Friday, 29 March 2013

If at first you don't succeed?

This is going to be a bit of a departure from the usual toothy shenanigans I tend to bring to this blog. Instead I am going to write a little bit about my PhD, inspired by a recent post by the charming but palaeontology crazed Jon Tennant over at Green Tea & Velociraptors. I have to say, his thoughts on the subject are a bit more positive than mine are going to be...

I am in the fourth year of my doctoral studies. It's euphemistically called your 'writing-up' year. Of course, in my discipline you're expected to finish completely within three years - consequently, the fourth year is unfunded and mostly unsupported by your institution. Although a lot of people stray over their three year allowance, it's seen as a bit of an academic faux pas. It gets worse if you take longer than that of course. If you take more than four years you become spoken of in hushed tones in darkened corridors as a warning to others.

I like to think of it not so much as a writing-up year, but a period of existing on very little income, caught between needing a job before you run out of rent money and finishing a thesis you despise. And yes, I do despise it. I love my subject, and I love the gubbins that a PhD entails - the teaching, the outreach, the learning and the kind of day-to-day intellectual interaction you get exposed to... but the PhD itself? I'm not so keen on that and I don't think I have been for a long, long time.

It's safe to say that my experience of undertaking a PhD has not been ideal. Just before my it kicked off, the long term relationship I was in failed epically and miserably, I quickly moved into a horrible shared house and soon after I became ill. It was a like building a castle upon a bowl of jelly - so think of this as full disclosure - it was probably never destined to work out well for me.

My initial supervisor was an eminent professor and a genuinely lovely person, but unfortunately, not the kind of supervisor I needed at the time. Turns out that 'hands-off' is not the mode of supervision someone like me needed - but I wasn't really in a state to let anyone know that. So, I wandered aimlessly for a long time in the vast fields of academia, producing work of variable quality, hoping it would eventually click and I would manage to produce something of consequence.

The saddest thing is that no-one noticed. I accidentally bluffed my way through every upgrade, every progress report and presentation I had to give. I have no idea how, but not a single person for two years noticed. I take full responsibility for that of course. If you don't throw your hands up whilst you drown, it's not always possible for passers-by to see you as you slip 'neath the waves.

In the last year, things started to change. I have a different supervisor, a better home life and my progress over the past year has been phenomenal compared to my first two - but I'm still running just to keep up. It's not fulfilling and it does not make me happy. Every word I write still feels like a struggle (ironically, it's a bit like pulling teeth), but since I am two chapters away from being able to hand in, I've decided to keep on at it. At least until summer. It's a precarious decision, but I've always been a 'regret something you did, rather than something you didn't do' kind of girl, so here goes. I have a few more months to get it together and hand the bloody thing in. Wish me luck!

In an attempt to do something other than whine on the internet though, I thought I might present a few words of advice for people undertaking a PhD, just in case anything I have learnt might help. So, here goes:
  • Money. If you want to do a PhD, please, please, make sure you have enough funding or other income to allow you to do it without worrying about rent and bills and how to afford shoes. I had very minimal scholarship funding, which I was very grateful for - but I thought it would get me through if I was careful with it. It didn't.
  • Support. You might be a devil-may-care rogue of a person, a lone wolf who only needs themselves - but if, like me, you are not, I suggest not doing a PhD without a good support network of family, friends and colleagues around you. Lonely nights and a lack of human conversation do not a happy worker make.
  • Seeking help. If you find yourself struggling, talk to someone, anyone in your department. I wanted to hide my situation in case they got rid of me, but it did me no favours in the end. No-one actually expects you to be infallible.
  • Be brave. If you do not have a supervisor that suits your working style or your nature (for want of a better word) and you feel like someone else might be better, change. I was told it was ' too political' to do such a thing - but fuck it. Change and find the support system you need. It's your PhD, not the PhD of some coffee room know-it-all.
  • Failure. I wish I had recognised a long time ago that failure has a lot of different meanings. I realise now 'dropping out', what I saw as my ultimate failure, wouldn't have been so bad to do in the first couple of years. It's actually only a failure if you make it into one. Lots of people do just fine without a doctorate :)
So, there you go. That's my doctoral experience. Lots of people have fantastic, wonderful experiences, but it's worth noting that it's not a given. If you find this because you are struggling with your studies, that's okay. You can do it! By the same measure, if you really don't want to do it any more, that's fine too.

Do what makes you the most happy.


Monday, 25 March 2013

Thanks for the mammoth tooth!

It was just another day at work for Environment Agency worker Simon McHugh when he spotted an unusual looking object sitting in a pool of water on the gravel riverbed of the River Otter in East Devon. The biodiversity technical officer, who had been assessing the extent of erosion of the river bank, recognised the 20cm long object as a tooth - but was astounded to realise he had stumbled upon a mammoth molar which could be up to 70,000 years old.

Experts at the Natural History Museum have confirmed that the tooth is not only a interesting find, but a rare one too - only a handful of mammoth teeth have been found in the UK, with just two being found in Devon. In fact, this is the first find of its kind since the 1800s.

The massive molar close-up
A mammoth discovery - a 20cm long, upper right molar tooth.
The sizable tooth weighs in at a hefty 2.2kg -  much heavier than it would have been sitting in the mouth of its original mammoth owner. This is due to the fossilisation process, which saw the tooth absorb silica or other minerals over time, slowly becoming petrified.

So, after surviving Ice Ages and tens of thousands of years, what's next for the River Otter mammoth tooth? As big as it is and as tough as it looks, it firstly needs some conservation to prevent it drying out too quickly and crumbling to dust. Once it's preserved, it's destined to go on display at Exeter Museum - reminding people that once upon a time, just a few thousand years ago, beasts with individual teeth as long as an iPad were once numerous in southern England...