Meet the Ronald Tress Prize runners-up

The Ronald Tress Prize was established to celebrate excellence in research by early career academics. In this blog, we learn more about the runners-up of the Award.

Philip Pogge von Strandmann, Reader in Isotope Geochemistry

“I’m a biogeochemist, studying how the climate responds to, and recovers from, natural climate change events that occurred in the past. This provides us with information on what will happen as the Earth warms up in the future. In particular, at the moment I’m researching how the planet has broadly kept its climate stable enough for 4 billion years of life to exist. In other words, there is a natural thermostatic regulator of the climate – it operates quite slowly (hundreds of thousands of years), but stops the Earth becoming Venus-like. It is the process that will eventually allow the climate to recover from our activities – and we may also be able to speed it up, to assist us in mitigating climate change.

“I came to Birkbeck (and UCL, who employ me jointly) in 2013 after a NERC advanced research fellowship at Oxford. Before that I was a post-doc at Bristol, a PhD student at the Open University and an undergrad at Oxford. Birkbeck has been a good place both to do research and teach – it has less inertia to get things done than other institutions, and lets departments make important decisions.”

Dr Duncan Jackson, Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology

“I received my PhD in industrial-organizational psychology from Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand, which I completed on the validity of assessment centres.  I have continued with this line of research into the present and am currently broadening my research to encompass other types of measure commonly used in organisations, including 360 degree ratings, situational judgment tests, and interviews.

“My research challenges key assumptions widely held about measurement in organisations; particularly assumptions regarding the measurement of competencies (e.g., teamwork abilities, communication skills) that are ubiquitous in the organisational environment.  I have published in some of the leading journals in my discipline, including the Journal of Applied Psychology, the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, and Personnel Psychology.  I have contributed to the international guidelines on assessment centres published in the Journal of Management and I was previously chief editor on the volume The Psychology of Assessment Centers published through Routledge New York.”

Dr Rebecca Whiting, Lecturer in Organizational Psychology

“I’ve been in my current role since March 2015 though my connection with the College goes back further; I completed both my MSc and PhD in the same department, both part-time.  After completing my doctorate, I worked in the College as a researcher on the Age at Work project, then for a couple of years at the Open University as a researcher on the Digital Brain Switch project, before returning to Birkbeck to take up my academic role. Like many of our students at Birkbeck, I know what’s involved to study whilst working and to undertake a career change (I started out as a lawyer).  It’s a privilege now to be teaching students pursuing degree studies at different stages of their lives and for various purposes.

“My current research covers three main areas: age in relation to work, the role of digital technologies in the organization of contemporary working life, and internet ethics. Digital technologies are at the heart of my substantive research interests and the methodologies I use for research and dissemination. In a field traditionally dominated by quantitative methods, one of my contributions has been to enhance the methodological options available to organizational psychologists through my use and promotion of qualitative approaches.”

Dr Pedro Gomes, Lecturer in Economics

“I completed a PhD. in Economics in 2010, at the London School of Economics. The title of my thesis was “Macroeconomic effects of fiscal policy” and it was supervised by the Nobel Prize winner Sir Christopher Pissarides. After completing my doctorate, I took my first academic position at Universidad Carlos III in Madrid. I’ve just started as a Lecturer at Birkbeck, joining in 2017. What I like about teaching at Birkbeck is that most students have accumulated so many different experiences in their lives that I see them as my peers, rather than students. I teach them Economics, but I feel I could learn as much from them in other areas, as they can learn from me. This makes the lectures all the more interactive and challenging.

“My current research focuses on understanding the effects of public sector employment and wage policies. Public sector employment is a major element of both the labour market and government budgets. In the UK, public sector employment, including NHS and Armed Forces, represents 22% of total employment and its wage bill represents 52% of government consumption expenditure. It is particularly sizable for specific groups of workers. The UK public sector hires 37% of all college graduates; 34% of all working women; and 30% of all workers age 47-55. Decisions like raising pay by 3% instead of 1% or hiring 20000 workers instead of firing 10000, affect the state of public finances, as well as the unemployment rate or private sector wages. Understanding what are the effects of these decisions and whether the chosen government policies are the best for the country is the goal of my research.”

Dr Sarah Marks, Postdoctoral Researcher in History

“I joined Birkbeck in October 2016 as a historian working with the Hidden Persuaders research group, funded by the Wellcome Trust. The project examines the ‘psy’ professions – psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis – during the Cold War, and particularly how debates about brainwashing and hidden persuasion shaped their reputation at the time and into today.

“Much of my own work focuses on the other side of the so-called Iron Curtain, on how these professions operated under Communism, and what models of mind and therapy were developed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet sphere, in addition to the abuses that we’re more familiar with. This offers a more balanced account of the Cold War, moving away from stereotypes about the ‘stultification’ of science and medicine in the socialist world by comparison with the West. It’s useful to look back at this history for policy today: many countries in the region are beginning to embark on mental health care reforms, and are dealing with the legacies of the past. Birkbeck is an incredible research environment to be part of – I’ve been impressed by the sheer range of different projects being undertaken here, and the vibrancy of seminars and events where both staff and students participate. It’s clear that this culture feeds in to the teaching, too, making the college a rich and unique forum for ideas and debate.”

Dr Sarah Thomas, Lecturer in Museum Studies and History of Art

“I worked as a curator in Australian art museums before completing my PhD and joining the History of Art department at Birkbeck in 2013. I have a long-standing interest in the visual culture of the British empire, and the role and special character of travelling artists in the nineteenth century. I have recently completed a book called Witnessing Slavery: Art and Travel in an Age of Abolition. My work on the iconography of slavery has led more recently to an interest in the cultural legacies of British slave-ownership, particularly as it relates to the early history of public art museums in Britain.

My publications include an award-winning book, The Encounter, 1802: Art of the Flinders and Baudin Voyages (Art Gallery of South Australia, 2002), book chapters including ‘Slaves and the spectacle of torture: British artists in the New World’ (2013) and ‘Allegorizing Extinction: Humboldt, Darwin and the Valedictory Image’ (2015), and journal articles such as ‘The Spectre of Empire in the British Art Museum’ (Museum History Journal, 2013). Birkbeck provides a very supportive research environment for an emerging scholar. I currently run a work placement module for MA History of Art and MA Museum Cultures students, and as part of this I very much enjoy working in partnership with museums across London.”

Meet the winners of the Ronald Tress Prize here. 

 

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Novel beginnings: MA Creative Writing graduate Mary Lynn Bracht makes her literary debut

Mary Lynn Bracht discusses the impact of Birkbeck’s MA Creative Writing in the publication of her first novel, White Chrysanthemum, after submitting the first five chapters as her dissertation.

Photo credit: Tim Hall photography

There are survivors of WWII alive today who are still protesting war crimes committed against them over seventy years ago. They are Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery in military brothels by Japanese soldiers and euphemistically called ‘comfort women’, which means ‘prostitutes’ in Japanese. These women prefer to call themselves ‘halmoni’, meaning ‘grandmothers’, which is a deeply respected position in Korean society; one that was denied to most of them because of their captivity. The first ‘comfort woman’, Kim Hak-Sun, came forward in 1991 to testify what she endured during WWII. Over 200,000 women and girls were enslaved, but less than 260 were registered with the Korean government.  Over twenty years after Kim’s testimony, the grandmothers’ plight for reparations, recognition and dignity were still largely unanswered. This injustice and their stories affected me deeply; moreso because these women were disappearing – dying from illness and old age.

In 2014 I wrote a short story about a young girl, Hana, who is kidnapped by a Japanese soldier and sent to a military brothel in Manchuria. The story, called Escaping Time, followed her as she struggled with the decision to attempt an escape, even though being caught would mean death. I submitted the story to my writing workshop module for the MA in Creative Writing programme at Birkbeck, University of London, and my course tutor, Courttia Newland, encouraged me to continue working on the story. It was subsequently published in the Mechanics’ Institute Review Anthology, and I wrote the first five chapters of the novel it would become that summer as my MA dissertation. After reading the story in the Anthology, an agent contacted me and I signed with her before the year ended.

Support: that is what a new writer needs most when starting out in this long and lonely profession. The writing programme at Birkbeck introduced me to so many wonderful writers who, like me, aspired to a literary career. I learned many valuable lessons about writing, reading, critiquing, and most of all, supporting one another. Who else but a fellow writer knows just how difficult it is to write? Writing is both joyful and insufferable, like many other professions out there. But a writer wields a powerful tool – words. Words are the vehicle for transferring thoughts from one mind to the next, and they can mean the difference between being labelled forever in history as prostitute or grandmother. The ability to define themselves in their own words – that is what the grandmothers are still fighting for today, and that is why I chose to write about them.

With the support of my agent, fellow writers, and family, I finished my novel, White Chrysanthemum, in time for the London Book Fair in 2016, and it was sold by my amazing agent, Rowan Lawton at Furniss Lawton Agency, to my wonderful editors Tara Singh Carlson at Putnam US and Becky Hardie at Chatto & Windus UK, as well as to 16 international publishers.

White Chrysanthemum will be published in January 2018 and can be pre-ordered from Penguin Random House

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Journalist uncovers new opportunities at Birkbeck through Chevening Scholarship

Carolyn Bonquin is a 27-year-old journalist from the Philippines. She is currently taking MA Investigative Reporting at Birkbeck after applying to the Chevening Scholarship programmeShe discusses how her studies have opened up a network of opportunities for her career.

I spent most of my childhood in a rural town in Quezon province in the Philippines. Growing up, I witnessed how poverty separated families and sometimes pushed people to do bad things.

Now, 27 years later, I still see thousands of Filipinos living under worst conditions. This motivated me to become a journalist and further enhance my investigative reporting skills — I find it unfair to see other people struggle and live in suffering because of the greed and apathy of those in power.

For seven years, I worked as a journalist for ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation up until last September, when I came to the UK for my postgraduate studies. Aside from reporting for television, I also produced stories for our radio and online platforms.

I started as a regional correspondent in the South Luzon before I was assigned to the national platform. Crimes, rallies, environment and agriculture are the areas I usually covered until in 2015, I was assigned to the anti-graft beat, which included monitoring of criminal and civil cases against public officials and audit reports on public spending.

My heart is really set on doing investigative reports.  By uncovering under-reported issues and exposing wrongdoings, I hope to affect policy changes and trigger developmental reforms. One of the last expository stories I did with our investigative team was about the alleged human rights violations of policemen in the Philippine Government’s bloody campaign against illegal drugs.

With the help of data, I want to do more expository reports that will unravel the root causes of poverty when I come home. These are the stories that would reveal corrupt and neglectful activities. This way, I feel like I could help the reported 20 million Filipinos who still live under the poverty line.

Leaving the Philippines amid ongoing chaos and cropping up issues on human rights abuses was a struggle. A part of me wanted to stay but, in the end, I realized that I need a year away to enhance my skills so I can better serve the public.

Aside from funding my study in the UK, the Chevening Scholarship programme is a network of future and current leaders and influencers that could help me realize this goal. After all, what’s not to like about being a part of a network of experts in their own field, who would work together in imparting their knowledge to help change the world?

I found Birkbeck while researching for an investigative journalism Masters programme. When I saw the curriculum, I immediately knew it was the right programme for me. I appreciate how the modules have been designed to fit the current demands and trends in journalism. This ensures we have all the practical skills needed to start (or continue) working after graduation.

I’m also impressed by the diversity of students in our class — from journalists to a podcast reporter to a political science graduate. This provides various insights and ensures mature and rich discussions in our class.

Information security experts and award-winning journalists have presented at our seminars, including Iain Overton and Ewan MacAskill (remember the Snowden files?). This is all just in the first term and I look forward to all the great things I will learn for the rest of the year!

If I could offer any advice to someone looking to apply for the Chevening scholarship or wanting to come to Birkbeck, it would be to know your purpose and your goal. All the scholars I’ve met, and even my classmates at Birkbeck have one thing in common —their hearts are set on doing something that would make an impact on other people’s lives.

It’s important to realize that we are continuously honing our skills and gaining knowledge not only for ourselves, but also to contribute to the development of our society, even in our own little ways.

 

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Returning to education: how to be a successful student

Abigail Bryant, recent graduate in Arts and Humanities, gives her advice on coming back to university after a hiatus from education, and how to juggle work and study. 

Before starting at Birkbeck, I worried that the years I’d had out of education may make it difficult to slot back into it seamlessly and that my ‘academic brain’ just wasn’t there anymore. I hadn’t written an essay for over five years! It turned out that I had absolutely no reason to feel like this. As soon as you start you’re given an encouraging, safe space to learn about the technical stuff such as referencing and essay structure, as well as logistics about how the university works and where you can find the resources that you’re entitled to.  There are also plenty of opportunities to ask questions, so you’ll quickly realise that you’re not on your own – there is support everywhere you turn!

If, like me, you’ll be working and studying simultaneously, good for you! You’re in for an enriching, challenging but ultimately rewarding experience. For me, the main goal was always to enjoy my course and never to view it as a chore, and luckily I managed to maintain this for the four years that I was at Birkbeck. Of course, after a long and tough week at work, the idea of sitting and working on an assignment at the weekend was not always a barrel of laughs, but I made sure that I chose modules that I felt passionately about and essay questions that I could get my teeth into, and would involve research that I was genuinely interested in. The feeling of satisfaction and pride upon handing in an assignment would always outweigh the pain of getting it finished! It is important to make time for yourself as well, and make sure that alongside work and study, you have the headspace to pursue interests and ‘me time’. This will no doubt benefit all aspects of your life, and your overall happiness should take priority and feed into your course at Birkbeck!

But what does it really take to be a successful student at Birkbeck? What do you really need to balance work, study and home life? Here are my top three tips:

  • Be curious
    At Birkbeck, you are so lucky to have access to a wealth of research materials, acclaimed professors, and diverse module choices. For maximum fulfilment and enjoyment, stay open minded and have a keen willingness to constantly learn and improve, both from your teaching materials and your peers. Embrace the resources available to you, and immerse yourself in Bloomsbury – there’s so much fascinating history within the walls that you’re learning in! Keep up to date with events going on – I’ve attended many panel discussions, career events and summer workshops throughout my time at Birkbeck. They are all free to attend and are a great way to network with students, teachers and industry folk alike (as well as boost your learning). Most importantly, challenge yourself – never feel like something’s not worth exploring because you don’t initially understand it. Ask questions, do some independent research, and you’ll be amazed at what you can discover and achieve.
  • Be committed
    For all the benefits of evening study, there are inevitable challenges to balancing university with other components of your life. Stay organised, disciplined and committed to your studies. The better you manage your time, the more fun your course will be, and the more you will get out of it. Studying should never feel like a chore, but an accomplishment worth fighting for.
  • Be yourself
    Lastly, try not to compare yourself to other students in terms of ability or knowledge. You have a unique and valuable perspective to bring to the classroom, so never feel afraid to express your opinion or thoughts in seminars. Birkbeck is a safe space to develop and articulate ideas and arguments, with infinite room for progression and improvement.  Follow your instincts, pursue your passions, learn from and with others, and always value your own voice.

Whatever you’re studying, and whatever your stage of life, Birkbeck is a life-changing, diverse, and extremely exciting place to study. It’s easily one of the best things I ever did, and I’d implore anyone to embrace every second, every resource and every opportunity it has to offer.

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Launching Birkbeck’s Event Toolkit

Birkbeck staff Siobhan Morris and Lucy Tallentire discuss the new Event Toolkit – a new resource to advise Birkbeck staff and students in organising, promoting and evaluating events. This toolkit will complement the work of the events team, who will continue to organise College-wide events.

Events, Communications, Public Engagement, and Impact staff from across the College have recently designed and created an Event Toolkit to offer general advice for all kinds of events, from conferences and academic workshops, to memorial dinners and book launches. This toolkit will complement the work of the events team, who will continue to organise College-wide events. It has been designed primarily for staff at Birkbeck to provide them with a practical resource to help run a successful event from start to finish, however, the toolkit may also be useful for postgraduate students and interns.

The toolkit is comprised of six sections, each providing a wealth of guidance, top tips and resources for planning, organising, and evaluating an event.

The sections focus on the following key areas: Why and Who, Logistics, Event Promotion, and Evaluation. In addition, the toolkit features a series of case studies designed to showcase best practice, as well as indicate potential challenges that may arise during the planning or delivery of an event. A list of Resources and Contacts is also included, providing evaluation templates, details of key contacts within the College, and links to further information.

More information on the toolkit’s content and layout is available in the video below:

The Event Toolkit team have been delighted with how the resource has been received so far, with comments noting that the toolkit is a ‘fantastic resource, it’s so comprehensive’ and that it contains ‘loads of information but it can be dipped in and out of’.

The toolkit will continue to be reviewed and updated periodically in order to ensure that the information provided remains accurate and up to date. We therefore welcome any feedback, suggestions or comments that you may have. Please get in touch with us through the feedback form in our Contacts section of the website. We hope you enjoy exploring the toolkit!

Explore the Event Toolkit here: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/staff-information/event-toolkit

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The changing role of Birkbeck’s website homepage

Jane Van de Ban, Web Content Manager for Birkbeck, gives insight into the functionality and strategic design behind our new homepage. Read part one and part two in our blog series about the redesign project.

We launched the new Birkbeck website six months ago and, since that time, one of the areas that has sparked a lot of conversation is the homepage – the ‘bbk.ac.uk‘ page that traditionally would have functioned as our ‘virtual’ front door.

Colleagues from across the College have been very curious about the changes that have been made to the homepage – and rightly so. Along with a lot of very positive responses – about the modern design, clear navigation and sense of purpose for both recruitment and research – some concern has also been expressed. This is understandable – we have made a drastic change from what went before.

So I thought it would be worth dedicating this latest edition of our series of blog posts about Birkbeck’s digital transformation project, to exploring this subject in a little more depth, explaining the evidence and rationale behind the design route we have taken.

The concerns that colleagues on our campus have expressed largely cluster around three issues: long pages; use of large images; and the loss of the carousel – a filmstrip of images that you can click through.

The ‘above the fold’ myth
Some people are worried that the introduction of long pages on content might put off visitors, who they imagine do not want to scroll down a lengthy page. This concern is sometimes expressed as ‘our content needs to be above the fold’.

There is a persistent, outdated belief that all of our most useful content needs to be available ‘above the fold’ on the homepage or people simply won’t find it. Some folk imagine that web users won’t scroll. This was certainly the case in the 20th century when mass web use was in its infancy (and on desktops), but is no longer true.

The term ‘above the fold’ comes from the world of printing presses and ink, where newspapers ensured their best story was featured on the top half of the paper so, when folded in half for the newsstand, the front-page lead story could easily be seen by passersby.  This concept carried over to the web, where people equated the bottom edge of their browser window to the fold in a newspaper. Some colleagues are worried that, a bit like those newsstand customers, web visitors will simply scan the headline and, if not presented with every key messages at a glance, they will walk on by.

This certainly used to be the case, but the web and how people use and interact with it has changed dramatically with the rise of mobile.

  1. The fold has moved – different devices have different viewing screens, and the ‘fold’ on my desktop is not the same as the ‘fold’ on my iPhone. Nor is it the same as the fold on my colleague’s Android phone or the fold on another colleague’s iPad. The relevance of the ‘fold’ as a strict guide for web design – and the injunction to ensure your most important content is above it – faded at the point at which people regularly started using devices other than their computers to access the internet (last year, visitors used more than 6000 different devices to access our website). This doesn’t mean the fold is entirely irrelevant, but it does mean web design in relation to it has had to change.
  2. Scrolling is now normal web behaviour. In the 90s, scrolling was not normal for web users and websites lacked the sophistication of functionality available today.

Here’s what the Birkbeck website looked like in January 1999.
At that time, we didn’t ask people to scroll, but our website was tiny and not even the place most people turned to find out about us. Imagine this – Google was only founded in 1998! Like many other websites in the 90s, it mostly comprised text that was uncomfortable to read on screen.

Now, thanks to the proliferation of devices with small screens that people use to access the web, along with advances in readable screen technology and the advent of social media channels that require you to scan lots of content, people have not only learned how to scroll and read online, but scrolling has become the norm. This means we no longer have to put all of our most important information above the fold – indeed, we’re no longer expected to – which means we can be more flexible when it comes to homepage design.

Where did the carousel go?
Since we launched the new homepage, some people have mourned the loss of the carousel – the sliding set of images that used to adorn the top of the homepage. They are concerned that, with the loss of the carousel, we no longer convey the unique character of Birkbeck at a glance.

When we were working with Pentagram, our design agency, to develop our new homepage, we had long discussions about whether the carousel should stay or go: we were initially resistant to the idea of losing it. After all, it was an efficient way to showcase lots of information about Birkbeck in one space, wasn’t it? Actually, no it wasn’t.

It turns out that web carousels aren’t working for website users, but internal audiences love them. So, while we thought people were finding out all about Birkbeck from the rotating images and messages in the carousel, in fact, our visitors weren’t interested at all: they did not always see them; scrolled past them; went straight to our course finder; or noticed just one image and followed that link. Our carousel was giving us a false sense of security and, as a result, we were not working hard enough to ensure our visitors understood what Birkbeck was about.

This chimed with findings from our customer journey mapping research, where students told us that, even though they trawled our website enthusiastically (some of them claimed to have visited ‘hundreds of times’), they weren’t necessarily aware of our core offering or our ‘unique selling points’, in marketing parlance.

For example, some did not realise we offered evening teaching as the norm: they thought it was just an option and that we were a daytime university. Nor did they realise how well respected we are for our research, both nationally and internationally. Or that our NSS results can really shine. Our researchers told us that we ‘hide our light under a bushel’ and we absolutely needed to do more to share our unique characteristics and our successes with our web visitors, the majority of whom only ever engage with us online.

Our new homepage design

When we commissioned Pentagram to come up with a new web design with and for us, based on our new visual ID, we knew we wanted to showcase Birkbeck effectively. We knew – because Birkbeck staff and students told us – that the Birkbeck website didn’t work for our visitors as well as it might and that it looked dated and staid.

Pentagram took time to understand our objectives, our concerns and the feedback we had received from staff and students before devising this list of design principles to inform our new web design:

  1. Simplify and clear away clutter
  2. Push up content and reduce steps
  3. Connect content and surface a story on every page
  4. Create hierarchy
  5. Don’t be afraid of long pages

We know that people don’t read every word on our homepage – in fact, not everyone sees our homepage but goes straight to a particular page as directed by a search result. But if our visitors do choose to travel down it (and a lot of them do), they will encounter a number of elements that tell them more about the type of institution Birkbeck is:

  • Hero image: this is the big image that loads whenever someone visits our homepage. We have deliberately chosen an image that is both large and striking, because we know this is one way to attract the attention of our visitors and, yes, encourage them to explore. But it isn’t just the size and quality of the image – this image also conveys something about Birkbeck, buttressed by the message ‘Join London’s evening university and transform your life’. And now that we have one image to grab people’s attention, we make sure it works hard. (For example, one of our previous images – a bus driving past the SSHP buildings in Russell Square – tells people that we are in the heart of historical London.)
  • A prominent course finder: we have emblazoned our course search across our homepage, after the hero image. Why? Because the art of a successful homepage is to enable visitors to get to where they want to go, quickly. In the last academic year, people pulled up our course information 6m times, so we know this is important to them. Our course finder makes it quick and easy for them to find our course information – and by including all the level options, they can see that our courses span the breadth of higher education offerings.
  • Research stories embedded across our site: We are proud of Birkbeck’s research profile and know how important it is to Birkbeck staff that we tell people about it. To help us share our research stories more widely, we have embedded news, events and blogs/podcasts on all of our landing pages – not just our homepage – including our course listings. This means our research information – which comprises the bulk of these channels – is accessible almost anywhere people travel on the redesigned pages – and by showcasing our research through these different channels, we are giving people loads of ways to engage with it.
  • Obvious USPs: no more hiding our light under a bushel. Our new image-based ‘statement tiles’ give us the chance to tell visitors about Birkbeck and what makes us unique. On our homepage, for example, we tell people that ‘Birkbeck is different: our classes are held in the evening so you can fit study into your life and build your future’. But this isn’t the only message on our site (because we know that our homepage isn’t the only place people look for information about us) – on our ‘About us’ landing page, we tell visitors that Birkbeck is ‘A leading research university and vibrant learning community’; and so on. If someone engages with our website, they should be in no doubt that we are a unique evening teaching institution with a world-class research reputation, and our statement tiles are designed to reinforce this message.

But that’s not all. In addition to these elements, you will find that we offer routes to destinations across our site through large visual signposts; that accessibility is at the heart of our design and our Reciteme bar means all visitors can access our information more easily; and that our redeveloped pages are responsive, which means they change, depending on the size of the browser you are using to access them, in order to provide an optimal browsing experience.

Is our homepage working the way we wanted?

Two of the objective set for Stage 1 of the Digital Transformation Project were to:

  1. Support student recruitment by making it easier for prospective students to navigate our site.
  2. Better promote our research.

Since the new pages and design went live on 16 May, we have seen a number of results that suggest that we are meeting these objectives. For example, compared to the period immediately before the go-live, prospectus requests have gone up 200%, Open Evening registrations 70% and applications 50%. And we’ve seen a 130% increase in views of our research content.

Of course, we know these results aren’t solely due to the work we did on the web, as these objectives are shared by colleagues across the college, and we work collectively to achieve them. However, we can at the very least be reassured that our website is helping us to meet these objectives and, as we track user engagement with our site (through user testing and the use of online tools like Hotjar), we can see that it is now easier than ever for our users to find the content they need to decide to study with us – and we can also see that they are engaging with our content in the way that we hoped (watch this video of someone reading our home page).

It’s early days and there’s still a lot to do and a lot to learn – but the work undertaken so far has greatly improved the website for our users and who are now able to quickly and efficently find out about Birkbeck and what we offer.

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Birkbeck’s telephone fundraising campaign – meet the Student Callers

Say hello to the new Birkbeck student callers who will be working on the telephone campaign to raise valuable funds for bursaries, facilities and support services.

The Birkbeck Autumn Telephone Campaign has now begun. A team of dedicated Birkbeck student fundraisers will be contacting alumni over the next five weeks to fundraise for College priorities, including bursaries. 40% of Birkbeck students require some form of financial assistance, and often this support is key for bursary recipients to be able to complete their studies.

Not only do alumni gifts provide financial assistance to these deserving students but they can also have an impact on life at the College, ensuring that future generations of students have the best facilities, support, advice and career guidance during their time at Birkbeck.

We have been running telephone fundraising campaigns for the past nine years, with over 300 telephone fundraisers taking part so far. Tara Millington, Regular Giving Officer at Birkbeck has said: “In the last telephone campaign, our telephone fundraisers secured over £93,000 in pledged donations. This is a real testament to how generous our alumni are – their support can make a huge difference for both current and future students here at Birkbeck. Not only do the callers gain valuable fundraising experience, they really enjoy speaking to alumni and hearing about their experiences.”

The Autumn Campaign will run between 30 October and 2 December – if you’d like to receive a call from one of our students, please get in touch with Tara Millington (t.millington@bbk.ac.uk).

We talked to this year’s Student Callers about why they wanted to participate in this year’s campaign:

Grace, MSc Environment & Sustainability: “I wanted to be more involved in university life and to help raise money to support the student services available at Birkbeck. I’m looking forward to speaking to Alumni and hearing about their experiences”.

Jasmine, MA Victorian Studies: “I wanted to do something for Birkbeck whilst I’m a student here, I think it’s important to raise money for ongoing projects, scholarships and bursaries that benefit both current and future students”.

Thomas, MA Philosophy: “I wanted to gain experience of working within a University. This kind of fundraising allows students to have opportunities they otherwise might not, and I think that’s important.”

Kelli, PhD Film and Screen Media: “I wanted to improve my communication skills and I believe in the objective and importance of alumni relations – which benefits current students in so many ways”.

Tasawar, MSc Middle East in Global Politics: “I wanted to gain experience in connecting with Birkbeck alumni, I think it’s important to give back to a community that you will always be a part of”.

Shakeela, Cert HE Counselling and Counselling Skills: “I was a caller in the last Telephone Campaign – it’s a chance to give back to Birkbeck and gain experience in a fundraising role.”

Shade, MSc Global Criminology: “I wanted to gain fundraising experience and to talk to alumni about their experiences at Birkbeck. Fundraising for Birkbeck is important as it gives a chance to students who may not be able to study without financial help.”

Roland, Counselling Skills“I wanted to get to know Birkbeck better by meeting other students and talking to alumni – fundraising is important as it keeps alumni engaged with Birkbeck and gets the message out there about the good work Birkbeck is doing”

Madeline, BA Creative Writing and English: “I’ve worked on the last two Birkbeck Telephone Campaigns and loved the calling team and getting to speak with alumni about their experiences.”

Melissa, BSc Geography: “I’m a returning caller to this campaign – I want to gain some fundraising experience and feel that raising money for Birkbeck is a sound and just reason; I feel privileged to be able to attend university myself. The bursary I received is incredibly helpful, and the career service at Birkbeck is invaluable.”

Mohammed, BSc Psychology: “It felt like a good opportunity to get involved and be more of a part of Birkbeck, whilst gaining valuable fundraising experience.”

Moonlie, MSc Education, Power and Social Change: “I want to fundraise for the support made possible by alumni donations e.g. career support for disabled students and to enhance the student experience.  I’ve called in a previous campaign and really enjoyed speaking to alumni.”

Ria, BSc Biomedicine: “I’m a returning caller from a previous campaign, and really enjoyed speaking to alumni and gaining fundraising experience. It’s very exciting to be able to speak to alumni.”

 

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Finding the balance between work and study

Sports Management 2017 graduate Bethan Taylor reflects on her time at Birkbeck and shares her top tips on how to find a balance between your job and your studies.

Image: Anna Rachel Photography

I studied MSc Sports Management at Birkbeck from 2015-2017, taking a special interest in women in endurance sport. I’m a civil servant working in the Ministry of Justice, and I also write for a range of publications including my own blog A Pretty Place To Play which features my new podcast The Mental Health Podcast. When I’m not working or writing, I like to run and am currently training for my first ultra-marathon – 56 miles from London to Brighton next year.

There are lots of reasons why I decided to go back and study for an MSc – I’d been working in financial services for around five years and while I loved my job, I wasn’t finding it that intellectually stimulating. At the same time, I’d become really involved in running and was writing for various print and digital publications on the topic of women in sport, which really peaked my curiosity. I decided that I wanted to be able to talk with authority on the social issues in sport, and in my mind, the best way to do that was through postgraduate study.

The whole experience at Birkbeck was amazing! I loved that I was able to study an academically rigorous and challenging course while still progressing my career. The academics I worked with in Birkbeck Sports Business Centre were really open and supportive, encouraging us to question everything and to challenge each other, which I really enjoyed.

Being able to work while I studied meant I could pay my course fees without worrying about debt. Academically, it was great studying over two years – it meant that I could really take advantage of everything Birkbeck had to offer, simply because I was there longer! It also meant I had more time to think about what I wanted to research for my dissertation, which meant I got to dig deep into issues that really fascinated me.

There were challenges, of course, one of the biggest being that I felt like I was constantly saying no to social events and letting people down. That was really hard. Thankfully my friends and family were all really supportive and totally understood when I had to decline a dinner invite again, or sloped off home after one drink to study!

Between working and training for a marathon and a couple of half marathons my time at Birkbeck was pretty busy, and it did mean that I didn’t get involved in any societies or clubs. However, I did have a mentor and she was fabulous – it was great to be able to sit down with someone and discuss my career and direction really frankly.

I think it’s really important for people in the sports/fitness industry to really understand the unique nature of their business, as well as the social issues that surround people’s engagement in sport (my area of interest). Courses like the MSc Sports Management are helping to develop a new generation of professional sports administrators, as well as the academics who’ll be thinking about how we can challenge ourselves and develop the industry in the future.

I think education is a life-long pursuit, and I was really lucky to have great role models in my parents who both studied while working throughout my childhood (in fact my Dad was also at Birkbeck last year!). Learning new things helps to boost your creativity, enhances your problem-solving skills and challenges your perceptions – it makes life a lot more interesting! I also believe that life shouldn’t be all about work, you need some challenges that are just for you, whether that’s studying for an MSc in a subject that fascinates you or running a marathon (or both!).

If you’re thinking of studying at Birkbeck, don’t question whether you can do it, as you absolutely can! You’ll need to be super organised both at work and with your studies, and there will be some sacrifices, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

Before you start your course it’s worth chatting to your employer about flexible working – I always kept my boss in the loop with my timetable so she knew why I was bolting out the door at 5pm. Also make sure you talk to your friends and family, as you will need their support and understanding because there will be times when things feel tough.

When I was studying, being organised was essential! You cannot over-plan when it comes to studying while working. Make sure you leave lots of contingency time, just in case something kicks off at work or you get sick.

Looking back on my time at Birkbeck, I can honestly say it’s one of the best places in the world to study sports management – but beyond that, there’s so much more! Studying while working is a great way to demonstrate to employers a whole range of desirable skills, like time management, organisation and dedication. It really illustrates how dedicated you are to your subject – you have to really want to do something if you’re going to sit through three hours of lectures after a full day at work! Beyond that, I’ve had the opportunity to carry out brand new research on a topic that hasn’t been explored much in-depth before, and I think this contribution to my subject really sets me apart.

Looking forward, I would love to become an expert in my field, specifically focusing on women in sport. The dream is to be cited as an ‘expert’ in a Runner’s World investigation. In the meantime, I am working on building my experience and thinking hard about a PhD (possibly at Birkbeck…).

Further information

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Birkbeck’s Digital Transformation Project

Ben Winyard, Digital Publications Officer at Birkbeck, discusses Stage One of our online redesign.

Stage one of Birkbeck’s ambitious Digital Transformation Project went live on 16 May 2017, with the launch of a bold new design and layout for our homepage, corporate site and online prospectus. Since then, External Relations and the ITS Web Team have busily continued with improvements that, while less dramatic in terms of immediate, aesthetic impact, are just as important for bettering the user experience, optimising the accessibility of our website for all users, and making sure visitors can get the information they want quickly and easily.

A core principle of the Digital Transformation Project is that our decisions should be evidence-based and user-focused. In pursuit of this goal, we regularly test users’ responses to our website. Since February 2017, we have run around 50 user testing sessions, which covered the pre-launch, launch and post-launch phases of stage one. Some initial changes we made as a result of user feedback were adjustments to styling and making information clearer and easier to find.

During the June user testing sessions, we looked at how users search for courses and judge their quality, using Google, UCAS, and other comparison and rating sites. As a result, we implemented improvements to usability on our online prospectus, including: rewording and redesigning buttons and signposts; adding links to other available years of entry and to other versions of the same course (‘Related courses’); retitling fields to make browsing easier; and adding career destinations information (pulled from Unistats) to all of our full-time undergraduate courses.

As well as identifying usability issues, regular user testing is also increasing our understanding of how people use our website, which informs future developments. This feedback is proving vital for the next part of the Digital Transformation Project, which is focused on improving our site and course search. We know that the majority of our visitors come to us via Google. But we have learned that an increasing number of visitors – especially younger users – primarily navigate our site via internal course and site search, or externally through Google, rather than using our menus. This makes it even more pressing to ensure our search facility is the best it can be, which is one of our primary aims for the immediate future. User testing sessions in August concentrated on course and site search; they confirmed that improvement is needed and provided vital information on how users expect a search facility to work on a university website.

We are also looking at how students use school/department content on the Birkbeck website and how this content fits into the user journey. This is with a view to launching a project to bring our school/department content into the new visual identity and web design, which will also include rationalising and improving content and navigation, in order to enhance the user experience and ensure all of our users can find the information they need.

In External Relations, our focus so far has been on improving our online prospectus, the most visited and the most important part of our entire website. Depending on the time of year, our online prospectus can total well over 4000 pages, each with its own unique content and each playing a vital role in telling prospective students about Birkbeck and encouraging them to apply. Improving our online prospectus has two strands: rewriting descriptive text for our courses and improving all of the modules that are currently available for undergraduate and postgraduate students. In both instances, we have been applying our new house style and polishing content to make our course and module descriptions accurate and engaging. Our primary aim with any online course description is to grab the reader’s attention and let them know about what is unique, interesting and exciting about the course and about Birkbeck.

An example of a programme page in our new design.

On our programme pages, we have focused attention on the overview, highlights and course structure fields. We know from heat maps and analytics that these are the most visited parts of every programme page, so we wanted to dedicate time and attention to making this text really sing. It’s important to us that we do justice to the intellectually stimulating content of our courses, to the dedicated, world-leading academics who teach them, and to the life-changing opportunities offered by Birkbeck’s unique model of evening study. We have also been working hard with colleagues to ensure our online course pages are compliant with new legal requirements from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). These changes will increase the usefulness of our online prospectus by presenting important information on student contact hours, independent learning, learning development and support, and how students are taught and assessed across Birkbeck.

Our module improvement project has one primary focus: ensuring that every available module at Birkbeck is part of our online prospectus and includes rich, appealingly written descriptive text that adheres to our new house style. We have been working closely with our colleagues across Birkbeck’s five schools to source content and have updated and improved around 200 modules so far.

So, what difference has our redesign made, in terms of the number and quality of visits? An important measure of improvement and quality is the increased amount of time people are spending on our site; visitors spend longer engaging with the improved content and are finding it easier to navigate between different areas. There has also been an increase in the number of returning visitors, so we know that people are coming back to us.

Our online prospectus remains the focus of most visitors’ attention and continues to attract the highest interest. User testing and analytics reveal that, for many visitors, our course pages are their first interaction with Birkbeck, so one of our primary aims with the new web design has been to convert each of our online course pages into a ‘mini-homepage’, with links to news, events and research across Birkbeck and to vital information, such as financial support, student services and accommodation. To this end, we added tertiary signposts to every programme page and we are now seeing that people use our course pages as their main entry route into, and the jumping-off point to, other parts of the Birkbeck website. Other parts of our site have been dramatically upgraded: there are far fewer pages and we have consolidated information in one place and converted old information into downloadable documents, where appropriate. This has led to a significant increase in engagement: visitors are now spending more time on these pages and going through the information more thoroughly, because it’s all in one place and easily navigable.

Meanwhile, we have instituted a regular weekly maintenance slot, during which three web editors in External Relations make requested changes to all areas of our new site. Since May, we have implemented hundreds of such requests, all with the purpose of improving the accuracy and helpfulness of our content.

We have also developed an entirely new Digital Standards area on our website, which provides advice, information and support to all Birkbeck staff who need to convey information online. You can read our house style guide, find out about search engine optimisation, get practical information on links, files and redirects, and learn more about our visual identity and our social media guidelines. We are working hard to supplement this online support with bespoke face-to-face training, which we are in the process of developing. We have also begun using new software that identifies accessibility, content and coding issues across our site, which is greatly helping us continually maintain and improve the new site.

We have a series of ‘conversion goals’ on our website, whereby a user’s visit is translated into an action. We primarily want visitors to: order a prospectus; or book an Open Evening; or submit an application to study. We have seen a dramatic increase in these since we launched the new website, so it is pleasing to see that our work continues to support and advance the primary objectives of the Digital Transformation Project.

 

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Building an (Inter)Disciplinary Career

Lucy Tallentire from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics explores the challenges and opportunities in interdisciplinary studies, raised in a recent seminar from the TRIGGER Project (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research). 

Gender is pertinent to many disciplines, from literary theory to anthropology, film studies to linguistics, and sociology to geography. However, these disciplines sometimes differ in their approaches to how and why gender is studied. So what are the challenges in a field of study that spans several disciplines? And how can scholars make the most of their interdisciplinary roots?

These were just some of the questions considered at a recent event on negotiating careers as a gender studies scholar within a mainstream discipline. In her welcome address, Professor Helen Lawton Smith, who led Birkbeck’s participation in the TRIGGER Project, said: “Over its four-year lifespan the objectives of the TRIGGER project became more than just to support women in Higher Education, but to champion equality and what Birkbeck can do to support diversity.” Organised collaboratively by the Birkbeck Gender Sexuality (BiGS) research group and the Birkbeck TRIGGER project, this event is the first in a series of seminars that will be the TRIGGER project’s legacy, supporting PhD students, early career researchers and aspiring professors.

The seminar took the form of a conversation between Dr Kate Maclean, Director of BiGS, and Dr Gabriela Alvarez Minte, who recently completed her PhD at Birkbeck after many years of working in women’s rights at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). As a feminist geographer who started her academic career with a PhD in Women’s Studies, Kate reflected on her unique experience of completing her doctorate and moving straight into a career in the “mainstream” Department of Geography:

“It is widely acknowledged that gender, queer, and feminist theory is some of the most intellectually challenging theory across the social sciences and humanities. However you may still face challenges as a gender studies scholar – it is not as prevalent an attitude now as it used to be, but intra-departmental dynamics can be difficult!  And it can be difficult to find a network of people to develop your ideas with – particularly important in the early stages of your career. ”

The conversation then moved to discuss the ways in which the challenges of an interdisciplinary field can be overcome. A real breakthrough for Kate was realising the need to network with other feminist scholars in different departments. When she found that other, even senior, staff were facing similar challenges, she organised a meeting for feminist academics across the institution to come together and discuss the need for a space as feminist academics – for both research and mutual support. The size of the meeting was a real testament to the need for this network, which gave them a space to knock around ideas in a very constructive way. As a result, the Gender Matters @ King’s research group was born.

Taking questions posed by the audience of early career researchers, both Kate and Gabriela were able to reflect on their personal academic journeys. Gabriela sees herself as a combination of academic and practitioner and discussed the benefit of field experience: “working at UNIFEM was extremely beneficial to the development of my ideas and drove me to fill out the knowledge I lacked in gender and development”. Kate recognised that she was lucky to go from a PhD straight into an academic teaching and research position, but emphasised the merits of postdoctoral research opportunities, which allow a unique insight into a different field, the benefit of another’s experience and good networking opportunities. Like in any other profession, networking is very important in academia, and refreshments after the seminar offered participants an informal opportunity to engage with one another’s work, ask questions, and learn from one another.

You can find out more about BiGs and TRIGGER on the Birkbeck website.

Click here to find out more about future seminars.

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