Diary of a PhD Student: What a year!
Blog Author: Francesco Serafini (2nd year PhD Student, H2020 funded)
What a year to start a PhD! If two years ago someone told me that I would have found myself writing a blog post about my first year as PhD student in Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh during a global pandemic I wouldn’t believe that. As always, life is full of surprises and quite difficult to predict, but let’s start from the beginning, namely the spring of 2018.
In that period, I was doing a four months internship in Saudi Arabia at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). The chain of events that brought me there probably deserves another post and, for the sake of the story, it is sufficient to know that I was there, working on an approximation method to fit large Spatio-temporal Bayesian statistical models. Yes, I am a statistician and before September 2019 I had nothing to do with Geoscience whatsoever.
I was working with Haavard Rue, one of the fathers of such approximation method (called INLA). I was finishing my Master’s degree, no plans for the future, and no idea of what life had planned for me. My period there was great, first time doing proper research, first time included in a vivid research environment, first time living abroad. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to continue, I wanted to start a PhD and I wanted to be in academia, possibly studying something related to what I was doing down there. So, as everyone else in my position, I started to look around for PhD opportunities.
My choice had to meet one tiny, enormous constraint. I was getting married that summer and my wife was about to start a three-year degree at the University of Newcastle, thus, I was primarily looking for PhD opportunities in the UK. And, how does a person look for a PhD? Sending emails! I sent an email to any professor vaguely involved with INLA and also to some professor that were not. Warm recommendation if you are planning to start a PhD: don’t be afraid to send an email to a professor! People are kind and usually flattered by students showing interest in what they are doing. I had received (even) too many offers and I had to kindly reject some of them, included the offer to stay in Saudi Arabia. Because I had a target in mind.
My target was Finn Lindgren. If it’s true that it takes two people to make a baby, INLA has two fathers (how progressive!), which are the two persons that have contributed the most to this project. Finn Lindgren is a professor at the University of Edinburgh (just one hour and a half by train from Newcastle) and when I found out that he was looking for a PhD student I just thought “this is the one!”. It is always funny how, sometimes, we attach meaning to random events and coincidence. When I got accepted, I felt like a piece of a huge puzzle that had finally found its place.
In all this symphony, the only discordant note was that the PhD was not in Statistics but Geosciences. My project is called “Modelling seismicity as a Spatio-temporal point process using inlabru” and, essentially, the goal is to exploit the advantages of the INLA methodology to construct Bayesian forecasting models for earthquake occurrence. The project intrigued me but my earthquake knowledge (more appropriately, the lack of it) kept me awake at night. “What am I going to do? I know nothing about earthquakes and little about the models we are going to use, not to mention all the computational tricks behind INLA”. I felt like standing at the doors of an obscure forest trying to have a glimpse of what’s inside. Frightening.
September finally arrived and I properly started my PhD with the heart filled with apprehension and the head deafened by the drum of my anxiety which, as said, it was a thunderous drum. That’s because nobody tells you what is like starting a PhD, what to expect, what to look for. You find yourself ready to devote the next three or four years of your life to a project of which you know very little. And, just to throw in some additional noisy musical instruments to the band directed by my anxiety, my only rock hard conviction, who knows where it came from, was that the success of a PhD project (e.g. the impact of your research, number of articles published, future opportunities, and so on) mostly depends on the efforts infused by the PhD student. Luckily, the reality is quite different.
I remember distinctly when most of my fears vanished. It was when I had to meet the other students starting a PhD with me, to look them in the eyes and see that they were gripped by my own worries. We have a saying in Italy for this kind of situation: “Mal comune, mezzo gaudio” which sounds like “A trouble shared is a trouble halved”. Indeed, being in the same room with people sharing your exact same fears, listening to the experiences of second-year and third-year PhD students, and discovering that there is a large and accessible support network just for students, helped me realize that all the fears in my head were just shadows, nothing solid, nothing real. I don’t want to give the impression of being a sort of iron man or that the fears once have gone one time are gone forever. They will come back occasionally, but never as in the first weeks (at least in the first year!). In this regard, I want to explicitly thank my supervisor on the Geoscience part, Mark Naylor. Having Mark as supervisor, who is one of the most nice and enthusiastic persons I ever met, really gave “the coup de grace” to my fears.
Once I put my fears in a drawer, I really started enjoying my PhD experience. Telling the truth, the first months there is not enough time to be scared. Everything is new, everything is moving, one starts to become friends with their peers, gets to know their supervisory team, gets involved in tons of activities such as reading groups, discussion groups, conferences, workshops, and so forth. This is one of my favorite parts of doing a PhD. All these activities build a sense of community, for the first time I really felt being part of something. In my case, everything was doubled because being a statistician doing a PhD in Geosciences gave me the possibility to take part in the activities of both communities. Another warm recommendation: get involved! Getting ourselves involved in the activities is the best way to learn new things, it is scary at the beginning but it will surely payback.
Then, when everything was going great, 2020 started with the growing tension between USA and Iran; the specter of global conflict; the so-called Australian Black Summer in which more than 18000 hectares of land burnt. If a “good beginning bodes well” we should have seen the global pandemic coming. I will not linger on this. Starting a PhD during a global pandemic is hard, but not impossible. All the activities were moved online, the meetings became virtual meetings and so the conferences. In some ways, the pandemic was even convenient. For example, I have been able to attend conferences that I would probably have missed. However, nothing can replace a live discussion with other researchers. For some of you, having the possibility of discussing something live could seem of secondary importance. For me, it is not. I have very dear memories of the meetings in Mark’s office. The office is small, a bit untidy, if four persons have to take a seat it is like playing Tetris. But I loved it. Being close to each other, explaining concepts at the blackboard, making questions, giving opinions, all of that creates the most (in my opinion!) fertile ground to see new ideas flourishing. I hope to be able to have another couple of those meetings before the end.
Approaching the conclusion, I think that the first year of PhD is mainly to understand “the role” of your project and to learn all those little tiny things necessary to complete the project (which are not tiny nor little). When I say “the role” I mean mostly three things: i) What is the project about? Which is basically what is the goal of the project, which are the questions we are trying to answer. It seems easy to know that, but, believe me, it is rather confusing and it may change with time. ii) Why is it useful? What is the place of the project to existing literature? Essentially, we need to have clear in mind why it is important to find an answer to the questions defined in the previous point. iii) Who is it for? Meaning, what is the target audience, who needs these answers. This is also important because it will define your writing style and which will be the parts of your project deserving more attention and which are the ones to be relegated in the Appendix. For example, my project wants to be helpful mainly for practitioners and researchers in Geosciences, thus I have to make it appealing to them and I have to be very careful when playing with statistical concepts or I risk losing them before they get the message.
Regarding the little tiny things that are not tiny nor little, they depend on your background. For me this year was essential to get used to the terminology used in seismology and to become sensitive to the problems of the community. To identify what Mark calls “low hanging fruit”, which are works that can be interesting for the community and not too hard to accomplish, without throwing myself in any rabbit hole seen by my curiosity (still learning on this). Not to mention, all the side things such as learning how to write properly, how to present your work, how to sell it, and make people interested in what you are doing.
In conclusion, there are no right conditions to start a PhD. Everything may seem perfect but nobody could tell if there is a global pandemic just around the corner. Furthermore, starting a PhD is scary, as it is scary anything that we don’t know and it is going to change our life. As it is scary any leap in the dark. Luckily, it is not so dark down there, academic peers and supervisors will provide light which sometimes is as bright as the sun and sometimes as weak as the tiniest candle. Anyway, this was one of the periods of my life in which I (consciously) learned more things and there are no words to describe the feeling of finally be part of something. If I was able to feel connected with the community, locked up at home during a global pandemic, it can only get better in the future!