Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.

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My thesis: friend or foe?

Bound and ready to submit!

Bound and ready to submit!

Last Monday I submitted my PhD thesis. I walked over to the Examinations Office in the centre of campus, up a few flights of stairs, handed a big old pile of paper over to the secretary there, signed a form, and that was it. I started my PhD in October 2010, and according to my notebook I wrote the first few tentative words of my thesis in June 2012.

I have heard others tell tales of the looming monstrosity their thesis became in their life, constantly bearing down on them. The folk wisdom of the PhD student is that your thesis is your enemy, and that every day you have to do battle with it, to subjugate it and wrestle it into some kind of coherent shape. To be honest, it never felt that way to me. I followed the standard routine chapter by chapter: outline, concept map, make figures, write text, proofread and edit, send to supervisors, revise. When I started blogging I had planned to use it to describe the process of writing a thesis as it happened: a ‘stop-motion’ thesis, as I called it then. It turns out that the process is a largely uneventful one, churning through the routine described above.

Occasionally this process broke down. There were times when I felt mentally and physically sluggish, so I took a short break – an afternoon off, perhaps – to refocus. It helped that I was still doing little bits of analysis quite late into my PhD. I had done enough to be content, but had a few extra things that were worth doing since I had some spare time. These tasks were pleasant distractions and allowed me to keep my mind active without stressing it out with major pieces of work with real and imminent deadlines. My thesis was never my friend, but it wasn’t my enemy either.

So, for me at least, writing a thesis hasn’t been an epic climactic undertaking. It’s been built up bit by bit, and I’ve worked without putting myself under crippling pressure. I think the academic environment here at the Department of Meteorology really helped: my supervisors provided encouragement, advice and calming words when they were needed, while the rich programme of seminars and group meetings reminded me that I was also there to learn, not just to write a big book and plonk it on someone’s desk.

As I walked back to my office after submitting my thesis I did feel noticeably ‘lighter’. Although it hadn’t been a stressful experience, getting rid of it still felt good. I am now free to do things for their own sake, rather than the artificial goal of a document for examination.

On the subject of examination, I still have my viva (or thesis defence) ahead. In the UK this takes the form of an oral examination by two examiners: the main one from another institution and the other from one’s own (who also takes the role of a moderator). The candidate is quizzed on the details of their thesis in order to check whether it really is their own work and whether they have the depth of knowledge befitting a PhD. It doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience but at the same time I’m looking forward to discussing my work with others. Much like the process of writing is pleasurable if one puts aside the fact it’s for a thesis, I hope the process of discussion my work will be pleasurable if I put aside the fact it determines whether or not I get a PhD!


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Getting the balance right: talks, posters and more at #EGU2013

This post is a collection of thoughts about learning how to ‘operate’ huge conferences like EGU. It’s my first time doing this and I’m now starting to learn how to get the most out of it.

First I’d like to talk about the bread-and-butter of the conference, oral presentations (talks). I like going to talks. A well-designed 12-minute talk can give a great overview of the research, communicating novel methods and approaches as well as key results. However, a full day of 12-minute talks is quite draining. My EGU personal programme for the first two days was completely filled with talks and by the end of the first day I was craving a poster session. I enjoy chatting to people over their poster more than I do sitting down and listening to a talk. Going to a talk is a more passive experience. For me, posters are a little more ‘human’. There is time for detailed conversation on topics of your choosing, or you can take a less tiring approach and just wander down the aisles of the poster halls and skim the posters of interest.

Days at the EGU meeting are structured such that most talks happen in the morning and posters in the afternoon. I like this. It recognises that talks are more taxing and puts them early on, allowing people to relax later in the day. However, on Monday and Tuesday I spent the 1730-2000 slot in two excellent short courses on tipping points and predictability. I will write a separate post about them later because they really were superb, but the long and short of it is that I found them a very valuable use of my time. I didn’t miss the posters at all during these sessions because the lecturers were so engaging.

Talks and short courses: that’s been my EGU so far. This evening I will get the chance to go to some poster sessions, which I am really looking forward to.

And yet I’m still missing out on huge chunks of the EGU experience! My calendar is full of sessions running in parallel, all of which I would love to go to. I’ve missed out on some excellent Medal Lectures, which I have heard from friends are really nice (a break from the short, functional oral presentations). When I put together my programme (using the excellent smartphone app) I quickly realised I was going to have to get used to this feeling that I was missing out. Yesterday I tried to flit between sessions, aiming to attend specific presentations. This can be done, but it gets complicated quite quickly, and sometimes it can take a while to get to the new room.

Today I have taken a more laid-back approach. If a talk comes up that isn’t particularly relevant to me I will use that opportunity to ‘zone out’ and rest my brain. As the conference goes on I am finding downtime to be quite important! There is a park close to the conference centre which offers a chance to get some fresh air and relax. I find a relaxing lunch really helps me come back refreshed and ready to engage in the afternoon sessions.

My plan for this afternoon includes the remainder of the session on clouds, aerosols and radiation, the debate on fracking, and a whole host of posters on a remainder of topics. That’s the kind of mix I love: some talks relevant to my own work, something rather different with potential for great discussion, all rounded off by a walk around the poster hall. This evening I’ll be heading to the EGU Tweetup, a meeting for scientists interested in using Twitter and similar tools for science communication. See the #egutweetup hashtag for more details.

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New chapters and foreign lands

By January of this year a major chunk of my PhD work was winding to an end. I had spent a long while looking at the effect of stratospheric aerosol geoengineering on the circulation of the stratosphere, which will form the second (and probably biggest) of the three results chapters in my PhD thesis. At the start of my project I had spent a lot of time reading about stratospheric dynamics and it’s now a somewhat familiar area to me. Well, almost. I still find some chunks counter-intuitive, and sometimes downright baffling. But at least it’s baffling in a familiar way.

We are always reluctant to move away from the familiar. But the work for my final results chapter required that I take the plunge into material and theory that was very much unfamiliar. I was going to look at the impacts of geoengineering on the tropospheric circulation. I eased myself into it by thinking about the tropospheric jet streams first. I at least have some grounding in this area. The dynamics of the midlatitude jet streams is somewhat similar to the dynamics of the stratosphere, and my undergraduate degree in Meteorology has quite a heavy emphasis on the theoretical underpinning of it all. The work on the jet was a nice transition.

Recently (over the past month or so) I have been thinking about precipitation. Especially tropical precipitation. Now, the Earth’s Tropics are meteorologically very different from the midlatitudes. In the midlatitudes the Coriolis Force is a significant effect and weather is determined by large scale wavelike motions producing depressions and anticyclones. Rainfall is mostly frontal in nature. In the Tropics the Coriolis Force is negligible. As a consequence we don’t usually see very large horizontal temperature gradients. This means we don’t see large, rotating weather systems. Rain comes from convective storms, on a much smaller scale than midlatitude frontal depressions. There is so much moisture in the air in the Tropics that the vertical temperature profile pretty much everywhere shows evidence of the release of heat when water vapour condenses to form rain. This forms a characteristic moist adiabatic temperature profile (see image below). Without a strong Coriolis Force this temperature profile is spread over the Tropical belt, so we see it even outside the rain-producing regions.

In order to interpret my model results I had to learn to think differently. Intuitions learned from midlatitude dynamics don’t apply this close to the Equator.

Learning new theory can be pretty intimidating. It’s difficult to know which paper to read first. Sometimes I find myself feeling paralysed. I have a pile of things to read but keep having to refer to different sources to understand terminology, or to get to the bottom of some ‘obvious’ physical understanding not fully explained in one piece of research. Then I took a different tack. I went to see one of the hundreds of other people working in the Department of Meteorology.

This department has experts on any conceivable area, and now, when I’m learning new theory, this is becoming invaluable. In a single hour with a researcher in tropical meteorology I ‘got’ it. I understood the fundamental differences between tropical and midlatitude thinking. Now I can read those papers with confidence. Now I understand the terminology, and a little of the intuition as well. Self-teaching works well (and is entirely necessary for a PhD student) but spending a little time with an expert can help one learn how to teach oneself. This is much the same as, how, when learning a foreign language, you must first learn enough to communicate on a basic level. Once you have that, you can begin to immerse yourself, to learn from conversation with native speakers. The amount of learning that goes on increases exponentially with time. You learn far more from native speakers. But you need to do that initial bit of work to access this higher plane of learning.

Talking of foreign lands, I will soon be off to the 2013 EGU (European Geosciences Union) General Meeting in Vienna. It’s a colossal conference (nearly 12,000 people attended last year) and I’m sure the experience will be educational, entertaining, confusing and exhausting. I’m sure I could list adjectives forever on that one. I will try to write some blog posts and Tweets during the conference, reflecting on what it’s like for a naive young PhD student to be launched into one of the world’s biggest academic conferences.


The working day of a PhD student

The results are in! Over the past month I have been logging my work patterns. I explained my motivation in a post before I started. I wanted to know how long I spent working, and what I was doing during working hours. The question was: can a PhD student get away with just working 9-5?

The answer is, broadly, yes.

How long do I spend working?

On an average working day I spent 8.57 hours ‘at work’. This is rather loosely defined, but essentially it means I am either at my desk on somewhere else on the university campus. I am not actually doing anything PhD-related for 2.17 of those hours. That brings my daily work time down to 6.4 hours.

Before I began, I estimated that I would spend 6 hours a day working. I may have overestimated my actual work time because I tended to round my working half-hours up (see the Methods section below).

The graph above shows the number of hours worked per day. The 8-hour line represents the standard length of a 9-5 working day. Some days were rather unproductive with large amounts of time ‘greyed out’ where no work was done. You can see at the start of the month, coming back from Christmas, I was very keen. I even did some reading on the weekend. Later on my working time waned slightly. You can also see that the second Friday was a very short working day. It snowed that day and I was finding it difficult to concentrate so I took the afternoon off!

What was I doing?

I spent the biggest chunk of my time coding. This applies to making plots as well as analysing data. Since climate modelling is necessarily computer-based, it’s no surprise coding comes out on top. Next comes my ‘nowork’ category, which I discussed above. I had just over two hours off per day. I rarely take clearly-defined lunch and tea breaks, but I suppose these two hours can represent them. In reality those hours were spent procrastinating on the Internet or doing other things not related to my PhD. This includes organisational tasks like booking transport to meetings and conferences, maintaining websites, and so on.

‘Understanding’ covered research I did with a specific purpose, like finding out how to do a particular type of analysis, or comparing my results with others. This explains why the time I spent ‘reading’ was comparatively small. My purposeful research obviously involved plenty of reading. The ‘reading’ category was specifically for reading new and interesting papers to develop my background knowledge, rather than to find a specific piece of information.

I was surprised how much time I spent in meetings. I think the proportion is artificially large because the Department held a Research Day in early January, when representatives of research groups give summaries of their work to the rest of the Department. Then again, I only went to an afternoon’s worth of talks. I value meetings. Obviously those with my supervisors are very important, but seminars are an excellent way to broaden my education. Recently I have also been thinking about acquiring new skills for analysis, and one of the best ways to learn about these is through seminars.

Finally, the ‘writing’ part: it’s very small, but that is because I haven’t really started my thesis in earnest yet. If I was at a loose end I would do a short stint adding some material or reorganising what I already had.

There is enough time

These results have shown that I haven’t been overly efficient during working hours. I don’t work very hard (in terms of work out versus time in), and yet my output is reasonable, as is the quality of my work. I worked slightly over the standard 8-hour day, but if I really wanted to I could trim this down without sacrificing quantity or quality. In fact, I might gain productivity by constraining my working day, because I’m likely to become less lazy and less easily distracted.


I used a Google Doc spreadsheet to record the time spent at work. I recorded my predominant activity in half-hour blocks. Work doesn’t fall neatly into blocks like this so I had to do some subjective re-jigging. For example, if I start work at 9:15, so I write in the 9:00 – 9:30 slot that I did some work? I went by the rule of thumb that, if I worked for more than half the time in the slot, I would record it. I categorised my time as follows:

  • understanding – active research, including reading, to find out specific things
  • coding – making plots or running models
  • meeting – talking to other scientists
  • writing – thesis or other smaller piece of writing; blog posts
  • reading – reading papers and other articles without a clearly-defined purpose
  • nowork – breaks, organisational stuff, admin

I think there is more information to be pulled out here. I actually find it quite interesting to just look at the colour-coded allocation of time in my spreadsheet rather than the graphs above. One can pick out, by eye, that I tend to do coding in long, uninterrupted blocks. I find it easier when I have got into the ‘flow’; plus it is simply time-consuming. Please do take a look at the spreadsheet. I would be interested in hearing comments on the results or the method, since I may be trying this again in the future!

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Work-life balance of a PhD student: an experiment

EDIT: Results here.

I have been meaning to write a post about work-life balance since I started this blog. I hear many PhD students say they feel stressed because they can’t switch off. They are constantly ‘working’, because they are not contracted to work a certain number of hours like proper members of staff. This constant worrying about work is unlikely to make you more productive. The solution is to realise that you have done enough work.

Alternatively, you could cultivate such warmth towards your work that it no longer stresses you. I enjoy my work so much that even when I work late into the evening I don’t tend to feel stressed. Tired, yes. Frustrated, of course, because its usually a troublesome piece of computer code that’s keeping me there. But I try to divorce that temporary frustration from my contentment that I have a life in which I get paid to learn. Could anything be better?

It is very hard to constantly have warm feelings towards your PhD project. Sometimes you will hate it. You will feel like you are not progressing and that you never will. This is normal, and this is why PhDs take years to complete. I think it’s valuable training to learn to deal with that frustration, to notice it, but to let it pass you by. Sometimes, when you are feeling fed up with it all, it’s best to stop. Continuing in this frame of mind will only accomplish two things: you will make little progress because of your stress and frustration, or you will produce sub-standard work because you are tired and just want to get it done. Best to take a break. Sometimes you can come back to it that day. Sometimes you’ll need to sleep on it.

It’s OK to stop. You have time.

It’s all very well saying that there’s plenty of time, but as a scientist I thought I should find out how much time. How many hours does a successful PhD student put in and what do they do during those hours?

I thought I would do a little experiment on myself. I am, perhaps hubristically, defining myself as a ‘successful PhD student’. I don’t mean that I’m outstanding. I just mean that my project is going OK and I plan to submit within three and a half years and I anticipate being able to call myself ‘Doctor’ not too long after that. I am going to record the number of hours per day that I spend at work and what I do during those hours.

I am recording time in half-hour chunks, which I think is a reasonable time resolution. I decided one-hour chunks were too limiting, because quite often I change what I am doing during the course of an hour. Plus, my procrastination rarely eats up a whole hour, but it does quite regularly devour 30 minutes at once. After a couple of days trialling, I have settled on a number of ‘activity tags’ to define what I am doing. They are:

  • understanding – active research, including reading, to find out specific things
  • reading – reading papers and other articles without a clearly-defined purpose
  • writing – thesis or other smaller piece of writing; blog posts; note-making
  • coding – making plots or setting up models
  • meeting – formal supervisor meetings, generally chatting to other scientists about work, going to seminars
  • nowork – procrastination, or taking a break

The data will go into a spreadsheet which tots up the number of hours I’m spending on different things. As you can see the timeline only goes to 7pm. I never work later than that. I plan to record my activities for the whole of January, which should be a long enough period to capture some interesting features (including transition from holiday to work period to undergraduate term-time). The results should be out in February.


Thesis writing: concept maps

A concept map for a section of my literature review.

In a previous post I wrote a bit about outlining: a useful and pretty basic technique for planning any body of writing. You set down what you want to write, in order. Then you write it.
It is quite rare to be able to structure the argument beforehand in this way. I use an outline for a very high-level overview of my thesis. It is essentially a table of contents. I find outlining too restrictive for planning the content of a section. I switch to a close relative: the concept map.

I doubt I would be alone in being initially disparaging of the ‘mind maps’ we are encouraged to create by enthusiastic teachers. I didn’t get the point. Back then I understood what I was writing with sufficient clarity to be able to hold things in my head. I did not need a map around my mind.

Things have got rather more complicated since then. I can’t hold a whole thesis section in my mind. The material is too detailed and subtle for that. Sure, I understand the concepts, and what material I want to include, and I might even understand how the concepts interact. This does not mean I understand intuitively how to write these things down in a coherent fashion appropriate for my thesis. So I revisited the ‘mind map’, which I prefer to call a ‘concept map’. They are surprisingly effective provided you actually need to use them to structure subtle arguments.

The image at the top of the post shows a concept map I drew for a relatively straightforward section of my thesis. I divided it into three clear topics. There isn’t much interaction between the topics. Then I scribbled down a load of things I want to cover. I’m not quite sure of the order of things yet, but by writing things down I can visualise how things fit together. I have included a few key references but it is safe to say I have not fully worked out how this section is going to work. The concept map is a freeze-frame of the state of development. I can add to it later.

The image below shows a very different concept map. It is for the ‘ethical and social’ section of my thesis, which is a brief section explaining some of the non-scientific issues around geoengineering. The subject matter is profoundly different from every other section and not something I am too familiar with. I recently attended a transdisciplinary summer school hosted by the Oxford Geoengineering Programme, and that gave me enough information to write down what I thought were the key concepts. Then I did a little reading around each to make sure I understood them properly, and added references in red. Finally I attempted to link some concepts together (arrows). There are four groups on the map below, though the one on the bottom and right is quite a loose grouping.

Concept map for a subsection of my thesis

Concept map for the ethical review section

Seeing all the things I needed to cover in this format allowed me to quickly test out different combinations in my head. Which concepts were related? What are the broad topic areas involved? What is the relevance of all this to my discipline, atmospheric science? The concept map is not just a planning tool; it is a thinking one. I should have taken snapshots as I built it up, because it would have revealed much of my thought process.

I suppose ‘mind map’ is not a bad phrase. These things do indeed act as guides, allowing you to forget banal things like remembering all the things you’re supposed to be thinking about and focusing on the significance of these things to each other and your thesis. I referred to the map constantly while I was writing this section of my thesis and I found it a pleasure to write, having got a lot of the nitty-gritty part out of the way. Having it set out in front of me freed my brain for the more exciting mental gymnastics of arguing persuasively and coherently and writing clearly.