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Behind Department Doors: The Bioethics Centre

Today’s post is part of an occasional series of revealing peeks inside the heart of the graduate student’s world; their department.  Sarah McGregor asked Dr Mike King, PhD Coordinator at the Bioethics Centre.

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Mike, I see that not only do you and the Bioethics Centre have a significant online presence in the form of your Bioethics Blog and your FacebookTwitter and Google+ pages, but you are also making a splash in the world of university human interest.  Would you like to tell us about that?

More than anything.  Yes, I recently featured in The Otago Bulletin’s Hidden Talents section.

Ah yes, Hidden Talents.  You do realise that being obsessed with pencils isn’t a talent don’t you?  If you made the pencils that might be a talent, but having a bunch of them doesn’t seem very talented.  Nor hidden. Tango, now that’s a talent. Perchance, do you dance?

Ah, no.  Isn’t this interview about the Bioethics Centre?

OK, has anyone famous ever come out of your department?

Maybe not famous in the “famous” sense of famous. In the “academic” sense of famous, Tom Douglas completed a BMedSc(Hons) in Bioethics and has gone on to do great things at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, some of which you can read about in the Otago Magazine.

Another is Nick Fancourt, who completed a BMedSc(Hons) and Masters in Bioethics and Health Law at the Bioethics Centre. Nick was awarded a Fullbright Scholarship and is currently a PhD student at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Lots of other postgraduates have gone on to do great things, too.

Do you have a postgraduate/research liaison person in your department? If so, who are they?

I am the PhD coordinator, and Neil Pickering is the coordinator for other postgraduates. In practice we overlap a lot on dealing with postgrads, since many activities and issues involve the whole cohort, rather than being degree-specific. Neil has a very good understanding of the various options available for postgraduate study. I offer a complimentary pencil with every inquiry.*

As a potential research student, what would be the best way to approach or find a supervisor within your department?

I think the best way is to think hard about what you need in a supervisor to achieve what you want academically. Then read the profile pages of the academic staff in the department, and some of their work, and approach staff to talk to discuss your research idea with them and see who feels like the best fit. It’s a good idea to approach a postgraduate coordinator at the same time, so that they can help with the process. Sometimes there are constraints on supervisor availability and other factors that they can advise on.

What is the postgrad community like within your department? Do you hold social events for postgrads or a special welcome for new students?

The postgrad community is lively and diverse at Bioethics. Since you can take postgraduate bioethics from a range of different undergraduate degrees there are postgrads who have academic backgrounds in philosophy, sociology, medicine, law, science, and more. There is also a great mixture of nationalities among the postgrads.

The postgrads are very keen to hear about and support each other’s work. One of the ways they do this is by holding a weekly Research Forum on Friday mornings after our weekly staff and postgrad student morning tea. After morning tea a postgrad can present some work they’re doing and get help from other postgrads and staff in attendance. We also hold a social event at the start of every year to welcome new postgrads, and the occasional get together during the year, such as when we have postgrads studying at a distance visit the Centre for a residential weekend.

I’m trying to start a Bioethics-Pencil-Fancying-Self-Help-Group, as well, but so far we haven’t had any takers.

We notice that when some students come to submit their PhD they come with an entourage; does your department do anything special for students who complete their PhD or Masters?

It very much depends on the student. One postgrad student I supervised (with Colin Gavaghan from Law) preferred things being low-key, so we had a coffee to celebrate and she graduated in absentia! Nicola Collie, a Masters student I co-supervised (with Gareth Jones) submitted her Masters with an entourage of Bioethics postgrads accompanying her, which you can see on twitter. I am considering offering a complimentary pencil (usually HB/No. 2) with every completion.

Have you noticed postgraduate students change over the years? If so, how?

Well, in my day, everyone tied an onion on their belt, which was the fashion at the time, and we would catch the tram to the exchange for tuppence and still have a halfpenny left to buy a new pair of plimsoles. Now in those days plimsoles were called batts. “Two of your finest halfpenny batts” we’d say and then stroll down the high street in our shiny batts to see if the new season’s yams were at the grocer’s for yam rolling; yam rolling being the national sport of the day. Now yam rolling wasn’t for me, on account of my thumb being double-jointed. Now where was I? Oh yeah: the important thing is that the onion on your belt was yellow in hue…

Has any exceptionally interesting or controversial research ever come out of the department?

I’m sure this is true in any discipline, but all of the research postgrads do is interesting. There is partly selection bias here – one of the chief desiderata for a research project should be that it’s interesting! Bioethics research can be pretty controversial at times, as can any discussion about what’s morally right and wrong. There have been times when people have been offended or disagreed strongly with a piece of research. This can be very constructive if it’s handled well, and means people are engaging with your work and care about what you say. We have a page that lists the research completed by Bioethics postgrads and has links to the work in the OUR Archive, which gives open access to a lot of this really interesting, good, and sometimes controversial, postgraduate research.

If you could replace an on-campus urban myth that would make your life easier, what would it be?

One would be for everyone to know that people handling administration, research, and teaching really do care about the people they deal with and their work. Another would be to dispel the myth that I give away pencils to, like, anybody.

If GRS could grant your department one wish, what would it be?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from The Twilight Zone, it’s that wishes always go awry. So, I would wish for everyone to have the superpower of their choice. There’s no way that could ever go awry.

What is the thing you do best for postgraduate students in your department?

Staff are really friendly and approachable and keen to help students get the most out of their time here. One staff member provides the best pencils on campus.

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