our research communities connected while physically separated.
Sharing our action plans within faculties and across the university allows us to identify best practice, and to see which issues need a common approach. This led us within the last year to clarify the requirement for paid training for PGRs engaged as Demonstrators or Tutors, and to improve the process for ordering computers for new PGRs to minimise delays. A clearly-articulated demand from our PGRs, for example for greater engagement with the wider external research community, helps us win resources for initiatives such as the Placement Scheme currently being developed by the Doctoral College.
By participating in PRES, you have helped improve the experience of doctoral research at Surrey, not only for yourselves but for future generations of doctoral students and associated researchers and supervisors.
Professor Jeremy Allam
Associate Dean (Doctoral College), Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences
Action Plan Updates
Despite the home working for the latter half of this academic year, we have continued to focus efforts on improving the PGR experience in several key areas:
1. Computing provision for PGRs.
There continue to be improvements in IT support for PGR students, specifically in the following areas:
• The Physics IT forums have run successfully this year, focussing on Teaching and Research matters. These are now being merged into a single Physics IT forum for next year, and we will ensure a PGR rep is included in the group. All new starter PGRs are now provided with a ‘standard’ University laptop (or equivalent) and IT have confirmed that they hold a large number of these machines in stock so that there should be minimal delay in supplying a new machine. IT can offer alternative machines (eg linux desktops) or special configurations by request, although more time is required to set these up.
• IT support for PGR homeworking has improved over the summer, particularly with much better VPN access (Global Protect) and virtual Windows desktops. IT are trialling virtual linux desktop access with Physics and we expect this to roll out properly in the Autumn. PGRs can also request IT equipment for home working such as screens, keyboard etc if required.
2. Progress and Assessment.
We have continued to improve our departmental communication to Physics PGR students, with continued use of the PhyWiki as the central point for information: http://physicswiki.ph.surrey.ac.uk/physicswiki. However there remains a poor level of student satisfaction with the wider University processes related to progress and assessment which remain ‘clunky’ and not particularly user-friendly. There is often confusion about how to request changes to registration, study status etc and the timescales for these changes. The role of APESC is not clear to many students. We will continue to work with the Doctoral College to improve the flow of information and publicise key dates.
3. Teaching and Assessment.
This category showed a further drop in satisfaction in 2020 compared to the previous year. We have not identified any particular single issue that has caused this, but it is most likely focussed on laboratory demonstration duties and the related workload. Last year we reviewed the way we allocate demonstrating duties and could find no evidence of any unfair procedures regarding allocation. However we will continue to monitor this, for example how many PGR students get their ‘first choice’ of demonstrating duties. Last year the PGR reps raised the issue that demonstrators for computing classes were not being offered paid preparation time. In response we are developing a new department policy that all PGR demonstrators will be offered a standard minimum amount of paid preparation time, for all types of demonstrating work. In May we have started a new ‘exit survey’ for PGRs to ask about their demonstrator and teaching experience at the end of each semester. This will help us reflect on the most recent PGR teaching experience and correct any issues quickly.
4. Supporting Home Working during the campus shutdown.
We have tried to adapt rapidly to the new way of working which began suddenly in late March, which has been challenging for all concerned. Currently we do not know how long home working will continue for PGR students, and we will continue to support PGR home workers for as long as this situation continues. Some specific measures we have put in place include:
• Additional IT equipment is available to support PGR home working, eg extra screens, keyboard etc. • The department re-started PGR access to research labs as soon as allowed by the University, setting up an online lab booking system through MS Teams
• We are trying to maintain a sense of the Physics PGR community during home working, eg. with online ‘coffee mornings’ and employer events. This is in addition to the research support that is also provided within the Physics Research Groups.
• Physics has worked with the Faculty to send out a ‘lock down’ survey to all PGR students so that we can learn what went well, and what did not, during the initial lock down period.
• Wider Doctoral College support for PGR home working, include online PGR training, mental health support, mentoring and peer-to-peer support. As always, if you have any comments about PGR matters please either talk to your PGR reps, or myself as PGR Director, or Elizabeth Jones in the Physics Office.
The Mathematics Action Plan objectives have been hit by the coronavirus pandemic this year. We have managed to complete actions 1 and 2 from the short-term actions. The PGR seminar series continues, albeit online, and the Induction and training courses, particularly the computer lab training course, have been discussed with the Doctoral College and changes made. We have not been able to welcome back PGRs to the department just yet. The long-term plans are progressing. The upgrade of computer equipment is progressing, as we slowly move from desktop pcs to laptops for PGRs. The pandemic has speeded up this process. The other long-term plans are on hold until we can have more face-to-face discussions in the department.
Short Term Actions
1. Highlight PRES feedback points to staff via September newsletter
DONE – item appeared in staff news letter
2. Hold departmental all-staff refresher event on supervision expectations and responsibilities
DONE – a refresher event was held as part of School staff meeting
3. Solicit PGR student body for ideas of how to develop departmental research culture.
DONE – received suggestions about creating “chatrooms/problem solving groups”. These were established in Teams as areas for PGRs to post/answer questions.
Long Term Actions
1. Review and develop engagement approaches suggested by PGR community.
ONGOING – PGR teams areas established and information disseminated to PGRs. Usage is being reviewed on an ongoing basis, but so far no one has used it
2. Host a series of themed Q&A micro-meetings around academic expectations and responsibilities
ONGOING – Planning and compiling material
3. Create podcast series corresponding to Q&A themes
ONGOING – Planning and compiling material
Short Term Actions
1. Absent any budget in either the Department of from the Doctoral College, students are presently limited to availing themselves of free talks or other opportunities; given pandemic circumstances, these are also online only. Future budgets enabling external networking require due consideration.
2. Messaging regarding training availability has sought to emphasise the training needed for supporting teaching, as well as bring attention to DC training overall. The action may shift to understanding whether this leads to increased uptake.
3. The continued hope for a return to campus has pushed the question of research ambience back, as adaptation to pandemic working circumstances has been required by all parties.
Long Term Actions
1. Ensuring PGR office space remains coherent, with the Department under pressure from significant recent growth in numbers of both staff and PGRs, will remain a long term action, as there is less present pressure due to the pandemic, but this will become even more pressing with greater PGR numbers still when a return to campus, and reduction of physical distancing measures, can begin in earnest.
1. An audit of all PCs and monitors resulting in 52 replacements for those out of warranty. Monitors were upgraded beyond the recommended specification.
2. The office space is COVID secure and 2m distancing applies to each desk area.
3. A PGR Representative was appointed, who is approachable and highly active in this post.
4. A new Teams group has been set up specifically for all PGRs, where questions can be asked and support given.
5. One of our PGRs, has been given the responsibility of overseeing the ICS Servers in an effort to improve knowledge and access to resources, which will be reported back to the PhD Workshop.
6. We now use Teams more heavily as part of the induction process. All documents and files needed as part of each person’s induction have been uploaded to the ICS-ALL Teams page and all new starters are added to this group as soon as they start with us. This means they are now able to access the files and resources anytime and electronically.
7. The PhD Workshops (held monthly over Zoom) are now led by the PhD Administrator and Representative, rather than by the academics, to encourage involvement and participation by the PGRs. Over the last few months, we have had over 50 attendees at each of the workshops. These workshops include updates provided by the PhD Administrator, PhD Representative, Institute Manager and Director; presentations by both internal and external academics and introductions given by any new starters that month. They also provide an opportunity for PGRs to ask any questions and give feedback. Work on how we can continue to further improve these meetings to increase PGR participation is still ongoing.
CHEMISTRY & CPE
Dominating PhD life since the last PRES was certainly Covid-19. The highest priority has therefore been the safe re-opening of the labs. It is nice that research in the School has nearly reached the pre-pandemic momentum again. Actions completed as a result of the last PRES included sending information to students and staff relating to wellbeing and FAQs. In an effort to solve individual problems mentioned by students in free-text comments, these were sent (anonymously) to academics. It is nice to see the two departments growing closer together; an ongoing effort is to make the sharing of equipment easier. On the negative side, the seminar series is not working as well as it could; main challenges here are working remotely (making student-led initiatives more difficult), lack of volunteer presenters, and the breadth of research in the school which may only be relevant for few researchers.
Civil and Environmental Engineering
Short Term Actions
- Support all PGRs who wish to return to their office space but with a priority for those that need lab access in order to progress their PhDs.
First phase with the priority for PGRs needing lab access started in June 2020 with the reopening of the Water lab and subsequently GCARE, Structures and SAGE were reopened by August/September 2020. The second phase was achieved in subsequent months after completion and review of specific Risk Assessments following Covid 19 safety requirements.
- Hold regular research seminars with both internal and external speakers to promote the research culture.
The Department organised different research seminars over the last six months with speakers from industry and academia on relevant topics such as UK greenhouse emissions from recent built-environmental projects. The new format of presentations brings a more diverse interest but there is no evidence that attendance has improved.
- Hold departmental inductions in addition to the University induction day to ensure that all the “new starters” since lockdown are prepared for the start of their research degree programme.
This has been achieved. At the start of 2021, we only had one new starter for which a one-to-one CEE induction has been arranged via Zoom. The meeting will be attended by the PGDR as well as the new research administrator to welcome the PGR and address any question after the University induction as well as going through the Faculty checklist.
- Check that PGR demonstrators are prepared and suitably trained in order to assist with demonstrating, tutorial and field work when they are required to do so.
Work in Semester 1 focused on covering extra checks on the risk assessments for the face-to-face tutorials in which PGRs were involved. Otherwise this is an ongoing action with further work needed; feedback is needed from PGRs and module coordinators to guide this additional training.
Long Term Actions
- Re-adjust the use of office space in light of the Covid 19 pandemic so that all PGRs can return to work safely, should they wish to do so. Ensure that this transition to the “new normal”, managing (access to) the physically changed infrastructure (room and floor layout, sanitisers, PPE, distancing) is clearly communicated in advance and kept up-to-date as new changes evolve.
This has been completed. All the rooms have been checked and new screens have been adjusted between desks following the recommendations.
- Hold 3 formal meetings per year in order to disseminate information to PGRs such as health and safety issues, assessment procedures (6 monthly reviews, confirmation and final PhD submission) and support structure including mental health and well-being.
This is ongoing. The last meeting was held in December via Zoom where the new PGRD was introduced to the cohort and a new PGR rep was appointed. The next two meetings will be arranged in the middle of February and summer as per usual. A new research Administrator has been appointed in CEE.
- Be proactive in addressing student issues reported from the student lockdown survey in relation to the Covid 19 pandemic. In particular, addressing delayed progress, motivation, peer isolation, future uncertainty, work-life balance, unsuitable workspace and mental health. This will be achieved with weekly drop-in PGR zoom sessions; increased supervisor interactions and supported where possible with researcher well-being sessions provided by the DC.
Some progress has been done in addressing individual cases although further work is needed; we are aware of ongoing situations leading to some TWs. Weekly informal drop-in sessions were organised at the beginning of lockdown and summer period but attendance was low in general. There is a need to explore new ways of reach out to our PGRs to address these issues, especially on the third lockdown. This will be reviewed in the regular meetings between the PGRD and PGR rep.
In terms of CVSSP facilities, a phased reopening was implemented starting with experimental laboratory facilities available for priority use (July/August 2020) and followed by offices under reduced occupancy based on a rota system (September 2020). Induction protocols were put in place to ensure safe return and use of the facilities in compliance with government and university guidelines. In terms of IT resources, a new AI@Surrey cluster has been commissioned and installed to increase available compute resources. Further, Teams channels have been set up to facilitate the sharing of good practices amongst CVSSP researchers and provide additional user support. In terms of research culture, the external seminar programme continues to run online via Zoom as well as PhD open presentations. Further work is needed to relaunch the internal seminar programme after the departure of the academic in charge of the event. Other activities traditionally run face-to-face were switched to online platforms. These include a virtual coffee break every Friday including games, induction events for starters as well as other events such as reading groups or breakfast meetings taking place in some of the CVSSP subgroups.
Centre for Environment and Sustainability
Short Term Actions
|Set up WhatsApp group for informal exchange||To support more frequent, informal and interactive exchange, cohort building||Done and running|
|Widening the training programme on SurreyLearn||PGRs suggested they wanted more training||Done: Panopto videos created on Literature Search with Web of Science, SPSS, Data analysis, Input-Output Analysis, Energy Systems Analysis and MCDA, Zoom workshops held. More on both is planned in responsive mode.|
|Explore opportunities for PhD and PDS to engage with teaching||PGRs suggested they wanted this.||Done: The improvements from PRES-19 were recognised by students, as the teaching year progresses, more opportunities are made. Link to Teaching training as well.|
Long Term Actions
|Set up a Staff/PGR Journal Club||Further integration and collaboration between staff and PGR as a CES Cohort||In progress, selection of first paper is about to be completed, first meeting likely in March|
|Promotion of Industrial Placements for (PhD) and supported by (PDS) PGRs||PGRs want this.||In progress. PGRs are asking about placements, PDS have responded positively with getting their companies (and them) involved with MSc placements|
|Monitoring of the effects on Work from Home (WFH) on PGRs||The FEPS Lockdown survey and open comments have shown mental health, well-being and motivation have potential to negatively impact progress during lockdown||Ongoing. A small number of acute cases have been identified and efforts are made to ameliorate / improve the situation. WFH has impacted part-timers, carers and completing students differently. Link with PRES21 made.|
Surrey Space Centre
Short Term Actions
1. Implement online the seminar programme re-designed last year and interrupted by COVID outbreak. (in response to point a) and c)). This area was historically weak in SSC and after long consultation was addressed last year with a new programme designed with the students, including invitation of alumni and international speakers. Unfortunately, very little of this could be really implemented due to the Covid outbreak and it will be proposed again this academic year, starting in October 2020, in an online version until a full return to campus will be possible.
Update: COMPLETED. The seminar program has been moved completely online and now takes place on Zoom which links can be easily shared with external/industrial partners. Both students’ presentations and Alumni interviews run fully online every other Friday afternoon.
2. Move online the SSC induction and consult PGRs for further areas of improvement (in response to points d) and e)). This SSC local induction was appreciated last year as it explained simply who does what in SSC for a quick students’ reference. This induction has to continue online now and needs to expand on contents to address students’ feedback (which however is not specific in the free-text area so consultation will be required in the first SSC PGR meeting to understand if they require additional provision from SSC or from university as one comment seems to suggest)
Update: COMPLETED. The SSC induction runs fully online and follows the DC Director Welcome. Feedback has also been received by students and shared with the DC.
3.Organize a calendar of SSC PGR virtual Meetings (in response to point b)). Students loved this sort of community gatherings with discussion of SSC matters, practicalities and lunch together. In a work environment transformed by the Covid outbreak, gathering, though online, remains fundamental to stay connected, facilitate communication and nurture a sense of belonging. A calendar will be set for the whole year in October and the meetings will be on Zoom or Teams until a full return to campus will be possible.
Update: COMPLETED. A provisional calendar has been conceived which sees an SSC PGR meeting taking place online on Zoom every two months roughly. Specific dates are announced closer the time.
4. Support PGRs in understanding how their programme of social events can re-start/continue in safety and respect of University measures against COVID spread. (in continuity with previous Action Plan). Students will be consulted in the SSC PGR meeting on this matter and a programme of events will be drafted by November 2020 with condition to review it every time government/universities policies/restrictions on gatherings change.
Update: ONGOING. Students were informed of a room for social activities/events that can be reserved to them in SSC. The need for such a room has been shared also with the Head of Department and Head of School. Planning apart, no much could be done to support their social life in person due to Covid restrictions but ideas for some sort of online sharing are under discussion.
5. Organize/facilitate attendance of a new programme in support of female PGRs (in continuity with previous Action Plan). As last year, it is SSC PGR Director intention to support female students in particular with a dedicated programme. Funds sought last year (and not used due to Covid restrictions) will be applied for again by November 2020 and, in the meantime, opportunities will be explored internally and externally.
Update: ONGOING. A specific dedicated program could not be kicked off yet due to lack of funds in SSC and so support at University level has been sought.
Long Term Actions
1. follow up on revised plan of FEPS Equipment Capital Plan Arnaud for SSC where a proper space for PGRS, properly equipped for social activities, was included.
The proper space identified in the previous consultation will be designed/specified with students and SSC administrator, a room identified and a plan proposed to the University Facilities management by June 2021.
Update: ONGOING. Head of School has been informed of the need and is supportive. There is a need to follow up and get a formal green light so that the room can be prepared and equipped for when we will be fully back on campus.
2. investigate and take action on lack on supervision/regular contact within SSC (in response to point f)). One-to-one consultation will be organized between SSC PGR Director and PGRs to identify more clearly the research areas where more supervision is required. It is important to reiterate, however, that some of these issues had been identified already in the past year. It was recognized that only limited actions could be taken by the students or the PGR Director so support was sought at top management level. From this year PRES free-text comments it is evident that no action has been successful in this direction so the PGR Director will start again the consultation with students and the top management.
Update: COMPLETED. Consultation with students on this point was completed at the end of 2020 and some critical matters have been escalated to the proper level.
3. investigate lack of support and guidance in PGR teaching (in response to point g)). The majority of teaching that SSC PGRs provide is at UG level so addressing this issue in SSC is honestly difficult. Students will be consulted by January 2021 to identify specific courses where they require more support and guidance in teaching and the lecturers/coordinators in charge will be contacted.
Update: COMPLETED. Consultation with students on this point was completed at the end of 2020 and students confirmed what our initial understanding was about the PRES results and the fact that SSC is wrongly “judged” for lack of guidance in UG modules where SSC PhD students demonstrate. As next action SSC PGR Director will inform the DC with request to modify the PRES questions.
4. explore other opportunities for SSC PGRs to become involved in the wider research community (in response to point c)). With the seminar programme moving online there are many opportunities to include free international webinars and talks in which students can definitely make more connections with the wider community. The programme will be enriched during the whole academic year as opportunities are identified. In addition, the students will be made aware of the placement programme, which might further support this desire of connections. They will be helped in finding suitable companies/institutions for their placement. The PGR Director, with input from colleagues, will draft a list of potential placements by the end of June 2021.
Update: ONGOING. Free international webinars and conferences have been included in the seminar program and widely sponsored. Listing of placement opportunities has not started yet.
5. motivate students in responding to PRES. This is not required by any specific feedback but it’s clear that it make sense to work at an action plan if it meets the needs of the majority of students. To guarantee this in future action plans, more students will have to respond to PRES and to make this happens the PGR Director will work on motivation and purpose and will explore with the Administrator the possibility to offer little prizes/rewards to students responding to PRES.
Update: ONGOING. At the February PGR meeting, discussion around next PRES will start. Search for funds for little awards will also start in February 2021.