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.

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Monitoring Meetings

My PhD is part of the AHRC/EPSRC-supported Science and Heritage Programme. A few weekd ago I received an e-mail from the Programme Coordinator that the Programme Director wanted to meet up with me and my supervisors from UCL and the TNA to see how the research is progressing and any problems etc.

The monitoring meeting was set for the 12th of June. For this meeting I had to prepare a presentation focussing on the research which has been carried out. I was a bit apprehensive about the presentation, because following my short presentation at the 1st research meeting, I knew my supervisor thought that my presentation skills were quite appalling. I think I however was more apprehensive about the mock presentation scheduled with my supervisor and another research assistant, than with the actual one (possibly because after the second one it would be all over ;)).

The day of the mock presentation arrived, and I was slightly nervous. Now normally I don’t mind presentations much (possibly cos I enjoy that the attention is on me? O:)), but this time round I really wanted to make some kind of decent impression! Everything set up and off I go! It went quite well, and happily my supervisor said that my presentation skills have improved…phewww! He suggested a number of changes to my presentation, which I was happy to oblige with seeing as they were very valid, and back to my offices I went to finalise the presentation.

Friday arrived…monitoring meeting day! I went up to the meeting room early to set up the desk-projector and make sure that everything was working well. After a while my supervisors arrived, and then the programme director.

Meetings: started!

First I gave my presentation, followed by a general discussion all together and a number of questions. Then, the programme director talked to my supervisors alone (wish to have been a fly on that wall ;)) and then me alone, as had been planned.

How do I think it went?

I think it went OK. I was asked some questions which I think I answered quite well, but then was asked about my ‘research hypothesis’, and just couldn’t think what that was! I kept on thinking about research questions, and then just gave up and gave my answer as research questions (after stupidly asking: emm…what’s the research hypothesis?) Oh well!

Other than that, my supervisors seemed happy, the programme director seemed happy…so I’m happy…won’t hit myself over the not-so-bright things I said, and hope to improve for the next time 🙂

All in all however I think that one important thing hopefully sunk into my brain now: not everyone in the heritage field is from chemistry! I always approach presenting my work as though the people have my background. But after the research meeting presentation, and more so after this one, I realise that my approach is completely wrong! I approached these meetings as me ‘showing off’ what I have been doing. Now that I realise that in front of me when I rpesent I will have people from a wide variety of disciplines, from architects, to conservators, to archaologists, and conservators, I realise that the most important thing is not the details what I have been doing (even if I have been told to speak about my research), but to give them the overall picture of the project, with limited if any specific details. Then, if they are interested in a specific part, they can ask me further questions after the general idea has been obtained.

Wish me luck for my next one, whenever that is 🙂

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