Doctoral Seminar Series thrives during lockdown

06 July 2020

The disruptions from the COVID-19 lockdown may have causes headaches for many, but the innovative practices of UC academics and the enthusiasm from a cohort of doctoral students showed that adaptability provides new opportunities.

  • child wellbeing Phd group shot
Dr Susannah Stevens

Dr Susannah Stevens

The Doctoral Seminar Series is a popular initiative from the Child Well-being Research Institute (CWRI). The CWRI offer a cohort-based doctoral programme that brings together students from a variety of subject backgrounds whose projects are linked by the common theme of well-being. The seminars are a key element of this programme not only because of the engaging content from leading researchers and academics. It also offers an opportunity for the students to connect and build meaningful relationships. When the lockdown commenced, it seemed like these seminars would be postponed indefinitely.

CWRI Manager and programme co-ordinator Dr Susannah Stevens, is acutely aware of the importance of the seminars. With some planning and flexibility, the CWRI was quickly ready to provide an online experience every bit as engaging as an in-person experience.

 “We know how much the doctoral cohort value these seminars. More than that, we knew the lockdown had the potential to be disruptive and we wanted to give our students some sort of sense of normalcy. A PhD can be lonely at the best of times, so we knew that COVID-19 was not the time to cancel these. We had to step up.”

The online seminars were offered weekly, using the Zoom meeting platform, and were hosted by Dr Stevens and chaired by Professor Gail Gillon, the CWRI Director. From there an invited guest speaker, or panel of speakers, presents, followed by an opportunity for questions. Some seminars were supported with quizzes, reading material, blogs, or breakout rooms during the seminar. The presentation recordings remain available afterwards so that those who could not attend could view them.

“One of the best decisions we made was to open the seminars up to wider groups of doctoral students,” says Dr Stevens. “Sometimes we would have close to 60 attendees. In no time, we created this community and, for me, hearing them have a laugh together over the PhD life was warming. A special mention must go to Associate Professor Brigid McNeill, Dr Amy Scott and Professor Ekant Veer who were also regular supporters, and mentors at these seminars.”

At the end of the lockdown, the CWRI members sensed that the online delivery of these seminars had created something special. A survey was sent to everyone who had attended. The feedback was glowing, says Dr Stevens.

“The responses we got back were incredible. Students loved the variety of topics, and loved the causal, supportive vibes from the group. Some said they were feeling quite effected by the lockdown and these seminars had energised them. Others felt a real sense of belonging, like they were a part of something special. We feel really proud that we were able to have that positive effect and help people through such a disruptive time.”

Now that the lockdown has concluded, the seminars will be evolving to a blended style of teaching and learning. Dr Stevens says it is important to see the whānau face-to-face, but these sessions will still be available via Zoom into the future.

“We love being together in person and this will always be an important part of our cohort approach; but we also know that our PhD students need different support at different times too, and if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we can give that to them.”

The Child Well-Being Research Institute More information on CWRI here.