A day in the life of a PhD student

Chris Daniel, researching for a biology PhD

Why Birkbeck?

I chose Birkbeck, University of London because it was one of the few places I could study a Master’s degree part-time; I joined in 2020 to study Microbiology (MSc) and in 2022 I was honoured to receive the Diversity100 scholarship.

I am working in Professor Sanjib Bhakta’s Mycobacteria Research Laboratory within the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology (ISMB), and my project is part of the effort to tackle antimicrobial resistance in TB and TB-like respiratory diseases. Our research group originally discovered a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug class (similar to ibuprofen) that kills the drug-resistant form of the TB-causing bacteria, and my doctoral research project aims to understand how that over-the-counter painkiller drug is killing the bacteria on a molecular level.

What is a typical PhD day?

So, I’ll take you through one of my days in the lab!

I start the day usually by going to the gym, I find it helpful to clear my head before the day and it gives me the chance to plan my work. After a quick cup of coffee in the office, I’ll plan my experiment by assessing what I learned from the last experiment and writing out an aim for the next one. For example, I might have learned that I need to optimise my cell number for an experiment, so I’ll draw out my experiment using a multi-well plate map I designed, then prepare the chemicals I need.

Everything needs to be sterile (otherwise you risk running an experiment with bacteria that isn’t the one you want to use!) so to avoid contamination, we autoclave the chemicals and media that we use. The autoclave is basically a high-pressure cooker that kills everything before you use it. Once everything is clean, I set up my experiment in a sterile air-flow hood to keep everything in a safe atmosphere and a high level of protection for aseptic preparations. I clean everything down with ethanol when I’m finished so it’s ready for the next person to use.  

I usually combine my microbiology lab work and molecular biology experiments since culturing mycobacteria can take some time. Whilst I’m waiting for my results, I write everything up in my online lab notebook including my aims, observations, changes I’ve made, how old my bacteria was, and any other relevant information. Birkbeck graduate research school (BGRS) creates an amazing doctoral training environment where I get the opportunity to meet my thesis committee and my graduate tutor regularly. 

When I’m not in the lab, I’m researching specific areas of my topic to build up further knowledge. This means keeping up to date with current research and critically analysing published papers and methods. I am usually crunching a lot of data too! I also prepare presentations for conferences, assist with teaching the undergraduate and postgraduate labs as well co-supervise project students in our lab.

And that’s my typical day!

This scholarship has changed my life, it has given me the opportunity to be a scientist. Of all the wonderful, complex elements that make us who we are, this PhD makes me feel fulfilled, capable and excited.

BGRS Poster Competition 2024

Thursday 16 May 2024

Birkbeck Graduate Research School (BGRS) invites you to enter a Postgraduate Research Student Poster Competition, which will be held on campus alongside the 3 Minute Thesis Competition on Thursday 16 May from 6pm.

This Poster Competition is open to all doctoral researchers at Birkbeck and provides an excellent opportunity for you to present your research, practice your communication skills, to network with other doctoral researchers and to celebrate your work.

Prizes

  • The winner of the first prize will receive £150 and a certificate
  • Two runners up will be awarded certificates and £75 each

Poster requirements

  • You should create a research poster that explains complex research to a mixed audience of non-subject specialists.
  • Your poster should be formatted for printing as A0 in size and in portrait orientation.

What is involved?

  • Your poster will be displayed on a poster board, with an in-person judging session during a reception after the 3 Minute Thesis Competition.
  • You will be invited to attend your poster during the judging session and so that attendees can speak with you about your research.

How to enter

Training available

For all those taking part in the competition we have organised a workshop to help you produce your poster.

Thursday 18 April, 11am-12.30pm

Regardless of whether you are planning to enter the 3 Minute Thesis Competition or enter this BGRS Poster Competition please do mark 6pm Thursday 16 May in your diaries for these exciting events.

Three Minute Thesis Training sessions 2024

Birkbeck 3MT: Thursday 16 May 2024

Join a selection of Birkbeck PhD students as they compete to communicate their compelling thesis topics in just three minutes. This event is a fantastic opportunity to share and celebrate the interests and successes of PhD researchers from across the College and we invite all current Birkbeck PhD students to take part. The winner of the Birkbeck competition will be chosen by an expert panel of judges who will award:

  • £500 to the overall winner
  • £250 to the runner up
  • The audience will also have their say by picking a People’s Choice winner who’ll win a special prize.

Training Sessions

As part of our support for the competition, a free programme of training sessions has been arranged. All potential 3MT competitors should attend these sessions. However, any or all of them are open to any doctoral researcher at Birkbeck who would like to gain skills in these areas:

2023 Competition

Please see this blog from last year in which competitors share how they chose to use their research to enter the competition. You can also watch a selection of Birkbeck 3MT videos here.

What is it like to take part in 3MT?

Some previous contenders have kindly shared what they gained from taking part.

Marie Houghton said that it ‘helped me to clarify exactly what I think the main message of my PhD is’ and that she ‘would definitely recommend taking part in the 3MT to any other PhD students.’

Hannah Reeves also said that the competition allowed her to ‘think about what matters most about my research – what do I care about, what do the community I’m working with care about, and what will this audience care about.’ She also described herself as nervous about the experience of being on stage but ‘the training helped to develop a mutually supportive atmosphere.’

Doyin Olorunfemi described how ‘the exercise of delivering a concise speech gives you clarity of mind as a researcher and clarifies your contribution.’ She would ‘highly recommend the competition.’

2024 Birkbeck 3-minute Thesis competition: Join the audience on Thursday 16 May

  • The BGRS is pleased to announce the 2024 Birkbeck 3 Minute Thesis Competition, which will take place on Thursday 16 May from 6pm. Please mark this date in your diaries!
  • £500 to the overall winner
  • £250 to the runner-up
Top row left to right: Conor J. Kelly, Jo Brydon-Dickenson, Allison McKibban. Bottom row left to right: Graham Driver, Laura Phillips-Farmer, Clau Di Gianfrancesco

This is the headline BGRS event of the year

This is an event for all doctoral researchers and also for anyone interested in studying for a PhD. The event will be followed by a drinks reception.

During the reception prizes will be awarded to the 3 Minute Thesis Competition winners.

Register to attend

You can be part of the audience for this year’s Three Minute Thesis Competition.

Registration is now open for this event

As part of the audience you will have a vote to decide who is the People’s Choice. You can also join the Birkbeck postgraduate community in celebrating the diversity of research interests undertaken here, and raise a glass to that with a drinks reception after the winners have been announced.

If you would like to participate in this year’s competition please see this post for more information.

Birkbeck Research Degree Awards: 2023-24

Birkbeck awards over 100 research degrees each year. Between October and December 2023, 27 Birkbeck Doctoral Researchers were awarded a PhD, MPhil or Professional Doctorate for their work in the following areas:

Faculty of Humanities and Social Science

6 PhDs in Creative Arts, Culture and Communication

5 PhDs in Historical Studies

2 PhDs in Social Sciences

Faculty of Sciences

5 PhDs in Computing and Mathematical Sciences

1 PhD and 1 MPhil in Natural Sciences

1 PhD in Psychological Sciences

Faculty of Business and Law

5 PhDs in Business

1 PhD in Law

Three minute thesis videos 2023


On Thursday 25 May, Birkbeck doctoral students took part in the 2023 Three Minute Thesis Competition. Conor Kelly was the overall winner and received a £500 prize.
Thesis title: Northern Ireland’s Political Parties Shifting Stances on European Integration 

Thesis title: Percy Grainger and Trans Identity in Edwardian England

Thesis title: The role of vFLIP in Kaposi Sarcoma-associated Herpes Virus (KSHV) Oncogenesis

Thesis title: Admitting Demons: Brexit and Psychoanalysis

Thesis title: Law and Evolutionary Agency in Outer Space

Thesis Title: An Era of Violence: Confronting Colonialism in the U.S. Violence Against Women Act (1994-Present) 

Thesis title: Choice of Court Agreement in Private International Law of Insurance Contracts: An analysis of harmonisation efforts in the field of jurisdictional party autonomy in insurance

Winners of the 2023 Three Minute Thesis and BGRS Poster Competitions

Top row left to right: Conor J. Kelly, Jo Brydon-Dickenson, Allison McKibban. Bottom row left to right: Graham Driver, Laura Phillips-Farmer, Clau Di Gianfrancesco

Birkbeck’s annual Three Minute Thesis and Poster competitions were held on 25 May and proved to be an entertaining and invigorating evening for competitors and the audience alike.  

For the Three Minute Thesis competition, participants from a range of different disciplines were challenged to present their scholarly research to a non-specialist audience in just three minutes. Showcasing their ability to talk with clarity and passion about their research, as well as their presentation skills, the quality of entries from doctoral students was exceptionally high. For the Poster competition, doctoral students submitted a poster design that explained their complex research to a mixed audience of non-subject specialists.  

The winner and recipient of a £500 prize for the Three Minute Thesis was Conor J. Kelly, for his talk entitled ‘Brexit and Northern Ireland’s Political Parties’.

The winner of the Poster competition and recipient of £150 was Graham Driver for ‘Exploring the geological evolution of Glacier-like Forms on Mars’. As well as the winners, a panel of judges also selected runners-up for each competition, and there was also a people’s choice award.  

Below is more information about the students who placed as winners and runners-up, and their respective research.  

Three Minute Thesis Judges Winner: Conor J. Kelly  

Thesis title: Northern Ireland’s Political Parties Shifting Stances on European Integration 

What’s it about? Northern Ireland’s political parties have had a huge influence on political developments related to Brexit in recent years. But the parties themselves have often presented contrasting positions on whether they support European integration since Ireland and the UK joined in 1973. There is literature on how parties form their positions on the EU. However, I argue Northern Ireland presents a somewhat unique case, and I try to show why you need to go beyond the current literature on political parties in order to understand how they behave towards Europe. 

Why this research? I grew up in Donegal, near the Irish border and I’ve always been interested in the politics and history of Ireland. The 2016 Brexit referendum brought the politics of Northern Ireland back to the top of the political agenda in Ireland, the UK, and the European Union. My thesis is trying to make sense of one dimension of a complicated but fascinating set of political dynamics. 

What’s your background? I did my BA at the University of Galway in Ireland and then studied for an MA at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Prior to coming to Birkbeck in 2018 to do a MRes and then a PhD, I had a variety of different jobs in not-for-profit fundraising in New York and London. 

Three Minute Thesis Runner-up: Jo Brydon-Dickenson

Thesis title: Percy Grainger and Trans Identity in Edwardian England 

What’s it about? It’s about a musician who wrote a lot about gender and sexuality in their private letters and diaries. I’m using those documents to try to piece together some understanding of what it was like to be trans in London in the early twentieth century and how people like Percy Grainger might have understood themselves.  

Why this research? A lot of trans history before the 1950s is built upon court records and newspaper articles, and it’s very rare that we get to hear trans people speaking for ourselves. So, when I came across these documents with Grainger expressing thoughts that will probably seem quite familiar to a lot of trans people today, I thought it was important to take the time to unpick them and show how they might help us understand the trans past.  

What’s your background? Before this, I was doing a Master’s at Reading and a degree at Sussex, both with a focus on music and gender in history. My background also includes a lot of performing music, so I love the opportunity to bring the things that I’ve learned as a musician into my research. 

Three Minute Thesis People’s Choice Winner: Allison McKibban

Thesis Title: An Era of Violence: Confronting Colonialism in the U.S. Violence Against Women Act (1994-Present) 

What’s it about? While laws regulating sexual violence are used by governments around the world, it remains a global health crisis. For 30 years, the U.S. Violence Against Women Act has addressed sexual violence, and in particular, violence against Indigenous women. My research questions why this set of laws hasn’t prevented the violence, through uncovering the ingrained beliefs beneath the words written in the more than 2000 pages of legislation. 

Why this research? The United States government has enacted violence against Indigenous communities for centuries. However, as a U.S. citizen, I never learned of this ongoing colonization until I was in university. My research pushes back on my own government’s violent policies, but also has compelled me to do activist work to restore land to Indigenous peoples. 

What’s your background? Before Birkbeck, I worked in government affairs in the US and attended LSE and Oxford to study for master’s degrees related to law, gender, and history. 

Poster Competition Winner: Graham Driver 

Thesis Title: Exploring the Geomorphological Evolution of Glacier-Like Forms on Mars 

What’s it about? The mid-latitudes of Mars are populated by numerous water-ice-rich landforms known as Glacier-Like Forms (GLFs) that are similar in appearance to valley glaciers found on Earth. Little is known about these glaciers and how they have evolved over time. Using data collected by orbiting spacecraft, and computer climate modelling, I am attempting to provide insight into the geological evolution of these landforms and discover what environmental factors influence glacial evolution on Mars. 

Why this research? I have always been interested in space exploration and geology, particularly in geomorphology and how landscapes are formed. When you think of Mars, you think of a dry, cold, dead planet, not an active landscape with large glaciers on its surface. The difference between what I had known about Mars before and the excitement of what I could discover exploring another planet drew me to this research. It’s an amazing privilege to have the opportunity to look at Mars every day from images I have requested from spacecraft 140 million miles away.  

What’s your background? Like many Birkbeck alumni I was working a steady job when, aged 30, I decided to go back to university to study something I have always been passionate about: planetary science. I worked full-time whilst completing my degree at Birkbeck, and graduated in 2019. In 2020, this PhD was advertised at Birkbeck, and I was fortunate enough to be selected for the position. Now I’ve had the opportunity to teach one of the modules which got me here and help other students towards their goals of exploring the geology of our solar system. 

Poster Competition Runner-up: Laura Phillips-Farmer 

Thesis title: Where structural and individual factors interplay: Building on the pathways approach to homelessness  

What’s it about? It’s about looking at the factors involved in why and how people come to face homelessness in the UK. Currently, research is split between ‘individual factors’ or ’structural factors’ or episodes of both types of factors. I would like to explore the spaces where they interplay using Life Course Theory and by focusing particularly on families.  

Why this research? Homelessness in the UK is a crisis that many take for granted. Comparisons between countries show that policy makes a huge difference, but it is highly contested over. I wanted to provide research that would give some weight to arguments in these areas. I was keen to slightly dismantle this idea that there’s always going to be some people who are safely in housing and some people who don’t get that, and that there’s something inherent about ’those people’. Homelessness charities sometimes make the point that “we’re all only one or two months of pay away from being homeless”, but it’s more complicated than that, with inequalities being deeper rooted. I want my research to help people tackle that complexity.  

What’s your background? I’ve worked as a youth worker, managed a winter night shelter project, and also a support worker for a homelessness charity. I took the Birkbeck conversion MSc in 2019-20, studied a health and social psychology MSc at Maastricht University in the Netherlands the following year, and began my PhD in the summer of 2021. 

Poster Competition Runner-up: Clau Di Gianfrancesco
 

Thesis title: Collective Practices of Undoing and Unbecoming: Masculinity and Theatre of the Oppressed 
 

What’s it about? I am investigating the potentialities held by participatory theatrical practices, and more specifically of Theatre of the Oppressed, in troubling and re-imagining gender and masculinity. In my work, I consider the work of decolonial, antiracist, queer, and feminist thinkers – and specifically, those who have used theatre and performances as privileged sites to question and trouble gender normativity. My aim is to investigate theoretical and practical ways of doing and undoing gender and masculinity. I am using an ethnographic approach, detailing my experience with companies working with Theatre of the Oppressed in different parts of the world.  

Why this research? I have been interested in questions pertaining to gender, theatre and gender performances since my BA in Psychology. I find theatre an incredibly helpful and productive medium to explore questions of identity and gender. Given my added interest in collaborative storytelling and collective imagination, I think that theatre and performance offer privileged sites for such rich, artistic, multi-sensorial, embodied and collaborative ways. 

What’s your background? While studying for my BA in Psychology, I saw my first Theatre of the Oppressed play which I was so profoundly struck by it that it informed my dissertation. After my BA, I did a Master’s in Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, where I learned about a rich variety of theories and methodological approaches and encountered a vibrant community of postgraduate students. After a year of working as a Research Assistant at Goldsmiths in the Department of Sociology, I was awarded the UBEL, ESRC 3+1 scholarship which is currently funding my PhD research. 

Three Minute Thesis Training sessions

The BGRS is pleased to announce the 2023 Birkbeck 3 Minute Thesis Competition, which will take place on Thursday 25 May from 6pm. Please mark this date in your diaries!

Birkbeck 3MT: Thursday 25 May 2023

Join a selection of Birkbeck PhD students as they compete to communicate their compelling thesis topics in just three minutes. This event is a fantastic opportunity to share and celebrate the interests and successes of PhD researchers from across the College and we invite all current Birkbeck PhD students to take part. The winner of the Birkbeck competition will be chosen by an expert panel of judges who will award:

  • £500 to the overall winner
  • £250 to the runner up
  • The audience will also have their say by picking a people’s choice winner who’ll win a special prize.

Training Sessions

As part of our support for the competition, a free programme of training sessions has been arranged. All potential 3MT competitors should attend these sessions. However, any or all of them are open to any doctoral researcher at Birkbeck who would like to gain skills in these areas:

What is it like to take part in 3MT?

Some of last year’s contenders have kindly shared what they gained from partaking.

Marie Houghton said that it ‘helped me to clarify exactly what I think the main message of my PhD is’ and that she ‘would definitely recommend taking part in the 3MT to any other PhD students.’

Hannah Reeves also said that the competition allowed her to ‘think about what matters most about my research – what do I care about, what do the community I’m working with care about, and what will this audience care about.’ She also described herself as nervous about the experience of being on stage but ‘the training helped to develop a mutually supportive atmosphere.’

Doyin Olorunfemi described how ‘the exercise of delivering a concise speech gives you clarity of mind as a researcher and clarifies your contribution.’ She would ‘highly recommend the competition.’

2023 Birkbeck 3-minute Thesis competition: Join the audience on Thursday 25 May

On Thursday 25 May, an expert panel of judges will decide which Birkbeck student has presented the most compelling, convincing, and concise summary of their thesis. There’s a lot at stake: not only the prestige of winning and the confidence that goes with it, but also –

  • £500 to the overall winner
  • £250 to the runner-up
The seven finalists from the 2022 3-minute thesis competition.

This is the headline BGRS event of the year

This is an event for all doctoral researchers and also for anyone interested in studying for a PhD. The event will be followed by a drinks reception and a chance to view entries to the BGRS Poster Competition.

During the reception prizes will be awarded to the 3 Minute Thesis Competition and the Poster Competition winners.

Register to attend

You can be part of the audience for this year’s Three Minute Thesis Competition.

Registration is now open for this event

As part of the audience you will have a vote to decide who is the People’s Choice. You can also join the Birkbeck postgraduate community in celebrating the diversity of research interests undertaken here, and raise a glass to that with a drinks reception after the winners have been announced.

If you would like to participate in this year’s competition please see this post for more information.

Audio-Visual Skills Workshop – Urban Margins

You are invited to apply to a student-led training in audio-visual research techniques. This series of four workshops and related events will be facilitated by The Derek Jarman Lab in collaboration with BISR Urban Intersections Working Group and Corkscrew Practice-Based research network.

Over the course of this free four-week course, you would be one of up to eight participants receiving a practical introduction to audio-visual skills PGR students can incorporate into their research. PGR students from any department can apply. You will learn basic tools to enable greater innovation within your research data collection and dissemination.

The course will be organised around a shared theme of “urban margins”, inspired by a related event taking place the week before the workshops start, titled ‘Urban Intersections at the Margins’, which you would be invited and encouraged to join. The notion of urban ‘margins’ arguably invokes a stigmatised frame: one in which subjects, bodies or sites are located ‘on the margin’ of the city; or on the fringes of a hegemonic urban social order. But what if urban margins were reimagined beyond such stigmatised frames, as a space of hybridity, where new dynamics might arise, demanding new ways of knowing and intervening in urban realities? This broad theme will provide a thematic and conceptual context through which you will develop your audio-visual skills.

The weekly, day-long Friday workshops will be delivered through the Derek Jarman Lab. Each week’s workshop will focus on a different set of skills. We will begin with still photography, then sound recording, then moving image, and finish with a session on how to organise shoots, plan equipment and cover some of the legal aspects of using found/archival material. The mornings will be practical, and you will get hands-on experience with how to get the best out of one’s chosen piece of equipment. The afternoon will be spent using editing software, where you will learn how to get the best from your recordings. Baseline knowledge of editing software is also key to producing high-quality output from documentation collected during research.

You do not need to have any kind of prior audio-visual experience, and “urban margins” does not have to be a focus of your research. You simply need an interest in developing skills and knowledge in audio-visual techniques. Following the workshop, you will have the opportunity to show and discuss your work in progress at an event organised with the Urban Intersections Working Group and Corkscrew (likely to take place in late June or early July, more details to come).

To apply, please write a short paragraph (up to 300 words) on why this course interests you and how you would use the skills gained in relation to your doctoral research. Please note that applicants are required to attend all workshops and are advised to attend the sessions on the 26th of May and the 30th of June. Please do not apply if you cannot attend the session on the 2nd, 9th, 16th and 23rd of June from 10 am to 4 pm

The deadline for application is the 24th of March 2023. You will hear back by 24th April 2023.

Timeline

DATE: 26th of May

Urban Intersections at the Margins, an informal workshop bringing interdisciplinary approaches and methods of seeing urbanisation at the ‘margin’, both in the Global South and North. 26 May 2023, afternoon, 43 Gordon Square. 

A screening ofBaronesa(Brazil, 2017), co-sponsored by the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image, followed by a roundtable discussion with Dr Louisa Acciari (UCL), Dr Gracia Ramirez (UAL) and Dr Mara Nogueira (Birkbeck). 26 May 2023, 6 pm, Birkbeck Cinema. 

[These events are not obligatory for the workshop participants but are strongly encouraged]

#1 Stills

DATE: 2nd June 2023

Time: 10 am to 5 pm

Location: Derek Jarman Lab, 43 Gordon Square

#2 Sound

DATE: 9th June 2023

Time: 10 am to 5 pm

Location: Derek Jarman Lab, 43 Gordon Square

#3 Moving Image

DATE: 16th June 2023

Time: 10 am to 5 pm

Location: Derek Jarman Lab, 43 Gordon Square

#4 Planning and Collaboration

DATE: 23rd June 2023

Time: 10 am to 5 pm

Location: Derek Jarman Lab, 43 Gordon Square

DATE: 30th June 2023

An informal event where workshop participants can share their work in progress with members of the Corkscrew practice-based research network and the Urban Intersections working group. Location: TBC