Tag Archives: University




Wow, I guess it’s been a bit a while since my last (proper) post [my recent round-up of Sonisphere 2014 aside]. Well, there’s a multitude of reasons as to why that is, but they largely boil down to me being TOO DARNED BUSY with one thing and another (some of which I’ll shed light on in today’s entry) and not always having the energy to update the blog with all the goings-on and extra-happenings that have been abound since April or so. Anyway, I’m here now to make amends, so let’s make the most of things while it lasts, yeah?

So, what has been happening? Well, I guess the major thing is that I’m now a PROPER ACTUAL DOCTOR (of philosophy) and stuff, and ‘Silly Hat Mode’ got activated last Wednesday at my official graduation ceremony in spectacular fashion.


I submitted my corrected thesis back in May; got things verified and checked in June or so; and I handed the final, darned thing in around a month or so ago to get stored in the University library to gather dust, spider’s webs and the weight of no-one looking at it. I’m all done! Four-plus years of research have come to an end, and last Wednesday, I donned silly hat and silly cloak and picked up an official certificate saying that I’m now a { Ph.D survivor } and that I can officially leap into action when the cabin crew of a transatlantic flight announce “Is there a Doctor on board?” and totally be no help at all.

AAAaaaaanyway, since there aren’t enough pictures of me on the internet wearing silly hats, here are some pictures from my PhD graduation. Hooray!

The downside to finally crossing the finishing line in the PhD Quadruple-Marathon was the almost simultaneous (if entirely coincidental) culmination of my funding as a Senior Research Assistant doing research into space debris; meaning that my era at the University of Southampton has, now, properly come to a close, almost ten years since I first begun this crazy journey through academia. Naturally, this has meant that I’ve – yet again – been thrust into the heady world of scavenging for employment, yet so far have had only minimal success in landing some gainful employment. I’m still trudging onward with (at least most of) my marbles still intact, and I’ll no doubt get somewhere in the end, but just making sure that chin is kept well and truly up has been the main priority over the last couple of months. #KEEPPUSHING, don’t give up, #PARTYHARD etc. etc.


Despite the fact that I’ve not always been 100% successful at keeping on top of things whilst I’ve been out of either gainful education or gainful employment, I’ve broadly been managing to keep myself busy with job-search endeavours but also filling time by delving evermore into a few creative projects: one of these has been a strategy-board-game-thing that I’ve been desperately hammering into prototype form on-and-off for a couple of months, but the one I’m most proud of (so far) was something known as ‘Project: Elephabric’ ~

Through a whole bunch of stress and last-minute artistic wrangling, 3-metres of burnt-orange cotton fabric, black fabric paint and some potatoes were turned into a badass, home-made Arabian wall-hanging to help decorate a friend’s “Arabian Nights”-themed outdoor party gathering thing.

All in all, I think I’m pretty happy with the outcome; I’m hardly the world’s most proficient artist, but hopefully the hand-painted flaws and imperfections add to the charm rather than distract from it. It also was my first-ever foray into the world of fabric-painting (not to mention the first time I’ve made potato-stamps in about twenty years) so given my relative inexperience, I think I can be pretty pleased with my artistic endeavours.

If nothing else, I managed to get the paint mostly on the fabric and not on myself, so I guess that’s progress of sorts, right?

Anyway, anything that is unrelated to elephants is irrelephant, so I must wish you farewell; at least for now. Godspeed, comrades!


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PhD Fraud #17: Extended Acknowledgements


Well, it’s handed in. It’s all done. I am done.

Four years of work has finally culminated in 261 pages of words, numbers and pictures. At 2:39 pm today, I finally handed in my soft-bound copy of The Thesis for immediate review and examination. It’s all done for me now until the PhD viva; I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to fill my time with (other than worrying like hell about the viva), so perhaps it’s time to reflect on what I’m achieved in the last four (and a bit) years. Wow.

The Thesis

261 pages, 74173 words, 28 tables, 70 figures, 41 equations, 414691 characters (no spaces), 486444 characters (with spaces), 33 footnotes.

Because there wasn’t enough room on my ‘Acknowledgements‘ page to cover everything and everyone that has given me inspiration over the last four years, this post represents an extension of that page to make sure everyone is thanked for their endless help. If I’ve still forgotten you or something else dear to me, then let me know and I’ll fix it. But without further ado, let us commence:



The process of research is often a complex, syrupy substance and without the frequent, helpful advice and guidance of my friends and colleagues, I would most likely still be stuck somewhere in the fog.

Gratitude must first go to my supervisors Dr. Adrian Tatnall and Dr. Gary Coleman (now at NASA Langley Research Center), along with those who became prolific advisors on many aspects of my work: the guidance offered by my generous colleagues was more than I could hope for, providing both stimulating academic discussion and constant reassurance that, although the journey would be difficult, the destination would be reached in the end. Other academics who aided in soothing the worries and focusing the research were Dr. Watchapon Rojanaratanangkule, Dr. Glyn Thomas and Dr. Hugh Lewis. I must also thank the assistance of Prof Roland Romeiser (University of Miami) and Prof. Vladimir Kudryavtsev (Nansen International Environmental and Remote Sensing Center, St. Petersburg) for permitting use of their numerical codes for ocean radar image modelling (M4S and RIM, respectively) and invaluable guidance to my seemingly endless, undoubtedly short-sighted, queries.

Of course, my fellow students in the Astronautics Research Group also provided exciting and entertaining discussions both about research and the world at large, such as Ben Schwarz, Adam White, Rhys Clements, Dan Greenhalgh, Angelo Grubišić, Warinthorn Kiadtikornthaweeyot, Jaye Foster, Rich Blake, Zhe (Jeff) Zhang, Marcello Remedia, Francesca Letizia, Stefania Soldini, Stefano Redi, etc.  I wish everyone all the best; for both those who’ve finished their postgraduate journey (“we made it!”) and those who’re still marching on (“keep going!”). You all deserve immense respect for putting up not only with the harsh, unpredictable Building 13 temperature climate, my leaky headphones, but also my noisy drawer-rummaging for the best part of four years; you have the patience(s) of saint(s). Also, I should also congratulate the vending machine on Level 2 of Bldg. 13 as it has proved a reliable ally in delivering sugary and/or caffeinated goodness to me when I really needed it. Vending machine, you’re the best.

The Theatre of Dreams.

The Theatre of Dreams.

They say music soothes even the savage beast, and for that the friendly Southampton RockSoc crew deserves recognition for their constant encouraging support and wise words throughout the course of my research. Here’s a (rather extensive) list of some of the RockSoc champs who have kept me on the straight ‘n’ narrow and whispered encouraging words in the last four years: Dave Joce(*), Jenny Josephs(*), Dan Illingworth, Ant James, Kim Lipscombe, Kate Thackeray, Timmy Peters, Louise Roberts,  Pete Boorman, Andrew Day, Bob Rimington(*), Charlie Hargood(*), Adam Sobey(*), Angela Tack, Kirsty Mills, Lexi Elliott, Steve Bailey, Sina Simangooei(*), Al Frazer(*), Shez Parry, Pat McSweeney, Mikey Federanko, Sam Lander(*), Trim McKenna, Gord (just ‘Gord’), Louisa Wronska(*), Mike Williamson(*), along with many others I’ve inevitably forgotten; (*) also representing survivors (or current footsoldiers) of the PhD machine. There are still more Southampton people who must be recognised (but perhaps don’t fit under the ‘RockSoc’ banner): Laura and Dave; Claire/Sarah/Alice/Chloe/etc.; and many more.

Cap-doffing must also go to the raft of bands whose music maintained my focus and drive during my studies, notably AFI, Daft Punk, Rush, Nine Inch Nails, Less Than Jake, Foo Fighters, Turisas, The Ataris, Jimmy Eat World, Andrew WK, Ke$ha, Chipzel, Anamanaguchi, Cave In, Karnivool, Faith No More, Queens of the Stone Age, Justice, The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, Biffy Clyro, [spunge], Iron Maiden, Sonata Arctica, Blaqk Audio, Weezer, Tool, Alkaline Trio, Owl City, Rhapsody of Fire/Rhapsody/Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody, Ensiferum, Dream Theater, The Smashing Pumpkins, Power Quest, Funeral For A Friend, Bad Religion, NOFX, The XX, Deadmau5, Owl City, Soundgarden, Diablo Swing Orchestra, Skindred, Knife Party, How To Destroy Angels, 2:54, Týr, The Explosion, Rival Schools, Gregory and the Hawk, Metallica, Cradle of Filth, Stratovarius, KT Tunstall, Thrice and a whole ton more. You guys rock, don’t ever stop.

The Thesis (2)

Three soft-bound copies of The Thesis. Boom.

Old friends never die, and as such there’s a whole raft of Herefordshire inmates (and escapees) who’ve kept me afloat through these long few years with exciting distractions or wise words, and encouraged me to blow the Horn of Gondor in academia: Jeremy Gadfield for constant encouragement (“KEEP PU$HING”) Oliver Kibblewhite, Ananda Hill, Steph Dutson, Stacey Gibson, Laura Derry-Jones, John Sampson, Dave Grist, , Rachel England, Emma Hillier, Ed Locock; you know who you are, and you’re all awesome. My family also deserve immense recognition for their continued support and encouragement, and for being a rock of normality in my whirlwind research career whilst keeping me furnished with clean socks and stocks of home-made lemon curd (not to mention finance). As an aside, my faithful steed Big Suze should also be commended for being possibly the only reliable(ish) French car in history, and for letting me gad about the country in my time off to visit family and friends. THANK YOU BIG SUZE.

Lastly but by no means leastly, I must thank my dedicated partner, Bryony, for her constant support through all the stresses, struggles and stickiness, and for always believing in me.

Just a selection of the notebooks and draft versions of The Thesis that I've eaten through in the last 4+ years.

Just a selection of the notebooks and draft versions of The Thesis that I’ve eaten through in the last 4+ years.



I briefly wondered what I would do once I submitted, and whether I would continue to post entries under the ‘PhD Fraud’ banner: I figured that, YES, for the time being, I shall continue. For a start, I’m not out of the woods yet (I still have to get through my viva before I can truly shake off the “PhD Fraud” title I have placed upon myself), but I also still feel that there are some legs in the series; at least as long as I continue to stay in academia/research and can still (potentially) offer some guidance/support/kindred misery with other PhD Frauds and Survivors across the globe. The story of my PhD struggles may soon be over, but there are still some lessons that can be learned from them, and which I am happy to impart.

Anyway, as a point of celebration, I made a couple of November Spotify playlists which boosted me through the harsh, unforgiving ‘formatting’ process. You can find them here: 013/11a – The Illusion of Safety (grunge/alt rock);  013/11b – Drain the Blood (punk rock).

The Illusion of Safety

Drain the Blood


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PhD Fraud #16: A Game of Theses

A Game of Theses

Given my predilection towards video games, there is a natural tendency for me to try and turn everything in my life into some sort of game. For The Thesis, this is no different, and a lot of parallels can be drawn between research and particular gaming genres, most notably epic role-playing adventures. Here, I address some of these parallels and attempt to show how gaming experience can teach valuable lessons for academic research; some serious, some silly.


Most notably, research is often described as a ‘quest’; usually by some lone hero who is trying to shine ‘light’ into ‘dark’ corners previously not traversed by man/orc/elf, or to seek some golden treasure (‘knowledge’) that others have yet to attain. Comparisons between PhD study and video gaming, then, naturally lend themselves toward the world of Role-Playing Games (RPGs); particularly the sort of epic scale, fantastical journeys portrayed by the likes of the Elder Scrolls, Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy serieseses. Think about it: a young, unknown adventurer heads off to various unexplored climes to meet a plethora of challenges head-on before battling some sort of final ‘boss’ (the thesis examiner) to return back to his village with the spoils (his or her doctorate). I’d say that that sounds fairly familiar to anyone who’s gone through the PhD process, and there are other parallels that can be made with the acquisition of new skills or the levelling up of key stats. From this perspective, it’s certainly a lot easier to deal with the daily grind of research when you think of it as an XP+ (experience)-gaining exercise than a ‘job’; furthermore, it’s even mildly satisfying to pretend that a little ‘+50 XP’ notification comes up in the corner of your screen every time you fix a bug in your code, analyse a particular piece of useful data or get a journal paper accepted.

However, where RPGs can represent a epic quest from obscurity to world-saving greatness, they can equally imply a long, time-weathered slog  through dark, dank dungeons filled with tough, armoured beasties; something that’s not too alien to the experiences of most PhD process. Doing a PhD is hard; like, Water Temple hard. Typically, a lone hero must struggle through wave upon wave of gnarly, heavily-armed enemies in order to save the world/rescue princess/defeat evil overlord [* delete as applicable], which is easily comparable to the loneliness of the long-distance researcher battling against wave upon wave of research struggles. Largely, the main RPG/PhD protagonist is dropped (largely unprepared) into a new, fully-formed world and told to fend for yourself with little in the way of guidance and usually only a minimal tutorial: this is much like the progression of a grad student from being a bog standard research student into someone whose skills hold up on their own. If my PhD experience has been anything to go by, this is a perfect metaphor for the life of a new grad student dropped into the floodwaters of academic research without armbands or a life vest, where you must learn your own skills, navigate your own research path and figure out by yourself how you’re going to conquer Mount Thesis with only a wooden sword and shield.

Holy shit original content

Much like epic-scale RPGs, a PhD also offers plenty of scope for distraction. Sure, the main quest may be to finish this piece of research so you can write it up in this chapter of your thesis and then hand it in, but along the way it’s easy to find other things to do to kill time. Research typically has a plethora of side-quests dished out by random Non-Playable Characters (NPCs) and townsfolk, as well as other missions that deviate time away from your thesis but ultimately earn you bonus XP and strengthen your skills. These might be:

– Writing journal papers [+35 XP]

– Applying for research funding [+40 XP]

– Tidying your desk/lab area while trying to avoid proper work [+5 XP]

– Making Gantt charts for weekly schedules and things (even though you know that you will not be able to keep to it) [+8 XP]

– Looking at pictures of cats when you totally should be working [-6 XP]

– Attending conferences/workshops/etc. [+25 XP]

– Sucking up to your supervisor by marking undergrad assignments [+15 XP]


Whilst video games might be thought of as a distraction or evil time-sinks, there’s certainly a plethora of research skills that can be gained by engaging in { certain types } of video game. An open-world, (potentially) story-based quest provides a significant opportunity for exploring a complex, expansive world and can teach very worthwhile skills in adventuring into the unknown and metistically scouring dungeons for loot/treasure; a direct allegory to painstakingly reviewing academic literature and investigating infinite paths until you finally stumble across one which isn’t a dead end. Such adventuring can also teach patience, and impart an ability to take time over your search and to be curious enough to poke your nose into every nook and cranny; persevering in the face of adversity (and/or ragequit) to eventually finding that well-hidden chest containing a magical sword that kills everything with one swing; infinite amounts of some special cake that never makes you fat; and some experimental/simulation results that aren’t complete tosh and might actually be worth publishing.

So yes, in many ways, embarking on a PhD shares much similarity with booting up a new video game RPG for the first time; the awareness of the impending time-burden painfully bright. There’s excitement and fear in equal measure at the challenge(s) that will thrown whimsically at you from every direction, and an anticipation of what it’ll feel like to be a fully-trained, battle-hardened adventurer once you’ve beaten the final boss (your final thesis examiner); but all in the knowledge that it’ll be long, rocky road that will take significant mental and physical energy to overcome. All this withstanding, everyone must start out with their simple wooden sword and shield, and elevate themselves to the role of ‘Hero of Time‘ by traversing many Water Temples and by battling many Skulltulas; it’s not an easy quest.

But where the Triforce of The Legend of Zelda fame unites ‘Power’, ‘Wisdom’ and ‘Courage’, in the case of a PhD [project slash thesis], there are three far more fundamental aspects which define the True Hero, and which must be bonded together in perfect harmony to once again bring balance to the world: ‘Hard Work’, ‘Coffee’ and ‘Crying’.

It’s a long, hard road, but we’ll all get there in the end. Godspeed!

Well excuuuuuuse me, Princess!


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PhD Fraud #15: The PhD Pre-Flight Checklist


Through the course of the last 6-12 months of writing-up, my impending collision course towards Thesis Zero has highlighted a number of key things that every grad student should keep in mind before officially handing in your work for appraisal, and which has led to generation of the official PhD Fraud Submission Checklist.

The list aims to run through those things that one might forget in the heat of the moment or in the mad rush between finishing your final sentence and celebrating with copious amounts of alcohol. The PhDFPSC, therefore, is here to help guide you through the finalising and formatting process, in case the dizziness of finally getting to the end is too much and you lose all focus on space and time. It’s primarily a list for my own use, but hopefully it’s relevant for everyone who’s in the final throes of putting together their own weighty tomes, and wants to make sure they don’t forget anything crucial.


The PhD Fraud Pre-Submission Checklist

  • Check the submission guidelines of your institution. For reference, mine can be found [here]. You don’t want to get it wrong; in the worst case, you might have to completely re-submit everything again. If you’re going to spend time formatting and tidying up your completed thesis, you may as well get it right first time, yeah?
  • Check all spelling and grammar and everything in the document. If possible, get someone else to read it (or at least scan an eye over it) since Microsoft spellchecker is about as trustworthy as a van parked outside a school with a hand-painted sign saying “Free Candy”.
  • Make sure that you haven’t accidentally left in all those footnotes and comments bad-mouthing your supervisor/examiner, calling him “a fop-haired imbecile”.
  • Check that all figures, tables, equations, etc. are numbered correctly and referenced properly in the text and in the contents pages. The last thing that an examiner wants to do is to be flicking backward and forward through 100+ pages and not being able to find that diagram of Honey Badger mating rituals that you’re referring to in the text.

    A conservative estimate of a thesis examiner's fury.

    A conservative estimate of a thesis examiner’s fury.

  • Also, make sure that your references section or bibliography is up-to-date and contains all the relevant information. If possible, make sure you referenced journal/conference articles that your examiner has written, such that he gets a warm fuzzy glow of being important and powerful.
  • Further to the above, if you have referenced your thesis examiner, then do make sure you’ve spelt his/her name right and their co-authors: believe me, they’ll notice. Also, try not to reference their work in the context of criticising it or saying that it is “total bullshit”; things like that will tend to get you a bad rep, and are unlikely to contribute to a super-happy-fun time in your viva voce.
  • Check that you haven’t accidentally ‘lost’ a whole chapter, or accidentally pressed ‘CTRL+A’, ‘DEL’ by accident and wiped your enter thesis. It’s easier done that you’d think (as I can attest from experience).
  • Did I already mention that you should back up your files and documents properly? You should back up your files and documents properly. For something as important as The Thesis, I tend to at least carry two hard copies and three soft copies on my person at all time. Paranoid? Me?
  • Make sure all your fonts and formatting is nice and consistent. If you have used anything except Times New Roman, Garamond, Calibri or something like that, change it.
  • Be subtle about plagiarising: at least re-phrase some of the stuff you’ve inevitably copy-pasted from someone else’s work; or if you can think of a way of writing it that’s completely different (but essentially the same), all the better.
  • Have you sorted out a Table of Contents, and listing of all the Figures, Tables, etc. you’ve used? Make sure they’re nicely up-to-date and don’t refer to a previous draft or point to the wrong page numbers.
  • While we’re at it, how’s your Bibliography looking? It’s not the quantity of references that matters, it’s the quality: an examiner will likely notice if you’ve tried to artificially pad out your Bibliography with things you haven’t read. On the flip side, if you’d like to have fun with your examiner, include a completely made-up reference, just to check whether he/she is properly paying attention:

    Brown, E. L., & McFly, M. S. (1985). Unsteady State Analysis of Flux Capacitor Self-Excited Time Manipulation. Journal of Time Travel, (9), 992–1000.

  • Make sure you make all your graphs, figures and tables look really nice. Also: make sure that they’re decent resolution with a good DPI so that they look good even when they’re zoomed-in on a PDF. Go mad, use Adobe CS6 if you need to, but just take some care in how you’re presenting your results; if you can make it look visually appealing and interesting as well as merely presented the data, then it helps the examiner to read your work and engage with it.
  • Do you need to submit programming code as an appendix or on a data CD? You’d best go through your code with a fine tooth-comb, removing all those comments like “// THIS SECTION OF CODE DOESN’T WORK”, “%FUCKING MATLAB”, etc.
  • Fill out your ‘Acknowledgements’ page properly; don’t skimp on the thanks for those who deserve it. This may be your only opportunity to do anything like an hour-long Oscar winner’s speech, so feel free to thank all the names under the Sun. Heck, go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back as well; you certainly deserve it.
  • Best take out that experimental slashfic chapter you wrote about your supervisor/Voldemort in a coffee-fuelled all-nighter haze way back in second year.
  • Have you actually finished everything? There’s nothing important you’ve forgotten, is there? Just spend a few days thinking about it before you print and soft-bind it; you never know, you might finally remember that crucial figure you meant to put in but never got ‘round to that is totally the whole basis of your argument.
  • Remember to actually submit the damned thing – in the joyous celebration and raucous parting upon finishing 3-4 years of work, it’s probably a good idea to not forget to hand it in.
  • FINAL STEP: Party. Then have a massive panic attack because you just remembered that other key thing you forgot to put in and your thesis is already winging its way to your examiners. Oh well, never mind; there’s always time during “minor/major/entire corrections” (delete as applicable) to fix anything.



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PhD Fraud #14: Launch Procedure Initiated


On the 1st of October, 2013, I officially entered my FIFTH year of PhD studies, and technically my NINTH year of University as whole. What once seemed like a carefree jaunt into the unknown to study the engineering of aircraft and spacecraft has almost turned into a proper career, and I’ve survived eight whole years of MEng thru MPhil/PhD study to be where I am today.

Very soon, I will be finally giving man-birth to my own weighty tome, polishing off the rough edges of The Thesis and  finally palming the damned thing off on someone else. I’ve been working on my thesis document for the best part of twelve months now (although I had been writing less formally for it before that) while part-time working on my PhD research and working on other research the rest of the time. As we speak, I’m still firmly entangled in the throes of writing The Thesis, but things are finally starting to coalesce into something concrete: I still feel like I’m a long, long way off from having something that I’m happy with (and heck, there’s no guarantee that I’d ever get there in a million years anyway), but I’ve got to hand something solid in within the next couple of months, so my nose is very firmly pressed to the grindstone.

I should probably be writing this instead of penning blog entries. Oh well.

I should probably be writing this instead of penning blog entries. Oh well.

About the same time that I’ll hand in The Thesis, I’m also due to finish work on the couple of post-doc projects that have helped support my through this final year of writing-up (technically I’m a ‘post-doctoral research assistant’, but I kind of still haven’t gotten the ‘doctor’ bit yet so I feel kind of bad telling people I’m a post-doc. Doesn’t stop me, though). Since October last year, I’ve worked full(ish)-time on two EU-funded projects on space debris (the ACCORD and ReVuS projects) whilst trying to fit my PhD work and writing of crying about The Thesis into the time surrounding that. Where my PhD stuff has focussed on looking at the ocean from space by using imaging radar on spacecraft, my primary research now revolves around understanding the risks of space debris to those same satellites, and figuring out how satellite manufacturers and operators can be encouraged to comply with international guidelines that are in place to avoid a considerable rise in space debris population and hence risk to orbital satellites. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be attending a space debris conference at ESA Harwell, meanwhile back in July we exhibited at the UK Space Conference (and here you can find my review/summary of our time there): at both events, I spoke (or will talk) about my work on the ACCORD project and our progress so far in quantifying the effects of mitigation on the debris environment and communicating this to space industry. There’s been quite a good reaction from both industry and the space debris community about our work, and the result is a new ‘environmental impact rating’ for spacecraft based on their consequences for the space debris environment.

Unlike writing The Thesis, I really enjoy some of the space debris work I’m involved in, and it’s far, far more interesting than any of my PhD work has been. It’s certainly been an entertaining distraction from the misery of The Thesis, and I’ve been getting paid for doing it as well as been on a few nice trips abroad, so I guess that should be considered a Victory. It’s often quite a surprise to find myself genuinely engaged and passionate about research again: it’s definitely a good feeling to be ‘fired up’ about science and engineering, given that my PhD has long since descended into an uninspiring trudge. Sometimes, that spare enthusiasm spills over into my Thesis, and I actually get something done for a change, which can only be a good thing. The Thesis (v2.something) is almost ready to have the final few chapters sent to my supervisor for final comments, and it’s almost looking like a ‘proper’ piece of work now. Almost.

Sounds about right.
(Calvin & Hobbes, 31st October 1989)

I mean, “writing up”: how hard can it be? You just string a few words and sentences together, add a few graphs and diagrams that support your argument and reference all the important literature such that you have a cohesive combination of introduction, argument and discussion with which to defend your novel contribution to the research field. Piece o’ cake, right?

To some, writing comes naturally; to others, it’s more of a struggle. I actually consider myself to be a fairly good writer (although I can descend into ‘waffle’ like a pro), but it’s more through practice and perseverance than any natural talent; my usual technique to just keep spouting words onto a page and then, over a lengthy series of drafts and re-drafts, whittle that down to some pro content. I like to call this the ‘Keep Chucking Words at the Page and Eventually Some of them Might Not be Terrible’ technique. It seems to work, though, and I’ve ascended (somewhat reluctantly) to being the default writer-upper-person in our little group of grad students; enough such that I’ve rather ominously been given the nickname of a certain 18th-Century poet who dabbled in daffodils, among other things. My four-year jaunt into academic/scientific research has at least taught me a few of the tricks of scientific writing; I recently came across this chart from RecycleXP, which humourously recounts some of the prominent tropes in academic writing, and inspired both amusement at how ‘true’ it is but also quite a bit of cringing regarding how much I’ve used each one in The Thesis:

In many ways, the worst part about writing a major document is the people around you. People ask questions like: “So how much of your thesis have you written?” and “When are you going to hand in?” and “Why does your face look weird?”, which are rarely helpful and to which I usually respond with: “Argh! I don’t know! Soon? Maybe?” <*crying*>

As with all research, it’s possible to keep finding more things you’d like to do, and there’s always more data to look at and more stuff to write. I could probably keep looking at The Thesis until the end of forever and find things I’m not happy with, but I guess at some point everyone kind of has to take the plunge and submit the damned thing regardless of how close/far away it is to perfection. For me, that point appears to be approaching at increasing speed, and I’m desperately trying to tie up loose ends and polish off the ‘rougher’ bits of it and plug the most ‘obvious’ gaps in my argument. At some point though, you just have to find a place to put down your pen/typewriter/word processor <delete as applicable> and stop writing.

With that, I shall take my own advice and board the train back to Thesis-land, where I’m informed that we will be stopping at Boredom, Misery and Confusion along the way. All aboard the failroad!


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PhD Fraud #13: The Doctor Dilemma


Given that I’m soon to be submitting The Thesis for critical review and that it’s very possible that, in less than three months’ time, I could technically be a Doctor, it’s time to properly think about the implications of completing the PhD process and entering the world as a proper Doctor of Philosophy.

Should I pass the viva examination, one of the first big decisions will be: what the hell do I call myself? After four years of hard work and much perspiration and  consternation, I will officially be allowed to call myself ‘Dr. George’. In itself, that’s a terrifying thought, but is it what I want?  Much as this series of blog posts has been titled “PhD Fraud“, the feeling that ‘it’s all been some big mistake and the examiners have accidentally awarded me a doctorate by mistake’ is not likely to go away; I will probably still continue to feel like a bit of a fraud and that I don’t deserve such accolades. I’ll therefore feel immensely awkward as introducing myself as ‘Dr. George’ rather than just a simple ‘Mr.’, and anyway ‘George’ isn’t a surname that suits much of the ‘Doctor’ prefix: I’ll just sound like I’m local GP or something, whereas I have only a rudimentary knowledge of medicine and certainly wouldn’t be any use if a passenger’s head just exploded on a passenger plane. No, if I’m going to keep the title of ‘Doctor’, the least I can do is to have a surname that’s worthy of using the prefix, and the only logical answer is ‘Thundersmash’.

All Joking aside, while I’m not going to be rushing out  to properly change my name straight after my viva, I’m certainly considering how I’m going to approach introducing myself to new people. Already, I kind of feel awkward talking about my research with anyone (not even other grad students), let alone with the general public who perhaps aren’t as aware of ins-and-outs of academia. I’m generally a pretty quiet and humble sort of chap who doesn’t like to blow his own trumpet, so tend to end up acting pretty bashful when non-academic friends/people ask what my research is about (and, usually, find it a heap more interesting than the reality actually is).

When I talk to my friends outside of academia, I kind of feel like I’m not much of a success: my best friend works for a Formula 1 team, whilst the other does media/filming stuff and so gets to go to swanky things like major film premieres and whatnot. Meanwhile, I’m stuck in the same office every day, staring at the same bits of MATLAB code and faffing around with the same Word document (The Thesis). It’s sometimes difficult to visualise what effect your research has on the world at large – often, research is so incremental and focussed that it can be difficult to make a connection to the real world, or value its relevance; certainly not in the same way that a doctor, firefighter or even coffee shop barista can measure what they’ve done for other people. So yeah, sometimes I end up feeling a little unimportant when I’m striving away at research at the same desk day in, day out, and so perhaps getting a few letters either before or after your name helps to reinforce the ‘value’ of your research efforts.

Despite all this, cruising around thinking of myself as ‘Dr. George’ – or even just being known as ‘that Doctor guy’ – is still going to feel intensely strange; I’d rather people just call me by my first name than have to get all tangled up in surnames and honorifics. Staying in academia following graduation implies that one must call oneself ‘Doctor’, since it effectively describes ‘rank’ on the academic ladder. Away from academia though, and the necessity to retain the new prefix is far from critical, and likely comes down to personal choice: for me, maybe I’ll add a ‘Ph.D’ suffix after my name on business cards or CVs just to make myself sound more important than I really am, but I’m certainly not going to come across all Alan Sir Sugar Lord if you don’t use the correct title.

Thundersmash Business Card

Anyway, how close am I to finishing? Well, not too far off (I hope). Last month, I submitted a 95% complete draft to my supervisor, which was returned with some helpful comments. I’m currently bouncing around trying to add the final 5% of work and tidy up everything that was there before. I’ve just negotiated to have my thesis deadline extending by a couple of months in some recompense for the year or so I’ve been doing other (unrelated) research, such that I can submit final copy somewhere in November/December. I’m certainly intending to get final draft to my supervisor by the end of October, which should provide sufficient turnaround to address comments and feedback before I commit to submission.

I’ve heard from various people that this part of the ‘write-up’ process is the hardest, and I can’t argue with that sentiment: it’s the most nerve-wracking, as you desperately try to wrangle the more slippery parts of The Thesis into some sort of shape, but also the most frustrating since you’re so, so close yet you can’t cross the finish line quite yet. There’s also a continuing frustration that you’ll never get it into a perfect state that you’re completely completely happy with, and at some point you just have to push it out of the door and hope that it’s ‘good enough’. I’m nearly at the point where it’s going to have to be pushed out of the door regardless of my satisfaction with it, and that inspires both terror and relief in almost equal measure. In many ways, I know I’m so, so close to the end, but things still feel a way off yet. Nearly there!


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PhD Fraud #12: Procrastinating Like a Pro


There’s a tendency, these days, for personal development and constant embetterment to be seen as the primary goal in life; that one’s sole purpose for existing should be to make oneself better in every way, to achieve higher and higher goals. We’re seemingly taught, from a young age, that we need to be successful, to prove that we’re special and that we can change the world if we just try hard enough. We’re pushed through school, then college, pushed to achieve only the best; and more and more young people are being funnelled into university and further education to continue this theme. We’re discouraged from ‘wasting’ our time watching TV, playing video games or spending hours glued to the internet watching videos of cats. And yet, this seems to be the natural habitat of your regular, everyday grad student:

 Jorge Cham, author of the venerable PhD Comics, has built up a solid reputation in public speaking through his entertaining seminar ‘The Power of Procrastination’, which I lapped up when he visited our University earlier this year. In it, he discusses the concept that thinking about “something else” through is actually beneficial for our brains, and certainly for our PhD studies. In other words, taking a break from your work to procrastinate is A Good Thing; or at the very least, not a Bad Thing. The key is in managing the procrastination such that it doesn’t become the ‘main event’ such that you don’t actually get anything done. I’ve certainly been procrastinating a heckload in between giving man-birth to 50,000-odd words in The Thesis, and I would probably get it finished a heckload sooner if I’d spent all that time avoiding silly things on the internet, playing video games and writing blogs (such as this one) – the thing is, if I had done that, then I’d probably have burnt myself out a lot harder and a lot longer ago, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to retain my PhD sanity this far into my research. I’m often at my most relaxed when I’m engrossed in the world of music, or hammering away at a video game like Gran Turismo 4 or F1 2011; concentrating only on the racing line, forgetting about all my other worries and only thinking as far ahead as the next apex. This is something I affectionately like to call ‘Senna Mode’:


It’s crucial to find an equal balance between your research and your mental health; often, procrastination gives our resident brain time to relax back into a tolerant state of affairs. More often and not, then, procrastination takes the form of an activity we’d rather be doing than what we actually have to do. We’re more likely to do something ‘fun’ in our procrastination time (read the internet, play in the sunshine, watch endless re-runs of Judge Judy on television) than ‘productive’ procrastination (sorting out files and folders, hoovering the office, writing passive-aggressive emails to the faculty telling people not to steal your milk). It’s important to schedule in time to properly procrastinate and relax, as sometimes the best solutions to difficult questions pop into your brain when it’s least expecting it. We’re always taught that structuring short periods of ‘downtime’ – taking a breath in the middle of the day, or actually spending a lunch hour away from the desk, and not feeling bad about it – has a positive effect on productivity but in practice, there’s an ethereal pressure to just keep going and ignore the fact that you need to have structure ‘break’ times.

Certainly amongst fellow academics and students, there’s a widespread feeling that we should be doing research every hour of the day, and that we should feel guilty if we’re doing something other than diligently working on our research projects. I don’t know about you, but I need my time off in order to let my brain recover, and churn over difficult problems in my subconscious. With research, we often feel like what we’re doing is the most important thing ever and much of our procrastination arises from a fear of doing things wrong or that everything we’ve done before has been seriously flawed. Of course, Your Mileage May Vary, but most of the time it’s my lack of confidence in myself and my work that causes me to constantly fret that my superiors will suddenly discover that I’m a complete fraud at this research business; and as an escape, I typically retreat to the bowels of the internet to avoid work until I have the confidence to get into gear again. Because it’s relevant (and because it’s awesome), here’s a picture from almost the dawn of the internet which proves my point:

Cartoon by Asher Sarlin from Elephantitis of the Mind: http://www.ashersarlin.com/archives/2004/09/honestly_who_co.php

Cartoon by Asher Sarlin from Elephantitis of the Mind:

Ironically for an information medium that now means everyone has the ability to download a bunch of high-class journal papers or get in touch with researchers on the other side of the globe, the internet is typically the bane of research these days; or at the very least, the bane of research students, as the strip from PhD Comics shown at the top of this page can clearly attest to. I tend to get absorbed in the internet when I should be working, and hopelessly worried about my research when I should be letting my hair down. Sometimes, I just can’t disengage from distraction, and remain hopelessly addicted to checking Twitter every half an hour or spending ages picking songs for a ‘TIME TO WORK HARD’ playlist on Spotify and then only getting about halfway through before it’s getting dark and time to go home.

The conclusion of this post, therefore, is a call-to-arms to put productive procrastination into practice; to work hard when I should be working, and to party hard when I’m allowed to loosen up. So, my new goal, therefore, is to apply ‘Senna Mode’ to my work – to only focus on the task at hand, and to think only about the current problem and not the plethora of other problems that plague me – and ‘Andrew W.K. Mode‘ to my playtime. When it’s time to party, we will party hard.



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PhD Fraud #11: Post-Thesis Bucket List


A couple of weeks ago, I signed and submitted a form which officially says that: “I, <author>, intend to submit a full PhD thesis for examination within the next two months.”

Yup, I’m officially on the path to submission. I can’t say that I’m not ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIED by this sudden turn of events, but I suppose that it was inevitable that at some point I was going to have to hand in something vaguely thesis-shaped. It’s just that four years seems like an awfully long time, and it’s rather a shock to find that it’s almost at an end and I’m only two months away from having to hand in something that could ultimately define my future career. It’s certainly alarming to think that I could (potentially) be a fully-fledged Doctor by the end of the year. Still, being so close to The End has made me start thinking about what I want to do after I slap The Thesis down on the examiner’s desk and hence cease to be a full-time slave to its corruption. I’ve therefore formed a “Post-Thesis Bucket List™” of things I’d like to do (or hobbies I’d like to get back into) once this damned Thesis is completely done and polished. Because posting a bunch of whole life-slash-career ambitions would be intensely dull, these are just a bunch of short-term goals and ambitions that I’d like to fulfil once I’m back to being something resembling a normal human being. I’m talking FUN STUFF and achievable things and whatnot; not just a list of “I WANT TO GO SWIMMING WITH DOLPHINS HURR” stuff that everyone wants to do but probably won’t ever get round to. Incidentally, I may not actually get round to doing some (or any) of these, but it’s good to at least have plans.

So, without further ado, here is the list:

  • Get tattooed (specifically the AFI bat on the cover of the Days of the Phoenix EP)
  • Find time to get out and get on my skates more
  • Get some damn exercise (see above)
  • Start a punk/chiptune band with myself on guitar and myself on Mario Paint
  • Write a novel for NaNoWriMo
  • Sort out my shitloads of CDs and put them in alphabetical/chrono order
  • Acquire GTA V and play the shit out of it
  • Go karting and shit at TeamSport Crawley (International circuit) and pretend it’s Mario Kart
  • Fix the humbuckers on my guitar and re-string the beast
  • Read all the books that I’ve had piling up for ages
  • Legally change name to ‘Doctor Thundersmash’
  • Get back to doing reviews of games and stuff
  • Go and get a job or something

I guess the list is hardly world-changing, but is really just intended to redress a balance that I feel has long been a problem during my PhD; the complete lack of motivation or energy to do anything that’s not just research or sleep. I look forward to being able to take weekends off, or go home of an evening without have an overclocking brain still ticking over with my PhD problems & issues and far too tired to think about or doing anything remotely hobby-ish. Largely, my sole hobby during my PhD research has been video games and cosplay-making, but it’d be nice to once again broaden my interests when I’m rid of the sapping effect academic research tends to have on time, motivation and energy, and the prospect of actually cross the finishing line very soon is genuinely thrilling; though, at the same time, completely terrifying. I can see the chequered flag now, and I just need to #KEEPPUSHING.


So how close am I to finishing? Well, I’m currently on Draft 1.2 of The Thesis, and it’s done the rounds of my supervisor (who didn’t immediately do a facepalm, which must be considered progress of sorts) and I’m spending time addressing his comments and rounding up some of the sections of work I still need to finish the work for and write up. For a good, long time (up to around a few months ago) it felt like The Thesis wasn’t progressing at all; I’d open it up at the start of the week and close it down on a Friday afternoon with little visible progress. Within the last few months, though, the document has certainly been growing in leaps and bounds: the main text (ignoring the preamble and postamble, references, etc.) is 142 pages and 40, 000 words; 184 pages it total, plus 28 further pages of appendix. As it stands, I’m fairly optimistic that I’ll have something that at least looks like it might be a competent piece of work; even if it turns out that the examiner doesn’t agree with me. Either way, I suppose that there’s no going back now, so if it turns out to be a monumental failure then at least they can’t make me go back to the start and do it all over again, so it’s the final stretch for me.

It’s a little difficult to see how far I’ve come over the last four years, primarily because (as it turns out) four years is a fucking long time. It’s always been difficult to keep the whole thing in focus, purely because of the sheer scale of the endeavour and that it’s such a heavy beast. But now, when I’m in the throes of wrapping everything, trying to tie up loose ends and attempting to patch up those gaping holes, things are starting to come together and it’s the fruits of my labour are beginning to be reflected in The Thesis. It’s by no means a perfect document nor an accurate reflection of all of the trials and tribulations that I’ve hammered through in the previous four years, but it does form the basis for demonstrating that I’m a stronger person with experience of trying to push through tricky research, often in the the face of adversity or technical/theoretical difficulties; at least, I hope it does. I guess I won’t know for sure until at least the end of the year, but either way, the hand-in day itself will be a major milestone, and received with much celebration. ‘Til then though, I’d best crack on. Geronimo.



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UK Space Conference 16-17/07/2013 – Personal Debrief

Last week was the second UK Space Conference, so along with a couple of colleagues from the Astronautics Research Group, we headed up to steely Glasgow to put up and run the University of Southampton exhibfaition stand at the Scottish Exhibition & Conference Centre (SECC) for the 16th-17th of July. All things considered, everything went pretty well and we put on a good show; nonetheless, here’s a few of my thoughts about the experience and what happened at #UKSC2013.


Having sorted out shipping all of our exhibition materials up to Glasgow via DHL the preceding Friday, Ben, Rhys and I hopped onto a plane from Southampton Airport at Monday lunchtime to arrive in Glasgow in the afternoon. Grateful that our exhibition kit had all arrived at the on time (and in one piece), we set to work on fitting it all into our 2 m x 3 m display area. We set up the big stand, a couple of pull-up banners, the display counter and a table-top touchscreen PC, and hung the neon-coloured Southampton High Altitude Re-Usable Platform (SHARP) cubesat from the roof of our display (and its parachute) to attract the eye of potential visitors. With almost ruthless efficiency we erected everything in (unofficial) record time, ensuring that everything that could be duct-taped down was duct-taped down – either for the safety of passing hobbits/children who are in constant danger of the main stand collapsing and falling on them, or to avoid expensive pieces of equipment going AWOL during a busy conference. At this stage, I’m fairly sure that stock prices of duct-tape go through the roof every time we organise an outreach event, so we should probably look into some sort of sponsorship deal.


The University of Southampton’s space debris evolutionary model, DAMAGE

The conference began in earnest at 0900 on Tuesday, where I was immediately required to abandon the stand in order to deliver a talk in the opening session the conference, which was the ‘Have Your Say’ Soapbox session: a couple of months back, delegates were invited to submit a 140-character abstract for a 5-minute presentation slot, with those selected to give the presentation then required to finalise a 140-word summary and a set of 5 presentation slides that did not exceed 5 minutes but which fit into the main topics of the session covering “current industry and academic projects, new results, proposals for new work and availability of support and funding.” Taking my recent work on the ACCORD project, I submitted (with the help of Ben) an abstract entitled ‘A Web Tool for Spacecraft Manufacturers & Operators to Promote Sustainable Space Operations’, with the aim of introducing our new ACCORD environmental impact rating for spacecraft which measures future, prospective spacecraft designs for their potential impact(s) on the space debris environment in Earth orbit.


The talk went fairly well, though I can categorically say that the strict five-minute slot was indeed very restrictive (but in a good way), and that the sight of your presentation slides slowly filling up with a red border as you approached the five-minute limit (and the threat of the microphone being cut off) was certainly an effective way to get speakers to conform to the time restrictions. Sadly, I didn’t win the prize of an iPad that was being toted for the ‘best presentation’ of the session, but I think I pulled things off fairly well – it was certainly the only space debris-related talk across the whole conference and, looking past the blinding stage lights, I could see a few members of the audience photographing my slides for future reference, so hopefully I raised some very valid awareness about our work on ACCORD. I definitely stressed out far more about the talk than I honestly needed to, but I always tend to get butterflies at these sorts of things.

[if you would like to download, or view, my presentation slides from the Soapbox session, you can find them by clicking here]

Returning from the stand after my talk, it was immediately obvious that we’d made the right choice to exhibit at the conference: despite the expense, hassle and energy required to purchase a slot and fill it with attractive marketing gear (and three post-grads), we were the only major UK ‘space’ university (aside from the Open University) to properly exhibit at the conference, and I think that this was good certainly from the point of view of ‘reaching out’ to industry and also trying to talk to students prospectively looking at careers in the space industry. It also helps that the space industry is scattered with graduates from the University; in particular, the current Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, Dr. David Parker, and the Chief Engineer, Dr. Richard Crowther – it was certainly nice to hear so many ex-students talking about their time here with some fondness. That being said, following a thorough survey of all the free pens we could steal from other stands, the generic University of Southampton pens we borrowed from the Faculty were by far the cheapest-looking ones at the conference and to blame, in no small part, for how few got picked up by visitors and how many we had to bring back to Southampton. For next time, I’d definitely be interested in getting some proper (and classy-looking) Astronautics Research Group ones, or at least Aero/Astro department ones.


Our stand was positioned fairly well (an end slot near an aisle, and visible all the way down the main aisle) and nestled between the stands for the  National Physical Laboratory and Thales Alenia Space, so we ended up getting some pretty good footfall from people either walking through or passing by, and certainly plenty of questions. In retrospect, it would have been really handy to have one of the actual academics there (and not just three post-grads), but I think we fielded most of the queries pretty well in the most part. In our shipment, we’d send up a heckload of University prospectuses, leaflets and flyers (on everything from the whole Uni down to Faculty information) and a lot of this stuff came back – I guess we just overestimated the demand for paper materials, but it was better to have plenty left over than risk running out of publicity material. The same happened with ACCORD flyers, as we kind of over-estimated how many people would test/check out the new spacecraft rating system (head over here if you’d like to find out more), so we have plenty of ACCORD flyers to take to other events, or distribute by hand to spacecraft designers & manufacturers. In retrospect, it might have been worth going round some of the other stands when the exhibition hall was quiet and asking if they’d like to take a few minutes to test the rating system, but alas, we didn’t. Oh well.

And on that bombshell I shall end this post, but before I do, here are a few more of my photos from the conference. Enjoy:



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PhD Fraud #10: Welcome to Plight Club


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.


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