About the process of doing a PhD and perhaps being an early-career researcher.

News! Thesis! Job!

Hello world. I have two bits of news.

A stack of paper, about 2cm high

And that’s double-sided!

The first one is that a couple of weeks ago I sent a complete draft of my thesis to my supervisors. This isn’t the end of anything as there’s still plenty of work to do, both before and after they get back to me, before it’s ready to be submitted for examination; but it’s a milestone. I’d never printed the whole thing in one go before, and I was surprised by its bulk…

The second piece of news is that I have a new job! I’ve been lucky enough to win a NERC “innovation placement”, which will allow me to spend a year working with the Oceanography team at Marine Scotland Science. From next month I’ll be doing the same type of modelling that I’ve done for most of the last four years, but instead of using it for energy I’ll be working on applications in aquaculture.

This doesn’t mean that I’m leaving energy behind, at least for now – apart from anything else, if time permits there’s at least one more energy-related paper waiting to be written. But it will be valuable for me to diversify my skills and experience in a different area for a year.

Posted by simon in Professional updates, Reflective

Thesis deadline approaching.

I’m in the final few weeks of writing up my thesis, with my (self-imposed, but then agreed with supervisors) deadline for a complete first draft coming at the end of the month. It’s surprisingly stressful.

It shouldn’t be. Yes, the deadline is soon, but the amount I have left to do is entirely manageable. Yes, it’s longer than anything that I’ve written before, but the chapters are reasonably self-contained, and any given chapter is shorter than plenty of documents that I’ve written in the past. Additionally, most of those chapters are based on papers* that have been through peer review, so I know that they (probably) can’t be awful.

So given all that, why does the thought of “finishing a thesis” have so much weight around it? I think part of it is that, however unlikely, it’s a potential single point of failure which could render the last 4-5 years of work, arguably, wasted. I think another significant part of it is that finishing a thesis is expected to be heavy and stressful, and one internalises that over the years. When everybody who has done one is sympathising with you and saying “you can do it”, you start to agree that it’s hard.

Anyway. Having procrastinated a bit by writing this… Onwards!


* Papers that I wrote, just in case anybody is getting funny ideas 😉

Posted by simon in Reflective

Conference thoughts

decoded conference
, licensed under
CC BY 2.0
. Original.

I haven’t posted for rather a long while. I’ve been writing up my thesis instead; more on that, maybe, at some stage.

This week I’m at an academic conference – in this case the EWTEC one – and reflecting a little about it, and about how I feel at these events. For those who don’t attend such things, it consists of four days of listening to talks on recent research, chatting to people from different universities around the world, having nice dinners with them, etc. It can be socially exhausting, but is well worth the effort, both for hearing about the latest research and for keeping in touch with people from other institutions. For those used to commercial conferences, it’s broadly similar except that the content of the presentations actually matters – it isn’t just an excuse for networking.

I find that listening to conference talks affects me in a few ways. Sometimes it’s simply interesting, and that’s great. Sometimes it sparks ideas – one of my relatively small number of publications was from a research idea that I had while listening to a conference speaker. Sometimes I find that the speaker has solved a problem that makes it easier for my work to proceed. Sometimes the opposite happens: they’re showing the results of something very similar to something that I was already working on, or was planning to work on, and that can be a horrible feeling. More generally, sometimes I sit there admiring the rigour and insight and think “I can never live up to this; what am I doing here? Everybody here is so much better”.

There was a diagram going around the internet some years ago that showed why conferences can be so bad for imposter syndrome. I can’t find it now, and hence can’t attribute it, but I drew my own version:

How it seems: "What I understand" is a small circle, contained within the large circle of "what everybody else understands". The reality: "What I understand" is a small circle surrounded by overlapping circles "What Alice understands", "What Fred understands", etc.

Diagram: Author. Inspired by unknown original.

So sometimes it’s positive, sometimes it’s depressing… but that’s listening. I find that the experience of giving a talk is very different. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking, because I’m always worried that somebody in the room full of frightfully intelligent people will point out a massive flaw in my work, or tell me that it’s been done before – but also, it serves to remind me that what’s dull and obvious to me, after working on it for months or years, isn’t dull or obvious for a slightly wider audience who hasn’t spent so much time thinking about it. Having people congratulate me on a really interesting talk, when I thought it was quite a straightforward thing that everybody already knew, is uplifting, and reassures me that my work is worth doing. It gives me hope for my viva!

Posted by simon in Reflective

First journal article!

Well, sort of. My last post also listed two journal articles but I was a minor author on those, contributing a small part of the text and comments on the rest. This post is about my first article as lead author.

It’s called “Implementation of tidal turbines in MIKE 3 and Delft3D models of Pentland Firth & Orkney Waters”, and it describes work that myself and two groups at Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh Universities did a few years ago, near the start of my PhD. Lots of people have represented tidal turbines in regional-scale flow models, but most of them have used academic codes that industry and investors won’t trust, or have modified trusted code – which itself tends to undermine that trust. Our aim for this work was to look at how tidal energy extraction can best be represented in two widely-used commerical modelling suites, without modifying their code. We also did some actual modelling, by way of example, and the results of that have been passed on to others in the project to use for ecological work.

In a small way this was perhaps a baptism by fire, in that I had to pull together work and writing done by people far senior to myself, add my own work on top of each, and try to construct a single coherent publication. Perhaps partly for this reason, coupled with my own inexperience, it had a long journey through review… but it’s out there now, and I’m glad it’s done!

If you have a subscription to Ocean & Coastal Management you can read the published version here; otherwise the “accepted version” (without journal formatting) is available at this finely crafted link.

Posted by simon in Publications, Reflective

Writing retreat

Closeup of a woman typing on a laptop with a notebook and a mobile phone next to her.

Photo: Public domain (CC0).

Last week myself and nine other researchers of various levels, from PhD to professor, drove ourselves to a moderately large country house in the middle of nowhere to write. All of us had a paper to produce; some were converting thesis chapters into journal articles, some (like me) had new and fully-outlined articles that they just needed to sit down and write, and others had less-clear ideas that they needed clear thinking time on.

Writing, and subsequently publishing, is probably the most important thing that most researchers do – at least in career terms – but it is never the most urgent. There are always other things demanding attention, and those things tend to have deadlines, while journal articles usually do not. As a result it can be hard to set aside time to get papers written. Setting aside a week for doing nothing else allowed people to protect their time and, at least as importantly, their thinking space, and there was a consensus among the group that this was a Good Thing.

During working hours we mostly wrote; at mealtimes and in the evenings we socialised, discussed our work, played giant Jenga, and bounced ideas. One biologist benefited greatly from this cross-fertilisation when she spoke to a policy expert and realised that her very specific, factual article about a protected area for a specific species raised an important policy issue that is much more widely applicable. Now she is planning to expand the focus of her paper and submit to a different (and more prestigious) journal.

I had a good time professionally and socially, and I had a productive time, and now I have a fully drafted paper that I need to fill in a few figures on and send off to co-authors. Woo!

Posted by simon in Reflective