Contributed by Neil Clark
Get it? All at ‘C’?! I’m not even sorry for that one.
So I’ve already written a blog piece to tell you all about what it is I do as a PhD student at SAMS (remember the methane ditty?). What better, then, to follow up with than a wee blog explaining what I get up to as a PhD student away from SAMS?
This is the exciting bit; we’re talking travel, learning, presenting and networking here. To me, the very term ‘networking’ is enigmatic. I’ve been to plenty of networking ‘events’, focussed upon meeting as many people in as short a time as possible. From my viewpoint, these tend to digress into endless streams of people trying their best to confound me with all the knowledge in the universe, never pausing to listen for questions, or even to breathe. I’m starting to wonder if there is a school of scientists specialising in ‘circular breathing’ (Fig. 1) to this end. I have a rule called ‘The Five Word Wonder’, which proceeds as follows when someone asks what my PhD is about:
Figure 1: Circular breathing is analogous to drinking from a drinking fountain whilst taking a breath. It is useful for playing the digeridoo, and for discharging the intricacies of your PhD over someone in approximately 42 seconds. Picture: didgeridoostore.com
1) Summarise PhD broadly in five words or less, for example ‘Methane from plankton faeces’
2) Await questions.
3) Answer questions in more detail. It is important to converse in the same language as the recipient.
4) Discuss what interests you both.
I appreciate that sometimes it is tempting when meeting other scientists to show your intellect by using large words in the absence of a badge saying ‘I’ve submitted a paper to Nature’; on the other end of the scale, when confronted with a confident individual actually wearing that badge, it is easy to translate your nerves into words. However, if a thought is not spared for the scientist who probably works in a distinctly different field to you, he/she is more than likely to remember nothing from your brief discourse other than how shiny your teeth were. For fleeting interactions, stick to ‘The Five Word Wonder’.
In general, face-to-face networking that leads somewhere is either kickstarted by one of these chance encounters leading to a mutually beneficial conversation, either personally or academically, or through making a point of meeting individuals in your field whose name you know either directly though their work, or having been tipped off by a mutual acquaintance (this is where networking well with someone outwith your field can really pay off). For me, this is where attending conferences, courses and cruises come into their own, as a relaxed, academic atmosphere to play verbal Pong with your ideas. However, there are distinct differences between the type of interactions you will experience from each, so here is a brief guide of what a junior scientist can expect:
Conferences are a mixed bunch: they can be small and accessible, or they can be mind blowingly huge (think tens of thousands of scientists). They can also be very niche, meaning that you need to make no effort to find people in your field, or very general, so you could spend 90% of your time negotiating nutters who would rather talk about baking copepod cakes (Fig. 2). There are, however, three likely outcomes:
Figure 2: Copepod cakes – science and art finally converge.
1) You will meet your scientific heroes. Those names on key papers you have never put a face to, but have superhuman appearance in your mind’s eye. When you meet them, think a less athletic Batman, wearing fewer offensive weapons and capes – but really smart. And occasionally with a cracking beard. The beauty of science is that the more senior people become, the more approachable and helpful they seem to be. Don’t be scared – they may have been looking forward to meeting you just as much as you them.
2) You will present your work, normally in the form of an oral presentation or a poster. The former activity would be described by most prior to their talk as ‘worse than attempting to use a crocodiles jaw as a nutcracker’, but fifteen minutes later as ‘a scintillating and rewarding experience’. This is an opportunity to show your face to people and give them a taster of your work, not to try and explain everything you know. A decent proportion of the crowd will have seen your subject and specially come to see you, and you can expect folk to remember and approach you later on in the conference with their thoughts and advice. Don’t expect, but be prepared for know-it-alls trying to trip you up at question time – the majority of the audience will empathise with you in that case. The latter form of presentation, showing a poster, is a much more informal affair with no time limit, as such. This lack of pressure, combined with the fact that nearly everyone who sees your poster will have made a point of visiting it can lead to some really free-flowing, unforced exchanges of ideas. Let the images on your poster support any words, which should predominately be coming from your mouth rather than the paper.
Figure 3: An inspirational grin, unless you are a penguin. Photo: thetravelingrichters.com
3) You will have a random intellectual epiphany. Picture the scene, hungover from the conference dinner the previous evening and recovering in a gentle presentation about Leopard Seals. Hang on, did Ms Leopard Seal just say ‘turbulence’? What if I incorporate turbulence into my plankton experiments… Cue an hour of frantic scribbling and the intricate and insightful planning of two experiments; more than you could hope for in a week at home. Thank you Leopard Seals, you cheery chaps (Fig. 3).
All in all, you should leave a conference feeling mixed emotions between ‘not many people in the world actually know as much about my subject as I do’, and ‘the few people who know about my subject know so much more than me it’s rather distressing’. Above all, you will have made contacts, friends and learnt a lot. Isn’t that wonderfully wholesome?
When I’m talking about courses here, I’m really referring to residential training courses that last a couple of weeks, and are frequently held somewhere terrible such as Bermuda. First and foremost, these courses are about learning and practicing techniques. In the UK, PhD students do not receive lectures, and the only formal educational lab sessions they are involved in they normally
blunder through run for undergrads. This is exactly what you get on a course, intensively. Attend everything, and you can return to your institute a barely-recognisable scientific behemoth, an effect that is more liable to persist if you take good notes.
Since you are living and working within a small group, social dynamics are important. You are stuck with these people, and will all rely upon each other at some point. Thus, it is important to be sensitive to individuals within the group’s needs, both academically and personally. You will specialise in some areas that are new to others, and so will all become the ‘teacher’ at some point. Furthermore, international attendees will have cultural differences. Respect the British girl hankering for a cup of tea (woe betide he who points out she is holding a recently-drained mug), and tolerate the Californian man’s compulsion to be topless as soon as the sun comes out.
Figure 4: Worth exceeding your baggage allowance for? From: perpetualkid.com
Despite the intense schedule of challenging work, there will be periods for time off. Unwind and explore the area – not many people can be working 24/7, and I get the impression that the fantastic scientists running the courses look forward to attending as much as you do, so make the most of this. ‘Networking’ opportunities can be memorable as you see the more human side of those around you, and great friends/collaborators made that you will look forward to seeing at future events. Relationships may be cemented over a beach BBQ, or over a Students V Professors game of foosball, the former team attempting to enforce a ‘drink every time you concede’ rule (Fig. 4). Something I would never dream of doing.
Fig. 5: The NERC research vessel, the RRS James Cook, equipped with everything the marine scientist could need. Even a ‘bulbous bow’. Picture: etelive.org
The pièce de résistance, and a marine scientist’s speciality. That’s the thing about the ocean: studying it is a little hard in the absence of gills or a thick layer of blubber. Taking field samples requires a heck of a lot of effort and planning, and so cruises are really important events for research. Never think a scientific cruise is anything like a pleasure cruise: in fact, you would be sensible to book time off for a holiday to recover afterwards.
On your boat (Fig. 5), there is nothing to do but work, work, and eat. With a dash of sleep. It is very rare that the boat’s course will be tailored specifically for your own research, so if it stops an hour into your sleep following an eight hour shift, you get out of bed and deal with it. The end result, after weeks of this, is that you can turn snooker loopy, so here are my top tips for cruise survival:
• Promptly make friends with the chef. He is the single most important person on the boat for your happiness, and the food is normally restaurant standard. A friendly chef will not only sneak you seconds, but also save you portions if you need to sleep through meal times.
• Experimenting with the food available can be fun and rewarding. On a cruise I discovered ice cream and melon are great together: flushed with success, I next learnt that ice cream and blue cheese do not, despite what others may say (I admit I made a ‘deconstructed’ version).
• Speak to the crew. They all have fascinating stories, and may even give you an engine room tour. You’ll feel like a kid in a Concorde’s cockpit.
• Cabin fever is a real thing. Everyone’s personalities intensify when there are only a handful of you stuck together on a confined vessel for six weeks, and the way someone clinks their spoon on their mug whilst making coffee could inexplicably turn you into a seething pool of rage. If you have the misfortune to notice at the start that you have landed on a cruise with a genuinely abrasive individual, just avoid them in as professional a manner as possible, because they’re only going to get worse. In general, however, people are great company, interesting, helpful and the atmosphere is positively jovial.
• Expect to adopt a pet. Most cruises will have an exhausted, lost bird land upon them. It’s good for your mental wellbeing to give it shelter and food to nurse it back to health and let it leave in its own time. It’s bad for your mental wellbeing to give it a name like ‘Calanus’, and throw it overboard after a hug, yelling ‘fly pretty Calanus, fly’ – only for it to plop into the Atlantic.
• Landsickness. Take a bearing and oscillate down your lab corridor back on dry land for a week or so. The end result is that you may eventually end up where you intended, or your colleagues learn very quickly and painfully to give you a wide berth.
• Above all, cruises are a special opportunity to see how other scientists undertake their research. Watch them, offer to help, and you will not only learn new or more efficient techniques, but you may eventually be shown the mystical ways of the Duct Tape/Cable Tie Elite…