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.


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.


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.


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, , , , , , , ,

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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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, , , , , , , ,

The Centre for Sustainable Heritage is 10!

The UCL Centre for Sustainable Heritage, where I am based for my PhD, was established in March 2001. This means that starting this month the centre is celebrating its 10th Anniversary with a series of events which started precisely on the 1st of March 2011.

The day started with a meeting of the ICON Science Group on ‘Monitoring and Modelling of the Heritage Environment‘. I was only involved in this as a very willing participant, unlike the other ICON Science Group Meeting I was involved in over a year ago now. It was nice to relax though and hear updates from other researchers about projects I have been aware of, as well as learn about new projects and what they aim to achieve. Keeping the presentations to 10 minutes seemed a good way of making sure that the basic concepts of projects were explained without going in too much detail – after all there was time to network and ask about the details later on in the day.

My main role in the event was then in the afternoon part of the day: an Open afternoon in our Heritage Science Laboratory. The event was organised very well by the research fellows in our department, with people divided over 4 time slots throughout the afternoon. This meant that the people were well spread over the whole time and did not get over crowded at any one time. This did mean though that I was kept very busy talking to people! However, having people from so many different backgrounds attending meant that the discussions arising were often very stimulating, and kept me on my toes trying to tackle my work from different points of view.

Of course, no celebration is complete without a party! A private reception was indeed organised in the evening for people linked to the centre. Being part of the centre meant that it wasn’t only a party for me as I had some things I was responsible for. Nevertheless, it was a great opportunity to talk to people I already knew in the field as well as meeting new ones.

I was utterly exhausted by the end of the day. However the enthusiasm I regained from talking to so many people about my work was definitely worth it!

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Courses Galore: UCL

As part of my studies and I required to take the equivalent of 20 credits (i.e. 10 half-day courses) per year. With the start of a new academic year comes the release of new courses, and with it an increase in the number of courses I have been attending. As with the NOISE workshops, I have not had time to write about them in detail one-by-one, but here is a brief run-through of what I have been doing, and why. I am now in what should be the final year of my PhD, so you can of course notice that I am taking a number of courses which focus on career and employment-related topics.

How to Engage with Businesses

The course is aimed at people who would like to start research collaborations with companies outside academia. Overall, this is not something which I am actively seeking at the moment. However, I appreciate that learning to speak the language of the non-academic world is a great skill to aim for. Before the course I considered myself to be not that good at this; during the course I confirmed to myself that I am not that good at it. However, the course gave me (and the other participants I am sure) a good basic framework to enter into these discussions with. In other ways, it gave me something to grasp on to in my incompetence and to structure the way I approach such meetings in a more fruitful manner. Also, it made me think about what companies are really looking for, which, considering I might get a job outside academia, is important to keep in mind!

Interview Techniques – with MatchTec

This was the first in a series of employer-led workshops offered in the skills development programme. MatchTec, which was the employer presenting at the workshop, is a technical and professional recruitment company, which places quite a number of PhD students. The recruiter presenting to us described what is expected in an interview, what an interview might consist of, as well as how to tackle questions. In particular she was quite good at identifying how skills we are gaining as part of our PhD can be translated into the skills required outside academia. Even though I have been to interviews before which I was often successful at, the course was still useful, and highlighted issues I might not have thought about that much which I should start doing.


I have been to other MATLAB courses before. However, as I haven’t really jumped in and started using it, I do not feel confident at using it. So far I have only attended the first in a series of lectures which will occur over the next few weeks. Although the course is aimed at neuroscience students, so far it has been quite general. The lecturer did seem to rush through things as though he needed to finish early (which he did!). For that reason I was glad that I have had some previous experience with the programme. However, otherwise, I found this lecture one of the better MATLAB lectures I have attended, so looking forward to the next ones!

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Researching out and about in Kew

As I have written about in previous posts, the centre I am based in organises monthly research meetings during the ‘academic year’ months. It has however become a sort of tradition that the last meeting in June is what we call a ‘research day away’. Last year we visited the two London Tates. This year we travelled a bit out of central London toKew.

Our first stop was at the Collection Care department at The National Archives. There they discussed with us what is the work they do. However, even more importantly they discussed how they approach research and how it is informing their policy making and priorities.

As a researcher it is very important to understand how research is being used in practice in institutions working outside of academia and what is valuable to these institutions as outputs from research. Particularly as they are a partner in my PhD project it was exciting to hear more about how my work will feed into the bigger picture of the work and research being done at TNA.

A visit to the repositories was then planned. I have of course often visited them, but for most of the others in the group it was their first time, for some also their first time in an archival repository. It was interesting to learn that they position their materials on the basis of how often they are requested, amongst other factors, so as to improve accessibility to their users. Accessibility in fact seems to be one of the highest, if not the highest, priority at TNA.

Following a delicious lunch at TNA, the day then continued with a visit to Kew Gardens. It was my first visit there, partly because none of my friends were that interested in going, and partly because I never could justify me spending money for me to visit on my own. It was good to finally go though. We thus spent the afternoon walking around the gardens, peeking through different greenhouses (it was too hot to spend too much time in any of them!) and in general just relaxing with our people from the group.

A thoroughly enjoyable day. I think it is a great idea of bringing the group together, while learning more about the field we work in and relaxing together. Looking forward to next year’s research day away. Who knows where we will go?

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Form Filling: A Course

You might not think that form filling is an integral part of a PhD. However, it definitely is, and is very important at that. Why? Because there are always forms to fill, from forms to apply for courses, to grant application, as well as registration forms for attending conferences, together with abstract writing. Before breaking up for the Easter holidays I wanted to finish off all the applications I have pending, so the last few days have seen me doing quite a lot of form filling.

I realise however that form filling is definitely not my forte. Maybe I think that people should give me what I am asking for – because I said so? I also realise that I am not always too good at expressing myself and targetting the audience I am addressing. Take today’s case in point:

One of the forms I was filling was an abstract template for a conference next year (yes – that’s right – September 2011). The first problem I ran into was that I wasn’t exactly sure who my audience is. At first I assumed that the audience was a scientific audience. However, unfortunately, this is often not the case in my field. In fact the audience I should have planned was actually more for heritage professionals such as conservators. This meant that the aim of the abstract had to be turned on its head: from focussing on the nitty gritty of the scientific aspects of my work I needed to focus more on the usability and relevance of my work.

The second problem I ran into, and which my supervisor very helpfully pointed out as well, was that I needed to give more information about why my work is important and how it is so novel in the field. Since I still don’t have the results I aim to present (remember that the conference is around a year and a half down the line!), and what I was writing was mainly projections of what I hope to achieve, I was being very tentative in what I wrote. However, my supervisor sort of lambasted me for that and told me to get on with the job of writing a good abstract.

Before I finished my work for the day I sent off the abstract to my supervisor. Waiting for his response now. Hope I did a good (or at least better!) job!

Form Filling

Filed under: Rants, Complaints and General Malaise, Research Process, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Presentation at TNA

As you should have realised by now, I am doing a collaborative PhD between a university (University College London) and a non-HEI (The National Archives – TNA). So when the Conservation Research department was hosting the ICON Science Group for a meeting, they wanted to offer the members a visit to the repositories as well as a walk-around opportunity in the Collection Care department during which they wanted to showcase the ongoing research. After some discussions it was decided that I present two posters: one on my project in general, and another one on a paper I have been writing on aldehydes in libraries and archives.

After many different versions, discussions with people, and final agreement on the posters, these were printed and the 14th of October saw me off to TNA with the freshly-printed posters in hand (my first posters…woohooo ;)) together with another researcher in my department who is also working with TNA.

The meeting was not attended by too many people, but it was still good to meet people I’ve met before and new people and discuss my work with them. I realise that the more experience I get in presenting my work, things can only improve, so I am hoping to get as much experience as I can.

After the show-around the meeting then started. The meeting was addressed by Jim Williams, the coordinator of the National Heritage Science Strategy (NHSS). The third report in a series of three published in the run-up to the launch of the strategy document was presented by him, followed by a discussion. Not knowing all the ins and outs of the field as yet, it is always enlightening to hear other people discuss relevant issues. Originally I wasn’t thinking of sitting in on the meeting, but when my supervisor at TNA asked me if we wanted to, we decided to stay and not disappointed at all that I did!

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