Facing up to the big V

StamperCharly Stamper, an ex-experimental petrologist from the School of Earth Sciences, originally wrote this entry on the Between a Rock and a Hard Place blog. Charly used to make pretend volcanoes; now she works in renewable energy.

The nights are getting shorter, the air is getting fresher and here in Bristol it seems like viva season is in full swing. Enough time has elapsed since my own viva that I thought I would share my thoughts about what to expect on the big day.

PhD comic
Credit: PhD comics/Jorge Cham

Whilst everybody’s experience is different, from talking to fellow alumni there do seem to be some common themes:

Your examiners are human. The main thing to remember is that the examiners really just want to have a stimulating and thought-provoking discussion, followed by a trip to the pub. It’s also true to say that never again will somebody be so interested in your thesis (in fact, the examiners will probably the only two people to read the thing cover to cover), so try to make the most of it.

Make chit-chat. The literal translation of a viva voce is “with living voice” – i.e., you’re there to talk! Most vivas begin with an initial 10 – 20 minute chat about the overall project. At this point the examiners will have read your thesis but may not know anything about you or about how you have approached your research, so expect overarching questions and to give a summary of your entire project. Although it’s not easy to think so broadly about work that you’ve lived and breathed every minute of, the few weeks of R&R since hand-in should give you the space you need. Some examples might include:

  • What big question were you trying to answer?
  • What was your initial hypothesis?
  • How did you test this hypothesis?
  • Describe your conclusions in a few sentences
  • What went wrong?
  • What would you do differently if you could start again now?

Know your work. After the initial openings, the examiners will move on to scrutinising your thesis chapter by chapter. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably find that re-reading your thesis after hand-in will be a fairly torturous experience; however, the number one answer guaranteed to rile your examiners is “I can’t remember”.  As well as being well-versed in your own research, make sure you’re familiar with any underlying concepts, equations and principles that you’ve used.

Be prepared to justify your methods. You can rest assured that if your examiners agree with everything you’ve done, they will be playing the part of devil’s advocate in the viva. Alternatively, it’s not uncommon to have contradicted or even explicitly criticised at least one of your examiners’ work in the course of your thesis! Either way, expect some uncomfortably probing questioning on the more controversial parts of your research. You’ll need to demonstrate logic and reasoning behind your decision-making and back that up with evidence.

Be passionate! Even if it’s just for those few hours. It’s fair to say that most people feel a little jaded with at least some aspect of their research by the end of the PhD, but try not to let it show. If you can channel the eager and twinkly-eyed optimism you had at the beginning of the project, then the experience will be more of a two-way discourse than an excruciatingly cringe-worthy inquisition.

Be honest. If something didn’t work during the project (or you’ve since spotted a mistake) then there’s no point trying to skirt around the issue. Explain what you would do now, with the benefit of hindsight, and bear in mind that the examiners may ask you to incorporate some corrections into your final thesis. That’s not to say you should bring these things to your examiners’ attention, but sadly most of them seem to be pretty eagle-eyed!

Enjoy it. Nothing can beat the feeling of relief when you’re done. Just don’t forget to update your social media status – if you’re lost for words then “Dr :)” is a pretty safe bet.

PhD cake
No viva party would be complete without cheese, wine and a themed cake (in Charly’s case the Lesser Antilles in Victoria sponge). Photo credit: Charly Stamper. Cake credit: Kate Hibbert, KT Cooper, Elspeth Robertson.

Reposted with permission from Between a Rock and a Hard Place blog.

Faking It

University of BristolRhiannon Easterbrook is a second-year PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History. Having gained degrees from Cambridge and UCL, she took a few years out to work but is delighted to be back in academia. Her work is on classical reception in performance and performativity in Britain, 1895-1914. She is interested in how the Edwardians used ideas from the ancient world to think about embodiment, gender, and sexuality.

I’ve recently taken to re-watching an old TV favourite of mine: Faking It. Back when I was at school, I took real delight in this early example of reality television but it’s interesting that this is the first time I’ve thought about it in years. For those of you who missed out, this Channel 4 series that first aired in 2000 portrayed ordinary people attempting to pass themselves off as up-and-coming professionals in a completely different field. Students, cleaners and factory workers, among others, would spend a month learning not only the right skills, but the right lingo, dress, and manners with the help of mentors from the same field. After a crash course, they would have to show the appropriate abilities and persona to persuade a panel of experts that they really were a DJ/ polo player/ burlesque artiste. More often than not, if the novice put the work in, they would be at least partially successful. The show was inspiring, funny and sometimes pretty cringe-inducing but it faded from my mind.

However, it isn’t really a mystery why this old favourite has popped into my head. As I try my hand at more and more tasks associated with life as an academic, that familiar imposter syndrome about which Louise has blogged so well rears its head. In the strange, liminal space between student and academic that is being a postgraduate researcher, the need to make that transition to full academic (whatever that means because, after all, that covers a range of roles) is often tempered by a fear of being seen as presumptuous in some way.

To succeed in Faking It requires a mix of dedication, mentoring, and something more personal. Mentors pass on knowledge of the field but they also help candidates develop their own work, whether that’s visual art, fashion designs or a burlesque act. In some senses this is a little like a PhD. You have to work hard, learn how to adapt your style to the demands of academic convention, whether that’s in a conference abstract or a lecture, and also produce a work of original research, all with the guidance of your supervisor and any other helpful people you pick up along the way. In both cases, there is no handbook that will tell you everything you could possibly know about taking on that role.

Sometimes, this is a scary thought. At school, exams have a very precise set of marking criteria and it’s easy to know exactly what is required (although whether or not you can attain that is another matter). Success is defined narrowly and the goals are often clear. But coming to a PhD, you realise that everyone has their own style. You have people who do all their, say, archival research and write up at the end and then you have someone else who swears by writing as they go along and wouldn’t have it any other way. Some people put footnotes in their abstracts; others find the very idea ridiculous. Gradually, as I have progressed through my studies, I have realised that the markers of “proper” academics on the one hand and the frauds are less defined than I first suspected. That doesn’t mean that there are no standards and we’re all just a bunch of charlatans: try plagiarising, for example and no one will take you seriously again – and quite right too – but there is more flexibility than I had first thought.

This really came to my attention a couple of months ago. I was due to be giving my second-ever paper at a conference and was feeling pretty nervous about it. A call had gone out for volunteers to chair panels, and for some reason, I decided to pile stress upon stress and give it a go. When I found out what panel I had been assigned, I became even more nervous, realising that I wouldn’t be chairing my peers, but a bunch of bona fide academics with real, live academic jobs. Oh, and they were mostly talking about things of which I knew little, so who knew if I’d even be able to ask a question, should the audience fall silent?

In the end, though it was fine and I managed to ask a question, and keep control of a somewhat chatty room. Afterwards, I spoke to one of the very lovely panellists who expressed surprise that it had been my first attempt. Apparently, inexperienced chairs often turn up having done lots of preparation and with lengthy introductions. I just did what I’d seen others do: turn up a little before and ask people what they wanted me to highlight and whether they wanted warnings about time. I acted like I knew what I was doing and that seemed to work.

Now, I’m not saying I will never get nervous about anything like this again because I definitely, definitely will. But what I have found is that faking it as someone who knows what they’re doing can help. Maybe I’m a real academic and maybe I’m not, but as long as I get the job done, am willing to keep learning, and behave fairly in the process, who cares?

The Why and The How

Madeline_BurkeMadeline Burke is a third-year postgraduate researcher in the department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine.  Madeline did her undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering before switching disciplines when she started a PhD with the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials (BCFN). She is currently building a 3D bio-printer that can create human tissue by printing stem cells. Madeline’s research is interdisciplinary, using concepts from chemistry, cell biology and engineering, to design matrices for stem cells that not only support the cells, but cause them to grow into desired tissue such as cartilage. Most of her time is spent in the lab, designing new experiments and building her 3D printer.

Flowchart

What are the differences between sciences and engineering? Not an earth shattering, life changing question, I’ll admit, but one I have been pondering recently after my foray into nanoscience. Having previously defined myself as an engineer, a PhD in nanoscience has made me challenge my views and definition of science as a subject. Cheesy I know, but seriously, the differences between my engineering student university experience and that of my science graduate colleagues were astounding to me. So I decided to try and define these differences and where better to start answering my questions than the oracle of all things known (also known as Google or in this case my first hit, Wiki answers).

Wiki answers says “A scientist is a person who has scientific training or who works in the sciences. An engineer is someone who is trained as an engineer.” Somehow I don’t think it is that simple. As I’ve found out there is a huge amount of overlap between science and engineering, especially nanoscience. Let me explain – engineering is essentially applying scientific principles to real world problems, a product or solution is created and the problem is solved (or so engineers like to think). Science looks at the world around us and tries to find answers to its mysteries. The difference is not about the knowledge needed to study or practise these disciplines, but in the questions you ask.

In essence, a scientist looks at something and wants to understand “why?” Why is the sky blue? Why do things behave differently on the macro and micro scale? Why do stem cells proliferate and other cells do not? Essentially, it is about understanding and acquiring new knowledge. Engineering is more about “how?” As an engineer, I ask how I can make other cells differentiate. How can I sequence DNA cheaply and accurately? How can I make computers better, smaller and cheaper? Engineering is about invention and solving real-world problems rather than acquiring new knowledge.

This is where the hot new subject of nanoscience comes in, bridging the proverbial gap between science and engineering. Nanoscientists ask both types of questions: why do things behave differently at the nanoscale, and how can I apply this to a real world problem?

But I suppose the big question is who cares? Should there be a distinction between science and engineering? I highlight the well-known case of the chicken and the egg: in school, we were taught that science came first and engineering was the application of science, but now important advances in nanoscience are usually the result of a new tool becoming available. You could say that nanoscience is driven by engineering advances.

Nanoscience is starting to address the distinctions between engineering and science, and also within science itself. Coming from an engineering background the “why?” of science was a shock to me, but I’ve come to see it as an advantage. Engineering is often money and product focused, but without the why of science it wouldn’t exist. I still have the odd “how are you ever going to apply that to anything useful?” moment but in general nanoscience is perfect for me. I get the why and the how!

Ten thousand papers a month

Nick-JonesNick Jones is a second-year postgraduate researcher in the School of Mathematics. His research is rooted in physics and the problem of understanding how a large number of interacting particles behave. Particularly interesting is the case where the emerging cooperative behaviour of the whole system is very different to that of the smaller pieces that make it up.

Most of the days that I spend working on my PhD, I am at my desk (which, incidentally, has a pretty great view over Clifton). There, I’m usually confronted by a web browser with so many tabs open that you can’t read the names. Most of them have the same icon though: the ‘smily face and crossbones’ of arXiv.org – a website where many researchers post preprints of their articles, as well as lecture notes and other such useful things. One thing you realise during your studies is just how much information is out there, and what a challenge it is to find the thing you need: at the end of last year arXiv passed one million new papers since its 1991 inception. Initially, the papers were in one sub-field of physics and there would be about one hundred papers added per month. Since then it has grown to cover physics, mathematics and computer science as well as quantitative subfields of other sciences, with almost ten thousand new papers each month! It is a fantastic resource; with many scientists making their work available for everyone to read, including those readers who don’t have the journal subscriptions that I get through the Bristol library. Other fields have similar preprint servers, and not every physics paper appears on arXiv, but some idea of the quantity of new work can be gained from the graph below. newsubsMost of the growth you see is in adoption of arXiv by a subfield, but note that hep-* (the high energy physics category) has had a relatively constant submission rate for the past few years, so the number you see is probably about the size of the active field. This works out at about twenty five papers per day, so a lot to keep track of!

With so much research being done it can be difficult to stay on top the field your project sits in. One way is to meet people at workshops and conferences (and stay in touch – they might write to you with something interesting!), but if you are at the office you will need to keep track of articles on the internet. If the field is moving quickly, you will have to keep an eye on the preprints in case something you need appears and to make sure you don’t end up doing research that would have been new at the start of the year but has now been done somewhere else. Equally, if there is less activity in your field, it’s easy to stop looking for new publications and then you are guaranteed to miss developments. And of course, these are just the new papers, you also need to know what is already out there! Thankfully, the internet makes life easier, but sometimes a bit of luck helps too. In an effort to make sure I didn’t miss anything new I signed up for the ‘scientific recommendation engine’ Sparrho. You put in keywords that you are interested in and then it will check all kinds of websites (including, of course, the arXiv!) for articles. You then tune it by choosing which of these you consider relevant. After putting in three words that I thought most appropriate for my research project and playing around for five minutes it came up with a paper from 2013 that is exactly what I needed and which I could easily have never found! Since then I have been using it to keep tabs on new papers in my field, although I haven’t had another such breakthrough from (recent) history.

Right, you’ve got your doctorate. Now what?

Photo of Richard BuddI don’t know how common this is, but I gave no thought to ‘post-PhD’ when I started out. I was mostly interested in the field and wanted to see if I had what it took to do a doctorate.  Job thoughts came later, with an academic career emerging as the frontrunner by several lengths. I love my area of research, I really enjoy teaching, and there’s no ceiling as to how far you can develop intellectually. I had a good job for a time before I started my postgrad studies – interesting, well paid, international travel, nice people – but after a while I wasn’t getting any better, just learning more facts. The next options for me were to go into management or get involved in more advanced kinds of research. It was a no-brainer: I had to go back to university.

So, here I am, with my PhD, and looking at the job market. It looks like getting from a freshly passed viva to a lecturing post requires having a few things on your CV:

  • A doctorate;
  • Research experience (in addition to your doctorate);
  • Teaching experience;
  • Conference presentations;
  • Journal publications, and preferably a book;
  • Successful research funding bids;

I’ll go through the list, in principal and in (my) practice.

You didn’t always have to have a PhD/professional doctorate but you probably do now. It might not be as important in some subjects like nursing, teacher training, or architecture, but having one in those will certainly not count against you. In most subjects, though, it’s a case of no doctorate, no entry. For me, that’s a check.

Getting research experience – preferably as part of a research team – seems to be pretty important. Not many have the opportunity to do this before their doctorate and you can’t always squeeze it in during. You might get to be involved in other people’s work if you’re in a lab in your research group, but this is not an option for everyone. Teaching is readily available if you’re studying in a department that has undergraduate students, less if you’re not. I had a career in non-academic research before I came back to university, managed to get a few cameo research jobs during my PhD, and am now working on a research project. My department was a graduate school and you couldn’t teach until you upgraded from MPhil to PhD, but I previously taught English in Japan and then accumulated quite a few bits of bobs after my upgrade, too. So far, so good!

Most people do conference presentations as they go along. They’re nerve-wracking, but you get to share your research, pick up new ideas, and often meet some interesting (and perhaps useful) people. You can start off small, presenting at student conferences or at the ‘early career’ section of a major one, and then at some stage move into the bear pit with the grown-ups.  It’s all a practice thing and I did a few of these every year, some of which went well, some of which didn’t. Still, I learnt from it, quite enjoy it really, and that’s another box ticked.

Publishing is tricky, particularly during your PhD, unless you’re involved with someone else’s research project. Like me, you may not have anything new to say from your doctorate until you’re near the end of it. You can do book reviews, though, but I’m personally not sure how much this counts. There can be quite a lead time on journal publications: a few months to write, share, revise and then submit them, then a few more until they’re reviewed and sent back. Then you have to address their suggestions and resubmit it, provided they didn’t reject it outright in the first place. Only after all of that – once it’s all been approved, of course – can you put that precious ‘Budd (forthcoming) Catchy But Serious Title, Prestigious Journal, 3 (1), pp.34-52’ on your CV. Books are another option, at least in the social sciences. Unfortunately, you can’t just send the editor your final thesis copy, it’ll need months of rejigging and then more editing. Publications are where I fall flat at the moment. I have one that I’m working on by myself, two collaborative ones from other work I’ve done or am currently doing, and then at least three more from my PhD. In a year from now, it’ll all look rosier, and in two years, peachy!

Research funding is a bit of a Catch-22 in that you can’t get funding without a permanent job or a permanent job without funding! The ideal route is that you get a two to three-year ‘post-doc’ soon after your viva that brings everything on the list with it – research, teaching, presentations, publications, and research funding. People in the sciences tend to do a few of these before getting a permanent job, but in the social sciences it’s usually one, and there are far less of them around. They’re often not that well paid and/or quite short term, which is completely unhelpful if you’ve got a family and can’t move around every six to 12 months.

I hope most people are more informed about what happens after the doctorate than I was four years ago. I did manage to work most of this out as I went along, though, and am now only a few publications short of the next stop on the ladder. Some people I know have moved from their doctorate to a lectureship almost seamlessly, but this is pretty unusual. It’s probably good to be aware that there is a bit of a chasm between completing your thesis and The Job. You may have to fill the gap with part-time and/or short-term contracts, and you’ll need to collect certain building blocks to construct your bridge to the other side. Good luck…

New Year’s revelations

Wingrove_1

Louise Wingrove is a third-year postgraduate researcher in the department of Drama: Theatre, Film and Television. Her research is focused on how the lives of working women were represented by serio-comediennes on the Victorian music-hall stage, using the characters and careers of Jenny Hill (1848-1896) and Bessie Bellwood (1856-1896) as case studies.  Most of her research is archive based, piecing together long lost careers, songs and venues through files of reviews, photographs and sheet music.

This is Louise’s second entry for the ‘Year in the Life of a PhD’ blog. Her first entry, entitled ‘Belonging in archives’, discussed the challenges of finding your niche as a researcher and the joy of learning new skills.

Having taken time off to welcome in the new year (I know – a PhD student taking time off –a reckless and laughable idea!) I awoke on January 1st 2015 with a realisation that made my brain freeze: I am due to submit this year! Not the end of next year, but this year! Having read all of the other fantastic blogs in this project, I have noticed a popular theme regarding the PhD panic that can set in. That moment when imposter syndrome strikes and one becomes convinced they have somehow slipped under the radar and security is sure to storm the building soon and wrestle you back to reality. Yet, mid panic attack, paper bag in hand, I thought about this exact time the previous two years.

January 2013 – I had just been offered the chance to write two short pieces about the careers of Marie Lloyd and Sarah Millican for a fantastic book celebrating the great successes of female stand-up comics over the years. Written and edited by Jane Duffus of Bristol’s highly successful “What the Frock” comedy club the book was sure to be excellent and there was the added bonus of making great contacts. I was one term into my PhD and, though I later jumped at the chance to be a part of such a brilliant project – I suddenly lost every bit of confidence I had ever had and nearly turned it down for the reason that “someone like me couldn’t do something like that.” Two years later and I can’t believe how worried I was and I am incredibly excited to see it be released later this year.

January 2014 – The new year nineteenth century panic! I had decided (through my love of music hall and obvious fixation on the archives) that I would now just be looking at women from the Victorian Music Hall. The snag – I knew nothing about the Victorian Era! I’d never even read a Charles Dickens novel – The Muppets Christmas Carol being my closest link. And, on top of that, the suggestion had been made that I should speak at conferences this year. Now, I actually love public speaking and had also just happily given a paper at a symposium within the department BUT – why on Earth would anybody want to listen to me when they could listen to real academics? Suddenly the curse of the January brain freeze hit again and the thought of learning all about Victorian history and giving papers at conferences by the end of the year seemed mightily implausible and headache inducing. After a bit of a sulk and internal tantrum, I got several history books on the nineteenth century in general and locked myself away to read…and read…and read. The more I read, the clearer my research path became and the less out of my depth I felt. And after establishing that I was not alone in this feeling of irrational inadequacy, I felt confident enough to attend conferences – making contacts and starting to use the new information I was immersing myself in.  I had a sudden set back – health problems arose that threatened to put me right back again. However this seemed to actually give me the focus I needed and, before I knew it I was preparing to talk at a conference at a university in Lisbon as well as ones at Glasgow university and Oxford University – putting my research out there to ‘real’ nineteenth century scholars. Glasgow, the first I attended, was the hardest – my confidence in my new found expertise was not quite cemented yet, but all went extremely well and helped to build my confidence increasingly. The excellent GW4 communications conference held at Bristol and bringing together researchers from Cardiff, Exeter and Bath, as well as those here in Bristol, also helped me to develop my networking skills. The contacts these conferences have subsequently given me has boosted my confidence in my abilities as well as helping me select what information to develop and put into my final thesis. In preparation for the Lisbon conference I even recorded myself singing the music hall song I was discussing in my paper – something I have never done before and which therefore both terrified me and gave me an extra thrill as people responded so well to hearing the music for themselves for the first time.

At the end of 2014 I remained on track with my studies – developed my historical and social understanding more than I ever expected and have travelled, giving well-received papers at conferences, despite my initial reaction to sit under a duvet and cry!

So, as I sit with said duvet applied to my head in the January of 2015 fearing my thesis write up, new teaching opportunities and the multiple plans of what to do after my PhD – I know in January 2016 I will be sat in exactly the same position, laughing at this year’s ‘trivial’ worries, and devising ways to try and release me from all the scary new things 2016 hold.

The journey is only just beginning

TessaCoombesTessa Coombes is a first year postgraduate researcher in the School for Policy Studies. After recently completing the MSc in Public Policy at the University of Bristol, involving a dissertation on affordable housing, she decided to stay on and continue her research interest in politics, policy process and housing. Her research is focused on how housing policy is treated at a time of political change, using the General Election 2015 and Bristol Mayoral Election 2016 as the basis of her study she will look at political influences on policy formation and change.

I started my PhD in October this year, just a couple of months ago. My journey to this point started out in full time work, as a Senior Manager, thinking about all the things I’d rather be doing and wondering why I’d ever left the academic world some 20 years ago. I then travelled through the pain of redundancy and the challenge of a year doing an MSc and here I am now, signed up for three years full time to do a Social Policy PhD – how did that happen?

Well, the starting point for this phase of my journey was the rapid realisation, during my MSc year, that I really enjoyed the studying, the learning and the intellectual challenge of being in the academic world. I also realised that my frustrations with the MSc dissertation process were about not having enough time to properly delve into the literature, to do the research I wanted to do, or to really understand the issues that arose during interviews. Four months was just not long enough.

During my MSc year various people had asked me if I was considering doing a PhD and my response was largely to laugh at the idea – me, do a PhD, at my age? But then I got to thinking, about how much I still had to learn, how much reading I still wanted to do and how I wanted to challenge myself more in a different way, and the idea began to take hold. Maybe I could do a PhD after all? From that point forward, it was actually quite an easy process from taking the decision, putting together a proposal and completing my application.

Everyone in the School for Policy Studies was incredibly helpful and encouraging, from administrative staff and existing PhD students, to lecturers and the Head of the School, they helped me to make sense of the process, complete the online forms and shape a proposal that at least would act as a starting point for discussion. And so, here I am now, a few months into the programme, doing taught units and assignments on research methods and developing my research proposal further.

My ascent from MSc to PhD was almost seamless; as I finished one course I was starting on the next, so there was little time for a break or to reflect. But in the first few months I have picked up some sound advice and guidance from supervisors and existing PhD students and have equally learnt a little from the MSc process. So, for anyone who is thinking about doing a PhD or just embarking on the first stages of their research, here are three of the key things I have learnt in the first few months that are already beginning to make the process easier and more enjoyable: get organised, get visible, and get trained.

  1. Get Organised – a critical piece of advice shared by others who had embarked on doing a PhD and also emphasised by my supervisor. This I interpreted partially as working out what bits of kit and software I should become familiar with to help me collate, organise and annotate all the information I was likely to collect throughout my research. I personally have hooked up with Zotero for citations and referencing; Evernote for saving web based information and annotating it; and Scrivener to help organise my thoughts when developing coursework and writing. I’m sure there are many others that are available and just as good, the key point here is about finding out what works best for you and getting to know your way around it as early as possible.
  1. Get Visible – this was advice I was given by a very good friend when I first lost my job; don’t disappear she said, keep your profile! Sound advice which I think is just as relevant now that I’m embarking on a new programme of research and a new stage in my own personal journey. It’s about sharing that learning and research, and making contact with others with similar research interests. I find social media extremely useful for this, I use twitter (@policytessa) and run my own blog site (www.tessacoombes.wordpress.com) to share my views and connect with others; and I use LinkedIn groups to engage in discussion and debate. All are useful ways of making contact with others and putting your views out there for challenge and feedback. It can be scary to begin with but extremely useful once you start and get the hang of it. I have engaged with many who share similar interests through discussion on twitter and my blog, who I now meet in real life regularly to debate and discuss issues with. I have also in the last month or so learnt about new engagement platforms such as ResearchGate which has a much more academic focus. This is only the first step, getting published and speaking at conferences has to be an aim, but I see that as something further down the line.
  1. Get Trained – this is something I am only just beginning to get to grips with, but as a PhD researcher the opportunities for development and training appear to be endless. In over 20 years of work I can’t ever remember being given the chance to engage in so much ‘free’ training, which ranges from formal training sessions to informal seminar series. I plan to make much more use of this over the coming months, to get up to date with all sorts of things I’ve never had the opportunity or time to engage with before. I have the opportunity to learn how to deal with issues I will undoubtedly face over the next few years and to overcome things I am not good at now. The training is there to help me both through the Bristol Doctoral College and the School for Policy Studies. There are opportunities to engage with other PhD students from different subject areas, to widen my knowledge and learning beyond my own field of study.

Two weeks in the ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’

University of BristolJames Hickey is a final year PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences. His research is focused on unravelling the mechanisms that cause volcanoes to become restless prior to eruptions. Ultimately, the aim is to improve our understanding of precursory signals to enhance forecasting and mitigation efforts.

Workshops, conferences, field work – national and international travel is an essential part of many PhD programs. I’ve been lucky enough to see numerous new parts of the globe during my studies, and, less luckily, numerous different airport layovers (I’m currently writing this post from a corridor between terminals at Washington airport…!).

I’m on my way back to Bristol from a workshop in Ecuador on volcanic unrest, which culminated with an eruption simulation exercise. As my PhD is focused on unravelling the science behind volcanic unrest, these trips (this is the second of three with this specific aim) form a main focus for the real-world application of my research.

This workshop was split into 3 different parts. The first was a series of lectures on how volcanologists, social scientists, emergency managers, civil protection officials, and the general public interact during volcanic crises. Each specialist contributed their individual expertise, in my case as a volcanologist interpreting the signals that the volcano gives off, but the main message was that communication at all times between all parties must be especially clear. As with almost all lectures though, this part of the workshop obviously wasn’t the most exciting – especially with the inevitable jet-lagged tiredness kicking in for the first few days.

The second part of the workshop took us out into the field to explore two of Ecuador’s most famous volcanoes: Cotopaxi and Tungurahua. This was my favourite part! These are two quite epic volcanoes with the classical conical shape you imagine when you think of a volcano. By examining them in situ we learnt about the hazards they pose today to many nearby towns and cities. This really helps to put my research into perspective, as I know that by contributing to a better understanding of how volcanoes work I am helping to protect the people whose livelihood’s depend on the benefits the volcano brings them (for example, the more fertile soil).

Cotopaxi volcano, summit 5897 m ASL
Cotopaxi volcano, summit 5897 m ASL

The final part of the workshop took us to the Ecuadorian national centre for crisis management in Quito (cue vigilant security checks!). Here we conducted the volcanic unrest and eruption simulation. This is similar in some ways to a fire drill but a whole lot more complicated. Simulated monitoring ‘data’ from the volcano is fed to a team of volcanologists who have to quickly interpret what the data means and feed that information in a clear, coherent and understandable way to emergency managers, politicians and civil authorities. Upon the advice of the volcanologists, the decision makers can then choose how best to respond and mitigate a potential impending crisis. As this was just an exercise, different stages in the unrest crisis were dealt with all in one very busy day, with ‘data’ from the volcano arriving every couple of hours but representing several weeks or months in simulated time.

The final ‘update’ from the volcano: BIG eruption! I think we all could have predicted that – everyone likes a grand finale.

Despite the Hollywood firework finish, these exercises are crucial to prepare those individuals who will actually be in positions of responsibility when a true volcanic crisis develops. By playing out the different stages in as close to real-life as possible, strengths and weaknesses were highlighted that will allow for improvements to be made in the future. Improvements that may just save extra lives or livelihoods, and foster improved relationships between the public and the scientists trying to help them.

As one of those scientists, I was just happy enough to be able to take part.

Escaping the lab

University of BristolRebecca Ingle is a second year PhD student in the Bristol Laser Group in the School of Chemistry. Her research involves studying photodissociation dynamics in both the gas and solution phase using a combination of laser experiments and computational chemistry methods.

You often hear about how difficult PhDs can be, trying to juggle running your own experiments, analysing the data, thinking of fresh ideas and finding a way to squeeze a life in between it all. However, there is definitely one glamorous highlight to PhD life and that’s the numerous opportunities for travel, both in the UK and abroad.

Unfortunately, I’m not an environmental chemist and don’t have the excuse of needing to do fieldwork in remote, exotic locations. However, lasers are popular worldwide, and thanks to some help from the Bristol-Kyoto strategic fund, I was lucky enough to spend this summer working at Kyoto University.

To say I had no reservations about flying alone half way around the world to work on an unfamiliar experiment would be a lie. There were a few moments when I wondered if I had fully appreciated what I had signed up for and horrifying tales of Japan’s bounteous insect life in the summer months didn’t exactly help.

However, once I’d arrived in Kyoto, it didn’t take long at all for me to feel at home. Complaining about the weather is definitely a universal language and my Japanese hosts could regularly be heard proclaiming ‘atsui desune…’ (it’s hot, isn’t it?) in response to the insufferable 30 degree heat. Unlike the weather, I quickly acclimatised to a diet of udon, matcha bread and macadamia nut ice cream and the experiment turned out to have a lot more in common with my experiments at Bristol than I was expecting.

It ended up being an incredible few months and I learnt a huge amount about new experimental techniques. But how do you actually organise a research collaboration like this and what are some the advantages to getting away from your home lab?

Advantages of working away

One of the best parts about working away, be it for a research collaboration or conference, is it’s a bit like being away on a science holiday. You generally get fed and don’t have to worry about domestic drudgery, so you can spend all day focusing on your work. It’s hard not to be productive in this kind of environment, at least when the jetlag has passed.

Another huge advantage is having the chance for some fresh insight on your own work. Not only will you be exposed to new ideas and set-ups, but you’ll be asked questions about what you do from a completely different perspective. It’s often easy to be complacent and not think about why you use certain methods and techniques in your lab, simply because it’s the way it has always been done but it’s good to be forced to think about absolutely every aspect of your research.

If you’re going away for a conference, you’ll be inundated with novel work from a wide range of universities. It’s definitely an easier way of getting a feel for the latest developments in your field in a livelier, more interactive manner than trawling through the literature and may even be a good chance to start building some collaborative links with other research groups.

Depending on where you go, you might get to pick up some new language skills or even get to eat food that looks like this: IMAG0635

How to make it happen

Travelling for conference or collaborations can be prohibitively expensive, even if you’re staying within the UK. However, particularly if you want to go abroad, there are numerous funding opportunities available though, be warned, you often need to look a long way in advance for them. If you are funded through one of the research councils, there is often a budget for your skills development and travel so that may be another avenue worth exploring.

If you think you’d like to escape your lab but have no idea where to go or who to work with, your supervisor can be a good starting point. Just emailing other academics, even if you’ve never met, with an explanation of why you’re interested in their work and what you can contribute can be a surprisingly successful method too.

I had a wonderful time in Japan and am hoping to go back again next year. Meanwhile, I’ve got a few conferences and events to keep me excited about both my own work and my field as a whole.