Reflections on my first few months as a ‘proper researcher’

Well, as it’s the last day of 2014 I thought it only appropriate to write my first post (!) reflecting on my first 4 months of my PhD. I feel like I have come both far and not so far in regards to the project, a feeling I have no doubt I will carry with me until that final thesis is handed in!

I’ve managed to cram in quite a lot in the time since I’ve moved to Exeter, and it has been a bit of a whirlwind of ups and downs, challenges and opportunities. And lots of fun! Here are a few of the things I’ve been up to so far:

– Envisioning the future of UK fisheries at a conference in London.

– Going to Newquay to meet other PhD students in the GW4+ doctoral training programme.

– Spending time in Bristol brushing up on my stats skills.

– Going to Loch Lomond for another stats course.

The NERC GW4+ DTP gang at Lizard Point, Cornwall

The NERC GW4+ DTP gang at Lizard Point, Cornwall

So, I’ve managed to keep myself pretty busy so far, mixing research life with exploring the South West and the rest of the UK! One of the best things I’ve found is that the sea and its associated marine life and fisheries have a big role to play here in the South West and are really culturally embedded throughout the region – a great thing for someone doing fisheries research! The amount of marine research centres round here is also a big bonus!

Thinking about what I’ve actually learnt is another thing. I’ve done what feels like a tonne of reading, but I won’t bore you with the cool facts I’ve learnt from that (yet!). I was surprised to find that it’s actually taken me a while to come up with the direction and aims for my project, something that my supervisor assures me is OK and worth while doing (the project was very open when I first came, with a vague title of ‘Socio-ecological impacts of climate change on UK fisheries). I have to say that on reflection, although it felt like I wasn’t making progress at all (and I admit a little boring at times, I just wanted to science!), I can see how beneficial it is for me to have come up with a solid aim and framework to work with for the next 3 years. So, here are a few general things I’ve learnt along the way so far:

  • Say yes to every opportunity thrown your way – this applies to both general life and research work. From the smallest of things such as going for lunch with your lab group, to going to a conference in Barcelona (can’t wait for that in February!), say yes! Obviously, there has to come a limit and all within reason, but embrace the opportunities that you are presented with and take them! I’ve got so many exciting things planned just because I’ve been open to saying yes – I can’t wait for the year ahead!
  • Take time to think about the project and set plans – don’t nose dive straight in! This mantra (if that’s what we want to call it) has taken me a while to become ‘ok’ with, but having thinking time and planning time is mega important for you and your project in the long run. I was so tempted to start doing data analysis as soon as I started in September because I wanted to feel like I was ‘doing something’ straight away. But, actually, it was pointless as I hadn’t yet properly thought about why I was doing it or what for, and so it just led to confusion and undue stress. So take some time to think! This includes doing lots of reading too.
  • Think about what training you want early on and book onto the courses that offer them. These days PhDs are as much about being trained in research skills as doing the research itself (I like to think anyway). I found it really useful to sit down and really think about what skills I wanted to build up in the next few years, and then I started to find the appropriate courses! It’s such a shame that some of the courses I’ve found are in Scotland and Italy…
  • Realise from the beginning that your PhD is YOUR PhD! Don’t compare progress (or yourself) with others, particularly those who have just started with you. It’s not helpful for you to think ‘oh, they’ve done so much already, I haven’t at all!’. All projects are different and so you shouldn’t compare your progress to someone else’s. Also, remembering that the PhD is yours is important in a supervisor context, something I might discuss in a future post…
  • Don’t expect too much of yourself at the beginning. For some reason, the moment I stepped into the office on my first day I felt like a million bricks had been put on my shoulders. Not the feeling I thought I’d have, but I couldn’t help thinking ‘am I good enough?’, ‘why did my supervisor pick me?’, ‘I need to publish results right now, otherwise they’ll think I’m wasting their time!’ and many other nonsensical thoughts (a lot of which are put down to Imposter Syndrome, which I suffer from greatly). But, thinking these things and expecting too much of yourself will soon stress you out and get you down (it did with me anyway…), so take a step back and give yourself a bit of time to adjust and plan. That being said, a bit of pressure however, never hurt anyone…

I wonder how many of these things that I’ve learnt will resurface over the next few years?! Overall, I’d say I’ve had a pretty great time so far, and can’t wait to see what’s next. So, with that I wish you all a Happy New Year! I’ll leave you with a few pics from the last few months.



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