Category Archives: Work ‘n’ Stuff

PhD Fraud #10: Welcome to Plight Club

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It’s come to my attention that, in these intermittent posts about my trials and tribulations of PhD research, I’m usually complaining about the research process or releasing some of the negativity and frustrations of it all.

Well, for a change, I thought that I’d offer a few tips for current and prospective PhDers (what I’m going to tentatively call ‘Plight Club’): if you’re someone just starting on the path to a PhD, or even a grizzled veteran like me who’s going through a rough time, then maybe there’ll be something useful in here for you. Welcome to Plight Club.

1 (a). Talk to your Fellow Plighters.

If you’re having difficulties in your PhD or research, there is absolutely no shame in talking to others about it or admitting that you’re struggling. Often, with a PhD, such a personal relationship is developed with the research and it can be hard to admit that things aren’t going well. Likewise, when it comes to talking to others (other postgrads, family, friends, supervisors), it can often be easy to pretend that things are going swimmingly as you don’t want to seem like you’re ‘behind’ or not as successful as everyone around you (SPOILERS: no-one is ‘WINNINGS’ at their PhD, no matter how much they might say or pretend they are).

Much of the time, everyone is so wrapped up in their own research that it can be difficult to find to talk about personal matters beyond “how’s your research going?” or ” did your conference paper get accepted? “. Get to know the people who  sit and work around you – not only will it make the project less lonely, but they’ll also be able to reassure that no PhD is easy, and that they’re probably having just as many problems, and suffering just as many setbacks, as you are. It’s also good to have time each day to ‘reset’ and come back to your work feeling refreshed after a quick coffee and a piece of cake or something. And hell, even if you don’t feel any better about your work, at least you have cake, and that’s never a bad thing, right?

1 (b). Talk to Other Researchers.

As I already mentioned, a lot of the time spent doing a PhD is done alone, usually facing a computer screen trying to make your code work, mending some broken piece of experimental equipment or trying to work out what the hell your results mean. Since a PhD is usually a very specialised area of research, this means that, invariably, there aren’t that many people around who can help fix your problems or dig you out of a sticky situation. So, don’t be afraid to randomly send emails to other academics/researchers studying elsewhere. They’re not monsters; they won’t bite. They’re real human beings, and if they’re worth their salt as academics of a particular field, then they’ll be happy to help out someone if they’re struggling. Don’t forget that even seasoned academics probably struggled through the PhD process, and so will inevitably relate to your woes when you send a ballsy email  saying “ZOMG THIS STUFF IS TOO HARD, I’M REALLY STUCK CAN YOU HELP ME PLEASE THANK YOU 😥 .” Also, putting your name (and/or face) out there will come in mega-handy when you start jetting off to various conferences/workshops to present your research, as you’ll at least meet familiar faces/names when you’re making your first steps into the the ‘public eye’ of research.

It’s not a foolproof system, as you’ll likely get the odd academic who either ignores all communication (or just gets so much in their inbox that they can’t keep up) or comes across a little gruff, but most academics are SHOCK HORROR actually kind of nice. As long as you’re polite, clear and concise with your requests and/or problems, then even noted experts will be happy to at least point you in the right direction to how you track down a solution. In a world where even the most distant fellow researcher is accessible via email or Skype, then there’s no harm in reaching out. Who knows; maybe you’ll get through your stickiness and find answers to your problems, or at least feel that you’re not alone.

2. Use Mendeley.

One of the constant battles of a PhD is squaring up against the tens/hundreds/thousands (delete as applicable) of academic papers relevant to your field, and being able to efficiently locate citations or reference other academics’ work in your own writing. In the digital age, gone are the prospects of having to maintain a well-catalogued library of paper copies and books, as everything is in PDF form these days; however, efficient management of these files is still tricky, and can lead to lots of headaches when trying to find a particular paper or piece of information.

In this vein, Mendeley is a staggering piece of kit. It keeps all your papers in one place (it has a PDF viewer as well so you don’t need to use Adobe Acrobat) and lets you make notes, highlights, annotations or download referencing data from the web. You can sort by authors, publication; you can add your own tags and keywords, and collect similar papers in folders; plus, you can access papers in your library from the web and from any location. It has a Word/LaTeX plugin as well, letting you ‘Insert Citation’ from your word processor and it’ll include the reference; then when you’ve finished your paper/thesis, just hit ‘Insert Bibliography’ and it’ll compile your reference list for you. Oh, did I mention that it’s free?

Essentially, it does for PDFs what iTunes (etc.) does for mp3s, and while other programs like EndNote offer similar experiences, Mendeley is just better. Download it here, you can thank me later.

3. Write EVERYTHING Down.

A PhD is, naturally, epic. You’ll cover so much material, think about so many things and touch on so many concepts, that you’ll quickly lose track of minute details.

– Done a new experiment? Document it properly so you can go back and check your results, or you can repeat it again if you need to.

– Had an idea in the middle of the night? Write it down in case you’ve forgotten by the morning.

– Have a deadline or somewhere you need to be? Write it down, as you don’t want to miss a supervisor meeting if he/she has a busy schedule and is not in their office for most of the time.

Keep some paper with you at all times; from a notebook you carry around with you everywhere, to a pad of paper and a pen when you inevitably reach a ‘EUREKA!’ moment in the middle of the night[*], to maybe even some shower crayons you can use to write out mathematical equations on the bathroom tiles during your daily bathtime routine. And if you’re slightly more 21st century than writing things down, get a dictaphone or use a sound recorder app on your smartphone; even an desktop/mobile app like Evernote are kind of handy, and have the added benefit that you’ll remember to write down your ideas but then go ahead and lose your notebook in the pub or something.

[* It’s worth bearing in mind that I’ve never had a ‘EUREKA!’ moment, despite my best efforts to instigate one by spending as much time as possible in the bath, bah.]

4. Try some Tomatoes

My major failing is procrastination (future PhD Fraud post coming on that subject very soon), and it’s usually a constant battle to avoid getting distracted from my work by the plethora more interesting things that exist on our watery, blue sphere. I’ve tried many techniques and methods to combat this but with minimal success, but found solace in the wonderfully simple MyTomatoes tool based on the Pomodoro method.

It doesn’t work so well with experimental PhDs, or those that aren’t desk-based or involve other activities that mean you’re not in one place for long stretches, but if you’re involved in a lot of reading, writing or programming during your studies, then a time management technique like Pomodoro can be good for structuring your time such that you focus on the job at hand, but are given lots of small breaks (in which you can quickly check Facebook, news or whatever) as a reward for 25 minutes’ hard work.

There are lots of free resources all over the web for Pomodoro stuff, and you can easily find a tracker/application/browser-based site that suits you. MyTomatoes is good insofar that it tracks both your work-periods and your breaks, and also lets you write down what you did in each tomato period, which can be very helpful for cataloguing  progress and reminding you how much you’ve achieved throughout the day.

As I said, it doesn’t work for everyone, but for those who have a difficult time concentrating on the task at hand it can be a godsend. Give it a whirl.

5. Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down.

If you ever feel that your research is causing you more stress, worry or frustration than is good for your health, then stop. Life is really too short to let work-related matters define your well-being,

Your supervisor should not be your master; they do not own you, so if you’re being pressured into taking on extra work or doing other stuff that you don’t want to, and which distracts from your PhD (which is likely causing you enough stress as it is), then learn how to say no to extra work, student teaching or supervision. Focus on your own work, and making it the best that it can be.

No-one ever said that doing a PhD had to be easy, but it shouldn’t rule your life; no matter what your supervisor might think. If things are genuinely tough or you can’t cope, then there’s no shame in getting out of things for a while or seeking professional help. Finishing the PhD might feel like it’s life-or-death, but in the grand scheme of things, it really isn’t. Just give things your best shot, or at least the best shot under the circumstances. If you don’t (or can’t) make it out of the PhD process with what you wanted, then don’t stress over it; life has far more to offer, and you’ll still be able to find something fantastically fantastic to do with your life, and unless you’re desperate to waste away live your life in academia, then chances are it won’t stop you getting a pretty rad job.

And if you ever feel alone, just think about all the other Plighters across the globe – all struggling to make traction in the research world but who will ultimately get there in the end: I’m certainly one of them. I still haven’t figured out a way to ‘WIN’ at the PhD process, but hopefully I’ve passed on a few of the things I’ve learnt to keep me at least on even keel. Let me know if you have any success trying them out, or have other Words of Wisdom that you’d like to share. Peace out.

[Zinar7]

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Big Bang Solent Science Fair 21/03/2013 – Personal Debrief

Further to my previous update (Science & Engineering Day 2013), last Thursday presented the Astronautics Research Groups’ second event in in National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW) 2013, with the arrival of the Big Bang Solent science fair to the Garden Court at the University of Southampton. This post documents the major goings-on of the day, what we can do to improve for next time, and also to share a few photos from our activities and exhibits. So, without further ado, onwards!

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Our stand and presenting team (Ben [spaceman_ben] and I, plus a few other stragglers) were once again out in full force at a brisk 0845 on Thursday morning  to put our stand and kit together; smugly earlier than most of the other stands exhibiting that day, leaving us plenty of time to soak up the free coffee and biscuits and to gently rib the other delegations who’d scheduled considerably less time to sort out their kit. Our setup was largely the same as for the previous Saturday, albeit with a few modifications to our LEGO Mindstorms demonstration, resulting in the substitution of Aquabot with a new, space-debris themed rover, Debrisbot:

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Saturday’s headaches were largely derived from the fact that Aquabot‘s mission of collecting coloured balls into its jaws provided unexpected sources of unpredictability: for example, our demonstrations of placing balls in Aquabot‘s path meant that visiting children were inclined to try picking up the balls and rolling them (sometimes with great force) into the rover’s maw. This was fine, except when it happened just as Aquabot approached the edge of the ‘green’ area, such that a ball would get stuck under the NXT colour sensor when the rover reached the  green card and hence would not detect that it was imminently going to crash into the makeshift (albeit perhaps with one less ‘f’) cardboard wall we constructed to make sure balls did not roll everywhere. In addition, we hadn’t accounted for the fact that children would ‘lean’ on the cardboard wall and bend it completely out of shape, meaning that its ability to contain both Aquabot and the coloured balls to the table area was severely impaired.

Given these points, it’s not only a miracle that we did not have balls rolling loose all over Building 85 but that we actually managed to get to the end of the day without any of our balls inadvertently going home in children’s pockets (or worse, mouths) for a permanent holiday away from the University. So, to remedy these, we decided to get rid of both the balls and the cardboard wall – by eliminating the other functionalities of the NXT colour sensor aside from the ‘am I near the edge of the table?’ detection using the green card, we could reinstate our previously-abandoned ‘is there object in the way?’ detection function using the NXT ultrasonic sensor to make the rover recognise any solid objects that we placed in its path (which we couldn’t use before because it kept detecting the balls themselves and tried to avoid them rather than trying to collect them). So with that, Aquabot was gracefully retired and replaced with Debrisbot; a rover programmed to sense nearby objects (which we assumed were nearby space debris fragments) and perform “collision-avoidance” manoeuvres to avoid impact. And in most senses, Debrisbot worked pretty well.

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Not brilliantly well, though. There were still quite a lot of issues arising due to the NXT ultrasonic sensor’s narrow field-of-view meaning that there would be an object to the left- or right-side of the sensor that wouldn’t be detected; or other cases where there was too little energy being reflected back to the sensor (where it was sometimes absorbed by the object, or reflected in a different direction), and the the rover didn’t detect object properly and would drive into it anyway. The idea was for Debrisbot to be roving around, avoiding bits of junk as necessary, but sometimes it would just clatter into it anyway, or turn around and get objects stuck under the tracks; doing ungainly pirouettes and wheelies before falling over like a boss.

So, an executive decision was made to transform Debrisbot from a debris-avoiding rover into a debris-sweeping rover; charging around the ‘black’ area, pushing the ‘junk’ objects into the ‘green’ zone like a giant space snowplough. And with that, a significantly greater level of success was observed, as within minutes, all of the bits of ‘junk’ (made from Tic Tac boxes stuck together and wrapped in black duct tape) would be pushed to the edge, leaving the black region of ‘space’ safe for satellite operations. Debrisbot was essentially just driving around in straight lines until it encountered the edge of the ‘green’ (and hence wasn’t aiming for objects at all, just ploughing them if they happened to be in the way) so it would be even better if Debrisbot was able to ‘look around’ for bits of junk and then explicitly move towards them, but that’s a larger task for another time. For the moment, though, Debrisbot demonstrated pretty much what we wanted it to in a nicely simple way and leaves plenty of room for improvement. Not bad, little buddy.

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The event itself was pretty enjoyable – essentially an event to get schoolchildren interested in doing science and engineering, and involved around 600 children from the nearby area visiting for the day to do some fun, science-based activities, talk to people in college/academia/industry [delete as applicable] who ‘do’ science and stuff for a living and to get an idea about future careers and stuff.

Our main drive for exhibiting was to demonstrate our research activities and show the youngsters that activities in ‘space’ are happening here in the UK, and to prod them towards taking up such work in their future education, if they want to. It was also interesting to find out how many young people are aware of the  space debris problem, and to ask them for ideas about how we could go about resolving it: while Debrisbot was hardly the most efficient (or successful) method of demonstrating how a space debris sweeper system might work, it did the job and (I hope) gave the visiting public a new perspective of the space debris problem and the ‘sort of thing’ that could be done to manage it.

Anyway, an enjoyable day: the Space Junker stuff went down pretty well as usual, with some visiting students managing some staggeringly high scores, and we certainly gave out of a lot of our ‘Space Systems Engineering’ worksheets which contain information on our research, details of how to access Space Junker online, and also a few puzzles and stuff. So, to round off the event and, indeed, this post, here are a few of my other photographs from the day: we’re not sure when we’ll be taking Aquabot/Debrisbot out on the road again, but I’m sure he won’t be in the garage for too long. Hooray!

[Zinar7]

EDIT – Our activities were recently published as a blog post from LEGO Education UK! You can find it here: http://legoeducationuk.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/space-research-with-a-little-help-from-lego-mindstorms/

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Science & Engineering Day 16/03/2013 – Personal Debrief

As part of the Astronautics Research Group‘s outreach and public engagement, last Saturday marked our first adventure in this year’s National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW), with our annual involvement in the University of Southampton’s Science & Engineering Day on campus. Each year, we’ve managed to significantly increase our display stand and materials, and this year marked our biggest and best exhibit yet. Here follows a short summary of the day’s events, what we had on show and some photographs from the day.

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Having set up most of our banners and posters the night before, Ben (spaceman_ben) and myself (zinar7) arrived at a deathly-quiet Building 85 at 0800 hours prompt to set up the rest of our kit and get everything up and running. Thankfully for my sanity (and probably the safety of the general public), the University had elected to open the cafe in Building 85 at 8:00 am, and we were able to procure caffeine-filled beverages and sugary goods straight away to fortify us for the rest of the day, which was due to begin at 10:30 am and run until 4:30 pm, followed by packing up all the kit and hauling back to our offices for storage. A long day, then, but all in the name of science and trying to encourage the youngsters of today to get excited about all things ‘Space’.

Our touch-screen PCs were unpacked and booted up, our digital photo frames secured to our 2 m x 2 m backdrop banner, and the rest of our display materials dotted around our allocated ‘zone’, leaving us the remaining time to sort out the major new addition to our exhibit: Aquabot, the water-collecting Mars rover made from LEGO Mindstorms NXT 2.0:

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Aquabot was conceived, built and programmed in the ten or so days prior to the event, after Ben and I had gotten hold of a current-generation Mindstorms kit in order to evaluate its usefulness in outreach for the Astro Research Group and in undergraduate teaching/projects: we’re hoping to use multiple kits when the next-generation is released later this year, to allow students to develop simple group projects looking at spacecraft control and formation flying (among other things). Our main focus, at least for NSEW, was on making something cool and vaguely space-related to encourage youngsters towards the space industry, and getting them excited about engineering in general. The result, then, was a rover of our own design (and vaguely anthropomorphic qualities) constructed to ‘rove’ around a table (without falling off), collecting up balls and doing some basic colour-sorting; something like this:

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Attached to the front of the rover, pointing downwards between the ‘jaws’ of Aquabot‘s maw, was the NXT colour sensor. To simulate the Mars environment, we used black card as a base, placed on a few large tables to make an area around 7 x 5 feet of black landscape. The colour sensor was programmed to catalogue the colour of the table surface and also of any balls that happen to roll into Aquabot‘s gape; and to ‘carry on as normal’ if sensing a black response. The rover was powered using two motors, and was run on caterpillar tracks to aid manoeuvrability and response. At the front of the vehicle, a funnel was placed to collect balls as the rover moved around the environment (although it kind of just ‘punted’ balls across the landscape rather than funneling them in, but oh well). The third motor from the kit was installed at the front of the rover, to which was attached an arm with the NXT colour sensor: when a blue ball rolled into the ‘jaws’ and was detected by the sensor, the arm retreated to allow the “water molecule” into a storage area beneath the rover; when a yellow or red ball was collected, the arm rapidly swung forwards to ‘kick’ the unwanted “martian rock” away. When it worked, it worked pretty well; although if multiple balls rolled in at the same time, it would still be doing the operation for the first ball when the second ball arrived, and so wouldn’t accept/reject the second. Still, such times were comparatively rare, and it was always satisfying when the rover detected an unwanted ball and punted it away with great force.

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Around the edges of the black card, we made a border of green card to make a ‘buffer’ around the edge of the table, which Aquabot would detect and subsequently turn round and return to the black region. But, because sometimes Aquabot would decide to choose its own fate and plough on through the green area regardless (for example, when there was already a ball in the jaws, and the sensor couldn’t see the ‘green’), we put up a barrier (of more card) around the edge to stop the rover (also any stray balls) from leaping off the table and plummeting to the floor. We managed to get to the end of the day with Aquabot pretty intact (minus the sum of around 12 fresh batteries) and all of the balls we started with, so I call that a success.

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All in all, I think our LEGO Mindstorms experiment were rather well: the publicity of the recent Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) mission has highlighted the current activities using autonomous rover in space, and many visitors were familiar with this mission and could draw comparisons with our simple reconstruction of a Mars rover. It was also encouraging that so many children (and parents) grasped the basic concepts of the system, and how even a simple robot could be programmed to carry out a range of functions without human interaction.

In terms of our regular activities, we had a lot of kids try out our Space Junker game on the large touch-screen PCs (developed by the Science Museum with our involvement), and plenty of parents and other adults reading our research posters and talking to us about our research into space debris and the problems that ‘space junk’ poses to space operations. Our other display materials also went down pretty well, which included our big stand, leaflets & pamphlets about the undergraduate programs in Space Systems Engineering, and these natty little cubes which I made to communicate some of our research into space debris and some of the problems:

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Anyway, a fun day was (I think) had by all, and we seemed to get a pretty great response from the Science & Engineering Day hordes that came to campus despite the dreary weather. For our point of view, it was yet again an entertaining, rewarding and uplifting outreach event, and getting a whole load of exposure for our research activities. A hugely exhausting event that seems to expend so much energy and brain/musclepower, but immensely fun.

Nonetheless, we’ll be doing it all tomorrow for our second activity in NSEW, which is the Big Bang Solent science fair, happening on campus at the University of Southampton. We’ve mainly got the same set-up, but this time Aquabot will be replaced by the second iteration of our Mindstorms display, Debrisbot: instead of wandering the Mars landscape looking for blue balls, Debrisbot will be navigating “outer space” (albeit an ‘outer space’ that has been transplanted into two dimensions), trying to “collision-avoidance” manoeuvres with various objects (“space debris”) placed in orbit. Not quite sure how Debrisbot will perform as yet, but hopefully it should be another entertaining and engaging day of science, engineering and being a big kid again.

Anyway, before I head off, here are some more photos from Saturday’s event; hopefully some of tomorrow will manifest in due course. Enjoy!

[Zinar7]

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PhD Fraud #07: That Sinking Feeling

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My attitude to this whole PhD business has calmed down a lot lately, despite the rapidly-ticking clock that’s now deafening me as it counts down to the final deadline I can submit a thesis. I’m yet to come to a conclusion as to whether this is a Good Thing or not.

I think I’ve just reached the point with my research that it’s just over, now, and that there’s not much more I can do with it (or time to do it in) except to just “finish it off” and hope that it’s good enough. I certainly don’t have time to go re-doing a lot of my work if it isn’t good enough, so in that respect, I’ve reached some sort of ‘epiphany’ that it doesn’t really matter anymore; the decision has essentially already been made as to whether I get this damned PhD or not, I just need to ride the train and see where it ends up. All I can do now is just continue with the work I’m still finishing off, continue with the thesis-writing I’m still in the process of, and make sure I keep turning up each day and picking away at it all. It’s too late to do anything major [not least because I’m also working part-time as a Senior Research Assistant on two EU space debris projects: ACCORD (Alignment of Capability and Capacity for Objective of Reducing Debris) and ReVuS (Reducing the Vulnerability of Space Systems)] so even if my work is all wrong, or just not ‘novel’ enough, then there’s not much I can do about it anymore.

I’ve also relaxed my position towards what my four years of research will get me in the end – in the beginning, it felt like  attaining a PhD was the be-all and end-all, and that if I didn’t achieve that, then I’d be some sort of ‘failure’; from both the point of view of my department/supervisor, but on a personal level as well. At around the 18-month stage, I successfully transferred from the original MPhil/PhD course everyone is registered on to begin with, and was stuck on the final PhD course: so, I’d like to think that, if my work isn’t quite enough to get me a doctorate, I will at least be awarded an MPhil for it. Depending on who you talk to in academia, getting an MPhil is either a legitimate qualification, or just a massive, neon sign saying “Hey, so I wasn’t good enough to get a PhD!” Previously, I was considerably worried that I’d end up with just an MPhil (or worse, nothing) and that I’d be considered a ‘failure’, particularly since so many of my RockSoc friends have successfully survived the PhD process and come out the other side. Such a result would be an acceptance that I’m not “clever enough,” or somehow less good than everyone else who tried and succeeded.

In the final years of my undergraduate degree, I’d kind of ended up feeling a little bit disappointed by my efforts on my individual and group projects (3rd and 4th years, respectively), and had built up a mental reputation of being someone who tries very hard at their research, but ultimately ends up with very little. Of course, when starting a PhD, everyone dreams that their research will change the world, or at least lead to some new way of thinking or solution to a problem; naturally, this rarely ever happens and it’s all about making an incremental step forward in your field, even if it’s just a minute step forward in a very specialised area. Have I managed that with my PhD work so far? Well, I kind of have ( I tried some new stuff, and some old stuff in a new way) and kind of haven’t (the stuff I did didn’t really work, and there are a bunch of problems with the theoretical basis of it all), so it’s very ambiguous. My thesis won’t be my greatest achievement ever, but I’ve kind of reached a plateau where (I think) I can finish it up in its current state without undertaking a major amount of new work. I think.

So, everything’s been kind of going okay recently until, today, I received a reviewer’s (uh, review) of my submitted journal paper and it was… not so good. This was a paper I submitted to an open-access journal around 5/6 months ago, and after receiving one critical but largely positive comment early on, there has no other review discussion since. The most recent comment, from an anonymous reviewer is, however, fairly critical and calls into question most of the results I’ve presented in the paper. I know that, technically, no criticism is bad criticism as it will strengthen the final product, but it’s still not easy to take negativity when it’s thrown quite liberally at your own endeavours. I’m yet to fully process the review (I only skim-read it, and need to sleep on it before I can start to think properly about what it means), but it’s not exactly what I want to hear. It’s amazing how quickly confidence can get knocked; particularly in academia, where your importance to your institution, or scientific field, is based almost purely on your ability to string together publications and gives rise to the “publish or perish” mantra.

So, what does this mean for me? Well, by and large, I think I’ve worked out that I don’t want to stay in academia after my current time is up; not in a direct-research role, anyway. I’ve got thoughts about what I want to do when I finish, and a lot of them revolve around teaching, or expanding on the outreach/public engagement activities I currently participate in. I’ve no idea whether this is a sustainable career, or indeed whether the ‘ideal’ job exists, but it’s worth a shot. With that in mind, then, perhaps I’ve reached the conclusion that it doesn’t matter whether I have a PhD or an MPhil; whether I’ve got journal publications under my belt or not. These things largely only matter in academia; so, who cares? Certainly,  the trauma of ‘doing’ a PhD is worth more than the letters after your name or the ‘published’ status anyway, so if I’ve already reached that conclusion, then I’ve got nothing to lose.

‘Dr.’ or no ‘Dr.’, by October I will have gone through the PhD process and be all the stronger for it: most people in my situation would have given up long ago, so if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s Carrying On In The Face Of Vastly Superior Adversity. In fact, maybe that should be the tagline for my CV:

Simon George.
Good at facial hair, making a mean cup of tea and bloody well not giving up.

And if that doesn’t make me a shoo-in for any job placement ever, then there’s something very wrong with this World. Something very wrong, indeed.

[Zinar7]

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PhD Fraud #06: Hashtag Overly Honest Methods

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Okay, as we’ve just enter a new year, I thought that it was time for an update on my ride on this crazy PhD Research Train. What’s changed? Well, a few things, but not a great deal.

Around the end of October, I started doing some additional, part-time post-doctoral research work to help pay the bills now that my PhD funding has come to an end. Thankfully, it’s completely unrelated to my PhD work, which means it’s actually pretty interesting and a nice distraction from the thesis slog. The work is more temporal though, meaning that the post-doc stuff has weeks where lots of work needs to be done and 100% of my time is spent on it; and others, like now, where there’s not much to do at the moment and I’m focussing pretty much entirely on my thesis. This blog was always focussed on the PhD struggle, so I’m not going to talk too much about my other research commitments, but stick to my thesis work. t’s probably not a huge surprise to say that I’ve lost almost all my motivation and interest for finishing my PhD – this comes despite the fact that the sooner I can finish, the sooner I can work on something else; somehow, I’m finding it hard to muster even the motivation to just “GET IT DONE”), and can find infinite amount of other things that I’d rather spend my time on. This has been made doubly hard, since I technically already have the job (the post-doc position) that I needed a PhD for in the first place, so it’s not like I need that Certificate of Graduation for a job interview or anything.

So what’s going on? The past few months have been super frustrating, as some significant problems were been identified with my scientific technique and have led to me kind of not being sure whether what I’m doing is right, wrong or whatever. I’ve had doubts about my results for a while, but have largely put these to the back of my mind because the scientific models are complex and the theory is very confusing: recently, though, I’ve had to really tackle the mathematics and it’s left me completely baffled. It’s time like this that I wish that my project/thesis was on something that somewhere here (i.e. my university) knows about, because no-one aside from me really does and neither are there a bunch of resources (aside from those I’ve collected) that I can draw on if I’m in a bind. My work is quite distant from my supervisor’s field, and so he’s not really able to help with any of the technical details, use of models or analysis of results except in a vague quantitative way. My PhD always started from a position of isolation, as my main remit was to do some exploratory research into a dark region that no-one’s really looked into before, and essentially been given a flashlight and told: “right, go and find something interesting, and bring it back here when you’re done.”

It’s a matter of slight pride that, with everything I’ve done, I’ve done off my own bat: except some gentle comments from others, I’ve gotten where I have purely because of my own work. All the way, I’ve largely driven myself in the direction that I have, and have been given limited guidance on what exactly I should be looking at. From a research point of view, maybe that reflects well on me in that I’ve managed to be pretty much autonomous for the last 3 years, and developed things of my own accord; on the other side, though, this means that I’ve had to search everywhere for the ‘right’ way to do, hitting many dead ends along the way and absorbing considerable frustration. Of the work I have done with my results, I’m pulling together ideas and concepts from a number of fields and trying to make them compatible, but in a way that I’m not really an expert in any one of them and there are considerable problems in integrating the scientific model in the way that I have. I’m woefully aware of the meaninglessness of my results (or what results I’ve actually managed to get) and am not entirely convinced that my efforts are truly at the sort of standard to which they hand out doctorates. Maybe I’m overestimating how ‘good’ or ‘novel’ the final thesis needs to be, but I’ve got super-mega worries that what I have so far is painfully below the mark.

Over the whole of my PhD research, I kind of feel like I’ve squandered my time and expertise. I feel like if I’d have focussed on the right things, I could be somewhere good with my research, but that in reality, all I’ve managed to do is find problems everywhere with what I’m doing and flaws in the models/techniques that I’m using. Sure, this might be valid ‘research’ in finding out the wrong way to go about science/a PhD/[insert relevant title here] and technically no science is ‘useless’ science (unless someone already proved it), but it’s no match for actually doing something positive with your work. I kind of feel like the only positive thing that will have come out of my PhD is that someone, somewhere might read my thesis and not have to go through the same three years of frustration and errors and wrong directions that I did. I’m currently trying to formulate a title and general approach (the story, say) that my thesis will describe, and it’s a brain-breaking task. My work feels just like a smattering of ideas that people elsewhere already came up with, but thrown together in a way that things haven’t quite been looked at in this form before, or with these methods. Maybe my thesis can be called: ‘A Bunch of Science Thrown Together with Blunderbuss Accuracy‘ or ‘How Not to do a PhD (and 101 Other Useful Tips for Going Completely Crazy Before You’re Thirty)‘, and that’ll summarise things quite well.

Yes, yes, I know I’m being pessimistic. I know that I just need to Yvan Muller the PhD, and get the bloody thing down. Maybe it won’t be the best piece of research ever, but maybe I can fill it with enough pretty pictures or flattering writing that the examiners will overlook the significant lack of content and ‘pass’ me, largely out of pity. We can but hope.

[Zinar7]

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That’s No Moon

I need to lose some weight. I’m not saying I’m like some kind of Small Moon or anything like that, but the PhD lifestyle (sitting at desk all day, eating all day to keep alertness levels up, not getting time for exercise) has hardly been kind to my figure. This will not do.

So, I’m starting a new regime which consists of the following details:

1. Stop Putting So Much Stuff in my Face ~ Yes, I eat far too much. It’s not necessarily what I put in my face (being a vegetarian, I eat a fair amount of fruit and vegetables so it’s easy to tick off my Five a Day), but just the sheer quantity. For a start, being located in the exact same spot for nine hours a day means that there’s an obvious temptation to eat whatever food you’ve brought in for snacking (mainly fruit), and the proximity of a chocolate bar vending machine is hardly helpful. Even out of my office hours, I often find I snack even when not hugely hungry; perhaps there’s something psychological going on there. Either way, cutting down on the quantity I eat is a necessity, because I sure as hell don’t use up all the energy I consume (nor need to consume to replace expended energy) and I could get away with eating a lot less.

2. Be Better About What I Put in my Face ~ Despite the above, I do still have treats and snacks of fatty stuffs a bit too often for my liking. I’ve got a hella sweet tooth and often crave chocolate-y things, and will pick sweet stuff over savoury every time. Also, when I’m left to my own devices and have to fend for myself and find food, I generally go for the easy option of heating up some bread and spreading something on top, or just eating something out of a packet. If I ate more ‘proper’ food, then I’d be filled up for longer and not continually snack on small (and maybe sweet) things.

3. Get Up and Do Stuff More ~ I’m pretty lazy. There’s plenty of opportunity to go do fitness-type things, but somehow I never bother; it’s easier to sit around the house eating toast and watching Top Gear. I should just go out of the door and sodding do something. The only regular exercise is the 20-minute walk to and from work each day.  I certainly haven’t done as much inline as I’d’ve liked this year – I should just bloody well grab my mp3 player, stick my protective gear on and jump on my skates for a blat around the Common or somewhere inline-safe. Why the hell not?

4. Never Take the Easy Option ~ I’m guilty of a number of things which reflect my general laziness: Taking the lift when I have only a handful of flights of steps to climb. Driving into work on the weekend when I could walk like I do the rest of the week. Eating easy, unhealthy food when I could construct a healthy meal with some home-cookery if I’d only input a modicum of effort. Of course, it’s going to take some thinking to get me into new routines, but it won’t take long to adapt to new ways of doing things.

5. Sweeten the Pot ~ Of course, the idea of being fitter and leaner and sexier is enough of a motivation to get in shape, but sometimes I’m forgetful and need extra bonuses to get me to do things. So the question is how to reward me when I’m doing things which are good for me: the problem is finding rewards which aren’t counterproductive (e.g. ice cream, chocolate, chips). Coming up with Rewards is going to be a tough battle, but targeting what appeals to me is pretty key to its success: fr’instance, I recently got back up to speed with JRPGs on the DS by buying a second-hand copy of Pokemon SoulSilver complete with the Pokewalker accessory. So now, in an effort to gain both gaming and real-life EXP, I’m making conscious effort to walk everywhere with a Tentacruel in my pocket. It doesn’t make me feel any more like a grown-up, but at least it massages my necessity to turn everything in normal life into some sort of game.

6. Remove the Misery of Exercise ~ One of the main problems I find with organised exercise is that it’s so damned boring. I can’t think of anything less appealing than going to a busy, grey-walled room full of ungodly machines of torture and sweaty, boring fitness freaks. I’d much rather get my kicks from the great outdoors where I can look at the scenery or laugh at the general public, or perhaps some sort of home-gym set up where I have aforementioned ungodly machines of torture positioned in front of a TV, games console and I can level-grind my way through Xenoblade Chronicles or watch The Rock while I pedal away on a cycle machine for a while.

I guess my main reason in defining things is that, now I’ve said all these words, I’m now committed to doing something about it. This is by no means a guarantee that I will do something about it, but it certainly means that I can’t go the other way and get fatter, lazier and an even more close resemblance to Jabba the Hutt. If I start now, then that gives me a head start on New Year’s resolutions, and might mean that I’m in good stead by the 1st January to actually maintain the regime for the whole of 2013. We shall see.  Wish me luck.

[Zinar7]

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PhD Fraud #05: Crashing Around You

PhD05

A few weeks back, before I went and had super-fun at Bestival 2012 (my review can be found here), I spent three days or so at Cumberland Lodge in the middle of Windsor Great Park discussing the prospects for a postgraduate-graduate and meeting with a whole slew of people from across the country and a whole bunch of PhD disciplines in a similar situation of pre- or post-thesis preparations. This post partly acts as a personal debrief for everything that I learnt at the event, but also explores a few of my continuing ‘PhD Fraud’ themes that have populated my other posts in this series thus far.

What may be surprising is that it was not the talks from interesting set of speakers, nor the discussions with other (confident) PhD students attending the conference that gave me the most food for thought, but a stimulating all-night conversation with someone who (in many ways) feels a lot like me, and in a similar position through her project, of feeling a complete Fraud at postgraduate research. Usually, I speak to students who’re still passionate and confident about their work, but rarely talk to those who’re happy to admit that they hate their PhD and just don’t want to do it any more. Perhaps we genuinely are the only people out there who are completely at odds with their research (and I don’t believe that for a second), but I was surprised just how much I didn’t feel able to connect with those who were perfectly satisfied (and passionate) about their work: I just couldn’t compute how that felt, to still enjoy what you’re doing, and to be excited each day to get back to work.

It’s no big secret that I’ve (kind of) fallen out of love with my PhD: I’ve misplaced the passion that I had for it, and now merely wish to see the process through and see the ink dry on the piece of paper saying that I’ve been passed and can finally move on to a different project, potentially at a different institution or field. I know for sure that it’s just a cocktail of coincedence: a combination of a topic that’s kept moving out of my grasp, a project that’s deviated considerably from its initial definition and the sheer amount of time I’ve spent concentrating on one, single thing. The chance to get started on something new is something that I will relish, and hopefully on a topic that I find more engaging than my current work. I’ve not lost my passion for all things space and satellites, but I’d prefer to move on from the miniscule little niche that I’ve chipping away at in one of the very lonely corners of that world.

I’m also just starting a course of mentoring to help me work better. A lot of the time, I find I have significant problems gaining the motivation to start work each day, that by the time I’ve raised the courage to really get started, it’s nearly the end of the day or I’m too tired to actually get anywhere. Maybe that’s the stress and frustration talking, but I kind of don’t really feel that there’s anything about my work/daily routine that gets me out of bed in the morning; nothing to motivate me to get working other than ‘it needs to be done’. Many of the other attendees of the conference were students from the humanities: for which they’ve chosen their research subject, presumably, because of some prior enthusiasm or interest for their chosen topic. I imagine this prior passion inspires armfuls of motivation to completely engross yourself in your subject, and pursue research out of both necessity (for awarding of degree) and personal interest. In the sciences, students largely move with the funding, occupying whatever task/project needs taken on at that time: often, passion for the field will reflect in the research, but perhaps less often: fr’instance, I wouldn’t dream of performing simulations of sea surface radar signatures in my spare time, but if I was doing a PhD on The Influence of Star Wars on Modern Science-Fiction Movies, I’d probably spend all my time in front of a DVD player and projector.

That being said, I’m still very aware of being switched ‘on’ all the time; always worried about my work, or that my whole life might come crashing down on me any minute – not necessarily about the work itself (I yearn for the night I bolt upright with some truly world-changing inspiration), but about its impact and on all that stuff I have to do tomorrow. It’s not so much that I’m kept awake at night over it (at least, not yet), but I can never seem to escape the Doubt nor switch on the Conviction to succeed. I’m desperately terrified that I’ll get “found out”, or that suddenly my supervisors/faculty will realise that I’m actually not a good enough student, and I’ll be kicked out into the street. Or worse, I’ll write up my thesis only for everyone involved to go: “Is that it?” and I’ll come out of this PhD journey with nothing; or worse, the ‘consolation prize’ of an MPhil or some other token degree that’s an acceptance that I definitely tried, but that I most definitely failed.

Heck, I even feel such a fraud that, should the stars align and I suddenly become the luckiest bastard alive and manage to pass my viva, I think I’ll probably feel guilty about calling myself ‘Doctor’; like I haven’t really earned it, I was just in the right place at the right time. Perhaps I’ll go the complete opposite way and change my name to ‘Dr. Thundersmash’, then at least my name will be about as credible as I feel.

[Zinar7]

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Bestival 2012 Round-Up

I’ve been quiet on here for a while, but with good reason. A couple of weeks ago I landed back in Southamptonland after a mightily enjoyable 4/5 days on The Island attending Bestival 2012 as part of the University of Southampton Roadshow. Having now had a few days to recover both my brain and body, here’s a quick summary of all of the cool stuff that went down and the major discoveries.

I’ll start with some discussion about the reason we were there: As a group, populating the Bestival Science Tent with various stands and science and stuff, and on a personal level, to give an hour-long talk in the Besti-versity Tent on human spaceflight. The Science Tent itself was open 10am-6pm Thursday-Friday, but the UoS stands inside it swapped over on Friday evening, so our Astronautics stand stayed up only for the Thursday and Friday, giving us Astro Boys time off on the weekend to watch bands and generally lark about. Thurs/Fri was pretty busy in the tent, and we met a whole load of new people to talk about space debris to and to get the involved with the DAMAGE simulation and the Space Junker games we had running. Overall, we had lots of engagement and lots of questions from lots of people, so in those terms our presence at Bestival 2012 was pretty rewarding. It’s been estimated by higher forces that we directly engaged with 10% of the festival audience (6,000 or so) and had 20% at least pass by (12,000) or so, so those are some nice statistics.

Besti-versity wasn’t running on the Thursday but followed schedule of 12pm-7pm on Friday to Sunday, of which I was the inaugral speaker at Midday on Friday. Nerves were pretty wracked beforehand but I calmed down enough to deliver everything I had to deliver with increasing confidence; I imagined a kind of blithering, Boris Johnson-style performance but everything came out relatively well and in a relatively relaxed manner, so I guess that’s a positive thing. I didn’t count the capacity of the tent, but I reckon 40 or so people watched the talk, plus a few who came through and left or just stuck their head through the door. Not bad going, given I was expecting no-one to come at all. The tent itself was pretty baking in the beating sunshine, and also very bright, meaning that it was a little hard to see the Prezi slides I was projecting, but that wasn’t too big a deal. The tent itself was populated inside by armchairs and sofas to give it a relaxed atmosphere; so much so that there were a couple of people catching forty winks in there at various points, but I’ll put that down to the festival atmosphere/too much party rather than my failings/dullness as a speaker. I had a few people come up to me afterwards and ask a few questions, and even had people over the weekend recognising me out-and-about and saying that they’d seen my talk, which was nice. I also now have an official Bestival 2012 programme with my name in it, which is a super feeling.

What of the music? Well, I went Bestival with  only a few bands that I really really wanted to see, primarily Justice, Nero and New Order, and happy to wander around and discover new stuff the rest of the time without having to worry about missing things I wanted to see.

Thursday was closed on the main stage but open everywhere else, and things kicked off with The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing  in the Bandstand, and my, how they kicked things off. The Men blasted out all the hits and easily were the loudest thing I heard all weekend. I had to scurry off at the end of the set in order to sort out Science Tent closing stuff, but since the bandstand was pretty much right next door, the rest sounded just as good. Alas, their second performance on the Saturday clashed with both New Order and Justice and so I didn’t see them again, but so pleased I heard them at some point. Thursday evening I went with the flow and went to the Big Top to hear Alabama Shakes, who were kind of okay but largely not my scene but everyone seemed to be having a good time. I think I poked my head into a few other tents across the night and heard some other bands, but I can’t for the life of me remember who they were.

Friday was the first main stage day, and the troops rallied to go watch The XX followed by Florence and the Machine, both of which were accomplished by relatively unknown to me. I actually preferred The XX, and they sounded epic in the live setting; much more so than on the records that I’ve since sought out. Florence was alright, and I certainly got caught up in the atmosphere and did a little dancing, but it did kind of feel that the whole set was balanced very carefully on her and she seemed engulfed by the sheer size of the crowd and dwarfed by the stage. Not bad, just a little underwhelming to a newcomer to her stuff.

Saturday was my main day, with everything building up to Justice at approx. 11pm., and I wasn’t disappointed. The Big Top was absolutely packed and full of fluid, sweater festivalgoers dancing their minds away to ‘Genesis’, ‘D.A.N.C.E.’, ‘Civilisation’ and a mind-blowingly awesome live DJ set from the French house masters. If I hadn’t already seen Andrew W.K.’s glorious I Get Wet 10th anniversary show at London Forum (probably the best gig ever, solidified by Kerrang’s unprecedented 6K review), then this would easily have been the best gig of the year. As it is, it has to settle for a (very) close second. Earlier in the day we’d watched Earth, Wind & Fire Experience feat. Al McKay, Two Door Cinema Club and the first half of New Order; all of which were entertaining and engaging, and we followed Justice up with Nero‘s late-night set in the Big  Top, which was as packed and sweaty as expected, with a ground-thumping Wub Wub that could be felt from across the festival site. Badass.

Moving to Sunday, I ducked out of the Science Tent during the afternoon to go watch 2:54 at the Psychadelic Worm tent (as brilliant live on record) and then Rizzle Kicks on the main stage (didn’t know any of their stuff, danced like a loon anyway). The evening’s events on the main stage kicked off with Sigur Rós, who were spectacular. Not a band that I knew much about, but now I’m pretty much a convert. This was then followed by Stevie Wonder, who did a fantastic job of closing out the festival. Musically superb and a brilliant showman, he even took technical failure of his piano in his stride and improvised with the rest of his kit. A solid effort, and followed up with a spectacular fireworks display to round off the night. Good stuff.

Anyway, I had an awesome time at Bestival 2012, and no mistake. So much so that I’d consider going back again next year, with the Roadshow (which has been making encouraging noises about returning in 2013) or under my own steam. Who knows where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing by next September (thesis pending), but I’ll certainly keep my ear to the ground. If anyone wants to come along and join me, well that’d be rad. Godspeed.

[Zinar7]

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Catching Hay Fever on the Moon

Hi! Welcome to the supporting webpage for the ‘Catching Hay Fever on the Moon‘ talk from the Besti-versity tent at Bestival 2012. If you heard the talk and would like to learn more about manned spaceflight, spacecraft systems engineering or anything else to do with spaceflight, then further details and information can be found here along with other good resources, books and webpages that might be of interest.

If you missed the talk or want to download copies of the presentation (in either Prezi or PowerPoint form) from the Besti-versity tent, then you can do so here:

About Me

This is the blurby bit about me:

I’m Simon. I’m a postgraduate student from the University of Southampton, working in the Astronautics Research Group while working on a PhD project looking at using satellite radar systems to observe turbulence in the upper-layer of the ocean. This page is posted on my personal blog; feel free to have a browse if you’re particularly curious.

I’m currently finishing my third year of PhD study while simultaneously working on various outreach activities (like the University of Southampton Roadshow at Bestival and beyond) and trying to promote the world of ‘space’ to a wider audience. The personal webpage for my PhD project can be found here: Satellite Measurement of Turbulence

If you’ve got any questions about anything I’ve talked about or want to find out more about the sort of work I do, then feel free to e-mail me at sgg303 [at] soton.ac.uk

Space

Space is extraordinary. More extraordinary, however, is the time, effort and expertise of the men and women who design, construct and operate the spacecraft and probes that explore and inhabit the world outside our own. ‘Space’ is still a deeply fascinating environment… the wonderful machines used to transport people and technology into space do not just “leap” into being: human ideas, perspiration and dedication are integral components to the birth of a spacecraft. All that’s required to take up the challenge of being a future spacecraft designer is a passion; you don’t need to be a superhuman to work in the space industry (they let me in, so it can’t be that hard!)

I first got into spacecraft engineering during my undergraduate degree, discovering the fascinating, exciting and groundbreaking work that is pursued in the space industry and its subsidiaries. I was immediately captured by the considerable efforts to place humans in space and keep them there, but also the development of earth observation satellites and instrumentation to observe our planet and its climate response.

Further Reading (with Amazon links)

The following books give a good introduction to the world of manned (and unmanned) spaceflight for budding rocket scientists, astronauts or spacecraft systems engineers without delving into armfuls of mathematics, equations and formulae. If the Besti-versity talk piqued your interest in the world of ‘space’, then these texts come highly recommended.

If you’re considering spaceflight engineering as a career and are interested in designing, constructing, testing or operating spacecraft, then I recommend the following text for getting started on systems engineering of spacecraft:

Degree Courses at the University of Southampton

If you’re interested in studying space systems engineering at University, then follow the following links to the University of Southampton’s degree course webpages.

Other Links

How has the ISS benefitted people on the ground?
http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/benefits/index.html

Where is the International Space Station right now?
http://www.isstracker.com/

What happens to the human body in the vacuum of space?
http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2691.htm

ESA: Effect of spaceflight on the human body:
http://www.esa.int/esaHS/ESAGO90VMOC_astronauts_0.html

Radiation doses in space and effects on human body:
http://www.esa.int/esaCP/SEMYYHUHJCF_index_0.html

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Postcards from Farnborough

Last week was the Farnborough International Airshow 2012, and I was there for five of the seven days of the event representing the Astro Research Group on the University of Southampton Aerospace stand in the newly-formed Innovation Zone. During the downtime and so on, I managed to take a whole bunch of pictures; of which those presented in the gallery below are a small selection of the best. Enjoy!

[Zinar7]

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