This is a joint post by Yasmin Chopin, Department of English, and Elifnur Güneş, Department of Nursing, Manchester Metropolitan University. 

It is difficult to know where to start when summing up our experiences of the conference, ‘Life Beyond the PhD 2023,’ which took place during the week commencing 14 August at Cumberland Lodge in Berkshire. The venue is in Windsor Great Park, an ancient Royal landscape which is ‘home’ to Windsor Castle. We represented Manchester Metropolitan University amongst the fifty or so postgraduate students from other universities around the UK. 

It was truly inspiring to experience a week with a diverse range of students, all at different points in their PhD journey, working on a variety of projects. The staff at Cumberland Lodge know how to foster a supportive and friendly atmosphere and we quickly made friends. We started the week with some fun ice-breakers, and we finished with a party. The saying, ‘work hard and play hard’, is very apt! 

We had several plenary sessions and then we were split into groups for tasks and workshops. The programme kept us engaged from 9am till 6pm most days but we had our evenings free and there was plenty to do even though the building is in the middle of the countryside. We buddied up with other students and went on walks, we spent time in the bar and in the games room, and some of us played croquet and Frisby. Fortunately, the favourable weather meant we could use the outdoors fully – we had a BBQ one evening, and the final night’s party started with some fine dining (indoors) followed by an outdoor Techno-ceilidh hosted by DJ Elsie (aka Dr Ailsa Parsons, who specialises in dance movement psychotherapy).  

There were several visiting speakers, including highly experienced individuals from industry and academia and all were inspirational: Ria Lina, comedian with a PhD in Virology, hosted our first evening ice-breaker which was an ‘alternative’ University Challenge game; she also gave advice on being self-employed. John Reynolds OBE, CEO of Castle Water, talked about the recruitment process and gave some good tips on gaining employment in industry. Dr Tracey Berry, a senior lecturer in particle physics, who searches for evidence of extra dimensions, talked about life as an academic. Astronomer, Professor Ian Crawford from Birkbeck College, University of London, spent the day with us and helped us with our main project, which was to investigate the feasibility of setting up a colony on Mars with a budget of $10billion. We only had two half days to deliberate, although we could have spent a week on this really interesting topic. We discussed not only the practical difficulties of such a venture but also whether it is ethically and morally appropriate to spend such a large sum of money on space exploration when it could go a long way to improving life on earth. While some of the tasks might have felt a bit rushed at times, it meant that we packed a lot into the time.  

What did we learn besides absorbing and appreciating the lives and lifestyles of the people in the room? We had one-to-one sessions with some of the senior staff to discuss any questions we might have about our own future after the PhD, which was really helpful, and there was plenty of time to chat informally as well. There was also a palpable optimism in the sessions even though we touched on difficult subjects such as inequality, poverty and hunger, and the worldwide provision of education. The value of networking, although not immediately obvious, will emerge over time; we know we will keep in touch with some of the people in the cohort, those we gained special rapport with, and who knows where it all may lead? 

Sometimes it’s hard to be away from home for a whole week, leaving loved ones behind, so it was reassuring to be looked after by the very capable staff at Cumberland Lodge. Having entered into the spirit of the venture we made the most of our time there, and came away feeling satisfied in mind and body – tired and refreshed, and a kilogram heavier after eating three very delicious, cooked meals a day! 

We are both extremely grateful for the support we received from Manchester Met’s Graduate School for making our week at Cumberland Lodge possible.  

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