Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.

Writing – don’t be shy

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When I started my PhD I had a simple plan in my head for how I thought it would go.

Year 1: Preliminary research, setting up the problem and gaining the knowledge base required to analyse my future results.

Year 2: Results come flooding in.

Year 3: Begin by pulling together the material I have generated and putting it into coherent form. A concentrated slog of writing, then I would be ready to submit.

Like all plans, it turned out to be wrong. It was probably useful in some sense, but my project has not followed the trajectory I set out in my head late in 2010. I actually had a substantial chunk of results (enough to write a paper) by the end of my first year. My second year was quite a barren time in terms of results, but highly educational. Now, in my third year, I am writing parts of my thesis before the model runs which will provide the bulk of two of the three results chapters are even finished.

I ended up starting my thesis earlier than expected because I had had some setbacks with the climate model I was using. Reading’s IGCM is a useful model but it has little documentation. Learning to use the model had as much in common with the oral traditions of the Icelandic sagas as it had with modern forms of written communication.

The long and short of it is that I had a lot of downtime while I was waiting for model test runs to complete, restarting crashed runs and so on. It took me around nine months from being introduced to the model to completing the final ‘results’ runs. The final runs themselves only took a month to run.

I found myself with some time on my hands. I could have done some tangential reading, but I find it hard to stay focused that way, and I don’t think I’m particularly good at learning that way. I learn much better with purpose behind me. For example, I learned a lot about radiation modelling a few months ago when I was writing the section of my thesis describing the code I was using, even though I had been using it since late 2010. Having to write it down forced me to re-examine what I did and didn’t know and to ensure my knowledge was up to scratch.

Early on in my PhD, while I was doing ‘exploratory’ reading and research, my supervisors encouraged me to write little reports. They told me it was good practice. Not only did it make me learn my stuff, it also helped them stay up to speed with the literature using my concise reviews. Also, some (but not all) of it could end up being slotted straight into my thesis. I ended up writing a few of these reports in my first two years. Some of them aren’t much use. Either the writing is too sloppy, or the results and/or analysis has changed. But one – a review of microphysical processes affecting sulphate aerosols – was indeed suitable to go straight into my thesis. Bam. A whole subsection. Done. And I wrote it in my first year!

I was also fortunate enough to have some interesting results by the end of my first year. Encouraged by my supervisors, I wrote a short paper about them. It was exciting for a young researcher to have a publication in a fine journal like Geophysical Research Letters. Re-reading the paper today there are quite a few things I would have changed. The figures could be improved and some of the methodology is needlessly fiddly. Nevertheless, it was another opportunity to write up a chunk of my future thesis. Even better, the quality of the work was somewhat assured since it got through peer review at GRL.

I have a spare couple of days while I run some diagnostics programs on my model runs, so I am writing this material into my thesis. It’s not quite as seamless as I wanted. The style of a thesis is more conversational than a paper (which is a shame – papers seem to be required to be difficult to read sometimes), so need to change that. I also have no space constraints, so I can expand on discussion if I thnk it’s appropriate. But even though I need to make changes, the main ideas and the deep thought behind this chapter of my thesis has already been done. It’s a good feeling.

It is not always possible to write a paper during your PhD. Sometimes it only comes together into a nice story later on. Nevertheless, I think it’s a very good idea to keep writing during your PhD. It helps drill information into your mind and saves you some work later on. It gives you a bit of variety in your everyday work. Your writing will improve, and, who knows, you might even like it.

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Author: Angus Ferraro

Trainee secondary physics teacher and former climate research scientist.

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