My PhD in Numbers

Now that my thesis has been submitted I thought I would sum up my PhD experience with some (not very complex) stats.


Length of PhD:  3 years and 4 days


Papers read: 331

Papers written (and accepted for publication): 3

Conferences, networking and training

Conferences: 8

Other scientific meetings/workshops: 6

Outreach events: 2 (SET for Britain and ZombieLab)

External training courses: 2 (NCAS Earth System Science Spring School and Vitae National GRAD School)

University training courses: 30

University seminars attended: 52

Seminar bingo

Oral presentations: 15

Oral presentation awards: 1 (at the 11th Annual Postgraduate Forum, Essex)


Poster presentations: 5

Nights spent away from home: 38

The thesis

Chapters: 7

Pages: 171

Words: 46,465

Figures: 52

Tables: 8

Equations: 85

Time spent thesis writing: Approx. 11-12 weeks

Number of stimulating drinks required: Lucozade = 1.38l = 4, Coffee = 52, Red Bull = 35, Total = 91

Thesis coffee


Stand Tall

Stand Tall is a public art event that has put 30 2.5m high giraffes around Colchester and the surrounding area to mark the 50th birthday of Colchester Zoo. Each giraffe has a bar code to can scan and if you find all 30 you will be entered into a competition to win a trip to Tanzania and Kenya. Unfortunately I don’t have an i-phone, but I still wanted to take part so for the last couple of weeks I’ve been following the Stand Tall trail, taking photos of each giraffe as I go.



Gironimo was the first giraffe I found as he is based at my University, and inspired by work carried out in my department (biological sciences) that focuses on conservation of the planet – from work on ocean acidification to sustainable agriculture and crop productivity. In fact, I can see links to many of the projects my friends in the department are involved with.  Gironimos design incorporates images from the bio-imaging facility and carries a powerful message about the impact of Western civilization on the planet. The name Gironimo comes from the initial letters of ‘giraffe’ and ‘Geromino’; leader of the Apaches, who preserved harmony with their natural surroundings.

Union Giraffe002

I see Union Giraffe a lot, in fact every time I go training or to visit my family, as he is based at the Mini Cooper show room as you enter / leave Colchester. Union Giraffe is painted in the style of the Union Jack and represents the United Kingdoms love of animals. He is a celebration of the many organizations, charities and people of the UK who have worked to further the conservation of endangered species. This photo was taken quite late in the evening, as I was driving back from a trip to Ipswich.


This is Jamboree, who is based at McDonalds. Jamborees colourful design is inspired by the patterns and colours of Dogon rituals; agricultural people of Mali known for their myths and rituals representing a complex cosmology.

Jet Set Giraffe021

Jet Set Giraffe is the biggest of them all, standing at a massive 7.5m! He’s traveled all the way from Monaco and is now based at Colchester Zoos Tugela BBQ Terrace.


Sarasvati is based in Sainsbury’s and named after the Hindu Goddess of the arts. Sarasvati is inspired by Indian decoration, incorporating fragments of crockery, jewels, mirror and coins, and the stars are based on those from the nursery rhyme “Twinkle, twinkle little star”, which was written in Colchester.

023Five Winks

Five Winks is based at the Holiday Inn on Abbotts Lane, on the outskirts of Colchester. His design is inspired by the fact that giraffes can rest whilst standing up. The Zs imply that the giraffe is wrapped up in sleep in the standing position.

I was also very excited to discover that Five Winks has a twitter account!


Stan is based at Colchester North Station and is the official mascot of the Stand Tall event. He features Colchester Zoos campaign logo (on the other side!), and the splashes of bright colour symbolize the creativity of the artists and groups who have taken part in Stand Tall to celebrate the Zoos 50th birthday and, ultimately, raise money for the Zoos charity, Action for the Wild.


Dot is based in Colchester town and has been inspired by the work of the Aboriginal people of Australia. The artist, Martin Band, felt that the distinct markings of a giraffe lent themselves well to a graphic representation in Aboriginal style.


Tuiste is also in Colchester’s town center, and is based on Colchester themed imagery as well as the animals from Colchester Zoo.

Womb with a view027

I must admit that this design freaked me out a little. Womb with a view was designed by animal portrait artist Alison Burchert and is designed to portray the giraffe as a ‘living, breathing, life producing mammal’. Womb with a view is in Colchester’s town center.


Twinkle is outside Colchester’s Natural History Museum and is based on the nursery rhyme ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, which was originally written as a poem called ‘The Star’ by Jane Taylor in Colchester in 1806. Words from the nursery rhyme are written in silver on the other side;  I couldn’t get all of Twinkle in from that angle because of the railing!

038Nursery Rhyme

Nursery Rhyme is outside Castle Park and represents the fact that three of the best known English nursery rhymes were written in Colchester. ‘Humpty Dumpty’ sits under ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’s and watches ‘Old King Cole’ and his fiddlers three.


Animal Mineral039

Animal Mineral is located inside Castle Park and is inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution and our role as humans in protecting vulnerable species. Animal mineral is covered by a reflective metal (a mineral) to symbolize that animals  evolve to ‘reflect’ their survival needs and that humans are responsible for the longevity of animals who are affected by our excavation of minerals from the environment.

Stick your neck out040

Stick your neck out is at Firstsite in Colchester and has been decorated using paints, usually restricted for custom vehicles, to magnify the individual pattern of giraffe camouflage.

Maasai Giraffe041

Maassai Giraffe is in Colchester’s High Street and is based on the craft traditions of the Maasai people of Africa. The artist (Helen Rose Smith) has included elements of fused glass in the necklace decorations to incorporate elements of her own craft in the sculpture.

042Having a Giraffe

Having a Giraffe is also based in Colchester’s High Street and is inspired by the Southern phrase ‘You’re having a giraffe’. Need I say anymore?!


African Patchwork043

African Patchwork was designed based on African textile designs and is located in Marks and Spencer on Colchester’s High Street.

044Tuxedo G Raffee

Tuxedo G Raffee loves to dance and is based in Colchester’s High Street. He’s very smartly dressed and has even been borrowed for a wedding!

Jungle Jenny047

Jungle Jenny took us ages to find, but after looking around the departments of Williams and Griffin twice we eventually found her in the cafe on the top floor. The artist’s (Jenny Leonard) aim was to incorporate as many animals in the jungle design as possible.


Precious is located at the top of Colchester’s High Street and is designed to express the precious quality of giraffes; Precious is painted in gold, in set with cut stones of jet or amethyst and the eyes are highlighted with diamond effects.




Seahorse is on the outskirts of Colchester’s town center and is painted to look like…well…a seahorse – one of the seaworld’s most beautiful and vulnerable species. Unfortunately Seahorse had been damaged when we went to see him and was then about to be taken to the ‘vets’ by the staff of Colchester Zoo. They did, however, let me get this photo before they took him away, and I have since seen that he is back in his place all healthy and well 😀


Love Hearts048

Love Hearts is by the bus stops in Osbourne Street as was designed to be colourful and psychedelic.


Gofaster-raffe is on the outskirts of Colchester’s town center and was designed by the Colchester MINI Cooper body shop team. The colour of Gofaster-raffe was inspired by the fastest mini in town – the John Cooper Works MINI.

054Big Catrina

Big Catrina is at the Weston Business centre and is covered in paintings of big cats. The artist (Alison Burchert) wanted the design to reflect that most of her subjects are big cats, and highlight that these wild cats are endangered species.


African Waterfall056

African waterfall is designed based on the magnificence of an African waterfall, and is based at CC Designer Bathrooms. He has also been hooked up to function as a shower…how cool is that?!


A few of the giraffes have been located outside of Colchester and Godric is one of them, based at Promenade Park in Maldon. His design is inspired by the statue of Byrhnoth on Maldon’s Promenade. The story goes:

“In 991 A.D, the Vikings, led by King Olaf Tryggvason, launched a coastal invasion of Anglo-Saxon England. Their target was the town of Maldon, which was protected by Lord Byrhtnoth, an old enemy of the raiding Northmen. When the Vikings finally attack, Byrhtnoth makes a critical tactical error based on pride and arrogance, leading to his death and Maldon’s occupation. Byrhtnoth’s most loyal retainer, Godric, flees in the heat of battle so he can survive and claim vengeance even though this means that he breaks an oath he has made to die at the side of Byrhtnoth.”

084Polka Dotty

Polka-Dotty represents the ever-changing world of fashion. She stands bold at Freeport Braintree, expressing her individuality by changing her camouflage from white to purple, and from purple to white.

Giraff-oovy Baby085

It took two attempts for us to find Giraff-oovy Baby! The first time we went to Chelmsford he had been taken to the ‘vet’ 😦 However, we went back the following week and saw that he had returned 😀 Giraff-oovy Baby is inspired by the flower-power era of the 60s, which happens to be the same decade that Colchester Zoo opened its gates for the first time! Here is a picture of Giraff-oovy Baby with his new friend, Roxy the dog.


I was really excited about finding Nextra-terrestrial, mainly as I have been following her blog and twitter account. Nextra-terrestrial has travelled all the way from Giraffe World in the Camelopardalis constellation to Clacton Factory Outlet to celebrate Colchester Zoos 50th birthday. Everything in Giraffe world is ‘giraffified’, from tall houses to long-necked toothbrushes. Did you know that, when no humans are around, the giraffes painted on Nextra-terrestrial come to life, emerging from the paint to have ‘nexciting’ adventures?


Cam was the last giraffe I found, surprising given that I originally come from Ipswich! He is located at Issacs on the Quay and is designed based on Roman history coupled with conservation of the future, of course with animals playing a big part in the design!


My project models the role of dimethylsulphide (DMS) as an infochemical in multitrophic plankton interactions.

“Plankton are microscopic and in the sea!” “Why should we care?” “Do these interactions really affect us (humans)?”

These are all questions that I have been trying to answer and justify whilst writing the first chapter of my thesis, and now that (I think) I have this chapter more-or-less sorted I wanted to break parts of it down into a series of blog posts to get the ideas straight in my head. The first will focus on dimethylsulphide (DMS). What is it and why should we care?

What is dimethylsulphide (DMS)?DMS

Dimethylsulphide (DMS) is a volatile compound made up of two methyl groups (one carbon and three hydrogen atoms) connected by a sulphur atom. DMS is produced following the breakdown of dimethylsulphoniopropionate (DMSP), a metabolite abundant in certain species of algae (phytoplankton) and marine plants.  To the average person, DMS is the gas that you can smell when you’re by the seaside, and has been coined the ‘smell of the sea‘.

Why should we care?

DMS has received a lot of research attention since it was hypothesized to affect climate by Charlson, Lovelock, Andreae and Warren (CLAW) over 25 years ago. Marine algae and plants release millions of tonnes of DMS to the surface layers of the ocean, the flux of which forms the main natural form of sulphur in the atmosphere. Once in the atmosphere, DMS oxidises to produce sulphur dioxide which then leads to the production of sulphate aerosols. These aerosols, either directly or by forming cloud condensation nuclei that increase the reflectiveness of clouds, scatter incoming solar radiation back into space, resulting in a decrease of solar irradiance below clouds and a cooling of the planet. The authors of the CLAW hypothesis proposed that this forms a negative feedback mechanism, where the resulting decrease in irradiance reduces photosynthesis in phytoplankton and therefore DMS production. However, the effect of resulting climate feed-backs on further DMS production by algae remains unknown.


The CLAW hypothesis underpins James Lovelocks Gaia theory, which proposes that the material world and all of its inhabitants evolve together as a single self-regulating super-organism with the aim of regulating surface conditions to favour life on Earth.

Both of these hypotheses have received criticism. However, a huge amount of DMS (~28.1 Tg y^{-1}) is emitted annually from the oceans, making it hugely important for both the chemistry of the atmosphere and cycling of sulphur, as well as for its potential role in climate regulation.

Wolves at Tea Time

Last night hosted one of Colchester Zoos summer late night openings, and we happened to be fortunate enough to be passing the wolf enclosure just after feeding time. The timber wolves at Colchester are fed red meat 6 times a week, as wolves in the wild would not eat every day.  The day without food acts to mimic this, and allows the wolves bodies to deal with indigestible material such as bones and hair. Here are some of the photos I got:





Supervisory boards

As of earlier today, I have now gone through each supervisory board for the minimum period of study for my PhD.

A supervisory board meeting takes place every 6 months during the PhD and is a meeting of at least the student, supervisor (in my case two supervisors) and a board member who checks the progress of the student.

I remember being really nervous before my first board (well before all of them really) but it turned out to be nothing to worry about. No one expects you to have done a huge amount of work only 3 months in, and all I had to prepare was a 2 page plan.

The second board of my first year was a bit more of a challenge. As well as my supervisors and board member, this board also included the head of our research group. I had to prepare a 5000 word literature review, a 3000 word annual report and a record of all the training I had done. I remember the conversation I had with the head of research group (HoRG) as we were walking to the room.

HoRG: You did your degree in maths?                 (I’m registered as a marine biology student now)

Me: Yes

HoRG: You haven’t done a Master’s degree?

Me: No

HoRG: We’re throwing you in at the deep end aren’t we?

Me: Yeah a little bit!

And boy did they want to test me during this board. Even though I am a modeller, most of the questions I got asked were ecological and I really struggled to answer them, I hadn’t done any biology since my GCSEs! None-the-less I got through it, although I did have to make a few changes to my reports.

The first board of the second year was the nerve-wracker…the Confirmation Board! This is the board meeting that upgrades you from an MPhil student to a PhD student, and consists of all the above people plus the head of postgraduate research. I had to update my literature review and annual report, produce a 2-page document of how I had addressed what the board had told me to do in the last meeting and give a 10 minute presentation at the beginning. Although this was the dreaded confirmation board, I felt it went better than my first year meeting as I was better prepared to answer the more ecological questions this time around. I think the worst part was waiting outside for the result at the end, but I got through it no problem. Having a publication behind me by this point certainly helped!

The following boards consisted of only my supervisor(s) and my board member and really were nothing to worry about.

For the final board of my second year I had to produce a second year annual report as well as a training record. My board member said he was happy with the work that I had done. No tough questions, we pretty much spent the hour discussing what I would be doing over the following year, which was great as it gave my project some focus.

The first board of my third year was over in 15 mins. This report consisted of a thesis plan and timetable of remaining work. The only criticism I received was that my thesis would be too long and I could cut a couple of the chapters that I was planning to do, which I was really happy about as, by this point, I was panicking about finishing on time.

I was quite nervous about todays. I had to give a more detailed thesis plan as well as two thesis chapters. For the past couple of weeks my supervisors have been telling me to prepare for some tough questions as they will want to prepare me for my viva, but it didn’t happen. We just discussed my thesis plan, conferences that I am going to and practical things such as computer programs, funding etc. Again, really was nothing to worry about.

So, as long as there’s work to show, board meetings really are nothing to worry about. Hopefully I’ll get on just as well when it comes to the viva!

Mathematical ecology?

When ever I tell people what subject it is that I study I always get that same horrified look; that I’m mad, that I must be some kind of genius, general confusion!

“How can you use maths in ecology?”

My project looks at the population dynamics of the plankton or, more specifically, how plankton populations change over time based on the interactions between the different plankton species. To do this I use a dynamical systems approach. Perhaps the most simple and well-known example of this is the Lotka-Volterra predator-prey model.


In the mid-1920s Umberto D’Ancona, an Italian marine biologist, wondered why the proportion of predatory fish sold in markets between 1910-1923  increased,  when fishing effort had decreased due to the First Word War. He also noticed that the number of prey fish decreased during this period. D’Ancona posed this question to his future father in law, the mathematician Vito Volterra, who wrote down a system of differential equations to describe the system. The same equations had also been derived independently by Alfred Lotka to describe the concentrations of interacting chemicals in a reaction. Since then the equations have been applied to a number of biological predator-prey systems, the famous analogy being rabbits and foxes.

The Model

The Lotka-Volterra equations are easy enough to interpret and are given by:


\frac{dP}{dt}=\gamma gNP-\delta P

N is the number (or density) of the prey species and P is the number (or density) of the predator species. Here I shall stick to the famous rabbit and fox analogy, so N = rabbits and P = foxes.

The \frac{dN}{dt} and \frac{dP}{dt} terms denote rates of change. All this means is that the equations track how the rabbit and fox populations change over time.

r is the growth rate of the rabbits, which is proportional to the number (density) of rabbits in the system (rN). So, if r = 1.5 and there are 4 rabbits at t = 0 then at t = 1 there would be 6 rabbits, and at  t = 2 there would be 9 rabbits. Assuming there are no foxes around, the rabbit population would continue to grow in this way.

g is the rate at which foxes eat rabbits, which is proportional to the numbers (density) of both the rabbits and the foxes (gNP). So if N and P are large, that is there are lots of rabbits and foxes, there will be more encounters between the rabbits and the foxes, so more eaten rabbits, but if N and P are small there will be less encounters between rabbits and foxes, so less eaten rabbits.

The gNP term also appears in the fox equation but this time is multiplied by \gamma, which is the efficiency with which foxes convert eaten rabbits into new fox biomass. So if \gamma = 1 each eaten rabbit would result in one new fox. Although, in reality, foxes may not eat the whole rabbit, and some of the rabbit will be used as energy or excreted, meaning the efficiency is usually a lot lower than 1.

\delta is the mortality rate of the foxes, which is proportional to the number (density) of foxes in the system (\delta P). So if \delta = 0.5 and there are 4 foxes at t = 0 then at t = 1 there would be 2 foxes and at t = 2 there would be 1 fox. Assuming there are no rabbits in the system, the fox population would continue to decline in this way.

So, putting this all together, the Lotka-Voterra equations can be interpreted as:

Change in rabbit population = growth – predation by foxes

Change in fox population = (efficiency x predation on rabbits) – mortality

The analysis of this model is a little more complex so I will skip straight to the results.

Phase portrait

A phase portrait shows you how the system will behave depending on where you are in the phase space (in this case depending on how many rabbits and foxes there are) at any time. Using r=0.2, g=0.6, \gamma=0.25, \delta=0.3 gives the following phase portrait for the Lotka-Volterra model:


So, what does this mean? The black arrows show you which way the solution trajectories are heading. In region I of the phase portrait solutions are heading left and downwards. Heading left along the x-axis shows that this corresponds to a decrease in rabbits while heading down the y-axis shows a decrease in foxes. Therefore, in region I of the phase space, both rabbit and fox populations are declining.

In region II of the phase space solutions continue to head downwards but head right along the x-axis, corresponding to an increase in rabbits. Therefore, in region II of the phase space, the rabbit population grows while the fox population continues to decline.

Similarly, both rabbit and fox populations grow in region III of the phase space while in region IV the fox population grows as the rabbit population declines.

The blue lines show solution trajectories. The Lotka-Volterra model exhibits periodic solutions, the amplitude and period of which depends on the starting number (density) of rabbits and foxes. In the phase portrait above, starting with 2 rabbits and 1 fox puts you on the outer cycle while starting with 1 rabbit and 0.4 foxes put you on the inner cycle. And, before you think I’m mad, I know it’s impossible to have 0.4 foxes. This is why I have been referring to population density as well as numbers. In plankton modelling each plankton species is modelled in terms of its carbon or nitrogen content, rather than by the actual number of organisms.

Time series

The phase portrait can be difficult to grasp. Another way to represent the dynamics of the Lotka-Volterra model is to plot its time series, which shows the abundance of rabbits and foxes over time. Although for this method you do have to specify the number (density) of rabbits and foxes that you are starting with, whereas with the phase portrait you can see how the model will behave for any starting number of rabbits and foxes.

LotkaVolterraTempThe time series above shows how the number (density) of rabbits and foxes changes over time, and corresponds to the outer cycle on the phase portrait. You can track the main features highlighted in the phase portrait on the time series.

Starting with 2 rabbits and 1 foxes puts you in region IV of the phase portrait, where rabbits are declining and foxes are growing. This can be seen in the first couple of days on the time series by the decreasing blue line (rabbits) and increasing green line (foxes). This is followed by both lines decreasing (region I), then rabbits increasing while foxes are still declining (region II) and then both rabbit and fox populations growing (region III) before reaching region IV again where the pattern repeats itself.

Ecological meaning

It’s all very well explaining the mathematics behind these results, but do the cyclic dynamics of the Lotka-Volterra model have any ecological meaning?

When the number of both rabbits and foxes is low the rabbit population is able to grow. Once the rabbit population starts to get large there is a lot of food for the foxes, meaning that the fox population can start to grow. However, once the fox population starts to get large, the extra predation on rabbits causes the rabbit population to decline. This then leads to a decline in the fox population as their rabbit prey become scarce. The decline in foxes then releases predation pressure on the rabbit population and the cycle starts again.

It should be noted here that the Lotka-Volterra model is the simplest species interaction model and is known to be unsatisfactory for two main reasons.

  1. It is sensitive to small perturbations. That is starting with slightly different numbers (densities) of rabbits and foxes can shift the solution to a different cycle, as you can see from the two trajectories given on the phase portrait above.
  2. It is structurally unstable. This means that adding a small perturbation term could massively change the dynamics. The size of the cycles may grow or the solutions may tend to a stable steady state, where the population numbers (densities) remain constant in time.

Despite this, the Lotka-Volterra model remains one of the most studied species interaction models in ecological literature. Keep an eye out for posts on more complex models.

Busy times

A PhD is full of ups and downs, quite and busy periods, times where you progress well and others when you are completely stumped. I’ve definitely hit one of those ‘Arrgh I’ve got so much to do I think my head is going to explode’ moments. The last couple of weeks / months have been so busy, both in my studies and my personal life. I’m definitely feeling the pressure!

I have two pretty big deadlines for work coming up in the next two weeks. The first is the reports for my upcoming supervisory board. This consists of a detailed thesis plan, a summary of writing progress and a timetable of remaining work, as well as two draft thesis chapters.

The second, and potentially more problematic, deadline is for a manuscript we’re hoping to get published in a journal special issue. I say more problematic as I think there may be a bug in my code, meaning that I may have to re-obtain all of my results as well as writing them up as a manuscript and getting it checked by the coauthors, all within two weeks. Not sure that is going to happen, but we’ll see.

On top of this I’ve had two conferences for which I’ve had to send abstracts to and apply for funding, as well as booking travel and accommodation.

So it’s been a little busy, but manageable. Now add in a sudden house move!

A little over a month ago our landlord turned up and told us, out of the blue, that he wanted to sell our house. Cue massive panic! ‘Can we afford to buy this house?’, ‘Can we afford to buy any other house?’, ‘Are we going to find anything as nice to rent?’,  ‘How long’s it going to take him to sell?’. The answers: No, Yes, Kind of & 4 days.

So we couldn’t get a mortgage on our old house, but we have found a house we love that we can get a mortgage on, which is great and a little unexpected; I didn’t think this would be possible on a PhD wage! The only problem is it’s not going to be ready until December, meaning that we’ve had to find somewhere else to rent in the meantime anyway. For my PhD, this has led to quite a bit of time off for mortgage meetings, house viewings and to move. Last week was the first week I’d worked a full Mon-Fri in the last eight (although this is partly due to bank holidays as well), not good for meeting these deadlines!

For me, this has meant a lot of paperwork for two houses, a lot of people to notify of our change of address, a lot of meetings and appointments and a lot of hard work packing, moving and unpacking, not to mention a lot of expense! It’s definitely taken its toll and I’m not looking forward to having to do it all again at the end of the year.

I think we’re all sorted on the house front for now, but it’s going to be a tight squeeze to meet all of these PhD deadlines. I honestly think this has been the most stressful period of my PhD to date (and there’s been a couple!)

So, how to manage those busy periods? Firstly, prioritize; rather than get in a flap about how much you’ve got to do make a list of everything in order of importance and work through it. This way you’ll get a sense of achievement as the list gets smaller. Secondly, time optimization; can you start an experiment and do something else while that’s running, like writing, rather than wasting time while waiting for it to finish? Lastly, learn to say no! I always feel guilty saying no when asked to help with an experiment or (more often) a maths problem, but if it’s going to take a lot of extra time that you don’t have then your work has to come first!

And in terms of getting though one of the downs in PhD life, I find the following always help:

1) Having a good circle of friends within the university, who understand PhD life and are going through what you are, that I can confide in and get advice from, as well go out and have fun with. Don’t get me wrong, being able to talk to people outside of the University helps too, but I find that most people don’t really get what it is that I do. I certainly didn’t know what was involved in a PhD until I started!


2) Karate! Not that I’m saying everyone should take up karate, and I know hitting people (and getting hit back) isn’t for everyone, but for me this is one of the best stress relievers! There’s been a number of times I’ve turned up for karate feeling crappy, or frustrated with work but I always, without fail, leave feeling fantastic and re-motivated. It doesn’t have to be sport, but I find doing something active like walking or going for a bike ride, even for a little while, helps.

3) And for an instant pick me up, looking at a picture or photo that makes me happy, like this board of happy animals:

How can that not make you smile? =D

5 Top Tips for PhD Students

Back in October I was asked to help with the beginning of year conferences for 1st and 2nd year PhD students. As part of this I had to present my 5 top tips for PhD study, and thought they may be useful for any PhD students out there who stumble upon my blog. So here they are:

1. Check and double-check your data and results:

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As a mathematician I deal with a lot of numbers and have always been prone to making small / silly mistakes that get carried through my work. Now I’ve got into the habit of pushing my calculations to the side once I’m done, and then doing them all again to double-check that I get the same result. This seems like a lot of hassle I know, but the amount of times I’ve realized there’s a mistake a couple of weeks / months down the track and then haven’t been able to figure out what I did because I’ve moved on to something else. Surely it is better to take 5 minutes now to check through your results rather than taking a couple of hours or even days in a few months time trying to remember what it was that you were doing!

2. Present your work where possible:

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Presenting your work at conferences is the ideal way to get some valuable feedback on your ideas and results. Talks are a great confidence builder and  provide some good networking opportunities. I’m nearly always unfortunate enough to be the last speaker in my session, but I get such a buzz once I’m done and I’ve always had people waiting behind to discuss my work with me during the coffee break. Posters are great too as you can have a more detailed discussion with other participants, although you do need to think about how to ‘attract’ people to your poster. Not only will other participants discuss your ideas but they may have ideas of their own with which to extend your work, make it stronger or to form new collaborations. And, although we hate to think of it, they may be able to spot any mistakes or things that you’ve missed. But hey, better to find out now rather than in your viva!

Presenting doesn’t just have to be at conferences. Check out what University seminar series are running and sign up to give a presentation. Even discussing your results with lab members or your fellow PhD students over coffee can give you some valuable feedback on your ideas.

3. Write as you go along:

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My supervisor has always encouraged me to write-up my work as I go along. We’re aiming to publish each of my chapters as I get the results for them. While this seems like a lot of extra work now, I’m hoping that this will make the process of thesis writing a lot easier, as most of my results have already been written up and improved through the peer-review process.

But you don’t have to publish. Even writing up a summary of what you have done for your own records may save a lot of work in the long run. I don’t know about you, but I find things I’ve scribbled down in my lab book almost illegible when I want to look over them again, whereas a summary on my computer with maybe a figure or two is much more understandable.

4. Schedule your time:

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This is a really important point as there is so much to do during the course of your PhD; getting results, reading / writing papers, preparing board reports and abstracts, going to conferences and seminars, attending courses etc.

I have a calendar above my desk where I keep track of all conference / application deadlines, conference dates, deadlines for board reports and papers, dates I’m going to be away. That way I can see what deadlines are coming up and prioritize my work.

During quite(ish) periods I have a rough schedule for what I am going to do each day. Nothing fancy as you can see: Mon (work on current chapter), Tues (read papers, update literature review / chapter introductions & discussions), Wed & Thurs (work on current chapter), Fri (writing). This way I can regularly do a bit of work on each part of my thesis and keep it relatively up to date, again (hopefully) saving me some time in the long run. I don’t stick to this strictly, and completely ignore this plan when I know I have something like a board or paper deadline / presentation approaching, but it’s a useful way to add some structure to my research away from busy conference or supervisory board times.

5. Take a break!!!

Pursuing a PhD may be one of the most stressful things you ever do and I can not stress enough how important it is to take a break from it all.

Through doing a theoretical project I have the luxury of being able to determine my own work hours, without having to fit around experiments. I therefore (more-or less) stick to Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm working hours and keep my evenings and weekends free to relax or do something that I enjoy.

I find that even taking a couple of breaks throughout the day increases my productivity. I remember at the beginning of my PhD I noticed a mistake in some algebra that I had been working on and sat there for a good couple of hours trying to figure out what had gone wrong, with no success. However, after a brief walk around the lakes I came back and solved the problem within 5 minutes.

Taking a week or two off every now and then is a great way to recharge your batteries, allowing you to come back to work refreshed and raring to go. Although I do have some rules for holidays: (1) do not take any work with you & (2) do not check University email; set up automatic replies to let people know that you are away and deal with it all when you get back.

And in the spirit of this I present a photo from my recent holiday to Dorset :-D: