Why is a PhD like a ‘rubber duck’?

A 3-D reconstruction of the Rosetta comet (67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko) in a 2003 model from the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA and Philippe Lamy (Laboratoire d’Astronomie Spatiale)

A 3-D reconstruction of the Rosetta comet (67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko) in a 2003 model from the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA and Philippe Lamy (Laboratoire d’Astronomie Spatiale)

On the left is an image reconstruction of our ‘best guess’ at what comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko looked like in 2003. This was created using images from the Hubble Space Telescope in preparation for ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft mission to travel there and take a closer look.

This closer look happened more than 10 years later, and just last week the Philae Lander was released and performed the very first soft landing ever on a comet. But even before this landing, we knew a lot more about comet 67P than we had in 2003. Images from Rosetta as it approached and began orbiting the comet showed us a completely unexpected shape, shown on the right, leading it to be nicknamed the ‘rubber duck’ comet.

The soft landing (or more strictly, bouncing) of Philae has been all over the news for the last week or so, but it was this article in Universe Today that drew my attention to the huge increase in knowledge about 67P over the last decade. We can easily get caught up in particular events and achievements but it isn’t often that we really sit back and appreciate how far we’ve come over a longer period of time.

Rosetta navigation camera image taken on 18 August 2014 at about 84 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet nucleus is about 4 km across. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

Rosetta navigation camera image taken on 18 August 2014 at about 84 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet nucleus is about 4 km across. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

On a similar theme, I was reminded recently how far I have come as an academic in the last year or so. The week before I began my PhD I accompanied my supervisor to the Netherlands for a day long meeting. I knew nothing about X-ray spectroscopy, barely anything about Active Galactic Nuclei, had only met her once before and didn’t know any of the other four people in the meeting at all. Everyone else was an expert in this field and I struggled to understand the majority of the day.

On Wednesday this week, one year (and two months) later, I presented and defended my work to my secondary supervisor and panel chair (another staff member, expert in a different field) trying to show that I have made enough progress in a year to be officially upgraded. I have written a little about the upgrade process before, but basically it is the point your department agrees you are on track to complete a PhD within your allotted funding time.

I have found this whole process pretty stressful (probably more so than I should have!) even with great support from family and friends. I handed in a report at the end of October and have been preparing for the upgrade meeting since then. The last time I saw my supervisor before the upgrade meeting she checked through my presentation and reminded me of our trip to the Netherlands a year ago. Remembering how little I knew then and how far I’ve come gave me much more confidence for presenting in my upgrade meeting this week.

Thankfully I passed the upgrade process, and am now officially registered as a PhD student at MSSL.

The combination of the upgrade and recent news about Rosetta has made me think of my PhD in similar terms to this comet. During the planning and application process the ‘PhD’ seemed like a fuzzy concept, but now I’m a third of the way through I can see all the details, bumps and unexpected features becoming clearer. Time will tell what extra surprises the future has in store.

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2 thoughts on “Why is a PhD like a ‘rubber duck’?

  1. David Whewell says:

    And remember if you bounce like Philae do bend your knees!! 🙂

  2. […] my last post I wrote about the relief of passing my “upgrade” panel, so I am now a fully registered […]

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