Ailsa’s ‘ExPhDition’ — why a PGR illustrated her route to a research degree

Ailsa Naismith is a volcanologist in the School of Earth Sciences who’s approaching the end of her research degree. In July 2020, Ailsa created an illustrated map of her PhD journey that received over 400 likes on Twitter. Below, she shares some of the map’s ‘points of interest’ — and explains how drawing the ‘ExPhDition’ helped her to reflect on her experiences as a postgraduate researcher.


Hello! I’m Ailsa Naismith. Since 2016, I’ve been researching volcanic risk mitigation — specifically, eruptive activity and human experience at Fuego volcano in Guatemala.

In practice, this means that I’ve been using a wide range of methods (including scientific reports, seismic data and interviews) to help forge a holistic impression of volcanic risk. The ultimate goal of my research (and recently completed thesis!) is to present the myriad perspectives of risk that coexist around a single volcano.

The 'ExPhDition' — an illustrated 'map' of Ailsa Naismith's journey through her research degree. Image by Ailsa Naismith

Illustrate to the point

I started making zines in January. I’ve always been interested in uniting art and science, so creating small pieces of illustrated text that communicate a concept feels instinctive to me.

I spent June toiling over my thesis: no zine-making that month! But then my good friend Bob suggested I illustrate my PhD journey. It was a fantastic idea, and once I agreed, the image coalesced almost instantly in my head.

Central America is both the location of my research fieldwork and an apt metaphor for the narrowing of focus during the course of a PhD. However, my course has often felt much less than focussed! I’ve met many diversions and setbacks along the way, hence the winding path I follow in the ExPhDition above.

Illustrating the journey has provided a great opportunity to reflect on these diversions, and those who helped me through.

Notes from an ExPhDition

1. FFT swamp / valley of shit

In my first year, I seized on a research idea which seemed both novel and certain to give good results. I invested a lot of time on it, gained a lot of input from other people, and realised around five months in that it wasn’t going to produce fruit. This culminated in a comment in my second-year assessment that I was a whole year behind on my research (yikes!).

The difficulty here is that you have to follow the diversion in order to retrace your steps. Even though such diversions seem like a waste of time, ultimately they helped me because they motivated me to seek help from more experienced academics. I also learned the value of having a mentor in-house who has experienced such diversions before. I was fortunate that I already had a mentor in the form of my supervisor Matt (major thanks!).

In the situation where your supervisor can’t offer this role, I suggest seeking the support of a sympathetic older student, postdoc or academic in your field. If not available in-house, perhaps look outside your department, or even beyond Bristol.

2. 3rd June 2018

Not many people can say “my volcano erupted in the middle of my PhD”. Fuego erupted on 3rd June 2018 with devastating consequences. I found it hard to process. Whatever your discipline, it’s likely that you will invest a lot of emotional capital in your PhD. Some people would say this a bad idea, but I disagree: you should own it.

For me, work is easier when you care, although caring can hurt when things don’t turn out as planned (see 1). In my case, I found that investing emotional capital was easier when I collaborated with other people that cared. Then, when I felt demotivated in my work, I could rely on discussion with those colleagues to reinvigorate my desire to contribute something towards our shared passion. And that contribution would be achieved through my PhD.

3. Chile

Geologists are suckers for an international conference, and I am no exception. I’d planned to attend a conference in Chile in November 2019 when demonstrations nationwide cancelled it. I read the cancellation email while in transit through the Bogotá customs queue.

Another piece of generic PhD advice is “Welcome the unexpected”. It’s true! If you can, when an unexpected twist places you in a new environment, search for opportunities for collaboration in your new environment. Perhaps this will show you a new career direction. For me, it kindled an interest in disaster risk reduction policy.

Drawing to a close

Reading this over, I can see this is ridiculous — how could this advice be useful for anyone except “past me”?! The PhD process is so individual.

Really, the advice I have given (follow diversions, own your emotional investment, welcome the unexpected) is quite generic. It has to be, because the specific experience that a PhD student learns cannot be generalised to others’ journeys.

But you may find that during the course of your own ExPhDition you agree with my advice, because any PhD is really an experience in gathering anecdotal evidence to support the clichés.

If you are also near the end of your journey, I encourage you to make a map of your own. It was a wonderful way of finding resolution to this huge chapter of my life.


Find out more about Ailsa’s research on the University’s Research Portal — and follow her on Twitter at @AilsaNaismith.

Three rights and three responsibilities that all Bristol PGRs should know about

Cartoon Chris Brasnett standing on a pile of Regulations and Code of Practice for Research Degree Programmes.

The University’s ‘Regulations and Code of Practice for Research Degree Programmes’ is an important document — but, for busy postgraduate researchers (PGRs), finding the time to read it in detail can be a challenge.

Below, Chris Brasnett, Postgraduate Education Officer in the Bristol SU, highlights some of the items that he thinks all PGRs should know about.

Soon after starting my role as Postgraduate Education Officer, a mysterious brown parcel landed on my desk. Much to my disappointment, it didn’t magically contain a finished version of my otherwise completely unwritten thesis, but instead, a copy of the University’s Regulations and Code of Practice for Research Degree Programmes.

For the uninitiated, it’s pretty much what it says it is: a 124-page booklet about how research degrees at Bristol are governed and assessed, complete in 10 sections and 16 annexes. I immediately ignored and shelved it away.

I remembered it a while later after many difficult conversations with PGRs about their time studying, and the challenges that they’ve faced. The Student Union (SU)’s (free, independent, and confidential) academic advice service, Just Ask, is always on hand to support students through these times, but I am often contacted by students asking for advice or specific guidance beforehand.
Reading and memorising all those details is challenging at the best of times, let alone when it’s difficult.

So, what are the rights and responsibilities that the regulations guarantee you that I think are most important, now that I’ve had some time to digest them?

Know your rights as a PGR student:

1. To meet your supervisor regularly

You should be able to meet your supervisor at least once a month, and they should be providing feedback on written work and other queries within an agreed timescale. At the start of your studies, these meetings may be more frequent, and they should be looking to help you settle in to your research as much as carrying it out.

2. To have access to a supportive, developmental learning infrastructure and appropriate research environment

Make the most of the Bristol Doctoral College (BDC)! Every year they put on a great and varied programme of activity that is designed with your development in mind. Going to these courses can be a great way of getting to know students from other disciplines and how research works in other disciplines. There’s always something new to learn whatever the area, and they’re a great way of mixing up your day to come back fresh to what you’d otherwise have been doing.

3. To take your holiday!

You 👏 Are 👏 Entitled 👏 To 👏 Twenty-five 👏 Days 👏 Of 👏 Holiday 👏 A 👏 Year 👏 And 👏 You 👏 Should 👏 Take 👏 Them

Understand your responsibilities as a PGR student:

1. To take responsibility for the progress of your research, and personal and professional development

This can sound quite intimidating on the face of it. At the start of your research degree, you’re probably raring to go and feel confident in taking the lead on your research. A few months in and subsumed by the literature, and you may start to feel differently. Use your supervision meetings to address these issues head on, talk to other students and postdocs for help.

2. To manage your workload

Work will come and go throughout the year… but on average you can expect to work at least 35 hours a week. Learning to manage a workload can be really challenging, particularly when you’re really enthusiastic about your subject. I’m sure you don’t need reminding, but it’s still important to find that work-life balance. Make time to take part in sport or other activities, do some volunteering (the SU is here to help with both of these!), or just take some time out to relax and rest.

And finally …

3. To give the University your feedback

It’s not just undergrads who have student representation! As the Postgraduate Education Officer, I spend all my time working in partnership with the University to improve the experience and opportunities for postgraduates — but I couldn’t do it without the many conversations that I have with student representatives from across the University on a regular basis. The SU runs a system of representation for PGRs as well, and they can influence your experience within your school, faculty, or at a whole University level. Getting involved can be a great way to make changes to your own environment as a PGR, whether at school, faculty, or University level. Contact your current rep with your thoughts, feedback and ideas — and look out for the SU elections soon to get involved yourself!

These are just some of the highlights that I think it’s really worth knowing not just at the start, but throughout your research degree. Understanding what’s expected of you — and more importantly, what support you can expect along the way — are the keys to having a great time as a PGR.

Five things we learned from the PGR panel at November’s Open Day

The panel at the PG Open Day's 'Perspectives from current postgraduate researchers' session: Angela Suriyakumaran, Blanche Plaquevent, Trang Tran and Arsham Nejad Kourki.
The panel at the PG Open Day’s ‘Perspectives from current postgraduate researchers’ session: Angela Suriyakumaran, Blanche Plaquevent, Trang Tran and Arsham Nejad Kourki.

As part of the University’s Postgraduate Open Day on 20 November 2019, the Bristol Doctoral College brought together a panel of PGRs — from a variety of faculties and at different stages in their research degrees — and asked them to share perspectives with an audience of prospective postgraduate students.

The session may have been brief, but it provided plenty of insights into the PGR experience. So much so that we’ve decided to round up tips and advice that might be useful to a wider audience — such as our new and existing PGRs.

However, before we begin our list, we should introduce our panellists properly. The four PGRs who took part in the event were:

  • Arsham Nejad Kourki, PGR in the School of Biological Sciences
  • Blanche Plaquevent, PGR in the School of Humanities
  • Angela Suriyakumaran, PGR in the School of Civil, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering
  • Trang Tran, PGR in the School of Education

The session was chaired by Professor Robert Bickers, Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor (PGR).

And, without further ado, here are their words of wisdom. (Quotes are verbatim wherever possible, but have sometimes been shortened or edited for clarity.)

1. Support, encouragement and fresh perspectives are vital

Angela
“In terms of support, my supervisor has played a key part in that role. Because I have a background in Chemistry and now I’m moving over to Mechanical Engineering, he’s helped me a lot to fill in the holes — fill in my knowledge base, basically.

So he’s been very supportive in terms of giving me the tools to work with my PhD, as well as encouraging me to go and try other stuff, such as going and doing outreach, placement opportunities — so actually helping me gain other skill sets.

“You need that support for four years, to be able to have someone there and some people there to count on — and to be able to say ‘you’re on the right track’ or ‘you’re not on the right track’, ‘maybe you’ve thought about this?’ and ‘maybe try other things’ as well.”

Arsham
“Things you might be facing at the moment, a lot of postgraduates experience. It happens to everyone.

“Other postgraduates, especially ones in the years above you, as well as staff members, are a very good source of support.”

2. Working together can help create a sense of community

Blanche
“I’ve found a very strong feeling of community among my peers. I think I wasn’t really expecting that, as I was doing a PhD in History. So I thought: ‘it’s probably even more solitary than any other kind of PhD, because you don’t work in a lab, you don’t need to necessarily all be in the same place of work.’

But actually, there’s been space provided for Arts and Humanities [PGRs]. It’s been a bit changing, but when there is this kind of space, connections get created very quickly and it really makes you feel supported. And I think it has enabled me to treat my PhD as an actual job — where I go every day, and go into a building and work. And that’s not really what I was expecting.”

3. Listening and presenting can help you see the big picture

Trang
“Get on to any reading group or any presentations that enable you to listen to other people’s work or present your own. Because one thing that happens in a PhD is that you lose your confidence a lot. Because you want it to be perfect, and when you’re with it in your head everything will go wrong compared to what you had in mind.

“So you really want to present where you are at the moment so that everyone else in your community will be able to say ‘oh, this is great — but this is how it could get better’.

“You also want to get on to those groups so that you can hear, right at the beginning, what other people’s work is about — so you can then say ‘OK, there’s a bigger picture. I have re-calibrated what my work should look like’.

4. Teaching can enhance your skills

Angela
“Teaching comes in very different forms. For example, I’m teaching in labs rather than going and helping with the workshops and stuff like that. And you gain a lot of skill sets from doing the teaching. You’re mentoring students, you’re helping them solve problems, etc.

“[They’re] quite good skill sets to build on — and for your future career path as well.”

5. Your research project will evolve — and that’s fine

Arsham
“Don’t worry too much about the specifics of your project — even by the end of your first year.

“As long as you have an idea what it’s roughly going to be about, and as long as your supervisor is on board with that, you can generally make it happen.

Because a lot of it will change. Projects evolve.”

From stitching to stretching — your PGR self-care tips

A ball of wool on a sheet

We marked this year’s Self Care Week (12–18 November) by asking Bristol’s postgraduate researchers: how do you look after yourself?

The tips we received were varied — from baths to boundaries — but there was a strong emphasis on taking a definite step away from your research degree to do something different. And, when you’re in need of some peace, knitting seems to be a go-to pastime.

So, without further ado, here’s what helps you unwind, de-stress and forget about your research.

Nicola

‘My #selfcareweek tip for PGRs is to do positive affirmations. ‘I am doing well’, ‘I am worthy of this opportunity’, ‘I am making a valuable contribution’, etc. It’s amazing how they can people to rewire their anxious minds. Check out Louise Hay’s work on this if you want to know more.’

Niels

‘I like to make myself aware of the different ways creativity works.

‘Sometimes when you’re stuck at solving a problem or writing, just do something completely different. Your brain will continue to subconsciously work on the problem (and much more effectively than your conscious mind can), while you can do exercise, nap or eat. Consciously taking time out doesn’t mean you’re being lazy. In fact you’re being more productive, but also taking care of your own wellbeing.’

Suzanne

‘Knitting and Lego.’

Mary

‘Forcing myself to only work the 1 hour I am paid for preparing a seminar, or the 20 minutes I am paid for marking a paper, even if doing a good job means working triple that and working extra for free.

‘Also knitting.’

Pam

‘If your life is busy and full of thoughts and people, find a way to be quiet and alone once a day. I’m no good at doing nothing so meditation doesn’t suit me. Instead I like a hot bath (doesn’t need to be long), a little yoga or a walk in the fresh air.’

Jane

‘I go to yoga class.’

Demi

‘As research can be hectic at times, I try to involve myself in exercise classes throughout the week, taking a break away from my desk whilst meeting new people!’

 

What would you add? Tell us in the comments or share your tips on Twitter or Instagram using #selfcareweek.

8 things we learned from our PGR panel

As part of the University of Bristol’s fantastic Postgraduate Open Day on 22 November 2017, the Bristol Doctoral College brought together a panel of four PGRs — from a mixture of faculties and at different stages in the research degree experience — and asked them to share their insights and experiences with an audience of prospective postgraduate students.

Over the course of a stimulating half hour, chaired by BDC Director Terry McMaster, the panel reflected on how the PGR experience had changed them and offered some advice to others embarking on the research journey. The following is an edited transcript that stitches together some of the main points raised during the session.

But first, some introductions. The panellists were:

  • Sam Brooks, PhD candidate (Engineering)
  • Isabella Mandl, PhD candidate (Biological Sciences)
  • Jane Nebe, PhD candidate (Education)
  • Milo Rengel, MPhil candidate (Classics).

And, without further ado, here are their words of wisdom.

1. Even when you feel stressed out, you’re still picking up new skills

Isabella: “For me, researcher development basically means that you learn a set of new skills that you just didn’t have before starting your PhD. And you might not even notice that you’re learning them, because you’re stressed out or you feel inadequate — those are two totally normal things. But you are definitely going to learn a set of new skills that you didn’t have before. They could be research-based, you could get networking skills that you didn’t have before, you just get writing skills or talking skills.

“So if you end up with a research degree, you’ll end up with a unique set of skills that you’ll figure out that you got during that time. You might not notice it in the process of doing it — but, afterwards, you’ll be ‘oh, OK’.

“And I think that’s what ‘researcher development’ means for me: it’s basically gaining skills, gaining knowledge.”

2. Collaboration creates confidence

Jane: “One thing this PhD has taught me is the importance of collaboration, the importance of networking, the importance of engaging with people — because you cannot do it alone, you need people as much as they need you.

“It’s like acquiring skills to make you a better you; a better person than you were.

“So, I look at my journey over the last three years, and I see that I’m a different person, but in a good way. Not perfect, but in a good way. And there are things that I think that I could do today that I would not have been able to do three years ago.”

3. It’s good to re-learn old skills and break bad habits

Milo: “The other thing that I’ve found useful, even in just my short time here, is that you develop skills that you kind of already had but were maybe just a bit unsure about. So, particularly in terms of research, or in finding knowledge, using that knowledge, applying theories, all that sort of thing.

“I think the other thing is it helped me develop, because I became a little bit cocky and thought ‘yeah, I’m a great researcher, I’ll be fine’. It does take you down a peg — but definitely in a good way, because you unlearn the things that you kind of shouldn’t have learned before, or bad habits, and you re-learn them in a much more constructive way.”

4. Take opportunities to push yourself

Sam: “Like Jane said, the more you get involved, the more you push yourself to challenge yourself, the more you get out of it.

“It’d be easy to sit in your lab or your office and do research and not meet anyone — and go through your whole PhD doing that. And some people would do that, they’d be quite happy to do that.

“But I think you should to take the opportunities to push yourself, because they’re the ones that will help you develop and grow as a person or as a researcher — or just help you with life, basically.”

5. At the start, you won’t know everything you’re going to do

Jane: “Your proposal is supposed to give your supervisor a general idea of what you want to do. You could not know everything that you would do at that point, but it’s important that you have general idea of what you want to do.

“And along this journey, that proposal may change. For some that change may be quite big, for some it will be quite small — and then you have different degrees.

“What I’m trying to say is: just have general idea of what you want to do and understand what has been done around it before, and you’ll present a strong argument when you submit your proposal.”

6. Academics are there to help you

Milo: “I did apply with a particular research topic — and then, about two weeks before I’m supposed to start my course, completely changed it to something absolutely, completely different.

“It was an area that I’d never really looked at before, and I went to my proposed supervisor with this new topic that I was completely unfamiliar with, but he still looked at it and said ‘there’s a lot of promise here, we’ll develop the bits we need to, we’ll cut out what doesn’t need to be in here, but there’s a lot of promise’.

“And I think academics look very scary from the student perspective, but the more you kind of associate with them you realise that they’re there to help you and they want to help you, and so they will look at the ideas and they’ll try and guide you the way you want to go. So you have some autonomy as well, you can say ‘no, I want to do this thing’.”

7. Being challenged isn’t bad — and will help you grow

Sam: “When I was an undergraduate, I was quite successful. I got a first, I was doing quite well. I went to do a PhD and thought ‘oh, this is going to be easy, I’ll walk through this’. And there’s a lot of people who are the same level as you — or smarter. And you’re interacting with them a lot. And you do find times when your ideas will be challenged. A lot of the time you’ll be surprised how often you aren’t challenged. But if you are challenged, you will find that it’s not as bad as you think.

“I think some of the situations where I’ve grown the most are where — with my research, or papers I’ve published, or conferences — I’ve been questioned thoroughly about what I’ve done and had to justify it. And sometimes I can’t justify it 100%. But if you can justify it 80–90%, that’s still good. Especially in academia, you’re never going to be able to satisfy everyone.

“You have to satisfy yourself, I think, and that’s the important thing.”

8. Be open to new input — because research develops quickly

Isabella: “I think one of the main obstacles [for PGRs] is if you learn something differently and then you kind of hold on to that too much. And research develops quickly, so you might hold on to something that’s old, that’s outdated — but, because you’ve learned that and you feel like you’re in control of that, you hold on to it.

“So I think that’s one of the main obstacles, if you’re not open enough to input. Because you’re there to learn. You’re not there to know everything. You’re not there to end up with a PhD but say ‘oh, I could’ve got the PhD at week three because I know everything I know now’.

“You’re there to learn. You’re there to be taught, and to be guided. And I think that’s probably one of the great things, that you have to be open for it as well. Otherwise, you’ll probably run into some quite severe difficulties pretty soon.”

Tried and Tested: PhD is the New Boss

On the 21st of September 2016, I marked one year at the University of Bristol. People have compared the first year of a PhD programme to the “honeymoon phase” after a wedding. Since I have never been on a honeymoon, I cannot relate to that metaphor. I can however assure you that it has been an amazing academic year with huge learning experiences for me. I like to think that I have become smarter than I was a year ago. You have to take my word for it though. My research proposal has also gone through some changes, a process similar to the metamorphosis of a butterfly. However, it doesn’t look as pretty as a butterfly yet, but I hope it will, in the coming months. The research problem that intrigued me hasn’t changed yet. I am only changing the ways I wish to address the problem. These changes have been necessitated by the need to clarify the focus of my research and fine-tune the research process. During this period, I attended several seminars, workshops and conferences, in addition to my compulsory coursework units. I can attest to the fact that all of these platforms equipped me with vital skills for doing research. Particularly, there was one seminar organized by the Bristol Doctoral College (BDC) for Postgraduate Researchers (PGRs), which literally changed my PhD life. It was held sometime in February 2016 and made significant impact on my attitude towards the PhD. They called it the ‘Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Researchers’ seminar with Hugh Kearns.

I will not give away too many details about the seminar, so that I do not ruin the experience for those who might be attending the next one. I will instead talk about the three important lessons I took away from the seminar. The first was to treat the PhD like a job, because it is a job. Prior to that time, I viewed the PhD programme as my ‘last’ schooling endeavor. I had resigned from my ‘job’ to go to ‘school’. That demarcating line meant I could afford some luxuries like procrastination and distractions. As a full-time student, it also meant that I was in full control of how I spent my flexible time. Of course, I was busy with lectures, pre-readings, assessments and preparations for supervision meetings, but most of it happened within a schedule that was subject to my whims. To treat my PhD as a job I had to have regular working hours and specific targets with deadlines. I had to be responsible with how I spent my time and self. I had to be accountable to the PhD because it was my new Boss. It put money in my account and paid my bills literally, courtesy of my scholarship. Would I spend all day browsing the social media around a Boss, in an organization where I was an employee? Would I still be in bed by 9am when that organization’s resumption time is 8am? Would I just decide to stay off work without a legitimate reason like ill-health? I definitely would not. To treat the PhD as a job, my ways had to change — and they did, gradually. Today, I am doing my best to please my Boss and show this Boss that I deserve to be here.  Treating my PhD as a job has engendered in me a high sense of responsibility and accountability for what I must do per time.

Jane's previous 'Home Office'.
Jane’s previous ‘Home Office’.

The second lesson for me was the need to write as I read, and not leave writing to a time in the future. Hugh Kearns problematized the notion of a ‘writing-up’ phase of the PhD and insists that writing must begin from the beginning – as we read articles, run experiments etc. This lesson has benefitted me a lot as it reduces the chances of me having a ‘writer’s block’. As I read articles or books, I review in writing the areas that are relevant to my research. Indeed, I end with MANY drafts but it’s a good thing for me because I also think by writing.

The third lesson for me was Hugh Kearns emphasis on the fact that the PhD is not the pursuit of a Nobel Prize. The aim of my PhD is not to submit a perfect thesis. Rather, it is to finish the PhD and submit the thesis. Therefore, my expectations of what I can and will accomplish within the three years of the programme must be realistic. I am grateful to my supervisors who spent our first meetings insisting that I narrow my research focus to something feasible within the timeframe I had.

I am also grateful to the BDC for organizing the seminar and numerous others that I have attended. I look forward to the new courses that I have booked to attend in the coming months. If I may ask, which seminar or workshop at the University has greatly impacted your PhD life?

The next ‘Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Researchers’ seminar will run on Friday, November 11, from 9:00-12:00 in the Helen Wodehouse Lecture Theatre, 35 Berkeley Square. Register via OnCourse.

A PhD student guide to Twitter

Sarah_JoseSarah 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.

Twitter feed
Use Twitter to keep up to date and get involved in your research community.

Getting started

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.

Twitter photo

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.

Nature article on why academics use Twitter
Why do academics use Twitter? A Nature survey of 330 academics with Twitter accounts revealed that following discussions, promoting content and discovering peers were some of the most common reasons. http://www.nature.com/news/online-collaboration-scientists-and-the-social-network-1.15711

Want to know more?

Check out the following articles for more information:

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.

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.

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…