My Path Through Research

The Trials and Triumphs of Doing a PhD

Computer Skills: Learning and Testing

In this blog I have been writing about courses I have been taking through the UCL graduate school. However, it seems like most of the courses I have mentioned are mainly courses concerned with the research process. I have not mentioned courses such as the IT skills possibilities available.

Getting More from Photoshop

One of the courses I attended was the ‘Getting More from Photoshop’ course. I have used graphics packages, includingCorel and Adobe Photoshop. However, I have always just figured out the one thing I needed and never really explored the possibilities of any graphics package. So when I saw this course available from the graduate school I was immediately interested. I was particularly interested as, since I am working with photographs, gaining some experience with image editing would definitely help (not to fiddle with results, but to prepare useful images and/or prepare images for presentations to show the changes visually).

The course was very useful. Finally I learned what the wand tool does…a very useful thing I must say! Learning about colour correction, and adjustment layers also showed me how I can do some editing that I had been struggling with. I was expecting to learn much more, or to come out of the course knowing everything about Photoshop. But as the lecturer told us this would be quite difficult as there is so much that even someone who is constantly use it can always discover new functions. I do agree with him though that learning a few tools can give you the basic expertise you need to figure out the interface…the rest you can do on your own with experience…and some googling 🙂

European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL)

Ahh – the wonders of graduate school! In the beginning of the academic year I received an e-mail about the possibility of free ECDL testing through the graduate school…I just had to fill in a questionnaire and see if I was chosen. In one of my I-don’t-feel-like-working moods I decided to fill in the questionnaire. A few days later I received the reply: I was chosen to follow this course. WOW! This meant that I had to start to look into what ECDL really entails.

The way the session were divided was that every other Wednesday there would be a testing session where you can either do the exams or mock tests, while during the rest of the time you can do some self-studying and/or drop in at set times to ask questions. Well, after looking at the syllabus and talking to some friends who have done it, I decided that self-study would be more than enough. So on the first testing Wednesday I went down and started to do the exams. I managed to do 5 out of the 7 module exams…and pass. Not bad. 2 more modules to go! I couldn’t make the next one, so at the third session I went down to finish the exams…and I passed!

Why am I remembering this today? Well…today my ECDL certificate finally arrived! I am not sure how to feel about this. I know that this certification is required for certain jobs. However, I wonder if it will be significantly important for any job I apply for…I would expect that people who get a PhD will be able to do basic IT stuff. Also, I would expect that certification would not be the be all and end all. After all the certification only proves basic skills in IT, not any advanced skills. But I always say that extra certification would not hurt! It didn’t require a lot of time, so it was worth doing it (normally it is expensive) just in case.

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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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PhD Upgrade :)

In the UK most PhD students are registered in the first instance for an MPhil degree, upgrading to full PhD status during their programme. Up to last year students in my department could upgrade any time after the first year. However, from this year all students have to upgrade at the end of the first year. So we were all given the date of upgrade and the documents we needed to submit. These included a document explaining your research, including your methodology, contribution to the field, background, as well as a chapter-by-chapter outline of your thesis, one of your best pieces of writing (I submitted a paper I am in the process of submitting), and the relevant sections of a research log book all UCL research students fill in at regular intervals. The last requirement was a presentation, which I had done a number of throughout the past year, including the monitoring meeting.

I realised about this requirement in August when we received an e-mail reminding us. Luckily I already had most of the research document done in bits and pieces during the year…the only thing I didn’t have was a chapter-by-chapter outline (hadn’t started thinking about THAT!). However, that was a pretty OK thing to do as I just got out the literature reviews I have been working on and put in their titles as sections and subsections, together with sections on forthcoming results and discussions. The next part, the piece of writing, I had quite a bit to choose from, and was in the process of writing the paper, so that was submitted.

All in all, working slowly over the weeks I got everything together. After a bit of rushing collecting papers from my two supervisors (one paper got lost somewhere in the internal mail system for around 4 days or so!), I had everything ready on Wednesday, and I submitted in preparation for Thursday (when I was involved in monitoring at St. Paul’s Cathedral).

Yesterday morning I received an e-mail from my supervisor telling me that I was approved for upgrade…YIPPEEE!…I am officially a PhD student now 😉 Now all’s that left is the tiny matter of getting the work done :P.

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Skills Development: Introduction to MATLAB

Another skills development course I followed over the past week or so was Introduction to MATLAB. Since the beginning of the year my supervisor had suggested that I should look into MATLAB since it may prove to be very useful. I had attended another course before this called ‘DIY with MATLAB for the Computer-Shy Scientist’. However, unfortunately, it did not prove to be too useful, mainly as I am not as computer shy as THAT!

The course was split over three days, with a two hour theory lesson in the morning and a two-hour practical session in the afternoon. I went to the course with the MATLAB skills I learnt in the previous course (i.e. close to none :P), and with some programming background with Pascal from when I did my computer studies O’level some 7 years ago! (and an awful course in Pascal at university).

A first warning I would probably say to anyone who wants to learn MATLAB is probably that before hand it may be good to brush up a bit on their mathematics…nothing major, and not much in depth, but having an idea of how matrices work would certainly help. Luckily I still remembered how those worked from my secondary school mathematics, so I was fine (hence, you see that you don’t need in depth knowledge to help you through if I remember it ;)). Also, some background in programming of course does help. It is not essential, of course, but knowing a bit of Pascal and how programming languages work, and how some things like variables, loops etc work certainly made my life easier!

So what did I think of the course? I liked the way the lecturer presented the aspects of programming within the context of a problem. So every lecture started out with a problem he described which we would solve by the end, and during the lecture he then interweaved between pure MATLAB skills, and how these could be applied to the problem. This meant that besides getting some programming skills we were also exposed to ways we can actually use this to solve a problem in a coherent way.

Another thing I liked was the practical sessions. At first I was a bit surprised that they just gave us a sheet of work to do, and let us work on our own (I was expecting it to be the more boring way of the demonstrator explaining how to solve the problems, and us just listening). This however meant that we could all work at our own pace, and actually get to grips with the problems. This is the only way to actually learn I believe…by trying the problems yourselves rather than hearing someone drone on and on about how to solve them. Nevertheless, it would be good if we were also offered some kind of solution guidelines for what we didn’t work out in the class, and even to have some way of knowing that what we were doing was actually right. But otherwise, a great course I think! I liked the way it was organised, though maybe as some people suggested, it would be nice if, similar to as available for other languages and programmes, a drop-in services was available to help with any problems.

So far I don’t have anymore courses booked for the next few weeks…they do stop a bit over the summer holidays…but am looking forward to more in Autumn!

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Interdisciplinary Studies of Evidence

Yesterday I attended another of the graduate school skills development course. This time round it was called: Interdisciplinarity: can there be an integrated concept of evidence, which was the last of a series of courses on Interdisciplinary studies of evidence.

Why did I decided to attend? Well, my PhD is very much an interdisciplinary, bringing together aspects of the sciences and social sciences and humanities. As I implied in my previous post, I am finding some difficulties in determining how best to present my work to a panel of people from different backgrounds, and so thought that this would be a good course to follow. Also, I thought it would help me concretise better my thoughts on bringing together evidence from different fields (often with different vocabularies and expectances) and presenting as a complete project rather than disjointed parts.

The programme was presented by Jason Davies, from CALT. Entering the room (which was not the easiest thing to find ;)), I found a room with around 20 people. I was expecting the group to be much bigger, but I am glad it was such a small group. This gave us the opportunity to discuss the issues being presented (which the presenter gladly allowed us to do), and to get the most out of the session. The session got us thinking about what interdisciplinarity means, and how this affects our work and especially our way of thinking.

Overall assessment? I went into the course expecting some answers. Unfortunately(?) I didn’t get any, but what I did get was a deeper understanding and a more concrete idea of what interdisciplinarity means both to me and to my work. Also, it gave me the opportunity to discuss issues with my work, as well as hear about the issues others, which are more advanced in their studies, are encountering. So though I didn’t get what I went looking for, I think I got so much more. A success then I would say 🙂

Interdisciplinarity: An Issue

Interdisciplinarity: An Issue

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