Pomodoros: What’s all the fuss about?

Recently I’ve been coming across a lot of discussion about a technique called ‘pomodoros’, which can be used to help you focus and to reduce procrastination. The idea is to set a timer for 25 minutes and work solidly until it goes off. Ideally you should use a kitchen timer because it gives you a nice reassuring ticking – the name ‘pomodoro’ is even taken from the Spanish word for tomato in reference to the common egg-timer shape.

Once your timer has beeped then you set it again for 5 minutes, during which you can do whatever you like. This break time is your opportunity for condensed procrastination and a short mental holiday. The idea is that knowing you have a break coming up is sufficient to keep you focusing on your work for an intense 25 minute period. The break then gives you a chance to refresh before the next work period. A work period and a break together form one pomodoro, lasting half an hour in total. After four pomodoros (i.e. 2 hours), you get a longer break of 15-20 minutes.

So much for the theory, does it work in practice? Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been giving pomodoros a bit of a go and I have some findings to report back.

A real benefit of pomodoros is their simplicity – once I’d got a timer sorted there really wasn’t anything else to do before I could get started. I don’t have a tomato shaped egg-timer, but I just used the clock app on my smart phone. You don’t get the nice ticking but otherwise it works just as well and you can save your timer programs, so I can start a new pomodoro with just single tap on the screen. What could be easier!

But do they actually work? Did I procrastinate less? Did I get more done?

To test these questions semi-scientifically, I opted to use the pomodoros for my weekly writing day. At the moment I’m writing my literature review and progress has been pretty slow. Every four or five weeks I’ll have a blinding session where I get a good 1000 words down in one day. But the majority of the time I’ll be lucky to do 500 words in a whole day and this is largely due to difficulties holding my focus and resisting procrastination. Knowing my usual writing day work rate, I decided to try pomodoros for two weekly writing days and see if there was any improvement.

Well the results were pretty spectacular – on both pomodoro days I wrote more than 1800 words. That’s over three times my normal 500 words and nearly double my previous ‘good day’ level. You do need to have your writing well planned but if you essentially know what to write then the pomodoros really help to actually get words on the page. I was very surprised at how easy it was to do and I felt like I was putting much less effort into concentrating. Knowing I had a break coming definitely helped me focus and the 25 minute work period seemed about right. Any longer and I think I would start to get distracted!

I’m now experimenting with using pomodoros for other tasks. I find they work well for data entry, statistics, making graphs or figures, skim proof-reading etc . So anything that needs a reasonable amount of thought and focus but isn’t too high-intensity or heavily cogitative. They don’t seem to suit more detailed proof-reading/ editing and anything involving deep thinking, like data interpretation or planning difficult pieces of writing, like discussions. I don’t feel like the 25 minute periods are long enough for these tasks and I find that the breaks can disrupt my chain of thought.

Overall, I’d recommend pomodoros as an easy and surprisingly effective method to improve your productivity for the donkey work of academia. Anything you can do whilst listening along to the radio is something that pomodoros can help with. For something that requires more concentration or greater metal agility and you might be better looking at other techniques. Give them a go on your next writing day – you may surprise yourself with the amount of work you get done!


p.s. the featured image for this post is from Wikipeadia Commons.

Expect the unexpected, or why you should share those bad graphs

This week I’ve had a timely reminder that things don’t always go to plan, especially when you’re doing a PhD.

About this time last year I did a pilot study to see if a particular topographic variable changed systematically along the length of a mountain glacier. The results of this pilot study looked promising and gave me a really nice looking trend.

Not a bad looking trend, enough to merit further investigation!


This was all great and was instrumental in allowing me to breeze through my MPhil to PhD upgrade process.

So now I was a ‘proper’ PhD student and I needed to start working on a much larger sample of glaciers to further investigate my nice trend and see if it held true. I had collected the pilot data entirely by hand, which a very laborious process that took several days to get the measurements for a single glacier. Clearly this was taking far too long for me to be able to scale-up the data set to a statistically significant number of glaciers. I needed a faster data collection method. My supervisor suggested that I automate the process so that I could collect the data much faster and using a more standardised method. This sounded like a pretty good idea and I got to work right away.

Turns out automating a process is a hell of a lot easier said than done. I won’t go into the details here but suffice to say that after many months of trial and error, I finally hit on a method that appeared to work. But as in all real-life situations there is a catch – my automated method is not outputting data with the nice trend that I’d found in the pilot study.

Uh oh. This doesn’t look very nice and that extected trend is a pretty poor fit for the data.


I’ve tried everything to refine the method and get data to behave (short of manipulating it I hasten to add!). It’s just not working. This has been very disheartening and I’ve often wanted to simple abandon researching this variable, put all the notes away, and never speak of it again.

Thankfully my supervisor hasn’t let me do this. At every meeting he suggests more tests for me to do and urges me not to abandon the project and potentially throw a baby out with the bathwater. It’s still too early to know if he’s right but our meeting this week did give me a bit of hope that this automated method might just work out after all. The reason for this? He spotted something in the data that I’d completely overlooked.

Hold on, if we remove the expected trend that 'bad' graph does actually look pretty interesting...

Hold on, if we remove the expected trend that ‘bad’ graph does actually start to look pretty interesting…


I had got completely blinkered by the trend I’d found in my pilot study data, to the point where I couldn’t see the wood for the trees and had missed another trend that was staring me in the face. Now I don’t know if this new trend is reliable or if it’s going to solve my automated method woes. But just having overlooked something this obvious has reinvigorated me to review all the data that I’d written off because it didn’t match the trend I was expecting. In short: I’ve learnt to expect the unexpected.

So the purpose of this post is a reminder to you researchers to keep an open mind, don’t be put off if the data isn’t coming out looking just as you want it, and , most of all, always show your ‘bad’ data to other people. When you work on something for as long as I’ve been working on my automated method you can very easily become blind to something that a fresh set of eyes will see immediately. So chin up and take that horrible-looking graph along to your next research group/ supervisor meeting. Maybe someone will see the interesting shapes in your data clouds?


p.s. the nice trees in the title image of this post are Redwoods in Whakarewarewa Forest, near Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island. Worth a visit if you’re in the area, plenty of good walking and mountain biking to be had in that forest.

A day in the life of a 2nd year PhD student

I was trying to think of an interesting blog post that might be useful for people considering doing a PhD, and I had the idea of doing a sort of insight into what I actually do on a daily basis. This would have been really useful to me when I was trying to decide what to do with myself as a newly minted graduate considering doing a research degree. Particularly because it is quite tricky to explain what PhD students actual are and what they do, you really don’t find out until you become one. And by that time it’s a bit too late!

I think the mystery shrouding the PhD process may be one of the reasons that there is such a high drop-out rate for first year PhD students – people begin a PhD but rapidly realise that it’s not what they were anticipating and come to the conclusion that the PhD lifestyle is not for them. Maybe this post will help to prevent a few people falling into this common trap.

You know when you’re at a party or other ‘small-talk’ kind of social occasion and people always ask what you do for a living? Well when you say you’re a PhD student this is almost always followed up by either a blank expression or the question “so what does that entail?”. This is actually quite tricky to answer because a PhD is like a job, but it’s not a ‘proper’ job and you are still classed as a ‘student’, but you also have to teach and are included in staff-only departmental emails. Confused? I am. Anyway, here is a quick run-down of a typical day in my life so you can draw your own conclusions about what a PhD entails and stop asking me about it at parties!

  •  7.30am                              Get up!

I usually haul myself out of bed between 7.30 and 8am, depending on if I’m working at home or if I need to walk into ‘the office’ in the Geography building.

  • 9am-10am                       Emails/ Twitter/ general timewasting

There are always loads of emails to be sifted through. Then I should really check my academic twitter account and maybe have a look at those journal alerts, oh and I need to read through the prep for this tutorial and the afternoon’s labs… You get the picture.

  • 10am-11am

Tutorial Teaching a 2nd year undergraduate tutorial, probably in a different building that I will have to sprint to because I’m almost certainly running late!

  • 11am-12pm                      Writing/ meetings

I try to squeeze in some writing time in the mornings because I find that’s when I concentrate better. But unfortunately this is also the prime time for having meetings with my research group, supervisors or other academics.

  • 12pm-1pm                        Lunch!

It’s very important to give yourself a good lunch break. I’ll either have a chat with the other physical geography PhDs or, if I’m at home, I’ll have a read of my book or a magazine.

  • 1pm-3pm                          Labs

Lab demonstrating for another group of undergrads. This can be anything from demoing and supervising actual laboratory experiments, through to assisting with computer-based ice sheet modelling practicals, or answering questions during a pen & paper research exercise.

  • 3pm-6pm                          Research

Finally some time to work on my own research! At the moment this involves working in ArcMap GIS to make measurements of modern glaciers from satellite images, before doing a whole load of maths-y data processing in Excel.

  • Evening (after 6pm)        Dinner/ sports/ tutoring/ pub/ more PhD work

My evenings are a real mixed bag. Three or four days a week I’ll be hurrying home to eat dinner and go out to either a sports session (Muay Thai or rock climbing usually), or to my other job as a geography A-Level private tutor. Otherwise I might be going round a friend’s, catching up with someone via Skype, heading down the pub or just staying in and watching tele. A couple of nights a week I’ll usually try and squeeze in an hour or two of reading journal articles, proof-reading my own writing or maybe even writing this blog.

Hopefully this has given you an interesting insight into what PhD students actually do all day. Mostly it seems to be a juggling act between getting in c. 40hrs of PhD work  per week (or more when deadlines loom!), fulfilling our teaching obligations and trying to fit in hobbies and a social life. It really is like a full-time job, so please stop telling us ‘but surely you’re a student, you must have loads of free time?’. We really don’t!

If you’re applying for a Phd and you think you’ll have tonnes of free time then I’m afraid that you’re wrong! I’d suggest you do some research on sites like the Thesis Whisperer, Research Whisperer and PhD2Published. These will give you more of an idea of what doing a PhD is like and can point you in the direction of more information.

p.s. You may be wondering about the relevance of this post’s title image. Quite simply, tea gets me through my days as a PhD student. And there’s nothing wrong with receiving important life messages from the slogans on your tea mugs.


Alps trip Part 2: Glacier safety drills

Aside from hiking up to various glaciers looking for possible field sites, I was also in the French Alps to refresh my glacier safety skills. So my Dad and I spent two days out with our mountain guide friend Simon Abrahams (check out his twitter account) to brush up our safety drills.

There are two key safety issues for working on glaciers: cold or exposure injuries like hypothermia or frostbite; and falling into crevasses. Cold injuries are best dealt with via preventative measures, like proper layering to keep warm and ensuring that you drink enough. I already know a fair bit about this from my previous Antarctic fieldwork, so we were focusing our training on preventing crevasse falls and on crevasse rescue techniques.

Crevasses are cracks in the surface of the ice that can be several metres wide and many metres deep. At the end of the melt season, when there is little to no snow, crevasses are obvious and easy to avoid but during the rest of the year they can be covered by snow bridges. This makes them hard to spot and very dangerous because snow bridges that are thin or weakened, e.g. by warm weather, may collapse under a person’s weight. Baring in mind that glaciers are often in remote areas many hours from any help, it’s therefore important for everyone working in these environments to know how to get themselves or a friend out of a crevasse.

We didn’t fancy practicing our rescue drills in an actual crevasse (too dangerous!), so we nipped up the Aiguille du Midi cable car to find a suitable edge to stand-in as a crevasse lip. In this case we found a wind scoop, formed by snow blown around the base of a cliff, which did nicely. Our practice involved throwing a rucksack tied to a rope (simulating our unfortunate friend) over the lip of the wind scoop and taking it in turns, under Simon’s guidance, to set up a snow anchor and pulley system to haul the bag back up. The idea was to simulate the worst-case situation of rescuing a team member who has fallen into a crevasse and is unconscious or otherwise badly injured and unable to get out on their own. This situation is why you usually work on ice in teams of at least three people, because setting up the kit and hauling someone out of a crevasse on your own is very hard work. This is especially true in the cold and at altitude or if you weigh less than them, as will almost always be the case for me.

The wind scoop we’d chosen to practice on was at the bottom of the Col du Midi, below the Cosmiques hut. Getting there was a little hairy – you have to walk along a narrow ridge to descend from the Aiguille du Midi and at this time of year it is icy and easy to slip off. I was glad to be wearing my new & extremely sharp crampons!


Once off the ridge, we reviewed best practice for glacier travel in crevassed areas and set off for the wind scoop. After a bite to eat (yummy quiches, why are French bakeries so much better? No offence Greggs), Simon ran us through the techniques for hauling an unconscious person out of a crevasse. Having learnt these previously from my Dad, it was very useful to have them reviewed by a professional mountain guide and to be introduced to some modern kit that I’d not come across before. I had definitely picked up some bad habits and out of date techniques. I do need a bit more practice though – so I’ll be bullying some rock climbing friends into letting me hang them over the edge of a crag in the Peak District in order for me to ‘rescue’ them repeatedly!


The next day was a bit wet and windy so we didn’t brave the heights and confined ourselves to the Chamonix valley floor. I wasn’t too sorry as I’d developed a horrible altitude headache on the ascent back up the Aiguille du Midi ridge the previous evening and didn’t fancy getting another one. A clear demonstration of the woes of going straight up to an altitude of 3,800m without proper acclimatisation.

A quick trip out to a local crag to practice jumarring and assisted crevasse rescue was the order of the day. Jumarring is a self-rescue technique using a mechanical ascender in order to climb up the rope and get yourself out of a crevasse. It requires a bit of coordination to get right and does involve a lot of sitting in your harness with one leg up at an awkward angle. I’m sure we entertained the local mountain police, who were also out practicing their own rescue skills, as we swung around halfway up the cliff trying to jumar up the rope and keep balanced at the same time.


I’d like to say a big thank you to Simon for going over all these techniques with us and to him, Dee and the girls for having us to stay!


p.s. If you want to know more about crevasse rescue and glacier safety, I will try and post something more comprehensive at a later date. Otherwise I’d recommend looking for instructional videos on websites like UK Climbing and YouTube (search for ‘crevasse rescue’, ‘ascending a rope’, ‘glacier travel’ etc.). But before venturing out to anywhere icy I thoroughly recommend getting proper instruction from a recognised mountain guide or attending a suitable course. Some useful sites with info on courses for UK based readers are the British Mountaineering Council, British Mountain Guides and Mountain Training.


Here are a small selection of other photos from my Alps trip. Enjoy!

Alps trip Part 1: Field site reccy

Once again I’ve had a bit of a gap between blog posts and once again this is because I’ve been very busy. This time my excuses are buying a house (a worryingly adult thing to do!) and a short trip to the Alps, which is the main subject of this post.

My Dad and I drove out to Chamonix in the French Alps where we stayed with Simon Abrahams, a mountain guide friend of Dad’s (check out his twitter for lots of nice pics of mountains). Both Dad and I were rusty on our glacier safety and crevasse rescue techniques so this was a grand opportunity to have Simon run through these drills with us. I also needed to road-test some new crampons that were replacing Dad’s old 1970s spikes that I’d been using previously. The impossibly difficult bindings of these retro crampons were often the source of a lot of colourful language at the end of a long day on the ice! I am not sorry to be shot of them.

After our tiring drive (sleeping in the car is always a bad idea), we decided to break ourselves in with a bit of a hike. I wanted to check out the Mer de Glace as a potential field site, so we decided to traverse across to the glacier from the mid station of the Aiguille du Midi cable car (Plan de l’Aiguille at 2,317 m above sea level), before descending back to Chamonix. The walk took around 6 hours, giving us a bit of acclimatisation time at a reasonable altitude.


I was impressed by how much the Mer de Glace has retreated and down-wasted over the last 150 years. The sign in the photo below indicates the level of the glacier surface in 1820 and you can see how much lower the ice is now. My Dad could see a huge change from the last time he visited in the 1980s and I could even see a reduction in the glacier’s size since I was last there in 2009. Evidence of climate warming in action!


This dramatic shrinkage is shocking but exactly what I’m looking for in terms of my own work – I need accessible glaciers with significant recent retreat. Clearly the Mer de Glace has the retreat box ticked and it even has a train service right up to the ice, bingo for accessibility! Even better, we have numerous paintings, sketches and photos (like the ones below) showing the extent of the glacier at its most recent advance, during the cooler period of the Little Ice Age at around AD 1800.

This Figure is taken from Zumbuhl et al. (2008, Global and Planetary Change pp.42-57).  Part (a) shows the snout of the Mer de glace painted by Samual Birmann in 1823. (b) shows the same view photographed by S.U. Nussbaumer in 2005 and a zoomed in view of the snout position, with the snout marked by the white arrow.

This Figure is taken from Zumbuhl et al. (2008, Global and Planetary Change pp.42-57).
Part (a) shows the snout of the Mer de glace painted by Samual Birmann in 1823. (b) shows the same view photographed by S.U. Nussbaumer in 2005 with a zoomed in view of the snout (marked in the main image by a white arrow).


On other hikes, I also had a look at the Glace des Bossons and the Glacier d’Argentiere as possible field sites. However both of these glaciers have retreated so much and so quickly that they have exposed polished bedrock and scree slopes around their snouts, which would be too unsafe to work on. When we were up near the Glacier d’Argentiere we witnessed 3-4 ice falls on the glacier snout over the course of around 20mins. I’d certainly not be keen to be getting up close to that!


So it looks like the Mer de Glace is going to be the optimal field site for me, if I decide to work in the Chamonix valley. Now I just have to write up some grant applications and work out the logistics!



One year down, two to go – a summary of my first year as a PhD researcher

It’s now been almost exactly a year since I started this PhD. Can’t believe this has come around so fast! But then people always say that. You’d think by now we’d have learnt to expect time to fly but it still does come as a bit of a shock.

What have I been up to over the last twelve months as a PhD researcher? Well not a lot of research actually. I was speaking to more advanced PhDs from other universities at the QRA conference last week (see my blog post about this here) and one thing they all say is that first year is useless in terms of actually getting any research done. There is just too much reading to do, too many training courses to take and, of course, too much academic bureaucracy!

I agree with this sentiment to some extent but also disagree that first year is a total waste of time in terms of doing ‘real’ work. Certainly some things were a bit of a waste of time, particularly the time I spent getting myself removed from the social science ethics courses (don’t think my sarcastic ‘so rock, how did you feel about being overrun by ice during the last glacial maximum?’ interview plan would have gone down well). But a lot of the training, all of the reading and even some of the bureaucracy has turned out to be beneficial. In particular the upgrade process, whilst fairly time-consuming, did help to make me focus and to condense my ideas into a single project that is feasible and justifiable.

Another thing we were discussing at the QRA is the 3-year issue. The UK is unusual in only allowing 3 funded years for a PhD candidate to progress through the relevant training, complete their doctoral research and write up most of the thesis. The candidate then nominally gets a further 12 months to actually submit the thesis, although this period is generally unfunded. Other European countries vary between 3 and 5 years of funding, whereas in North America and Australasia it’s more like 4-5 years as standard I’m told.

We were wondering which system is the ‘best’ for environmental science students who need to do fieldwork; which takes up a lot of time in seeking funding, planning the logistics and actually doing the fieldwork. We all agreed that we knew very few people who actually managed to submit within 3 years. Most British environmental PhDs will have to use that extra year of no funding to get it done, often whilst working either full- or part-time to make ends meet.

Is this a bad thing? Maybe. But are the longer PhD systems better? Whilst the extra financial security is nice, it would also take the pressure off a little and perhaps cause PhD candidates to procrastinate a bit more. Or to have their time filled by teaching assignments and being made to do their research group’s donkey work. You hear a lot of sob stories about this kind of stuff coming out of North America and I don’t doubt it does happen in some places.

Personally I’d like to have the financial security of having some money assured for a fourth year, even if it was only half-pay or similar. I think that would be the best solution to keep me working to the 3 year deadline without too much pressure. However, I only have the standard 3 year funding. So I guess I’ll just have to get myself a part-time job when the money dries up and minimise procrastination in the meantime!


p.s. for an interesting discussion of the pros and cons of a British PhD vs a North American one, check out this post. Also, if you were wondering what the image at the top of this post is – it’s a brainstorm of all the broad categories in my reference manager’s library at the end of my first year reading bonanza.

A trip to Exeter for the QRA Postgraduate Symposium

This week I’ve been at the Quaternary Research Association (QRA) Postgraduate Symposium, hosted by the University of Exeter’s Geography Department. This is an informal PhD student-only conference that gives Quaternary postgrads the chance to meet up and do trail runs of posters and presentations in a chilled-out atmosphere. I went along because I’d heard it was a good laugh, to get some more presentation practice and to spend this year’s remaining research training grant.

The conference started with an optional field trip to Dartmoor on Wednesday, led by the incredibly knowledgeable Dr Tim Harrod. Unfortunately for those of us on the fieldtrip, the weather was against us and it tipped it down on and off all morning. This limited our options as we didn’t want to spend too long outside the nice dry minibus and the low cloud meant that we couldn’t see much even when we did venture outside. Still, the misty cloud did lend a nice atmosphere to the landscape, very ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’! Tim more than made up for the inclement weather with his interesting insights into the area’s history, geography and geology. A particular highlight was the visiting the Bronze Age village at Grimspound with its resident Dartmoor ponies. After a tasty pub lunch, the weather improved and we were able to escape the minibus to have a look at the local peat and to climb one of the area’s granite Tors, which was warm in waterproof trousers but worth it for the view from the top. In the evening after the field trip the other delegates arrived and we had our welcome drinks before heading into town for large and surprisingly cheap pizzas at the Old Firehouse, which is apparently an Exeter institution.

Thursday saw the start if the conference proper, which consisted of a range of postgrad presentations and posters as well as a keynote talk by Prof. Dan Charman about career progression post-PhD. We also received a tour of Exeter’s new palaeo fire lab, including a demonstration of burning things in one of their instruments. Everyone loves a bit of fire so this went down very well! Friday was similarly structured, with the last of the postgrad talks followed by the QRA PG AGM. One of the primary aims of this session was to choose a new junior PG rep (congrats to Nottingham’s Jack Lacey) and to choose a venue for next year’s Symposium. I was particularly pleased with the choice of Cambridge as this is my home town and because having Jenny Roberts as chief organiser means that we should have a strong showing of ice and climate/ ocean postgrads. Maybe we’ll even get a look into the ice core rooms in the British Antarctic Survey (if we’re lucky and promise not to touch anything)!

One thing I have to say about this year’s meeting in Exeter is that the food was great. Most of us were staying in some very posh undergrad halls (I couldn’t get enough of the rooms – so much nicer than the prison block I lived in during my 1st year!), which did a particularly good cooked breakfast with nice sausages and even fried bread. I hadn’t had fried bread since I was a kid and had completely forgotten how good it is with baked beans. Then of course there were the pizzas that I mentioned above and the very yummy conference dinner that came with a respectably large amount of wine. And of course there are the obligatory cakey treats during the coffee breaks; we even had a Devon cream tea on Thursday. Honestly it was worth the registration fee, which was very reasonable, for the food alone. Thanks have to go to Nicole Sanderson and the rest of the Exeter team for doing such a fantastic job arranging all of this.

So if you’re reading this in 6 months’ time when the advertisements for the next QRA PG Symposium come out, then I’d definitely recommend that you go along. There will be interesting people, some kind of field excursion, nice food and it is a great chance to air your research in a low-stress environment. See you in Cambridge!


Life after upgrade and a quick review of the new ESRI Geonet forums

I’ve been a little quiet on this blog since my flurry of posts about surviving the MPhil to Phd upgrade intact. I don’t really have a good reason for not posting; I guess I just haven’t been able to think of much worth saying.

This is not to say that I haven’t been doing anything, far from it! But I’ve discovered that, although we don’t get the long summer breaks to which I’ve become accustomed, life does slow down somewhat over summer for PhD students. This has allowed me to focus more time on actually doing some research – especially now that I’ve cleared the upgrade hurdle (that’s right, I’m a proper ‘official’ PhD student now).

At the moment I need to automate a GIS process for measuring various features of glacier valleys. For those of you who aren’t geoscientists, GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems, which are computer programs for handling spatial data. They’re used for everything from cartography through to choosing the best locations for a new wind farm or supermarket. In fact, you probably use GIS regularly without even realising it – Sat Navs and Google Maps are both types of GIS.

I use a program called ArcGIS for my research, which is made by ESRI. This program is very powerful and can perform all sorts of operations, but it isn’t the most user-friendly and takes a long time to learn how to operate. Previously you could get help with ArcGIS problems via online forums but earlier this year ERSI replaced these forums with ‘Geonet’. This is an online community that operates a lot like LinkedIn but for users of ArcGIS. Apparently they’re working on a Geonet mobile app and there’s even a cheesy promo video.

Interestingly, a range of polls on Geonet have mostly rated it as worse than the previous ESRI forums. I have to beg to differ – I always found the previous forums to be a total pain to find anything on whereas I find Geonet much easier to navigate. Perhaps part of this is due to the social media feel of it; which might appeal more to someone like me, who pretty much grew up using these platforms, rather than to users of the old ESRI forums. I just find the whole thing much friendlier and less tech-y, by which I mean it’s more intuitive for people who don’t already know a fair bit about ArcGIS. These people are likely to be a significant part of the audience for help forums and online communities like this, so I feel the new set-up is an improvement. Sure there are a few glitches and poorly thought out bits but the Geonet set-up is a complete departure from the previous forums, so I’d expect some teething issues.

Enough with the comparison to the old ESRI forums – if you are using ArcGIS and you have a problem should you bother going to Geonet? I’d say absolutely yes. Search the site and you may find that someone else has already had your problem and received a solution. Failing that, set up a profile and get asking your questions. I’ve done this myself and have been amazed at the speed and usefulness of the responses. I swear some people must be on Geonet practically all the time. Maybe that social media aspect is paying off?

Finding the appropriate ‘places’ and posting your questions there can also be a great way of getting relevant experts to see your post and tell you what you’re doing wrong. I find this especially useful for using Python scripts in Arc – my coding skills are limited at best so my scripts often throw errors that the good people of the Python place routinely correct for me!

I should note here that my other go-to source for GIS assistance is the GIS StackExchange, a useful site that is much more in the mould of the old ESRI forums. This is the place to go if you really can’t stand the new look Geonet. On the StackExchange there is a discussion of the pros and cons of Geonet, worth a look if you want more information about the new site than this brief review can give you.


p.s. The image for this post is a screenshot from a recent session of mine in ArcGIS. I particularly hate unspecified errors but posting information about what I was doing on Geonet did led to a solution on this occansion.


Three years, that’s loads of time. Isn’t it? – Why you should write a PhD research timetable now

(Use of the above image by the kind permission of “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham:  www.phdcomics.com)

Research timetables are funny things, they seem a bit pointless and time-consuming when you first write one but as time moves on they become increasingly useful. You may well have to write a research timetable as part of your MPhil to PhD upgrade proposal – I had to do this for mine. But this post is about why you should do one anyway, regardless of if you have to or not.

Staying focused and feeling like you’re making tangible progress is probably the hardest thing about doing a PhD. This is why I think a properly planned research timetable is invaluable – it gives you a one-stop shop to check that you’re working on the right tasks and it helps you to see the progress that you’re making. Otherwise it is so easy to get lost in a haze of papers, notes and spreadsheets leaving you with no idea of where you are, let alone where you’ve come from and where you’re going next.

As an example, here’s an extract from my own research timetable:

Extract from my research timetable

Extract from my research timetable

To make this timetable I broke my PhD project down into four areas of work:

  1. Reading and writing
  2. Training
  3. Desk-based research
  4. Field and lab work

Then I split each area of work into the major tasks that I anticipate completing in order to achieve my research objectives (more on choosing objectives in my research proposal post). As you can see, some tasks only happen once whereas others are repeated several times during the PhD project. I tried to be realistic about the time I would need for each task and thought carefully about what to do when.

The key for me was ensuring that I planned to do everything in the right order and that no one period became overloaded with tasks. Thinking it through like this at an early stage in my research process will help me to dodge problems later on – without my timetable I would definitely have put some tasks off and ended up with way too much to do later on in the PhD. As it is, I can have a look at the timetable every once in a while and refresh my idea of what needs to be done next.

The timetable also shows me what tasks I’ve completed – a vital confidence lift when you’re having one of those days where you feel like you’ve made no progress in ages. And by reminding you of the bigger tasks within your PhD, it helps you to remember that the little tasks you are doing today are relevant and do link into the bigger picture of you PhD project.

So much for the benefits but what about the major danger of having a timetable: that you’ll stick to it too keenly and lose your flexibility? So far this hasn’t happened to me but then I’ve yet to hit a major PhD roadblock! What I’d say is that the timetable is just a tool to help you keep yourself on-track – it doesn’t have all the answers and it’s not the only way to do your PhD, just one way of doing it. So if things change no problem, just change the timetable.

Have you had to write a research timetable? Did you find it helpful? Leave a comment and let me know!

How to have a stress-free upgrade viva

In the final instalment of my upgrade top tips it’s time for the big one – the upgrade viva. This involves a grilling by a panel of academics from within your department. Their job is to ensure that you really have thought everything through and that your project will produce a good PhD thesis.

This all sounds pretty scary and you do hear the odd horror story of malicious interviewers; but remember that most will want you to pass and will be nice! Plus your viva panel will have spoken to your supervisors and seen your talk and report, so they will have a pretty good idea that you know what you’re doing. So the viva is really just about double-checking everything and raising a few points that need clarification or that you may not have thought about.

If you get asked something that you hadn’t considered then say so – don’t be that person who is clearly stalling for time and struggling to come up with an answer on the fly. You’ll look much more competent if you just admit that you’ve not considered whatever the panel is suggesting but that you’re glad they’ve brought it to your attention. It’s also ok to ask the panels’ opinions; they are there to provide a different viewpoint on your research so don’t be afraid to use them! This also goes for any asking questions you may want some input on, it is ok for you to ask them things as well as vice versa.

Interviews are always a tricky thing to prep for and this one will be no different. I guess the best advice is to look over your presentation’s Q&A and to really think about the questions that you’d ask if you were on the panel. Get some second opinions on this, especially from other PhD students and from your supervisors. They may think of tricky questions that you’d not considered.

To get you started, here are the sorts of things that I was asked in my upgrade viva:

  • To define my project. I took this to mean giving a kind of one-sentence summary, which was tricky!
  • General questions about the project’s relevance and original contribution – definitely expect to be asked things like ‘why hasn’t this been done before’, ‘why now’, ‘what will your project’s outputs be used for’ etc.
  • General logistics questions – I had to summarise my plan of work for the next two years, discuss funding sources, and broadly outline the papers I thought the project would produce and which journals I would be submitting them to. Be prepared to justify all your project’s practicalities.
  • If you’re doing fieldwork or some other money-eating activity, then expect lots of questions on why this is essential and how you’ve worked out your budget.
  • I also had to explain some of the more specialised parts of my project and methodology again. Remember that some of your panel may not be specialists in your field, so it’s worth preparing some diagrams to explain the more obscure and complex bits.

The rest of my questions were too project-specific to be of much use in this post. But note that you will be asked some probing and specific questions as well as these more general ones. So have a think about the areas of risk in your project (i.e. where things might derail) and how you’ll deal with these. As well as these potential negatives you should consider the positives, such as how you might expand and develop the core project if things work well and you find yourself with the time to look into interesting side themes.

Other than the standard ‘relax and smile’ interview advice, I think that’s all the tips I can give you. The upgrade viva is far more project-specific than the proposal and presentation but these general points should help. Just try to view it as a chance to get some extra feedback!


p.s. thanks to yet another Google image search for this post’s title image.