Notes from the life of an ordinary being


Mid life career change

This blog entry is a bit of a cheat because it’s a reprint of a blog I wrote for Naturejobs when I started my PhD in January 2015. The time has now elasped that I’m allowed to re-use it and I think the issue of career change mid life, with or without a family, is worth airing. There were a number of replies and comments made about my blog, so at the end of this piece I’ll link back to the Naturejobs page, where you’ll find other people’s comments under my blog.March moon

Career change: mid-life PhD
The build up to career change is possibly the hardest bit. Like the build up to any big decision. The self-questioning, the self-doubt, the wondering how and if you can pull it off, can fill the wakeful hours of the night for some time.
My most recent change (from Communications officer to PhD student) is not my first. In fact it’s not even my second, yet in spite of plenty of practice, I have repeatedly made the same mistake: I don’t talk to folk; I don’t ask people what they know or what they think and I get too rooted in trying to work things out on my own, fearful perhaps that another person might rubbish my ideas or hopes, or try to dissuade me.
There is a lot of information, help and even funding/financial support available if you look hard enough, or find the right person to show you. I do now have a couple of professional mentors, people I trust to talk things over with, but I still find myself worrying about bothering them.
This is my third week as a PhD student, so everything is still very rosy. For me personally, starting it later in life is probably better. I don’t think I had the maturity to study so independently when I was in my 20s.
There are other positives that aren’t so much about age as about circumstances. Not that long ago (2008-09), I did a MSc. Educationally, that was a massive jump. I reached it via a back door, through horticulture, and with little science education there were parts of the taught course that nearly killed me.
Financially, although I had a NERC studentship that paid my fees and stipend, and I didn’t pay council tax as a student in Scotland, life was very tight: I was in my late 30s and decided to rent a flat on my own – I’d shared enough accommodation in my life and needed to focus on the job in hand.
On a personal level, there were some quite lonely times. I’d moved to a new city and a relationship crashed in the first three months. But by month eight, the taught part of the course was over and the last 4-5 months was pure research, an experience I totally loved.
As for starting a PhD now: professionally, since I finished the MSc in 2009, I’ve worked entirely in research institutions, have had some funding to do a little research and published my first paper. So, there hasn’t been a shock of returning to study and my PhD is based at the same place I’ve worked for the past three years.
More importantly perhaps, in that same period I’ve got married, we’ve bought a house and had a little girl. This means I have now a secure, happy home. I’m never, ever lonely and although Patrick works away from home, there’s more stability and routine in my life than I’ve ever had before. And that to me looks like a very lucky place from which to start a PhD.

Further to this Naturejobs blog, Chemistry World ran an article looking at “ageism” (for want of a better word) in science. To have a read, click here.

(Crikey, expressions like “mid life” and “age discrimination” really let  you know how younger people see you…old, old, old!)

Making an academic poster

I’m going to a Harmful algal blooms and climate change symposium in Gothenburg in May and one of the usual prerequisites for attending such gatherings is to produce an academic poster (or, for the more experienced, to give a presentation) displaying and explaining your research.

At the moment, as a new researcher, I don’t have any results to share. Yet the symposium is highly relevant to my project and so we (that’s my three supervisors and me) felt it was important for me to go and hear all the latest developments in this field of research. But I still have to produce a poster, which will mainly act as an advert for my project, to let other researchers know what we’re planning to do and hoping to find out.

Consequently, I’ve been looking online for hints on how to make a good poster. I did make one (in PowerPoint*) in 2010 to show at the annual Young  (haha!) Systematists Forum held in the Natural History Museum, London.

Dussia_poster_NHM2010Snowfall and icy wings meant that the poster and I were delayed in Edinburgh airport for several hours. Eventually we took off for Gatwick only to be diverted to Stansted, where we arrived at 0130. There were lots of passengers waiting to be allocated hotel rooms for the night by the airline, but having looked at the weather forecast and the queue for beds, the poster & I camped out on the airport floor and caught the earliest possible plane home (23 hours door to door via Stansted airport), and never made the Forum.

It wasn’t a wasted effort though. I have submitted the poster as part of a number of applications and at the time felt quite pleased with how it turned out. HOWEVER(!), looking at it now and re-reading advice and pointers, there’s quite a bit wrong with it, mainly I’d say with the layout, the colour scheme (note colour use on the phylogenetic tree….aarrrggh!), and the use of low res images.

I still like this portrait, 3-horizontal-sections layout (a free template for noncommercial use, borrowed in 2010 courtesy of but not many people seem to use it and I’m wondering whether it’s no longer the done thing.

During my most recent trawl around the internet for poster design tips, I found a really useful and helpful adobe presentation via the University of Leicester website and here’s a summary of the points I thought were most important:

  • Size: A0 or A1
  • Text: Aim for 250 words (can be 300-500 max)
  • Title, plus max 2 further levels of headings ie Heading, subheading in Bold.
  • Break up large areas of text with subheadings.
  • Text needs to be readable from 2m.
  • Be consistent with font (2 fonts max).
  • Be consistent with text formatting.
  • Use italics, underlining & capitals sparingly.
  • Group sections of text appropriately; apply the principle of proximity.
  • Line spacing for headings/titles: 0.9 for bigger text.
  • Line spacing for body text: 1.1
  • Left justified is best.
  • Layout: logical and use a grid.
  • Images/graphics: high res (min 300ppi).
  • Charts/Tables: keep simple, enlarge text, thicken lines; default formatting is rarely appropriate.
  • Colour scheme: use 2-3 different colours plus black, which is always best for the smallest text. Use colours from your images or a colour wheel (analogous, complementary or shades).
  • Check thoroughly: before sending to printers, print A4 in colour, stick on wall and check, check, check.

I’ve attached below a few other free to use templates, all giving relevant advice. (Sorry – they wouldn’t load as PowerPoints, so I’ve turned them into PNGs.) BUT, and this is a MASSIVE but, as I was uploading this post I saw that the man whose free template I used in 2010, now recommends several programmes to use and the dastardly *PowerPoint is not included. One, however, is LaTex, which is already on my to learn list, so maybe now’s the time to start.Slide1



Fun learning

I was recently at this year’s MASTS Graduate School retreat in Aviemore, Scotland.

MASTS, the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland, is a group of marine research institutions that pool resources and skills to better progress marine science, through communication, coordination, cooperation, and collaboration. The institutes are spread across Scotland, from Shetland to Strathclyde and Lewis to St Andrews, yet there’s a strong belief in continually strengthening that far-flung community, and the Grad School retreat feeds in to that community spirit.

At this year’s retreat, there were three core staff organisers, about 25 students, 10 presenters/speakers and two main themes: to identify one another’s skills; and the importance of career management & personal development right the way through your PhD.

I’m going to list here things that I learnt or thought were important, but in no particularly order. (Having easily listed 20, I’ll stop there and hopefully create another list from other talks.) It’d be really great if people added to it by commenting below. To lead gently in to the list, here’s a pretty pic from Roybridge, on the way from Oban to Aviemore.


Twenty points from the MASTS 2015 retreat

1) Cooperation is essential – it drives scientific research today.

2) MASTS can help you find institutions/individuals with the skills you need.

3) MASTS can help you find fellowships or internships.

4) Keep on the look out for transferable skills; once you’ve learned them add them to your CV.

5) Be under no illusion: writing up and working at the same time is very tough. Resist it if you can but sometimes, for one reason or another, you’ve just got to do it.

6) Don’t be afraid to say NO. Don’t let flattery get the better of you!

7) Develop your critical thinking. Don’t believe everything you read.

8) Be ambitious.

9) Always visit the place you’re intending to work before accepting a job offer.

10) Build networks: internal, external, personal…

11) Build local relationships to provide backup support eg extra/emergency childcare when things go pear-shaped or don’t quite align.

12) Listen to what people have to say; be open to comments and ready to make changes.

13) From the Quality Management session:

– Quality is not perfection.

– Quality is reliability, consistency and continuous improvement.

– Quality is the result of a comparison between what was required and what was provided.

– A continuous cycle of PLAN, DO, CHECK, ACT, should lead to continuous improvement.

– Auditor training is a very transferable skill; do it if possible.

14) Your thesis puts your science into the context of lots of other people’s science.

15) Update you CV regularly – keep a list of your skills. (Repeated point to remind me I need to do this.)

16) Experience leads to knowledge: pay it forward!

17) S.M.A.R.T objectives: specific, measurable, achievable/attainable, Relevant, Time-constraint. (Taken from Angela’s grant proposal writing session. I intend to expand on that in a separate blog entry.)

18) Understand who you are – try the Myers Briggs test to help you find out. Know what you’re good at. Know what you need and what you enjoy. Actively look for and select jobs/roles that match.

19) Read 7 habits of highly effective people (Covey, 1989) or at least a summary

[And here’s a link to an article that includes Merrill & Covey’s  2×2 Urgent-Important matrix, where the writer stresses the need to invest regular time on the Important-not urgent things and actively prevent yourself from getting tied up and bogged down in the Urgent-NOT important stuff.]

20) Your career is yours to manage.

Hello and welcome to my blog

Sanderlings, North UistI wasn’t going to write a blog.
It seems mighty hard to keep them going.
So, having ignored that note to self, I’ve taken the plunge; all the while ignoring my other self-caution to write a few posts before a launch, to have a few items in the bank, so to speak.

The main reason for considering a blog at all is that in Jan 2015 I began a marine environmental science PhD, based at SAMS (Scottish Association for Marine Science). While that’s not uncommon, what is less common in the science PhD world is that I’m a woman, in my mid-40s, married, with a toddler (and hoping for more, if we’re lucky enough).

The reason for starting a blog right now is that I’m not long back from the MASTS Grad School retreat. MASTS is the Marine Alliance for Science & Technology for Scotland, which is funding my PhD, and the Grad School retreat is an annual event of talks, seminars, workshops and fun, giving MASTS student researchers a chance to meet, mix and chat with one another and some high-profile presenters, while learning some useful skills at the same time.

There was a load of info packed in to the retreat and I thought that rather than just write up the notes, I’d list some key “lessons” to tweet…or even, as it turns out, to blog.

To keep this blog going, it’s quite likely to become a mix of academic, professional and personal meanderings. I can guarantee nothing…although I do recommend a few minutes watching this beautiful film: The Swimming Granny

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