As the digital tumbleweed blows across the desert of 0s and 1s that is my blog, it’s easy to believe that I had downright forgotten about Trust Me, I’m Nearly a Dr. The truth is, science communication dropped right to the bottom of my list of priorities, through the floor, the basement and into the bedrock of my existence. For this, I am unreservedly apologetic.
My last blog post, November 2018 (???) took a stroll through my thoughts and feelings upon finishing the first year of my Ph.D. programme, and on entering the second year. The trials and tribulations of my first left me feeling uncertain about my future as an academic and doubting my own capabilities.
Something I mentioned on my Instagram page was the progression process that the University of York employs. I had naïvely assumed that, upon starting my programme, I’d enter and then have three years in which to complete my research, and then write up, with a fourth year available as a contingency in case things don’t go to plan. Realistically, most people in my labs spend 3.5 years in total. Little had I realised that there was a rigorous mentoring framework known as thesis advisory panel meetings. One’s thesis advisory panel is made up of a supervisor(s) and an additional academic member, not involved in your research, to provide a balanced view on your progress and assess the quality of your supervision. The TAP process is performed twice a year, each requiring a report and meeting, with a minor review at 6 months, and a major review at 12 months, when progression to the following year is decided.
In my major 12-month review meeting, before I could officially progress to the second year, my supervisor explained to me that I had not done enough experimental work in the lab to warrant progress to the second year. This hit me like a tonne of bricks, and I spent a lot of time trying to process this mentally. On reflection, I probably spent too much at my desk ruminating and doing too much background reading. I also had more than my fair share of instrument troubles that plagued me right from the beginning. This wasn’t working, that wasn’t working. The section to replace part A needs to be forged by a master blacksmith in Portugal, but he only works for two weeks in September etc. etc., you get the gist. I think there are two ways in which to deal with this kind of news: 1) take it very badly, allow your supervisor’s comments to completely overshadow your thought processes, crumble and drop out of your programme, or 2) grab the bull by the horns and work your damn hardest not to fail. Thankfully, I’m an excellent compartmentaliser and option two is usually the path I take. Admittedly, the days immediately following the news, I was pretty crestfallen, but I’d worked too hard even getting this far and I wasn’t prepared to give up.
The system at York means that if you’re not recommended for progression, you are invited to a review panel to discuss what has and hasn’t been working well, what’s been challenging and what work is planned for the future. After this review, you are either progressed to the following year straight away, or you are given three months in which to conduct more research and have another meeting, at which point, you are either progressed, or asked to withdraw. Owing to the fact that I am writing a second-year wrap-up piece, you can be safe in the knowledge that I passed the first review meeting and was progressed at that point. Hurray! *wipes heavily beaded sweat from brow*.
After some more lab work, I was invited down to the University of Manchester to play with their aerosol chamber for a month; the idea being that my instrument was perfectly suited to measuring fast-forming secondary organic aerosol precursors. I’d be there to train the chamber group on using the GC-MS and to troubleshoot. Bar a few issues, this went well, and I now have a tonne of useful data to use in my thesis. Then came a (mostly) relaxing Christmas break and the good news I’d been waiting for. My supervisor sent me an e-mail to say that a project he’d been trying to get started had finally come through, with funding attached. At last, my PhD had the direction it so desperately needed, and I would be paid to do it! The project essentially involves me measuring indoor air quality, so lots of lab work and lots of data analysis. After a shaky first year, this was the news I needed.
The second phase of my project is slowly coming to an end, so it’s weird to think that in a few short weeks, I’ll be starting my third year with a whole thesis to write, conferences to go to, networking to ace and a job hunt to think about. Somebody, take me back to first year.