My Path Through Research

The Trials and Triumphs of Doing a PhD

PhD: Mission Complete!

Three years of work have finally come to an end!

My viva was on Wednesday 19th October. My sister surprised me with a visit to be there for my viva, which I really appreciated. This meant that the night before I just relaxed with her rather than stressed about the next day, which was a good thing.

As is normal, I didn’t know what to expect with the viva. However, luckily for me, it went better than I could have even imagined! The examiners immediately put me at ease – having an experienced examiner was a definite plus.

I felt that most of the questions I got were from the broader chemistry field rather than specific to my PhD. This meant that I had no way of preparing for them. However, the examiners talked me through what they were trying to get out of me such that at no point did I feel threatened.

The lines of questioning meant that I learnt more about my work by thinking about it from a different view point. I believe that this, after all, is what a viva should be about (in hindsight of course!) – you consolidate what you knew but also realise what you didn’t realise you knew!

I emerged from the examination room in around 1.5hrs, PhD in hand! No corrections was the final verdict – what more could I want?

All that is left is that I thank everyone who I have been in contact with through the PhD and who believed in me, from my colleagues in Pisa, to the workshop attendees, people who donated photographs, to conference participants who discussed my work with me. Of course, big thanks goes to my colleagues at UCL and TNA and particularly my supervisors: Matija, Nancy and Kostas – I couldn’t have done it without all of you!

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PhD: What Worked and What Didn’t

It has now been more than 3 months that I have finished my PhD. Having seen a post by a current PhD student about tips for anyone writing now I thought I would jot down some of what I think worked for me and what didn’t. These are three of the things which I think were important in me finishing on time.

Write everytime, all the time

I’m lazy. My target was to not have to read the same paper twice unless I knew that it had the information I needed. This meant that as I read any paper and found something I might need at some point in the future (however slight that possibility might be), I jotted it down into a document named after that topic, reference and all (I used EndNote to manage my references). When I had a decent amount of notes jotted on any topic I then organised the points into a coherent report, generally with just a little more extra reading to fill in some background I hadn’t yet come across and maybe to go into depth a bit more. This also meant that if I had to refresh my memory on any topic I would have the information already at hand.

The same goes for methodologies etc. I considered all of my lab work to be similar to my undergrad laboratory sessions. After every coherent chunk of work I would write a lab report with an introduction, methods, results, discussion and conclusion finalised to a degree that is coherent should I send it to someone who wants it now and is not expecting perfection. The two lab report I had to write a week for the two years in 6th form and the 4 years of undergrad certainly came in handy!

My advice would be to write anything and everything! I did make some documents which I didn’t use, but most of the information in these documents made it into my final thesis or at least into some paper in some shape, way or form. These reports saved me a lot of time later on.

Outline

My upgrade, especially compared to most other departments/universities, was very basic: I had to submit a 5000 (max) word document including background, scope of work, aims, objectives, research questions, methodology, what I have done, what I plan to do and chapter outline (including a paragraph on what I planned to write in each chapter) – pretty much by the time I wrote one paragraph under each headline I was done. I then had to submit one piece of writing which could be anything (I submitted a paper I had published), and you must have done a presentation. You then submitted the documents the morning of the departmental meeting and got a reply by the afternoon. Considering that at the meeting mine was discussed I think they discussed around 10 other upgrade documents I am not sure they were read at all – all in all it wasn’t a useful exercise.

The one thing that I found useful was that when only a year in I had an outline I could start working with. My advice would be to write an outline (heading, subheadings) early on to get an idea of how the final thesis will look like. This will also help you locate any areas you are yet to cover, or what you might have missed in the story you are trying to present. Over the years I then started filling in the sections bit by bit at my own pace, or at least making sure I had material for each whenever I didn’t feel like doing anything else – It’s amazing how much writing you can manage when that is not what you should be doing and how little when you should!

Know your supervisor’s calendar

Make sure you check calendars with your supervisor for the last few weeks/months if you would like their input! The same goes for anyone you would like their help during that time (friends for proofreading, image making, technical support and whatnot).

During the last month my supervisor and I were only in the same country for a few days as my supervisor had conferences to attend and his summer holiday, while I had my brother’s wedding to go to a week before the decided submission date (perfect timing huh?). This meant extra stress for the two of us to make sure that we finished our work before we were off or the other were off, as well as downtime as we waited for the other to return from wherever they were. It also resulted in a meeting late on a Saturday night in a coffee shop near Green Park as my supervisor got off the Piccadilly line from Heathrow airport so that I could finish all the last edits by Monday (for submission on Tuesday). It worked, but not ideal.

Summary

Write everything and anything as you go along

Have an outline early on and start filling in the sections in your downtime

Compare calendars with your supervisor (and anyone else you need) for last weeks.

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Working in Denmark

I have been working in Denmark for just over 2 months (which included 10 days off for Christmas). During this time I have been busy learning my job, but also observing how things work within the department. I have also given myself time to think about the differences I am observing, if only to be able to keep them in mind when interacting in this new environment. So what have I been noticing? These are a few of my first impressions

Attitude to learning

First of all I am impressed with the attitude toward learning I have observed. I did a PhD because I wanted to learn and have someone guide me through the learning process when needed. Unfortunately, this is not the attitude I observed (and this seems to be the experience of other students I have spoken to). Instead, I found the PhD to be remarkably result-oriented rather than learning oriented, which is fine in terms of finishing the project, but doesn’t really serve the function of an apprenticeship as it should.

On the other hand, people say that the corporate world is very results oriented. However, the company I am working for is much more learning oriented than any time of my PhD! In fact I have been given a mentor who is a retired colleague who comes in every week to talk to me about the tasks I have, introduce me to the relevant people and help bring me up to speed with the technical issues. This surprised me a lot as it is completely the opposite of what I was always told working in a company would be like – and my previous experience as well.

I think the reason for this attitude is based in the vision of the manager. I feel that management see the employees as a valuable resource, and only by having them trained to the required standards can we deliver to the best of our abilities, thus serving our function within the company. Also, there are limited employees a company can employ so it serves it well that those employees are knowledgeable in what they need.On the other hand, PhD students are often seen as disposable and cheap labour rather than a valued part of the department. Therefore, as long as the students deliver on the one project of their PhD, there is no reason to give them a bigger overview as should we need that expertise we can easily get another student who knows how to do the work.

Trust

I was told this before I moved to Denmark, and I have really seen it work. The working environment is very much built on trust. There is no one checking how long you work – you can come and go as you like and you are trusted to do your job and give in the required hours. It’s the same situation with tasks: once I ask you to do something I trust you to do it, and do it right, and I will find the results in the required place. So far the system seems to work .

Respect for each others’ abilities

I think that trust is a result of the respect everyone has for others’ abilities. The department consists of technicians and consultants and as a consultant you are respected for the knowledge you have on processes and materials, while as a technician you are respected for your knowledge on techniques and methods. Because of this everyone feels proud of the job they are doing, and do their best to do it well.

Work-Life Balance

Work-life balance is something which Danes pride themselves on. I really see the difference here. In London and elsewhere people often lived to work. Here, the balance is really shifted the other way: people get their job done and leave. Socialising with colleagues is not really a done thing and staying around at work once your hours/work is over is definitely not something I have seen being done. It’s refreshing, and great. However, I am still to be totally convinced that shifting so far onto the other side can only be a good thing.

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RSC ChemCareers 2011 Postgraduate Competition

As I wrote in my progress report post, I was selected as a finalist in the Royal Society of Chemistry‘s ChemCareers 2011 Postgraduate Competition. This competition offered postgraduate students the possibility to present their research, either as a poster or a presentation, to other students as well as industry. I decided to take part as I always like talking about my research and, more importantly, learn about other research going on in the wider field.

The first part of the competition required the participants to upload their poster or presentation to the MyRSC postgraduate group within a specific field of chemistry (materials, analytical, computational etc). Once uploaded, other members of the group could ask questions about the works. At this stage the work was judged by 4 student judged who asked questions as well and judged the participants on scientific content, style/presentation and discussion/response to questions.

In total 29 of the originally submitted work was selected for the final: 4 from each category (and 5 in one due to a tie). I was lucky enough to come top in the materials category as judged by peers, so I was very happy about that. However, there was then the final part of the competition, which was to be judged by people in industry.

The final took part at a networking event at the RSC’s Burlington House in London, where posters were exhibited and for those of us who had presentations, presentations given. It was a really enjoyable event, even if it was meant to be a competition, mainly due to the friendliness of the judges, the organisers and the other participants, all of whom were really interested in each other’s work. The good food and drinks on offer also helped.

Presentations over, and the results were in! Even though I didn’t win, I was really happy to be one of two to be given an honourable mention for my work. It showed that the applied and interdisciplinary nature of my research is appreciated even within a pure chemistry forum.

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Progress Report

I realise it has been 3 months since I last wrote in this blog, so it’s high time I update you (all?) with what has been going on.

I have been keeping myself quite busy! Since the last update I submitted my PhD (end of August), attended 3 conferences (LACONA as part of the organising committee, Anoxia and Microfading as a participant and ICOM-CC conference in Lisbon as a presenter). Following the conference marathon I then spent a few days working with Bruce Ford on microfading at Tate. This was a superb experience for me to learn about this new technique. I also got to analyse paint samples that Matisse used, which was very exciting.

Of course, there’s still my viva to go. My viva is next week (*fingers crossed*) so I have been preparing for that. I have also been offered a job in Denmark. I will be moving over there within a month, which takes some work.

This is not the last of my PhD-related work though! I have been selected as a finalist in an Royal Society of Chemistry postgraduate competition which means I get to present my work to judges form industry at the beginning of November. There is also a number of papers still to be written, and of course a lot rests on the outcome of my viva, so wish me luck!

 

 

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Interdisciplinarity: Science and Art

Interdisciplinary Studies of Evidence is one of many courses offered through the UCL graduate school skills development programme. I have so far been to three of the sessions in the series, on being a general session on interdisciplinarity, and the other two on evidence in statistics and computer modelling.

Late last month I went to another session in the series: Using Science to Understand Art: Contexts and Communication. It’s taken me quite some time to get round to writing about it. This is not only because I have been busy, but because I needed time to think about what was said.

During the course, Ruth Siddall, the course tutor, spoke about her experience as a geologist working with people in museums (arts). Her research interests deal with the identification of pigments, minerals, mortars and rocks. She spoke about how her skills as a geologist have come in useful in her work, but at the same time, how she needed to adapt to communicate with people in a different field.

However, something she was saying wasn’t sounding quite right to me, at least in the way I am experiencing interdisciplinarity in my work. Something felt jarring, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time. I am still not sure I do! However, I think it has very much to do with how she views herself and how I am encouraged to view myself in my work.

She constantly referred to herself as a scientist (geologist) working with people in the arts. She quite readily and clearly identified herself with the field she has a strong background in: geology. Something which has been niggling me about the way I am encouraged to view myself is that there is a strong desire to see me describe myself as a ‘heritage scientist’ (with the caveat that ‘heritage’ is not an adjective describing the noun ‘scientist’). However, my only background in ‘heritage science’ is that I am working within the field whilst frantically scrabbling around to try to grasp at numerous strands of knowledge I feel are important. Is that enough?

Also, what does being a ‘heritage scientist’ mean in practice? What should I consider to be my strong point? Should it be the science? Or should it be the heritage field? I strongly suspect that the suggestion is that I should consider both to be a strong point. But where does that leave me? It leaves me pretty much falling into nothingness…or does it?

There is still quite a lot I feel I need to digest from that session and from everything I have been absorbing and feeling throughout my PhD. The session pushed me into thinking about things more coherently and systematically. That surely can only be a good thing. People say that a PhD is a journey, and I feel that this is an important part of my journey that I need to come to grips with.

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