In this episode we welcome new PGRs to the start of the academic year with a special episode on starting your research degree with contributions from Catherine Cartwright, Jamie Cranston, Edward Mills, Victoria Omotoso, Warren Speed and Emily Taylor, talking about their experiences of starting their research degrees, and advice they have for those joining our community this September.


Music credit: Happy Boy Theme Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License


Podcast transcript


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Hello and welcome to R, D and The Inbetweens.

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I'm your host, Kelly Preece, and every fortnight I talk to a different guest about researchers development and everything in between.

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Hello, everyone, and welcome to this episode of R, D and the In Betweens to celebrate the start of the academic year at the University of Exeter.

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We've got lots of new PGRs joining us. And so I wanted to do an episode that was about getting started with your research degree.

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So what I've done over the past few weeks is I've spoken to a variety of our postgraduate

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researchers and asked them what it was like for them starting a research degree.

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And what advice they'd give to someone coming in. But before we dispense with the advice, let's start with a warm welcome.

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I'm Emily. I'm just going into the second year of my PhD

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And I really want to say a big welcome to the University of Exeter.

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Shame can't do it in person at this time, but it doesn't mean that you're welcome any less.

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And I hope you have a great time. Congratulations as well.

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And on achieving your goal, getting the place.

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So let's start by talking about how does it feel to start a research degree. Here 4 of our PGRs

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Catherine Cartwright, Edward Mills, Victoria Omotoso, and Warren Speed talk about their feelings of nervousness,

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disorientation and uncertainty during those first few months and indeed that first year.

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Well, I had said it's pretty disorientating coming to what is a massive university,

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much busier than what I was usde to on, my M.A., which was on a kind of side campus that where I was.

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And it's just remembering what it's like to be new somewhere and be new at something intimidating is how I describe it, actually.

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I spent a year out of academia doing teaching.

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I was very enthusiastic about getting back into it. But I was also nervous that I might not have a clue what I was actually doing.

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It's a whole research thing. I was very lucky to get very good support from the staff, from the Doctoral College here at Exeter and also from my supervisors.

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But. I think it is a very natural thing to feel to feel nervous about starting a degree

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So at best, it was all quite uncertain. Of course, everyone's really excited to start a PhD

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But for me personally, I didn't I can't really comprehend what that meant in terms of how to kind of kick it off, kick off this PhD journey

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I think the first thing that was super helpful for me was having first contact with my supervisors.

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It was tricky at the beginning trying to navigate what it was actually trying to do.

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I had no idea what I was doing my PhD in.

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But I don't think you really do have an idea of what you want to do a PhD in, especially with social sciences and in my

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And for me, until you get into your second year and you really start thinking about the questions

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that you need to ask or what it is you're looking for properly and you get into it.

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But having a great supervisor supporting it is great.

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I've got brilliant one. He's really supportive. So speak to your supervisor speak to your personal tutor, the personal tutors, they've heard everything.

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So don't be afraid to speak to them. The other thing is, is when you your first year is always gonna be an absolute mess.

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Well, for me, it for a lot of my friends. It was anyway. We're not really sure what we're doing.

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We did a lit review. Bits of introduction. Little bits of questions of methods and application forms, whatever.

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That's what the first year like the first year is just meh. The second is hard.

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I found because that's usually when you start doing data collection and it can be really difficult.

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And don't underestimate data collection and do not underestimate how long it can take to organise to find participants to get involved in research.

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Think what Warren's saying is really poignant.

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You know that first year is challenging you're finding the direction of your research or trying to find a narrow down what it is that you're doing.

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And so it has a lot of challenges in learning new skills in terms of managing your time,

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but also learning new research skills and learning to to sit in that uncertainty and how to be productive within it.

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And we've got some great tips from Catherine and Edward about things you can do in that first year to help you to use Warren's word,

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organise the mess in that first term and ongoing.

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I think it's really useful to keep some sort of diary or journal, which you don't have to write much in it.

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But what I kept note of was what I did each day, because it's very easy to feel like you haven't been doing anything or you haven't achieved anything.

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But you can look back and you go. Oh, yeah, of course. I took that training course.

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I spent like two hours figuring out how to use this database. Oh, it's the library.

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Oh, I did this. And so when that kind of little telling of voice in your head says that you haven't done anything,

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you can look back and go, oh, well, actually, I've done a lot.

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And that  I stopped it from while I started it back during lockdown.

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And during this time. And it gives me a certain structure and boundaries.

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The way that I dealt with a lot of those nerves was to just dive headfirst into doing PhD

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The advice I was given from the start, which I think is is good advice, is to write from the beginning, something you'll hear a lot in humanities

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in particular, but I think it's important in sciences, too.

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It's very tempting to think of your first year with your research year, or even of your first month as your research month.

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Oh, I've not got anything to write about. What could I possibly do at this stage apart from read things?

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And to an extent, that's true. But what I found myself doing was writing something in response to a specific bit

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of primary reading I had done. It didn't really matter what I was writing.

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And then a couple of weeks in, I met with my supervisors again and we said, Okay. Yep.

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Can you work this up into an extended version of your research proposal, which you've submitted before

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you started your PhD obviously. And that was basically my way of dealing with the nerves of.

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writing in response to a prompt that I had set myself. So that's about actually starting the research degree and starting the research.

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But what about building a community and making Connections with other researchers?

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Let's hear from Victoria, Warren. Emily and Catherine about their experience of networking and building Connections and building a community.

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I came from London and I'm sure there'll be PhDs coming from all over the country or internationally even.

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But a PhD can be a really isolating. And I know in the first few months I was here, I felt horrible genuinely because I just had no network.

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I didn't really know anybody. I didn't know other PhDs. And I was feeling like, oh, what have I done?

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Like, I've just come to a completely different city and I don't know anybody and say it was very

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you can imagine my joy when I discovered kind of you know things like the Postgrads Society,

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which was great in just having that kind of social aspect.

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And yeah. And seeking that out. And I, I mean, if there's one thing I would have done,

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would have I wish I sought so kind of those kind of social societies and like those social events that the college have hosted,

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I wish I sort that out earlier than I did.

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It would have saved me a lot of. Sadness in the beginning and loneliness, I guess.

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But yet, like, really kind of seek out, seek out having other PhDs around you.

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And I found that very helpful throughout. Even now, as I was saying, and I'm finishing, I still find that network so helpful.

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Just for your well-being and just to know that we're all in the same boat.

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We're all trying to kind of navigate these PhDs and just.

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Yeah, having that kind of network is. Yeah, I found it so helpful and very beneficial to my well-being.

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Not enough conversations happen. Just general conversations about how well people are doing or.

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Oh, how you work. Or research is getting on and doing.

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A PhD can be a very, very lonely, solitary place and very difficult for quite a lot of us.

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I would say go out there, start to speak to other people, make some friends, get involved in things like I do and the doctoral college,

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get involved in things with Student Guild as a PGR, but do something.

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Don't just sit in your office or sit at home and do nothing and just work.

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You need to. Go find something fun and speak to human beings and also make time for yourself and for connecting other PGR students.

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That is so important. And since I started, I have been lucky enough to be part of a group of PGR students, too.

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And we meet regularly sort of weekly. And although it can be tricky fitting it around all the other stuff

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It's just been a lifeline and a really great place to share ideas and share worries

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and realise that you're not the only one who is experiencing whatever it is you're experiencing.

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It's such a strange things going throuhg a PhD. Actually amazing at times.

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And it can be very difficult at times. But when you got people to share it, that really makes a difference.

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There's also something really important that came out when I was talking to

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our PGRs about work life balance and setting boundaries and asking for help.

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So here's Catherine Victoria Warren. I'm one of our Penryn PGRs, Jamie Cranston talking about those very things.

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The thing with doing a PhD because it's. It is, by its essence, quite not nebulous necessarily,

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but kind of you have to put your own boundaries in and so that might be kind of like, OK, well, I just work.

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I work nine to five. I don't work in the evenings. I don't.

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What work we can it had to be what works for you. Some people might have natural boundaries in their life.

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They've got children that need like feeding

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I've always found my kids quite useful that way, like calls you out of your work and you have to stop.

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So the diary or journals part of that setting boundaries for yourself.

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And of course, you know, I've always said about the PhD, it's not a sprint it's a marathon.

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So take some time. There's one thing I would have definitely told myself.

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Even I think, too, recently is take some time for yourself.

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Your PhDis not your life. And you have friends.

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You have family. And you had yourself to take care of as well and always just keep it in mind.

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Yes doing a PhD is Great. Yes, it's very satisfying once you've completed it.

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But don't let it take over your life. Everything in moderation.

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Don't ever compare yourself to another PhD students work because their work is totally different to what we're doing.

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So I did that quite a lot. And I think everybody does, too.

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I think even when I'm saying this and whoever's listening to this, you probably will do it.

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But don't ever compare yourself. Because it does mean it can put you down.

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But you need to bear in mind that it is completely different. They are different timescales.

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Everything they do is completely unique to their own work as well.

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You will see. So they'll probably looking at your work and also thinking the same.

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So try not to compare, I guess, to the other big one is some.

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And don't be afraid to ask for help. I think that's the biggest development that I've had over my PhD at the start.

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It's quite easy to get sucked into the feeling of, oh, I must know everything.

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And often it's off the this imposter syndrome. And you feel the need to to.

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You may find things out yourself, and obviously part of the PhD is developing those independent skills,

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but you're not expected to know absolutely everything.

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And so long as you're learning, when you ask somebody for help, obviously getting somebody to do it for you,

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sort of defeats the whole purpose of the activity that.

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One of the best ways to learn stuff and save yourself a lot of time and pain and frustration, it's to ask for help.

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And that goes from coding, writing and even like simple things like how to organise your reading.

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There's lots of people in your departments who have gone through that experience themselves and will usually have some good advice.

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And it's always good to get different people's advice because sometimes one person's approach isn't a good match for you.

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So you might need to try a few different things.

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I hope some of that has given you an insight into other people's experiences of starting the research degree, the things that they find difficult.

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And also, if you're finding it intimidating and anxiety producing nerve racking, you're not on your own.

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That's a completely normal experience. And as Jamie said, we're here to help.

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And please do reach out if you need us. But also enjoy the final thing is just enjoy it.

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Enjoy it. And the time goes by so quickly, you don't even realise it.

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But yet they are going to be some moments. It's not easy, right.

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I will not sugarcoat this. It is. It is not is.

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They are. There will be moments where you will want to just cry. But at the end of today, you know, if you have a goal, you will work towards that.

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And and just make sure you have a great support network of friends and family and supervisors,

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because that will honestly, that's what got me through as well. That's what helped me.

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Those kind of moments where I just was like, what am I doing? I didn't think this work is working.

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And but yeah, I just having all of that kind of adds to that, to the experience of it all.

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And yeah, hopefully at the end of it you be able to say you've completed it.

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And yeah. And you're very proud of the work that you've produced. Thank you so much.

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Emily. Catherine. Edward. Victoria Warren and Jamie for

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their insights and their contributions to this week's episode. And that's it for this episode.

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don't forget to like, rate and subscribe and join me.

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Next time we'll be talking to somebody else about researchers development and everything in between.


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