Site Review: Just for Postgrads and EPSRC Student Zone

Two new Research Council-backed Web sites--Just for Postgrads and the Student Zone--are now online and ready to help postgraduate students.

Just for Postgrads (JFP) is part of the Research Council's Graduate Schools Programme Web site, so it's not surprising that the grad schools get a plug ... on virtually every page. If you don't come away from the site convinced that you ought to attend one of these 5-day career and personal development courses, then all I can suggest is that you're bloody-minded and JFP is suffering from overkill! The role of the Web site is to complement the grad schools themselves, but the material will help you start thinking independently about your future. It stands alone quite effectively, and there's a lot of it. This is a site you'll want to tackle in stages.

The four sections lead you through 'Taking Stock of Yourself', 'Taking Stock of Your Research', 'Taking Stock of Your Future', and 'Short Cuts.' This last is a very comprehensive collection of links to career and personal development advice, much of it tailored to postgrads.

My one criticism of the site is that it is perhaps a tad 'overlinked' internally for someone who grew up with books. I kept getting distracted from the thread that runs through the first three sections, guiding you through the process of assessing your skills and development needs, coming to grips with your PhD research, and planning your career. Links within each section divert you to explanations of, for example, networking or dealing with your supervisor, which come later in the linear progression through the site. This is undoubtedly useful in explaining the concepts that the site's designers are trying to get across, but I found it annoying to have to keep retracing my steps to regain the narrative. Anyway, as long as you're prepared to keep returning to the home page to remember where you'd got to (my fear is that I'll miss a bit), this is not an insurmountable problem.

The great strength of this site is that it has been put together for a very specific target group (PhD students) and has clearly been written by people who know what they're talking about. From the 'eight problems you can beat'-such as lack of motivation, poor time management, and limited support--to the 'nine factors to tip the balance' in your favour when it comes to getting an academic job, this site is tailored to the needs of PhDs and uses genuine examples. It talks about issues that are difficult to research elsewhere (except on Next Wave, of course!), such as building a good working relationship with your supervisor and writing up your thesis.

Thesis writing is also dealt with in Student Zone, a new part of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Web site, perhaps reflecting the Research Council's preoccupation with completion rates. The Student Zone brings together, in one place, information for current, prospective, and past EPSRC-funded postgrad students. However, some of the information has clearly been culled from existing resources rather that written specifically for the target audience. For example, the advice on thesis writing comes from a best practice guide aimed at supervisors rather than students.

Nonetheless, this is a useful one stop shop for information such as which departments have studentships or funded master's places, what the stipend is, what the eligibility is, and how you can apply. Because this is a new site, some of the more interactive areas have yet to get going but have the potential to be very useful. For example, current students can sign up to be mentored by former EPSRC-funded students. (Warning: You might get an e-mail from me if you do this!) The site also aims to provide job listings, information about available studentships and postdocs, and a research contacts scheme, useful if you want to take Phil Dee's advice and set up a collaboration.

One of the most interesting aspects of the site is also the most easily missed. Below the 'Student Zone' heading at the top of each page are three little pictures, which change from page to page. Click on one of these and you'll be taken to a story about current EPSRC-funded research, complete with contact details for the principal investigator. If you're not sure what area you want to do your PhD or postdoc in, why not take a browse? Something might just whet your appetite.

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