Five months in!

By on Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Five months. That’s how long it’s been since I started my PhD. It’s flown by, yet in some ways I feel as though I’ve been here for ages already. When I first started, I felt completely lost, I had no idea what I needed to do – all I had was my desk and a computer. In some ways, not much has changed either – half the time I still don’t know what I’m doing! However, I know I’ve picked up a lot already and I’m climbing up a steep learning curve, slowly but surely.

Since starting, one of the main questions I’ve been asked is why: Why a PhD? Why Leeds? Why my project? So let’s go back a bit and answer those. I did an integrated master’s in chemistry in York, so in a geographical sense, I’ve not transitioned too far since then (it’s only a matter of 20 miles). However, I’ve come a massive way in so many other respects. If I had been asked even as late as my third year, whether I’d be doing a PhD afterwards, I would have laughed and probably dismissed the idea. I’m not entirely sure why, I had just never thought about remaining in academia. However, I began my master’s project under Professor Ally Lewis in the atmospheric chemistry department and my mind began to change. I can’t really say what exactly it was, but starting to do an actual research project, felt great, even if a lot of the time was spent just crawling through literature for ideas and better understanding. I was managing the focus of my own project, alongside my own time. I ran into problems, but getting over them was exciting as no-one knew what answer I’d find. I guess I was hooked in research and I spoke to PhD students and postdoc’s around the department and that made up my mind; a PhD is an enormous challenge but I felt I was ready to tackle it. Next up was trying to decide what kind of project to do.

I looked at a number of projects, trying to work out where I wanted to go – this ranged from air pollution, new spectroscopic techniques, even so far as volcanology – some focused on labwork, some on fieldwork, some modelling, many a generous mix. The more I looked, the more I felt myself being drawn to climate science. I had really focused on atmospheric chemistry previously due to an interest in climate change, so it’s no real surprise that was the direction I was drawn. Then Piers Forster from Leeds came to give a talk in the physics department in York about his role as a lead author with the IPCC. I went along and was excited to hear about the IPCC’s role to bring the science to the policy makers and the scientists’ role to try to ensure the science doesn’t get lost. After the lecture I spoke with Piers and asked him whether he had any advice for me regarding finding my way into climate science without doing physics. His advice was just to go for it if there was a project which interested me and not to worry about the change in discipline. He also suggested I keep an eye out for projects from himself (and others) at Leeds.

So I did just that, I ended up applying to a few different projects around the country, had a few interviews and was fortunate to have a number of offers to choose from. I ended up being torn between two – one here at Leeds on modelling climate and atmospheric impacts of deforestation and another modelling air pollution in China and the UK. I was really interested in both projects for slightly different reasons and found it really difficult to decide between them, however I had a few concerns about coming to Leeds specifically. I ended up coming to discuss the project with the supervisors here at Leeds (Dom Spracklen, Steve Arnold and the aforementioned Piers) and they were really understanding and supportive and tried to come up with ideas to make it easier were I come to Leeds. In the end, that really helped persuade me and so I ended up accepting the offer from them.

So, I’ve gone from master’s to PhD, York to Leeds, chemistry to climate science – the other big step was practical work to modelling. My work now is all done on a screen in front of me, there’s no running around taking measurements. I hadn’t really done anything like that previously, so it was daunting to sit down at my desk and try to run some code without even knowing anything about the language. You don’t learn without throwing yourself in though, and that’s exactly what I did. I’m still not an expert by any means, but I (usually) understand what code does, I can edit it and make it do what I need, though it might take a number of attempts. I’ve still been able to find opportunity within the university to keep up with practical work though, through demonstrating within chemistry. Fortunately the university have no restrictions on which school you’re in to demonstrate, as long as you’re competent and willing – so it’s a nice way to keep in touch with my roots.

There’s been many times when I’ve talked with other first years where it sounds as though they know or have done so much more – some are more experienced in coding, have read and analysed hundreds of papers already or have done their master’s in a similar field and their PhD is just following on. However, you learn quite quickly that this isn’t quite the case. Those coders may struggle on the underlying science, those who have done vast amounts of reading may have no option as they’re waiting on collecting their data and even for those who are following on, it’s not quite that simple – everyone starts afresh and they all have their own struggles. I think it’s important that you don’t get caught up in how much work other people have done or who seems to be ahead of you – your project is your own and it will progress at its own pace. Also important, is not to compare how you work to how others work. Some people might come in at 8am and not leave for twelve hours, whereas others may come in late and leave early, it depends what’s most productive for you and you alone. The person in for twelve hours may take lots of breaks, whereas others may work steadily the whole time they’re in. Some people prefer working in a louder environment, others need to be void of all distractions. Each person works differently and it’s up to you how you manage that – work how you work best.

From that, how you manage life outside of work is also important – a PhD may seem all about work and your project, moreso if you’ve spoken to anyone nearing the end, but you have to enjoy it too! You can all too easily get bogged down in your work and lose social interaction. It’s probably more important than during undergraduate to get away from work – mostly because it’s much more intensive. There’s a lot to get involved in, the school, the institute and the DTP all arrange different events, from nights out, external talks, to Chatmosphere (a half hour discussion on anything interesting about the weather). Join one or two clubs, either locally or within the university (Leeds is great for that, there’s plenty to offer) or make sure you keep an evening or two spare to go out or get involved in a sport regularly. I’ve also got the additional factor of my girlfriend living over three hours away, so I tend to take up every other weekend with travelling too. If you can get into a semi-regular routine, then everything tends to go smoother, so the quicker you organise yourself and your work, the easier the start will be.

Overall the first couple of months have been tough, as it always is in a new place, but getting through Christmas has enabled me to get into my stride a bit more and I’m starting to feel like I belong. Often I still have no idea what I’m doing, but whatever it is, I’m enjoying it!