Tag Archives: PhD

History of the PhD

In most of my blogposts I have ended up talking about how I’m feeling through the PhD process, and any techniques I have tried to decrease stress and increase happiness. I have found that writing these, and reading similar blogs from other PhD students, has helped me with the non-academic side of research.

For the same reason I recently joined a free MOOC (massive open online course) on EdX, called “How to survive your PhD”, and it’s given me a few things to think about. Week 1 was about introducing yourself, week 2 was about the history of the doctoral process, and then weeks 3-10 are each focussed on a different emotion that can be part of taking a PhD.

The main point I’ve taken from week 2 is one particular connection between history and the present:

We learnt that the historical culture of scholars and academics being entirely and completely focussed on reading, learning and publishing research came from a time when they literally had everything else done for them. In general, they lived in college, had cleaners, cooks, maids and so never needed to do chores. This meant they could devote every waking moment of their time and brain power to research, and were therefore incredibly well read.

The Research Leader for this MOOC then compared this to modern day researchers; we all have our own responsibilities outside of research itself, whether that’s regular household chores, travel time between home and work, or family responsibilities, let alone wanting any time just to relax! “I’ve not read enough”, “I’ve not done enough”, and “I just don’t know enough” are common worries of PhD students; it’s no wonder that when thinking about how much the ideal academic would be working, we all seem to feel we fall short. 

In my opinion the image of a “real” or “ideal” academic is the part that needs to change, not the modern lifestyle around it. PhDs have to develop to fit into researchers’ lives now, which are profoundly different from researchers’ lives when PhDs began. Doing a PhD is no longer only for those who will be lifelong academics, with nothing else of importance to think about. Some of us PhD students will go to industry research, become businessmen/women, or politicians, or teachers, or whatever else it is we want to do. Some of us will stay in academia for our entire career, but that is no longer the norm.

The PhD, and the culture around it, must adapt to that.

NOTE: A recording of the Periscope “livechat” from week 2 is on YouTube, here. The part especially relevant to this post starts at 5:14 and lasts about 2 minutes (it’s ~30 mins long in total, and worth a watch in entirety if you have time).

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Nearing the end of Year 2…

I feel like my posts here have become significantly more infrequent over the last year, compared to during the first year of my PhD. I went back and briefly counted, and it’s not as drastic a difference as I expected; I posted 12 blogs during my first year, and have done 8 so far this year. This just goes to show that how I feel something is going is not always the most accurate measure of reality.

I think learning how to separate my immediate perception of my progress from the reality of my progress is the most important lesson I’ve learnt in my PhD so far. I have spent a lot of the last 12 months being frustrated with ‘not moving fast enough’, ‘not doing well enough’, and generally struggling with the idea that I “should” be at least a stage further forward than I am. Every time I speak to another PhD student about their work they seem to express the same idea, which hints at the fact that this is something we are all dealing with! Continue reading

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Back to work

I haven’t written anything on this blog for a few months. I would like to say that’s because I’ve been intensely busy with all kinds of work and life related things, which is kind of true. But mostly I haven’t had the motivation to write because I try to focus on my PhD work and that has been very frustrating recently.

In my last post I wrote about the relief of passing my “upgrade” panel, so I am now a fully registered PhD student (instead of officially an MPhil student). That was back in November last year. Immediately after that I finished off and sent out a draft paper to collaborators, just in time to get some feedback before Christmas.

Stupid idea. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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Up(grade)s and Downs

While usually I try to focus these blogs on positive aspects of PhD life, today I want to focus on how I felt driving home after a mediocre day.

Yesterday was not a good day. Nothing particularly bad happened, but work didn’t go very well and by the time I left the office I was frustrated.

I ranted about it whilst driving home; about 45 minutes of “Why doesn’t it work?”, “Why can’t I write faster?”, “Why don’t I understand it all yet?”, “Why is science so *frustrating*?” etc etc

The frustration I’m feeling is down to the stress of meeting deadlines, not the work itself.

The main cause of my current work-related stress is the fast approaching upgrade process. Continue reading

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New Job! STFC Astronomer

Life has been a little busy recently. The biggest news is that I now have a part time job at the Royal Observatory Greenwich (ROG)!

My new badge, for the role of STFC Astronomer at Royal Observatory Greenwich

My new badge, for the role of STFC Astronomer at Royal Observatory Greenwich

My role is called “STFC Astronomer”, and I will be presenting Study Day “Masterclasses” to secondary school groups, and planetarium shows to both school groups and the public at the ROG. This is to do alongside my PhD, so it is for one (short) day a week, either 5 hours or 3.5 hours long, depending on the programme for that day, and only during term-time.

I have done one induction/training day and one normal day so far, and it’s been great. I know a little about how the organisation works because I volunteered there for two summers during my undergraduate degree, so it’s been lovely to see the astronomy team again, meet the new members and learn about where I will fit into the department. I have also been able to see how much I have grown as a science communicator since then; my time at the National Space Centre allowed me to develop my own style as a presenter, both in classrooms and planetariums, and I am pleased to be able to continue doing this alongside my PhD research.

Continue reading

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Cloudy in Belfast?

Participants at the Cloudy Summer School 2014 (QUB). Photo credit: Paul Woods

Participants at the Cloudy Summer School 2014 (QUB). Left to right, Nicole Reindl, Anne Fox, Patricia Bessiere, Larissa Takeda, Catherine McEvoy, Kingsley Gale-Sides, Megan Whewell, Tek Prasad Adhikari, Helen Meskhidze, Mattia Bulla, Catia Silva, Matt Nicholl, Andri Prozesky, Ted of School, Gary Ferland, Janet Chen, Tommy Nelson, Jake Turner, Richard Tunnard, Brianna Smart, Tom Finzell, Ting-Wen Lan, Joe Polshaw Photo credit: Paul Woods

In August (18th-22nd) I attended a Summer School at Queen’s University Belfast. The week was based around learning how to use a computer programme called Cloudy, which is an atomic physics code that simulates the spectrum you should expect to observe from many astrophysical objects and scenarios. Continue reading

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Seeing Clearly

As a PhD student I spend a lot of time sitting in the office, and almost all of that involves looking at my laptop or computer monitor. Over the last year I have found it more and more difficult to spend full days at my desk without feeling muscles aches, tiredness or general restlessness. All this makes it harder to work consistently throughout the day.

From PhD Comics. Credit: Jorge Cham (Click on image to return to original webpage)

From PhD Comics. Credit: Jorge Cham (Click on image to return to original webpage)

In some ways I have a good situation here as the office I’m in has just been refurnished (with unwanted desks from another department), I have a reasonable size HD monitor to attach to my laptop which more than doubles the screen space, my laptop sits on a raised surface to keep it at eye level, I use a shelf above my desk to store textbooks, notes, papers to read and personal items and I own a reasonably decent office chair that reduces the strain on my back.

 Two weeks ago, on a whim, I made my first visit to the opticians for about 6 years.

Five days ago I picked up my first pair of glasses* Continue reading

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ISSI – Discussions, Presenting and Editing

The view from a bridge in Bern (May 2014)

The view from a bridge in Bern (May 2014)

In December, only two and a half months after I started my PhD, I wrote about a trip I was about to take to the International Space Science Institute (ISSI) in Bern, Switzerland.

When I got back I wanted to write about my experiences there, but it was on that trip that as a consortium we tried to work out a consistent picture for the strange data we collected of NGC 5548 over the summer. It was clear that we had an unexpected result and we wanted to minimise the risk of anyone else realising this before we had chance to publish, plus we decided as a group to submit to Science and therefore it was important to keep in mind their embargo rules.

As the first paper from this campaign was published last week, I want to go back and describe the experiences I had at ISSI. I have now spent two weeks there, one in December 2013 and one in May 2014, with almost the same people each time. I learnt a lot during both of these weeks at ISSI, but also found them very different; I will try to explain this in the rest of this post. Continue reading

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X-ray Universe 2014 – Dublin, Ireland

A full session hearing about Athena and the future of X-ray astronomy. Credit: @antmarcarr on Twitter. Click on the photo to go to the original tweet.

A full session hearing about Athena and the future of X-ray astronomy. Credit: @antmarcarr on Twitter. Click on the photo to go to the original tweet.

Last week I went to my first international astronomy conference, X-ray Universe 2014. This was organised by the XMM-Newton Science Operations Centre and had about 350 delegates, 217 talks and 135 posters.

I took a poster, showing my work so far this year, and the consortium I’m in had six talks about our NGC 5548 campaign on one afternoon (I’ve explained the main result we announced in this post).

While this was my first international astronomy conference, it wasn’t my first international conference, as I had attended the International Planetarium Society’s 2012 conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. That one had 700 delegates, so the 350 people at X-ray Universe felt less intimidating than it would have done otherwise! Continue reading

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