What is a conference? Part 2- the BIG meeting- AGU Fall Meeting 2015

My PhD has so far taken me to some pretty exciting places and I’ve been lucky enough to secure some travel grants that have allowed me to really make the most of my allocated travel money. However, despite the fact that my friends and family seem to think I’ve been constantly off on holiday conferences are actually pretty hard work and essential for making a career for yourself in the scientific world.

Recently I wrote about my experiences at a small meeting in Iceland. Small meetings tend to have a set programme, you all see all of the talks, everyone has lunch together and you have a chance to speak to the bulk of the people at the meeting. My other conference trip last year was to the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco and was completely the other end of the scale. With over 23,000 attendees it is the largest Earth and Space science meeting in the world, and is spread across 3 buildings. At any one time there are many talks going on as well as multiple poster sessions; here the poster session is the size of several football fields.

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A small fraction of the poster hall at AGU.

Given this, I was slightly sceptical about how much I was going to get out of the meeting. Even though I had put in the effort to be prepared for what I wanted to see the first couple of days were exhausting and I didn’t feel like I was picking much up. Even simple things like going for dinner were quite hard work with limited WiFi and even though I knew plenty of people there I kept missing many of them. The icebreaker reception was pure chaos- the crowd outside waiting for the free beer and merchandise from the exhibitors reminded me of the crowds you see on the news for black friday!

However, once I got over the jet lag a bit things went up hill. I realised my brain was too saturated with science on Wednesday to take in much more and instead joined to queue to watch Al Gore speak (a definite advantage of a larger conference)- he was very into the space science he was talking about, funny and nothing short of inspirational at the end. Words I’d never expect to use about a politician. It was also nice to have dinner with my UCL colleagues, and catch up with old Reading colleagues and Karthaus friends throughout the week.

Thursday was a very early start for my talk but I was glad there were still quite a few people there for the time of the morning. Straight after my talk I had responses on twitter and the next day at the poster session I spoke to several people who were interested in my work and able to offer help and advice, or were just starting out on their PhDs and wanting to know more.

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Giving my talk. Unfortunately no-one ever sits near the front but there were a lot of people there, honest! Thanks to Nat Melia for photographing.

It is these interactions that make the conferences so useful and so essential. Not only have I found help with my own work, I may be able to help others with theirs and collaborate in the future. You also get a good idea of what other people are working on so you know where there could be gaps to look at things in the future.

It’s a weird old world in science as we are all at the end of the day often rivals for the same pots of funding, but we also all need help from others to get to where we need to be. Meetings like AGU are essential for this and also good for just getting to know what’s going on more generally in your field- Iceland was great but it was very specific. AGU gave me chance to watch big keynote speakers such as Eric Rignot talking about sea level rise, the notes from which will definitely be useful for putting my PhD in context both in my viva any upcoming Fairbrother public lecture.

Conferences also are of course a lot of fun and luckily there was a bit of time for sight seeing and even a Parkrun* the day after the conference ended. It was also useful that the conference was right next to Bloomingdales for those moments when a break from the full on science was needed, but don’t tell my supervisor that…

 

*The last one in the world in fact and therefore probably the only one where coming last is a more exciting achievement than winning.

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PhD Interviews- Attempting to clear up some of the mystery

The PhD interview seems to be an area of great variety, mystery and something that I personally was quite afraid of. Since they are all so different and you can never really know what to expect I’ve tried to collate a variety of experiences from different subjects and funding routes. However, the variety of responses made it hard to even really categorise them so I’ve just put them all into a post in no particular order. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed and I hope that this will help reassure or at least inform any future applicants that whatever happens, there is no normal…

**If you replied to me and can’t see your response here please let me know asap- the servers went down during my initial attempt at writing this!**

Being interviewed by people I already knew was the hardest thing for me I think – it’s hard to be professional but also keep those friendly relationships up at the same time. The main thing my interviewers wanted was justification – for my choice of topic, for my choice of texts, for my choice of focus in the proposal, everything. Plus the absolute guarantee that I could finish in 3 years, of course. My main advice for arts/humanities candidates would be that you need to *really* know your topic and why you want to do it. You’re not expected to be an expert already, but you are expected to know exactly why the topic is a) original and b) valuable. Also not to be too downhearted if you don’t get it first time round. I know quite a few people who took a year to fine tune things and then reapplied and were successful, plus also a few self-funded people who are doing just fine.
(Gemma, Film Studies, Exeter- an interview for funding)

I had 3 supervisors in mine (for 2 projects) and a chair, which was quite difficult at times as one project was on phytoplankton, another was on the genomics of invasive species, so it was difficult to make sure I was ticking both boxes! They asked about my previous work to ease me in. The chair asked questions relating to my motivation for doing a PhD, including why I didn’t pursue my bachelors dissertation as a PhD as I was very enthusiastic about it! Then the supervisors asked questions specifically relating to their projects. I was asked to described one of the PhDs as if I was talking to the general public rather than scientists. At the National Oceanography Centre they also present you with a piece of data you wouldn’t have seen before and get you to describe what you see. They essentially want to see how you think and analyse information. It was fairly relaxed but mentally draining so I felt exhausted afterwards!
(National Oceanography Centre, 2014)

I didn’t go through an interview process, but my supervisor always has a “mock” interview with him + his current PhD students interviewing the applicant a couple days before the real interview, and the applicants have all been successful–not sure if you want to work that in but it’s always worth asking your supervisor if you could have a mock interview before the real one!
(Scott Polar Research Institute)

My interview actually took place on my birthday, which immediately made it a more jovial affair. The panel consisted of four senior academics from the research cluster, who interviewed all potential candidates. I seem to have come out on top so I was offered the post. The interview itself was very friendly and a combination of questions about me, such as my motivation behind pursuing a Ph.D. or my future career aspirations, and ones regarding the project (e.g. why it was important to find out about mid-Holocene climate change). The panel largely wanted to know about me though, why I was interested in this specific topic (I made sure to read all the relevant papers before the interview), how I was going to deal with things not working out as planned, and what kind of avenues I’d like to pursue as sidelines to the main project. Overall, they wanted to know that I would be able to stick it, have a genuine interest in the topic, and that I could get along with other people 🙂
(Southampton, Geography, 2007)

My interview took place at a research institute rather than a university, but all three of my supervisors were present in the interview. They each asked a couple of questions about my previous research experience- through my undergraduate dissertation, and my masters. They also asked me to explain some of my knowledge on computer programming and languages- as this was stated on my CV but they wanted more details. Finally they asked about my knowledge of the project I was applying for. The questions included asking what I thought the project would entail and what I already knew about the specific area- it’s good to have read a few papers on it before the interview! They also asked what my opinion was on fieldwork, and whether I was still willing to accept the PhD with no fieldwork. I think it is always good to have a question or two for the interviewers also, as it shows that you have read up on the project, and are interested in finding out more. I’m not sure how long the interview actually took, as time flew by, but I think it was around 45mins to 1hr.
(Jenny, Atmospheric Sciences, BAS)

My interview was in Zürich so since I was travelling there from Edinburgh they made a full day of it. In the morning I had to give a presentation based on my Masters thesis in front of the group and everyone could ask questions, but that wasn’t so bad since I had had to give that presentation in Edinburgh too. There was then some time just with the PhDs and post-docs in the group and later I had a lab tour (the PhD was split between two departments so that took a while) and an interview with two professors which was very informal – just asking why I wanted that PhD and why I wanted to do it in Switzerland, what my other interests were etc. I think the main thing is to show your enthusiasm rather than technical knowledge (as that is what you’re going there to learn). They said they had others to interview and I didn’t hear for ages so assumed I hadn’t got it but I emailed to ask and I had got it – so well worth chasing up if you don’t hear for a while!
(Ruth, geochemistry, Zürich)

My interview at Manchester was a very casual meeting with my potential supervisor, whom I’d contacted in advance before officially applying to the course. I applied to her specifically with a two-page proposal and before meeting she encouraged me to turn it into a fuller ten-page outline of my research plans. We then met to discuss the proposal, and both felt it was a good fit for the university and for her as a supervisor, so from there we turned it into a course application and then a funding application (neither of which required official interviews at Manchester, though the funding application was tough and I was unsuccessful first time round – I was funded from my second year onwards). Before successfully applying to Manchester I had several interviews for funding at other universities (typically, in the humanities in the UK getting a place on the course isn’t as tough as getting the funding). One at Cambridge was a phone interview, and two at Exeter were more formal interviews in which I sat in front of a panel of three people who grilled me on my research proposal. I think when you meet a potential supervisor for a meeting she or he is trying to get the best out of you and find out what the heart of your research interest is. When you meet with a funding panel, they are trying to distribute a very small pot of funding to a very large number of applicants so they are rather tougher.

(Phd, humanities, Manchester)

My PhD interview is now 8 years ago. I received the invitation from Exeter and stopped there for the interview on my way to join a research cruise. At the time, I had all the confidence of a Masters degree with a year in research, and while brutally honest about my abilities or lack thereof, none of the restraining self-doubt of a PhD. I don’t remember much of the detailed questions, I do remember the friendly atmosphere. As I entered the room I met with two men and a woman, who would later be identified as the lab manager and the two supervisors. Charles, who would become my main supervisor, immediately put me at ease with his unassuming, intelligent manner and friendly smile. The researchers had a genuine interest in me and my previous work and education, and it was more of a scientific conversation than a drilling. The lab manager asked a few more detailed questions regarding research ethics, laboratory experience and general squeamishness. A tour around the labs concluded the interview, before I got back on the train for my flight to join ship. Looking back now, I think that they were mostly interested in my potential; my potential to develop as a researcher, my potential to move knowledge forward, my determination to achieve goals and my general application to work and challenges. I was by far not an ideal candidate in terms of background – I had studied marine biology and worked in deep sea ecosystems, applying now for a PhD in freshwater fish, hormone disruption and population genetics. And yet, when I returned from the cruise an offer was made. There are two caveats to this story. Firstly, I did not apply for a Research Council funded PhD. And secondly, I was interviewed under the old system. Then, PhD funding was generally secured by the University and an appropriate candidate then sought. This changed a few years ago, and I am not too clear on the details as I have not had much dealings with it, but I think now Universities first choose a candidate, and the candidate then has to compete with all other PhD candidates for RC project funding. Not everyone is, of course, successful, which I imagine makes this a much more stressful experience. However, I am convinced that the potential slumbering in an applicant is, nonetheless, still of decisive importance.
(Marta, Exeter, biological sciences)

And finally me:

I had two interviews at Reading for two different PhDs and they were very different experiences and both different again from the standard Reading meteorology experience.

My interview with my current supervisor was quite informal, he seemed quite concerned that my degree title contained ‘proficiency in Spanish’ until I explained that it was only through optional modules and I could still do maths. He then decided to test this by writing an integration problem on his whiteboard. I couldn’t solve this off of the top of my head- I generally need to sit and scribble away at maths on my own- but then he asked “do you think you could solve this on your own?”. He obviously believed my response as I got the job!

My other interview was with a panel. As much as they were friendly it was more intimidating to have three people. I’d tried to prepare for this one by reading some papers but that seemed more detail than they needed, they were more worried about the way I thought. One thing I could have been better prepared for was that even though the PhD description described some skills as unnecessary, I needed to be able to show that I could learn them.

The most common Reading experience is thorough their annual PhD visit day where all the supervisors describe the projects they have on offer and then applicants book short interview slots for the projects that they’re interested in. Then students are matched up to supervisors depending on their and the supervisors’ preference.

Note: One thing I hadn’t really thought about when starting this was self funded PhDs as it doesn’t happen so often in the sciences. If that’s a route you’re looking at then I’d recommend hearing from Gemma here.

Find a PhD

Here’s me talking about what I do, what it’s like and how I’m funded etc.- it was done off the cuff so not perfect but I guess that gives it honesty 🙂

Find a PhD, who I did this video for, is a very good resource though for anyone thinking about further study.

Other places you can look specifically in my area include the met jobs mailing list, which is meteorology and some general earth sciences and is how I found my PhD, and cryolist for specifically polar things.

Good luck!

NERC ATSC Fieldwork Training Part 1- Getting to and ‘surviving’ in the Arctic

Students and tutors in sunny Cambridge, now fully briefed on health and safety, GPS and croquet.

Students and tutors in sunny Cambridge, now fully briefed on health and safety, GPS and croquet.

For me the end of August involved 3 fairly intense but fun days learning about planning fieldwork. Health and safety actually kept us interested for 2 hours, who ever would have thought! Would Scott have survived Antarctica if he’d had a risk assessment? Probably not being seeing how all the mistakes  stacked against him showed the benefits of planning and openness. Soon it was time after exploring the British Antarctic Survey and being fed far too much food for the two groups of 8 PhD students set off to put what we’d learnt into practice at 79 degrees North.

As well as helath and safety we got a chance to explore the British Antarctic Survey archives, poor Angela with her "rather short legs"

As well as helath and safety we got a chance to explore the British Antarctic Survey archives, poor Angela with her “rather short legs”

Our journey took the best part of two days, and included 3 planes, 2 taxis, a bus and 13 hours overnight on a boat… with 7 bunks for 11 people. I didn’t need my maths degree to know that this was not going to be a journey with much sleep involved. Luckily no-one chundered and we all managed to at least get some form of sleep, bonus…

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Beautiful view as we left Longyearbyen

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Loading up the boat. Luckily Ed has sent his approximately 2000 tonnes of GPS gear ahead.

Fortunately the scenery was suitably stunning enough to distract from the lack of sleep and we had many bird shaped friends to accompany our journey as well as fun games of identify the whale/seal/walrus/mystery creature. Our wildlife spotting skills did not improve as a result of the trip- even by the final day Pete Convey (course tutor) was outraged by our confusion between seals and ducks- to be fair they were very far away.

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On the boat, in the sun. Whoever said the Arctic was tough?

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With fewer people than bunks some of us had to get creative with sleeping spaces!

Eventually, after avoiding some icebergs we arrived in Ny-Alesund, the most northern settlement in the world and our home for the next few days, the NERC owned, BAS run (did I get it right?) UK research base. The town used to be predominantly for mining, and much of the mining infrastructure is left over as ‘cultural heritage’. Some of this, such as the abandoned train is quite impressive but there is also a lot of rubble and local opinion of this is quite mixed but the decision was taken to leave it all as a memorial to those who were lost in a big mining accident that ultimately led to the closure of the mines. The town was also used as a starting point for Amundsen’s expedition to the North Pole by airship, you can still see the mast that the airship was attached to.

The base commander, Nick, greeted us at the jetty and soon made us feel at home. The base has endless tea and biscuits and even gin on our first evening where we were fortunate enough to be able to share with Kim Holmén, the international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute who’s stories can probably only be rivaled by our very own Nick.

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Storytime with Nick, the bay provides a handy supply of ice for g&ts.

Storytime with Nick is a key feature of life on the UK base- from life as a base ‘medic’ to the Falklands War he’s seen it all, or at least knows someone else who has.

The base itself is very cosy, I even had my own room which was a nice surprise, and hot showers. Luxury! Radio contact is made often with all field parties so one of our first jobs was to learn how to use the radios, as well as being given a tour of the base and learning all the safety procedures, before getting down to the serious business of washing ice for the gin.

Then to the most important part- food! All the nationalities have their own bases but mealtimes are eaten together in a big dining room with stunning views of the bay, glaciers and frequent wildlife. Eating tea while watching beluga whales is definitely not something I’d expected. There is a lot of choice and I think I could get fat very quickly had I been there much longer.

However, it couldn’t all be fun and games and most had an early night to recover from the boat and be ready for a key event the next morning- rifle training to protect from the very real danger of bears… To be continued!

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My room in the UK base, look Mum, no mess!

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One of many safety mechanisms in place- knowing who is in the field.

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The dining room- all nationalities eat together.

GO Science- thoughts on my first month and a half in policy

As you may well have seen, last month I started a 3 month NERC policy placement at the Government Office of Science, or GO Science as it’s slightly strangely known as. You can read about the scheme, why I chose to do it and how to get involved here and get some hints on the application form here.

Now I’m approaching the halfway point of my placement (where has that gone??), I thought it would be a good time to talk about my initial impressions and what it’s like to work at GO Science.

GO Science is relatively small- although we’re in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills which is huge, the office is small enough that you get to know the majority of people quite quickly. They also seem to rely quite a lot on interns- not just policy placements but general internships meaning that there is a good range of ages and skill sets and they are well set up for having an intern- I’m not just left doing dull jobs or simply twiddling my thumbs trying to hunt out work as I have been in other places. Things were a bit slow to start with as I’m in quite a small team but I’ve now got properly stuck into a project it’s much better.

One thing that surprised me about GO Science is the number of people with Dr. in front of their name. The civil service as a whole seems keen to promote generalists and there are plenty here who have a non scientific background but it’s somewhat reassuring that a large number of people dealing with science policy do actually have a scientific background, to the extent that it’s not uncommon for people to have done a post doc or two before they come here. The mix of this and generalists with experiences as diverse as having worked in Afghanistan and India I think works really well.

This does mean though that if you have a scientific specialism then be prepared to be asked all about it. Sir Mark Walport, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor has recently been in Svalbard and this has led to me being asked a whole range of questions from whether or not he has to have an armed guard when in the Arctic to the state of the sea ice. The fact I do mainly care about the other pole doesn’t matter!

It’s been really easy to get to know people and that has been helped by the fact that in my second week there was a quiz and a bake off, two of the best things. There is never a  shortage of interesting conversations around the office, people here are genuinely interested in science.

In term of the work itself I’ve been organising a high profile event, written a briefing note for Sir Mark and presented my own science to the department. I have to admit the area I’m working in isn’t exactly what I’m interested in but regardless of the opportunity to learn new things there are still plenty of chances to see what else is going on in the department and even maybe visit other government departments to work shadow. So plenty to look forward to until returning to the PhD…

RCUK Policy Internships- 1 week to go! Hints on the application form

The deadline for RCUK policy internships is 16:00 on 28 August 2015!

I’m currently based at the Government Office of Science doing one- feel free to contact me with questions but for anyone who’s applying here are some hints that I was given for the application form, and some things that I’ve picked up along the way:

  • Think carefully about the topic of your policy briefing. It needs to be something you understand well to make sure you cover it fully but at the same time make sure it is far enough away from your research topic to show that you can be adaptable and learn new things easily, skills you will definitely need on the internship (I’m currently organising an event around an area I didn’t even know the definition of before I came here…).
  • You need to show you can be impartial so picking a topic that is a bit contraversial or even has a small amount of debate associated with it will help. I did geoengineering for this reason.
  • Keep it specifiic- it’s very short so hard to cover anything in depth. I ended up just covering a specific area of geoengineering to make sure I could deal with it fully.
  • Don’t assume that the briefing note will just go away once it’s sent off. Remember why you wrote it and how you did it.
  • Put in the time- I heard rumours that the largest cut in applications is between application form and interview stage so it’s important to get this first stage right.
  • Be honest. They’re not expecting everyone to have a burning ambition to have a career in policy. I didn’t- and as long as you justify your understanding of why it’s important to make links with policy makers you can still benefit from the scheme.
  • Don’t stress too much about the organisation you apply to. I’ve met people who loved it each of the organisations on offer.

Good luck!

RCUK Policy Internships- It Could Be You!

Just over two weeks ago I temporarily left Reading to start a 3 month policy placement at the Government Office of Science (‘GO Science’), funded by my research council. I’ll write more about my experiences of working for the government soon but as the call has now gone out for the next round of applications for placements now seems the perfect time to reflect on what I’m actually doing and why.

The scheme allows PhD students to take time away from research and work within an institution that deals with policy, either in a parliamentary sense such as being at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, or somewhere more general such as the British Library or the Royal Society.

So why did I want to do this? My motivation was for two reasons. Firstly, I just wanted to see where the science that gets done actually goes; what difference does it make and how? A lot of research is funded by the tax payer so it’s very easy to question what the point of it is if it then doesn’t feed into the bigger picture. Secondly it is to see what other careers are out there. I’m certain I want to stay in research and will do whatever I can to make that happen, but realistically it’s an unstable career and there are fewer and fewer jobs the further up the ladder you go. One thing that’s really surprised me about GO Science is the amount of people that have done one or more post docs, or are doing temporary policy placements within an academic career. After all, our big boss, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Mark Walpot, is able to do his job through the virtue of having had a long and successful scientific career.

For any PhD students reading this and thinking of applying to the scheme, I can’t recommend it enough. Even only two weeks in it has been a great experience, and through the process of applying and a huge long interview day I’ve met lots of past placement holders all of whom have been incredibly enthusiastic regardless of whether or not it left them wanting a career in policy- the skills you will gain will help you whatever you do in life and being aware of the bigger picture can never be a bad thing. I’d also say if you’re nervous about asking your supervisor about doing a placement don’t be, I was but my supervisor was almost a bit too supportive (keen to have a break from me…?)! A lot of academics do understand that a) not everyone wants a research career and b) it’s still good for scientists to see other things sometimes. A massive bonus of it being research council funded is that they just keep paying you and your PhD automatically gets extended by 3 months with minimum hassle.

PlacementLoctions

Any of these could be your workplace next year!

In terms of placement choices I’m probably biased in that I already think GO Science is great. It’s really varied, you feel a part of the team very quickly and there are tonnes of interesting things to work on and talk about.  POST seemed to be the most popular choice last year- you get a glamorous parliamentary pass and will almost certainly work on a POST note which will then be the resource for MPs wanting to read about that area of science, although I was put off by doing something so specific. Working for the Welsh Parliament seemed to be more about answering questions from ministers- I met someone who liked it so much she went back there after handing in her PhD.

However, the most enthusiastic people I’ve met where those at the Centre for Science and Policy in Cambridge and the Royal Society- so pretty much wherever you go it seems you get a great experience. Applications are due by the 28th August so what are you waiting for?