July 12, 2023, by Postgraduate Placements Nottingham

Coffee, Cake and Crystal Maze

Mandy Gill, BBSRC Dtp Project Officer, and Donna Palmer, ESRC and NERC Dtp Manager, talk about their experience of representing the UoN Researcher Academy at the 2023 UKCGE (UK Council for Graduate Education) annual conference.

UKCGE Conference

Recently we travelled up to Edinburgh for the UKCGE (UK Council for Graduate Education) annual conference. We submitted a workshop proposal under the theme of ‘building postgraduate community’. After a few curveballs were thrown our way which took away much of our planning time, we managed to come up with a session titled ‘Coffee, Cake and Crystal Maze’. We probably wrote this in five minutes, but it was enough to create a buzz around the talk (mostly because people were eager to find out more about the Crystal Maze reference!). To cut a long story short, our abstract was accepted with some positive feedback including ‘yes please, I will have some of that’. This was great but now we needed to deliver a session that lived up to the hype!

We combined our expertise on working on both the Nottingham BBSRC DTP and ESRC Midlands Graduate School DTP and came up with a 7-point programme of things that had worked within our DTPs in fostering a sense of community and belonging for researchers. We were happy with our content, until we went to a talk on day 1 of the conference delivered by another university which was BRILLIANT but also in the area of community building, except they had a 6-point plan! One of us may have been slightly calmer than the other regarding this but it actually turned out well. The talks complimented one another, and we took some great points away from their session.


Our recommendations included the use of social media, cohort development funds, team building activities and the well-timed planning of events across the academic calendar to allow key points in the year to meet up whilst avoiding the times PGRs are overwhelmed with deadlines. We also covered the importance in being an ally to students, EDI training and all while including a picture of our colleague Rachel Van Krimpen with a musical instrument (Tip 1 – break the ice with a musical instrument if you have to)!

There were some great discussions within one of our breakout sessions asking attendees ‘what would you do to build PGR community if money was no object’ and then looking at how we can achieve these goals on a smaller, more workable scale. This was mentioned in the conference closing remarks by a UKCGE trustee as ‘Nottingham reminded us to dream big’. We also had a colleague who was Head of a Graduate School tell us they were going to rethink how they introduced themselves from now on as they found our take on it more relatable and personable (we used childhood pictures of us – Donna’s idea!) and another told us she would be repurposing some funding to offer a cohort development fund with the aim of encouraging higher engagement.

UKCGE Conference


It was a privilege to meet colleagues across the sector who are so passionate about seeing PGRs progress and succeed. There was a focus on international students, distance learning and building PGR community. We learnt about staff-to-PGR coaching programmes and discussion-based learning, as well as so much more, but the one thing that set the precedent for the entire event was starting the conference with a panel of Postgraduate Researchers and hearing their experiences. We now firmly believe all HE conferences should start this way, because after all, they are really the reason why we do what we do.

The goal from our session was for everyone to leave with a newfound passion for building PGR community but what we didn’t expect was how passionate and eager to learn everyone was. It was notebooks galore with most putting pen to paper to note down ideas that could translate to their institution, except this time, there was a real sense these wouldn’t just stay as ideas on paper.

Find out more about our Researcher Academy DTPs.

Posted in Researcher Academy