This Saturday, marches will take place around the world on Earth Day, celebrating what science has achieved, and highlighting the importance of publicly-funded science in society.
Modern life being full of the fruits of publicly funded research: The internet, microchips and GPS being commonly cited as the offspring of government funding of science through universities or research institutes. But barcodes, instant baby milk and touch screens also started out as a series of PhDs and academic papers. And yet if anything, today science is seen as less and less important to society as self proclaimed “experts” lead semi-organised rebellion against both the scientific process and validity of research. In my field, climate change, public perception about the human influence and potential impacts are far more sceptical than the science surrounding the subject. In fact, despite 97% of climate scientists and 97% of work on climate science shows a link between anthropogenic emissions and a warming climate. Yet for some reason, climate change is seen as “scam”, and research into it a waste of money. It is fair to say that public tolerance of using government funding for scientific research, especially when the advantages aren’t immediately obvious.
And that is what this march is for. To ensure that the value of government funded scientific research is known. It is specifically important for those sciences where immediate results in advancing technology aren’t obvious, such as climate change. And in the case of climate change, there is no commercial value to the research if it isn’t a global effort to understand and combat it.
That is why I’m marching. To ensure that the pursuit of science is recognised as important, and that in these changing times, both in the UK and around the world, science research remains at the heart of the country.
Going to university is a life-changing event. And this year, over 532,000 of you will be taking the first steps away from home. Within them will undoubtedly be some people who will go on to become
leading climate scientists. But at the moment, they’re still freshers, caught up in the thrill of leaving home, having independence and the freedom to live life. Those first few weeks can really define your friends, your tastes and your experience of university massively so it’s important to get it right. Below are a few things I wish I’d known in my first few weeks of charging around a strange new place, in the hope they may help the future start off well.
Be a new you
It’s a bit of cliché, but at uni, no-one knows who you are. That horrible nickname you had all through sixth form is unknown to these people. As is the time that you embarrassed yourself by calling a teacher “Mum”, or that time when you were shot down in the middle of a maths lesson for asking out the hottest girl in the school. What it means is that you have a clean slate and you don’t have your baggage with you that has followed you round school.
However, a word of advice. You get a clean slate when moving to university. But that doesn’t mean you should completely re-invent yourself. It means you can be you. Trying to be something you’re not isn’t going to bring you the friends you want, and is probably going to work out worse for you than just being yourself. A big difference between school and university is that what people think of you isn’t as big a deal, so you don’t need to feel you conform to any stereotype of any type of person.
Chances are, you’ll meet hundreds of new people for the first few days as you meet one person, then meet the people they’ve met, then meet the people they’ve met…. It can be a lot to take in, and names can become confused. Of those few hundred you’ve met, by Christmas, you’ll be friends with a handful, acquaintances with a few tens more, and the rest will be a vague blur of names, faces and nights out. It’s the same for everyone, and as you wander round the first couple of weeks, everyone is going to forget names and courses at least a few times. So don’t stress it. The names of the people who it will be important to know in a few weeks will be the ones you’ll remember. Because they’ll be the ones you want to hang out with again.
On the point of meeting people, it’s often useful to find a few members of your course early on, especially if your degree is a small course. My degree had 7 of us on it, and whilst the lectures for the first year and a bit were shared with several other degree courses in the physics, maths and geoscience departments, by third and fourth year, the specialised nature of the courses meant that we were a much smaller, much more intimate group. Making friends from that group early on is a pretty good way of making sure that you’re not entering that stage of your university life feeling slightly outcast from the group. Of course, friends in related courses are just as valuable. Knowing a pure physics or pure mathematician can be a savoir for Meteorology students, especially when faced with tricky fluid dynamics and atmospheric physics lectures in final year.
Another point with meeting people is not to worry if you don’t like someone. You’re meeting hundreds of new people, it’s only natural that there are going to be some people who aren’t your type of person. No-one has a definitive friend group at this point, so it’s much easier to avoid the people who you aren’t keen on staying friends with beyond freshers week. Chances are, they’ll end up with a different set of friends to you anyway.
Try new things
Having got your clean slate and made some new friends, it’s going to be time to go to the societies and sports fair and sign up to the Harry Potter Society to the Mixed Martial Arts group, and everything in between. Whilst we admire your bravery, signing up for everything isn’t the way forward. It’ll just mean that you’ll become that person who rarely turns up for the socials, and so ends up being a bit outcast in everything.
As a rule of thumb, limit yourself to 3 societies per year. Any more than that, and you certainly won’t be able to commit yourself to them properly, and in a lot of cases, some societies and sports clubs within universities can be a bit cliquey is you don’t get inside them early on. If you’re interested in playing sport, but know that you’re not good enough for the university teams, then check out the options for the intra-mural sports within your department (where you’ll play against other departments in a more relaxed, friendly atmosphere), or look into other local teams, as you’ll get a lot more out those than sat on the bench as the “plucky kid”.
That isn’t to say that you can’t swap societies next year. I switched the theatre group for skydiving in my third year and enjoyed it just as much. There are normally plenty of opportunities to try things in the first couple of weeks, so have a go, but limit yourself to signing up properly to just the handful.
Keep an eye on the money!
If you’re lucky, you’ve just got your student loan/grants in, and it’s probably more money than you’ve ever had in your life. But as tempting as it is to go on a massive spree and buy everything in both IKEA and the pub down the road from it, limit yourself. The first term will always be the largest in terms of outlay – You have new societies, new pans/pots and homey stuff, you’re more likely to want to visit old friends in other places, and then you have Christmas to deal with to! And that’s before you work out that actually, the first payment has to cover 5 months’ rent payments (Sep, Oct, Nov, Dec and Jan) before you get your next loan in.
Getting a student bank account is often an important part of money management. They often come with an overdraft, which is great for when you’ve gone over your allowance, but be very careful with it – often the fines for overdrawing on an overdraft are very large, and not worth it.
So limit what you spend, particularly for the first term. It is infinitely better to have money spare in January due to being too frugal than to be broke in December and having to ask your parents for extra money. Planning meals is a good way to save money, as is making lunch instead of buying it out. And the reduced section of the supermarkets are always a good bet for cheap items for dinner, even better if they’re freezable. If you make it through to January of first year still with money in the bank, the rest of the year is a bit more free for you to work through.
Have fun in moderation
Yes, this sounds like the boring parent bit, but it’s a pretty good one. If you go out every night getting hammered, then you’re likely to end up having lost not only a lot of money, but also done something stupid. In my first few weeks in halls, we had people break ankles jumping off cars, phones being lost/broken, relationships break up and all sorts of other issues. The reputation you get in the first few weeks can still follow you around for the rest of uni, so if you spend your time getting drunk and pulling random people every night, then it will come back to bite you later on. A friend of mine did exactly that, and when it came to admitting to a girl that he’d fancied her for nearly 3 years later on in uni, his reputation was one of the main things that put her off, even though he was a great guy in every other aspect.
That isn’t to say that it can’t be done occasionally. A good night out is often needed just to blow off steam, and nights in the pub are good ways of socialising. Just don’t do it all the time. If you care to remember, the main reason to go to university is to get a degree for the rest of your career, so you probably should spend some time looking at that too. And for heaven’s sake, be safe. Nothing is going to screw up your university first year than becoming a mother/father….
And finally, but most importantly – always have spare teabags. Nothing will make you friends faster than popping the kettle on….
This week, I face the prospect of giving a talk. For some people, that lead to sleepless nights, a bunch of frayed nerves and a desire to drink heavily afterwards in relief. Normally, I’m not one of those people. I was making presentations for youth project funding to panels of strangers at 14, running and MC-ing an entertainment evening show for 150 people at 18, I even started off the first 5 minutes of an Edinburgh Fringe show I was teching to cover for a late comedian one summer (incidentally, it was the same 5 minutes I found out that I wasn’t as funny as I thought). Most of these were performances, and any serious talk about my research or my area of work has been to an academic audience, either at conferences, research group meetings or to other academics, groups in which I feel comfortable talking to.
Today however, I am one of those people who is fearing doing the dreaded talk. And that is because it’s a public lecture – open for anyone to attend and listen to. It’s not the biggest audience I’ll ever have talked to, the hall I’m in will only seat about 80 people. But it’s the fear that for 50 minutes on Thursday evening, anything I say could end up costing myself, but could also be detrimental to the scientific cause I’m talking about.
I’ve done some minor media training, and talking to the public world sounds vicious. Stories of scientists who give a sniff of opportunity for a controversial headline for the Sunday papers run rife, every public interaction assessed by someone looking for a scoop that “disproves the experts”. Personal social media accounts, blogs and encounters forced to carry the standard “not the views of my employer” for fear of bad media coverage. I’ve been to public scientific talks before and know first-hand that there always seems to be at least one person, sat somewhere near the back, who wants to fight the point with alternate theories or their own damming evidence of scientific lies.
I understand why scientists are scared to engage with the public. I also understand why my academic supervisors are equally as terrified, partially that I’ll be torn to shreds and come back a destroyed man, partially that any ripple from my mistakes also affects them and indeed, the whole department. My topic (“communicating climate change to the public” – ironically enough) is one that I find fascinating, and is something that I think really makes a difference in the fight to get governments to take action against climate change.
But after having my work reviewed by someone more pronounced in speaking in public forums, the idea that one slip of the tongue, one slightly ambiguous phrase, can lead to awkward and uncomfortable questions for the entire community became clear. I sent the script, and received back a sheet of suggested changes, many of which were rewording phrases which, at first glance, seemed fine. They weren’t even the science, that was fine. They were mostly the segways from slide to slide, or turns of phrase when describing graphs. It terrifies me that for a simple public talk, the exact wording has to be used for us to feel safe. It’s beginning to feel less like a public talk, and more like a court cross-examination.
It’s good in a way that the public are prepared to demand evidence to believe a theory – scientists are no different in that respect. And I don’t want that to stop. But the feeling that within a crowd there are people that are not there to hear your evidence, but to force a slip-up so that all evidence can be discounted, is one which brings fear to many. And if someone who has little fear of standing up and talking to people can feel the nerves like I am now, then I truly feel sorry for those who are dealing with it when they’re already out of their comfort zone. And I feel that it means we’re going to have to find other ways to try to get our message of the effects of climate change out to the public as we go into the future.
PhD’s used to be considered a strenuous, almost tortuous process, in which only the very brightest minds could possibly survive. Only those who had ideas of going into academia and wanting to achieve the very highest reaches of their fields dare venture in.
Today however, it feels as though doing a PhD has become an acceptable title for those who “wanted to be a student forever” or “can’t get a real job”. Whilst there is still a sense that to do a PhD, you must be a relatively smart cookie, there is an unfortunate stigma which has attached itself to the term and makes people who “work in the real world” doubt that the level of work put into a PhD is anything near the effort that an actual job entails.
I’m not going to start complaining here that everyone should stop giving a hard time to those that undertake a PhD. My issue is that undergraduates are hearing this, and think that a PhD is a way of postponing having to find a job where they will work long hours and instead means they get to travel the world going to conferences in exotic places whilst paying no tax on their income.
PhD’s are not that. Full time PhD’s may have some more flexibility with when they do work, but they will still be doing 40 hour weeks, and when deadlines, monitoring meetings and thesis writing come around, that can easily extend to 60 – 70 over 7 days a week. Most supervisors will have regular weekly or bi-weekly meetings to ensure that you aren’t being left behind, and by the time you get past the halfway mark, it will be you calling the shots about nearly everything. You might not pay tax on your stipend, but it isn’t exactly going to bankroll the lifestyle you have in mind for yourself, and you’re certainly not going to be saving much towards anything.
Yes, depending on the funding available, there is a good chance that at some point you’ll go to a conference which is abroad. But anything that isn’t strictly related to your work whilst out there isn’t going to be covered by the funding. And most evenings, you’ll be busy networking at events, rather than off exploring the nightlife. Your chances of a post graduate job are diminished significantly if you turn up to Day 2 of an international conference obviously hungover and tired.
The “cushy” lifestyle that is portrayed for PhD students could explain why the completion rate for PhD’s within 7 years in the UK is only 72%, and in America, where gaining a PhD is even more of a test of stamina, that figure is significantly lower, often below 50%. Whilst many people are unable to complete a PhD for a variety of reasons, the harsh realities of what doing a PhD entails often cause a significant number of these.
When asked what it’s like to do a PhD by those on University open days, or interview days, the questions very rarely ask what a PhD gives them, or what it means for job prospects afterwards. Most ask about the money available, what it’s like working independently in an office, and, in one case, what areas of research are most likely to have the best conferences in the best places. And those are the wrong questions to be asking if you’re thinking of doing a PhD.
Your PhD won’t be your finest work in your career and it’s exceptionally unlikely that your PhD thesis will be a best seller, or win you a Nobel prize. The work you do is likely to be something that only a handful of people worldwide will ever read and/or understand.
In short, a PhD is essentially a 3-5 year apprenticeship at a highly demanding research facility. You’re being shaped into a researcher, which is something that isn’t taught at undergraduate or even master’s level. The skillset you develop during a PhD will serve you for life much more than the actual content of the work you do. Yes, there are perks, and it will be fun at times. And 10% off at Co-op is very nice when you’re trying to watch the pennies. BUT it isn’t something that should be rushed into and certainly not something that is an easy option when you can’t be bothered to find a “real” job.