The impact factor

Katherine Tonkiss

I completed my PhD thesis in early 2012, under the joint supervision of INLOGOV and the Department of Political Science and International Studies (POLSIS). I sat my viva in April of that year and shortly afterwards was interviewed for and gained a three year research fellowship at INLOGOV, working with Professor Chris Skelcher on the Shrinking the State project. A year into the post, this is a good opportunity to reflect on that transition from PhD to post-doc research.

In many ways, working as a Research Fellow on a three year project is similar to PhD study. I am completing a research project in a specified amount of time, with parameters and methods specified in a detailed research proposal. The goal of delivering the thesis in a timely fashion is replaced by the requirement to produce a set of research outcomes with which to wow the funders on completion of the project, and of course the need to publish, publish, publish never really changes.

Yet the transition from PhD to post-doc has also presented some new opportunities and challenges. One aspect is going from sole-authored thesis-writing to team working with colleagues both on the research project and beyond. While in reality I do have quite a lot of autonomy in my current role and the majority of my time is spent working alone on specific areas of the project, this project involves working with a team of five researchers split across three Universities. This kind of collaboration is now very common in academic research – and while it is step change from PhD research, I was quite pleased to enter a more collaborative environment.

Another challenge of the transition is balancing research priorities. I was told on numerous occasions during my PhD studies that researching and writing a thesis is something to really enjoy, because I would never again have the opportunity to immerse myself in my own research to such an extent. In reality, I have been really fortunate to be provided the time to turn my PhD thesis into a book, as well as having some time to pursue my other research interests separate to the project. However, pre-planning was key in achieving this – I had thought about a book contract before my viva was completed, and the three articles I have had published were all accepted before I started working as a Research Fellow. I also don’t think I would be so fortunate if I had the hefty teaching responsibilities which come with many junior academic roles.

The biggest difference between PhD and post-doc research is, though, the emphasis that is placed on ‘impact’ in the latter – that is, producing research that both advances academic knowledge and has a positive economic and societal impact. This impact agenda, while offering rewarding opportunities to engage in debates beyond academia, was challenging in terms of the transition from PhD to post-doc research – and particularly because my PhD was strongly theoretical.

For example, working on this research project has meant developing and maintaining relationships with partners in government and elsewhere, producing research outputs that are useful to them in their work in addition to being relevant to the overall objectives of the project. My colleagues at INLOGOV are very used to this way of working, but it really was a new experience for me after the PhD. Within a couple of months of starting my job, I found myself presenting to senior civil servants in Whitehall. Experiences such as this have allowed me to engage in discussion and debate far beyond the ivory tower, but they are a far cry from the late-night loneliness of thesis writing that I had become accustomed to.

Impact isn’t just about engaging with policy-makers, though. Throughout my PhD, I felt that I was researching and writing about something that I was really passionate about – which, I hope, is a common experience. This isn’t something that’s gone away now that research has become my day job – and indeed exploring intersections between normative ideas and lived experiences has become one of my core research interests. As much as there is a case for producing policy-relevant research in order to work with partners in government, it should also be recognised that research – in whatever discipline – is a tool with which to challenge dominant ideas and assumptions, and the ability to engage in the policy process and to communicate with different audiences in order to enact change is just as – if not more – important.

With the impact agenda now spanning all areas of academic research, it may be argued that it is more important than ever for PhD students to equip themselves with the skills to develop this kind of dual-facing work. I’m not decided on that – I think there can be excellent research without wider impact and these contributions are to be equally valued. However, the opportunity to see your research have an impact beyond academia can be very rewarding, and to that end developing those skills is really worthwhile.


Katherine Tonkiss completed her PhD in 2012, and is now a Research Fellow at INLOGOV. Her first book, Migration and Identity in a Post-national World, will be published later this year with Palgrave Macmillan. Her research interests are focused on the changing nature of migration, citizenship and democracy in a globalising world, the local experience of such transformations, and the intersection between normative and empirical research. Follow her Twitter feed here.

It’s not easy (but not too hard) to be a PhD student

Pobsook Chamchong

With the movie ‘Man of Steel’ now showing in cinemas I’ve heard the song ‘Superman (it’s not easy)’ again, and it made me think about my life as a PhD student. Before I became a PhD student, I thought that it wouldn’t be that hard compared with being Superman – but it turns out that it’s not so easy either.

Being a second year PhD student, I have responded to many questions about PhD life from my friends – prospective students and those just thinking about studying for a PhD. So, I think this is a good opportunity to share my experience about the life of a PhD student.

Accessing data

My thesis concerns investigating collaboration between local governments in England and Thailand, selecting cases in Thailand is not difficult as I worked with key people in this policy area before I came to study in the UK.

However, selecting the UK cases was more difficult. Although I could use the criteria related to my research objective and questions that I developed to select the cases, the issue of the gatekeeper, i.e. the key person who makes the final decision to allow the researcher access to the case study data (such as the chief executive of a local authority) gave rise to difficulties in collecting data. But with the support of INLOGOV I was able to make use of contacts, connections and knowledge of local authority collaboration in England – combined with a purposive sampling technique – to enable me to avoid problems associated with gatekeeping.


The supervisor is the most important person in your PhD studies, and I’ve had quite a few questions about the most appropriate ways to communicate with supervisors. I have supervision meetings twice a month, which is the standard procedure at INLOGOV.

From my experience, I found it useful to tell supervisors both what you do know and what you don’t know. Don’t hesitate to ask them questions because you will get useful advice. Moreover, I learnt from my supervisors that doing a PhD is not a linear process and it’s more like doing a jigsaw puzzle. So, it’s useful to be flexible and revise your work after receiving recommendations from your supervisors and the progress review committee – and to be strong enough to make academic arguments to support the choices that you have made.

A supportive environment

I found that it’s very important to have friends who are in the same boat as me. Unlike many universities in the UK, PhD students in the social sciences at the University of Birmingham study core modules in social research in the first year in order to gain skills and knowledge to be applied in their PhD studies. Besides this knowledge and skills, however, studying these modules allowed me to meet and work with other PhD students – we’ve become friends and help each other, travel together and discuss issues.

Being an international student and living outside my home country, it’s so good to have friends with whom I can share my thoughts and feelings, discuss both academic and personal issues, and give me a big hug when needed! Moreover, as the university provides offices and facilities for PhD students to work together, this hub has provided a chance for me to meet senior students. I don’t hesitate to ask them for advice, and these students are more than happy to help with any challenges that they’ve met before.

Balancing personal and academic life

Finally, one of the most important things is to find a way to balance your personal life and your academic life. Studying cannot be the only thing – I can say I study quite hard but I also play hard! Even though I’m a full time student that doesn’t mean I have to work office hours Monday-Friday, and one of the really nice things about doing a PhD is having the flexibility to work at different times of the week as suits my circumstances.

So, for all the reasons above, I think that being a PhD student at INLOGOV isn’t easy – but it’s not too hard to be either. Why not come and see for yourself?


Pobsook Chamchong is a Thai Government Scholarship PhD student at INLOGOV. Before coming to Birmingham, she previously worked as a researcher for the Thailand Political Development Councils and for the Thailand Reform Committee.