Help! My Child/ Partner/ Friend is doing a PhD… Or ‘5 things never to say to a PhD student’

With Christmas fast approaching many PhD students will be feeling some trepidation about returning home and facing questions about their PhD, ‘when will you be done?’ and such. I wrote this blog as a result of looking for something to send my family to explain why some questions are just a bad idea and I couldn’t find it- there’s lots of advice for people who are parents doing PhDs but not so much for parents of PhDs.

Chances are you want to ask these questions because you are genuinely concerned for someone’s progress and wellbeing and then are justifiably upset when they may snap/ cry/ run away in response. In academia an unusually high proportion of peoples’ social circles will have or be doing a PhD and it’s very easy for us to forget that most people who are clever enough to steer well clear of academia will have no idea what you’re doing, why you’re doing it or what it involves. There are plenty of stats out there that start to suggest just how hard a PhD and academic life can be: 47% of graduate students suffer from depression, 10% have contemplated suicide, 53% of UK academics have mental health issues etc. and most family and friends will want to help ease those pressures where they can. So here I hope to go some way to explaining why some unexpected questions or comments are quite so unhelpful. Thank you to everyone who contributed ideas or improvements.

At the suggestion of a colleague I’ve also made this entirely serious cut out and keep mini-version to aid any PhD who’s feeling the pressure of the season. Feel free to distribute as required 🙂

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1.When will you be done?

A PhD is a new piece of research. No-one has ever done it before. Sometimes it goes smoothly, more often that not it doesn’t. If we knew how it would go it wouldn’t be new. No-one wants it done more than us. Reminding us that it’s not finished yet adds to the irrational guilt we all have that we’re somehow failing by not being done yet with the thing that justifies our entire existence for the last few years. We’re already under time pressure to do it before our deadline/ the money runs out. There are also factors out of our control (how long it takes our supervisors to read our drafts, how long we have to wait for lab/ computer time) so it’s often not even something we can make happen any quicker, much as we’d really really really like to.

2.Have you got a job yet?

This also comes in the form of ‘what are you doing next’ or worse ‘when are you getting a real job?’. PhDs are pretty full on, and the final stages when they’re most full on is the time this question crops up the most. It’s likely fine to ask what we’d like to do next, or if we’d like to stay in research if you want to know our plans. But reminding us that we don’t yet have ‘real’ employment following submission is just adding to the guilt of someone who would very likely love to be able to send in a bunch of job applications but doesn’t really have the time given that they’re doing some crazy amount of hours a day writing the thesis. Or rerunning all their work and rewriting the thesis. Definitely don’t ask then.

3. Any kind of ‘jokes’ about being a student/ staying in bed/ extra long holidays

I wish. Actually I’m working way harder than I would have done in my nicely paid graduate job for less than half the money. This is probably because I once thought I loved what I do and it was worth it. Now I no longer have the ability to love anything… (I joke, but seriously…). 99% of PhDs I know work incredibly ****ing hard. We don’t come in at 9 and go home at 5 and switch off. We check our simulations at midnight on a Sunday and end up going back to the office after having allowed ourself an hour or two off to go to the pub.* We might have the flexibility to have the odd midweek morning off but this only means we just end up staying a whole lot later when we do. There may be the odd person who can derp around for 3 years and then write it all at the end but they are definitely the minority. And we don’t get massive holidays in the summer or break up for Christmas.

*Yes I’ve done it and some of my best work has come out of this. Also some of my very worst where I made some ice melt by making it colder or the time I worked so late I forgot I owned a bike and walked all the way home. Current PhD students maybe don’t follow in my footsteps.

4. What is the point of what you do? Are my taxes paying for this? What use will this have in the real world?

If our research is funded then it goes without saying the someone important (or more likely several people) thought it was worth funding. We constantly have to justify our research in transfer reports, papers, thesis, every talk ever. Sometimes we just don’t want to do that any more. If you’re genuinely interested then that’s great and we probably will happily talk about it and why it matters, communication science is great and important, but if I’m not aggressively asking you to justify your job then I think it’s only fair to ask you to do the same.

5.Unhelpful comparisons

‘Your cousin started his PhD at the same time as you, why aren’t you finished too?’ ‘Did you know this person you went to school with just bought a house/ got married/ has two kids/ sold her business?’
How quickly you get to the end of your research is often pot luck and vastly unrelated to how hard you work. As I said above, it’s new. Some people get lucky and get it done quickly, the rest of us just try not to hate them too much.

 

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Even in academia people get it wrong all the time.

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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.

Fairbrother Lecture

I’m very excited to be able to reveal that I’ve been asked to give Reading University’s Fairbrother Lecture for 2016.

Named after Jack Fairbrother, who in 1929 became the first student to be awarded a PhD from the University, the Fairbrother Lecture is an annual event at which a current, or recent, Reading doctoral researcher will present their work to a wider audience.

A wider audience means that it should be accessible to everyone so please do come along to hear about my work as well as some more general information about the polar regions.

It’s free but ticketed: more information is available here.

Wednesday 4 May, 19.00, Henley Business School, Whiteknights, University of Reading

Fairbrother 2016 photo

 

The official announcement:

“The Graduate School is pleased to announce that Sammie Buzzard, a final year doctoral researcher from the Department of Meteorology, will give the Fairbrother Lecture in 2016. In this lecture, Sammie will discuss some of the key issues around global warming and climate change; in particular, the collapse of ice shelves in Antarctica. Sammie’s doctoral research aims to help us better predict the speed and rate at which these ice shelves – one twice the size of Wales – will continue to melt and she will explain the wider impact of this occurrence. Sammie will also highlight some of the challenges of researching one of the most inhospitable places on earth. 

Sammie Buzzard holds a Natural Environment Research Council studentship and had previously been a finalist in the Graduate School’s Three Minute Thesis Competition. 

In addition to her studies, in 2015 Sammie completed a Research Council Policy Internship at the Government Office for Science. 

If you wish to attend this lecture, please book your place using the online booking form: http://www.reading.ac.uk/news-and-events/about-event-register.aspx

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.

Penguins are going climbing to adapt to climate change!

An emperor penguin (image Photo Volcania)

Until recently it was thought that all emperor penguins bread on fast ice, that’s sea ice attached to the land; much easier to navigate than the cliffs of ice shelves (image Photo Volcania).

It has been well publicised recently that despite sea ice in the Arctic decreasing, sea ice in the Antarctic has been on the increase. Emperor penguins breed on sea ice, so surely this would be a good thing for the penguins?

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case- even though there is more ice forming it’s forming too late for the penguins’ breeding season. The climate of Antarctica is changing, it has warmed more than 5 times the global average over the last century. It is thought that one of the colonies discovered moved as a result of the late arrival of the sea ice, potentially due to a changing climate.

Penguin colonies can actually be spotted in satellite images such as the one below and it was a combination of this and aerial views from planes that alerted scientist to the fact that these colonies that have moved onto ice shelves.

A satellite image of an emperor penguin colony on an ice shelf (Image BAS/Digital Global).

A satellite image of an emperor penguin colony on an ice shelf (Image BAS/Digital Global). Guano is a term for penguin excrement.

It’s not known quite how the penguins manage to climb up cliffs onto the ice shelves as the colonies haven’t been studied up close but it is thought they might be able to shuffle up between ridges formed by draining water on the ice shelves.

Although it is bad news that the penguins are having to do this it’s a nice positive in their chances of future survival. Polar regions warm faster than other areas so this may not be the end of unusual penguin behaviour if the planet continues to warm.

An emperor penguin huddle. The males are left to look after the eggs while the females go off and hunt, they hiddle together to try and survive the freezing conditions such as during the blizzard shown here (image Australian Antarctic Division).

An emperor penguin huddle. The males are left to look after the eggs while the females go off and hunt, they huddle together to try and survive the freezing conditions such as during the blizzard shown here (image Australian Antarctic Division).

 

References:

The original research article (Fretwell et al.) is http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0085285