My tips, strategies and hacks as a PhD student

Email: m.prosser@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Having been a PhD student for a little over 3 months I am perhaps ill-qualified to write such a ‘PhD tips’ type of blog post, but write one I appear to be doing! It’s probably actually more accurately titled ‘study tips in general but ones which are highly relevant to science PhDs.’

The following are just my tips on what have helped me over the course of my studies and may be obvious or not suitable for others, but I write them on the off-chance that something here is useful to someone out there. No doubt I will have many more such strategies by the end of my time here in Reading!

Papers and articles
As a science student you may have encountered these from time to time. The better ones are clearly written and succinct, the worse ones are verbose and obscurantist. If you’re not the quickest reader in the world, getting through papers can end up consuming a great deal of your time.

I’m going to advocate speed reading in a bit but when you start learning speed reading, one of the things they ask you to think about first is “Do I really need to read this?”. If the answer is yes, then the next question is “Do I really need to read all of it?”. Perhaps you only need to glance at just the abstract, figures and conclusion? After all, time spent reading this is time not spent doing something else, something more profitable perhaps, so do check that it really is worth your time before diving in.

So once I’ve ascertained that the article is indeed worth my time, I sit down with a pencil (or the equivalent for a PDF) and read through the sections I’ve decided on. Anything that makes my neurons spike (“oh that’s interesting….”), I underline or highlight. Any thoughts or questions that occur to me, I write in the margin. If I feel the need to criticise the paper for being insufficiently clear then I write down these remarks, too.

Once I get to the end, I put the article away out of sight and sit down with a blank piece of paper (or on a computer) and try and write something very informally about what I’ve just read. Quite often my mind will go helpfully blank at this point, so I try and finish the following sentence: “The biggest thing (if anything) I learned from this article was….”. Completing this one sentence then tends to lead to other stuff tumbling out and in no particular order I jot these all down. Only once the majority of it is down on paper do I take a peek at the annotated piece to see what I missed (For heaven’s sake avoid painting the article yellow with a highlighter!)

Please, please, please, don’t.

This personal blurb that you have produced is then a good way to quickly remind yourself of the contents of that article in the future without having to reread it from scratch. This post-reading exercise need not take more than 15 minutes but if you’re worried about spending this extra time, don’t be. You’ll save yourself a heap of time in future by not having to reread the damn thing.

Random piece of advice – if you are unaware of the Encyclopedia of Atmospheric Sciences, then check it out. Whatever your PhD topic I guarantee there’ll be 10 or so shortish entries which are all highly relevant to your particular PhD topic and consequently worth knowing about!

Speed reading
Really still on the previous paragraph but as is often the way, between the valuable articles that you really should be reading and the stuff for which life’s really too short there’s a grey area.
For such grey areas I am an advocate of speed reading.
For any electronic texts check out this free website:

Just copy, paste and go! https://accelareader.com/

The pace the words flash up doesn’t have to be particularly fast (I suggest trying 300 wpm to start with) but the golden rule is to never press pause once you’ve started. No going back to read stuff you’ve missed (well not until you’ve reached the end first at least!). This method of reading is especially useful for any articles that feel like quagmires into which you are slowly drowning. Paradoxically reading faster in such instances often increases one’s comprehension.

A good way to develop the skill of speed reading is to start on articles you see posted on social media, articles that you are not too fussed about getting every single detail. Just let it wash over you!

Talks and lectures
I have found it useful to make audio recordings of these. I don’t usually tend to listen back, but if there is something that was particularly interesting or dense that might be worth revisiting then it can be very worthwhile. I make a note of the time this something was said at the time it was said and can thus track it down in the recording fairly painlessly afterwards.

One tip about note taking that has stayed with me since I first heard it several years back was the following: after writing down the title, only make notes on what is surprising or interesting to you, just that! This may result in many lines of notes or no lines at all, but whatever you do, don’t just make notes of everything that was said. This advice has been very useful for me.

Organising
Ask me in person if you would like to know my thoughts on this.

Programming to help physical intuition.
This is probably more relevant to students like me who didn’t come from a maths or physics undergrad and consequently aren’t quite as fluent in the old maths….or perhaps undergrads for that matter…
….but in my undergrad (environmental science) I spent quite a lot of the time spent studying maths (and to a lesser extent) physics involved memorising complicated procedures. The best example of this was a lecture on Fourier Series where the professor took the whole hour to work through the process of getting from an input (x^2) to the output (first n terms of the Fourier series). Because it took so much space/effort for me to remember this lengthy process, it ended up crowding out the arguably more important conceptual stuff, such as what a Fourier series actually does and why it is it so useful. When all is said and done and the final exam is handed in, these concepts are what should (ideally) stick with you even if the details of how, don’t.
So here’s where I think programming can come in. Firstly, there’s nothing like coding up some process to check whether you understand the nuts and bolts of it, but more importantly once it has been coded up properly you can then play about with the inputs to see how these affect the graphed outputs. Being able to ‘play’ about like this gives you a more intuitive feel for the model/process that wouldn’t be possible if you had to manually redo the laborious calculations each time you wanted to change the input parameters. 3 examples of where I have done this myself are the following:
1. Getting my head around the thermal inertia of the oceans by varying the depth of the surface and deep layer of the ocean in a simple model.
2. Playing around graphically with dispersion.
3. Convincing myself that it really is true that in the middle of the Northern Hemisphere summer the north pole receives more energy per day than the equator.

And you?
So do you have any hard won study/research tips? If so do email me as I would be interested in hearing about them!
Which study hack do you think I (or others) are most lacking?

Night at the Museum!

On Friday November 30th, Prof. Paul Williams and I ran a ‘pop-up science’ station at the Natural History Museum’s “Lates” event (these are held on the last Friday of each month; the museum is open for all until 10pm, with additional events and activities). Our station was entitled “Turbulence Ahead”, and focused on communicating research under two themes:

  1.  Improving the predictability of clear-air turbulence (CAT) for aviation
  2.  The impact of climate change on aviation, particularly in terms of increasing CAT

There were several other stations, all run by NERC-funded researchers. Our stall went ‘live’ at 6 PM, and from that point on we were speaking almost constantly for the next 3.5 hours – with hundreds (not an exaggeration!) of people coming to our stall to find out more. Neither of us were able to take much of a break, and I’ve never had quite such a sore voice!

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Turbulence ahead? Not on this Friday evening!

Our discussions covered:

  • What is clear-air turbulence (CAT) and why is it hazardous to aviation?
  • How do we predict CAT? How has Paul’s work improved this?
  • How is CAT predicted to change in the future? Why?
  • What other ways does climate change affect aviation?

Those who came to our stall asked some very intelligent questions, and neither of us encountered a ‘climate denier’ – since we were speaking about a very applied impact of climate change, this was heartening. This impact of climate change is not often considered – it’s not as obvious as heatwaves or melting ice, but is a very real threat as shown in recent studies (e.g. Storer et al. 2017). It was a challenge to explain some of these concepts to the general public – some had heard of the jet stream, others had not, whilst some were physicists… and even the director of the British Geological Survey, John Ludden, turned up! It was interesting to hear from so many people who were self-titled “nervous flyers” and deeply concerned about the future potential for more unpleasant journeys.

I found the evening very rewarding; it was interesting to gauge a perspective of how the public perceive a scientist and their work, and it was amazing to see so many curious minds wanting to find out more about subjects with which they are not so familiar.

My involvement with this event stems from my MMet dissertation work with Paul and Tom Frame looking at the North Atlantic jet stream. Changes in the jet stream have large impacts on transatlantic flights (Williams 2016) and the frequency and intensity of CAT. Meanwhile, Paul was a finalist for the 2018 NERC Impact Awards in the Societal Impact category for his work on improving turbulence forecasts – he finished as runner-up in the ceremony which was held on Monday December 3rd.

So, yes, there may indeed be turbulent times ahead – but this Friday evening certainly went smoothly!

Email: s.h.lee@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Twitter: @SimonLeeWx

References

Storer, L. N., P. D. Williams, and M. M. Joshi, 2017: Global Response of Clear-Air Turbulence to Climate Change. Geophys. Res. Lett., 44, 9979-9984, https://doi.org/10.1002/2017GL074618

Williams, P. D., 2016: Transatlantic flight times and climate change. Environ. Res. Lett., 11, 024008, https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/11/2/024008.

Reflecting on starting a PhD

Now that Christmas is just around the corner, and us first year students have settled in to the swing of things, I thought it would be nice to write a short piece on what it’s like starting a PhD.

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Reflecting on my experience so far, my first thought was to remark at how I’d only been a PhD student for a little over two months. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever learnt so much in quite so short a time before. This was an encouraging thought, because often in the moment progress can seem very slow indeed. However, when you put it all together and zoom out a little, you realise how far you’ve come. If you feel like you’ve wasted a day lost in code, or just generally lost, it’s never wasted; it’s your PhD and is a constant learning process. I’ve found it really rewarding sometimes to simply explore what I find interesting, or practice different ways of making figures. I would recommend that if something, anything, sparks your interest, investigate it, and read up about it. If it comes to nothing, or if you’re not ready to write a journal paper at the end of the day, well, the skills and familiarities you picked up may eventually go towards doing so! Don’t be afraid of not doing the perfect job first time or making a mistake.

The day-to-day life of doing a PhD is also very dynamic. Perhaps I thought I would only spend long hours sitting at my desk in front of a monitor, but every day is different. Research groups, seminars, and social activities really add variety and inspiration to each and every day, even if it means pulling myself away from my data for a small amount of time! I’d recommend to any first year to get involved as much as possible. It is the best way to get to know people in your department and beyond and how they do science! I will admit it took me a little while at first to treat all these different aspects of a typical day as “PhD work”, but that’s the right mindset to be in.

Finally, getting to know other PhD students and researchers has been one of the best and most eye-opening elements so far. In fact, I would say it is almost a crucial part of the process. I am always grateful to those higher up the academic chain, who, despite being busy, are continually happy to offer advice from the small to the big things. At first, I felt like I would be some sort of annoyance asking other people for help on something, or that I should be able to work it out for myself. However, one comes to realise everyone is delighted to help and share their expertise with you. That’s what being a scientist is about, right? As Google Scholar reminds us on each visit: “Stand on the shoulders of giants.” Those older PhDs may scoff at being referred to as giants, but to someone starting a PhD, daunted at how far there is to go and how much there is to do, well… they’ve done a large part of it!

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It’s not possible to always see the positives all the time, especially with research. However, one thing is for sure: you not only grow huge amounts as a scientist, but generally as a person, and I think if you keep that in mind, it all makes that little bit more sense.

Email: a.j.doyle@pgr.reading.ac.uk

SPARC (Stratosphere-troposphere Processes And their Role in Climate) General Assembly 2018

I was very fortunate to recently attend the SPARC 6th General Assembly 2018 conference in Kyoto, Japan (1-5 October) – the former imperial capital – where I had the opportunity to give a poster presentation of my research and network with fellow scientists of all ages and nationalities. SPARC is one of five core projects as part of the World Climate Research Program (WCRP), with a focus for coordinated, cutting-edge research on the interactions of both chemical and physical processes on Earth’s climate, at an international level. The main themes of the conference included: chemistry-climate interactions; subseasonal to decadal climate prediction; atmospheric dynamics and their role in climate; the importance of tropical processes; advances in observation and reanalysis datasets; and importantly, societal engagement of climate-related atmospheric research.

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Attendees of the SPARC 6th General Assembly 2018 in Kyoto, Japan (1-5 October 2018)

Despite the best efforts of Typhoon Trami to disrupt the proceedings, the conference went ahead largely as planned with only minor revisions to the schedule. An icebreaker on the Sunday afternoon provided an opportunity to meet a few others who had braved the deteriorating weather over snacks and refreshments. The conference opening ceremony finally got underway at lunchtime the next day with a traditional Japanese Taiko performance (a musical display involving drums and percussion instruments), followed by a talk from Neil Harris (the co-chair of SPARC). He discussed some of the challenges the General Assembly aimed to address over the week, including the provision of information for governments and society to act on climate change and how we as scientists can help to assist governments and society to take action. He emphasised the need for a holistic approach to both atmospheric dynamics and predictability.

Each day contained up to three oral presentation sessions, usually commencing with keynote talks from some of the leading scientists in the field, followed by poster sessions similarly organised by theme. The conference was noteworthy in its absence of parallel sessions and a strong focus on poster sessions, with over 400 posters presented during the course of the entire week! For the early career researchers (ECRs) amongst us, there were prizes for the best received posters in the form of a generous sum of money courtesy of Google’s Project Loon – a mission to increase internet connectivity in remote regions and developing countries by using a network of balloons in the stratosphere. The awards were presented during each of two ECR poster award ceremonies during the week, with the winners determined by a panel of assigned judges during each poster session. A dedicated entertainment and networking session was also organised for us ECRs on the Monday evening. Hosted by several senior scientists, who shared their expertise, the event proved extremely popular.

The Wednesday offered a short window of opportunity for sightseeing around Kyoto in the afternoon before the scheduled conference dinner (followed by dancing) was held in the evening at a local hotel venue. A wide range of Japanese, Chinese and Western buffet food was served, in addition to a variety of Japanese beers, wines and whiskeys. The event was ideal in facilitating networking between different research themes and offered me the chance to hear people’s experiences ranging from their current PhD studies to managing collaborations as leaders of large international working groups.

The conference drew to a close late Friday afternoon and culminated in a roundtable discussion of the future of SPARC initiated by members of the audience. The session helped to clarify aims and working objectives for the future, not only over the next few years but also in decades to come. As a PhD student with hopefully a long career ahead of me, this proved highly stimulating and the thought of actively contributing to achieve these targets in the years to come is a very exciting prospect! I am very grateful for the opportunity to have attended this excellent international meeting and visit Japan, all of which would not have been possible without funding support from my industrial CASE partner, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL).

Email: r.s.williams@pgr.reading.ac.uk

 

Royal Meteorology Conferences

From 3rd-6th July 2018 the Royal Meteorological Society (RMetS) held two national conferences at the University of York. The Atmospheric Science Conference, joint with NCAS, started off the week and brought together scientists to present and discuss the latest research findings in weather, climate and atmospheric chemistry. The following two days brought the RMetS Student Conference. Both events were well attended by PhD students from Reading and provided a great opportunity to share our work with the wider scientific community.

For a summary of the work presented by Reading students, stick around until the end of the blog!

Atmospheric Science Conference 2018

Weather, Climate and Air Quality

Many of the presentations focused on seasonal forecasting with Adam Scaife (Met Office) giving a keynote address on “Skilful Long Range Forecasts for Europe”. He presented an interesting analysis on the current progress of predicting the North Atlantic Oscillation showing that there is skill in current predictions which could be improved even further by increasing ensemble size. Adam was also awarded the prestigious Copernicus Medal at the conference dinner. Another notable talk was by Reading’s own Ed Hawkins, who presented the benefits of using citizen scientists to rescue weather records. A summary of Ed’s presentation can be accessed below, and you can read more about research involving Citizen Science in Shannon Jones’ blog.

The poster sessions at the conference also gave a great opportunity to look at the breadth of work going on in institutions around the UK. It was also a great time to catch up with colleagues and forge new academic connections.

One of the highlights of the conference was having the conference dinner in the National Railway Museum. This was a fantastic yet surreal location with dining tables set up in the station hall overlooking a suite of old steam trains . The event was made even better by watching England‘s quarter-final world cup game!

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Evolution of Science: Past, Present and Future

Students & Early Career Scientist Conference

The student conference is open to all students with an interest in meteorology, from undergraduate to PhD and early career scientists. The conference aimed to give students the opportunity to meet each other and present their work at an early stage in their career before attending other academic conferences. For many of those attending from Reading this was their first time presenting research at an event outside of the department and provided a great experience to communicate their work with others. Work presented varied from radiative forcing to normal empirical modes (summaries of talks are below). There were also a number of keynote speakers and workshops aimed at addressing the current challenges in atmospheric sciences and skills that are important for researchers.

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Rory Fitzpatrick, presenting on skills for writing as an academic. “I have the Best Words” – How to write articles that impact bigly”

Of course there was also time for socialising with an ice-breaker dinner and pub quiz  and a formal Conference dinner on the Thursday. This was the second student conference I have attended and it was a really great place to discuss my work and meet other students from around the country. I have also attended other academic events with several people that I met at the conference last year, it’s always great to see a friendly face!

The student conference is organised by a committee of students from around the UK. Being on the committee was a great opportunity to learn more about how conferences work and to practice skills such as chairing sessions. It has also been great to get to know lots of different people working within meteorology. If you’re interested in helping organise next year’s conference please do get in touch with Victoria Dickinson at RMetS (Victoria.Dickinson@rmets.org) or if you’re thinking about attending then you can start by joining the society where you’ll hear about all the other great events they host.

Highlights of the work presented by Reading students:

Godwin Ayesiga presented work on the convective activity that connects Western and Eastern equatorial Africa. Investigating how intraseasonal modes of variability influence intense rainfall.

Matt Priestley presented an assessment of the importance of windstorm clustering on European wintertime insurance losses. More details of this work can be found here.

Lewis Blunn presented his work looking into the ‘grey zone’ of turbulence at model grid scale lengths of 100 m – 1 km. At these scales turbulence is partially resolved by the grid but still needs to be partially parameterised. Lewis finds that spurious grid scale features emerge at scales where turbulence is partially resolved. Model results are poorer in this ‘grey zone’ than when turbulence is fully resolved or fully parameterised.

Alec Vessey presented his work evaluating the representation of Arctic storms in different reanalysis products. He found that there is a difference between different reanlysis and so care should be taken when using these products to analyse Arctic storms.

Dominic Jones presented a technique for extracting modes of variability from atmospheric data, and a test dataset that has been developed to use this technique to examine the relationship of modes of variability associated with the jet-latitude.

Rachael Byrom presented a motivation for quantifying methane’s shortwave radiative forcing. Her work demonstrated a need to use a high resolution narrow-band radiation model to accurately calculate forcings in atmospheric models.

Andrea Marcheggiani presented a poster on the role of resolution in predicting the North Atlantic storm track. An energy budget of the winter climatology (DJF 1979-2018) was presented.

Sally Woodhouse presented her work on the impact of resolution on energy transports into the Arctic. She has found that increasing atmospheric resolution increases the energy transport in the ocean to better agree with observations.

Kaja Milczewska presented work on evaluating the inaccuracies of predicting air quality in the UK.

Having recently passed her viva, Caroline Dunning’s presentation was on precipitation seasonality over Africa under present and future climates. Caroline has developed a new methodology for determining the beginning and end of the wet season across Africa. This has been applied to CMIP5 model output to look at future changes in wet seasons across Africa under climate change.

Presenting in Ponte Vedra, Florida – 33rd Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology

Email: j.f.talib@pgr.reading.ac.uk

You’ve watched many speak before you. You’ve practised your presentation repeatedly. You’ve spent hours, days, months, and sometimes years, understanding your scientific work. Yet, no matter the audience’s size or specialism, the nerves always creep in before a presentation. It’s especially no different at your first international conference!

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Between the 16th and 20th April 2018, me, Jonathan Beverley and Bethan Harris were fortunate enough to attend and present at the American Meteorological Society 33rd Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology in Ponte Vedra, Florida. For each of us, our first international conference!

Being a regular user of Instagram through the conference, especially the Instagram Story function, I was regularly asked by my friends back home, “what actually happens at a scientific conference”? Very simple really – scientists from around the world, from different departments, universities, and countries, come to share their work, in the hope of progressing the scientific field, to learn from one another, and network with future collaborators. For myself, it was an opportunity to present recently submitted work and to discuss with fellow researchers on the important questions that should be asked during the rest of my PhD. One outcome of my talk for example, was a two-hour discussion with a graduate student from Caltech, which not only improved my own work, but also helped me understand other research in global circulation.

Recordings of the presentations given by University of Reading PhD students can be found at:

Alongside presenting my own work, I had the opportunity to listen and learn from other scientific researchers. The conference had oral and poster presentations from a variety of tropical meteorology subject areas including hurricanes, global circulation, sub-seasonal forecasting, monsoons and Madden-Julian Oscillation. One of the things that I most enjoy at conferences is to hear from leading academics give an overview of certain topic or issue. For example, Kerry Emanuel spoke on the inferences that can be made from simple models of tropical convection. Through applying four key principles of tropical meteorology including the weak temperature gradient approximation and conservation of free-tropospheric moist static energy, we can understand tropical meteorology processes including the Intertropical Convergence Zone, Walker circulation and observed temperature and humidity profiles.

Of course, if you’re going to fly to the other side of the pond, you must take advantage of being in the USA. We saw a SPACEX rocket launch, (just at a distance of 150 miles away,) experienced travelling through a squall line, visited the launch sites of NASA’s first space programs, and explored the sunny streets of Miami. It was a great privilege to have the opportunity to present and attend the AMS 33rd Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology, and I am hugely thankful to NERC SCENARIO DTP and the Department of Meteorology for funding my work and travel.

 

Oceans in Weather and Climate Course 2018

email: r.frew@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Between the 11th-16th March myself and four other PhDs and post docs attended the Ocean in Weather and Climate (OiWC) course at the Met Office, Exeter. This NERC advanced training course was aimed at PhDs, postdocs and beyond. It provided a great opportunity to spend a week meeting other Oceanography researchers at varying stages of their career, and to expand your understanding of the oceans role in climate beyond the scope of your own work.

The week kicked off with an ice breaker where we had do some ‘Scientific speed dating’, chatting to other participants about: Where are you from? What do you work on? What is your main hobby? What is the biggest question in your field of research? This set the tone for a very interactive week full of interesting discussions between all attendees and speakers alike. Course participants were accommodated at The Globe Inn situated in Topsham, a cute village-sized town full of pastel-coloured houses, cosy pubs, art galleries, and beautiful riverside walks to stretch your legs in the evenings.

The days consisted of four 1.5 hour sessions, split up by caffeine and biscuit breaks to recharge before the next session.

Topics covered in the lecture-style talks included…

  • Dynamical Theory
  • Modelling the Ocean
  • Observations
  • Ocean-atmosphere coupling
  • Air-sea fluxes
  • High Resolution Ocean modelling in coupled forecast systems
  • The Meridional Overturning Circulation
  • The Southern Ocean in climate and climatic change
  • Climate variability on diurnal, seasonal, annual, inter-annual, decadal timescales
  • Climate extremes
  • Climate sensitivity, heat uptake and sea level.

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A recurring figure of the week…. taken from Helene Hewitt’s talk on high resolution ocean modelling showing ocean surface currents from HadGEM3-based global coupled models at different resolutions (eddy resolving, eddy permitting and eddy parameterised).

 

All the talks were very interesting and were followed by some stimulating discussion. Each session provided an overview of each topic and an indication of the current research questions in each area at the moment.

In the post lunch session, there were group practical sessions. These explored observational ARGO float data and model output. The practicals, written in iPython notebooks, were designed to let us play with some data, giving us a series of questions to trigger group discussions to deepen understanding of topics covered that morning.

The course also included some ‘softer’ evening talks, giving research career advice in a more informal manner. Most evenings were spent exploring the lovely riverside walks and restaurants/pubs of Topsham. The final evening was spent all together at the Cosy Club in Exeter, rounding off a very interesting and enjoyable week!