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Finding the wood in the trees. A PhD – Part 1

Originally published on 2 January 2019
I think starting a PhD is probably different for everyone. That’s sort of the point, that you are on a unique journey that identifies (hopefully) new, original knowledge or understanding about something. There are probably a lot of similarities in the PhD path, but I can’t really describe those. Perhaps if you’re in a team working on a project, then you have a good understanding of the routes your colleagues are taking, but even though I’m part of a cohort, the nature of ‘Forest Edge’ means we really are ‘going it alone’.
We are the first cohort of Forest Edge PhD students at Birmingham University, as part of BIFoR the Institute of Forest Research. Funded by the Leverhulme Trust, one of the presiding prinicples of our studies being that they would be interdisciplinary. This means we really are studying completely different aspects from the effect of coppice bundles on nitrates in streams to the use of wild spaces by children.
Not only are we interdisciplinary as a group, my studies are interdisciplinary by nature. Although I will finish with a PhD in ‘Geography and Environmental Science’, I am (unusually I think), combining both the social science and physical science aspects in a study of Landscape and Land Use Change. I’m focusing on Land Managers perceptions and preferences in regards afforestation for Natural Flood Management; Forest, Flood and Farmer. If I don’t complete the PhD I at least have a future album title. It’s a win win situation.
You can probably tell that at nearly three months in I’m pretty excited. The start was daunting. You arrive without a program, spend a few days trying to sort out adminstration whilst wondering what it is you are actually doing. If you’re lucky you meet your supervisors fairly early, which was a godsend for me, because I’d been to as many relevant sections of the library as I thought might be relevant and was starting to freak out. They calm you down and through discussions you identify the first few things you need to go away and think about. A key one for me was ‘what is geography?’ As my background is Music – Physics – Education – Science and Technology Studies and the last Geography lesson I can remember (no lie) I was colouring in a river… (Leon I’m so sorry, I should have spent more time in your department!!). Turns out Geography is awesome and pretty damn broad – if it involves people and place, it’s geography. And it can go from standing in a river taking depth measurements to analysing anxieties and behaviour. It’s cool!
So, alongside a crash course of sitting in on Masters seminars and in-depth background reading, I also had to look at some of the specifics of my own studies. I really have chosen something that spreads across topics, I’m having to get a grounding in literature around farming knowledge, landscape perceptions, basic silviculture, flood modelling, Natural Flood Management etc. Becoming an ‘expert in my field’ as every good PhD student should, would be damn daunting, if it wasn’t for the fact that ‘my field’ doesn’t really exist as a thing. I suppose that’s good.
I’ve been very lucky as I have two incredibly supportive supervisors who are happy to meet regularly and can manage my rather circular lengthy unravelings.. they’ve helped me get writing and not go down too many unnecessary rabbit holes. Although the fact that we all get on so well is possibly making our meetings considerably lengthier than average…
Things did become difficult about two months in, as the volume of what I needed to unravel had become so great. But it was slowly teased out, and the act of ‘having’ to write something made me choose various focus points to hold on to. In the run up to Christmas it was my friends who became really important, being able to discuss topics with them, understand where they were and share ideas and concerns, made all the difference. The Forest Edge cohort itself is developing slowly, we’re finding our feet as a group, but I’m looking forward to the new year as we’ve got some plans and I think it’s going to be a really unique and special group to be part of.
I feel I’ve come through the first three months with something resembling a cohesive research design. This has arisen from both the original proposal and the literature I’ve chewed through. The holiday period is a bit terrifying as we’re only two months in when December hits and everyone starts getting all festive. Now we’re nearly back, it will be January and a whole month has buggered off without any particularly grand progress. But, being an older student, this is not new to me and has been an pain throughout my professional career as well, so I’ll get to grips with it.
I am nervous though, I’ve not come through this period unscathed. I’ve had at least one grilling that (whilst I still think it was unnecessary) did raise some key ideas I will have to tackle, and, I don’t know, at least 6 or 7 moments of ‘what if I can’t do this’. I’m not kidding, genuine knuckle tightening ‘what if this is a really bad idea’ moments. But they’re pretty quick to pass. I know it’s going to get trickier, that I’m going to feel more lost, particularly in the run up to data collection, when I’m meant to know what I’m doing but feel like I have no idea what’s going to happen. I also know, however, that this is pretty normal, and that when it does happen, I’ll have support and guidance. Or at the very least, friendly faces who’ll buy me a pint.
So, thoughts on doing a PhD at three months in?
Don’t think like a student. You may be ‘studying’ and ‘learning’, but you’re not a student. You are driving a project, setting your own targets, experimenting, learning, testing, analysing. You’re essentially doing a job for which you need master level project management skills, the ability to drive yourself whilst managing some life balance that I can only believe is practiced by the self-employed guru or televangalist….
It is also (second only to teaching) the best job in the world. If you get a chance to do it, do it.