Rock solid advice for geoscience PhD students…by Melanie J Leng and Anson Mackay

Two experienced PhD supervisors share seven steps to achieve a successful geoscience PhD, a fuller version of this article will appear in the Geoscientist in a 3 part series starting with the September issue.

Embarking on a PhD is a big decision, and completing one is a consuming task that will take up years of your life. Working towards a PhD develops you as a person and helps you to understand and solve problems, and can make you a better communicator. It can also increase your confidence time management skills, and give you deep and sophisticated knowledge in a specific scientific subset. Here we provide advice:

1. Your supervisor

Usually in the geosciences you have to work closely with at least two supervisors (a main one and a spare or two covering different aspects of your research), so check them (and their research groups) out via their online presence. Once you have secured a PhD position, take responsibility for setting the agenda during meetings and writing up minutes with actions and deadlines for comment. This should help to ensure you have the support you need from your supervisor. If at any time you feel that the relationship with your supervisor is deteriorating, seek immediate guidance from your departmental graduate tutor.

2. Organising your data

Train yourself to be competent in a data analysis and drawing package. For us, the programming language R is essential, and will augment what you can do with your data. Bespoke analytical packages for your particular field will also be essential to learn. Gantt charts are useful to plan milestones, from the experiment to thesis scale, while the workplace communication tool Slack is increasingly being used to interact with project partners.

3. Presentations

Presentations are a challenging but essential aspect of working in the geosciences, and universities offer training. Start by giving presentations to your peers and supervisors, with the long term aim of presenting at international conferences (like the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly). Many people find public speaking daunting or debilitating. Seek help and support from your peers, supervisor, postgraduate training, and welfare office. Tricks abound to lessen the stress: practise, practise, practise; use Powerpoint’s Presenter Tools; write out memory aides on small cards.

4. Writing

When writing papers, agree in advance what data you will include and who you need to co-author with. This can be tricky if you are part of a large multi-national project where data are “owned” by different people, and will be ready for publication at different times. Being very clear about expectations in developing the paper is important. Be informed about recent developments in Open Science. Set up your own Google Scholar and ORCID accounts for maximum outreach. Many academics have ResearchGate profiles, although restrictions still exist on what papers can be uploaded.

5. Training

Some expert skills for geoscience PhD students can be gained through training courses, including writing, presenting, statistics, coding, health and safety for fieldwork and laboratory work, and building CVs. Take the initiative and search out desired courses; do not rely on being told what to learn. Remember one-on-one training with your supervisors is important and needs to be factored in.

6. Get involved

Learn to say yes! Grab opportunities as they arise; everyone loves positivity and you will demonstrate energy and teamwork. Apply for positions of responsibility when they arise; early career representatives are often needed for committees. These can be great experience of finding out how learned societies work, and you can influence what and how decisions are made.
Learn to say no, if you’re simply over-committed and too busy to take on more work. Never give an immediate answer – think the request over for a day or so and consult with friends and colleagues. Saying yes should be an opportunity - not just a way to fulfil the wishes of others.

7. Work-life balance

Most academics consider their work as a vocation. Don’t be put off by this culture. Make sure you have a life outside of your PhD: spend time with your friends, participate in a sport or hobby. The mental health of PhD students is precarious: postgraduate students are up to six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to the general population. Universities offer welfare services and you can also seek help through your doctor. It is important to get plenty of sleep, learn how to shut off in the evenings and weekends. Remember there are those around you who are going or have gone through the same experiences, so connect with your peers.

Melanie Leng is Director of Geochemistry at the British Geological Survey, UK, and Professor in Isotope Geoscience at the University of Nottingham, UK. Twitter @MelJLeng. Anson Mackay is Professor in Environmental Change at UCL, UK, and an Honorary Research Associate at the British Geological Survey. Twitter @AnsonMackay. The pair have supervised over 100 PhD students.

The fuller version of part 1 of this article can be found at: Leng, M. & Mackay, A. Essential tips for a rock-solid PhD: Part I. Geoscientist 28 (8), 28-29, 2018;, part 2 and 3 will appear in October and November issues of the Geoscientist.