How Thesis Boot Camp helps PGRs to beat the block

Dr. Paul Spencer, the Bristol Doctoral College’s PGR Environment Development Manager, took some time during December’s Thesis Boot Camp to reflect on the aims of the weekend — and why it’s so beneficial for the postgraduate researchers who take part.

It’s a Sunday morning in mid-December, I can see great big flakes of snow falling outside the window to my right and I’m writing away along with 25 postgraduate researchers who are making stellar progress on writing that thesis. Why? Well, the Bristol Doctoral College (BDC) is running our first Thesis Boot Camp here in the School of Education this weekend. The BDC will run two more in the coming months, so I thought I’d take the time to explain what it’s all about.

What is a Thesis Boot Camp?

Dr Paul Spencer at December's Thesis Boot Camp

Simply put, it’s about getting late stage postgraduate researchers together in a peer group and setting them a seemingly impossible target of writing 20,000 words between Friday evening to Sunday evening.

Many postgraduate researchers find themselves writing alone, struggling to make progress on what can feel like an unreachable goal. Thesis Boot Camp turns that on its head and brings people together to harness the power of collective motivation and progress.

Why Thesis Boot Camp?

All creative ideas involve some sort of theft, and so it is with Thesis Boot Camp. There are many writing retreats that groups of authors often engage in and this is just an iteration of that. It’s really quite simple: provide some comfortable space, food, drink, an empathetic ear, plenty of opportunity for connection and just let the postgraduate researchers write.

What key things are we trying out here?

The key concepts that we ask the participants to experiment with are things that experienced writing tutors may be familiar with.

  1. That writing in a group, especially of like-minded individuals, can be hugely productive.
  2. Often the sense of perfectionism that doctoral researchers aspire to can get in the way of writing productively, so neatly described in Katherine Firth’s blogpost on ‘The Perfect Sentence Vortex’.
  3. To be productive, you first need quite a lot of material to begin with — make a big mess first and then tidy it up!
  4. Preparation is crucial, so participants are given lots of ideas and suggestions on how to plan and be ready for Thesis Boot Camp before it happens. This involves a bit of planning — to really think about what each chapter is trying to achieve and how it fits into an overall argument or thread that forms the backbone of the original contribution claim in a doctoral dissertation.

So, how is it going?

The first thing that has really struck me this weekend has been the overall enthusiasm and positive approach from the postgraduate researchers on this Thesis Boot Camp.

The willingness to lean into the discomfort of trying out unfamiliar approaches to writing, the collegial nature of the interactions, the supportive conversations that I’ve witnessed. It really drives home the absolute key ingredient for me, and that’s the importance of a community of writers/peers who offer each other encouragement and support collectively whilst pursuing their own writing goals.

Key ingredients

Here are a few things that really help make a Thesis Boot Camp work.

  1. A good, flexible venue. In this case the entire top floor of the School of Education in Berkeley Square — self-contained and able to support a DIY approach to the provision of copious amounts of tea/coffee (essential!).
  2. Regular meal times. A good range of wholesome food — and being able to eat together without effort — is crucial for the community dynamic. Plenty of snacks in between is also essential. Boot Camp runs on biscuits!
  3. Taking regular breaks. We took full advantage of our great location and went for a walk to the Cabot Tower on Brandon Hill on Saturday afternoon, and on Sunday with the sleet and snow falling, it was easy to pop over the road to the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. As one participant said, viewing the dinosaur bones certainly brought a sense of perspective to the thesis writing.
  4. The rewards! I know it seems silly, but squeezy coloured Lego bricks at regular word-count milestones (5,000, 10,000, 15,000 and 20,000) are a real symbol of progress and productivity and the participants really took to the concept. The real magic of these is that you take them home, pop them on your desk and they serve as a reminder of your achievement to inspire you during the writing times to come.

And that of course is the most important part of Thesis Boot Camp: the legacy. Creating ways for postgraduate researchers to remind themselves and each other of their progress during just one weekend helps inspire them to continue to meet, talk, write and encourage each other to get to that dreamed of finish line. Being part of that is something pretty special.

The next Thesis Boot Camp will take place over the weekend of 23–25 February 2018. To find out more — and submit an application to take part — visit our Thesis Boot Camp page

Researcher reflections — how working with young offenders changed me

This guest blogpost is a personal reflection by Adeela ahmed Shafi, a PhD candidate in the School of Education. Adeela is also Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Gloucestershire and Vice-Chair of the Avon & Somerset Police Powers Scrutiny Panel.

If you’re a researcher, there’s plenty of literature available on how to be ethical; how to reflect and acknowledge your presence in research, in terms of research design, data collection, analysis and indeed the claims made.

However, there’s not much out there on how the research process actually impacts on the researcher.

My research contributes to the intense political debate on youth justice by exploring the nature of disengagement in young offenders in a secure custodial setting and how this group can be re-engaged.

What I would like to do here, though, is talk about the challenges — methodological, ethical and personal — that I needed to navigate in order to get to the findings.

Challenges, dilemmas and adapting your approach

For me, there were many personal and methodological challenges in working with incarcerated young offenders.

For example, I had prepared all manner of interview aids to help me elicit data from my participants — all derived from the literature in terms of the best way to interview children and vulnerable participants. However, I ultimately found that these were all quite superfluous and in themselves made many assumptions about my participants.

In the end, then, I found I had to ditch these and just use myself as the main resource. This involved having to reveal some of my own vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and in doing so redress the power imbalance between myself as a researcher and the incarcerated participants, who had very little power or autonomy. I hadn’t actually planned that in my data collection prep work!

Having got myself in a position where my participants were willing to trust me and open up, I felt myself amidst an array of ethical challenges and dilemmas. Not least of these was that I was now in a privileged but weighty position of responsibility, with a duty to tell the story of a ‘doubly vulnerable’ group who had little voice in a society that had already passed judgement on them.

Retaining and representing what’s been shared

Because of this sense of responsibility, I felt that the handling of the data had to avoid fracturing the essence of what had been shared. I found my memory, emotions and the field notes of each interview were essential in this, because I could recall the additional aspects of the interview not recorded in transcriptions to enter the analysis — in particular, the body language and the atmosphere in the room during the interviews. Even now as I write this, I find myself transported back, and I remember how riveted I felt when listening to them.

My experiences also reinforced the criticality of the researcher in the generation of data, and in ensuring that this data was represented in a way that captured the richness of it. I didn’t see it as data ‘waiting to be gathered’, because my participants indicated they’d never had the space to give thought to their educational experiences in the way that engagement with the research had enabled them.

In short, working with these young people meant I was able to get a glimpse of their potential.

But I feel guilty.

In participating in the research, I was showing these vulnerable participants what could be — but what was not to be. Being unable to facilitate the potential I witnessed beyond the scope of my research stung.

I realised then that research can change you.

Closure: the thesis and the viva

University of BristolJames Hickey recently completed his PhD in the School of Earth Sciences. His research 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.

It’s been a long and winding road, but I’ve reached the final hurdle – minor post-viva corrections. So while everything is still fresh (or permanently etched into my mind!) I thought I would share some of my thoughts on the thesis write-up and viva process.

I didn’t have a long write-up period at the end of my studies – I started writing in my first year, and continued to write throughout in the form of a series of papers. I think this helped keep me slightly saner at the end of the 3.5 years, but don’t get me wrong; the last few months still weren’t easy!

My supervisor was very proactive from the start at getting me to think of my work in terms of publications, and this soon bore fruition. I managed to publish 3 papers before I started writing my thesis proper, with my fourth and final science chapter/study now currently in prep for publication.

When it came to the piecing together of my actual thesis I made sure I was being as efficient as possible with my time. As I still had a few models to run for my final science chapter, I used this time to simultaneously start formatting my thesis. I used LaTeX for this, which has numerous advantages over something like Microsoft Word – this could be a blog post in itself, so I won’t go into it here. But if you are thinking of using LaTeX I’ve made my thesis template freely available online, and it meets all of the University of Bristol rules and regulations (as far as I’m aware).

In the end, my thesis consisted of three science chapters from my papers, plus one additional science chapter. To me, I think this is roughly where the end line should be drawn. I feel like the additional chapters (introduction, methods, conclusions, etc.) are mostly unnecessary. Each science chapter usually has its own introductions, methods, and conclusions – so why the need to repeat? At the end of the day, maybe 5 people maximum are going to read the full thesis (the student, maybe two supervisors, and two examiners), while (hopefully) many more people will read the science chapters when they’re published. I feel it would make much more sense to be able to simply submit 3 or 4 solid science chapters, with maybe a couple pages each for some pre- and post-amble that ties things together in view of an overall bigger picture. No waffle – just good, original, science. (N.B. I can’t speak for the process in faculties other than science, where concepts, logistics and PhD theses may be vastly different.)

My viva came a month and a half after my thesis hand-in. A few days before I got ‘the fear’ – something I’ve not felt since I sat my (somewhat underprepared) undergraduate exams. I had spent most of my time trying to write a paper that my viva crept up on me, leaving me with just two days either side of a wedding weekend to ‘prepare’. Naturally I googled ‘viva prep’, which mostly suggested a week or so of going through potential questions and preparing answers. I instead used my time to read through my entire thesis, and think about it in a critical way; assessing where it could be improved and how it fits into the broader scientific picture I was addressing.

Going into my viva I was hoping that the 3 published papers in my thesis would be mostly free from the examiners onslaught. I was wrong.

My two examiners went through my thesis from cover to cover and picked everything apart: “why did you do this?”, “why did you choose this value?”, “why didn’t you do this?”, “I don’t really like this”, “you could have done this”, “why didn’t you do this?” (again). It’s like they don’t know that we’re mostly scrambling to get the thesis finished in as close to the 3 or 3.5 years of funding we are afforded (with 4 being more like the normal PhD timeframe in my department these days). I know some people say they enjoy their viva, but I was unfortunately not one of them – 2.5 hours with next to no positive comments for the amount of work put in was somewhat demoralising (and also slightly off-putting of a future career in academia).

I did stand my ground, however. On more than one occasion I even had to interrupt the examiners and ask to speak as I had the rebuttal on the tip of my tongue but was struggling to squeeze a word in. In other cases, it was only after my viva that I thought of the most scientifically appropriate comeback. You win some, you lose some. I guess it is a defence of your work at the end of the day…

Defense
Maybe this would have been a better approach. Image credit: XKCD.

I eventually emerged victorious (yay!), to bountiful cheese, wine, olives and Jagermeister – subject to minor revisions that is. If only the post-viva period was like a paper review and I could write back with my rebuttal arguments for the points where I couldn’t think of them during the viva. Oh well. I was also asked to lengthen my conclusions and methods chapters (boo!). I still don’t understand why, and I probably never will, especially as only the internal examiner and myself will ever see them.

Regardless, I’ll look back on my PhD journey as a positive one. I have improved myself in many ways, met some amazing people, and travelled to some incredible places. I will also be able to address myself as Dr if I so please.

To anyone nearing the end – hang in there. It may not seem like it right now, but it will all be worth it.

Viva celebration
A good viva celebration makes it all worthwhile. Image credit: Fabian Wadsworth.

So long, farewell, and thanks for all the cake

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.

Avid followers of Chemistry’s ‘Friday Good News’ might know that it has been a rather busy week for the Bristol Laser Group, with three PhD vivas in two days. Apparently, the book of Guinness World Records doesn’t have an entry for ‘most PhD vivas completed in a week,’ but I suspect we’d be in the running for the record.

Vivas mark the end of the huge amount of work involved in a PhD and are strange times for everyone involved. For the candidates, there is the whole gamut of emotions, from the terrifying pre-viva wait to the exhausted relief when it is all over. For the older PhD students, it is an uncomfortable reminder of data that has yet to be collected and experiments that are yet to work. As well as being a celebratory time, it is often a sad goodbye to colleagues.

Post-viva
A post-viva Steph modelling a stylish ‘I <3 Lasers’ hat – coming soon to all good designer boutiques near you

Sometimes academia can feel a bit like a revolving door of new colleagues and contacts. New students roll through the doors in September, the Master’s students disappear in May and throughout the year, both PhDs and postdocs move onto pastures new. Both friends and collaborators tend to live at the opposite end of the country (if you’re lucky) or even on different continents.

Cake
The obligatory three-tier celebratory cake left in the presence of PhD students for five minutes

As part of a PhD, you will end up meeting an overwhelming number of people and it quickly becomes impractical to keep in contact with most of them. I’ve met so many people over the last 18 months that I’m surprised I can remember half their names. To avoid this, a lot of networking courses recommend keeping a ‘Stalker Book’ (not the phrase they use). You use this to keep note of everyone you meet on the conference circuit, as well as various details about them. To me, this sounds rather creepy but the idea of this circumvents the embarrassing situation where you meet someone who knows you and your research well but you have no idea who they are, which has thankfully only happened to me once.

Email is a wonderful thing for keeping in touch in the modern era of mobility and conferences will become a great time for catching up with others in your field. Generally I find most people in academia understand that a quarterly email and biennial visit is the foundation of a solid friendship. Don’t be surprised, though, if any social correspondence continually ends up being prefaced with ‘I’m sorry for the late reply but…’ though do be warned, these tactics may not work so well on family members.

Congratulations to our three new doctors!

Never JUST a PhD student

University of BristolDominika Bijoś recently received her PhD in Physiology and Pharmacology. She studied smooth muscle contraction and examined how other cell types influence it in bladder tissue and in the whole organ. Initially, she used molecular and cell biology techniques, but spent last year watching and analysing moving bladders and the conclusion was – they dance the samba!

Whether you are at the beginning of your PhD journey or finishing up, remember: never be JUST a PhD student. I’m speaking from experience. Throughout my PhD journey I hated that pitiful statement: “oh, you are just a PhD student”. Out of this frustration two things came out: I became MORE than a PhD student and I realized you should never let yourself be JUST a PhD student.

Let me explain.

The “just a PhD student” can come from two sources:

The general public still think you are a student

First are friends and family, who attribute the word STUDENT to a NON-REAL profession. I had to explain that I work usually more than 35h a week, sometimes during the weekends and I am a real member of the workforce. I convinced friends that my job is to research how and why X works and why it is important for real life application. To make sure you are taken seriously by the general public might be the easier task of the two.

Fellow scholars might overlook you at times

The second group who will call you JUST a PhD student (in my experience) are SOME fellow scholars. They might not realize it or (rarely) do they do it on purpose, but some will treat you as a lower level worker due to your lack of experience. Without PhD students, research would have gone nowhere. Sometimes being JUST a PhD student means that your problems are considered less important. I have asked my share of questions that showed I lack the deep understanding of the subject, but also a share which were dismissed just because I asked them. The philosophy doctorate doesn’t write itself on OLD stuff. You need new discovery and discussion to get it. And I suspect that at times, more experienced members of scholar family might JUST not remember that. NEVER get discouraged by that.

Drop the JUST – you are the expert now

It might sneak up on you that you become an expert as colleagues ask your opinion more and more, but for me it was a breakthrough. I visited a group in Canada (like Rebecca, I escaped MY lab). In Toronto, my task was to teach a technique my PhD was based on. I soon realized that for them I was never JUST a PhD student. I was the expert of the technique. On top of that, I was a new but experienced perspective, so they asked my opinion on everything from how I design an experiment to how I present the results. It was my experiment so I knew what I was talking about, just the confidence part was new. I designed the experiment, conducted it, taught other researchers, analysed the data etc. It was a breakthrough in my perception of my PhD life. I definitely became more than JUST a PhD student.

Just a PhD? – never!

On top of science and technical know-how, this experience made me realize you should never let yourself be JUST a PhD student. In the process of your PhD you will become the expert scholar on the topic, but you should challenge yourself to be a good researcher and do all things that come with it: communicate, write, network…explore all the unexpected benefits of the PhD life.

Get better at what you do

You can call it enhancement of your transferable skills, the continuous professional development or whatever you want, but identify where you can improve and act. Whatever your passion or inclination do other good in the world outside of your research topic: be a leader of a hockey team, play cello, organize a conference for your fellows, write a blog, start a journal club, start sewing, learn Spanish, pursue a project outside the lab and improve there.

What I did? Well, first I got totally down with being JUST a PhD student. And on top, I felt guilty for always not doing enough research (sounds familiar?). But then I realized that I had founded a society for those in my field, advocate for open access publishing, and mentor others. I took part in the 3MT Bristol Competition (great fun, do it!). All not quite strictly research, but all making me a bit more than just a PhD student.

Why it matters? Because after a PhD is said and done, in (like Richard) or outside of academic research, you want this experience to make you more than just a PhD student. Passion, excellence, self improvement and constant growth is what makes you more than just a student. It gives you the PhD.

Making Sense of Science

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.

As a PhD student I’m always worrying. I worry that I’m not doing enough work, that I should be getting in earlier, that I should be working “smarter”, that my experiments aren’t working, that I must be doing something wrong because they should be working by now…you get the point.

Sometime during my first year I thought to myself ‘there must be other researchers out there who are worrying about the same things that I do’. Like all good researchers who don’t know the answer to a question I turned to Google to see if I was right, if there were other students out there who were worrying as much as I was about everything PhD related. Much to my relief I came across a whole host of blogs dedicated to people that felt exactly the same as I did! PhD students who weren’t sure research was for them, students who loved researching but had an unshakeable feeling that they weren’t good enough, students who were questioning why they were doing a PhD.

It was an amazing feeling – I wasn’t alone! Other people were having the same problems as me, but even better, they had advice for how to deal with these problems. I found one blog dedicated to writing a thesis in three months, I found another on how to deal with a difficult supervisor (not that my supervisor is difficult I would like to point out!) and another on finding jobs outside research after your PhD has ended. I found more blogs then I could mention, written by struggling PhD students on their experiences in research and academia. These blogs all helped me to make more sense of my PhD. I could relate to what other people wrote and look up ways of coping with PhD stress and expectation. I started to realise that sometimes I enjoyed reading these blogs more than I enjoyed my PhD, but still I did nothing about these feelings – I just got on with my research while moaning to everyone around me who would listen.

After going through a particularly bad spell of results a few weeks ago and really questioning whether this was what I wanted to do with my life, a friend approached me and told me about a media course run by Sense about Science, a London based charity whose aim is to equip people to make sense of science and evidence. I have been on a few media courses before, including one very enjoyable course run by Imperial, but this was different.

We got to quiz a panel made up of both researchers and journalists on their experiences with science and the media, including (to name a few) an assistant news editor at Nature, an Infectious Disease Epidemiologist in the World Health Organisation and a freelance journalist who writes about the science behind the beauty industry. We were told not to be afraid of the media when it comes to our research – by doing a PhD we will automatically know more than most people about our fields and we shouldn’t be afraid of using the media to promote our research. A valid point. I, for one, would worry that my opinion was not ‘expert’ enough. The panel also advised having three points and sticking to them – even if that’s not what they have asked you – a good point for any form of communication, really. I left wondering if that would work in a viva!

The journalists shared how they put a story together, including what they would need from scientists. For example, they need someone who would be readily available to give a quote and that the quote would be easy to understand. Finally, the day was rounded off with a Research Media Officer giving us some tips on how to get involved in science communication. One of the common themes of the day was to get involved and make your voice heard. We were told unequivocally to join Twitter and another piece of advice I really took to heart was to start a blog. I had toyed with the idea before but the Voice of Young Science media workshop really gave me the push I needed to get started.

The internet is such a powerful tool, so use it! How can you get your voice heard? How can you motivate yourself when you research just isn’t working? What if academia just isn’t for you? There are loads of websites out there answering these questions, just start Googling.

On Mourning the PhD

Yiota

Yiota Demetriou is completing a PhD in the Department of Drama researching performative approaches of staging oral history archives and employing media such as sound art, live art, video, photography  and installation. Her work facilitates a cross-fertilization between the fields of  oral history, performance, philosophy, interaction design, sound art, sound engineering, memory studies, museum, curatorial and archival studies. 

I’m on Chapter Five – Conclusions and Findings, and I’m staring intently at the computer screen reluctant to type a word.  I realise that finishing this means it is over…What are my conclusions?! What are my findings?! Instead of finishing the chapter, I get distracted with writing this… I’m tearful over my PhD and I have yet to submit it!

I was warned about this from more experienced colleagues. Apparently, it is like overcoming a long and intense relationship before it’s actually over…it may also seem like giving birth and giving the child away…obviously it is not the same, but my project is my baby, my ideas are a part of me, they were nourished inside of me… Does any of this make any sense? Is this why I keep distracting myself, or keep going over and over it, because something, somewhere inside of me doesn’t want it to finish? In a way I’m delaying the process, my project is done and although it is ready to move on, I on the other hand may not be on the same page. I suppose the question to ask is: am I really not ready to move on?! Perhaps I’m scared, as I am used to being part of a rigorous educational framework that makes it difficult for me to step foot in the outside world, that isn’t academia.

Obviously, it’s not over yet – I still have a final push (or several), the viva, the corrections…I’m sure there will be a few. Some days I feel exhausted, other days, I find myself in shock, how could I have possibly come up with all these words – words that actually mean something. I’ve enjoyed my PhD journey, the best years of my life. I have met like-minded people, I’ve been to places, mingled with renowned academics and learnt things that I wouldn’t have imagined learning otherwise.

I do feel tired though. Self-funding a full-time PhD is not an easy process, as you have to constantly self-discipline, four or even five times more than a fully-funded PhD for time management.  This of course depends on the person, and it is heightened if you are like myself, fully involved in a range of projects simultaneously (outside the PhD); self-discipline and time management are crucial qualities. However, these are valuable skills definitely worth developing and attaining for any context.

I certainly won’t miss the state of confusion when entering the outside world that follows consecutive days of being locked-in studying and writing. Nevertheless, I’m not the only one, and it is good to meet with other people in the same boat, even if they are not from the same field and support each other, through the process. Most importantly, it is inspiring to see female academics and other fellow PhDers, who are further into the PhD journey, studying for their doctorate alongside being in full-time employment and with children.

Our supervisors, along with the whole department, and our PGR Theatre group, have been supportive all the way. And even though I need to catch a breath and I’m due to embark on an additional journey of stress and anxiety about what I am going to do next with my life, in general, the exhaustion was worth it! I worked hard, in a few jobs, to fund myself through it; I did this for myself so I have no complaints or regrets, I enjoyed every minute of it and I thank those who have helped me through it.

Hopefully this will not form part of my acknowledgments in the actual thesis, but I appreciate all the help that has been given to me: From my friend that gave me a place to stay when I arrived to Bristol as a stranger, on the 5th Dec 2011; to the middle-aged guy who gave me a temporary job at the kebab shop until I got on my feet; my supervisor that took care of my sanity and kept pushing me to expand my ideas as well as keeping me from distracting myself, (which I am doing now, I’m sorry Paul); to the head of our department who has been supporting us all the way; to the amazing PGRT community and friends (most of whom have moved on now) that welcomed and gave me an insight into how things work; and to friends and family who have dealt with my frequent work-related mood swings and tantrums. Bear with me a little longer, I have a final submission date, I’m nearly there!

So you’re going to a conference…

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.

Throughout the course of a PhD, it’s highly likely you’ll have the chance to present your research at a conference. The lead-up to a conference can be a little stressful as you (probably) rush to get your poster or presentation finished. This is especially true if the abstract deadline was 6 months before the actual conference and you ambitiously included work that wasn’t quite finished (or even started) yet (I may or may not be speaking from experience here…).

As I’m now reaching the end of my PhD journey I thought I would share some hints and tips that may be useful for new (or experienced) PhD students facing up to an imminent conference.

So, in no particular order, and with the proviso that I am certainly no conference-specialist:

1. Plan!

This is a bit boring, but it definitely helps. Before you go, search through the sessions and work out what talks and posters you want to visit. Start by targeting specific sessions and then go into the details. Getting this stuff done early will help you to identify times when you’re going to be most busy with science, and the other times where you can be open to other opportunities.

2. Who else is going?

A second part of the planning stage should be to work out who else is going to the conference. Maybe the person you’ve been citing repeatedly in a literature review is going to be there, or perhaps you’ve been using a method developed by someone who is also going to be there. Figure this stuff out and make an effort to speak to them. Then, on a more social side, if any of your friends from undergraduate studies (or otherwise) are also going, it’s the perfect chance to catch up over dinner while your supervisor (hopefully) foots the bill.

3. Network!

This point also links to the one above, and is extremely important. Meeting new people and expanding your network is key. Speak to students and professors alike, within and around your specialised field. The advantages are numerous: new working collaborations, contacts for future jobs, contacts to provide references, people to review your publications, people to chat about your results with… The list could go on… University Careers Services often offer workshops to improve your networking skills.

4. Name tag visibility is key!

Simple, really. Make sure your name tag is visible at all times so people know who you are and where you’re from. This may mean shortening a neck tie if you’re somewhat vertically challenged and don’t want the name tag hanging around your belly-button…

Name tag
Sort out your name tag, and please don’t be that guy(#3)! Image credit: Pete Etchells.

5. Non-specialist sessions.

Many conferences offer a myriad of extra sessions. Search these out and see if anything takes your fancy. For example, there are often talks and workshops related to things like science communication, science policy, careers in academia, careers outside of academia, getting a postdoc, and such like. These can all be very useful.

6. Get away for a bit.

Leave yourself some time to take a step-back and get away from the intensity of the conference. Your plan from number one will help with this. If you have a spare afternoon or two, explore the city you’re in, go shopping, visit a tourist hot-spot, go for a run, or whatever is going to give you a chance to chill out and recharge your batteries.

7. Student events.

Any student-organised or student-only events are a great way to make new friends who know exactly the same struggles you’re likely to be going through, or about to go through. Free food and beer is also a usual double bonus!

8. Make second base…

I’m talking about following up on your new networking activities here. In the evening if you have time, or after the conference if you’re rushed, drop an email to the interesting people you’ve met and chatted with. This gives them your contact details if they didn’t already have them and will help no end if later down the line you want to contact them about something more important.

9. What to wear?

A complicated one for so many reasons… My PhD is geology related so it’s no surprise to see people walking around in hiking boots and trekking trousers! Personally, I stay as far away from this fashion debacle as possible. But what to wear depends a lot on the nature and topic of the conference. I usually err on the side of caution and lean towards the smarter side of things(*), as I don’t know who I’m going to meet on the day – this figurative person may just happen to have the perfect job opportunity I’m looking for… Alternatively, you could ask someone who’s been to the conference before, or search for photos, to see what the general dress code is.

(*)P.S. For me this means a shirt, smart jeans or chinos and a nice pair of shoes.

10. It’s impossible do everything.

Don’t get high hopes of being able to do everything – it won’t work out. Curb your expectations and prevent disappointment. Equally, however, be prepared and adaptable to do stuff you didn’t plan on.

11. Free Stuff!

Everything’s better when it’s free. If you’re down a pen, or need a USB memory stick, you’re likely to be able to pick one up from conference sponsors or exhibitors.

12. Post-conference travel!

My personal favourite! If you’re lucky enough to go to conferences in new countries, then take full advantage of it. Your flights are likely to be paid for, so if you can, give yourself at least a few extra days after the conference has finished to travel around your new surroundings and take in as much of the local culture as possible. These opportunities won’t be as readily available in the future, especially if you leave academia!

13. Branch out…

Time may not allow this, but if it does, then try and take in some sessions that may not be related to your own studies. You may find some overlap you didn’t know about, or learn about new techniques that could be applicable to your own work with a slight modification.

14. Business cards?

Some do, some don’t. They’re not hugely common in science but they have their advantages (e.g., networking). Maybe this one will just come down to personal preference.

15. Save your slides as a PDF!

Computer compatibility can still be an issue, even in this day and age. Regardless of what program you use to make your presentation slides, if pays to save them as a PDF so when you open them on the other side of the world, on some one else’s computer, everything still looks the same.

16. Back-ups!

Have back-ups of your talk in case you lose a memory stick (or similar). It’s also useful to carry copies of your recent work and results in case you want to show them to someone you get chatting to.

Backups
Be prepared, and try not to worry. Image credit: Jorge Cham, PhD comics.

17. Bring spare posters.

If you’re presenting a poster then it can be handy to print out a bunch of spare posters in A4 and pin them beside your actual poster. This way people can take away a copy of your work if they’re interested.

18. Eat and drink!

Carry some water and snacks with you. You never know how long you might go without food if you get chatting to someone about your work or otherwise. Keeping hydrated and fed will ensure you have the energy to last the day.

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.

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.