Ellie Wood

PhD researcher studying ecosystem services and degradation in savanna woodlands

Author: Ellie

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

If your PhD involves fieldwork, it’s likely to be a very important time for your project. Your fieldwork might be a key (or the only) period of data collection, a time when you can learn and develop specific project-planning and practical field skills, and it’s a fairly unique life experience. My PhD fieldwork is in Tanzania, and how I spend my time there, the places I see, and the people I meet create a totally different experience to what it would be like if I were there on holiday. Which is a real privilege. And I think that this is usually true of fieldwork, whether you do it a few miles from home or halfway across the world. Despite its significance, fieldwork might be a relatively short period of time in the grand scheme of your PhD, so I think it’s particularly important to make the most of that time, both in terms of work – collecting lots of good data and improving your skills – as well as enjoying the experience. So I wanted to write a few tips for making the most of fieldwork. I actually think that the best way to make the most of your fieldwork is for you to think about what you want to get out of it, and to make your own quick list of how to do this before you go. My own tips come from my experiences and preferences, both of which may be quite different to yours. So, the following is a highly subjective and by no means exhaustive list, but even if all of these tips don’t apply to you, then I hope that at least thinking about them will help trigger some thoughts about how you want to make the most of your own fieldwork:

  • Prepare. Pretty thoroughly, if you can. I won’t say much about this here because I’ve written plenty about fieldwork prep in a separate blog post, but I do think it’s one of the best ways to reduce stress while you’re there and make sure you’re spending your time doing cool science and having cool experiences, rather than having to think about problems that could have been solved before you got there. It’s also how you make sure that you’ve given yourself enough time for: things to go wrong, rest, re-evaluation of your work, catching up with supervisors, etc. all of which are really crucial to making the most of your fieldwork.
  • Don’t panic when (some of? all of?) your plans go out of the window. Part of your prep should involve having clear ideas about your goals for fieldwork (also discussed in the previous blog). If your work isn’t going exactly the way you thought it would, don’t give up on it and decide you’ll have to magic up some money and come back next year. Look back at your goals and think about, broadly, what you would like to achieve on your trip. Then think about the specifics of how to achieve those goals, and how much you realistically can achieve given any new constraints. Be ready to adapt and make necessary changes to your work. The changes might end up being better than your original plan anyway, and you’ll certainly be a better scientist for finding a solution for a difficult problem.
  • Read a guidebook of where you’re going, in advance or maybe on the flight out there. It’s always interesting to learn about the place you’re going to, and it might also help you plan your time there (especially days off). I also like reading fiction or other non-fiction books like biographies set wherever I’m working, as it’s a nice way to feel a bit more connected to the place.
  • Drink the local drinks, eat the local food. Obviously. Try the fresh fruits, especially. Although I admit that as much as I enjoy Tanzanian food, I follow-up my rice and beans with Dairy Milk on rare days that I get to a supermarket. Some cravings don’t go away even thousands of miles from home.
  • Speak to the people, go out and explore. There might be some tourist trips you can join on days off, or people you work with who are happy to take you out and show you around. It can also be really nice to have some days off at the end of your fieldwork, so you can just relax and enjoy the place you’re in without having any work on your mind.
  • Always ask for help if you need it. If there are language barriers, mime for help. There are kind people who want to help you, wherever you go, so don’t suffer because you thought you couldn’t ask.
  • Be culturally sensitive, but remember that it’s okay to talk about cultural differences too. For example, in Tanzania, I dress as modestly as the locals do, and I eat with my right hand only. But I’m always open and honest and if people ask about my husband and kids, I tell them that don’t have either of those things right now! In some of the communities I work in, that’s really strange for a 27 year old woman. But personally, I think it’s fun and enlightening to discuss with other people the different ways you might see the world, and share stories and experiences. Having said this, of course you should err on the side of caution when it comes to being sensitive about potentially controversial issues, and you should absolutely always be very careful about potential safety issues. I’ve often seen the travel advice that single women in certain countries should wear a wedding ring, and if you feel safer doing that then you absolutely should. These issues are very culture-specific so if you can, check with people who have visited the place you’re going to before you leave and get advice from them about how to best approach cultural sensitivities and differences.
  • If you have a choice in where you sleep, think about where will suit you best and especially choose a relaxing and stress-free environment to come home to. Most of the time, I sleep in my tent during fieldwork (where I am very happy and relaxed!) but on trips to town I stay in a hostel. Returning to a sociable environment where I can meet passing travellers really suits me, and I think is much nicer than going back to a hotel, which might be more lonely. But it depends on your preferences, and options at your field site.
  • Having said that, having alone time is really important for me too – so when the opportunity is there I take time for myself to read, call home, watch some TV.
  • Rest. Hopefully, during fieldwork prep you will have planned in rest time. And hopefully, plenty of it, because some of your rest time will probably turn into work time out of necessity. But do keep some of that time just to rest, and reflect on your work if that’s what you need. You’ll do better work and enjoy it more if you’re rested and able to focus.
  • Keep a journal. You’ll want to remember this experience later, and you’ll want to remember the every day details, not just the outcomes of your data analysis.
  • Try to remember how lucky you are to be doing what you’re doing. Fieldwork can be really tough, and exhausting, and sometimes you’ll probably just want to go home. But it’s a real privilege to be doing a project you have chosen to do, and to experience a place in a way you wouldn’t be able to as a tourist, even to access some places that tourists cannot. So try to remember that on the tough days, and really enjoy the good days.
  • Take a holiday afterwards! This obviously depends on your time, budget, and desires for how you want to spend your time post-fieldwork, but there’s nothing worse than staying somewhere for a few weeks or months, hearing all the stories about the amazing sights you should see and regions you should visit, and then not being able to do so. You’ll definitely deserve a holiday when you finish, so take the opportunity if you can.

So those are my tips for making the most of your fieldwork both professionally and personally! But remember that all the ways you might make the most of your fieldwork really depend on what you want to get out of the experience, so think about this for yourself before you go. As well as having your list of fieldwork goals related to the aims of your project, think about other things you want to get out of the trip and ways you might maximise your time there, or experiences you want to have while you’re away. Fieldwork will likely be fun, stressful, interesting, surprising, difficult, confusing, horrible, wonderful… and though you shouldn’t worry if you feel some of the negative emotions on that list, thinking about ways to maximise the positive ones is always going to be a good idea!

Preparing for fieldwork

I have spent something like a year of my life on fieldwork. Every time it comes to another trip, I dig out old packing lists, and try desperately to recall those really important things about fieldwork that I definitely won’t forget because they’re really important… And I always forget things. Which is fine, because the stuff I forget is stuff that I can replace or find an alternative for or live without for a few weeks. But it’s nice to minimise faff on fieldwork isn’t it, and it’s also nice to minimise the stress around packing and preparing for fieldwork. I’m currently on my final field season in Tanzania. My boyfriend, Jack, is coming out to join me when I finish work for a two-week Tanzanian adventure. We’ve had this plan for a while, so when I was away last year on the first big field season for my PhD, I started to make a list of Tanzania tips that I could give to Jack. It was supposed to be a list of stuff you don’t think about before leaving, but that you discover and have to deal with while you are away; stuff you will forget happened last time, and then have to deal with again next time. I wanted to be able to give Jack my list, as he’s never been to Tanzania, and he doesn’t have a couple of weeks contingency built into his trip like me, so I don’t want him to have to make the same mistakes. Well… after 10 weeks of fieldwork last year and due to something I’m calling “fieldwork brain”, I deleted the list. Nice one, fieldwork brain. Anyway, I’m writing this because I think the principle of the tip list was good and I think that even though Tanzania-specific field advice isn’t going to be helpful to most people, general field advice might be nice, and possibly useful to people other than Jack. And also because, Jack, I’m sorry for deleting your list and this is something close to what you were supposed to receive ahead of our holiday together plus some bonus fieldwork-specific tips:

  • Make a packing list. I use a list app every day and keep packing lists on there (including a special one for fieldwork) which I can add to any time I think of something to add, or edit (e.g. I took way too many socks the first time I went on fieldwork because I didn’t realise how much I’d live in flip-flops, and I updated my list to tell me to take fewer socks next time)*
  • Keep a separate to-do list, with some time frames on there, and get investigating early what those time frames might be e.g. “arrange visa – 3 weeks before, book accommodation – 2 weeks before…”. Some important stuff you might need to think about well in advance: where your funding is coming from, arranging a research permit and visa (and obtaining all the paperwork you might need for these), vaccinations and other medication.
  • Make yourself aware of local rules and regulations relevant to your fieldwork: will you need to obtain a permit to work in the local area on arrival, in addition to a permit to work in the country?
  • Give yourself lots of time. Plan in plenty of contingency time and budget for stuff to be slow or go wrong (waiting for permits, cars breaking down, etc.). Plan in days to settle in and do final preparations upon arrival: do you need time to meet and hire local staff? Buy field equipment? Get over jetlag? Finally, plan in days to reassess your work and make any changes you might need to. Spending a few days piloting your methods early on is a very good idea, and giving yourself time (maybe a few more days) after the pilot to think about what you’ve learned and make any necessary changes to your methods is a crucial part of this process.
  • If you have local contacts, speak to them beforehand to get as much information as you can about the local area, what you’ll need to do on arrival, and also any other tips – like which mobile network works best in the area so you know what kind of SIM to buy. Other colleagues who have been to the same field site or country are also great tip-givers!
  • Think about things that might be difficult to buy on fieldwork and make sure you’ve got enough of that with you e.g. you’re probably going to be able to buy shower gel if you can get to a town whilst away, but suncream might be hard to come by (and super important). Weirdly, I found lipbalm difficult to come by in Tanzania and I’m semi-addicted to lipbalm so I brought a good handful with me this time (the spares are because I did manage to drop one down a long drop toilet on a previous trip).
  • Check restrictions on what you can take in and out of the country – cash, food, or anything else… As of May 2019, you’re not allowed to take plastic bags into Tanzania, so I compartmentalized everything in my rucksack in tote bags.
  • Make sure you’ll be able to stay in touch with people back home: get your phone unlocked so you can get a local SIM, to send photos and make WhatsApp calls to share updates.
  • Prep your entertainment. Download music and TV and books. I personally love audiobooks and podcasts because they are great to listen to while you’re staring out of a bus window and when you’re closing your eyes inside a tent ready to go to sleep. And Kindles are amazing – the battery life is great and you can keep a library of entertainment, plus any Lonely Planets or other guidebooks you might need (although admittedly, I don’t find it as easy to jump to different sections of a guidebook on a Kindle as I do in a paperback book).
  • Figure out how to best get currency before you arrive. You’re not allowed to take Tanzanian shillings out of the country, so I have to make sure I’m going to be able to use an ATM (tell your bank you’re going away), or exchange a currency (usually English GBP/USD/Euros are fine) pretty soon after arriving. In Tanzania, you get a better rate exchanging bigger notes ($20s and $50s, rather than $5s and $10s).
  • Download maps if you can, so that you can navigate without the need for data on a local SIM until you get this sorted.
  • Plan calls with your supervisor(s) for early on in the trip – you will want to check in and discuss what you’re doing, what’s working and what’s not, after a brief period piloting stuff. This can be a really crucial conversation, so before you go away, make sure a supervisor will be around to provide you with this support.

Fieldwork prep can be stressful, so thinking about it as early as possible and getting organised can be super helpful to mitigate that. Having said that, in my experience, you never plan your fieldwork as far in advance as would be ideal, so don’t worry or panic if you feel like that. Prioritise the really important stuff – the stuff you absolutely have to organise before arriving (e.g. research permit) – and do make sure you have enough time to do that before you book any flights. Aside from that, make sure you know why you’re going away and the major goals of your trip: what do you want to get out of your fieldwork? It’s really important that you know this so you can make the most of your time there, and adapt to any changes or obstacles you face whilst away. Because, the specific details of your study protocol and timings may well need to change while you’re away. That’s okay, and it’s also more important to be ready to face that than it is to have every logistical detail figured out (at least stuff that you can plan, and which may be better to plan while you’re out there). Last year I was conducting semi-structured interviews and Focus Group Discussions in villages, and I didn’t plan every village I would go to or every question I would ask before I flew to Tanzania. Being a fieldwork plan-a-holic, I would definitely have liked to, but I didn’t have time, and also those things needed to be able to respond to the results of my pilot studies. What I did know before I left was what the goals of my study were, and I could adapt my methods based on that while I was away. Remember that fieldwork should be a learning experience, as well as important data collection, and that includes learning from mistakes that you probably will make (and I definitely have made) whilst on your trip. So be ready to embrace that and don’t worry when, despite all your (my) lists and planning, things don’t work in exactly the way you imagined they would.

*Here’s an abridged version of my current fieldwork packing list. Sock quantities not specified – you’ve got to decide what’s right for you. Also think about other people who will be with you, helping with your fieldwork, and what quantities of the below you might need for them e.g. an extra tent or torch:

  • Field equipment (I won’t list mine – this is going to be really specific to what you’re doing; but it’s also likely to be the stuff you can’t get while you’re away, so think about this carefully e.g. GPS, compass, measuring tapes, species ID books, clipboards…)
  • Protocols
  • Datasheets
  • Laptop (borrowed from uni)
  • Hard drive, USB (ways to back up your files)
  • Batteries (depending on where you’re going it might be hard to get good ones or ones the right size while you’re away; consider rechargeables)
  • Tents
  • Camera
  • Chargers
  • Spare cables
  • Adapters
  • Spare headphones
  • Power bank(s), possibly one suitable to plug your laptop into
  • Insect repellent
  • Suncream
  • First aid kit (I always add in extras of some stuff you might use a lot like rehydration salts, throat sweets)
  • Personal medication
  • Personal alarm, whistle (you might not feel that you want this, but I like to have one for myself and my research assistant… even if just to make a loud noise if you get lost in a remote area!)
  • Multifunctional useful bits and bobs like a penknife, string, duct tape
  • Eye mask
  • Ear plugs
  • Needle and thread
  • Padlock
  • Water filter or water purification tablets
  • Day rucksack
  • Torch
  • Travel towel
  • Socks
  • Underwear
  • Nightwear
  • Fieldwork clothes
  • Non-fieldwork clothes
  • Warm clothes
  • Exercise clothing
  • Swim stuff
  • Trainers
  • Flip flops
  • Fieldwork shoes
  • Hankies
  • Waterproof
  • Umbrella
  • Hairbrush
  • Nail scissors
  • Nail file
  • Tweezers
  • Lip balms
  • Sanitary products
  • Student card
  • Driving license
  • Passport
  • Spare passport photos
  • Paper and digital copies of important docs – passport photo page, visa, research permit, emergency phone numbers, travel insurance info
  • Vaccination card
  • Card reader or whatever you need to do some banking (in case you need to transfer money to pay for something at home or away)
  • Entertainment – phone, tablet, Kindle, books

Here’s other stuff you might need but could consider getting when you arrive to 1) save on packing, 2) so that you can contribute to the local economy where you’ll be working, 3) to meet some local shopkeepers. Many other items on the above list might be moved below depending on your field site, but this is some of the stuff I buy in Tanzania:

  • Pens, pencils
  • Pencil case
  • Notebooks
  • Toiletries (however, if you’re working somewhere really rural and your shower water is going to go straight into the local environment, you could think about getting biodegradable toiletries ahead of arrival)
  • Laundry powder (as above)
  • Bedsheets (in Tanzania, buying light sheets is cheap and more comfy to sleep in than I sleeping bag I think)
  • Mattresses (again, it’s cheap to buy these for camping in Tz, plus much comfier than anything I can carry. And sleep is incredibly important during fieldwork)
  • Other field equipment (hammers, nails, stationery)

    Something I don’t prepare ahead of fieldwork – I got these tree tags made from roof sheeting after arriving in Kilwa in August 2019.

A quick summary of the first year of my PhD

After a couple of years living and working in London, in September 2017 I moved to Edinburgh to start my PhD. I swear, it started raining the moment our car crossed the Scottish border on moving day, but I’m not one to believe in bad omens and about 5 minutes later I learned that a cat called Glen lived at the house I was about to move into so that more than counteracted any rain-induced apprehension. I was really excited to get started, anyway, to explore a new city and get stuck into a new project. I’m now well into the second year of my PhD – well stuck into both city and project. In this post I’m going to give a quick overview of the first 12 months or so of my PhD – bringing me up until my first field season. I think I have just enough distance and perspective now to write about it, and I hope that this might be interesting or useful to others in the early stages of their PhD, or those thinking of starting one. So, organised roughly by theme, here is a summary of Year 1.

I know I said that this post would bring us up to just before my first field season, but actually one of the first things I did after starting my PhD was to go on a short field trip and it really shaped my project in the months following, so I’m going to start by writing about that. Whilst I knew before starting postgraduate study that my supervisors and I were all keen for my project to focus on The causes and consequences of degradation in southern African woodlands, the specifics of my study remained very nonspecific for a long time. I spent much of my first year figuring out my research questions – deciding what I found interesting and where gaps in savanna socioecological knowledge existed. From discussions with one of my supervisors and other researchers in Edinburgh, I learned a bit about the Kilwa district in southeastern Tanzania, and the conservation and development NGO MCDI, who are based there. I was told about MCDI’s prescribed burning project in which they burn patches of forestland early in the dry season, to reduce the grassy fuel load, and minimise the intensity and spread of fires which come later in the year and can be much more destructive than early fires. I wanted to learn more about this kind of fire management – forms of which are practiced by communities and organisation across the world in places that burn, but the way it is done by MCDI is pretty novel in Africa – and more about how people perceive fire in Kilwa generally. So, I decided (with encouragement from my supervisor) to go on a scoping trip, and my first ever visit to Tanzania. In November 2017 I spent two weeks in Kilwa, helping (well, being helped by) some of the fantastic MCDI staff and Kilwa residents doing forest inventory, and spending some time in Ngea and Nainokwe villages to hold some pilot interviews and ask people about fire and perceptions of early burning. What I learned informed the development of my research questions and methodology. And I knew two weeks wasn’t enough time in Kilwa, so I began to plan a return visit at the end of my first year for my first full field season.

Training and teaching
Training is provided by the E3 DTP, the Institute for Academic Development and other groups at the University of Edinburgh, and in my first year there was lots going on – courses in software and data carpentry, writing, presenting, fieldwork first aid. As well as some compulsory training, I attended lectures and seminars from Masters courses to brush up on stuff I felt rusty on, following a bit of a break from academia. In second year there are fewer compulsory courses for E3 DTP students, but I continue to be a workshop nerd and attend those which sounds interesting or fun or useful. Lots of my training for my actual research (as opposed to training on how to communicate and use my research) has come from lots and lots of reading, largely during first year – of original research, methods manuals and theory books. I did a two week internship with ESPA in late 2017 / early 2018 which involved synthesising some of their projects, and this was also really helpful for building my knowledge and generating ideas. I started tutoring last year (a learning curve for both tutors and tutees, which is why I include it in this section) which was pretty scary the first time, but is something I look forward to now. Teaching can feel like a significant extra workload on top of PhD work, so it’s important not to overbook yourself (if that’s possible and you don’t have a big teaching requirement as part of your contract!), but I love discussing topics I’m interested in with passionate students, and trying to think of creative ways to run sessions with them.

Conferences and meetings
I got to go to some cool conferences during my first year – attending FLARE 2017 and ESPA 2017 – and it was a brilliant way to get up to date with current research in my field. I presented my initial research plans at our School’s Global Change Symposium, and I participated in the SEOSAW 2018 meeting, which was an awesome opportunity to work with others researching southern African woodlands and to practice some ecological field skills in the miombo woodlands of Mozambique.

Moving onto the second year of your PhD at the University of Edinburgh requires you to pass the confirmation process – which is a bit like a practice thesis submission and viva, except you’re submitting your proposed research rather than a completed project. I sent a written plan to a panel of my supervisors, my adviser and someone external to my project, a few days before giving a presentation and then discussing my plan in detail with the panel. Confirmation can be a tough process even though, of course, everyone on your panel supports you and is there to help you to make your project the best it can be. My panel gave me lots of feedback on my plans, and I had to go away and make some revisions – which felt necessary, but still stressful. But my project is much better for that feedback, and I feel much more confident about my research plans following input from my panel. Glad I don’t have to do it again, though.

My first year PhD-ing was pretty busy (which I’m sure is not what people told me it would be before I started…), but I did also spend some time enjoying Edinburgh, exploring the city with new and old friends, running to Fringe events between library sessions and doing some science outreach which is something I had really missed from my undergraduate days. I got a bike and started exploring a bit more of Scotland on it, too. Oh and also, I did spend a decent amount of time last year planning my first field season: preparing for September 2018, when I left again for Kilwa, excited to collect some data and for my project to really begin.

Thanks for reading! Any PhD newbies or wannabes or anyone interested in my work, please feel free to click on my Contact page and get in touch.

Pictures of bikes are more interesting than pictures of confirmation reports… Taken on the Isle of Arran by Sarah Feldman (2018).

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