PhD status? Completed!!! In other words, I’m back, b!tches.

*cough, cough*

*waves away dust*

Hello? Is anyone here?

Wow. So it’s been a over a year since I last posted and I am very very sorry for neglecting this blog. Partly because I really enjoy writing these posts and they became a great way for me to express my ups and downs over the last few years. But over the last year and half I was absorbed in writing something so massive that I had no words left in me at all at the end of the day – even fun ones.

Yes, I was writing my PhD thesis. Now as anyone else who has done this will know it is all encompassing. A behemoth.

IT CONTROLS EVERY ASPECT OF YOUR LIFE.

And for a while I couldn’t see anything beyond it. Now it is done: written, submitted, viva’ed and alterations made, my PhD is officially over.

 

I did it – you can now call me Dr Gibson (squees endlessly in the background).

 

It was really, really, REALLY difficult to write. I wrestled with just the writing for over a year and I’m still not sure I have the required distance to write about the experience. Maybe later. But for now, yes I am back, I’ll try and get on with regular posting as well as making good on some posts I have been thinking about and have sat in my drafts folder for waaaay too long.

 

As proof, and in an effort to follow the excellent example of Open Access champion Dr Jon Tennant in making my work as accessible as possible, I have added my thesis onto Figshare, you can read it here if you want (it’s also on my University Open Access page Pearl).

But don’t feel obliged – it’s really long!

 

And so, on to the future! It’s good to be back.

thesis

You can see how happy I was to hand in my thesis – it was the end of a very long year.

 

 

 

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Can you blog and write papers at the same time?

Writing for blogs and academia

Recently I have entered solidly into the marathon of writing up my thesis. Now I know that you are supposed to be doing this all the way through your PhD and yes, I have been writing the whole time. But for me, if I don’t take a big run at it and do it in one logical progression, I just can’t make it make sense. So I have loads of one two and three page word documents scattered across my ‘Thesis’ folder (a title that has inspired a small frisson of terror in me, ever since I named it), none of which connect to each other in any meaningful way!

However, since I sat myself down and said:

‘Now you are going to do this Hazel, no more procrastinating, no more waiting for data, this is the time to write and make your argument!’

I have been writing in a much more logical way, and my arguments are coming together nicely (or so I in my little writing cave of a mind think). The good thing about that is that all the ideas that I have had for papers over the last year are making a great deal more sense to me now, I can draw the threads of my arguments more confidently from my thesis writing and I feel good about writing these papers. The bad thing is that I have never written a purely acadmeic paper – I’ve been blogging.

When it comes to writing short, logical, pieces that make a case for one particular thing, the area in which I have most experience over the last year is – here. The blogs that I have written and planned over the last two years have been my most reliable source of written output during the entire last phase of my PhD, and they are written extremely differently to a paper. I write colloquially, with slang terms and I often leap from idea to idea in the way that my brain does (yes, I’m a bit of a scatterbrain – ok a LOT of a scatterbrain).

This format of writing really doesn’t mesh well with writing papers. It doesn’t seem to impact my thesis too much as I know that I am going to be writing and re-writing that until next year, but for papers I seem to get stymied in my informal writing style!

This problem reflects the issue of writing in an academic language. Academic language is what you are taught (with varying degrees of success) to write with at University as an undergraduate. In the physical sciences its most obvious expression is writing in the third person (which reflects the notion that the scientist is supposed to be completely objective about their work), but it is used in all areas of academic life – in subtle and complicated ways. In fact, the success of your use of academic language and methods of thought is one of the things which mark you out as an expert in your field, as explored in a recent paper by Dressen-Hammouda (2008) on disciplinary identity and genre mastery. So if you are attempting to write a paper to expand the boundaries of your science (whatever it might be), you need to use the right textual cues and knowledge frames. This basically means you have to know the academic language (with all the implied meaning not obvious to an outsider) you need to use to make yourself credible to your peers and you need to know how to link concepts together in the same way that another person versed in your science would do so.

The language of scince should not be used to exclude.

The language of science should not be used to exclude. (The mural is one I saw on the doors of a geology firm in Cornwall: Geoscience Ltd – the photo is my own).

But this is completly the opposite of the style used for writing for a blog (or any form of science communication to a non-expert audience for that matter). In a blog you try to make yourself relatable, understandable and sympathetic. You want people to see you as a person and not a machine of science, and you want people who are not a part of your little community to feel comfortable coming in and talking about your subject with you. 

How do you balance these two competing needs? As a science communication researcher I value the method of easy communication that blogging needs, but I also need to contribute to my field. As a possible solution I am trying something new. At the end of a day of writing towards one of my chapters I am writing a page of one of my papers. I hope that this will allow the transfer of language across from the papers I have read to the papers I am writing.

 

To all you bloggers out there, do you have any tips for switching between your academic and internet ‘voice’?

 

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Who is your support group?

When I was 7, my school held a musical evening – a night when all the music teachers that taught different instruments came to the school and attempted to tempt kids to pick up a trumpet, or oboe, or bassoon (an if you have never seen a 7 year old with a bassoon – it’s hilarious). I had a brilliant time running around blowing on milk bottles to see if I could master the wind instruments, or trying to make a noise out of the trombone mouth piece, but it was the string instruments that drew me in – I loved the sound of the cello, but if I am short now (and I am) I was teeny then, and my hand couldn’t reach around the neck of the cello with enough strength to make the right notes. So the violin, as my second choice was it. I turned to my Mum and asked if I could take lessons. The teacher, Mr Robinson, said to my Mum:

‘Is this a commitment you can make? She will need your support to learn.’

My short lived career as a violinist - note the snazzy waistcoat and scrunchie!

My short-lived career as a violinist – note the snazzy waistcoat and scrunchie!

Since those days, I recently realised, a lot, and nothing at all have changed. Doing a PhD is, in many ways, an experience in getting to know yourself. In fact if more people chose to undertake a PhD rather than going off on a yoga retreat, we may know much more about every area of human curiosity. Also, I imagine, introducing yourself as doctor wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying. But still it is something that I as an adult, an independent and (mostly) functioning member of society chose to do. And there is noting so true as saying that when you do a PhD you do it alone. But the thing I always think is that it would be so much more impossible without my amazing support network, at the front of whom are my family.

My family are always there to support me

My family are always there to support me

My family has been with me in every step that I have taken on this path, from reading my undergraduate dissertation, helping me pack to move for my first job overseas, forcing me out of bed during my brief period of unemployment in 2008 (great year to be unemployed), being my emotional, educational and financial support system through many highs and lows, to now – letting me move back in so I don’t have to live in some awful student flat! And I am not alone. One of my colleagues has been living with his cousins and their young family for over a year. Another PhD told me recently that your thesis will only be read by your Mum and your viva committee – and they were right! My Mum is going to read it!! She read my sister’s too!

This afternoon, my sister and her partner came to visit us. We had a lovely lunch, caught up on all the news, and then I tested my questionnaire on them. Yes you read right, not only did I waste some visiting time on a questionnaire, but my family is always my first testing ground when it comes to this stuff. I send my Dad my chapters. I ask my Mum to proofread my grant applications. I discuss the pros and cons of having a neutral option in a questionnaire with my sister.

Though some things never seem to change....

Though some things never seem to change….

That they let me do this, I find amazing. But that they also continue to encourage me and provide positive support whilst I angst out my results in my little selfish PhD bubble, I find spectacularly moving. I am so lucky in my family and friends. Friends who know that I won’t speak to them for months, but when I send out a facebook message saying ‘I’m in London, who is free?!” will take me for a beer and a burger. Friends who text me just to say, ‘I’m thinking of you.’ This is what you need to do a PhD, because actually – it is a commitment you need to get, you need support to learn. 

So turn to your support network, family, friends, partners, children, other PhDs – whoever they are and give them a big THANKYOU hug.

Because without them, this would be a whole lot harder.

Am I a science evangelist?

Recently I have been hearing a lot of references to science evangelism, mostly indicating someone who is really really passionate about communicating science. Now the second part (especially when it comes to geology) is definitely true about me, but I’m slightly unsure about the ‘evangelising’ part. I grew up in South Devon, not really a part of the world known for extremely strong religious beliefs, but there were a number of devout religious practitioners in my street and the nearby community. I knew the kids from some of these families, we went to school together and played together, but every so often they would come to our house, all dressed up smartly, to try and sell us their religion. Now realistically I imagine the children that I was friends with probably didn’t care if we wanted to be the same religion as them so long as we were willing to go off on adventures through the woods and play on the swings, but their parents did care. I remember how excruciatingly uncomfortable these little visits would be – my parents aren’t particularly religious, but when the person with a pamphlet lives a few houses away and their kids play with yours, it’s a lot harder to turn them away!

I think this is where my problem with ‘evangelism’ comes from. An evangelist is defined in the Oxford dictionary as:

EVANGELIST (noun)

  • A person who seeks to convert others to the Christian faith, especially by public preaching
  • A layperson engaged in Christian missionary work
  • A zealous advocate of a particular cause
  • The writer of one of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John)

Now I do love science, and do I think people would be better off if they understood more science (and geology)? Absolutely. But I don’t need people to believe in science – to want to make it their life’s work or suddenly go start chemistry busking in Croydon (although either of these things would be awesome). Now just to clarify, I still think everyone can do science (and should understand the basics), I just don’t think it needs to be number 1 priority for everyone.

I like having friends who are lawyers, accountants and historians, who sing with beauty and fire or can name pretty much every rugby player that England has had for the last decade (yes Jen, I’m looking at you). Science is great, it challenges you and forces you to look at the world through new eyes. But it is not the only beautiful and challenging thing about our lives. The question I have to ask is in that case do we need to redefine what evangelism means in a science communications sense? I think we do.

Look - it's SCIENCE!!!

Look – it’s SCIENCE!!!

So I have decided to redefine science evangelism for myself.

SCIENCE EVANGELIST (noun)

  • A person who shares their enjoyment of science and curiosity about the world; without judgement, superiority or sometimes even company!

If a scientist evangelises in forest when no-one is there, do they actually make a sound?!?