10 BITS OF PhD ADVICE (FROM SOMEONE WHO’S JUST FINISHED ONE)

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I’ve been sitting on this post for quite some time, having started it when I was writing up my thesis. Seen as I’ve reached a natural break in the Ecuador and Colombia posts from this year’s mammoth trip, now seemed like a good time to put it up.

As regular readers may know, in September 2013 I started my PhD at Manchester University, knowing that I was vaguely going to be doing something on monkeys, people and rainforests. Four years, four field courses, five papers, countless lines of R code, a stint living in the Amazon, and a tropical disease later, I nervously entered a meeting room to do my viva at the beginning of September. Happily, I passed with flying colours, and proudly entered Dr into the title dropdown menu of my next Sainsbury’s delivery (further chances to do this have been surprisingly thin).

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Doing a PhD is wonderful and hard and frustrating. You oscillate from exciting highs and quiet confidence to worrying that you’ve been given the chance to do one by accident, and someone will realise you’re not quite clever enough for the position. You get to travel, you get to meet amazing people doing amazing things, and essentially you get paid to think and write about something you’re truly passionate about. But you also have to work in an environment where criticism, failure and rejection are a large part of the job, and where you’re under constant pressure to think originally and solve difficult problems.

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Emerging from four years of PhD studenting, and having found other people’s blogs on the subject helpful, I decided to write down the 10 pieces of advice I’d give to anyone about to embark on one. Everyone’s PhD is different, and not everyone will agree that this is what you should do. But these are the things that either got me through the stressful bits, or lead to some of the absolute best experiences of my academic career. So, if 2013 me was about to meet 2017 me, here are the things I’d remind her to do:

1) Take the opportunities. I was lucky enough to have two supervisors that saw the PhD not just in terms of my output but in terms of giving me the skills I needed to become both a better scientist and an employable person outside of academia. I went on a tree climbing course and spent five days star-struck as it was taught by James Aldred of the hallowed BBC Natural History Unit. I learned GIS, population modelling and wilderness first aid. I spent two weeks at Kew Gardens learning how to recognise plant families. I got to go to Cheltenham Science Festival to talk about dinosaurs and got drunk at an x-ray crystallography event where they’d over ordered wine. Fact is, you will rarely be in another position where you’ll be able to decide what you can learn so freely, or where you’ll be able to spare the time to do it.

2) Go alternative format (i.e. submit by papers). I cannot recommend this enough. Scientific papers are the bread and butter of academia, so it seems a bit weird that, at the end of a PhD, you produce something which in its current format would not make it through peer review. Moreover, alternative format forces you to render down your science into manageable pieces and means that when it comes to writing up, you have to write an introduction and a conclusion, rather than a brick-like tome. It means that, by the time you get to your viva, your work will (hopefully) have made it through peer review and survived one or two (or, let’s face, it, maybe 3, 4 or 5) rounds of intense scrutiny. If you’ve defended it that many times, defending it again seems like less of a big deal.

3) Remember that self-teaching is a long and fairly arduous process. Chances are that you’ll have to do a lot of this, whether it’s coding, some new type of statistical analysis, a piece of software or a piece of field equipment. You won’t always have somebody who’s done it before, and there won’t always be a manual. Give yourself a break- it’s hard, and there’s going to be a lot of false starts. Which brings me to my next point…

4) Remember that failure is part of the process. Not every experiment is going to work. You might spend weeks or even months working on something before realising there’s a better way of doing things or that the data is flawed. You’re allowed to be angry and upset, but set yourself a deadline in which you can sulk, then move on. Remember that, at the very least, you’ve managed to rule that approach out.

5) Recognise the valley of shit– a period where you lose all confidence and belief that you can finish, and doubt the quality of everything you’ve done so far. This blog post, which describes it perfectly and gives sound advice about how to cope when you’re in it, was one of the most important things I read as a PhD student. Make sure you can differentiate the valley of shit from the pit of despair, and always put your mental wellbeing before your work.

6) If you’re NERC funded, try to go on their advanced training courses. I studied GIS in Newcastle, meta-analysis in Norwich, population modelling in Kent, and plant taxonomy at Kew. It was a rare privilege to get away from the self-teaching aspect of the majority of my PhD and have someone go over how to do things, just like your days as an undergrad. The food allowance wasn’t too bad either (hello five consecutive days of breakfast fry-ups). Tangentially, they were also a good place to meet people who can become your future conference buddies if, like me, you find conferences really, really socially awkward. Speaking of…

6) Go to a big conference. I went to IPS in Chicago, ICCB in Colombia, and BES in Liverpool. All three were awesome places to get to travel to, and being surrounded by people who work in the same area as you is really inspiring. Having said that, being at conferences on your own can feel pretty isolating- especially if you feel that everyone else is busy meeting each other and planning collaborations. I found that tweeting about the talks I was in- what the key finding was, what I thought was cool about it- helped me to feel more included. People would like and reply to stuff, especially if it was more than just the generic picture of someone with the talk title. It may not have lead to any collaborations, but at least I felt part of the conversation.

7) Go to a small conference. It’s so much easier to meet people. Large conferences make me undergo a very special metamorphosis from generally chatty person into an awkward mouse who can’t think of anything to ask you and can’t say anything about her research other than the word ‘monkeys’. This still happens at small conferences, but it’s much easier to find someone who looks as lost as you are and team up for the coffee session.

8) Go to talks and seminars on things that are outside your immediate subject area. You might feel like you’re too busy, or that it’s pointless because you’ll never use it in your science. The most original things I did in mine came from the realisation that other fields had the same theoretical or statistical problem that I had and that I could use their approaches for my data.

9) Do a policy placement. If, like me, you’re doing a conservation PhD, it’s presumably because you want to do something to help solve the world’s biodiversity crisis. Policy changes are usually by far the most effective way to do this, so getting to experience the system from the inside is extremely valuable. I was lucky enough to get a placement at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, where I wrote a briefing on marine microplastic pollution after interviewing the key parties in academia, industry, government, and the NGO sector. Not only did I get to hang out in the Palace of Westminster (aka parliamentary hogwarts) and sample its multiple bars, I wrote something that was used in the environmental audit commission’s enquiry into marine pollution and talked about evidence that was ultimately used by the committee as the basis for the microbead ban. Year. Made. The research councils, BES, Nuffield foundation and institute of Physics all fund placements (I’ve linked the details for applications here).

10) Teach. It’s easy to fall into a PhD bubble consisting of your office, lab and field site. Teaching lets you break out of it and reminds you that you’re part of a huge, exciting workplace. Try to get some hours demonstrating, or taking tutorials- whatever your University lets you do. Teaching experience is a valuable skill for future job applications- but more than that, it’s a nice little reminder of how far you’ve come since you were that undergraduate who thought the centrifuge was the incubator and was intimidated by those fancy-looking Gilson’s pipettes.

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Wow. Longest post ever? Well done if you made it to the end. The photos are from Bolivia- somewhere I’d never have had the chance to visit were it not for my PhD. Yeah, they’re a bit random- but I won’t make apologies for posting any series of photos that involves a viscacha, which are, by all accounts, excellent animals.

 

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