My Path Through Research

The Trials and Triumphs of Doing a PhD

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.

Filed under: Research Process, , , , , , , , ,

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.

Filed under: Research Process, , , , , , , ,

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!

 

 

Filed under: Events and Activities, Research Process, , , , , , , ,

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.

Filed under: Events and Activities, Research Process, , , , , , , ,

I <3 Straight Lines

I have one love which surpasses my love of graphs, and that is my love of straight lines in graphs!

But why am I bringing this up now?

I am currently in the process of analysing some of the data I have been collecting over the past few weeks. I was looking to monitor the change occurring during degradation of my photographs by calculating the rate of change.

Now, if you look back to your maths classes, you might remember that rate of change can be determined by the gradient (i.e. slope)  of a time-graph (i.e. graph of how a value is changing against time). This is quite easy to analyse if you have a straight line, as the gradient is just a single value. However, if you don’t, you start running into more complicated problems!

So I plotted my data.

To my satisfaction I did get a regularly changing line (i.e. there is some significant effect in what I was measuring), but to my dismay, it was a polynomial (i.e. curve), not a straight line!

You can get a straight line from a polynomial curve by taking a derivative of the equation. However, as my brother wisely pointed out to me, you do lose quite a bit of information in doing that, which is not ideal.

My other option was to find a value which DID change linearly with time. So I converted my data into other monitoring systems, and…tada!!!..I got straight lines!

I am happy that I managed to get my straight lines without a lot of data handling. Of course, the more you work on your data, the more information you lose. However, in this case, the two ways I used where just two different ways of measuring the same thing only using a different standard.

Filed under: Experiments and Methodology, Research Process, , , , , , , , , , , ,

And another paper…

If you follow my twitter feed, or have just looked at the publication list on the right you should already have figured this out. What’s the news? The second paper concerning my PhD work has been accepted!

The paper will be published in the journal Polymer Degradation and Stability. We had submitted the original paper at the end of May. Then this week we received some minor comments which we dealt with, and on Friday we got the final confirmation that it has been accepted for publication.

So far I don’t have a link to the paper, but I will provide this as soon as I do. However, here is a brief overview of what the paper is about:

The title of the paper is ‘Stability of chromogenic colour prints in polluted indoor environments’. In it we have reported work I have been doing on comparing the effects of acetic acid, nitrogen oxides and formaldehyde on the stability of chromogenic prints. The pollutants were chosen as previous work we had done showed that these are the main pollutants found inside archival boxes (you can read that full paper here). We also discuss a way of non-destructively monitoring the degradation of the photographic dyes using a colourimeter (image below). This work builds up on chromatographic work I had done during a research visit to the Universita di Pisa last year.

All in all I am really satisfied. By the end of the second year I will have had two papers published, which fits in quite well with the original plan of publishing three papers throughout the whole PhD (especially considering that as the work is finalised towards the end more work can be published).

If you are not in academia you however might be wondering about why is publishing so important. Having your work published in a well-known journal is a way of showing that the work you are doing is of a certain level. This should hopefully come in useful when I come to write my final thesis as I would already have somewhere to start from. Furthermore, once I submit the thesis, having already published the work in a journal helps me show that the work has reached a certain standard. And of course, any help you can get when it comes to the final submission is always good!

Filed under: Experiments and Methodology, Research Process, , , , , , , , , , ,

Updating my Research Profile

I am quite aware that constantly maintaining an updated research profile is essential. This is especially so as any research project is constantly evolving, meaning that new research tracks arise, and events are attended.

Recently I worked on updating my profile on my departmental web page. Up to now the text on the page had been written at the start of the project. However, now, I have included more details on the project, its aims, as well as highlighting some of the main achievements so far. This more clearly indicates to anyone coming across my profile how the project is progressing and also maybe about how we might work together in some aspect.

Having updated the departmental profile, I also decided to update my profile on this blog. To the right you should be now able to see a new Research Biography section. There you can read more about my publications and presentations so far. I plan to include workshops, conferences and research visits I have been involved in soon. If there is anything else you would like to see included do let me know though!

Filed under: General, Research Process, , , , ,

Photographic Necklaces and Aching Muscles

One of the problems I had to figure out before starting experiments was how to place 50 photographic samples in one 100mL glass vial without any of them touching each other or the glass. On top of that it was essential to be able to easily get them in and out of the vial for them to be analysed, and that means each sample needs to be easily identifiable.

I spent quite some time on and off thinking about this conundrum. Most of the methods I was thinking about were either not very practical for later identification and analysis. This was before I stumbled on the idea of sewing all the samples together onto one piece of string. A form of necklace of photographic samples. A good idea…but how to fit them into the glass vial without any of the samples touching?

The answer to this second part of the problem did not actually come from me in the end. One of my office colleagues walked over to see my efforts with constructing a supporting structure from stainless steel wire and very calmly suggested: why don’t you form it into a coil? Brilliant idea! My having a coil I can extend the stainless steel coil and easily wrap the string around it, before compressing it again to fit into the vial.

This happened quite a while ago. So why am I writing about it today?

I started preparing samples for the next set of experiments yesterday. This morning however I woke up with one of my upper abdomen muscles hurting. It’s not a muscle I ever knew existed and I couldn’t remember anything I did yesterday which could have conceivable resulted in this.

The puzzlement however only lasted till this morning, when I returned to the lab to finish the sample preparation. As  soon as I went to punch out the first sample for the first necklace, the muscle ached! It seems like every time I pressed down on the puncher I tighten this particular muscle. Doing it ten times might not hurt, but as I found doing it hundreds of times certainly does!

What have I learnt from this? Well, I either have to grin and bear it or spread the sample preparation over more days I guess!

Filed under: Experiments and Methodology, Research Process, , , , , , , , , ,

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