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Promoting Positive Communication: Routes for Doctoral College Engagement with PhD Researchers and PhD Researcher Representatives

In response to feedback from PhD researchers and PhD researcher representatives (PhD reps), these pages aim to outline current Doctoral College (DC) structures and approaches supporting engagement with PhD researchers, PhD reps and Faculties, and pathways to both receive and respond to feedback. The layered approach to support for PhD researchers across Doctoral College and Faculty is shown below. Context is also available within the PhD Researcher Charter, where expectations have been developed as a means to ensure that together we can achieve and maintain the highest standards of Doctoral training.

Routes to Provision of Feedback

Doctoral College welcomes feedback and encourages communication from individual PhD researchers at any time either directly to Doctoral College staff, or via PhD Supervisors, Postgraduate Tutor (PGT), Research Director (RD) and/or PhD reps. PhD Supervisors, RD and PGT can also channel communication within their respective Faculty, where representation can be made to the Associate Dean for Research & Impact (ADRI).

Doctoral College staff are available on each campus and can meet in-person with PhD researchers, Monday to Thursday between 10:00 and 15:00 and on Friday via the virtual office using MS Teams - we find that most enquiries can be very quickly answered. Heads of Doctoral College for Belfast and Coleraine/Magee, and the Dean of the Ulster Doctoral College are also available to meet with PhD researchers and PhD reps via appointment.

Formal communication from PhD researchers is welcomed at several timepoints during the year via:

  1. the PhD Researcher Forum, attended by all PhD reps (section 2 describes the role of PhD rep),
  2. the Doctoral College Board (through the PhD Researcher Forum minutes - section 3),
  3. the annual progress report completed by each PhD researcher,
  4. the national Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES).

In addition, Heads of Doctoral College are asked to provide regular reports to the Doctoral College Executive on matters impacting PhD researchers.

All PhD researchers enjoy free and automatic membership of the Ulster University Students’ Union (UUSU). The UUSU is active in all matters of student welfare and represents all levels of students within the University and externally. A UUSU PGR Connect group has recently been established.

Subject, School, Faculty

Subject, School, Faculty

Role of PhD Researcher Representatives

PhD reps play a vital role in enhancing the quality of the PhD experience by liaising at subject/Unit of Assessment (UoA) level (with PGT, RD, Supervisors and other PhD researchers) and through engagement with Doctoral College at the PhD Researcher Forum (held twice per year).

Nomination of PhD Reps is coordinated and managed at subject/UoA level through the PGT and RD, supported by the subject/UoA Admin. When a vacancy occurs, it is recommended that the opportunity to act as PhD rep be communicated to the local PhD cohort and a selection/nomination process managed at UoA level. When in post, it is suggested that PhD reps and PGT meet regularly, perhaps once per month, to discuss local matters. All PhD reps attend and share feedback from their UoA at the PhD Researcher Forum. Feedback from PhD researchers within the UoA could be sought in advance of the Forum via email (PhD cohort email addresses are available via PGT) or through informal UoA meetings which could be arranged, in for example the Doc on each campus.

PhD reps play a central role at the Forum where each shares best practice from their unit with peers and can take the opportunity to suggest where the University/Doctoral College can help improve any aspect of the PhD experience. The Forum also provides an opportunity for Doctoral College to share information relating to current University wide initiatives and developments within the Doctoral College. Two-way communication is central to the role of the PhD rep, where UoA, Faculty and Doctoral College place particular value on opinion and voice of PhD researchers.

It’s not all work; Doctoral College aims to facilitate an informal PhD rep get together once per year, typically late Summer and PhD reps are very welcome at the regular Coffee Mornings held within each campus Doc.

Doctoral College Communication Structures

Within the wider University structure, the Doctoral College forms part of the Research and Innovation department with PhD researchers identified as the primary research engine of the University. Formal reporting structures within Doctoral College are shown below.

Doctoral College Structure

Doctoral College Structure

The Doctoral College Board (DCB), a sub-committee of the University’s Research and Innovation Committee, is responsible for all aspects of postgraduate research study at the University and has representation from PhD Researcher representatives from each Faculty.

DCB also comprises Doctoral College senior management (Heads of Doctoral College), the Head of Research & Impact, the ADRI for each Faculty, and academic staff representatives from all Faculties. The DCB is a formal meeting, with minutes received by the University’s Research and Innovation Committee - including minutes of both the PhD Researcher Forum and the PGT Forum.

The Doctoral College Executive (DCE) meet three times per year. The meeting receives communication from the Chair (Dean of the Doctoral College), with oral reports from ADRIs relating to Faculty level PhD related issues, and from Heads of Doctoral College on campus related PhD issues. The meetings of the DCE are less formal than the DCB where detailed discussion of PhD related matters can be facilitated prior to delivery of papers to DCB for consideration and approval.

In addition to regular email communications from Doctoral College, PGTs meet on a regular basis with the DC management to share best practice and work collectively to address PhD researcher concerns. The PGT forum, Chaired by Prof Alison Gallagher, meets three times per year as an open forum for collaboration and discussion. Sharing of good practice and PhD researcher achievements is particularly welcomed, in addition to feedback on subject and campus specific matters. Notes and actions of the PGT Forum are discussed at DCE and tabled at the DCB.

Held twice per year, the PhD Researcher Forum, Chaired by Dr Patrick Dunlop, is attended by all PhD reps and Doctoral College management (including Doctoral College Managers and Doctoral Development Manager). The meeting provides an open forum for discussion, where following Chair’s communications each PhD rep is invited to provide a subject-specific update. Outside of the PhD Researcher Forum, PhD reps are encouraged to meet with PGT and/or RD regularly - where dialogue can often address local level PhD researcher issues - and in advance of the Forum. In preparation for the PhD Researcher Forum, PhD reps are asked to prepare examples of good practice from within their subject/UoA, to gather and share details of PhD researcher matters, to provide feedback on the Researcher Development Programme, to suggest opportunities to enhance campus life and Doc spaces, etc. Notes and comments from the PhD Researcher Forum are discussed at DCE and tabled at the DCB.

While student voice mechanisms for PhD, MRes and other student research groups are currently supported through a formal meeting structure managed and coordinated by the Doctoral College, UUSU coordinate PGR Connect with representation made to UUSU Student Council via two student PGR Councillors.  UUSU Student Voice Manager and Heads of Doctoral College have an excellent working relationship and formally meet once per Semester to share best practice to support PhD researchers at Ulster.