The thesis outline – so much more than just a chapter list

It’s about time for another blog post. I’ve not been able to do much PhD work lately due to a range of on-going computer problems plus a lot of time spent teaching and marking. The computer issues have limited my ability to do the more technical aspects of my PhD work, so I’ve been doing as much as I can of the less technical work. This has included writing a new thesis outline.

A thesis outline is a funny thing – it all seems a bit unnecessary at first. I mean it should be pretty clear what sections your thesis will have. Shouldn’t the outline be obvious? So you might think but I can assure you that this is not the case. Just like you were told at school: always plan your answer before you write anything. The thesis can almost be thought of as a really long essay and, as such, it should be properly planned before any writing takes place. I suspect failure to do this can cause a lot of trouble later on when it transpires that major restructuring is required!

I wanted to avoid getting caught in this trap so I have had a thesis plan on the back burner almost since the word go. I initially wrote my first thesis outline as part of preparing my research timetable. Things have massively changed since those heady days as a first year PhD student and my current thesis outline bears little resemblance to the original. But comparing the two is a quick way of summarising the way that my project has developed and evolved, which is kind of nice in itself.

Producing thesis outlines at various points in my PhD has also helped me to keep on-track and to work out what I should be focusing my efforts on. This was true even before I started doing any writing but is particularly true now I am getting words down on paper. At this late stage I have worked up the thesis outline into a contents page format, whereas before it was more of a list of chapters. Now it includes a better idea of the subsections within each chapter as I start to define exactly what work will go where. At the same time I’m trying to work out a figure list, which is proving really helpful in guiding my final data analysis. By knowing what figures are required to make my key points, I am able to be more focused with my data processing and generate only the results I need, without too much surplus.

This is why I think thesis outlines are so vital – at every stage they save you time by keeping you tightly focused and on track. Any PhD will include a bit of speculative work but the issues come when too much of what you’re doing is pursuing tangents, some of which will inevitably be red herrings. That’s the sort of thing that will prevent you finishing on time and this is where a thesis outline can be very helpful, whether you’re in first year, second year, third year, and especially beyond!

Teaching and the PhD student

I do quite a lot of teaching to supplement the income from my PhD Scholarship. Teaching for a bit of extra cash is fairly normal amongst PhD students – you may well be doing a bit of this yourself or be interested in taking on some teaching. But what kinds of teaching can PhD students get involved in and what are the pros and cons of different teaching positions?

There will obviously be some variability between institutions regarding the teaching positions open to PhD students and the relative pay grades of different types of teaching. At Sheffield PhD students can, in theory, teach pretty much anything but the positions open to us varies by department. For example in the Geography Department, PhD students like me tend to teach a lot of lab sessions and fieldwork alongside a few tutorials/ seminars, for which we are paid a slightly higher rate. We also do a fair bit of marking of first year courses but we tend not to give any lectures. However, PhD friends of mine in other departments do give lectures and may even mark second year courses.

If you are thinking of taking on some teaching work then it’s definitely worth finding out what training your university will provide for you. Sheffield has a full course of training available where you get certificates of competence in each type of teaching. Other universities provide similar instruction but you can also find a lot of guidance online.

Teaching in the lab

Like many types of university teaching, lab demonstrating can be very straight forward or horribly difficult depending on how well prepared the course organiser has been. A good course organiser will supply you with copies of the hand-outs ahead of time and may even arrange a session for you to have a go at the methods you will be demonstrating. They will be present during the lab itself, possibly along with some lab technicians, and your job will mainly be to provide an extra pair of eyes and ears to answer student questions. If you can get this kind of lab teaching then definitely go for it – it’s a fun and relatively easy introduction to teaching.

In some cases you may be left in charge of the lab practical, possibly along with another PhD student or a lab technician. This is quite a lot more difficult and may require you to give introductory and summary talks at the start and end of the lab. Make sure you find out if the course organiser will be present and what you need to do before agreeing to teach the session.

In my department we run both physical lab sessions and computer practicals. PhD students are often left in sole charge of computer practicals, without help from the course organiser or any technicians. If you will be teaching a computer practical then it is definitely worth quickly working through the tasks yourself, to find out where issues are likely to arise and what the solutions are. Bear in mind that the literature for the session may have been written some time ago and may be confusing or unclear!

Teaching in the field

Fieldwork is my favourite kind of teaching. It’s a lot like teaching labs but you will definitely be part of a team of staff and won’t ever be left to run a session on your own. Health and safety rules tend to insist on a particular staff to student ratio in the field – I think it’s something like 1:6 in my department. This means it is often very easy money because you are unlikely to have to do much actual teaching. Your role is more likely to be primarily crowd-control and answering a few questions.

One thing I can’t stress enough about teaching in the field is that you MUST have the right kit. As well as keeping yourself warm, dry and safe, you need to set an example to the students of proper fieldwork kit. This is particularly true for teaching first year undergraduates, who may not be familiar with fieldwork and are often poorly equiped. I especially recommend bringing a good-sized rucksack because you may be given safety equipment to carry, like a first aid kit.

Running tutorials and seminars

When you are leading a tutorial or seminar you are likely to be the sole staff member present. This present some challenges but also tends to mean that you are paid at a slightly higher grade. This can make tutorials a very lucrative type of teaching position, particularly as they are often only 1-2 hours per week compared to half-days or even full-days for lab and fieldwork teaching.

However, tutorials can require a surprisingly large amount of preparation time. These might be reading the required literature, marking essays, or even writing session plans. Ask the course organiser to supply you with tutorial outlines and reading lists well in advance, to help with your preparation. Before signing up to teach a course of tutorials, make sure to find out if you will be paid for preparation and at what rate. I wouldn’t recommend agreeing to teach tutorials without being paid for prep!


Marking can be a great way to make money over the summer period when fewer teaching positions are available. However, marking can be paid at ridiculously low rates. So be very careful to crunch the numbers and be sure that the pay will be worth your time.

This is particular important for marking large numbers of essays or exams. In my experience, university departments are quite bad at giving you a reasonable time to do your marking. It is not unhard of for 120 exam scripts may land on your desk on Friday afternoon with instructions to complete them by the following Friday. This amount of work could easily take you 20+ hours. So either you are working a long weekend plus some evenings, or you are not getting much PhD work done next week. If you sign up for a lot of marking you should be prepared for this to happen. Be especially cautious of agreeing to mark multiple courses that have exams or essay deadlines around the same time. The marking could easily take over your life for a few weeks!

When you do decide to do some marking, I recommend starting with a relatively small course to get some practice. This will help you learn to mark at a much faster rate when confronted with a massive pile of scripts! Also make sure to familiarise yourself with the mark scheme and any other important documentation, like guidelines for spotting plagiarism. You may be asked to use digital marking software, like Turnitin. These programmes take time to learn – make sure to factor this into your cost-benefit analysis of any marking position offered to you.

You may have noticed that I’ve not discussed lecturing. This is because I have not had to give any lectures yet and so can’t really comment on this particular type of teaching. Let me know in the comments if you have any lecturing tips.

Happy teaching!

Using Skype for outreach

As part of International Polar Week, Digital Explorer have been running an event called ‘Arctic Live 2016’ that is based around Skype lessons between schools around the world and polar scientists. I heard about this event through the UK Polar Network (a branch of APECS) and decided to get involved and have my first attempt at outreach via Skype.

I was paired up with two classes – some 11 year olds in Argentina and some 14 year olds in Croatia. Both wanted me to talk about the practicalities of polar research and the potential paths into jobs in the Polar Regions.

The preparation for these sessions caused me a little trouble – how do you prepare to teach a lesson over Skype? I consulted Google and did a bit of tech testing to find out what media would work well over Skype. Before too long I had worked out a couple of lesson plans and felt fairly confident that my equipment would work properly.

The lessons themselves went very well and I really enjoyed the opportunity to do a bit of outreach to non-British students. It was also interesting to use the new format of Skype to carry out the lessons. I learnt a lot from this experience and have a few tips for getting the most out of digital outreach, particularly via Skype.

Top tips for science outreach via Skype:

  1. Make sure you equipment works. Test your video and audio using the Skype test call service and ensure your internet connection is as good as possible.
  2. Set up your webcam. Mine is built in to my laptop and getting a good angle (i.e. not looking up my nose) required me to sit the computer on top of a pile of books. I also had a little rearrange of my office to get a clearer background and make me easier to see.
  3. Test your media by Skyping a friend. This allowed me to practice using Skype’s ‘share screen’ function. I also discovered that sharing YouTube videos via ‘share screen’ only shares the video, not the sound. This could have been a right pain if I’d only found it out during a lesson!
  4. Talk slowly. This is always true when presenting but particularly true when there might be a bit of a lag time and some feedback. It’s really worth investing in a headset with a microphone to make your speech clearer. Also be aware that you may need to talk even slower when addressing non-native English speakers.
  5. Send copies of PowerPoints and other files to the teacher ahead of time. Then if there are connection problems or other technical issues, you can revert to a basic audio call and get them to put the media up on screen locally.

Hope these tips are helpful. Let me know if you’ve had any experiences with Skype outreach. Do you have any tricks of your own to get the most out of this technology?

Thanks to María Laura Bargas (teacher of the class in Argentina) and Gordana Novak (teacher of the class in Croatia) for the use of their photos.

Fieldwork kit – what do you really need?

This week we’ve been taking the physical geography undergraduates out into the Peak District for their first taste of degree-level fieldwork. Often this is a bit of a comedy affair as many of the students either don’t yet own suitable kit or have forgotten to bring outdoor clothing to uni with them (I guess they prioritise outfits for clubbing!). This usually leads to a lot of cold, wet and uncomfortable-looking students. So I thought I’d do a quick kit list for any intrepid new geographers/ other field scientists considering their first forays into the great outdoors.

Why does good kit matter?

Good outdoor kit will really help you to enjoy your fieldwork, which will in turn mean you tend to collect more and better data because you’re not cutting corners to get back inside ASAP! Having the right equipment and clothing is also essential from a safety perspective and is something that you should consider as part of your fieldwork risk assessment.

In brief, your fieldwork kit needs to:

1.    Keep you comfortable. This could mean keeping you warm and dry or cool and sweat-free. Often you’ll need a combination of cooler and warmer clothing to cope with changeable weather and different activities (e.g. hiking in might be sweaty but standing still taking measurements could be cold). This is where having multiple layers is great because you can make adjustments.

2.    Protect you from the environment. I’m thinking adequate shoes to protect your feet, perhaps long sleeves to keep the sun off and maybe even specialist kit to keep you safe (e.g. crampons and ice axes for glacier travel).

3.    Allow you to carry what you need. This one is straight-forward: you need a decent bag for your scientific equipment and any samples you collect.

What is the right kit for fieldwork?

This really depends on where in the world you are carrying out your fieldwork and what it is that you’ll be doing. But I’d say the following items are essential for pretty much any fieldwork:

•    Strong, comfy and grippy shoes. Be they hiking trainers, leather boots, wellies or full-blown mountain boots. You need the right footwear because you will be on your feet a lot and poor shoe choices are the primary reason for unpleasant days in the field. Always break-in a new pair of boots BEFORE taking them into the field and make sure to wear suitable socks. Also be sure to bring some blister plasters, just in case.

•    A robust rucksack with a waist strap. Rucksacks really are the thing for fieldwork because they leave your hands free and allow you to carry fairly heavy weights comfortably. It is worth taking time to find a good one if you’re planning to do a lot of fieldwork – a comfortable fit will be really beneficial when you are wearing it for multiple days.

•    Food and drink. You will need this, fieldwork makes you hungry. Even if I’m just out for a couple of hours I’ll still take a bottle of water and a couple of cereal bars.

•    A basic first aid kit. Some pain killers, a few plasters, blister plasters, wet wipes and tissues are worthwhile and weigh very little. Tissues also double for dealing with runny noses (when it’s cold) and can be used as toilet paper. They are definitely essential!

•    Trousers that aren’t jeans. When it’s hot jeans are sweaty, when it’s cold they don’t provide much insulation and when it’s wet they get really heavy. Just don’t wear jeans – get some hiking trousers/ thick leggings/ shorts etc. It’s useful to have a lot of pockets and these should be considered when buying fieldwork trousers.

•    Notebook and pencils. You can’t write with pen on wet paper but a pencil will still work. Remember that you may only get one chance to visit your field site – so write everything down!

Apart from the above you will also need appropriate clothing, depending on the weather and the activities that you are doing. Have a think about what you may need, research the location online and ask people who have previously worked in that environment for advice.  Hopefully this has helped you to get yourself ready for fieldwork. Enjoy your time in the field!

Writing a lit review without going insane

As I’ve said before, I’ve recently been writing my literature review. This has turned into a fairly weighty 12,000 word document. So I thought it might be helpful if I shared some tips and tricks that have allowed me to write this fairly painlessly.

Now I’m not professing to be any sort of writing expert, I’ve just done quite a bit of it now and I have worked out a strategy that works for me. Some of this stuff may work for you too – but I can’t make any guarantees! For more tips about academic writing, I suggest you have a look at the many blog posts on this topic. I particularly like ‘How to write 1,000 words a day (and not go bat shit crazy)’ by the Thesis Whisperer. A quick Google search will return more blog posts and articles on academic writing then you can possibly ever read, so have a quick look and skim a few of the most promising.

This brings me to my first point – whatever you do you need to make a note of what works and doesn’t work for you personally. Then you need to stick with what works. It’s very easy to get excited by new methods that promise to have you writing like a demon, but if you don’t eventually pick one method and stick with it then you’ll end up wasting more time then you’re saving.

Getting started

Often the biggest barrier to a productive writing session is getting yourself into the right frame of mind from the start. The hardest part for me is avoiding drifting off into email/ Facebook/ Twitter procrastination. This requires a surprisingly large amount of will power and can be nigh impossible when you’re tired, or stressed or when you just really don’t feel like writing today.

This initial procrastination hurdle is something that you really need a strategy for dealing with. For myself, I’ve found that pomodoros are often effective at getting me going. If I sit down and immediately set a timer for 25 mins then I find this removes the temptation to procrastinate and helps me settle into a productive frame of mind. Sometimes, if I’m in an easily distracted mood, I’ll carry on with pomodoros but often I’ll ditch them after the first one or two because I’ll have got into my groove and will no longer need enforced periods of concentration.

Other strategies that I can recommend include setting up a nice working environment and preparing yourself a little pre-writing routine. For example, I like to write in my office at home because it’s quieter and less distracting than being in the busy postgrad room at uni. Before I start writing I’ll get my laptop and desk all set up ready, make myself a nice cup of tea and put on some suitable music. I find that I generally need calm and fairly uninteresting background music but when I have a deadline and the shit is hitting the fan, then I’ll amp it up with some melodramatic classical stuff or some heavy drum & bass. Lends me a sense of urgency! Try out different writing environments; try using music and find out what combination of food and drink will best set you up for a writing session.


Once you’ve worked out your optimum writing environment and have found a method to get you started then you need to think about keeping up the pace. The main thing to remember is that you can’t concentrate forever – you must take breaks. I work best in the morning, so I’ll often do a solid 3 hour writing session and then spend an hour or so responding to emails etc. That brings me up to lunchtime, when I’ll have a good long break. This could even include going for a run or hitting the gym for a pilates class or a go on the bouldering wall. I just need to do something that takes my brain out of ‘academic mode’. Then I can return to my desk feeling refreshed and able to do a thorough proof-reading and edit of the text I wrote in the morning. I can round off the day by working on something less strenuous, like preparing figures. Using this timetable, I find I can write a good 3,000 words a day when I’m on form.

It’s also important to keep a balance when you’re in the writing stages. By this I mean that you need to keep sleeping, exercising, socialising and doing all the other stuff you do normally. Although doing more hours seems like the obvious way to write faster, you will generally find that you’re actually getting less done in more time and are probably procrastinating more. This will turn you into a friendless, unhealthy and guilt-ridden thesis zombie. Don’t do this to yourself.

Cranking up the word count

When I was in Svalbard I spent some time writing up a field report whilst living in shared accommodation with a mix of other PhDs and Masters students. The Masters students were amazed at the writing speed I and the other PhDs could sustain. They just didn’t understand how we could churn out several thousand words a day and still be turning up for meals and going out to the pub in the evening.

The trick to pulling off high daily word counts is partly to get going quickly and to take regular breaks, but it is also important to write quickly. There are two things you need to do to write quickly:

  1. Know what you are going to say.
  2. Just say it and worry about how you’re saying it later.

The first point simply requires good planning. Always plan your writing and make sure you’ve done the reading/data analysis etc. before you start. I like to set out all my headings and subheadings with a few bullet points under each that summarise what this section is going to be about and what the key points and examples are. When I come to write it, all I have to do is to expand on the bullet points. Easy!

Achieving point number 2 is a bit trickier. We all want to write well but trust me when I say that it’s best just to write something and that you don’t need to write it perfectly first time. That’s why it’s important to go back and do a bit of editing later in the day. The first writing session is just about getting words on paper and emptying your head of all your thoughts on the topic. Worry about getting the thoughts in order and making sure they’re well-articulated later. You don’t need to do that straight away. I don’t even reference initially, I just put (REF) in brackets where I know I’m going to need a reference and then come along later and insert the citations. This avoids me breaking my chain of thought to go and hunt down that paper that I know said something about my topic but I can’t quite remember who the author was. Just write now & tart it up later.

So this is how I got through my lit review without having a nervous breakdown. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep applying these methods to my full thesis and I hope they will help you too. Let me know if you have any other useful writing techniques! Remember that writing begets more writing. Even writing a blog post like this is good practice and it all helps you to type faster and write more fluently.

Reference manager 101: why you need one in your life

I’ve recently started teaching workshops for a first year undergraduate course that aims to teach the students how to construct an academic essay. This term we’re focusing on literature searching, reading, and writing a lit review. Coincidentally, I am also writing my own lit review chapter at the moment. So I felt that this was an appropriate time to write a short post on reference managers and how to keep you reference library in order.

Plenty has already been said about the usefulness of research managers and I encourage you to have a little Google around the subject. To save you some time, here are a few articles & blog posts that I have found useful:

These are just a few of the many articles that will help you find out about what reference managers are and why you should be using them. In short – reference managers will save you time.

This is particularly true for PhD students, who will end up with large reference libraries to keep on top of. But, as I told the first years last week, anyone doing academic research that involves reading papers will benefit from using a reference manager. You’d be amazed how many times during my undergrad that I accidentally re-read articles I had already read. A few months or a couple of years go by and you simply forget what you have and have not read. When you consider that it might take you a couple of hours to read an interesting paper (especially at undergrad when you have yet to crack skim-reading), this can add up to a whole heap of wasted time. Think of all the other things you could be doing – reading additional papers, getting on with writing, sleeping, or even fulfilling the undergraduate stereotype and hanging out in the pub.

So how do reference managers save you time? Well as I’ve said, they stop you re-reading stuff unnecessarily. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Good reference managers allow you to tag papers with key words and let you sort by author/ year/ publication etc, which all massively speeds up the literature-organising and writing stages. Using a reference manager will also improve the efficiency of your literature searching (FYI – this always takes far longer than you think it will) by stopping you downloading papers you already have and by helping you to connect papers and follow the citation ‘breadcrumb trail’.

Finally, the real deal-clincher for me is the assistance that a reference manager gives you for putting citations into the text and for adding your bibliography at the end. These steps are surprisingly time-consuming and the bibliography in particular can be a real headache. Just when you think you’re done, the word count is reached, the text is proof-read, you’re ready to submit – and then you remember that you haven’t done the bibliography. At this point in the past I have just had to resign myself to a good hour of typing out and formatting citations by hand when all I want is to be done with the damn thing and free. Nightmare. But not so with a reference manager; all I need to do is click ‘add bibliography’ and voila, a complete and properly formatted reference list magically appears at the end of my paper. As those well-known (in the UK at least) meerkats have it: ‘Simples’.

Now I’m not going to harp on about the reference manager I like or dictate to you which one you should choose. This is a matter of personal choice and I suggest that you have a look at a few, maybe download a couple to try out, and then choose the one that works best for you. All I’ll say is that it’s a good idea to pick one and stick with it because changing part way through a PhD/ Masters/ undergrad will be a hassle. To help you get started, here are four of the most widely used reference managers:

  1. Endnote
  2. Mendeley
  3. Qiqqa (this is what I use but again this is matter of personal choice)
  4. Zotero

For a full list you can check out the reference manager comparison table on Wikipedia. Happy literature organising!