Inspired by the Turner Lab Legacies (University of Wisconsin), past SHOAL members (in a random order) provide some hints and tips for prospective group members! Click on each persons photo to take you to their legacy text.
Dr Gaëlle Fehlmann (PhD 2013-17)
Dr Abdullah Al Nahdi
Dr Caspian Johnson
Daniel Sankey (MRes student 2015-16)
now a PhD student at Royal Holloway, London
Find a sense of meaning in the work. What will completing the work do for yourself and others around you? If you put a pen to paper, and stretch your imagination, you will find that it is easy to write 100+ beneficial things which will come from successfully completing your project on time. This sense of meaning in the work gets you out of bed in the morning and gives you confidence and gusto in your day.
Aim to finish early. Too many of my friends’ great studies remain unpublished, because they ran out of time. Finish early and rewrite the work, you will find that finishing “on time” leaves no room for essential corrections, and the study may easily get swept under the carpet.
Look after yourself! During my time in the SHOAL group I was often too tired to work effectively. As a result the weekly supervisory meetings could often be filled with the recent week’s tangents (not what we agreed I should do) and sometimes bad communication (on my part). Sleep, exercise, eat healthily, go out with friends; the benefits are far greater than you might realise.
Have fun! You are not (well at least I hope you’re not) an ecologist for the money.
Dr Gaëlle Fehlmann (PhD student 2013-17)
Now a postdoc at the MPI for Ornithology, Germany. Check out her website.
When you start a new study, a new approach, you start writing, when you are stuck, relax, avec a tea, coffee, hot chocolate and go in the meeting room. There, talk to yourself loud and start brainstorming all the ideas you have on the white board, the good thing and the bad ones, whatever. I bet you that you’ll instantly feel better. Now step back, look at all this, and try to make connections between all your thoughts, don’t forget your hot drink, that’s exactly when it gets crucial to help your mind to develop its superpower. In less than 1-hour you should get unstuck or get a plan for your next task! Now don’t forget to write a summary of this in your lab book!
When the brainstorming didn’t help, when you have an R programming problem or when your analyses appear to be inappropriate: Relax! Go find your best mate in the lab, walk with him/her or cycle home or whatever, and talk! Tell him through your problems. I don’t know why, exercise and talking always helped me a lot to sort problems.
When your motivation let you down: Get organised! It will come back very soon. Get a plan with short deadline, write down your ideas, write down when you encountered a problem too and when you solve it, and talk about all of this to Andrew/other supervisors in your weekly meeting. If this could appear a bit silly sometimes, it definitely helps to feel better. You’ll realise that you actually accomplished quite a lot in one week.
When you feel like you are crap at writing papers or anything; intro, methods, discussion; anything: Put some epic music on! You’ll instantly feel amazing!
Always share your happiness with others, whether it’s big or small things, personal or professional, share it! It will always bring you happy things and it will bring happiness around you! And sometimes, it will even be very productive workwise!
If you are French, and you feel terribly homesick, consider living in the Mumbles. There, you’ll find a cheese shop, go and get some goat cheese every other week. Learn how to bake your own bread (some place to start: Cuisineaz.com). Go to the Mumbles Market and the Uplands Market. Buy your wine at one of the wine shops in the Mumbles (the white and red called “la vieille ferme” is really nice and cheap). Discover all the nice small shops around you. Go and get some ice-cream on the pier. And every morning when it’s not raining, eat your breakfast in your garden if you have one, breathe deeply, listen to the sea gulls, and enjoy, you are living by the sea!
Dr Abdullah Al Nahdi (PhD student 2014-17)
Now Director of Marine and Fisheries Science Centre, Oman
Prepare a good plan with goals and date for completion of tasks. Some students prefer to work towards their goals in a stepwise approach, but I recommend working in more comfortable move from task to task until all the works are done.
Always target more, at some point you need to decide/select the priorities you want to include in your study. Later on choose the best parts of your writing.
I would recommend you really understand the series of recent studies related to your topic. Try to get benefit from most advanced programme(s) for your data analysis. Don’t bother trying to understand old analyses in papers written before 2000.
Big efforts might be needed from international students in relation to academic challenges, language barriers..., but remember there is no perfect doctoral thesis. Try to work hard, enjoy your study, at the same time, allow time to relax and spend time doing the things you love, talking to your friends, and put some time to have fun, or tour the awesome nature in Wales.
In several cases, I thought there was a problem. But when I talked to Andrew, somehow he made the issue seem very normal and easy to solve. Talk your supervisor, but take responsibility; don’t except your supervisor to think for you or do your works.
Emma Tucny (MRes student 2016-17)
Statistics is a major part of any post grad research, so it really pays off to take some time to get used to R or any other statistical program you may be using. I took a couple of weeks at the start of my Master’s to get myself familiar with the packages that I would be using in R. This helped me when it came to actually analysing my data, as it removed the stress of trying to learn how it works closer to the deadline.
Make sure you stay organised. One way to do this is to set yourself reasonable targets to be completed by a certain date. This date could be because of a holiday or event that will take you away from your work, or simply a date you want to get it done by. For example, I had a summer holiday booked and planned to visit family, so I aimed to complete certain parts of my research before I went. This way, I didn’t get behind and I was not thinking about my research whilst I was trying to relax. However, it is important not to set yourself unrealistic targets as failing to meet high expectations will de-motivate you.
Relax and make full use of the Gower. You’re not a robot! Don’t let your work consume your life, having time to relax on a beach will recharge your batteries. If you’re living in Swansea, you’re spoilt for choice with beaches, walks, ice cream shops and cafes. Mumbles has everything you need from restaurants to authentic Italian ice cream at Verdis. Further into the Gower, you’ll find some of the best beaches in the UK. Rhossili or Southgate are perfect for coastal walks, make sure you keep an eye out for the seals! Or, if the weather is being particularly Welsh (i.e raining), the Uplands has loads of bars and restaurants for meeting up with friends.
Get involved! There are plenty of ways to engage with like-minded people while you’re at Swansea. While I was studying, I went to Journal Club which was held at the University and went to a student conference. There, I met loads of interesting people from all around the world who made my post-graduate experience more memorable.
Dr Caspian Johnson (MPhil/PhD student 2012-15)
check out what Cas is up to now, visit his website
SHOAL group adopted me half way through what was at the time my MPhil. I’d just come back from Tanzania and had a data set that was a bit bigger than what I was prepared for. Andrew took me under his wing and helped me work through it.
Within a year of being back I upgraded to a PhD, and one more year down the line I successfully defended my thesis. I’m still a bit confused about how that all happened! It was an unorthodox route, but the guiding principle was a common theme: capitalise. Andrew gave me the opportunity to do my best, and I took it. I took every opportunity there was going, I turned nothing down. Whether it was teaching, marking, guest lectures, organising a seminar series, going to that conference, publishing that paper, I said yes to it all. Its extra work, but it makes life a lot more interesting and you’ll reap the rewards later down the line.
The fantastic thing about actually being at a Uni is the diversity of things going on around you. So make time to step out of your PhD/Masters bubble, make friends with lectures, tutors and admin staff. I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the opportunities that crop up.
When it comes to the work, it feels hard but treat it like a real 9-5 type job and you’ll chip away at it just fine. Bite size chunks. I had days when I accomplished little more than a 2 sentences. Stick those days out and you’ll be rewarded with a day at the other end of the spectrum. Just have a little faith in yourself, and when it all gets a bit much go and get a change of perspective. For me handstands worked a treat. But hobbies work well too. My memories of my years in Swansea are that much sweeter for those countless hours climbing on the cliffs of the Gower.
As you dive into the nitty gritty of writing or analyses it can get easy to lose sight of the big picture or the overall theme. I remember countless times when I fell a little too deep into the rabbit hole, and felt like I was fumbling around in the dark. This is where Andrew’s supervision proved invaluable. He’s always got an eye on the big picture and will remind you of it when you need to be. It can be tempting to knock on his door every 5 minutes, but try to refrain. Rack your brain and exhaust every alternative first. At the end of the day the ultimate goal here is to become an independent researcher, and independence is something you learn. Of course this doesn’t work every time though, and that’s ok. Plan properly for your meetings and time with Andrew and maximise it; I promise you’ll walk away with a spring in your step.
Now an MRes student at Imperial College, London.
Being a recent graduate can be an incredibly exciting but daunting time of your life. Feeling adrift after searching for the right opportunity, I sent Andrew an email entitled ‘Advice for a recent Swansea graduate’. I could not be more thankful for his quick and enthusiastic response.
Fast-forward a few months and I was back in Swansea as an Intern at SHOALgroup, working alongside and learning from researchers whose projects I had heard about in my undergraduate lectures at Swansea. I could barely contain my excitement!
My internship allowed me the opportunity to try so many new things. From documenting and supporting the building of wildlife-tracking devices, to helping deploy collars on the cattle at Rothampsted Research centre and assisting in the field on the baboon project in Cape Town.
I am very grateful for the confidence Andrew had in my ability. It’s safe to say I had never built a wildlife-tracking collar before, but everyone in SHOALgroup and Swansea’s Bioscience Department gave me endless support and are always willing to help.
Andrew’s mentorship taught me so much. I know the invaluable lessons of; embracing new opportunities, remaining flexible to changes in circumstances, and being independent, will assist me in any future roles and research.
My advice to anyone in similar shoes as me is to send that email you are feeling nervous to send; you never know the opportunities that will come from it!