Category Archives: Business Economics and Informatics

How I’ve found my first term at Birkbeck

Wojciech Zaluski, MSc International Marketing student, shares his experiences of his first term at Birkbeck, reflecting on how he’s found in-person lectures and what the most enjoyable aspects of his course have been so far.

My first term at Birkbeck was my first formal interaction with the British education system and my reappearance within formal learning – it’s been a long time since I finished my Master’s degree in Philosophy at the Jagiellonian University in Poland.

As 2021 was another year overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, before the start of the term we were informed that we could choose whether we study in-person or join lectures and seminars online. I chose to study in-person, and as I am studying part time, my first term only had two modules and classes took place during the evenings, due to Birkbeck’s evening teaching model.

In my first term, I found having in-person lectures to be really stimulating; the lecturers are very approachable and engage us in conversations. Students are encouraged to talk to each other and share their insights, and because classes are very international with students from all walks of life, those conversations are especially interesting. I was able to share my thoughts and exchange my ideas with students from Japan, Brasilia, USA, Ukraine, and the UK.

In all our lectures, what we were learning was strongly focused on the state of culture and society now, so it all felt very relevant. We were asked to discuss articles that highlighted how the internet is shaping our society and economy and at the same time how COVID-19 is shaping the marketing strategies of big companies. My first module was in Strategic Marketing Management, and we were assigned a group project. I joined a group of students from the USA, England, and Portugal, and we worked together on developing a marketing strategy for Netflix. Grace, a fellow student from the USA, proposed we should focus on the needs and interests of Gen Z, the generation born between 1997 to 2012. That was very interesting for me as someone who represents Gen X/Millennials.

Everything relating to your studies is organised through an online system that allows students to choose their options, check their agenda, and access study materials. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised how well everything works and how easy it is to navigate the online platform. We can focus on our studies, but Birkbeck has additional options which also are accessible through your online student account. For example, you can sign up to the Library and access lots of books and articles online; you can use the Birkbeck Futures platform to build your professional career; you can join Pioneer, a programme for people looking to develop a new business.

Each class that you have has a recorded version of the lecture available online, which is really helpful as it means you can listen to lectures more than once – I often revisit parts of lectures until I fully understand the concepts being discussed. There is also a reading list, which means you know what to read to understand the topics and you can be prepared when joining live seminar discussions.

Every week, students receive a general newsletter of what is happening at Birkbeck, and it is a wonderful source of information to learn what Birkbeck has to offer outside your studies. You can learn about job fairs, activities organised by the Birkbeck Students’ Union, and interesting things that are going on.

In summary, going into my second term, I feel energised and inspired to explore the subjects on my own. I am looking forward to learning more and getting a better understanding of modern marketing. I am also looking forward to meeting other students again, and I feel that in the second term we will feel more at ease and more open to sharing our ideas.

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Championing rights for disabled people in the workplace 

As the world prepares to observe the United Nation’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, on Friday 3 December, we speak to Birkbeck PhD student, Stephen ‘Ben’ Morris who shares details of his own journey with a disability and his research on how neurodiverse individuals can be supported into the workforce. 

Stephen 'Ben' Morris

 The global, annual observance of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities was proclaimed in 1992 by the UN to promote the rights and wellbeing of disabled people.  What has been your own personal experience with a disability? 

When people meet me, I hope they see me as ‘Ben,’ with all of the positive characteristics and contributions I can provide as a fellow human being. In most cases, I feel this is accurate; yet, when it has been determined that I am a person with a disability, the way I am treated varies on a regular basis. Some of the treatment is due to other people’s ignorance – for example, I can be bypassed in conversations even if they are about me; or, on occasion, malice, because others don’t understand or are afraid of my difference. Even when the intentions are positive, how I am treated can still have an effect on me.  

For example, people can become overprotective because of my disability, which can limit the opportunities accessible to me. I have been passed over for promotions because my employer is concerned about the expectations this advancement will place on me. Personally, I consider my disability as a positive because it gives me many strengths; nevertheless, I believe society needs to change its perspective and see me as a whole, not just see my limitations. 

Coinciding with the UN day of observance on 3 December is UK Disability History Month, which runs until 18 December. One of the key themes is around hidden disabilities- can you share a bit about your research and its links to those disabilities which are not necessarily ‘seen’? 

My research will centre on assisting neurodiverse individuals (who have a divergence in mental or neurological function from what is considered typical or normal) in entering the workforce. This will be a two-pronged strategy. The first approach is to listen to the neurodiverse community and understand their needs, desires, and barriers to work. The second approach focuses on the employer and teaching them how to support neurodiverse individuals in order to make work more accessible and achievable.  

From the research, I hope that finding the correct ‘fit’ will benefit both the neurodiverse individual and an organisation. The individual will be included in the working society and possibly feel self-worth, while an organisation can utilise untapped skills and talent. 

What do you see as the greatest challenges as you proceed through your research? 

Right now, I’m concerned about the future. I’m concerned about those who refuse to take part in my research. I recognise that people are frequently afraid of change, and I hope that the findings can be used and benefited from. Fortunately, I am being sponsored by Hays Recruitment and have connections with employers and neurodiverse communities, so I’m hopeful that will help me to locate participants for my studies. 

I’m also concerned by the data: only 31% of disabled people in the UK are in employment. Many desire to work but for a variety of reasons, they are unable to do so. Getting a job, if you are neurodiverse, can be very difficult.  

What are you most inspired by when it comes to the disabled community and the progress in terms of championing for disabled rights, better services and more exposure of the issues? 

People should be willing to speak up for their beliefs, especially if it would benefit others. When people speak up for what they believe in, it can spark a movement in which other like-minded people work together to achieve a common objective. This collaboration decreases loneliness and isolation, and as this movement gains traction, more people will listen, and more action and understanding will begin. I believe that during the last few decades, there has been a growing sense of solidarity in the disabled community, and that some others are taking notice. More, though, is still required. It is vital to remember that it is just as difficult for a neurotypical (non-diverse) person to enter the realm of disability as it is for a neurodiverse/disabled person to enter neurotypical society. 

I wish to live in a world where everyone is recognised for their uniqueness and individuality. I believe that everyone has something to offer society, from innovative new ideas to spreading happiness and love. I believe there is an overemphasis on labels…people frequently notice the label before the person. I constantly campaign to highlight the advantages of what minority groups can do if they are given the opportunity. I believe it is equally vital for me to share my thoughts with other persons with disabilities, their family members, co-workers, and experts, because the more one teaches, the more one learns. It would be an accomplishment if my stories/experiences helped improve the lives of even one person. 

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Ten ways to have a more sustainable Christmas

Dr Pamela Yeow is Reader in Management in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics whose research currently focuses on ethical consumerism. She shares ideas to celebrate Christmas more sustainably in 2021.

In the run-up to Christmas, consumers are bombarded by Black Friday sales, tear-jerking adverts and a seemingly endless parade of stuff on our social media feeds.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t even started to think about Christmas shopping and gift-giving yet! This is particularly so in the aftermath of the COP26 climate summit and the twelve-day marathon of presentations, debates and negotiations.

COP26 has brought home to us the importance and utter urgency of the climate emergency. Even with the agreements in place, more needs to be done to reverse the negative impact of decades of neglect of our planet.

My colleagues and I have been doing research on single-use plastic for a while now, and recent research has demonstrated that the inconsistent messaging and confusion around what and how to recycle means that householders are not recycling as much as they would like.

Of course, recycling is not the only thing we can do. Reducing consumption of single-use plastic, as well as repurposing or reusing single-use plastic is also key to helping our planet survive.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at the thought of all the upcoming festive consumption, here are ten ideas to help you have an enjoyable and more sustainable Christmas.

1. Instead of buying a tree, plant a tree

A two meter Christmas tree is equivalent to 16kg of carbon dioxide if it ends up in landfill. Why not plant a tree instead this Christmas? Websites like MoreTrees and Dedicate a Tree make this easy to do, and you can even gift a tree to others.

2. If you can’t imagine Christmas without a tree, rent one instead

Rented Christmas trees are a growing trend. For the rest of the year, rented trees are re-planted, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and providing a home for local wildlife, before brightening up your living room for the festive season.

3. Give a pre-loved gift

Want to give your loved ones something truly one of a kind? A thoughtful second-hand gift for someone who loves vintage, antiques or collectibles will be very much appreciated.

4. Give experiences

Often it feels like we have to spend a particular amount of money on gifts and sometimes that is justifiable. Rather than giving people things that might not be appreciated or even used, treat them to a memorable experience, such as a trip to the theatre or zookeeper for the day experience – the possibilities are endless!

5. Make a sustainable swap at the dinner table

Research tells us that eating a plant-based diet can help with climate change. If you can’t face cancelling that turkey order, consider swapping a side dish or starter for a vegetarian or vegan alternative. The planet will thank you.

6. Use recyclable wrapping paper

Avoid plastic glitter wrapping paper that can’t be recycled, or better still, use recycled or plain brown paper to wrap gifts. Whilst you’re at it, why not use paper tape as well.

7. Make do and mend your Christmas decorations

With a bit of extra care, Christmas decorations like tinsel will last for several years. If you’re feeling crafty, why not try making your own decorations out of things lying around the home?

8. Wear your old Christmas jumper

If you need to wear a Christmas jumper, try to re-wear your old one, swap or buy second-hand as it’s been found that most Christmas jumpers in the UK are made using plastic!

9. Shop locally

Reduce the carbon footprint of your Christmas shopping by opting for local retailers where possible. It also saves on packaging compared to a mountain of deliveries (Amazon boxes, we’re looking at you).

10. Go plastic-free where you can

Christmas crackers are another source of hidden festive plastic, but plastic free alternatives are becoming more popular. In 2019, John Lewis & Partners and Waitrose announced that its Christmas crackers from 2020 will no longer include plastic toys or be decorated with plastic glitter. Other large retailers quickly followed suit.

Finding ways to make Christmas more sustainable this year not only helps the planet, but can be lots of fun! Let us know your sustainable swaps in the comments below.

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How to get the most out of your time at Birkbeck: advice from BEI prize-winners

The School of Business, Economics and Informatics’ 2021 undergraduate prize-winners share their tips for managing workload, making connections and getting the most out of a Birkbeck degree.

This week, Birkbeck’s undergraduate class of 2021 will be celebrating their achievements at virtual graduation ceremonies with the Vice-Chancellor, Professor David Latchman, the President of Birkbeck, Baroness Joan Bakewell and of course their lecturers, friends and family.

Students who have performed exceptionally well in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics will be presented with awards at the Undergraduate Prizegiving Ceremony on Tuesday evening.

Graduation might seem a long way off if you joined Birkbeck this year, but one thing we’ve learned from our prize-winners is that early preparation is key to succeeding in final exams and giving you the chance to make the most of everything on offer during your time with us.

Read on for our graduates’ top tips on how to get the absolute best out of your Birkbeck experience.

How to get ahead in your studies: can-do attitudes and consistency

“Have a positive ‘I can do this’ attitude and work hard towards your goals. Remember to focus on what is best for you in the long run, instead of what feels easy or right in the moment.” Jaunius, Best Overall Final Year Student (BSc Economics and Business)

When it comes to getting the most out of your studies, getting in the right mindset is a great place to start. Why not try building focus with meditation, or writing down your goals somewhere that you’ll see every day, to remind you what you’re working towards?

“Be consistent with your studies! Stay on top of the module content as much as you can, it really is an advantage for your assignment and exam preparation.” – Steffi, Fiona Atkins Prize: Best Continuing BSc student (Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics)

“Try to go beyond memorising the key points illustrated in lecture notes and reading material by testing your understanding of theories and concepts regularly. Taking just a little extra time each week to revisit a key point is an excellent way to get to grips with a topic, pinpoint focus areas to discuss with your lecturers and ultimately ease the pressure when it comes to exam preparation later on.”– Simon, Best Project (Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics)

Carving out some focus time to check understanding is a great way to stay on top of your studies and identify any areas for support. Are there any quiet periods in your week where you could set some time aside to consolidate?

“My advice would be to make sure you reach out to your personal tutor if you start falling behind, they are there to help! I would also recommend electing the dissertation/project module as it is a useful way to build independent research skills.”– Sean, Best Final Year Student (Financial Economics)

Your personal tutor is your first port of call if you need help in managing your studies or other support. You can find their contact details in My Birkbeck under ‘Academic Support’. If you do not have an assigned personal tutor, get in touch and we can help.

Taking care of yourself during your studies

“Make a point to incorporate holistic habits into your daily life, so that you not only work and study but also exercise, eat fruit and vegetables, walk, meditate, tidy your space etc. All things become easier and more achievable when you are mentally and physically healthy. Listen to your body and make your health a priority.” – Joana, Benedetta Ciaccia Memorial Prize: Best final year student on the Foundation Programme (Department of Computer Science and Information Systems)

Relax and focus on enjoying your subject.  Don’t try too hard to understand any tricky new material. Just give yourself time and if you let thoughts and ideas tick over in the background then anything you don’t understand will gradually become clearer and more simple.” – Alice, Mehdi Prize: Best Performance in Mathematics

Taking some time out from studying gives your brain a chance to process what you’ve learned. If you’re looking for some accountability to stay active, or for a fun way to take a break from the library, check out the sports clubs and societies on offer through Birkbeck Students’ Union.

Know what support is available

“Take the time to map out where to find academic support. It’s about detailing the resources that would keep you optimal. For example, know the name of your personal tutor, you’ll need them for the occasional academic and emotional support. Sign up to studiosity for study help and LinkedIn learning for self-directed learning.” – Sabina, Best Overall Student (Department of Organizational Psychology)

“Ensure that you make the most of the resources available to you, whether that be the additional reading material provided for lectures or the Birkbeck library. Additionally, don’t be afraid to seek clarification/ask questions – this will allow you to develop your understanding!” – Charlotte, Best Overall Student (Business)

Our support services are there to be used, so if you need any help or advice on anything from academic work, to finance, to managing stress, don’t hesitate to reach out. Find out more about the support available in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics on our website.

Build your professional network and your support network

“Birkbeck provides endless opportunities for students to explore their interests and build a strong network of people with similar passions. Use your time at Birkbeck to connect with other students, exchange ideas, views and knowledge. Don’t be afraid to try a new activity, join a club or society. Explore your interests and enjoy your time at the university along the way!” – Venita, Derek Scott Memorial Prize: Best performance by Non-finalists (Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics)

Your university experience is about so much more than your degree. Take the time to get involved in the Students’ Union, join us for an event and soak up all that your time at Birkbeck has to offer.

And to those students who are graduating today and tomorrow – congratulations! We hope you will stay in touch with Birkbeck and we will be cheering you on with whatever you decide to do next.

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Halloween: a Horror Story of Unnecessary Consumerism?

And we thought the costumes were the scariest thing about Halloween! Dr Amy R Hackley, Senior Lecturer in Marketing in Birkbeck’s Department of Management explores the dark side of holiday consumerism.

As Halloween approaches, are you considering buying a pumpkin or two, and perhaps a plastic broom, make up or a horror mask for the kids to take trick or treating? Or even some Halloween-themed nightwear, or a special chocolate treat for yourself? Halloween consumption is on a rising trend: according to www.statistica.com, UK consumers are spending more than twice as much money on Halloween as we did in 2013, and an estimated 25% of us will buy a pumpkin, at a cost of around £30,000,000 (yes, that’s £30 million). Total Halloween related spending is estimated at almost half a billion pounds sterling annually. Last year, British supermarket chain Waitrose reported its biggest ever Halloween sales bonanza, with sales up by 62% on the previous year[i]. This year, in the home of Halloween consumption, the USA, pre-Halloween chocolate and confectionary sales have reached $324[ii] million, up by 48% comparing to the same period in 2020, with American consumers spending a stunning $10 billion every year on Halloween. But why do we spend such extraordinary sums on trivial items to mark an ancient Celtic death festival?

Halloween originated as the pagan festival of Samhain, part of the ancient Celtic religion in Britain and other parts of Europe. The Celts believed that on the 31st October the barrier between the world of humans and the world of spirits dissolves to allow ghosts to wander amongst us on earth. The festival was needed to scare away the bad spirits, and to remember the dead. Turnips were used to carve lanterns rather than pumpkins, and ‘guising’ (going from house to house in masks and costumes) was practised. Under the influence of Christianity, the day became known as All Hallows’ Eve or All Saint’s Eve. There are versions of this festival practiced around the world. For example, the Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead in Mexico is celebrated in the 2017 Disney movie Coco, and across East Asia there are many versions of ghost festivals practiced, such as paper burning rituals of ancestor worship, the Hungry Ghost festivals in Singapore and the ‘Pee Ta Khon’ festival in Dan-sai district, Loei province, Thailand. All these ritual practices are marked by consumption of various kinds, of food, goods and services. Halloween gained its popularity in America when 19th century Irish immigrants brought it with them, and the influence of American TV shows, books and movies, made Halloween more and more popular in the 20th Century.

From an academic perspective, consumption is a rich site of ritual practices, and death-related ritual is one of the most powerful. Death rituals re-enact our symbolic connection with our existence. They give us opportunities to re-tell tell stories about life and death, and to connect with the spirit world from which we are separated. They help the living to move away from the brute fact of death towards an acceptance of death as a kind of continuity of life. In a way, Halloween and other ritual practices help the living to celebrate life, by ritualising death.

Of course, the spiritual side of death rituals is very well-hidden in today’s deeply commercialised consumer festival of Halloween. Although a lot of consumption is essential to the practice of death rituals, we really do not need to eat so much chocolate or to buy so many horror costumes. It is, really, a horror of wasteful consumption. Halloween costumes and decorations are made from cheap plastic and synthetic materials which are not so good for our environment. It was recorded that consumers created 2,000 tonnes of plastic waste by discarding Halloween costumes[iii], and an estimated 8 million pumpkins (or 18,000 tonnes of edible pumpkin flesh) are heading for the bin as consumers do not eat it[iv] But, when we are young, Halloween is an opportunity to party and have fun dressing up, trick or treating, eating a lot of chocolate and candy and, when we are older, perhaps drinking a lot of alcohol. What’s not to love? Most supermarkets have their own dedicated range of branded Halloween products because the event is a huge opportunity to make money by selling us overpriced stuff we do not need.

Halloween remains one of the world’s oldest holidays and death festivals, and in its many forms around the world it retains a rich cultural significance in human society. As the contemporary American author Andrew Delbanco notes in his book ‘The death of Satan: how Americans have lost the sense of evil’, he suggests that as we have lost touch with the idea of evil, we seem to need more vivid representations of it. The commercialisation of Halloween in the Western world helps us to affirm our sense of self and social identity and to reconcile us to the inevitability of death by making it seem like a harmless children’s cartoon. Yet, lurking beneath the millions of pounds worth of fake blood, carved pumpkins and discarded plastic witch hats, is a real horror story of reckless and unsustainable consumption.

[i] https://waitrose.pressarea.com/pressrelease/details/78/NEWS_13/12558 accessed 21/10.2021

[ii]  “New Data Shows 2021 Halloween Chocolate and Candy Sales Are Up” Yahoo News Monday 18th October 2021 https://finance.yahoo.com/news/data-shows-2021-halloween-chocolate-173600801.html accessed 21/10/2021

[iii] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/10/17/halloween-2019-costumes-will-create-2000-tonnes-plastic-waste/ (paywall)

[iv] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/23/pumpkin-waste-uk-halloween-lanterns

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Managing our mental health in an uncertain world: tips for employers and individuals in the return to the workplace

In recognition of World Mental Health Day 2021, we asked academics from our Department of Organizational Psychology to share practical advice for mental wellbeing as people make the transition back to the workplace.

If there is one thing that is certain well into the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that certainty is no more.

Looking back to Spring 2020, when the UK imposed its first lockdown, there was a clear message for workers: work from home if you can, otherwise continue to go to work.

Now, the situation is rather less clear-cut, and the uncertainty surrounding how organisations and individuals will return (or not) to former ways of working can be a source of considerable anxiety and stress.

As World Mental Health Day 2021 approaches on Sunday 10 October, we spoke to Dr Kevin Teoh and Dr Jo Yarker from our Department of Organizational Psychology to learn more about how we can look after our mental health as we navigate this period of transition.

Why is this a particularly difficult time for people’s mental health?

“What the research has shown is that people are really depleted,” explains Dr Jo Yarker, Reader in Occupational Psychology. “All of these extra demands have been on us in terms of home demands, working in different ways and having to think about the way we do things that we used to take for granted. This has taken up a lot of energy, so many people are going back into this transition from a depleted state. We also haven’t had holidays and the opportunity to restore in the same way.”

For Dr Kevin Teoh, Senior Lecturer in Organisational Psychology, it is difficult for individuals to take care of the ‘ABC’s of mental wellbeing in the current climate: “As individuals, we need autonomy, belonging and competence to support out mental wellbeing,” he explains. “In other words, we need freedom and control over how we do things, the chance to connect with other people and to feel like we can get things done. Everything that’s going on in the world right now is hitting these areas; we’ve lost a lot of freedom, we aren’t connecting with each other physically and some people who have been made redundant or were on furlough may be asking if they can get through this. A lot of workers will be struggling to meet at least one or two of these needs right now.”

What can employers do to support positive mental health in the transition back to work?

For both Kevin and Jo, mental health at work is a collective responsibility. As Jo explains, “Often employers have been going through the same challenges as their workers, but they’ve had to put a brave face on it and pretend they know what to do. So that’s really hard.”

Jo recommends using an IGLOO model, where Individuals, the Group around them, Leaders, the Organisation and Our wider society take shared responsibility for mental health support. “It needs to be the whole system working and communicating together so there’s a shared understanding and shared expectation”, she explains.

Kevin encourages employers to think about how they can support individuals’ autonomy, belonging and competence: “Employers could facilitate a conversation to find out what their teams and individual employees want and involve them in the process. There also needs to be opportunities for employees to connect, be that formally via a mentoring process or more informally. As for competence, what resources and training do employees need to work remotely or return to the office, and how can they be supported to continue to develop?”

What can individuals do to take care of their mental health?

Individuals alone might not be able to shift company policy, but Jo and Kevin are keen to point out that, regardless of your work environment, there are things we can do to take care of ourselves.

“Ask yourself whether you are looking after yourself – are you putting boundaries in place? Are you investing time in your social networks? Are you receiving feedback from somebody at work?” says Jo. “Identify the gaps in your armoury of support and take steps to build them or find out how you could get support from work to build them.”

In addition, supporting mental health at work does not need to begin and end at work, as Kevin explains: “We can be purposeful in how we manage our mental health, so I might gain control over how much I exercise or how much news I consume. I could call a friend to feel a sense of belonging and take up a new skill like learning a language or musical instrument to feel more competent.

“We have to recognise that there are lots of things that we cannot control, but rather than be swept away with that, what’s one thing that I could do today, or this week, that would be a step towards more positive mental health?”

The Department of Organizational Psychology has published more detailed guidance on managing our wellbeing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Read the guide online.

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“Coaching has given me the tools to support wellbeing and help people find happiness in their work”

Sarah Wissing graduated from the MSc Career Management and Coaching in 2020. She shares her #BBKStory.

Sarah Wissing wearing black, leaning against a wall.I’ve always been drawn to supporting people and their welfare – on a night out, I’m that person who makes sure everybody gets home safe! In my role in HR, I’m interested in helping people develop and giving them the tools to flourish at work.

I’d known about Birkbeck’s MSc Career Coaching for a few years and finally decided to take the plunge after going along to an open day and meeting the Programme Director Janet Sheath, who was really lovely.

Studying for a Master’s part-time whilst working full-time was quite intense – there was a lot less going out to the pub! Luckily, my work was very supportive and the temporary sacrifice to my personal life was definitely worth it.

My undergraduate degree was in English and French and I’d done a Master’s in English ten years before starting the MSc, but this course was completely different. I remember totally freaking out in my first term when I failed my first essay, but Janet was really great and Birkbeck’s study support tutors were so helpful and I ended up graduating with a merit.

During our coaching weekends there’d be about ten of us and our two tutors – we did practical sessions where we coached each other and received real time feedback. We really got to know each other and it was a very supportive environment.

I also completed a placement in Birkbeck’s Careers Service, where I was assigned students to coach and given supervisions to talk about any challenges I was facing in that role.

The coaching skills I’ve gained on the course and the insight through my research project on Dyslexia in the workplace has really supported me at work: I love helping people to work at their best and am particularly excited about supporting neurodivergent individuals. Alongside my current role, I also operate as a freelance coach.

Studying coaching has made me an all-round better human – it’s about being an ethical person, in and out of work, and making people feel at ease. It equips you with the tools to support wellbeing and help people find happiness in their work and personal lives in an evidence-based way.

I never really have a five-year plan and the Master’s was the same, it just felt like the right thing to do at the time, and I’ve really enjoyed the process of studying and being at university again – nothing bad can come from a bit of education!

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Make soap not waste: the MBA graduate on a mission to reduce plastic packaging

Martina Schwarz wearing a grey t-shirt standing against a white background.

Blackmarket founder Martina Schwarz. Photo by Simon Habegger.

Martina Schwarz came up with the idea for a refillable soap that produces no plastic waste while writing her MBA thesis. Her business, Blackmarket, launches this September.

What should you do when you’re worried that the role you are great at is contributing to climate change?

This was the dilemma facing Martina Schwarz, an experienced packaging designer who’s worked with the likes of Unilever, Procter and Gamble and Kellogg’s, when she enrolled on the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA.

“A friction started to develop between my work and my values”, Martina explains. “I decided to write my MBA thesis on packaging and sustainability to incorporate my experience as an insider in the packaging industry with a focus on sustainability.”

Martina began her exploratory thesis with a focus on skincare, but when the pandemic hit, pivoting to handwash seemed like a natural step. In April 2020, Martina left her job to focus full time on her business, Blackmarket, and its first product: a refillable liquid handwash that uses no single-use plastic packaging.

“The first question I always get asked is why ‘Blackmarket’”, she explains, “You could say that the name has negative connotations, but I’ve chosen it so that people will ask questions. Blackmarket symbolises a desire to change the status quo and challenge someone’s thought process about how we design products.”

Blackmarket’s handwash stands out from mainstream refillable competitors through its innovative delivery system. Through her research on the MBA, Martina realised that a lot of personal care and cosmetic products are made mainly of water. By removing the water, she was able to design packaging similar to that of dishwasher tablets or laundry detergents that dissolves in contact with warm water.

“It’s about rethinking how we create packaging”, says Martina, “the film is a thickener that gives the handwash the gel texture that we recognise, so the packaging becomes part of the product. By removing the water at the packaging stage, the product weighs 95% less than its competitors, so transportation emissions are also reduced. Why would we bother to transport something that we can get on tap at home?”

The film packaging of Blackmarket liquid soap is the thickener that gives it a recognisable texture. Image credit – Blackmarket.

Blackmarket’s innovative approach saw Martina receive the UAL Creative Enterprise Award for Innovation in July 2021. She receives £5000 and a mentorship from IBM iX, who sponsored the award.

“The prize money is absolutely incredible – as a startup founder, there are a lot of costs associated with launching a cosmetic product – but the mentorship is as valuable as the prize money if not more,” says Martina. “I’m so pleased that IBM iX is the sponsor – I’m looking forward to using the mentorship programme to focus on behavioural change and the customer journey, making it as easy as possible for people to make sustainable choices.”

While, environmentally speaking, the best choice for handwash is a bar of soap, Martina’s market research found that the majority of consumers aren’t willing to make the switch from liquid soap. The product aims to make it as easy as possible for consumers to make pro-environmental choices.

Blackmarket has launched with a Kickstarter campaign, and Martina has an ambitious vision for the business: “Long term, we want to launch new products like shampoo and conditioner, but also to think about packaging differently. The nature of packaging is to be something that protects, but I really want with Blackmarket to think of that quite differently. I want to change perceptions of packaging to something that is long term, precious, and to be proud of how much you have used it.”

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Introducing Birkbeck’s Professional Doctorate in Evidence-Based Human Resource Management

Julie Gore, Programme Director, shares the rationale behind the Professional Doctorate in Evidence-based HRM.

Advancing metacognition – the process of knowing, understanding and learning are central features of doctoral education.  Deciding how to decide is central to successful leadership and management.   The challenges of Human Resource (HRM) management in times of uncertainty have never been more apparent, with sociotechnical advancement and change being pervasive features of our working lives.   Bringing together our advanced understanding of cognitive decision making processes and expertise, alongside a scientifically informed process of deciding how to decide, is where evidence based HRM meets informed HR practice.

In short, evidence-based HR refers to adopting a decision making process in which the organization consciously evaluates any decision against multiple sources of data, experience, expert opinions, and other types of information to ensure the decisions most successful outcome.

Notably, examining multiple sources of data is also completed deliberatively, with a critical eye, and questioning the value of the data is part of the method. It takes constant effort to seek multiple sources of evidence to aid decision making and Evidence-based HR aims to actively do this.

Birkbeck’s new doctorate in Evidence Based Human Resource Management provides advanced research skills, a critical approach to thinking and deciding, the opportunity to tackle challenging work based problems and paradoxes, and a vibrant network of opportunities for discussion and reflection with HR professionals.

I anticipate that practitioner and academic discussions will be lively and insightful.

Further Information:

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How to get your Birkbeck studies off to a flying start

Student Engagement Officer Rebecca Slegg offers top tips to new students, to help you settle into Birkbeck, get your studies off to a flying start and help you make sure you get the most out of your time here.

  1. Set up a study space at home. If possible, decide on one place where you will be able to study. Keep it free from clutter and other distractions as much as possible and make sure that your family/flatmates know that when you’re there they should avoid interrupting you if they can.
  2. Talk to your friends and family about your course. If the people in your life know why studying is important to you and what it involves, they will be able to better support you throughout your course. They’ll understand why you might not be able to go out every weekend at exam or assignment time. They’ll also be interested to hear about the new ideas and topics you’re now an expert on!
  3. Attend Orientation and the Students’ Union Fresher’s Fayre in September. This is a great opportunity to meet fellow students, find out about life at Birkbeck and join some of the many clubs and societies open to students.
  4. Create a wall planner and use it to map out your first term. Plot on your term dates, exam dates and assignment deadlines. This will help you to know when the pressure points are so that you can plan ahead in other areas of your life to accommodate your study needs and be well prepared to meet all of your course requirements comfortably.
  5. Set up a WhatsApp group/Facebook group with your classmates. This will enable you to share tips and information between lectures and seminars and help you get to know each other quickly. You will probably find that your classmates quickly become a source of support and encouragement.
  6. Sign up to academic skills workshops. Birkbeck offers a wide-range of resources for students to brush up on their academic skills, whether you need a refresher on essay writing or an introduction to academic referencing – get ahead with these skills now so you’re not trying to master them at the same time as researching and writing your first assignment.

  7. Explore the campus. Get to know Bloomsbury. There is a wide range of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, indie bookshops and cultural facilities close to our campus.
  8. Arrange to meet your personal tutor. Your tutor is there to offer advice and support on issues that may affect your academic progress. Some of the topics you might discuss with your tutor include module choices; exam revision; meeting deadlines; any personal or professional issues that are affecting your studies.

  9. Buy some nice stationery. Investing in some nice paper and pens is a subtle reminder to yourself of the investment you have made in coming to Birkbeck and that this is something that you believe is worth doing and will help you to move ahead with your life goals.
  10. Find out about Birkbeck Talent (the in-house recruitment agency) and the Careers and Employability Service. These two services can offer advice on CV writing, interview techniques, setting up your own business and can suggest suitable short- and long-term positions to match your skills and interests.
  11. Make sure you’ve ticked off all the items in our new student checklist, which includes all the practical details you need to have covered like enrolling on the course, paying your fees and setting up library and WIFI access.

At our graduation ceremony we asked those who had made it what advice they would give new students:

If you’re a current student, why not add your own advice for those just starting out in the comments section?

 

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