Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Top Tips

“Between a Rock and a Hard Place” began as an Earth Science PhD blog in February 2013, as a place to ramble on about PhD life and general science topics. Almost two years later, some of the contributors have finished, others have submitted, and the rest are nearing the end.

Together, they have compiled a list of their best moments and top tips, to showcase just how varied experiences can be, even within one department.  

Piston cylinder

Sorcha using the piston cylinder apparatus in the Petrology labs at the University of Bristol. She is manually topping up the pressure (to 30 kbar, equivalent to ~100 km depth!) whilst checking the run temperature recorded by the thermocouple – lots of multitasking!


PhD highlight:

Working in the lab was both the most exciting, and most frustrating, aspect of my PhD. Rather than jetting off to exotic field locations, I spent most of my days heading downstairs to the basement to carry out experiments on a piston cylinder apparatus to provide insights into deep mantle melting. Despite shedding blood, sweat and tears down there, the satisfaction of deliberately ending a successful experiment is hard to beat! Lab work was made all the more fun when shared with fellow experimentalists – discussing similar experiences, particularly failures (unfortunately rather common!) proved to be incredibly useful in planning future experiments and trying different approaches to improve methods.

Top tip:

My top tip is to talk to lots of people in the lab, and attend lots of seminars/discussion groups, about different techniques that you could possibly try out on your samples. Most lab-based PhDs tend to be a case of trial-and-error for the appropriate method so the more options that you are aware of, the better!


PhD highlight:

Bristol itself!

Having completed my undergraduate at Bristol, I never intended to remain in the same city for my PhD. Then up came an opportunity that was too good to turn down.

By the time I finished my PhD, I’d been in the same department for 7.5 years (!), but I definitely don’t regret being flexible and being prepared to stay. Bristol has a thriving academic scene and throughout my research I was able to interact with a constant flux of interesting and cosmopolitan people. Outside of my studies I got involved with student sports, which helped to prolong my undergraduate experience (even if my nickname was inevitably something along the lines of ‘grandma’), and Bristol itself is an evolving and exciting city – in my time here I’ve seen so much change that there hasn’t been a chance to get bored.

I know that some people in academia say that you shouldn’t do your undergraduate and PhD at the same place, but I truly feel like the most important aspect is have a stimulating project and inspirational supervisors. For me, this just happened to be at Bristol.

Top tip:

One of the best things about doing a PhD is the flexibility of (generally) being able to work whenever and wherever you want; however, most people find that slogging away in the early hours of the morning isn’t always the most productive approach. Try and treat the PhD like you would a job. Having a routine means that you’ll keep going even when lacking motivation, and limiting work to regular office hours during the week means that it won’t become an all-consuming, isolating experience.


PhD highlight:

Whilst my research didn’t involve fieldwork in exotic places (or anywhere, for that matter), I was lucky enough to be able to attend conferences and see volcanoes up close in both Mexico (Cities on Volcanoes 7) and Japan (IAVCEI Scientific Assembly); they are most definitely the highlight of my PhD! Presenting and discussing my work, receiving feedback, and seeing others’ findings with the backdrop of an active volcano is a pretty unbeatable experience. The social side is great too – I’ve made lots of friends from all over the world at international conferences!

Top tip:

Take ownership early. Obviously your supervisors are academically senior to you, but it’s your project and end decisions are ultimately yours. Take guidance, not orders!


PhD highlight:

I have lots of little highlights: celebrating friend’s vivas; submitting my first paper; getting that code to finally work; and discovering something unusual and interesting in the data. The PhD process is long, very long and I’ve found that lots of little achievements have kept me motivated. In general, I think the aspects I thought would be the easiest during my PhD turned out to be the hardest, whilst the bits I thought would be hard were also hard! A PhD definitely requires commitment.

My best highlight was a great month on fieldwork in East Africa. Nothing beats seeing the volcano you’re studying up close and personal. Sure it was challenging and exhausting (working day-to-night for a month), but completing the fieldwork came with a great sense of achievement. As a bonus, climbing up volcanoes each day forced me to get into better shape!

Top tip:

Read blogs like this to get insight of what a PhD involves!


KT demonstrating the fieldwork essentials: penknife, string, gaffer tape and a bored looking field assistant! Photo credit: Didi Ooi


PhD highlight:

One of the best parts about being a geologist is the travel.  As an undergraduate you get the opportunity to visit some amazing places on fieldwork and for me this has spilled over to my PhD studies.  A significant part of my project has been based on North Andros in the Bahamas, and although I have been protesting for a long time that fieldwork isn’t a holiday, it is still a breath-taking location to work.  One of my favourite things has been sharing the experience with field assistants and watching their reactions as we reach the island for the first time; the people may be different but the reaction is the same – awe.  Field assistants are also great at keeping you relatively sane when you have been sampling (in the rain) all day and filtering most of the night.

Top tip:

Say yes (to most things).  I view the PhD as a training ground for a career, either in or out of academia, and that saying yes can help give you experiences and skills, which can be invaluable further down the line.  But be careful not to overstretch yourself too much because you still need time to finish the PhD!


PhD highlight:

By a long stretch, the best part of my PhD has been the travel I have been able to do as part of my research. I’ve been lucky enough to do fieldwork and attend conferences in all corners of the globe. My fieldwork has taken me to South America (Bolivia and Ecuador), Asia (Japan), Europe (Italy) and the Caribbean (Montserrat and Dominica), while I have been to conferences in the USA, Japan and (less glamorously) different parts of the UK. On top of this I did a study visit at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Admittedly, my carbon footprint is probably huge, but the experiences, skills and network I’ve built up are priceless.

Top tip:

Take all your opportunities, and then make your own. While you’re doing a PhD there are numerous chances to attend extra conferences and workshops on various things. These are a great way to develop new skills. Plus, by talking to different people you can create your own opportunities for extra fieldwork and study exchanges.