Things I learned from my PhD

October 26th, 2011

Despite the title, this isn’t going to be a post about HF radio in the polar regions (which was the subject of my thesis). It’s more a compilation of thoughts about how I went about my PhD and how I would have done it differently with the benefit of hindsight. I’m going to divide this into three sections:

General thoughts on doing a PhD

A PhD is the traditional entry point to a career in academia. I knew in advance that I did not want a career as a university lecturer, so why did I do it? Partly vanity, partly the desire to work on my own research project for three years, is the honest answer. Was it a good use of three years I could otherwise have spent gaining valuable career experience in industry? I’m not sure. One comment I will make to my fellow electronic engineers: unlike in pure science, most of the exciting and cutting edge research in electronic engineering is not happening in university research labs – it’s happening in the R&D departments of big companies. I would strongly advise anyone wanting to do postgraduate study in electronics to seek an industrial partner to work with rather than working solely in a university. Read Dave Pearce’s wise, if rather cynical, words on the subject here.

A serious point: my PhD brought me anxiety, sleepless nights and depression at various stages. If you have not had mental health problems before (I hadn’t really), then be prepared for this if you take one on. Depression for me manifests itself as a lack of ability to make any kind of decision unprompted, a feeling of “mental numbness” rather than actual melancholy. If you have already had mental health problems, make sure you know what to do when you spot the early symptoms.

This evening I heard Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell on the radio talking about her PhD, and she made a telling comment that she worried about not getting her PhD (during her writing-up) even though her work had made a groundbreaking discovery and had been published in Nature. Her supervisor and head of department would later be awarded a Nobel Prize for her work! If this is true for her, it will be even more true for you, as it was for me.

Things I got right, and would recommend to others

Seek the funding early and ensure it is in place before the studentship starts. Do not trust academics who promise you funding until all the paperwork is in place.

Funding includes an operating budget, not just your stipend. NERC research grants do now come with decent operating budgets, but make sure you have enough money to pay for the cost of the equipment/fieldwork that you need. One of my supervisors had deep pockets and paid for a lot of my equipment, for which I was very grateful.

Treat your PhD as a job. Work office hours (perhaps customised slightly to whether you’re a dawn lark or a night owl) and don’t expect to work weekends except in an emergency. Don’t treat it like being an undergrad!

Conversely, you have unrivalled flexibility, so take advantage of that when opportunities come along.

Seek out collaborators beyond your immediate environs. I had input from researchers in Australia, Canada and Poland – they were hugely helpful and added a lot to my work. Most researchers are friendly and helpful – if you write a polite email to them (even if you’ve never met) they may well be able to help you. You can often gain access to valuable unpublished data in this way!

You will meet a lot of people. Get yourself business cards – ideally, get your institution to print you proper ones, but if they won’t then buy some of your own from or some similar service. It’s much easier to give someone a card at a conference or meeting than to scrabble for a bit of paper and write your email address on it.

Write things down as you go along. I was mostly good at this, but seriously – when you perform some kind of procedure or experiment, write the method down! You may need to repeat it later and will have forgotten some of the nuances. Ideally, write up each little experiment as its own mini-report. It will save you heaps of time later and will also clarify your thoughts.

Use reference management systems from the word go. I used Zotero, which is a plugin for Firefox, and makes it very easy to gather references. Zotero is more of a headache when it comes to writing up, so I’d recommend exporting the library from Zotero into Endnote (if you have it) for the writing-up stage.

Take advantage of all the training opportunities you have. Leicester ran a number of excellent courses for postgrad researchers, the best of which was GRADschool, which is a national scheme. If your uni offers GRADschool, do it! If they don’t, apply for a place on the national one.

Do look after your data, and make use of the right tools to handle it. I amassed a huge amount of data from my year-long propagation study and one of the best decisions I ever made was to import it all into an Oracle database on a server at BAS. It took me a few days to do, but gave me so much flexibility in crunching a big dataset later.

Do consider getting away from the office to write up. My writing-up cruise on the boat worked well for me, but is possibly a bit extreme. A colleague of a friend of mine booked a cheap package holiday in order to get started on a big chunk of his thesis – not a bad plan if you have the self-discipline not to just lie on the beach!

Go to conferences – they are interesting and fun, and you learn stuff and meet potential collaborators. I like giving talks and presentations and meeting people, so I love conferences. If you lack confidence in giving a talk, do a presentation skills course: by this I mean a course on how to speak in public, not a course on how to use PowerPoint. I did one at the BBC – a one day course taught by a former actor – which was excellent and did wonders for my presentation style.

Use Dropbox. Dropbox is brilliant. It keeps your data backed up and synced between multiple computers. Simple, but effective. One point to note is that Dropbox for Windows (XP – this might have been fixed in Windows 7) cannot sync an MS Word or Excel document while it is open in Word or Excel – so even though you are saving, Dropbox cannot back it up for you until you close the document. On the Mac, Dropbox can back up the documents every time you save without closing the document. It’s to do with the different ways that Windows and Mac OS work with open files.

Things I got wrong, and would recommend that others avoid doing

Proposing your own research topic is risky. If your supervisor(s) have a direct vested interest in your work, they are more likely to give you the support you need.

Choosing the right place to do your project is very important. This I got wrong – BAS were great, and provided me with money and opportunities, but there was no expertise in my specific sub-field that I could draw on. I had thought that Leicester would have provided this expertise, but their research interests were not quite in the same sub-field either. The right place to have done my PhD would have been CRC in Ottawa. I am not joking when I say that my four weeks in Ottawa (half way through my third year) were more productive than my entire first year. I had access to the right expertise and the right lab equipment. A fellow student at BAS switched to working full-time at BAS (and relocated to Cambridge) at the end of her first year because BAS was the right place for her – I should have gone to Ottawa at that stage – had I known!

Don’t try and do a “broad” thesis. My PhD topic is much too broad, which meant that I struggled to achieve the necessary depth within the word limit. A tightly-specified “narrow” project will be easier to write up. If your work is interdisciplinary, you may find it difficult to get your thesis narrow enough.

Don’t work in a dead field. Seriously, my field is almost as dead as a doornail – most of the interesting recent work of much value was funded by NATO in the 90s and stopped in about 2000. The experts at CRC had been told not to work on my field for the last ten years, although they are working on it again now. A corollary to this is that lots of important work is published in obscure conference proceedings which are hard to get, rather than in journals. Worse, stuff is published in NATO reports which are out-of-print or not available electronically.

Not having access to publications is a major headache. During my first year, Leicester’s library didn’t have electronic access to IEEE and IET conference publications, only to journals. Cambridge UL (to which I had guest access) didn’t have this either. Most of the work in my field was published at conferences, so I had several trips to the British Library and IET library to obtain publications. The British Library’s computer systems are slow and don’t let you cut-and-paste, so you spend ages typing queries into the search boxes to find the papers you want. You can only get the papers out as hard copies, which you pay for. By my second year, the library had upgraded to a subscription that included conferences and provided a proxy service to give me access to them from outside the university network. This saved so much time and effort.

Choose your supervisor(s) very carefully. Ideally, talk to their existing students and find out what they are like. Many academics are not good at people management and many are lousy supervisors. Also, visit their research group office – is it busy, with an air of quiet industry? Are their adverts for upcoming seminars and presentations? Are the posters on the wall from recent conferences? If not, walk away…

Working remotely from your supervisor is a particular challenge. Do not assume that they read your emails. If you do not receive a reply, call them. If they do not answer the phone, call the departmental secretary (or their PA, if they have one) and find out if they are in.

Do not schedule your viva for Friday afternoon and then start a new and demanding job on the following Monday morning. Enough said, I think.

I shall stop here, and recommend similar posting by two friends of mine – this one is a compilation of advice, while this one is a more personal perspective aimed at mathematicians.

Leave a Reply