I want to use this post to communicate just one message: you should look into doing an internship during your PhD. Over the past couple of years I have taken time out of my PhD to work with Tree Aid and the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) and found both experiences really valuable. Some reasons I think doing an internship is a good thing:
It broadens your experience and skillset. Some of those skills might be useful later in your PhD. And now that I am approaching the end of my PhD and looking for jobs, I really think that my internships have given me a better idea of what I am interested in, and increased the number of opportunities that match my skills.
It can be fun and interesting, and an opportunity to learn new things. Of course!
It enables you to take on small projects with the assurance that you have a job (well, a PhD) to return to. After your PhD, opportunities like this are harder to come by and more stressful to fit into your life.
It gives you a break from your PhD. Which can be nice in itself – and it can be helpful to return to work problems with fresh eyes after some time away (though also note the next bullet point below). I found that I was a much better editor of my written work after being away from it for a while.
Things to be wary of:
It doesn’t buy you more time to work on your PhD. I thought I might use the odd evening during my internships to read or write some more of my thesis. I definitely did not do that, and I hope you don’t think it’s rude if I say I don’t think you will either – you’re just going to be too busy!
You tend to lose a bit of momentum when you switch between projects, which might make you work less efficiently. At least I did – it took me a good couple of weeks to really get back ‘into’ my PhD after finishing each internship. I also have pals who did part time internships e.g. two days interning and three days PhD per week, and they had similar but smaller scale weekly struggles with switching between projects.
My internships came about through different means – my work with Tree Aid wasn’t actually an internship, it was a short term job contract which involved taking interruption from my PhD (pause PhD and stipend –> do 5 month job contract with salary –> resume PhD and stipend). The SPICe internship was funded by NERC (UKRI), my PhD funder: my stipend was simply extended to allow me to complete the internship. It’s worth looking into the options allowed by your institution and funder and check what they mean for your stipend and PhD final deadline (e.g. you might be allowed more money to finish your PhD, but not more time if you do an internship).
Last year I listed Five tips for starting (and continuing) a PhDand number four is all about making best use of the flexibility of being a PhD student – doing an internship or taking a short term job is one of the main ways that I have done this, and something I would definitely recommend.
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.
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:
Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s great, and I think the guidance is useful for scientists as well as novelists because Stephen is all about the story, not the flowery language. As we should be too.
Doing a PhD is an absolute nightmare, I reckon, and I say so. Frequently. The drag of PhD research is go-to water-cooler-chat for many students (well, if not you, maybe I drink water and whine about my PhD enough for the rest of us).
Okay then… PhDs aren’t horrid all the time. But they definitely are horrid. Nightmares. Some of the time. The timing and mode of nightmarishness is different for everyone, which means that you might find yourself in the midst of your PhD having scary experiences that are also very different to the experiences of the people around you. And that can feel isolating… which really compounds the horrid scary nightmarishness of it all. I want to tell you that feeling this way, and in fact having what feels like a different PhD experience, is totally fine and normal. And there are ways we can help each other banish that these creepy crawly thoughts from our brains, so we can focus on fun stuff (which might in fact be creepy crawlies – hello entomologists!).
The super variable experiences of PhD students are really unsurprising when you consider the different places we’re all coming from. PhD students can be aged roughly betweenfifteenand ninety five years old. They have different cultural backgrounds, have gained different life experiences, training, education and jobs. My PhD is interdisciplinary so even within my project I myself have varying levels of knowledge and confidence: I did a biology undergraduate degree and now do 50/50ish ecology/social science which basically means I started with some knowledge and skills in half of my project, and zero knowledge or skills in the other half. Which has been both as fun and as terrible as it sounds.
But anyway. We’re not talking about that are we. And you don’t have to be doing an interdisciplinary PhD to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, and some people have pointed out that this can actually be a really great and productive thing*, and in fact at the very core of novel research: we’re all supposed to be doing something that’s never been done before, right?
My two housemates and I are all PhD students, working in relatively similar fields, but our methods, learning, and work schedules are very very different. I spent much of the first year of my PhD just reading which was both an amazing privilege and totally terrifying when some of my classmates were collecting data in the lab from Week 2. But this was how my PhD needed to work, and yours might too.
Different students also have different commitments (to research, teaching, extracurricular activities, their personal life) and that is fine. Plus, although PhDs can be very stressful, they are often also very flexible, which can be great if you’ve got other stuff going on – like kids you need to drop off at nursery, or a job you’re doing at the same time as studying. And it’s okay to utilise that, even if you’ve got lots of 9-to-5 colleagues making you feel bad. Comparing yourself to other students simply will never be a case of comparing like-for-like, so don’t bother.
So PhD students are a diverse and interesting group, yes. But we need some support when we’re having worries about being a bit too different and interesting, and we do need to be able to tell if we’re veering off track. We need to share experience and knowledge and talk about whether what you’re going through and the work that you’re doing is normal and okay.
Thankfully, despite all our differences, there is a pool of experience common to PhDs that we can all contribute to and share in. I recently read The Unwritten Rules of PhD Researchwhich was genuinely helpful and it kind of blew me away that a computer scientist and someone who does something called “knowledge modeling”could write a book of advice for any PhD student. And what about all these blooming blogs and articles – who do the authors think they are trying to relate their own life experiences to mine? Well, as you may have guessed, I think that these blogs and articles are great. I love reading about other people’s experiences, even though those writing them are probably doing very different research to me. There’s a big pool of wisdom out there which you can share in, gain some knowledge, and comfort in not feeling alone. And that doesn’t need to mean that someone else’s experiences need to match your own entirely. For example, I didn’t find every word in Unwritten Rules helpful and relevant (yet), but it was very useful to me still. It was part of my building of a knowledgebase of other peoples’ experiences, which has helped me no end during my PhD.
So please remember that there are many diverse journeys to getting your PhD, and the experiences that students have are correspondingly diverse. Remember that all of those students were all recruited to do a PhD because someone who’s already got one thinks they are capable of it. You were invited to do your PhD because someone believes in you. Diversity is a wonderful thing. In life and in research groups. So celebrate it, and don’t worry if you feel like you’re doing things in a different way to other people. But when you do feel unsure and alone – ask someone about it. Get help, and you’ll probably find out that you are not the first person to have this experience and although it might not fix everything, it might help you to realise that what you’re going through is normal.
* My supervisor pointed me to this article during my first week as a PhD student because 1) he’s great and 2) he understands how prevalent feelings of stupidity are amongst students, and how important it is to know that it’s normal and, in fact, useful.
Lots of the specific stuff you learn as a PhD student, as well as general approaches to your work, begins with informal advice rather than formal training. I’ve received lots of advice from others during my PhD, since the very early stages of my project. This has helped me both build a PhD project that I’m happy with, and actually enjoy my life while I do my PhD (the two, of course, being closely but not entirely linked!). As it’s the start of the academic year I want to share a few of my own tips along those lines, to help get your PhD off to a good start, and keep it on a trajectory you’re happy with:
1. Keep notes on everything you read
My PhD, like many, kicked off with lots of reading of textbooks and academic papers. My reading has ebbed and flowed, but not really stopped, since then. Reading is a big thing during your PhD. It’s useful to keep track of what you’ve been reading because you won’t remember all of it, but you will want to come back to a lot of it.
My system for keeping notes on my reading is highly unsophisticated, but it works: I have (currently) three Word Documents, called Reading_[insert year here] stored on Dropbox so I can access them anywhere. I’ve got a separate one for each year of my PhD because 1) each document is a bit more manageable than one scary enormous one, and 2) I find it surprisingly easy to remember when-ish I was reading different stuff because my reading has gone through some quite distinct phases (e.g. more stuff relevant to study design early on, more stuff about analysis later) so it seemed like a reasonable and simple way to organise my notes.
The notes I make on what I read vary a lot: at my laziest, I just copy and paste the paper title, first author and abstract into the doc, and I’m done. If I’m feeling enthusiastic, I make more extensive notes on the paper and my thoughts on it, or copy specific sections that are especially interesting or relevant to my work. I make sure that each paper title or reference is formatted as a heading so that I can scan through the document easily, and create a contents page for each document. Now, if I want to find a specific paper or read publications on a particular theme, I can Ctrl+F to find key words in my Reading documents.
2. Read a couple of theses
I’m going to disagree with tip #2 in Five Tips for Starting Your PhD Out Right and say you don’t need to read them cover to cover – I don’t think this is necessary in the early stages in your project, unless you really want to do so, or if you feel that every chapter is highly relevant to your own PhD. But I do think it’s helpful to flick through and see different thesis structures (trends in how to structure a thesis evolve over time, and also vary by subject area, so look at recent graduates in your field for ideas of what’s likely to be appropriate for you).
Theses might also contain some specific content that you didn’t realise you’ll need to add to your own thesis (such as more detailed methodology than you usually see in a published paper) or useful references if the PhD is closely related to your own work. I think it works well to look through the theses of recent graduates in your research group, your supervisor, or others working on similar stuff to you. But you can also search for theses online, for example by using EThOS.
3. Start a Word document called “Thesis”
You can use other people’s theses (see previous tip) as a guide to add appropriate headings and subheadings to this document which will act as your own thesis structure / outline. Okay, I did this in third year, not first year, but I reckon it would have been helpful to start this earlier. Since I started this document, I’ve made good progress on actually organising my thoughts and even writing a few things down. And if you’ve got this document ready from early on in your project, you can populate it with notes and ideas whenever they occur to you at any point during your PhD.
Recently, I’ve been going through my Reading documents (remember tip #1) page by page and copying across notes from papers that I have read (and often forgotten about) into the appropriate sections of my Thesis document. It’s surprising how quickly my rough structure has been populated with ideas and material for literature review and synthesis, and how this has helped me link different ideas together i.e. stuff I read in first year and forgot about, with stuff I’ve been reading recently, with stuff that’s coming out of my own analysis. Actually, now that it’s getting quite full, I’ve split my Thesis doc up so that I’m just working with one document per empirical chapter. In first year, a simple thesis structure in a single document is a good place to start.
4. Think about how to make the flexibility of your PhD (and your control over it) work best for you
This one’s quite big-picture, and I’m kind of cheating the list-of-five by squeezing several tips into one. But I think that the general principle of this tip is important, and can be interpreted in different ways to suit different people: PhDs are often inherently flexible, in how you set your daily, weekly and monthly schedule, and I think that you should make the most of that.
The nature of your PhD flexibility and your control over it depend on the details of your project, how you’re going to be working with your supervisors and institution. But there are usually opportunities for flexibility, even if you have to be in the lab most days. PhD-life-flexibility can be exploited for your professional or personal development, to maximise your productivity, to create opportunities that are fun or useful now, or allow you to flex creative muscles you haven’t had the opportunity to flex before.
Below I list the kinds of things you can think about to best use the flexibility of your PhD. These are all things that can work alongside the core research / write / defend thesis requirements of your PhD, and while you definitely don’t have to make any firm plans on day one, I think that it’s really valuable to think about ideas like this (and any more you have) early in your project. It’s all about what you want to get out of your time whilst doing your PhD, including but not limited to the PhD itself, and how you want to structure that time:
How do you want to set your daily schedule, where do you want to work? What’s going to be most pleasant and productive for you, and fit in with your home life?
What things do you want to do outside of your PhD (sports, reading non-PhD-related books, joining local clubs and groups, always protecting weekends off) to actively maintain a healthy work-life balance (which is better for both your wellbeing, and the state of your thesis)?
Are there times when you’re going to be working extra hard (like fieldwork)? How do you want to balance that with rest and recuperation afterwards (an extended post-fieldwork holiday…?)?
Do you want to take an interruption from your PhD for an internship or job?
Do you want to get involved with science outreach?
Do you want to build a professional profile and network by making a website or getting on social media?
Do you want to teach undergraduates or Masters students?
What training courses would you like to do (and where do you find out about them)?
Do you want to try turning one or more of your chapters into academic papers?
5. Talk to people, lots, in both general and specific ways
Starting a PhD can be overwhelming, and knowing where to start, or where to go next, can be really tough. Having conversations with other PhD students about what they are working on, how they are finding their PhD, what kind of training they have received, might point you to interesting new research topics, training opportunities, or just give you a bit of a general feel for what it’s going to be like doing a PhD in your new department. These general conversations are important because they can provide you with nuggets of wisdom you didn’t know you needed and, crucially, help you feel connected to and supported by your colleagues and peers.
Asking your supervisor or others specific questions like are there any academics whose work you recommend I look into? / do you recommend any textbooks on [planning a research project], [planning fieldwork], [fundamentals of landscape ecology], [fundamentals of development research] [insert another topic you’re not sure about yet but want to learn about]? / are there any conferences I should look out for? can give you some useful starting points for directing your own learning in the early stages of your project. So, think specifically about what you need at the start of your PhD, and ask for help with it.
…And one bonus tip: read advice from other (ex-) PhD students
There are similar posts to this one with advice on starting your PhD here, and I particularly like the twenty top tips from Lucy Taylor here. There are actual full guides to PhD life like The A-Z of the PhD Trajectory and The Unwritten Rules of Ph.D. Research which can be very helpful to read through at any stage of your PhD (though I guess you maximise your use of them if you read them early!) and to use as reference books as and when you need them. There are lots of people blogging about their past and present PhD experiences, which can offer great advice and comfort at every stage in your PhD. Personally, I love the Thesis Whispererand like to check in with it semi-regularly. Reading TW feels a bit like my tip #5: it’s about seeking out help and advice, sometimes when you didn’t even know you needed it.
I recently went to a great workshop on interdisciplinarity. Now, there are different definitions of interdisciplinarity (and particularly how it relates to multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity) though, personally I tend to follow definitions somewhere along the lines of what these people found in the health sector, and what this music researcher says. The workshop was about interdisciplinarity in the sense of truly integrating theories, methods and expertise from different disciplines to conduct environmental research. Interdisciplinary research can occur in teams, though moving from multidisciplinarity (where several people bring different expertise to a research theme / problem but where there is no true research synthesis and often, poor understanding of what is being done in each part of the team) to interdisciplinarity comes with many difficulties. Overcoming these difficulties was a large focus of discussion at the workshop. I was also asked to speak at the workshop, about my own experiences with interdisciplinarity. This is a bit of a step away from work in interdisciplinary teams. I consider myself an interdisciplinary individual because I use approaches from ecology and social sciences to tackle my research questions; I conduct my research alone (though with plenty of guidance) so these approaches are synthesised in my own head and thesis rather than out loud and between members of a team.
And that’s what I want to talk about here: what it’s like being an interdisciplinary individual, and what can be done to make it a bit easier. I think doing an interdisciplinary PhD is incredibly worthwhile, and something I chose to do because I believe that combining social and environmental research is the best way to understand issues that affect both people and nature, and to generate impacts that aren’t detrimental to either. However, I also think it can add a significant additional layer of difficulty to PhD research… as if it wasn’t hard enough. I talked a little bit about this at the workshop but, being in a room full of people who understood well how hard interdisciplinary research is, I tried to focus a bit more on what has helped me along my interdisciplinary journey, and thoughts about how we (as students? supervisors? departments? institutions?) might help other interdisciplinary individuals in future. Here, I summarise what I said at the workshop, with a bit more of a focus on how you, if you’re an interdisciplinary student, might help yourself with potential challenges – just in case your supervisor, other academics, department and institution aren’t reading. I highlight three key areas that I needed (and got) help with as an interdisciplinary student: 1) planning your interdisciplinary project, 2) finding out about the subject(s) you know less about, and 3) gaining project-specific knowledge:
I’m lucky in that during my PhD I’ve been offered formal trainings on a whole host of subjects (how to write a thesis, how to make a poster, statistics, ecological modelling etc.). But, I’m not in an interdisciplinary programme, so I haven’t been offered training specific to an interdisciplinary project. Planning an interdisciplinary project is quite different to planning other PhDs, and I think it would have been really useful to have received training in how to plan an interdisciplinary project early in my PhD: this is something that can (and I think should) be offered in a simple course at your institution. If formal training isn’t available to you, seek out resources (and people) who can help you. I found Designing and Conducting Mixed Methods Research useful, as well as alternative ways to think about my project plans such as by constructing something akin to a theory of change connecting your research questions to aims and outcomes. There are loads of great resources out there and new ones appearing all the time, so actively search for guidance that’s relevant to you.
Having no formal grounding in half of your project can make it hard to know how to direct your learning on this side of the project. For example, I came from a natural sciences background, so thinking about the social science aspects of my research was harder and involved me learning lots from scratch. However, I didn’t really know what “from scratch” even meant from a social science perspective when I started – which textbooks and papers should I be reading to start off my learning? It can be very easy to miss possible training opportunities which might help with these problems if you’re not in the right circles to find out about them. I have rarely been offered formal training in social science, because my project and I sit in the natural sciences part of my institution and because the groups offering me training are more natural-sciences focused. You too might feel siloed, and like the methods and skills training offered to you are only relevant to small aspects of your project. The truth is, there’s probably loads more training out there that’s available to you – you just don’t know about it. Increased collaboration and conversation between departments, institutions and research groups to increase awareness of opportunities for student training across disciplines would help with this issue in a widespread and long-term way, and we should all encourage this as much as possible. I mean, there are also arguments for complete overhauls of how universities are structured break down some of the walls standing between different disciplines… But, leaving that discussion for another day, let’s assume that you’re a student navigating existing structures for yourself and your peers and, again, you’ve got to do some investigation and reaching out for yourself. Look for resources (I liked Introduction to Social Research for social stuff!), email academics and students working on the stuff you want to know more about, ask if there are seminar series you can go to, look through Masters courses at your institution and find out if you can go and sit in on some lectures. For example, just getting on the right mailing list you didn’t know existed might make a huge difference to what you learn and who you can meet.
Loads of what I’ve learned has come from individuals, informally, rather than through formal training. You do need lots of project-specific knowledge during your PhD, which may come more from discussions with colleagues or by conducting a pilot study, rather than from a structured course. So, once again, don’t forget to make the most of the people and opportunities around you. Ask for help from supervisors, reach out to other students working on similar problems to you, build up your network. Someone might be able to recommend a book or a particular method to you. You might even realise that there are a few of you who with similar interests and it would be useful to form a peer support group, or a reading group. Also, if you know two people with similar interests to each other (but not to you), put them in touch with each other. In my experience, there is a really nice culture in academia of introducing colleagues with mutual interests, with no benefit to the person making the introductions. Keep that culture going to help out your colleagues (and foster better research).
A key theme uniting my above points is that (despite a PhD being an individual journey), building on other’s experience, and even just knowing you’re not alone can be really important. Your interdisciplinary project might seem unrelated to the work that other people in your office and department are working on, but know that there are lots of people out there who have knowledge and experiences you can draw on. That can come in the form of structured training offered to you (ahem institutions and funders), or in the form of seeking out knowledge and skills for yourself. Try to take advantage of those things as early as possible – PhDs are time-limited (maybe especially interdisciplinary PhDs when the student is having to learn more stuff from scratch), so having clear ideas about how you’re going to plan your project, and getting stuck into the right literature early on can be incredibly helpful, and make you feel less stressed by how much you think you don’t know in the long-run.
I do think that formal training, and maybe some cultural change, can really help with these issues. And part of their benefit is that they can be timely and make sure you get set on a good track early on in your project, rather than spending a long time being unsure about stuff and unsure about who to ask for help with that. But, if you feel like you’re completing an interdisciplinary PhD in a world that isn’t set-up to best support interdisciplinary work, know that there are courses, books, websites, and people that can help you. You just have to be extra pro-active in finding them, and we all should be more helpful towards other PhD students struggling with the same problems.
And also, though I’m telling you now that you should find help with these issues early in your project, that doesn’t mean you should stop seeking help later on, or feel like you’ve missed the boat to do so. Lots of the things that helped me across the three issues that I highlight here, I came to later than you’d expect. I attended the interdisciplinarity workshop during my third year, and part of what made it great was that I was able to speak to other people who faced similar problems to me in different contexts, and if nothing else, we could come together to discuss those problems. And that in itself can move your own work forward, even if you don’t come up with the solutions to your own interdisciplinary problems (and, in the case of the workshop, how to make interdisciplinarity work more broadly) yet.
A bit of extra reading about interdisciplinary work:
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.
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:
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.
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).