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Ecologist and environmental social scientist

PhD Year Two

The first blog post I ever wrote was a quick summary of the first year of my PhD, and I’m now, again, long overdue on the next annual summary. I hope that overview posts like this not only give any readers an idea of what I’m actually doing for my project (because all PhD students know that explaining your PhD to other people is even more difficult than getting it straight in your own head, which is why we dread the perfectly reasonable question “so what’s your PhD on?”), if you’re interested, but also let you know what the day-to-day can be like, generally, if you’re doing a PhD. Which is probably a bit more interesting and hopefully helpful if you’re thinking about doing one yourself. However, it has to be said that PhD students and their PhD experiences are really variable (which is something I’ve also written about elsewhere), so think of this as an example year-in-the-life. And if you are seriously thinking about doing a PhD yourself, then chat to as many current and past students as possible, preferably those who work in your field or with your potential supervisor, to hear what their years are/were like. For me, once again, my year was bookended by field trips, so I’ll get straight to it and tell you about the first event of my second year: my first (proper) field season.


I was in Kilwa for my first full field season (I went on a two week scoping trip in 2017) between mid-August and mid-November 2018. I did lots of the methodology preparation for this field season whilst preparing for the confirmation process (something we have to pass in first year), and for a few intense weeks before this there was an awful lot of other work to do to prepare practically and mentally for the trip. This was to be my main period of social science data collection. With a background in biology, I had no training and no practical experience of social science methods before this fieldwork, aside from a few pilot interviews I did in 2017. Everything I knew, I knew from reading and from speaking to other people, and I was the expected mix of excited and terrified-of-messing-everything-up before I left.

Lots of things went wrong whilst I was on fieldwork: logistical and bureaucratic issues causing delays, but also issues with the data we were collecting. I had to think on my feet a lot and change my methods and the questions we were asking. For example, I had become really interested in cultural ecosystem services before going on fieldwork and tried several methods to learn about these more in the Kilwa context during my first two weeks there in 2018 which I spent piloting my methods. But the issues that were important to my interviewees led our conversations in other directions, and I decided to change my questions and shift away from a sole focus on cultural services. In the end, following the work we did in two pilot villages, we collected data on causes and impacts of wildfire in Kilwa through 6 village meetings, 12 participatory mapping groups, 12 focus group discussions, 24 transect walks and 90 semi-structured interviews across 6 villages. Having faced lots of difficulties early on, coming away with all this data felt really exciting. And there was so much else I gained from fieldwork: a host of new knowledge and skills which came from managing my project whilst even more isolated and independent than usual, from living in rural villages, from asking questions and investigating plans for my ecological study (which I’ll explain more later), and from working with my excellent Research Assistant and friend, Mercy, as we learned from our experiences and developed our methods together. Despite all these gains, fieldwork was really tough (it definitely isn’t for everyone and I definitely now know why!) and I was very ready to come home afterwards.

Training, teaching, conferences and meetings

I wrote a lot about these things in last year’s post, so I’ll keep this section short. Whilst compulsory training reduced a lot after the first semester of my PhD, I continued to go to optional trainings during second year: courses to improve my writing, posters and presentations, in particular, were starting to feel more relevant. I tutored again on an undergraduate course I had taught on during first year, and I was happy to be able to build on what I had learned during that first round of teaching, for example by improving the tutorial plans and resources which I had prepared the previous year.* I kept my conferences and meetings this year local: presenting a poster at the Edinburgh GeoSciences Postgraduate conference, and attending the Society for Tropical Ecology and the British Ecological Society joint symposium Unifying Tropical Ecology: Strengthening Collaborative Science, also in Edinburgh.

*Just a side-note on teaching and pay (if you’re paid for your teaching). It varies between courses, schools, and universities, but sometimes, the hours tutors put into preparing tutorials for the first time, are much greater than the hours you are paid for (if these were already decided), so it’s good for you to be able to re-use these resources at the same time as improving your teaching for the students. Note that you might also be paid for much less time than you actually spend marking, but sadly the only solution that you can control as a tutor is to mark quicker – which you can do to certain extent without compromising on quality, but only up until a point.

Fieldwork again

Lots of my second year was spent preparing for my next field season, which was going to be my main period of ecological data collection. I’d been thinking about this during my first field season: talking to local people and exploring the landscape myself to develop my research questions and study design. For example, before going to Kilwa in 2018, I had thought about studying the impacts of a particular type of fire management in Kilwa; however, when I asked more about how this was conducted, I learned that the variation in timing and methods between villages was too great for this to be a simple control vs. intervention study, and I wouldn’t be able to get meaningful results. But, with help from my supervisors, I turned what I did learn from my first field season into a real plan for the next one – my project “Degradation dynamics and impacts on large trees in the socioecological woodlands of Tanzania”. The next step was to fund the project, and there was a period of a few weeks when my main job was to find opportunities and write funding applications (which is worth looking into at least the year before you might need to do this – it’s good to know roughly what the deadlines and turnaround times for appropriate funds are so you don’t miss them). Gratefully, I received a National Geographic Early Career Grant and support from the Elizabeth Sinclair Irvine Bequest for my project and happily ploughed on with planning. I knew that I also wanted to use my second (probably final) field season as an opportunity to give feedback to my study participants from the previous year, telling them what we had learned from the data they provided us with. So I spent time analysing a cross section of my social science data to inform content for focus groups. In addition to this, there were the usual logistical challenges and preparations to complete. After several months of prep, in August 2019 – mid-Fringe-fest – I flew back to Tanzania for field season number two (which I won’t dissect here, but some general fieldwork learnings I summarised in a blog post I wrote while I was out there).

Edinburgh and life outside my PhD

Edinburgh was as beautiful and as chilly in my second year as it was in my first year. But I had made some really good friends by the start of second year, I’d moved flats and had a happy living situation and social life, and generally felt more settled than in my first year. Maintaining a work-life balance that made me feel not too stressed and not too guilty was still a challenge, as it is for many PhD students, and humans generally, and having really important parts of my life and loved ones very far away from Edinburgh was hard too. Because of interest, increased media attention and a personal connection to the issue, I learnt much more about the prevalence and problem of mental health issues amongst PhD students during my second year. This is far too big an issue to discuss properly in this post**, but I mention it because it was something that partly characterised my second year, and it’s an incredibly important consideration for those thinking of doing a PhD. Well, your mental health is an incredibly important consideration in all life choices, and sadly, poor mental health is a big problem amongst PhD students. Which is something for both current and potential future students to be aware of and discuss. Thankfully, the discussion is much more open than ever before, and that’s the first step to addressing problems at individual, institutional and international scales. For myself and my peers, I bear those issues in mind as I begin my third year, but I’m feeling good about my work and caution is combined with an excitement about what the next stage of my PhD brings. I’ve got all my data now, and though I’m sad not to have a planned returned to Kilwa, I’m excited to finish my analyses of both my social and ecological datasets, and get writing up some results.

** It’s also far too big an issue not to provide some resources and further reading, and there’s lots more out there besides the following:

Thank you for reading, and as ever, please feel free to get in touch with comments or questions!


Making the most of fieldwork


Practical tips on how to be an interdisciplinary individual


  1. Ennia Bosshard

    Hi Ellie, love this post! Thank you so much for sharing, this is so empowering and inspiring. I’m currently in my second PhD year and just came back from conducting a social science study in Kenya before heading out again later this year for my ecological study. Loved your insights and keen to follow your work!

  2. Ellie

    Thank you, Ennia! Sounds like you’re doing fantastic work in Kenya. Looking forward to following your research too!

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