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Ecologist and environmental social scientist

Category: My PhD by year

Third Year

It’s the end of my third year, so time for an annual round-up following the summaries of my first and second years. The year began with finishing my final field season at the end of 2019, which makes me one of the very lucky people who has been able to work from home during 2020, with my PhD continuing relatively smoothly onto analysis and writing.

Finishing fieldwork

I completed my final field season between September and November of 2019. After many ups and many downs, I was happy to finish with an amazing holiday with my partner, Jack, in Zanzibar and Arusha– parts of Tanzania I had not yet been able to explore – making Jack try all the foods I had been eating and see so many of the things I loved about Tanzania. I was also ecstatic to be able to return home with a complete dataset, that could no longer be rendered incomplete due to bad weather or a broken down vehicle.

The fieldwork itself was stressful, tiring, amazing and fun as usual. I spent most of my time doing forest inventory for my (affectionately nicknamed) Big Trees project – studying what has happened to the >40 cm diameter trees (the biggest carbon stores) in Kilwa’s miombo woodlands over the past 10 years. I also returned to my study villages from 2018, to report on my research progress, and ask a few follow-up questions. This field season for me was the perfect blend of being out in woodlands hugging trees (literally, with measuring tape in hand), chatting to the great people who live in Kilwa, and spending time with friends I had made the previous year. I was particularly sad to say goodbye to my friend and research partner Mercy, when it was time to go home. I’ve written about fieldwork elsewhere, if you’re interested in hearing a bit more about my experiences.

Following fieldwork, I spent a good few weeks typing up my data. I used paper data sheets for my forest inventory, which seemed like the right idea at the time but there are (I hear) way better ways to do it – ecologists and social scientists I know use Open Data Kit (ODK). Anyway, I didn’t have the tablet or time to set up ODK, and the lack of mains electricity and internet at my field site worried me. So, paper. And lots of typing when I got home. But actually, that was the kind of mindless job I needed after fieldwork and I could do it with Christmas music (and January / February music… whatever that is) on so I was happy.

Analysis and writing

Since finishing fieldwork and data entry, I’ve spent my time focusing on my social science data, which is all qualitative. I’ve been using NVivo12 to thematically code interviews using a hybrid approach, roughly following the practical system outlined by the sociologist Jon Swain here. The approach is ‘hybrid’ because is both deductive (top-down, theory-led) and inductive (bottom-up, data-led). For the deductive part, I set a priori ‘codes’ (thematic labels for each chunk of interview text that help you organise your data e.g. ‘Distance fire spreads’ or ‘Month fire is set’) based on my research questions aiming to characterize the fire regime, and I added new a posterior codes as new themes emerged during data analysis. It’s been a long process but really enjoyable to go back through interviews, remember the interesting and often hilarious things we talked about, and pull together some findings – which is really the point of it all.

A couple of weeks into my NVivo analysis I realised that I needed to start writing. I thought it would help me maintain concentration if I wasn’t coding all day every day, and I also find that writing is an important part of the analysis process for me. It helps me to focus my ideas, gets me reading other research, and those things combined often make me go “oooh, that’s interesting, I need to go back to my data and find out more about that!” So tandem writing-analysis works well for me. I started by making my ‘Thesis’ Word document (which, elsewhere, I argue is something that you should do during the first year of your PhD), which gave me a structure and showed me all the chapter headings I need to fill. I spent lots of time going back through notes I have made throughout my PhD, moving some chunks of text and references into appropriate sections of ‘Thesis’, and felt reassured that I do know some stuff and have some things to write about. And I started really focusing on one empirical chapter on intentions underlying the fire regime in Kilwa (in a separate document – Thesis was too long) again, pulling together relevant notes, outputs from my analysis, and writing. Now at the end of the year, the bulk of my social science analysis is done, and one chapter is written. Only two more to go, including dealing with all those Big Trees…

You haven’t done much work this year, have you?

If it sounds like I’ve had a quiet year, it’s because I spent half of it on a break from my PhD doing some work for Tree Aid, conducting a literature review and doing some ecological modelling. It’s been super nice to contribute to an amazing organisation like Tree Aid, and a fantastic opportunity to learn more and expand my skillset. I’ll plan to write more about internships and PhD interruptions another time, but I think that they’re generally a great thing to do and often there’s lots of flexibility to do them during your PhD. There’s also often extra time and funding available for this, especially if you’re part of a Doctoral Training Partnership. I don’t know many people on a student stipend who could afford to do an internship in the middle of their PhD for free, so this is worth looking out for.


I’m going to finish with some tips for writing, which I have found very useful during the past year:

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!

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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