reflection

Viva!!!

Yesterday was my viva, or thesis defence for those used to that terminology. For those not familiar, in the UK system this means an oral exam of unknown length, in private, with the candidate and two examiners – one from my university, one from elsewhere. It’s nerve-wracking in the lead-up, and one hears plenty of horror stories as well as the (far more common) good tales.

Mine was fine 🙂 I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it, as some people describe, but it went for three and a bit hours with only a few difficult moments. My examiners were rigorous yet kind, in that when they identified areas of theory that I was clearly a little hazy about they noted that and backed off, rather than continuing to push. They asked for reasonable changes, which will improve the thesis, and one can’t really ask for better than that!

Cartoon of a spider in a viva, using many arms to write in different places and respod to multiple questions at the same time. Caption: "having extra arms helps in a viva, but not as much as an extra brain would".

Comic by errantscience.com, licensed CC-BY-NC.

So the upshot is that I’ve passed, subject to corrections. This is a huge milestone, in that – so long as I do the corrections to the examiner’s satisfaction – I will be awarded the degree. It’s certainly the end of a lot of tension; an evening of relief.

Yet, in some ways it doesn’t feel climatic, and when people ask “how did it go?” it’s a little hard to answer – because the vast majority of candidates who get to this stage pass with corrections (their supervisors would advise them against submitting the thesis if they wouldn’t), and it was very likely that I would as well, and I did! There’s no real surprise, or even a lot of uncertainty, involved – the real question was how significant the corrections would be (mine are not trivial, but are managable). So I’m certainly relieved, and relaxed, compared to this time yesterday, but at the same time it doesn’t feel like I’ve finished, because I haven’t. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that I’ve passed a gate and moved on to the next stage, and there’s still work to be done (and bureaucratic hoops to jump through) before I can be finished and move on.

Posted by simon in Reflective

Discovering my own over-planning

There’s something that I’ve noticed over the course of my PhD studentship: I plan too much.

In my previous, commercial, career, this had worked well for me. When I was feeling bright and creative I would organise all the tasks that I needed to do, and make sure the prerequisites were in place, and then whenever the time was available – regardless of my state of mind – I could sit down and do the work. In the words of an old manager, “You like to line your tasks up, and then knock them down”.

A row of yellow plastic ducks, where the second one is wearing a stormtrooper helmet from Star Wars

Ducks in a row: less useful if ducks hold surprises. Photo: Flickr user jdhancock, licensed CC-BY 2.0.

That worked well then, because a large part of the work was technical rather than creative; I had to do things right, with good attention to detail, but once the overall concept was established the execution did not require me to be at my best. Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve had some success in doing academic writing the same way – I produce very detailed outlines, sometimes down to individual paragraph level, which is quite a fast process when I’m at my peak, and then find that I can write from them even when having an “off day”.

But that doesn’t work for research itself because, by definition, with research you don’t know what you will find, and hence you can’t always plan beyond the first set of results. In some recent work I planned out all the tests I’d like to do and the plots that I’d produce from that data… and my supervisor wisely said “see what the first set of data is like first”. That’s a pattern that I’ve repeated a few times in the last few years; I’ve planned far too far ahead, and then some unexpected results have made me throw that planning away.

Lining tasks up to knock them down is a useful technique, at least for me, but it isn’t useful for everything, and I need to develop some more diverse approaches.

Posted by simon in Reflective

Conference thoughts

Photo:
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

Endings and continuations

Today was my last day at my host university in Japan. I didn’t achieve everything that I hoped, but I did get some interesting results that I can do something with in the months ahead. Such, I suspect, is the summary of most research projects.

Six weeks here has been a short enough time that I still feel new, and still wish that I had a few more weeks available, to do more work and to explore the area further; but it’s also a long enough time that I’ve made some local friends, and will feel sorry to leave. This afternoon I walked home the long way, and I found myself taking special note of the sights and sounds along the route, trying to fix them in memory. This has been a short chapter in my life, but a chapter nonetheless.

Tomorrow I am putting work largely on hold and going on a two-week holiday around Japan. I’ll probably write a little bit about it as I do (for those who are really not interested in my holiday diaries, forgive me – I’ll return to more subject-focused topics in a fortnight’s time). After that it’s back to Scotland, and a return to the reality that I have a looming thesis submission deadline, meaning that while I do plan to further analyse and to write up what I’ve been doing in Fukuoka, I have to be very careful how much time I spend on it.

Posted by simon in Working in Japan