Doing a PhD at Lancaster University

I have known I wanted to be an Astronomer since I was 11 years old.

This knowledge has been the driving force behind all my life as a student. Through high school, undergraduate and Masters programs, and has recently culminated (as of my VIVA in February 2020) with me being awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in observational astrophysics by the University of Lancaster. Doing a PhD was a very interesting experience and I hope to leave here some pieces of “wisdom” gained through my PhD in Lancaster.

When I first arrived at Lancaster, I had no idea what I was doing. This probably applies to a lot of students starting their PhD, but for me the expression had a more realistic and immediate application: I was lost and turned the wrong way when I left the train station, which meant I went away from the University rather than towards it. Not an auspicious start, one might think. However, as my supervisor is fond to say, “When things work perfectly, we never really learn anything”, and I ended up discovering the bus station and managed to secure a ride to campus, where I was supposed to start living at the  Graduate College. The following days I met the research group I was to be integrated in and slowly got acclimated to living in the UK. In time, I got to do my own research on supermassive black holes and their host galaxies, I got to publish my own first-author papers. I even had the opportunity to visit ESO’s Very Large Telescope, in Paranal, Chile! That start, with no idea of what was going on, ended up translating into an exciting and interesting experience, full of opportunities I had never had before, some of which (like the VLT visit) were things I had dreamed of achieving since I was a child.

I feel like my experience on my first arrival to the UK is a good analogy for the PhD. At points, especially at the beginning, you will feel lost. I believe this happens to everyone, in one way or another. And it is normal: doing a (research focused) PhD was markedly different than the experiences I had had before with classes and courses. As a research student, we don’t often have the… “luxury” of certainty in our studies. What we work on is often, after all, a subject that is poorly understood by current science. This goes double in Astronomy, which has the aggravation that all of the objects of our studies are too far away, and operate on timescales way beyond a human lifetime, for scientists to “go there and see how it works”. We can make educated guesses – but it’s difficult to be certain. The point of this is that a PhD student will often find instances where he/she is not sure of what is going on, or whether the results of his/her research are trustworthy. The key to overcome this problem is communication. With your colleagues, other research students, members of staff and, most importantly, your supervisor. If there is one thing I have learned in my PhD is that we are not supposed to know everything and that it is alright to ask questions. Talk to your supervisor as often as possible. Ask questions about what you don’t understand, what worries you in your research, or just about anything that has caught your interest in that latest paper you’ve read. You are showing interest, willingness to learn and interest in discovering more. In my experience, your supervisor will be more than happy to engage with you on these questions.

My experience in this topic at Lancaster was very positive. As soon as we arrived, the staff was pretty quick in consulting us about the possibility of establishing a few meetings for us to introduce ourselves and discuss anything that may be of interest to us. This ended up in the creation of what we now call the Tea meeting, Lunch meeting and the Science meeting. These are meetings that now occur in the Lancaster Observational Astrophysics research group every week and went a long way in getting me comfortable with everyone and used to the life of a PhD student. With the Lunch and tea meetings, I had the opportunity to chat with the staff and other students of my research group about all kinds of topics, either astronomy-related or completely off-topic, like the true nature of a chicken wrap and whether or not it can be considered a sandwich. The Science meeting, on the other hand, provided an opportunity to explain what I had been doing during the week, what problems I faced and what I thought would be my next course of action. These meetings were instrumental in getting me used to admit to having problems (something that is crucial and that I had a lot of trouble expressing in the beginning) but also prepared me to a crucial stage of research: presenting you results to other people.

At some point in your PhD you will be asked to submit an application for a talk or a poster presentation at some conference. This may seem daunting, at first (my first talk at a conference I was so nervous I wasted more than half the time I had just on the introduction alone, trying to get every detail just right), but it is important to remember that conferences are an opportunity to meet new people who are just as enthusiastic as we are about Astronomy and to show everyone else why you think what you do is interesting. Just do your best, learn what you can and most importantly, have fun!

Which brings me to another point: papers. During my time at Lancaster, my supervisor created a Journal Club. Most research groups in Universities will have these. Every week we would meet up, and those of us who volunteered for it would present a paper of their choice and then discuss it. I feel this was honestly one of the best ways for us to really understand a paper, as we would discuss the findings and, sometimes, shortcomings of the research presented in the paper. I sometimes hear students complain about reading papers. I get it, it’s a bother having to go through all that text and it is difficult to sometimes get information out of them. The thing is, it is only hard the first 10 or 20 times. I realize this might not sound too great an argument to make (I have to read 20 papers before I get used to it?) but the thing is, papers are the way for researchers to communicate with each other. We work all around the world, different time zones, different languages, different research subjects. Publishing a paper is akin to sending a text message to everyone with the tittle “Hey! Here’s what I found! (or didn’t, as can also be the case)”. Not only that but papers are peer-reviewed. This means one or more independent scientists will analyse your work and judge whether or not it should be accepted for publishing. This ensures scientific work published as a paper is up to standards of quality and that the results presented are trustworthy. Receiving one of these “referee reports” can be a harrowing experience – I know I felt like my self-esteem had taken several blows with rocks the size of baseballs, the first time I received a more sternly worded one. What’s important to realize is this: It is not personal. So don’t take it personally. I personally find it helpful to read these referee reports as soon as I get them and then sit on them for one or two days. It helps me digest the comments and separate them from the emotional response of just feeling angry, sad or shamed that my work is being criticised in such a way. 99% of the time those feelings will not have any relation with reality and the comments from the referees are actual honest attempts at clarifying something in your research that wasn’t clear to them or at simply improving the overall paper and how information is conveyed to the reader. Sometimes you can get a referee that is openly hostile and counter-productive but I have never had that experience in my life. I recommend that you set yourself a kind of schedule (maybe read the titles of new papers submitted on ArXiv, every morning before starting to work, just after arriving in the office. If any look interesting, give them a more in-depth read). It is a great way of keeping yourself up-to-date to what the new findings are in your field and pretty soon you will be doing it naturally, without even having to think about it.

All of this may sound like a lot of work and I am not going to lie, a PhD is a pretty demanding task, both in terms of time and effort. It requires a serious commitment but that doesn’t mean you should not take time to yourself. In fact, I believe this might be the most important advice I can give another PhD student: make time for yourself and rest. Set time apart on weekends for other activities, play videogames, go to pubs, walk around, and just relax. Otherwise you will end up burned out and unable to do anything. Your PhD will become a chore and it will stop being fun. Have fun learning and doing or PhD.

Do these things and eventually you will find yourself in the shoes I was at the end of January: thesis handed in and date for the VIVA set a month from then.

The VIVA is the FINAL BOSS of the PhD. All your fears and insecurities come crashing down. You shouldn’t have handed the thesis so early, it was written terribly, there are so many mistakes, the examiners won’t even want to look at it, what if the questions are really hard, what if I can’t answer, what if they find out you’re a fraud?!

All these are questions that you may face during your PhD and they will be thrown back at you again once the VIVA comes around. By your own brain. Everyone has these doubts. I had them, especially the last one. Impostor Syndrome is something a lot of people, including myself, struggle with. What you need to understand is simple and complicated: you are not a fraud. Simple because it’s true. Complicated because every fibre in your being will be screaming these doubts at you. But remember: You got into the PhD on your own merit and the work you have constructed you thesis out of was done by you alone. I remember Dr. Brooke Simmons, one of the researcher in our group, once told me, during a get-together: “You are the leading expert in your field.” It’s true. You may not feel like it but no one else has done what you did in your PhD. You are the one who knows the most about the subject of your research. The examiners of your VIVA will not be there to make your life difficult. They will ask questions to test you, yes, but also because they are genuinely interested. Explain your research to them, why it is interesting, what you found and what you did to find it. In the end you will realize it wasn’t nearly as bad as you were making it to be. All the work, all the sacrifices and commitments you’ve made will pay off. And you will come out a Doctor.

In summary:

  • Ask questions! You are not supposed to know everything (that’s why you are a student).
  • Talk to your Supervisor regularly. Talk to you colleagues and other staff too. They will be happy to help.
  • Go to conferences, present and read papers, even if you do not feel comfortable doing so. Science is a community effort, you will gain from your interactions.
  • Do not take criticism of research personally. If something goes wrong that just means we can learn something from it.
  • You deserve to be here!
  • Have fun!

The time of my PhD at Lancaster was easily the best and most gratifying time I ever had as a student. And looking back I realize that more than just teachers and fellow students, my research group had become friends. 

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