The Bristol Bone Biologists — aka Bristol PhD students Elizabeth Lawrence and Jessye Aggleton — share an update on the project they’re running with the European Space Agency (ESA) as part of the Spin Your Thesis! programme.
Fish are probably the last thing you think of when you hear about space, gravity and astronauts.
Later this year, though, our team will be putting zebrafish in hypergravity.
Why? We want to explore the effect of different gravity levels on tissue development in ‘normal’ zebrafish and zebrafish with a genetic mutation that’s linked to Stickler syndrome and early onset osteoarthritis in humans. The data we collect will provide an insight into how physiology changes in different levels of gravity and improve our understanding of the changes astronauts undergo during spaceflight.
Our last written update was in February after we visited Belgium to attend the ‘Gravity-Related Experiments Training Week’ run by the ESA Education team. The training week was an interesting and intense introduction to planning and running a high-profile experiment. We quickly realised that our experiment date of mid-September didn’t seem so far away when we had so much to prepare!
Since then, we’ve been busy running initial research to make sure both our data collection and data processing will run as smoothly as possible. We recently submitted a paper that talks about our initial findings on how a specific genetic mutation affects joint shape and function in zebrafish in normal gravity (1g). Along the way, we worked out how we are going to collect results and process data after the experiment at the Large Diameter Centrifuge in Noordwijk.
As well as being busy in the lab, we have also been completing a variety of paperwork including: work breakdown packages, timelines, system engineering analysis and budgeting (less glamourous but very important!).
Outreach and public engagement are also a critical part of the project. Alongside creating a fun logo, designing a mascot (Finn the fish), and drafting team stickers and t-shirts (Jessye has thoroughly enjoyed using her penchant for graphic design!), we’re currently setting up a collaboration with We The Curious.
As part of this pilot, we will be asking the public to choose one of the experiments we do using the zebrafish as well as telling them more about our project and how amazing fish are! This will run from 20 to 26 August 2018.
To widen the net our project will cast, we’re also applying for sponsorship for experiment materials, showcasing our work in competitions, and we will be filming the experiment in the hope of making a short film that we can show at science festivals and online.
So far, the project has been amazing at developing skills for our PhDs, with our project planning abilities improving massively as a result.! It’s also made us much more engaged with the impact of communication and outreach, which is essential for any postgraduate researcher.
Finally, we’ve been making sure our social media is looking sharp! Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and visit our website to keep updated and find out more about our project.
In the meantime, in the inimitable words of Kylie Minogue, ‘I’m spinning around… Move out of my way…!’
Kate Oliver, a PhD student from the School of Physics, shares a first-hand account of her visit to the UK Parliament for the STEM for Britain exhibition.
On the 12th of March I went to Parliament, for the second time in my life, this time accompanied by a rolled up piece of A1 paper. I was going to ‘the major event bringing early career researchers and parliamentarians together’, STEM for Britain*.
This poster session, now in its 21st year following its founding by Eric Wharton MP, invites around 50 exhibitors in each of Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Engineering and Biological sciences to explain their work to the employees of Parliament and a panel of expert judges. Five of us from Bristol had been selected to present — around a third of applications are successful — all in different categories, and we had been preparing our two-minute pitches for a few weeks, with the help of our supervisors, university support staff, and patient friends.
A particular challenge of this event is that it is judged by scientists — who selected the posters that made it to the event, and decided who would receive each of the three gongs available per subject — but targeted at MPs and policymakers. Therefore, we needed to show our technical chops, but put the applications and relevance or our work front and centre for people who have slightly wider horizons.
All the posters and presenters took a very different route to achieving this goal, and there was an amazing diversity of work and approaches on show. Sadly my poster didn’t pique the attention of the judges much, but I did manage to buttonhole Professor Dame Julia Higgins, President of the Institute of Physics, and chat to the MP for Glasgow North East, Paul Sweeney. We agreed that science had a great potential to improve human well-being, so now we just need to do that!
However, the University did well overall: Dr Celine Maistret, senior research associate in the School of Maths at Bristol, won the gold De Montfort medal for her work on the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture. I shall have to get her to explain what that is to me at a time when she is not surrounded by enthusiastic fans.
I only got a small glimpse of the corridors of power due to the rather tight security, but it was still good to feel involved in a small section of the machine that runs the country. Government can feel very opaque and jargon-rich — perhaps almost as much as our specialist subjects — but we need to interact with it for our findings to have maximum impact. I reckon any opportunity to share what we know and cross barriers is worth taking. Plus, I’ve now got an extremely well-honed pitch that I can fire off at anyone.
*Formerly known as SET for Britain — science, engineering and technology — but maths have successfully lobbied for inclusion. Fair enough, you can hardly define a set without them.
The Bristol heat of the international competition for communicating science asks working scientists and technologists to explain something about science in just 3 minutes. Kate spoke about the science of hairstyling and shape memory polymers, and is one of 4 to progress to the Regional final, which brings together talent from across Wales, the Midlands and the Southwest.
Famelab [http://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/about/famelab/] is a communications competition where entrants have no slides and only the props they can carry on with them. Participants begin with local heats, then work their way up through region and national to the international final at Cheltenham Science Festival. Taking part in Famelab has kickstarted the careers of many presenters and performers, from musicians to more traditional explosion-based science demonstrations.
Kate Oliver is in the third year of their time at the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials, and is working on 3D printing shape-changing materials. They also co-organise and regularly perform at local chaotic science cabaret, Science Showoff Bristol, [https://scienceshowoff.wordpress.com/] and are taking part in the Science Showoff Talent Factory [ https://showofftalentfactory.wordpress.com/ ]. Kate said:
“Today I spoke about the molecular action that enables hair to hold shapes – it’s called shape memory, and could be very useful in future technologies. Talking about science allows me to indulge my attention-seeking, outward going side – though I like being with my machines in lab too.”
Of 8 entrants into the local heat, 4 went through: in addition to Kate, Alex Lathbridge, Lon Barfield, and Alex McCleod will be joining another 10 at the Regional final, to be held in March. It’s free, and all are welcome to come down, watch, and offer their thoughts.
This post was originally published on the BCFN website, and can be viewed here.
James 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…
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.
Rebecca 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.
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.
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.
One year on, we asked Dominika 3 questions about her 3MT experience.
1. What has winning the 3MT meant for you?
3 minutes of fame 🙂 – I didn’t expect the recognition.
People recognised me from Bristol Uni website and watching my 3MT video, and suddenly I heard congrats in the school corridor. Profs who I was sure hadn’t noticed me for years, suddenly knew my name. I was invited to give a talk at the Clinical Sciences School Meeting and then at Science Quarter NHS North Bristol Clinical Trials Day.
So a year later, my 3MT talk has over 3000 views on YouTube, I have given 10 more talks and get more and more involved with research dissemination and science communication. The 3MT catapulted forward my dissemination of research to a general audience.
2. How did taking part in the 3MT support or impact on your research?
It is now the coolest video explaining over-active bladder out there!
Thanks to the 3MT I have made, refined and improved my research pitch, which proved very useful in all sorts of occasions from parties to job interviews. Last year, I teamed up with an International Continence Society to promote Bladder Diary, a worldwide initiative to discover what is “normal” in a daily peeing routine. It is surprising that we still don’t know that and in order to explain this I borrowed my 3MT talk and added a Bladder Diary story at the end.
3. What would you say to anyone thinking about entering next year?
You don’t have to win, just from taking part you gain a lot! So don’t think you don’t have enough data (even better, you see the bigger picture!) or you don’t have time cause you are writing up (best to regain the bigger picture) – just do it. Because you will gain your amazing research pitch explaining what you do so everyone can understand and relate to it. Not only WHAT you research but also WHY it matters is the key to research dissemination. Being able to clearly, concisely and enthusiastically communicate helps every early career researcher.
Dominika 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.
Sarah Jose is third-year postgraduate researcher in plant science. Her research focuses on how plants limit water loss by producing a waterproof coating and pores that can close to prevent water from leaving the leaf. She spends a lot of time looking down the microscope at nail varnish impressions of leaves!
Think Twitter is for keeping up to date with the latest from Taylor Swift and One Direction? Think again! Twitter can be a quality tool for networking, keeping up to date with the latest news in your academic field and more! Read on to see how you can use Twitter to your advantage.
I’m going to assume a basic understanding of Twitter here, so if you need an introduction to the topic then check out Twitter’s guide for beginners.
To make the most of Twitter as a PhD student, you’ll need to set up a reasonably professional account. The odd tweet about your cat is fine, but if the majority of your tweets are about your life as a #belieber or how many pints you can drink before you fall into the Floating Harbour then consider creating a new account. Check out this guide for more information.
Why should PhD students use Twitter?
By selecting who you follow, you create a personalised news feed that you can access whenever you like. Don’t feel intimidated if your feed contains more information than you can ever get round to reading. The most important news will be retweeted or reposted several times, and by checking out the main hashtags for your field (e.g. #plantsci for plant biology!) you can keep up to date with the latest trends in just a few minutes a day.
How do you find the most interesting people to follow? Try adding researchers you met at conferences or those whose work overlaps with your own. For publication news, follow some of the important journals in your field, or some of the major organisations, for example if you’re a scientist you might follow the Royal Society (@royalsociety). If you’re just starting out, look at who your colleagues or collaborators are following and choose some of those accounts. I use Twitter as my main source of science news, and it takes far less time than trawling through news sites, blogs and the journal news sites. You will likely also come across funding opportunities that you could apply for to travel to conferences or organise an event.
One of the great things about Twitter is the sense of community. When you start to get involved in online discussions, you’ll realise that even the biggest names in your field are just real people – almost everyone is happy to talk to PhD students and share advice. Just make sure you’re using your community’s hashtag so that others are more likely to see your tweets!
Getting involved in the community can also be great for your career. You’re getting your name out there, and can promote your own research and any publications you might have. There’s some debate about whether or not Twitter mentions can influence the number of citations your paper will receive, but any potential extra exposure can’t be a bad thing. Catching the eye of a potential new employer can’t hurt either!
Top tips for Twitter
You’ve got 140 characters to play with in a tweet. Images take up 23 characters, but are worth including where available as they increase your tweet’s visibility and almost double the likelihood of it being retweeted.
Make sure you keep your content balanced; tweeting about your own work is great, but promoting others is just as valuable and will get you noticed. Be aware, though, that an account full of retweets and no original content will not attract many followers as it looks like you have no interesting ideas of your own.
Don’t just follow thousands of people in the hope of getting reciprocal followers. Those who do this will not be interested in your content, plus your news feed will be overflowing with more information than you could ever hope to read.
What to tweet about?
Need some ideas for tweets? How about:
Your work. Got any interesting research methods or findings, publications etc.? You could even link to a poster you made or a presentation you’ve given and uploaded to SlideShare, assuming you have your supervisor’s consent!
You could tweet a day in your life using the hashtag #brisphdlife.
Publicise an event or article that’s caught your attention, with a comment about why it appeals to you personally. Make sure you use hashtags and @ mentions so that more people will see it!
Ask a question. If it’s about PhD life, try #phdchat. If you have a question about a particular paper, find out if the author is on Twitter and then ask them directly. It’ll make you stand out and they’ll appreciate the chance to talk about their work.
A note about live tweeting conferences: There has been a lot of debate online about whether or not people should live tweet at conferences. My advice is that tweeting the title of the talk, general comments about the field and previously published results are fine, but DO NOT tweet results that are unpublished. Read this great post for more information.
Don’t overdo the live tweeting anyway. Followers who aren’t interested in the conference will probably unfollow you rather than scrolling through 50 posts about the minutiae of the event.
Want to know more?
Check out the following articles for more information:
Madeline 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 towriting a thesis in three months, I found another on how todeal with a difficult supervisor (not that my supervisor is difficult I would like to point out!) and another onfinding jobs outside researchafter 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 amedia courserun bySense 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 wasdifferent.
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) anassistant news editorat Nature, an Infectious Disease Epidemiologistin the World Health Organisation and afreelance journalistwho 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.
James 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:
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.