The Day in the life of Tony Cliffe

The blog that's full of discussion, advice, travel and ramblings!

Autumn is around the corner. My four likes and dislikes of this season.

The nights are now getting longer, and thus, the days are shorter. There is a noticeable coolness to the winds that flow in off the Atlantic now, the first detectable signs of change in the colours of the leaves. Autumn is just around the corner.

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For some, autumn brings people joy and cheer, a change in the season, those turning colours of the leaves a welcome sign to usher in the colder weather as a respite from the summer. Not that we’ve had a particularly good end to the summer! It’s felt more autumnal in August this year than it does in November! Autumn, or fall, if you like saying words wrong, if I had to rank it, I’d place it at number 3 on my list. Spring is by far my favourite season when everything is warming up, nature is coming alive, and there is an excitement for the summer ahead, the longer days, the hot weather, and days out in the sun. Beautiful! Autumn, however, don’t get me wrong has its perks, way more than winter does (god I hate winter!) but it’s not as good as spring or summer. So, before you can say pumpkin spice latte, autumn will be here. So here are my four not so favourite things about this season and my, to its credit, four things I do like about this season.

Dislikes

I’m aware that many of my dislikes for autumn are probably some of your favourite things about it. You’re wrong, but that’s fine, I can live with that. Oddly, some of my dislikes have an alter ego side to them and form the basis of some of my likes for this season. All will become clear, I promise!

  1. The Long Nights and the Weather

In at number one is my number one dislike of autumn. The shorter days and long nights. It does my Seasonal Affective Disorder no good at all! The long days of summer, I pine for, the bright blue azure skies and the twilight of what little darkness hours exist in the summer. Autumn that all changes. You get up in the dark and by the time you get home from work, it’s nearly dark. It makes me feel like I’m trapped in a lightless cardboard box. Grim. I’m the type of person who runs hot to touch, which means I always feel cold, so I dread the colder weather coming in. At least now I don’t look out of place wearing jumpers and gilets, so silver lining I guess! I love the weather, but I suppose you might have already figured that out if my social media posts are anything to go by. Sure, I love storms they’re exciting, especially thunderstorms but in autumn the heat and the energy in the atmosphere dissipates, the high pressure forms low pressure and we go from clear blue skies to occasional epic thunderstorms, to an endless conveyor belt off of the Atlantic of cold wind, torrential rain, and endless days of cloud. If you’re lucky it might be spiced up with some fog or as they say in Newfoundland, Canada, you’re blessed with a million-dollar day. Which basically means it’s a blessing when you get a sunny day.

Wind and endless rain and no blue skies makes S.A.D. worse. How anyone can enjoy cold, wet and grey weather is beyond me, I think you need to be sectioned. There is nothing fun about it at all, and I cannot fathom why anyone prefers that over warm blue skies!

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Sunset and raindrops

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  1. Everything is a variety of Pumpkin

I get it, a critical autumnal event is Halloween and the tradition of pumpkin picking and carving is I admit, a fun thing to do. Pumpkins are there to be carved, have a candle shoved inside of it for one night and then disposed of into the compost heap because that’s where these weird orange balls deserve to be. They smell horrific when you’re carving them, and they taste as good as they smell. Awful. In recent years and I can only imagine this is the U.K.’s attempt to become more mainstream America (we have kids graduating with cap and gowns now from Nursery now, so why the hell not, next we’ll be buying guns in our supermarkets and blaming video games for mass shootings) that autumn signals retailers to add Pumpkin Spice to ordinary things. Pumpkin does not belong in coffee, how dare you tarnish the wonders of that beautiful hot bean juice with that filth! A delicious blueberry muffin is replaced by a Pumpkin Muffin. Candles are sprinkled with Pumpkin spice, Pumpkin bread, Pumpkin, Pumpkin, Pumpkin! I don’t actually think anyone actually enjoys a Pumpkin spiced anything, they just say they do to look like they’re cool Autumn Hipsters. Sorry, I feel I may have needed to get that off my chest.

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Cliffe pumpkins

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  1. Excuses for public transport

Granted, hopefully, this year now that I’ve passed my test and will have a car that this won’t be such a bugbear of mine, but as the seasons change, I can hear that big fat book of public transport excuses opening with a thud. Autumn brings in the wonderful excuses for those who operate public transport, (not naming names or pointing the finger here, well known North West train company *cough*) to cover up for their lack of service providing.  “What shall it be today, John? The 16.45 is cancelled because we forgot to staff it”… “Meh. Autumn? Oh yeah! Leaves on the line! Remember, it’s the wrong type of leaves! Don’t forget to tell the passengers that!”

“So this week we’ve had, the wrong rain, the wrong ice, the wrong wind, the wrong frost and now the wrong leaves? They suspect nothing!”

Autumn just gives people an excuse to cancel things, cancel plans and gives everyone the perfect excuse, just blame it on the weather!

  1. The changing of the leaves

Number four is one of my likes for a different reason, but here I will address why I dislike it. I hate it because I find it so incredibly sad! Spring and summer are so full of life and autumn is a swan song for all the plants and animals. Some creatures only survive the summer before dying, and the leaves on those big old mighty Oak show off with their most dazzling and spectacular colours, all that pizazz just before they lose it all.

One reason I absolutely despise winter is that everything is so bare and dead. Lifeless trees, lifeless light and gloomy clouds. Eugh! I just always feel despondent in autumn when the leaves change, the exotic birds fly back home leaving our shores, and bird song which is so loud in summer is replaced by the odd chirp here and there. Depressing!

Likes

Admittedly, those four dislikes above used to be a lot more, but as I’ve grown older while autumn will always remain firmly in 3rd place, I have grown fonder over the years of it. So, here are some of my most liked things about the season.

  1. Photography

Mirror of the lake

A passion of mine is photography and autumn to me, is the best time of the year for it. Sure, summer you can get out more to photograph things, but often it’s the wrong type of light. Summer sun can often be too bright, too harsh, which ruins your contrasts in shots and it has a cool feeling to it. Plus, landscapes are often very monochromatic, they’re just blue and then bright green for the leaves. Autumn is full of colour, the sky changes to a different blue, the green of the trees changes to deep reds, oranges, purples and pinks and the light is softer. It gives a photographer a treasure trove of photographic opportunities.

Sunrise on the canal

I love autumn for the colours it gives you, while it does make me sad I take comfort in capturing natures beauty before it goes super bland in winter.

Fisherman on the Leeds Liverpool Canal

  1. The Sunsets and the night sky

In a similar vein to Number one, my favourite time of day is twilight, always has been. There is something extraordinary about everything being backlit and silhouetted against the sky. In autumn, twilight gets dragged out as the angle of the sun gets lower, and due to this, before nightfall in autumn often offers up the most spectacular of sunsets and sunrises. With colder, denser air and the low angle of the sun, more light rays get scattered, giving me one of my favourite sights, Mother Nature, at her most glorious. Autumn offers up the most amazing colours you could ever see in the sky, and that makes me happy! Long after the sun is set, the night sky often has a deep soft glow to it before turning purple and then black. Stunning.

Those of you know me well know that a big passion of mine is Astrophotography. Astrophotography for me starts to come into its own in autumn. Yes, technically winter is the most perfect time for it due to it being the clearest of skies in the atmosphere and the most exciting in terms of what to see, at least autumn offers some form of warmth. I can spend a good few hours outside in the autumn photographing the stars compared to maybe an hour or so in the winter.

Norwegian Winters night in the forest

In summer, there is often too much haze for clear night sky photography, not to mention that this far north that you may not know this, but in Liverpool, we don’t officially have night time from about Mid-June till September.

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We stay in Nautical and Astronomical Twilight, so it’s often not dark enough to photograph stars. While it may seem dark outside to you, the camera still looks like it’s almost day time. So hurray for night time, never hear me say that again in any other context!

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Caught a satellite tonight!

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  1. The Cosy Feeling, cold weather and warm jumpers

The weather, oh, we’ve been here before, right? Obsession alert! While often the weather is pants in autumn, it does usually offer up some of the clearest and bluest of skies. Not to mention those sunsets and star-studded skies I love so much. But, there is also something incredibly cosy and special about autumn that, as I’ve got older, I’ve grown to look forward to. While nothing will ever replace the feeling of warm sunshine and wind on my skin, I love wearing shorts and t-shirts! I must admit that I secretly look forward to wearing chunky knit jumpers again. I love wearing big thick boots, warm jeans, gloves, scarfs, mix and matching many blazers and coats in an outfit and above all, the cosiness of a beanie hat.

Plus, it’s the perfect excuse for me to go full Geographer and wear boots, fleece lined walking pants and various fleeces and waterproofs. Yes! Love the adventurer look!

There is something special about that nip in the air, that cold that stings your cheeks when you get inside, the smell of the fire crackling or the warm caress of the heating, the crunch of the frost underfoot and that no better feeling of when it is frosty outside or the wind and rain is howling against your window, and you look outside from the warmth of your bed. Bliss!

There is something also about autumn that brings the kid out in you. Piles of leaves on the floor are impossible not to kick, pumpkins have to be picked, and fireworks set off. Autumn still awakens that little kid in me, the one who knows that just around the corner is winter and winter means Christmas. Yay! Autumn is super cosy.

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Crunch of the frost

  1. The food

With colder weather means a better appetite. Throw out those salads because you no longer need a beach-ready body, you need a hibernation ready body! Jumpers and thick coats hide a multitude of sins and food is just way better in autumn and winter.

When it’s too hot, you turn your back on cosy and comforting foods for salads, B.B.Q.s and vegetables. In winter, there is nothing more comforting than a giant bowl of chunky soup and crusty bread to dip into it. Hearty meals like scouse, stew and pies become the go-to on a cold day. Drinks all suddenly appear to be mulled, and I get to drink my favourite autumn/winter drink, Hot Ribena.

Yaaaas! I’m ready for it! While summer isn’t over yet (did it ever really start? Am I right?!) There will still be the occasional hot spell for us to enjoy, but the inevitable is just around the corner. Autumn is nearly here, the long nights, the pumpkin spice and the big coat season is fast upon us!

Is Autumn your favourite season or is it your worst? Let me know in the comments and why!

 

A dedication to the mentors

A sign in my kitchen states ‘Behind every successful person lies a substantial amount of coffee’ while I agree that may well be the case, it is missing a sentence. That sentence should be “and a series of mentors who have inspired, developed and took a chance on that person”.

In my latest new series of dedication blogs, the first of which is dedicated to these five amazing individuals: My dedication to the inner circle! this one is dedicated to many people who, in a professional context have either inspired, developed or taken a chance on me as mentors. Despite being full of over-self confidence, I’m fully aware that my successes are not down to me alone. Hard work, a massive slice of luck and a number of dedicated mentors, have made me who I am today. I’ve been very fortunate to have had the guidance or the backing of a number of good mentors over the years. Too many, sadly to put in this blog. I’ve had mentors from football coaches as a kid to my recent supervisory team, all of whom have played an equally important part in my development. For example, my last supervisory team have had a considerable hand in my PhD success, but they know that and I’ve written about them in my PhD blogs. But, just like the first dedication blog I thought I’d pick this time, six people who I’d like to say thanks to, who I don’t often write about.

When you think of a typical mentor, you probably think of usually someone who is older, wiser and ultimately someone who you respect. Mentors can inspire you to be better, they can demand and push you to be better and ultimately, every mentor sees something in you that you fail to see in yourself. Mentors you don’t have to get along with or even like necessarily (but it does help), but you respect them. The mentors in this blog some I got on really well with and ultimately had a great working relationship with, some even became friends. Some, I had no formal working relationship with, and some I absolutely hated!

Inspiration 

A good mentor will often unlock hidden potential, or part of yourself that you didn’t know existed before. They’ll ignite a fire and a drive in you because they’ve been so inspirational, either in their demeanour or in whatever it is they do. For this, I often think of two teachers that I had in High School who inspired two significant parts of my identity, Geography and Writing.

Ask any Geographer and long after their degrees they’ll still strongly identify themselves as a proud geographer. Regardless of age, fierce debate and banter between the fractions of Geographers will always be had, and god help it if you proclaim a Human Geographer as a Physical one! Or vice a Versa. I’ve always had a passion for Geography as a subject, and it’s not solely down to my Geography Teacher Mr Naughton. My love for the subject started way earlier when, as a small child, I discovered this vast, imposing dusty Atlas in our attic. I can still smell that book now as I turned its pages, it was old, so ancient! But I remember flicking through the pictures of all the different countries, reading about the vastly different landscapes and it’s people. I was hooked. The sense of adventure, a world was waiting for me to explore. Of course, this was in the days of pre-internet, a dusty Atlas and Encarta 95 was all my child mind had in my pursuit of epic travels and adventure.

Mr Naughton, however, brought the subject to life. No longer was it on the pages of a dusty Atlas and a fanciful overactive imagination of my child self, it was now real. I’ve never met a teacher who was so enthusiastic about the subject, the proudest of Geographers. Mr Naughton really fostered that passion for the subject, little did I know that I’d go on to do it at GCSE, A-Level, Degree Level, Masters Level and then finally, PhD level! My long journey as a proud geographer started with the inspirational Mr Naughton.

So while I’m a proud geographer and always will be, I’m also a passionate writer. I write blogs and novels for fun, and that comes down Mrs Bygroves. Mrs Bygroves was a strict teacher, the scousest of scouse accents, hard but fair. As I explained in my blog about why I write: Why do I write blogs? It’s a window to the emotional me! It was her who pulled me to one side after my English GCSE coursework and told me I had a gift for the written word and that I should write novels and stories for others to enjoy. So I did. I wrote my first novel and published my second on Amazon. I had discovered a critical skill that I never knew I really had, a passion for conveying stories and emotions, something that is now a massive part of my identity is all down to Mrs Bygroves and her seeing something in me, that I didn’t know myself.

Push you to your limits

So while mentors should be inspirational and make you see something in yourself, they can often go about it in different ways. Some will nurture and foster it in a friendly manner to get you to be the best you can be. Others will be harsh, demanding, thankless and at times make you hate them with every fibre of your being. At the time you wonder why they’re picking on you, why are they so harsh on you compared to everyone else and why do you not get the praise that everyone else does. Then you realise when you do reach the top of your game that they did that to push you. They saw your maximum potential and that you were way below their standards and the only way to get you to push past what you thought was your limit was to be cruel to be kind.

I’ve had two mentors like that in my life, my old commanding officer in the Air Training Corps and my former Personal Academic Tutor who became my boss as an RA. Two older men who’s stature and stance oozed authority and wisdom. Two men who have pushed me further mentally than anyone has before and probably ever will. Two people for some unknown reason I desperately wanted to impress, to prove myself to and to be acknowledged. But this mentor taught me the very definition of pushing the limits.

It may come as a shock to some of you to know that I wasn’t always the over self-confident, outspoken person I am today. In fact, many years ago, I lacked a lot of confidence in myself and around others. That all changed with one man. As one of my COs, he was always on my back throughout training and day to day life. Throwing me into the deep end with things, leading tasks, getting my voice heard. ATC rarely gave out compliments to any of us, I guess that’s the RAFs way of making you want to be better. When it did come, it was often short and curtailed (tradition of stiff British upper lip I suspect) but rarely was it ever directed in my direction. Which conflicted me. I keep getting asked to do these new tasks for which I seemed to be good at, but there was no confirmation or praise from those above. That irritated me in a way that made my already stubborn self, even more determined to succeed.

A turning point in my self-confidence comes to mind as clear as day. We were on deployment for a week on an SAS training camp in the depths of Shropshire on a bitterly cold and snowy February. We’d spent all day and night evading the infamous Landy force across the vast rolling hills and outbuildings of the training ranges. I’d been put in charge of navigation, faces covered in camo paint, boots covered in slush and mud and near hypothermic, we achieved our objective. Rescued the downed pilot and got back to base without being captured. My first real sense of achievement by putting myself out there in a position of leadership. By the time we arrived back at the barracks in the early hours, we barely got any sleep before being rudely awoken by a room inspection. I’d been chosen by him to be in command of our small dorm in a barracks. Again, I felt woefully underqualified. He comes in, nods to others a job well done, looks at my boots which to me were spotless “Dirt on them, Cliffe. Do them again! Press-ups outside, now”. “Yes, Sir!” I replied through gritted teeth. He hated me, I thought!

A few hours later, we were kitted up to go on the range. By this time the snow had started again, an icy wind ripped through the standard-issue kit with such ease I might as well have been naked for all the warmth it offered. After dissembling and cleaning the L98 and SA80 rifles in record time (still no recognition for that) as a troop, we headed out into the freezing snow on the range. To this day, it is still one of my most epic and coolest memories, the sound of gunfire, the snow falling, a Lynx army helicopter hovering off to one side, the recoil of the weapon in your shoulder. So.Much.Awesomeness!

While firing down the range, my fingers turning to frostbite (You’ve never felt anything colder than a trigger on a rifle in the snow!) in my peripheral vision I could see hands raised to the left and right of me, muffled shouts of “Jam!” and the range officer coming over to each individual. I was an awful shot, a sniper or expert marksmen I most certainly was not but I kept firing, with each shot pulling the bolt back and watching as the expended shell casing flicked and spun in the air. Load, breathe, hold breath, squeeze the trigger, recoil, bolt. Repeat, until that click on the rifle meant all my rounds in the rifle had been expended into the target a few hundred yards away. I raise my hand and raise my rifle over my shoulder to show the range officer that my rifle was empty. “Jam?… Oh, all done? Report to the CO” and with a slap on my back I exited the range, still noticing various hands raising and the range officer moving in to unjam the guns. The rest of the squad still laying prone into the snow.

Then there he was, immaculately dressed, a warm thermos in his hand steeming in the cold weather, as I present my rifle to him through chattering teeth, god I had never been so cold!

“Sir. All rounds fired, no Jam. Sir”

He gave a raised smile, which was so rare that I didn’t know if I had indeed become delirious with hypothermia, and in the most typical British Officers voice exclaims “Only one not to Jam your weapon, Cliffe. I expected absolutely nothing less from you. You’d have been the only one not to be killed. Congratulations. Dismissed”.

To me, that was the biggest compliment I had ever been given by him! That night we received word that some of us where being selected to head down south to RAF Lyneham to fly in a C130 Hercules. An unbelievable opportunity! He read the names off of the 10 lucky few, I was number 10! The next day I remember looking out of the back of the C130 as we raced over the Bristol Channel at 1000 feet. Over the rush of adrenaline, air and incredible noise of the four engines he says “Cliffe! This is what happens when you believe in your abilities. I pushed you so hard so that you’d become that. You’ve pushed yourself and others this trip to be better, I’m proud of you. Enjoy this! I’m putting you forward for the NCO course” and with a salute and a handshake it finally all made sense. I had a perceived physical and mental limit, but his was way beyond that, and I needed that tough love to reach it. It was the first time I backed myself and truly knew my capabilities. From then on he was still as hard as ever but was more forthcoming with the odd compliment, I flew with him often, practising flying over the North West of England, always demanding but boy did I learn a hell of a lot from him! I owe a lot to my years to him and to the RAF ATC in general. It taught me mental strength, leadership, the ability to see the strengths and weaknesses of others, teamwork and plus the fantastic days flying aircraft and shooting weapons. Closest I ever got to be being a badass! They were the best of days!

Take a chance

So some mentors inspire you and some push you whereas others they toss their chips into the ring and take a gamble on you. This is a dedication to the mentors who placed their faith in you by taking some sort of risk and hoping it would pay off.

The epitome of that was my Maths teacher, Mr Coggin. He made a decision, a gamble, that ultimately had such a significant influence on my academic career. Coggin was a bit weird, a proper eco nut, way before it was socially acceptable or hipster to care about the environment. He was strange but really cared for his students, he had an engaging teaching style, but ultimately, maths was life to him. Maths, well we’ve never really got on, that and spelling are often my Achilles heel. Give me time and a pen and paper, and I’m okay, mental maths? Nope. No chance! As we got closer to year 9 SATs exams things were not going too well in maths. For those of you who don’t know, SATs were a form of exams taken in year 9 which based on your performance you got put into sets, 1 being the top, 5 being the bottom. Only sets 1 and 2 would be entered into the higher GCSE papers where you could get from A* to fail, whereas sets 3 to 5 would be entered into the intermediate and lower papers where the top grade you could achieve was a C. Therefore, in principle, easier exam but no higher than a C regardless if you aced it.

Each teacher in English, Maths and Science had to make a decision on sets before the SATs exam. I was struggling in maths and not for my lack of trying either. I knew how essential maths was as a subject. At this point, I still had dreams of being an Air Traffic Controller, I wanted to do science at GCSE and A-Level. While a C in GCSE maths is fine, I didn’t want to be a C student, I wanted to be more than that. I knew I needed a good SAT score to get into a top set, so that I could take the higher papers and get the As and Bs I wanted for A level and therefore get into University. I remember him breaking the news to me that he was considering dropping me down a set so that I’d find it more accessible, it wouldn’t look too good to have a Set 2 student do poorly. Yet, he knows I’m putting the effort in, that I wanted to be in a top set and just needed some more guidance. So, he said he was holding off on the decision, he’d give me a few weeks to improve despite the pressure from above to drop me a set. He gave me extra work, would always ask me to answer stuff in class, and I worked the hardest I ever had. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, but above all, I wanted to repay him and him putting his neck out on the line for me.

SATs came around, and I got straight 7-7-7. Top marks. I did it! I’d just got my results as I walked down the corridor and I bumped into him and told him the news. “Knew you could do it!” with a beaming smile. What a gamble! If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have gone on to do the higher papers in Maths and Science at GCSE and ultimately would never have taken my science A levels. While I still always struggled with Maths, I was happy to be a B student in it. Technically, you needed an A in maths to do the A levels in Quantum Mechanics and Astrophysics, but somehow I was let on with my B. I strongly suspect Coggin had a hand to play in that. I still always love and feel super nerdy that I have A levels in Quantum Mechanics and Astro Physics! That and Biology and Geography. All not possible without that gamble by him!

 

Look out for you

Mentors can often be one of those things above or all of them at once. Often what combines all mentors is a sense of looking out for you as a person and having your best interests at heart. Sure, they come at it from different angles based on their experiences and their personalities, but ultimately they want what’s best for you. Luckily, I think all of my many mentors have had that element about them, certainly my academic mentors from the entire GID staff to my former supervisors at LJMU, they’ve been nothing but supportive. Two mentors, however, stand out to me as being all those things discussed so far, inspirational, dedicated, driven, trust in you but finally, looking out for you. Dr Ruth Healey and Dr Katharine Welsh have been two of my biggest academic mentors for 9 years. I’ve gone from being a student of them both, to them both being my boss at various times, to colleagues, office buddies and then friends.

Ruth and Katharine have been incredibly supportive from day one as a student. As a boss, they were keen to develop me as best they could but in such a way that I was always looked after. A real rare commodity in this day and age when bosses actually care for their employees! Both of them had always looked out for me, especially when I moved away from Chester to do my PhD, they were still keeping in touch, being a soundboard for advice and always thinking of me when opportunities arose. Be that to present my work, do a research project here and there, work as an editor for a major journal or even job applications. I’ve been super fortunate to have many mentors like that, but the two of them have become to me, at least, the epitome of a perfect example of what a mentor should be. Whenever I mentor someone, be that students, fellow colleagues of friends, I take a leaf out of their style of mentorship. They have a bit of each and every one of those mentors discussed so far, but they put their own flair and spin on it.

My academic career thus far would have looked so very different if I wasn’t backed, supported, gambled on, guided and encouraged by those two.

Ultimately, a mentor should part wisdom, encourage, and after spending time with them, you become a better person. They and all of my mentors I owe for that! So, thank you, thank you for making me who I am, thank you for gambling on me, backing me, pushing me and seeing things in me that I didn’t see. Without you, I wouldn’t be me.

Thank you!

 

 

My 2019 so far: January to July

A blog I tend to do every year is an end of year blog and a mid-year blog where I look back through my Instagram and reminisce about the highs, the lows and some of my favourite shots of the year so far. As we head into August and get closer to the darker nights, the crisp cool air and the twinkling of frost on the ground, I thought it would be an excellent time to review 2019 thus far!

January

Sadly, 2019 didn’t get off to the best of starts. The second half of 2018 was slowly sliding into a pile of crap compared to the first half, it accumulated in one of the worst Christmases in living memory, and I had high hopes that 2019 would be a fresh, new, positive start. A reset. Well, that didn’t go to plan. My beautiful feline best friend Tammy sadly passed away after being my cat of over 21 years. I was absolutely heartbroken. She had gone rapidly downhill in December and only saw the first week of 2019 before moving on to a better life. I still miss her terribly. Tam was my cat, she hated everyone else but me! She’d greet me at the door, she’d sleep on the pillow next to me every night, and I dearly miss having my furry little hot waterbottle to fall asleep to every night. You were a massive part of this family and me for 21 years, a beautiful little thing.

While the passing of Tam was a tough one to take, at least the PhD was on track. With the deadline of June looming, I had worked hard over Christmas, and on the 11th of January after so much hard work, I finally had something tangible, a first completed draft of my thesis. This was a huge mental milestone in the PhD life, the first glimmer of hope that I might actually finish this mammoth piece of work. While I knew I had months of editing and rewriting to come, to finally have all those bits of work into one document is the official beginning of the end.

On a freezing January day, a nice change of pace and excitement from PhD life when I arrived at Altcar military training base to view some special forces Chinooks and other assets as they departed after a special forces exercise in the area. Huge shout out to Altcar for allowing me on base to photograph these awesome machines and crews!

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Wokkah!!!

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While I hate winter, I do love the crisp, clear nights for stargazing. This January we had some exceptional clear skies and a few ISS passes I managed to catch on camera!

 

February

Feb was a quiet month as I worked away on my PhD edits. The only notable things were spending some downtime outdoors in new landscapes and photographing such exceptional star-studded skies!

I spruced up some personal home décor with a lovely addition to the bedroom!

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New plant for the bedroom!

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Love my Bonsai!

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In Feb, I discovered a hidden gem of a nature reserve that was only a five-minute drive from my house. A super place for photography, wildlife (particular bird watching), with rivers, woods and wetlands to explore.

March:

March, well everything got a bit real. The end was finally in sight! My thesis was printed, bound and ready to hand in for submission.

My few words on International Women’s Day. It’s 2019, and you still get taxed on essential lady things, absolute fucking disgrace IMHO! A huge shout out as always to all my awesome, amazing, beautiful, dedicated female friends!

When life just likes to troll you. I was so close to getting 10k a month but was one ball away each time. Absolutely livid and I still am to this day!

March got a lot brighter when my yearly meet up with Han and Dan, or should i say Mr & Mrs Watson, came about!

It was also my first ever Escape room! Han and Dan being veteran escapees we absolutely smashed not one but two escape rooms! They are my new favourite thing, they’re so fun, and I think we absolutely nailed our teamwork!

It was all well and good surviving an escape room, but I’ve not known fear like getting the viva date confirmed. D-Day now had a date, a very very near date! The day every PhD student dreads the final battle, the 3 hours where you either fail or succeed. The battle of the Viva loomed.

To take the fear of the viva away, I was still spending my downtime out in the countryside photographing nature at it’s best. This is one of my favourite pictures taken this year, I love the road leading you down to the lake and the gloomy storm approaching in the background. I felt as the viva loomed that I was walking that path towards the impending storm!

Best mothers day card, ever.

April:

Mark, my awesome cousin from Canada, popped in for his first visit to the UK and Liverpool after a European business trip! So great to spend the day with him showing him around this beautiful city and keeping those close family ties across the pond. Just a shame Liverpool decided to give him a welcome of torrential rain and wind! Hope to see you again Mark and thanks once again for taking the time to come visit!

My favourite shot of the year!

However, all things must come to an end, and I had my final day pre-viva in the office, a building that had been such a huge part of my life for the past 2 and a bit years.

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A lovely last day in the office today before my viva next week. Time to leave the comfort of H105 and have one final epic battle. V-Day fast approaches! Just under 3 years worth of hard work, 250,000 words, stress, imposter syndrome and over coming numerous failures and an unhealthy amount of coffee all comes down to a 3 hour viva where i have to defend every word and every decision made in those years to a panel of experts. PhD or no PhD all rests on that. The PhD has been the most intellectually and emotionally challenging thing i have ever done, it's been one epic journey that's made me grow as a person more than i ever have. I've made friends for life who without them life and the PhD would have been so much worse! I've been fortunate to travel to new countries and new cities and I've ticked off my life long goal of getting a CAA approved pilots licence ( i know it's no PPL!). PhDs are not about how clever you are, they're about how resilient you are and how stubborn you are to not give up when you're in a research world where it keeps knocking you down and you have to keep getting back up. A journey i hope next week i can end on a high otherwise it's been for absolutly nothing 🤣1st of September 2016 i started this journey to get the highest academic award possible. I set myself the stupid personal goal of finishing my PhD under 3 years and before my 27th birthday because no one sets more unattainable goals than my stupid brain. Now I'm days away from it all coming together. I want to do but i also don't because the viva if it goes well is the end. The end of the PhD, the end of my long life as a student. An end to an identity I've had for so long and is a part of me, i always want to learn and achieve more. It's also most likely the end of me in academia as I've made the decision that I'm unlikely to pursue a career in it. Forget the avengers, this is my end game! No pressure. In the words of Leeroy Jenkins, "Alright. Lets do this!" . . #PhDchat

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The battle of the viva was brutal, difficult, challenging, but ultimately rewarding! After just over two and a half years after starting the PhD, I had survived! I had made it to the end, the end game of being Dr Cliffe had been achieved! April 24th, 2019. What a day!!

May:

I may well now be a Doctor, but that didn’t earn me any more respect from my family, as evident by my birthday wrapping paper.

This badge was a fun joke given to me by my sister, but I was so unbelievably proud to wear it! Fun fact, the head of the Doctoral Academy loved it so much that they put an order in for them, so all new Drs will get one! A lovely little legacy!

Each weekend me and Ro would go an explore new places to visit and walk and we stumbled across another little local nature reserve. It was quaint!

I was given three months to do my post viva corrections to my thesis, but I completed them in 3 weeks. It felt so good but also sad to finally finish!

I discovered a Llama/Alpaca in my coffee cup! Little did I know in a few weeks I’d be surprised by my family to go walking with them in the lake district!

May saw me heading down to RAF Duxford to watch some preparations for the 75th D-Day anniversary. A brilliant event, so many Daks on the ground and plenty of warbirds!

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Ready for D-Day anniversary para drops

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June:

Well, June started with a win, a massive win! 6 times, baby! European Champions!!!

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Yaaaaaas!!!! #LFC

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The PhD was officially confirmed and approved. I had finally done it!

Visiting the Philharmonic is always special, but listening to John William scores of Speilberg films was another level!

In June, one of my favourite night time phenomenons occurs. The rare Noctilucent cloud formations! Formed a few weeks either side of the summer solstice, sunlight below the horizon lights up ice crystals high in the atmosphere turning night time into daylight. It’s an exceptional sight to see, I was lucky to have a few days of it, but this particular night it lasted for hours and was such a strong showing of them!

I travelled down South to just North of London to go to one of my all-time favourite humans and one of my closest and dearest friends wedding, Chloe’s! I also had to screenshot my Insta story of that day, which sums it all up!!

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From one end of the country to the other! I was back in the Lake District, one of my favourite places in the UK! Spending a few days away with the family was a perfect little getaway and something we haven’t done together for so long!

I was surprised by my family with a two-hour walk with Alpacas. BEST DAY EVER!

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What a day! Alpaca walking ❤

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Nice few days away with the fam

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July:

Graduation day arrived!!

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Time to graduate!

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Graduation photos have arrived!

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Mission Accomplished!

This family are awesome!

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Great afternoon with the fam!

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A week on from officially becoming Dr Cliffe, I went and passed my driving test after only 18 hours of driving! Yaaaas! Some people thought this day would never come but just shows you when I set my mind to something, it gets done!

So far *touches wood* 2019 has been a good year and I’m excited for what lies ahead for the latter half of the year! Where will the adventure take me?!

 

 

 

My dedication to the inner circle!

I wrote a blog many years ago, which just happened to be one of my all-time favourite pieces I’ve ever written. It was an in-depth look into how females and particularly female best friends have had such a profound impact on my life and the person I am today. It was at the time one of my most-read posts, and it’s those kinds of dedication blogs that I rarely write, but when I do, I absolutely love it. I’m pretty terrible at telling someone how I feel in person, but I can express it and immortalise my respect, gratitude and love to them through the written word.

Unfortunately, I no longer have a copy of that blog. That old blog site was closed down without warning years ago (thankfully paying for this blog I have the peace of mind that these blogs will stay!) and I’ve long since got rid of that PC. I contemplated rewriting that for this post but take note Disney, that a well-received classic should never be remade, ever! No matter how hard you try, it will never compare to the standard or the heart of the original.

I think I signed off one of my recent blogs talking about how I am a wealthy individual, not in terms of monetary value but in terms of the company that I keep. I’m big enough, ugly enough, and wise enough to know that I’m not the easiest person to have as a friend. I’m always on the go, I demand the best from myself every day, and therefore I’m pushy and demanding of you to be the best that you can be. I can be direct and brutally honest at times…okay, all of the time. Where friends often use little white lies or disguise their disagreement with their friend’s actions to make their friend happy, that doesn’t happen with me. If you ask me my opinion on something, I’ll tell you even if you don’t like my answer. I can be incredibly stubborn at times and set in my ways. What you see with me is what you get, that honesty and black and white stance on things some people can’t handle. They prefer to be pampered or only have their own thoughts validated. So those who have stuck around first and foremost, thank you! I probably come across as a right twat don’t I? But despite those flaws, I do like to think that I am one of the most loyal, dedicated, protective and loving person to those few who I do let in.

I have many good friends, I have close friends, and I have a group of friends who sit in the inner circle. Those who over time their friendship has never faulted or waivered. These beautiful individuals all enhance my life greatly in a variety of ways, each one of them incredibly unique, each one my life would be decidedly empty and less fulfilling if they were not in it. There are many people close to me that I could and should thank (so please don’t be offended if you’re not in this blog! You don’t mean any less to me than these people!!) but I thought it would be nice to give my gratitude and thanks to those who’ve been through it all. They say that those who have been friends for between 7 and 9 years become friends for life. Thus, I think that’s a good cut off point for this blog because it just so happens that those who I’ve been friends with the longest just so happen to be those inner circle of people.

When I say inner circle it does sound a bit cultish or an elitist club, right? But that’s not really what I mean, the inner circle is simply a designator for those who I have no walls up for, for who know my many flaws and accept them, who know my hopes, dreams and desires and who knows my darkest secrets. I trust these individuals with my life, they have shown complete loyalty and dedication through the good times, but more importantly throughout the years and the hard times, they’ve never shone away from standing by me, either picking up a sword to fight alongside me or holding an umbrella up while I weather a raging storm. Some people rely upon and put all of their eggs into only one person, usually a boyfriend or girlfriend, at the expense of their friends. Me, well I much prefer diversity and a well-oiled machine around me, a team. Each one of these people is vastly different and all the better for it. So, without further exposition, let’s get into it!

Luke:

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My bro!

Holds the honour as one of the only males to make it into the inner circle! Luke isn’t a friend but is instead, an adopted big brother that I never had. We’re not friends, we’re Bros! My parents simply refer to him as “second son”. I’ve known Luke for what feels like a lifetime, we’ve practically grown up together. For context, Luke is a couple of years older than me and was my sister’s friend in high school. He popped round for tea one day and we got on really well, except our first conversation was an argument! An argument about the position of the vertical stabiliser on an F-18 vs an F-15. Nerdy or what but as a fellow avgeek we knew we’d be friends! From then practically every day during the summer holidays and weekends we’d spend together, climbing trees, buildings go-karts, fighting side by side in the infamous Hunt Road waterfight wars and generally just being lads!

As we got older, Luke was always the big brother I never had. Always there for me, protecting me, looking out for me, guiding me, and always on point with his advice. On paper, we’re vastly different people. Luke is athletic, outgoing, loud, a doer, incredibly funny and someone more of a risk-taker. Me I’m not athletic, not that adventurous, I’m more of a person to write the manual than actually to do it, and I’m risk-averse. Yet, it works! One thing i’ve learnt is to never play sports with Luke, he has an uncanny knack of using whatever sporting instrument be that a cricket ball or an air hockey puck, and getting a direct ‘accidental’ hit in my nuts. Bastard! We get on so well together, and my life would be completely different if I didn’t have my Bro in my life. Kudos to Amy, his beautiful wife, who still allows him to disappear every other Saturday so we can still hang out for a few hours!

Luke forces me to go out of my comfort zone, to be more adventurous and more outgoing. I can’t thank him enough for all of the times he’s been there for me through the good times but especially the dedication and encouragement through the bad times. Just an example of the kinda standup bloke he is, when I did go through that awful breakup, he left work early that day to hang out and take my mind off it and kept coming up with random things to do on weekends to keep me occupied until I was back on my feet. A true genuine legend. A true brother. I love you, Bro! Every guy needs a true bro, and I’m so very thankful that it’s you!

Chloe:

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My fav spud

Chloe or more accurately Spudette (I’m referred to as Spud!) has been one of my rocks and a pillar in my life. I met Chloe properly during our first year residential trip to Slapton and boy am I glad we did! From the early days of ripping each other for our accents, in scouse i say graph like it ends in a F whereas Chloe would say it as if it had too many A’s! Teaching her to say purple in scouse is still one of my personal highlights! Common vs Posh English! For eight years, I don’t think we’ve ever stopped laughing since! Chloe is one of the most beautiful people I know, not just in terms of looks (like all my female friends, they’re absolute babes!) but in terms of personality. I’ve never met someone who is as dedicated, loyal, caring and kind-hearted as Chloe. Not just towards me but everyone in her life, we all need a person like Chloe in our lives! From day one, we struck up a fantastic rapport, and from day one, I’ve always felt that no matter what, Chloe has my back. Chloe is the first person I turn to in a crisis or when a significant decision needs to be made. I often rarely ask for advice or seek council because I think I can do everything myself ( I can be pigheaded that way!), but any big decision gets run past her because she has such clarity and my best interests at heart that I value her advice and opinion so highly.

I recall spending hours at the river in Chester us both discussing what I should do, take the job in Nottingham, a £27,000 three year contract job or to stay in Chester and become a research assistant for £16,000 on a temporary year contract. I had conflicting thoughts, the logical rational me was a no doubt to take the Nottingham consultancy job. Yet the emotional me knew my heart was in research, so I wanted the Chester one, but that was an irrational and illogical choice. My Dad was pushing for me to take the Nottingham job, my Mum was pushing for the Chester one. Confusion and confliction everywhere. Everywhere until Chloe and I met up, finally, clarity. The weird thing about Chloe is there is a calmness that I don’t get with anyone else, she just gets it! At the end of the day, I took the illogical and irrational decision to take the Chester job. A decision I have never regretted! Thank you, Chloe!

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I’m not a religious person or that spiritual, but I do believe in the Universe, and it’s little nuances. I read many years ago about each of us have three assigned people, a soul mate (in the romantic sense), a soul mate (in terms of platonic love) and a Guardian/Protector. They can be one individual who is all three, or they could be three separate people. I’ve always thought since the day I met Chloe that she is the platonic soul mate and quite possibly the protector. There has always been an energy that we were meant to be best friends, from day one, it’s always been easy! I adore being in her company, and even though she now lives on the other side of the planet, our friendship is as strong as ever. I wrote a fun blog years ago about what the perfect woman would be like, Chloe’s personality formed a basis for comparison in terms of traits. An incredibly loyal, smart, dedicated, caring and super-intelligent woman! I love you Spudette, thanks for always saying the right things and always without hesitation, having my back. I so appreciate that, and I’m thankful that you’re apart of my life!

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Emma:

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My sister from another Mr!

If Luke is my Bro, then Emma is my sister from another Mr While I have a wonderful if not infuriating at times actual blood related older Sister, I’ve always seen Emma as a sister of my own age. A sister that I can talk to about everything, you know the things that you’d never really want to discuss with your family haha! When friends progress past friendship and enter the family tier, you know you have a friend for life. I’ve known Emma since year 9, so we’re looking at around 13 years! I think its testament to our friendship that in those many years, we’ve changed so much as individuals, we’ve both gone through so much and yet the bond between us has never faulted or waivered. Emma really is a friend for life. If you had to define what a true friend looked and acted like, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example than Em!

You might be starting to notice a pattern here, that each one of these people is incredibly trustworthy and loyal. Em has stood by my side throughout everything, even at times in school, she rose above the mediocracy and idle gossip of others to stand at my side. She has a fantastic accurate moral compass. Em is always one of the first to message with congratulations when things are going well and consistently one of the first to offer assistance when it’s not going so well.

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Putting up with my shit since 2006!

That’s the thing I love about Em so much is that dedication and well maybe our unique sense of humour! Em is one of those people who doesn’t ever see how awesome she is, always playing herself down. Em is one of the best people that I know, and I couldn’t think of a life without her. Who would I message every day? Who could I moan to about stuff without judgement? Who would I share my love of Wagamama trips with!?

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I’ve enjoyed travelling to European destinations with Em, I’ve enjoyed our weekends away to the Lakes climbing mountains and our trips to London, above all else, I just really enjoy her company. In all the time I’ve known her, we’ve never fallen out. Sure at times, I’ve wanted to kill her, case in point trying to find platform nine and fucking three quarters in Kings Cross in 30c heat in London. Or when that bitch 😉 beat me in crazy golf to win the window seat on the plane to Amsterdam (grrrr. Still bitter! One point!). Emma is a stalwart of my friendship group, another one of those people who have just become such an immense pillar in my life. Her friendship means everything, I’m forever grateful for you and everything you stand for. I look forward to our monthly catch ups when we’re in our 90’s and laughing so much our teeth fall out!!

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Han:

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My fav midlander!

Back to undergrad friends now and like Chloe, Han has been a constant in my life since the first year of Uni. Han is one of the funniest people I know, whether she realises her humour or not, I do not know, but I find her hilarious! I get on so well with Han that every day we spent together was an absolute laugh, and even now we message each other every day without fail, and there is always a laugh to be had! Han is one of the most loyal and level headed people that I know. When her best friend and I broke up in Uni, it could have been very easy for her to pick a-side post break up but credit to Han, she never did. She had time for us both and never made anything awkward! As we’ve got older, I enjoy that Han is the one I have a daily moan to. Usually about the general public being idiots or football-related chats! Plus she’s the legend who loans me her BT account, so I can watch the football! What an epic person she is!

I’ve had so many fun times with Han, she introduced me to B movies, particularly any B movie titles with superlatives before sharks in it (Mega shark vs giant octopus was the first one she made me watch and oh boy is that still the best B Movie ever!). It’s also thanks to her that I’ve witnessed someone do the seemingly impossible and burn carrots! I can still taste that smell, haha! I love that we get to catch up every year and I’m proud of where you are in life right now, married to the awesome Dan and a little one on the way. You two are absolutely going to smash parenthood! That kid (baby Divok, you have to call it that!) is going to grow up with the two most loving, loyal, devoted, family-oriented parents. Han, you are beyond excellent, thank you for always being there!

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Ro:

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My fav ginge

Rochene, Ro, my fave ginger, whatever I call her, I love her. Unlike the others in this list who I’ve interacted with in-person from day one. Our friendship was for the first few years entirely based via Twitter! It was not until I offered to help her with some SPSS that we met up in Costa did we actually talk face to face! Ever since then, Ro has been one of my closest friends, and despite my love-hate relationship with SPSS, I thank it for the relationship we have now! Ro probably takes the title of being the most strong-willed and minded person I know. I thought I was strong-minded and stubborn, but boy does she give me a run for my money! Plus she’s probably the only person who truly competes with me on a sarcasm level. So. Much. Sass. She’s always very keen on keeping me grounded and putting me in my place!

Ro is definitely one of those people who sees the big gooey soft marshmallow side of me, and she puts up with all of my weirdness! Like all the others, loyalty in spades and is someone who has become another constant fixture and a pillar in my life. She is someone I will forever stand beside and back, regardless of the situation. She is by far the most complex person I know (in a good way), she’s a warrior, she’s brave, she’s independent, she’s incredibly funny, and she’s incredible! Weekends wouldn’t be the same without our coffee catch-ups, trips out walking to various places or just the simple task of running errands. Life would be pretty dull without you around! I cannot express how proud I am of you, for what you’ve achieved, what you’re doing, and what you stand for. You’ve taught me so many things that I don’t know where to begin. Thank you for always being around and putting up with me! For someone who is so small in stature, you’re an absolute giant to me!

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Final words:

There are so many people I could carry on about here, from old school pals like Shaun my cycling buddy, old uni friends like Mary and Sophie, to new ones from the PhD such as those from H105. They too are all incredibly special and are huge influences in my life, but oddly enough I probably tell them that more than I do the four above. I think I take them for granted at times, and that is why I’ve written this blog, to express my deepest love and thanks to four pillars of my life. I cannot imagine a life without you guys in it. A group of individuals who guide me, keep me grounded, help me achieve success, pull me out of the crap and above all else, a group of individuals that I am so unbelievably proud to say I know and that I am friends with.

Thank you!

This isn’t going to be my only dedication style blogs this year. Those others i mentioned there, don’t worry you’re getting your own blog post! I’m also going to be doing one about mentors and those who’ve influenced me to date. Keep an eye out for them! Above all, tell the people who you love that you appreciate, love and are thankful that they’re in your life. Share the love today!

Why do I write blogs? It’s a window to the emotional me!

For someone who is well known for their public speaking, I’m often pretty damn awful at conveying emotion to people in speech, at least my own emotion. Sure, I think back to my closing speech as head boy, an address full of emotion and I hoped at the time, inspiration. Inspiration for what was at the time, the next most significant step in our lives. I can recall numerous passionate speeches or talks I’ve given over the years to an audience of 2 up to 1000. I can always find the right words and execute them without bother, to be emotive in speech. Yet, ask me to talk about my feelings, and I can’t do it, I get lost for words.

But, I can write them.

I’ve always been a writer in some form or another, in fact, I was very young when I penned my first short story in primary school as part of a project about “what your parents do for a living”, needless to say, it wasn’t my finest work. Put yourself in the shoes of my primary school teachers who read with wide eyes a story about how “My Dad brings a Doll home called Annie and he jumps up and down on it.” My Dad is a senior paramedic of over 35 years and at the time way back then, was either doing advanced training himself or was training others and therefore would bring home the Resus Annie Doll to practice various medical procedures with tubes etc. etc. Innocent enough! Thankfully my teachers knew what job my Dad did and apparently it gave great amusement to the entire staff room for about a week!

I always loved writing little stories here and there for projects or assignments in English but never thought much of it until as part of our GCSE English coursework we had to write a story. My path to writing was down to one woman, Mrs Bygroves, my English teacher, who asked me to stay behind after class. It was her words of encouragement and telling me I had a gift for conveying the written word and that I should write stories that ignited a fire that had been simmering. The following year I published my first novel and then spent the next few years writing my second one for Amazon.

While a pilot or air traffic controller is always my dream job, to be an established author has always been the dream goal!

Writing stories, however, is a lot easier in some ways because you can base characters on people you know, or make them up! You can make things up, you can create worlds, and the emotion the characters portray is not me. It’s them. Blog writing, on the other hand, well, that’s a different kettle of fish altogether.

I started writing blogs way back in sixth form when I was backed into a corner, while I’m glad those days of the infamous blogs about the daily carryon of morons are well and truly over, it gave me a vessel to explain how I felt about people that I couldn’t express in any other form. People would message me and agree with my points and wait eagerly for the next instalment. Each post was me poking a hornet’s nest which fuelled more blogs and so the circle went on. Then I realised that two things were happening. (a.) I was getting things off my chest and thus feeling better and, (b.) people liked the honesty of it all, and I had so many private chats with people about similar things in their ‘friendship’ groups that they could relate to, or I started to add little nuggets about things outside of sixth form or advice about things that again people could relate to. I began to see that maybe my words could help as well as hurt. A dangerous at the time, combination!

My blogs moved away from the subject of others (thankfully) by time I left sixth form (thankfully that blog site was closed down years ago, and all such posts have since been long lost to the internet graveyards. A dark time indeed that was!) and I started to use it more positively, as a way to document my life, my highs, my lows, my travels and above all else, I hoped that someone would get at least one small thing from each blog that I pen. Be that to know you’re not alone if you’re going through something I went through, or maybe you might have tried that piece of advice I wrote about and it worked or even if I inspire you to go visit the places I’ve been.

Writing is to me, incredibly personal. While the birth of my blogs was born out of a crap toxic time, it was liberating to wear my heart on my sleeve and how vulnerable that can make you feel. In-person, I have many walls, and as a person who usually people just open up to me, I listen and then give logical, rational advice, I often end up getting to know a hell of a lot about you. However, I have that knack of you thinking you know me really well when actually you know the surface. That’s in part, down to a well-tested defence mechanism, at least until I trust you or you pass the Tony Test! Slowly those walls come down and you get to know the real me.

Writing blogs for me is always I see it as a little window into the real me. Little glimpses and access to who I am. Close friends and family know me and who I am, but many people see me in person, at least, as probably one of the most calmest, rational, logical and unemotional people you’ll ever meet. I do take pride in that part of myself. I don’t think I’d be doing myself a disservice if I asked my close friends to list the top 3 things they love about me, I would bet my life that they would say something along the lines of one of the points being “You tell it to me as it is. A spade is a spade. You have such clarity to cut through all the emotion of a problem and look at it rationally, logically and objectively. Then you’ll base your advice off that”. I do love how I can cut through all the emotion in a problem! Plus I love giving advice too!

People can often be put off at times at my seemingly outwardly blunt approach to problems, especially if you’re a very emotionally driven person. You very rarely see me overly joyous nor sad, or angry much in person. People can mistake that for being unemotional or as a nickname that has now stuck over the years The Robot or Tony-Bot as I’m effectually called by some! What people don’t realise is I am probably the most emotionally intense person you’ll ever meet, it’s just I have such strong control over them that outwardly you don’t see the range of emotions that go on inside. That’s when I did fall in love all those years ago it was a beautiful yet terrifying few years because that was an emotion that I couldn’t just keep inside and control of and it was like a floodgate! Scary yet awe-inspiring.

As I said, I often find it difficult to express words of how I feel in person. Not to loved ones or close friends, I’m actually a big soft gooey soppy romantic! They know that. But to those who are not in that inner circle which I’ve dropped walls for, to others I do come across as that stoic, driven, logic guy. Actually, I’m just a big marshmallow with a tough exterior wall!

So for me, writing blogs is a window into the emotional me, the guy who sits behind that exterior facing wall. Writing, therefore, is super personal for me because of every word, every emotion I’m feeling I put it into each sentence, I mean every word that I type.

These blogs are fun to write because they vary so much. The humorous ones where I get to let out that fun side of me and showcase my funnybone. The advice ones I love doing because I can use that big old Tony-Bot logic to give objective advice that may help someone. The travel ones satisfy my inner adventurer, and the emotive ones become my ultimate favourite ones.

The emotive blogs come in two forms, either happy or sad. Writing is a release for me. Some people talk to others, some drink, some have a big old cry. For me, I write. It clears my head, gets things off my chest. When I write happy emotive blogs be that dedications to people or writing about something that has happened be that an epic trip with friends or recalling something in my life it’s my heart bursting with love and joy on the page for everyone to share. Although I still get super nervous when I write about people because I never know how they’ll react. In-person no-one ever tells the other person how they perceive them, but in blogs you do. So I’m always nervous that I hope they appreciate my sentiments and how I see them! Always a relief when they message you with positive feedback, only a few times I’ve had to post edit the odd post. Oops!

Yet for me, the hardest to write and the hardest but most rewarding to read back are when life isn’t so great. I’ve never been on in these blogs or social media to only ever talk about the good stuff. This has always been about me as a person, the good and all the bad. I feel some of my best-written work has been those emotionally charged ones when either I’ve been seething with anger, or I’ve been typing through tears from being absolutely done in and heartbroken. Weirdly enough, they’re often my most read by people, either people enjoy reading my misfortune because of the event, or they appreciate that every word is dripping in emotion! Not sure which aha!

Too many people in modern-day life and especially on blogs and social media paint a perfect life, they’re wonderful, they’re doing this well. It’s false. A perfect life doesn’t exist. It’s irrational and illogical to think it’s true. I’ve documented some terrible personal lows through my blogs, eulogies of passed on relatives, discussions about leaving places and moving on, heartache words of falling out with a friend, to my emotions and recovery of that breakup which at the time ripped my heart into pieces and where I spent the best part of two years teetering on depression and my well-documented recovery of that process.

Life is a rollercoaster and we all go through shit in life. So when times are hard, I want people to read it and be like yeah he doesn’t have his shit together at all. He’s normal. And I also want people to read it and take solace if they’re going through shit too. Plus, as a side note, although annoyingly this is my 3rd blog site now and the other two where deleted without warning! That I look back at those blogs written as a document of my life. I read again all those happy memories in the happy blogs, and I see how far I’ve come from the sad ones.

Writing blogs is an excellent way for me to document things, get things off my chest. As a reader, I don’t know what you get from these blogs, various ramblings from a distinctly average, ordinary guy! I have no idea. I hope that you read them and at times laugh, sometimes cry, I hope you get inspired, comforted, or advice is taken on board.

So when I’m asked, why do I write blogs? I write for myself, a voice for that big old emotional me who sits inside the Tony-Bot. Thanks for reading!

P.S. check back in at the end of the week because speaking of emotion, I wrote a blog many years ago about how female friends had influenced my life. That sadly vanished when my old blog closed down and as its been years since I had that P.C. it’s now gone. It was one of my all-time favourite emotive dedication style blogs. So, this week I’m writing a different one but on similar lines. A dedication to those who broke down the walls.

My final day and my goodbye

The final day

Every journey must start with a small step. Every relationship starts with a simple hello. Every memory recalled must have been lived. For three years I’ve crawled, walked, run and flew. I’ve learned how to fail through bitter experience a thousand times but how to get up 1001 times. The funny thing about journeys is you’re always aiming to get to a destination, a final fixed point in time or locality, always on the move, always getting closer. Often the destination is the ultimate goal but its how you get there that’s usually better than the place you’re trying to get to. While every journey must begin with a small step, it must end with one too. Every hello always ends in a goodbye. Today is my last official day as a PhD researcher and the last day of being a student.

I walked back through the doors of that grand old house, Holmefield, my home for the past three years today. Since day one, the strong white stoned pillars guarding the entrance with nobility always gave me a feeling of assurance. As assured as the giant sprawling trees that lined the lush patch of grass outside of the door, who’ve watched countless students throughout the years. In three years not much has changed, the chandeliers still glint in the shaft of light that trickles through the window illuminating the specs of floating dust, a never-ending dance in the air. The staircase that clings to the wall I must have walked a million times up to my office and now it was to be my last time. Punching in the code and pushing that oak door open, I was greeted by silence. My desk untouched since viva, a mass of paper and copies of my thesis, an untouched coffee cup and notepads. The other desks were just as I last remember them, a mass of books, paper and post-it notes, evident signs of feverish work that goes on in here. With each book I placed into my bag, each file I copied from the pc and with every pull of a picture or of a poster from the wall it hit me like a dagger. I’m dismantling my life with every item that goes into the box. In no time at all the only signs I was ever here is a small polaroid picture I placed with a firm thumb on the wall. A picture of H105 occupants dressed in Christmas jumpers posing for a photo, the caption underneath simply read

H105 standing together, forever

I walked down the quiet corridor and popped my head into my old office, the office where it all started in H003. Again, empty and silent, I walked towards my old desk, taking the last steps in the same steps that I took my first on this journey. I’m surrounded by the ghosts of my memories, I watch as I recall my first hello with Laura, then Vic, the Cara, Hannah, Rosie, then Katie, then the rest of the PGRs. I laugh to myself when I look out of the window and recall walking to the shops with Rosie in hurricane force winds. It’s nice to see that crack in the window had been repaired since, a shiver ripples through my body when I recall that first bitterly cold winter in that office where water and wind would rattle through the gap in the door and the broken window pane. I recalled each individual hello as if it were yesterday, the feeling of being apart of a team and getting to know them, in the beginning, was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.

With a sad goodbye, I left the old office and walked back up to H105, the office where it really cemented our friendship. I longed to turn around and hear that chirpy morning voice from Laura signifying it was time for our daily trip to the café to drink coffee for longer than we should, discussing everything from life to work. I miss mine and Rosie’s chats about TV shows that my mum and she might like or have watched along with plenty of banter. I miss that I’ll no longer hear footsteps up the stairs and be like with a smile, oh this must be Vic! For the door to the flung open and her smile and greeting to light up the room. I’ll miss Katie’s sarcasm towards me and the many inappropriate jokes/comments that only our childish minds would find funny. I’ll especially miss drawing little post-it note doodles to fill up her wall, I never did reach my goal of trying to cover it floor to ceiling!

I take a look around looking at all of the memories in this place. Sure, it’s just an office, it’s nothing special its four walls and a door. To me, it was home, it was safety in all of the chaos of PhD life. A life raft in the stormy seas. These four walls saw us grow as individuals, its been an honour to have grown with these exceptional individuals, kind-hearted, dedicated and loyal. These four walls it saw us achieve big things, it saw us fall many times, it saw us pick each other up. It’s seen us cry and its seen us in tears with laughter. Oh, the laughter, how that room was always so full of the bellowing sounds of our laughter.

I feel a huge lump in my throat as the silence takes hold, the clatter of keyboards have fallen silent, the laughter fading. This truly is the end. Walking back out of that door for the final time with the confirmation of the heavy click of the lock. My time had come, my journey was over.

My Dad helped me load the rest of my things into the car and we drove away, that part of my life now over. “Are you sad?” my Dad asked as we drove away I managed to muster a “Yes” fighting back the iceberg-sized lump in my throat “Of course you will be, it’s been a huge part of your life” he replied.

He’s right. I’m not just saying goodbye to friends, I’m not just saying goodbye to PhD life and the travel, the coffee and the experiences, nor am I saying goodbye to the best version of me. I’m saying goodbye to a part of me that’s been me for eight years. Eight years I’ve been a student or a staff member in higher education. Now, I’m saying goodbye officially to my identity as a student. Really, while the PhD has been a three-year journey, this journey really started way back in 2010 when I was a lost boy who needed a new challenge from that of high school. A much needed new start when I arrived as an undergraduate Geographer, finally with my wings unclipped to be who I wanted to be not what school clicks and politics deemed you to be. All of the highs of finding yourself on a cold windswept beach in Slapton under the clearest starry night sky and for the first time in my life feeling like I’m valued and as part of a genuine team. To laughing until I nearly threw up in a desert on my Masters. To all the lows of breakups and failing medicals for ATC and all the stresses of work and sacrifices of an RA, at times it felt like I was stepping out into the night with only a positive attitude and hope to guide me. All those at times dead-end alleys were actually a straight line to where I’m meant to be today.

So today, I said goodbye to my life as a student. A life that’s seen me change with each new adventure and chapter. My undergrad, I found out who I was and who I wanted to be, my masters I consolidated that and grew more confident in myself, in my RA years I became far wiser and more mature and the final series, the PhD has taken all of those three things and has turned it up to 11. I am a changed man from the man I was at the start of this journey. It’s impossible for this experience not to change you fundamentally. The most brutal of worlds, the most intellectually and emotionally challengings thing a person can ever do, it’s bound to change you. But it’s changed me for the better. As sad as I am to leave, I leave as the best version of me. That’s all down to the office of H105.

Vic taught me to lighten up and find the joy in life and when things are terrible, you can always make a joke about it and smile. She’s taught me the real value of loyalty and selflessness and treating others as equals. Katie has brought out the fun side of me, the Jokey Tony instead of “Sensible Tony” which was my nickname in Chester. She also taught me how to soften my very direct nature at times and how sometimes my direct unemotional prefer logic approach might not always work for very emotional driven topics and issues (I’m still working on it! Tony the Robot!). Rosie taught me to stay true to myself and my principles, to be steadfast and stoic towards a goal, oh and I now know a lot about TV and I still don’t eat sweets before 12pm!  Laura actually taught me to love again and to find self-worth again in myself. Laura became a true best friend, a confidant, while we’d argue…a lot!…we’d always resolve it through well-reasoned debate. I miss our non-date date nights, I miss our Sunday cycles, our times spent righting the world over a coffee, and I miss travelling to new places with her. I think I speak for everyone in H105 when I say the office was never the same without you when you moved away.

I leave the PhD a wealthy man, not in terms of wealth (I wish) but in that I’ve won the lottery when I’ve had the opportunity to be surrounded by people like that, people who I can call true friends and friends for life. Not just them but friends I’ve made outside of H105, the fellow PGRs who I know will be friends for a very long time.

So tomorrow I will walk across that stage for the final time, I’ll shake the VCs hand and I’ll get my doctorate in hand. The destination reached. There is despite everything, a truth in that we must all face, whether we want to or not is that everything eventually ends and everything has its time. I’ve worked hard for so many years to reach this goal, and I’ve worked my hardest with the right attitude and commitment, doing it the way I wanted it, with compassion and by building others up instead of stepping on them to get where I needed to be. I hate endings, I hate that every hello always ends in a goodbye. I hate that ending. I hated the last day of summer before a new term started, the end of a perfect day with friends or the turning of a final page of a great book. Endings are a fact of life, the seasons change, the sun will rise, and the stars will shine. Life simply goes on around you. Tomorrow is one of those days, an ending, a closure. I say goodbye to everything that was familiar, everything that was comfortable, I’m moving on, taking my final steps on this journey but new ones on a new adventure. While it hurts to say goodbye, just because I’m leaving some people and experiences, have become so ingrained in me that they’ll be with me no matter what. I don’t know what the next chapter of my life holds, I don’t know where I’ll be or what I’ll do but I do know that in amongst all the chaos of life I have a sanctuary, a solid ground in those select few who I dropped walls for, for those who fought by my side. They will forever be my moral compass, my guiding star and that voice that will always be there for me.

As I hate endings, I’ll simply say with a heavy heart and a tear in my eye, thank you to everyone who’s been on this journey with me. Instead of goodbye, “I’ll see you around” xxx

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How to prepare for the PhD Viva

The Viva, the word that is never far away from a PhD students mind. The mythical almost legendary word that looms over everything that you do. When you start the PhD, it seems a long and distant prospect and as you progress, the Viva looms ever larger like a storm cloud bubbling up on a clear summers day. The Viva is the final battle all PhD students know they must face but never want to. The Viva is the most important battle a PhD student will face as if all the other constant battles weren’t enough already! A hill to either die or survive on, the outcome of you becoming a Dr relies on your ability to survive a two to three hour (on average) defence of your thesis with at least two experts.

Many people outside of academia are simply unaware of what a PhD is or even the amount of work, sacrifice and challenges that come with it. Simply too many to list in this blog that’s for sure! However, many people are aware that by the end of your PhD, you will produce a thesis of substantial word count, for example, including references and appendices my thesis came to 212,000 words! If I had to include all my rewrites and deleted and changed words over the course of the PhD, I’d be looking at having written over 300,000! Yet, people don’t understand outside of academia that writing of the thesis is less than half of the PhD, the rest comes down to the Viva. The word that sends a chill up any PhD student (sorry fellow PhD students for the trigger!).

The term ‘Viva’ is actually short for ‘Viva Voce’ which is Latin for absolute hell. I joke. It actually translates to “by live voice”. In layman’s terms, you’ve walked written the walk, now you need to talk the talk. Every country is slightly different, but in the UK at least, it’s an oral exam, a defence of your thesis between usually an external and an internal examiner behind closed doors. They will have read your completed written thesis multiple times and now you sit in a room where they’ll ask you many questions about it for which you have to justify every decision and action made in the time you’ve been on the PhD. As a general rule of thumb, the examiners are looking for three things (1.) Is it your own work and have you written it (2.) Do you understand what you’ve written and what your results are saying and (3.) Does what you’ve done actually contribute new and original knowledge to the scholarly community.

So, how do you prepare for this showdown to get your PhD? Below I’ll outline how I tackled my Viva preparations and if the Viva is on the horizon for you, I hope it may give you some ideas about how to get yourself in the best shape possible for it.

Read, re-read and when you think you’ve read enough, read one more time

By now you’re probably downright sick of your own writing and if you’ve been editing, you’re perhaps resenting your own work with having read it so many times. However, it is vital that you go back and re-read, multiple times from cover to cover. There where three critical aspects that I took to my viva prep re-reads. Firstly, I read a chapter or two chapters a day, making no notes, just reading, remembering and understanding my work. It may seem obvious, but some of your writing is over two years old and with so much going on and so much different sections that you’ve written its good to refresh your brain. After reading it thoroughly, I then went back through and re-read it under a critical eye. I looked for any formatting, spelling or grammatical errors. If you’ve rushed to get your thesis in you’ll probably find a lot of them but even me, someone who spent three solid months of editing and checking my work prior to submission I still annoyingly found 13 errors including an utterly wrong graph!

I hear that many people don’t want to re-read their work for fear of finding exactly that, a mistake. It happens and the examiners will know it happens too. You’re writing in excess of 100,000 words there is bound to be mistakes. Of course, in your edits its best to catch as many as you can but even if you’re diligent you’ll still miss one or two. Chasing the perfect error free thesis is chasing a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, a nice idea but ultimately, a futile one. If you submit a thesis that is strung with spelling and format errors because it’s been rushed or you failed to re-read it before submitting it doesn’t mean the Viva will go badly, but it will cast some doubt in the examiner’s minds I’m sure. You’re giving them more ammunition if you’ve failed to check your work. Use software, colleagues, supervisors and friends and family to check before you submit! If, however, you still find mistakes, relax! Make a note of them (I highlighted mine) so that if the examiners point them out, you can be ahead of the curve as you’ve identified it (my examiners didn’t even point out the mistake in the graph which I was stressing about so much, so don’t worry!). Also, it’s super rare that the outcome of the Viva is no changes, you’re most likely at a very minimum getting minor corrections so don’t stress, you can correct those errors in the post-viva corrections phase!

Highlights and sticky notes

After reading my thesis multiple times, I went back through again and brought out my trusted highlighters and post-it notes. I used different colours to represent various aspects of the PhD. Green, for example, was a simple identifier for me of where each chapter began, thus in the Viva when referring to individual chapters if needed, I could just flip to it straight away. Orange I used as fundamentals, i.e. research aims, questions and critical results where purple I used as potential sections of note be that an important paper or parts I feel they may well grill me more on or want to know more about. Find whatever works for you, you don’t want to over complicate it and highlight absolutely everything in your thesis, it’s best practice to only refer to the thesis in the Viva if absolutely essential. So highlight what you feel are the key things and use a system that you know.

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My thesis and appendices with my post-it notes

Prepare Questions and Summary

While making your post-it note decorations on your thesis, I opened up two word documents. The first one I used to summarise each of the key points of that page. For example, when summarising your methodology outlining the key papers and 3 principal pros and cons of the method chosen. This helps in your re-read to focus your brain, and the day before the Viva I found it really helpful to just focus on those summary notes because that gave me the key points I needed to focus on without getting too lost in all the details.

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Example of my summary pages

As I went through, I also came up with questions that they could potentially ask me about those sections and I wrote them down. I also utilised some fantastic sets of questions out there online about viva preparations. The most effective way of preparing for the Viva was actually to be asked the questions so that I could answer them verbally. It’s all well and good preparing your answers in word, but it’s far better to practice verbalising them. My friend Rosie skyped me a set of questions from her Viva cards, I made a note of that question and then answered it. It’s seriously great practice! For example, she asked me what the theoretical implications of my study where and I gave a very long winded and pretty terrible answer. We discussed together how I should tackle that and be more focused and low and behold a similar question came up in my Viva, and I was able to nail it because I had been prepared. So get a friend, a supervisor or even your family to throw as many questions your way as possible. Below is the 19 random questions Rosie used from her cards to help me prepare. After answering all 19 that came to just under an hour of talking, so you can see how quickly a viva can go, especially as these are generic. Sadly, you can never truly prepare for the very specific and in-depth questions the examiners may have!

  1. Why did you narrow your focus of enquiry to this?
  2. How did research questions emerge?
  3. Which previous studies influenced your work?
  4. Who or what was most influential?
  5. What is the area in which you wish to be examined?
  6. How did you choose your methodology and were there any constraints?
  7. Limitations of your method and study?
  8. Did you encounter any problems?
  9. Talk us through how you analysed the data?
  10. What steps did you take to mitigate errors and bias the data in your qualitative methods?
  11. Do you believe your methods entomologically aligns?
  12. If you could start again, what would you do differently?
  13. How did your thinking develop as you went through your research process?
  14. How do your findings challenge the established literature in this field?
  15. How long do you expect your work to remain current?
  16. Where did you go wrong?
  17. What are the theoretical implications of your findings? What are the policy implications of your findings?
  18. How can it influence your findings?
  19. How do you intend to share your research findings?

Give yourself some space

I can’t stress this enough, it seems counterintuitive that as you scramble to cram as much in and practice as much as you can for the Viva that you should give yourself some time off. But seriously, trust me. Do it. Take a day off, go for a walk, go do something you enjoy. A tired brain is not a brain that’s going to perform well in the Viva. I know that its really hard to do because your mind will keep going back to viva prep, but you need to force yourself to do something differently, even if for an hour. I am forever indebted to my friend Ro who gave me no choice but to go out for a walk or my parents who forced me to go food shopping to take my mind off it. It seems small and daft, but it really worked. It gave my brain a few minutes of breathing space and especially on that walk realising that, yes, while the Viva is probably the most significant thing you’ve ever done to date and yes, so much is riding on it. That you have so many people who support you and there is so much more to life than getting three letters after your name. It does put things into perspective.

The day before try not to throw up and get some sleep

I read that some people say not to touch any viva prep the day before to give your brain a rest. I agree in principle, but I still did some prep. I read those summary pages a few times throughout the day and then gave it a rest. There comes the point where you know you’ve done all you can, and you feel as prepared as you can, so doing more won’t help. I spent a lot of that day sitting in the sun listening to music and trying to take my mind off it. Whatever coping mechanism you use to deal with stress now is an excellent time to use it! I also read and made notes of the latest papers that had come out since I submitted my thesis. A read a lot of these viva prep blogs who placed so much emphasis on you knowing every single paper since you’ve submitted. Please do not spend a load of time on this! Examiners can ask you to make sure you’re aware of how your research fits in, but they cannot directly examine you on any paper that’s been published post submission. Focus on your own work, I wasn’t even asked about any new literature in my viva. Imagine if I had dedicated so much time to that, what a waste that would have been!

Go and smash it and some final tips

The Viva is undoubtedly massive, and there is no denying that the day is enormous and massively stressful. You will feel like you’re crap, that your thesis is rubbish and you’ll feel vastly underprepared despite being the most prepared you’ve ever been for anything. It happens. I felt awful before my Viva! I think any PhD student who says they’re not nervous about the Viva is either a liar or incredibly naïve, or at worst has delusions of grandeur. Well, they’ll just set themselves up for a fail. Remember, and again I read this before I went into the Viva but didn’t really believe it until after the Viva, the examiners are not there to trick you or catch you out. They’re doing their job and your examiners should ask some very tough questions, you should expect them, it is a PhD after all. But any question is never a personal attack and its never to catch you out. Remember, despite the feeling of imposter syndrome, you really are the expert in the room. You should try and enjoy it as much as you can too. My Viva was brutal and tough but it was really enjoyable once I got into it. There is no other time in your life as a student where someone outside of your supervisory team will have read your thesis cover to cover, and you can sit in a room and discuss it at length with people who are just as enthusiastic about it as you are. My parents, for example, have only read my acknowledgements of my thesis so, yeah, make the most of two strangers taking an interest in your work because your family don’t!!

I found it vital in my preparations to be critical and honest with the thesis. What is good about it and what are my weakest points. I cannot stress enough how important it was for me to know before I went in what I was going to defend until I was blue in the face and what I was happy to let go. You need to know what battles you’re going to pick in the Viva. You don’t have to defend every word, in fact, if you do you could be posing more problems than its worth. An example, if I defended the term pedagogy in my title and following sections, I have no doubt I would have had major corrections instead of the lower end of moderate. I was wise enough to know it was my weakest part of the thesis and the examiners saw it too, I was happy to not defend it, I’m glad I didn’t. On the flip side, my examiners weren’t that excited about my large section on UAV regulations and asked not once, not twice but three times was it critical. This, to me, was a fundamental aspect of my argument in the thesis and one of my mantras in the conclusion so three separate times, I defended it in the viva. I would have justified it a 4th if I had to because that was one part of my thesis I was going to defend until the end. Of course, by time they asked me a second time there was a flicker of “they’ve asked me this again, should I concede?” but no, it was a test to see me stick to my argument and defend it. By time they asked a 3rd time I was more adamant than ever to keep it in!

Be honest. Seriously, this is my final point and one that is vital in the Viva. Be honest. In mine I was asked if I was familiar with a particular set of literature which to them was essential if I had mentioned one thing, I really should have mentioned this. I was honest that I wasn’t familiar and they simply said thanks for being honest, one of your corrections is to do a small section on it. Then that was it, happy days we moved on. If I had tried to blag it, it would have caused so many more issues! You’re not meant to know everything in the Viva, you’re human. If you don’t know it put your hands up and admit it, they’ll be absolutely fine with it. If you don’t know it and you try and blag it well, they view that very dimly that’s for sure. As the old saying goes, it’s better to be thought of as a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.

So try and enjoy the Viva, if you’ve had the right attitude, if you’ve prepared well enough then I am sure you will survive, and you will get what you’ve worked so hard for, you’ll be a Dr! Good luck and godspeed to you!

If you have any questions or even if you want me to read anything or even Skype you with some viva prep questions, let me know in the comments or get in touch on social media @TonyCliffe210. I’m currently in the process of writing a book about my PhD experience and how to tackle the many issues it throws up, so get in touch if you want to be involved in that! Or you can read about my Viva experience here: The battle of the Viva and my ode to H105 

Or read here my thoughts i penned before the viva: Some thoughts about the PhD journey as i near the final battle.

If you want to chat about the PhD or viva, get in touch, us PGRs need to help each other out to survive.

Go and smash it guys! You’ve got this!

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Post viva you get to wear cool badges!

The battle of the Viva and my ode to H105

“So congratulations Dr Cliffe” my internal examiner raises a huge grin and leans across the table to shake my hand, followed by my external then a slap on the back from my supervisor. I slump back in my chair as I thank them. I’m exhausted. I take a deep breath as I feel the stress of the viva flow through me and out with every breath. I can’t quite believe that I’ve survived. Is it over? There is no rising movie score of epic proportions, there is no confetti canon or wild cheering. A formal handshake completes the epic journey, a refined act for what has been an epic battle from day one. I’d just finished a PhD in 2 years 8 months and come through a tough viva, but I feel numb, completely numb. I’m happy, of course I am! But I’m also acutely aware of how instantly tired I am. When you’ve been stressed and working so hard for what felt like forever, with the goal reached it was that surreal moment of reaching the summit of the highest mountain you’ve ever climbed, looking back from where you’ve come from and then looking out at the view and just standing in amazement. I had reached my goal and now what was my first thought.

But more than that, I’m numb with bewilderment because I thought I had lost it all within 2 minutes of the 1hr 45 minute viva. I had done the best I could in the Viva but felt that my best wasn’t good enough, too many torpedo hits and not enough patching up to stop the ship from sinking. I was wrong, I had survived, I had done enough. Brutal. Intellectually brutal is the only word I can describe for the Viva. Nothing compares, and nothing ever will. I get it now, I really do when they say getting a PhD and particularly the final battle of the Viva is the hardest intellectual thing you can ever do. It all became apparent how hard it is to get a PhD in this moment.

There is no amount of patching up that you can do to save it, and no amount of effective counter weapons can save you and your thesis either.

I replay the morning ahead of me as I took a deep breath and thanked them all for their time, collected my belongings and walked out of the room. I could barely feel my feet under me, my mind still ultimately shell shocked at the whole experience, not just the Viva but the cumulation of nearly three years of solid hard work was over. Like a solider that’s been told the war is over, looking down at his dishevelled uniform.

To paraphrase a dear friend of mine, Rosie, she once offered her pearl of wisdom about the PhD and torpedoes. In essence, your thesis is a ship in a battle, and there are certain things that you’ll do or write that will come under attack from the examiners. So it’s your job to make sure your thesis is as watertight as possible, yet that is impossible. The examiners will always find something, they’ll send their torpedoes directly towards your ship. The point of her analogy was that there will be small torpedoes that you take the hit and move on, but there will be fundamental torpedoes such as your methods where if you’ve got that wrong, the examiners will send a direct hit, and you’ll be sunk. There is no amount of patching up that you can do to save it, and no amount of effective counter weapons can save you and your thesis either.

That analogy flashed across my mind as I watched that torpedo ripple under the waves towards my ship. The opening salvo of the battle of the Viva had begun, and in my head, it had felt as if I’d already lost. “Have you written a thesis that matches your title? We don’t think you have”. Boom. Damage report. Flashing lights and noise fill my head as I scramble to right myself, any sense of I could win this had vanished, any plan of attack I had and had prepared to defend my thesis was thrown out of the window. I scramble for a confident tone in my voice despite feeling my heart in my mouth and my entire PhD crumble around me “Yeah…I have…Absolutely”.

In my head, a million thoughts are rushing around my brain, and an internal dialogue goes on in my head, What have I missed? What has everyone else missed? I’ve planned for this worst-case scenario, but I never thought it would come true, what do I do? Have I failed? Is this a test question? I’ve come so far ahead of the curve people are going to be so let down if I fail. Did I gamble not ever working a Friday? Fuck. Fuck. Breathe Tony. Fight, you know your stuff, believe in your work. Come on! Battle stations!

For the next hour and three quarters, a healthy and in-depth viva discussion occurred with my excellent examiners. I had to take some torpedo hits that I was willing to let happen, but I fought back with my own, defending my thesis and my journey to this point. It was constant, question after question, no time for rest or composure. An intellectual debate of the highest order it had felt as if my brain was in a boxing match. From defending the use of certain words in the thesis, to a discussion of changing my title, to me shouting about the merits of my innovative EVFG that I’d created. Despite that initial blow, I felt that I had recovered throughout the Viva. The examiners seemed pleased with my answers to their tricky questions. I thought I had defended my thesis when needed and let it go when I needed to. For example, I have the term pedagogy in my title, I’ve never liked it, always felt uncomfortable with it in and its corresponding sections in my thesis. It showed in my writing. That torpedo they sent my way was directed right at that. My weakest section, my ships design flaw. They’d honed in on it straight away, a vulnerability I had recognised but put up with because I was in an education department, so it had to be in there, despite my true self being a Geographer, not a pedagogic researcher.

“Pedagogy means something very important to both of us. Why is it in your title? We both agree this is by far your weakest section, everything else is great but this. Let’s get to the bottom of it” was something like how they approached this deciding question of the thesis. I told the truth. I agreed it was my weakest and I explained how I didn’t ever really want it in there but gave it my best shot at putting it in there. I hoped my defence was enough, but there was no real telling from their responses from my perspective. My external sends a giant torpedo my way, I know at this moment that it’s the big one. Depending on my answer, I was either going to be sunk entirely, or I was going to stop that torpedo before it hit me. “Did you make your virtual field guide to enhance the students learning? Or, did you make the virtual field guide to prove a concept exists and if it happened to enhance their learning that was a byproduct?”

I answer without hesitation. The examiners despite the title had seen my vision and my work, I had created this brand new model to prove that as no one has done it before, that the concept could be done and it has benefitted students and educators in their learning on fieldwork, but that is just a fantastic bonus. I’ve proved the concept works, I was so glad that they agreed and were so enthusiastic about it. They saw real merit in it. In this moment I thought I might actually survive.

After what was the longest and quickest 1hr 45 mins of my life and after more thesis defence, the battle of the Viva concluded and I was released to enter the staff room while they spent 30 minutes conferring what my outcome would be. I had no way to tell how it had gone, I had fought back from that opening but I prepared for the worst.

“Oh, here he is!” Tim, my supervisor, exclaimed with a grin as I enter the staff room. “Fucking hell, Tim, that was brutal!” I exhale as I slump into the chair.”Ah can’t have been that bad?” he says jokingly as I turn to him “they want me to change my title, Tim!” I exclaim in exasperation. “Oh” is all he could offer. I then debriefed him on how it went, blow by blow, torpedo by counter torpedo. “I don’t know Tim…after that it could be anything, I suspect moderate but prepare for major. It all depends on if I’ve done enough to let the pedagogy go and defended the VFG well enough…” is my concluding statement of the debrief before I’m interrupted by the internal examiner knocking on the door asking for me and this time Tim, to join me in the room.

The walk up the stairs felt like the longest walk I’ve ever done. In my head, as I always do, expect the worst case scenario, and if its better than that, then that’s a bonus! Sitting down at the table, there were no signs from my external or internal which way this was going to go. My external commends me on how much work I’ve done, which according to him felt like 3 PhDs worth! And commends me on a great and in-depth viva before saying “congratulations Tony, We’d like to award you the PhD pending moderate corrections” I didn’t hear much after that! The examiners went through what corrections where to be made, what to remove and what to add. It had felt earned this moment, despite being mentally exhausted. It had been a hard viva, as hard as everyone says it was going to be. But weirdly, I’m glad it was hard. If the examiners had just said okay that’s great it wouldn’t have felt like the PhD was earnt but now it did. Both Gary and Judith as examiners where exceptional. No question was asked to catch me out, all their questions were to draw out of me clarity of my work and to see me defend every word, every action over the past 2 and a bit years which accumulated in the thesis. A textbook example of how a viva should be done. I can only thank them once again for what was the toughest but ultimately rewarding experience in my academic life thus far.

When I exited the room, I noticed that my old DoS’s door is open, a woman who I could not thank enough for getting me where I am today. If this were indeed a research war, she would have been my commanding officer. Fran was my DoS for just under two years before going on maternity to which my 2nd supervisor Tim took over for the final stretch of the campaign. I also realise at this moment how fortunate I was to have them both! Fran had made her way in especially for my Viva, to be there whether it was good or bad news. I guess while it was nerve-wracking for me, it was in my hands. For Fran, she hadn’t seen or been updated on the PhD for months since she was on maternity so I can only imagine what she must have been feeling as I ventured into that Viva!

I offer a weary, tired knock on her door and enter, god knows how I must have looked! I placed my stuff down on the table as she looked at me with a face that said: “Well, how did it go?”

I manage to raise a smile and just two words “Dr Cliffe!”

Seeing how happy she was for me, it slowly started to sink in just what it was that I had just achieved. In 2 years and 8 months and only working Monday to Thursday on it I had completed a PhD! I give her a quick debrief about the moderate corrections the examiners want me to do. “They’ve given me three months” I relay to her to which she replied “Knowing you, you’ll have it done in three weeks!” she knows me well! I leave and head down the old staircase and out into the bright blue sky and sunshine as I lug my giant thesis between my arms, what once was a mental weight on my shoulders has been lifted as I breathe in that cool fresh air. I offer myself a wry smile as I walk down that path towards my office that I’ve done thousands of times before with the crisp blue skies, lush green rolling grass giving way to the twinkling of the river in the distance capped by the looming Welsh hills. A sight I’d grown fond of over the years, a sight and a path I’ve walked for 2 years 8 months as a student, now finally a Dr.

I walk up to my office and notice a card and a blowup minion sellotaped to our office door. I raise another smile as I peel it away and open the door. For the first time today had I felt comfortable, I was home. H105.

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Thanks Sha!

Opening the door, my dear friend Vic turns around from her PC. I had grown used to and often looked forward to her cheery greeting and smile whenever either of us entered the office for the first time in the day, not so much today. “How did it go?” she asks a hint of nerves I detect. Which is my fault, I told her if I’m not back in 3 hours something awful has happened. A Viva shouldn’t be that long, so if it is that long, I’ve fucked it. As the Viva had started 45 minutes late and post debrief while it had only been 2 hours for me, it was touching 3 hours since I left the office for the Viva! Plus, how I looked hot, sweaty, and shell shocked probably didn’t do much to instil any good vibes from me!

“That was fucking brutal! But I did it! Mod corrections!” that hug was most definitely welcome! Vic joked later on that she’d never seen me like that before, that’s how bad it was! Outwardly and in person I have a firm control over my emotions and as such I have this persona of a very confident, calm and self-assured person. So much so that it is an injoke that I’m a robot. That had gone out of the window by time viva had come around! This robot was trying very hard not to malfunction! A few days before the Viva, I was out on a walk with my close friend Ro to clear my head pre-viva. “Wow, I’ve never seen this side to you before! Where is your confidence!?” truth of the matter is I never really have it I just think I have it!

We are the fellowship of the PhD

Vic came with me to the lunch with my supervisors and my examiners and Katie joined too with another welcome hug (and a fantastic Viva present, a llama lamp!). My mind was still spinning. The journey was over although I knew I still had corrections to do but I was confident in getting them done in a quick turnaround. After an hour or so, I thanked my examiners once again and my supervisors and was given what I was told is a tradition for passing a viva. A giant bottle of Champagne from Fran!

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Post Viva smiles!

I walked back with Vic and Katie to the office, just like so many times before. And that’s where it all feels like a double-edged sword for me, a victory and a loss at the same time. I’ve come and did my duty, I’ve fought my fight and I’ve won, I’ve finished, I’ve survived. Yet, I feel guilty that I’m not back in the fight with them anymore, I feel guilty that I won’t be in the office anymore, I feel guilty that I’m on the other side while they’re preparing to go through it all. They’re not colleagues, they’re not even friends or close friends, they’re more than that, so much more than that to me. They truly are a family to me, there are no other people I would have wanted to share this journey with, to stand shoulder to shoulder within this PhD war. In a war where everything does its best to not make you succeed, in a war which makes you doubt your abilities and in a war which takes you to some incredible lows, they’ve been there, a beacon of friendship, advice, solitude, a light in the dark. H105 and its occupants had become a sanctuary in the chaos. A bond that was forged in adversity would never be broken. We’ve faced it all together. I am forever indebted to them for everything, to them, to Laura, to Rosie and the rest of the PGR community. No words can ever express just how much they have meant to me on this journey. We’ve had highs and lows, we’ve laughed in the sun and we’ve wiped tears away in the rain. We’ve travelled to conferences together and had European adventures. We’ve been rocked by life and we’ve each been a shoulder to cry on. We’ve dropped everything to race to be there when tragedy has struck. We’ve celebrated the little and the big wins as if they were our own. I had to fight back a little tear as I read in my card “we are the fellowship of the PhD”. They mean everything to me.

 

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It really does pain me that I’m not going to be on the frontlines with them anymore, but I can offer something I couldn’t before. As the first to go through this process, I feel like I can be that lighthouse in the stormy seas. I have survived and I know they will survive too, I’m going to make sure that they do. Whether it’s the PhD or the Mphil. My family, my H105, forever stronger together. We can beat anyone and anything! The PhD and life here have thrown so much stuff our way, but we continue to defy the odds and come through it all. I cannot wait to be there when we’re all safe, when we’ve all survived, when we’ve all graduated. When we can all sit back whether we’re in academia or not, PhD or Mphil, and raise our glasses, to the best group of people I have ever known, I raise my glass to H105, the true meaning of the fellowship of the PhD.

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H105, the greatest office of them all

 

My last academic trip to Bergen, Norway

PhDs are a journey and like all great journeys, they’re punctuated by moments, stages and turns. It felt surreal and a very long journey to on the eve of heading off to Norway for my final international and what was to be my last official conference as a PhD student. In my university at least, PhD students are expected to present their work at faculty and university level but to prove yourself you need to present on the world stage. You’re expected to present at both national and international conferences during your term as a PhD student. I’ve been fortunate to present at 4 national and 3 internationals both in the UK, Croatia (which can be read here My visit to Split, Croatia) and finally, here in Bergen, Norway.

What made the final conference trip special was not only was it in a place I’ve always wanted to visit, but for the first time, I’d be presenting twice. Alongside my PhD and my many hobbies, I work as an Editor for the International Journal for Students as Partners. It’s been a fantastic project I’ve been involved in from its inception, and while I still feel like I shouldn’t be there (good old imposter syndrome again), it’s very much been one of those amazing opportunities that I couldn’t turn down. It was most definitely when the opportunity arose to say yes and to learn how to do it later! To be an editor as a student and at this age is unbelievable and so rewarding, despite the amount of voluntary time it takes up in what is a busy schedule. I’m fortunate to not only work on a fantastic and vital journal with world-leading experts in SaP literature but to work with them on the editorial board. Despite the 9pm meetings with colleagues in the UK, Canada, USA and Australia and with the new addition of Hong Kong and Malaysia, it’s been a rewarding and challenging experience. Ruth, my longtime mentor (I’ve gone from being her student to her RA to finally my colleague at IJSaP, we share co-editor responsibilities for all Case Studies the journal receives) was presenting at the ISSoTL 18 conference about the journal alongside her work. What made it special was other colleagues on the board would be presenting too and after years talking to them via a computer screen in our meetings, I’d finally get to meet them all in person!

“The ability to present what was most likely my last academic conference with my mentor, where it all started. It had a nice full circle feel about it.”

It’s felt like a long journey from my first ever international conference in Amsterdam when I was an RA for Ruth. Way back then the world of conferences and most certainly at International level was a whole new and confusing world. However, Ruth has been and continues to be an excellent mentor, she guided me through that first international and even allowed me to present solo in that. Throwing you in the deep end was the best way to learn. Therefore, I felt proud and thankful that (a.) I arrive in Bergen comfortable at International Conferences with a few under my belt and (b.) The ability to present what was most likely my last academic conference with my mentor, where it all started. It had a nice full circle feel about it.

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Great opening at #issotl18 so far!

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Bergen in Norway was a place that always looked so beautiful, charming and at times, rugged. Nestled in the Fjords with it’s delicately painted shop fronts I was so excited to finally go and a fitting place it was for my final jaunt as a PhD student. With my laptop, camera and the all-important USB stick with my presentation on, I was off to the airport. I flew with a new airline this time (SAS) and on a brand new aircraft type for me, the Airbus A320 NEO (Avgeek win!). Getting to Bergen isn’t that easy! I had to fly from Manchester to Oslo, wait for two hours and then fly onwards to Bergen.

What actually happened, however, was a technical fault with the NEO meant that after a severe delay sitting on the plane, what was meant to be 2 hours turned into a 15-minute dash across Oslo airport including passport control, another security check and then a 2-mile run to catch my flight to Bergen! However, the landing in Oslo was terrific, as was the landing in Bergen! There is something special about flying after sunset across the frozen north, I was tired but filled with excitement for the next few days ahead.

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It's a bit cold here.

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After what felt like a very long day, I arrived in the cold rainy airport of Bergen, Norway, in the dark. After 40 minute tram ride I arrived into the city for the first time, the clatter of my Case behind me. My hotel was near the central train station of Bergen, and through the drizzle and low cloud, I could just about make out one of the three giant mountains that flank this small city. The glow of the street lights that crisscrossed up the mountain disappeared into the darkened sky. Cool, really cool, I thought. My hotel was a typical Scandinavian style, small but well equipped even if it did take me 5 minutes to work out how to turn the lights on! I was on the 8th floor with a giant wall to floor ceilings which made the room feel bigger than it actually was but good luck finding a big hotel room in this part of the world! After a shower, I was off to sleep.

The next morning I awoke to an amazing buffet breakfast and joys to me, free coffee! Nordic countries know how to make super strong coffee, which is just to my taste. The conference weirdly didn’t start until the welcoming ceremony in the evening, so it gave me a full day to go and get a feel for this city, a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. Within moments of walking through this city, I fell in love with it, it had that rustic charm that I found so endearing on my time on the maritime coast of Canada.

This place reminded me so much of St. John’s that all the memories came flooding back, it was just as cold as that place too! I loved the cobbled streets, the brightly coloured wooden shops and houses. In this part of the world, the sun rose late and set early, so I was out way before sunrise, but as the sun rose as I explored the city, I had a big travellers grin on my face!

As followers of my travels will know, I always go and climb the biggest thing there is in any new place I visit. What’s bigger than a mountain top? After a pleasant walk around the city, I put on my hiking boots and set up on the climb to the top of the mountain. After a fantastic walk through streets which turned into gravel tracks lined by dense Norwegian spruce forests, which then cleared away to reveal the city and the Fjords below. Simply stunning and well worth the effort of getting up here, a just reward indeed! I scoped the top of the mountain off for photo opportunities with my camera, and I went for a hike through the forests. I love hiking, especially alone in new places as it has that relaxed adventure vibe that I love. Plus, it’s a new challenge to get the best shots out of this stunning scenery in front of me. I came across dense forests and little lakes with tiny waterfalls. I loved it!

Waterfalls and rain Walkway to the mountain through the forest

However, I couldn’t spend too long as it was down the mountain on a train, which was cool! See the video!

Before it was back to the hotel to shower and change for the opening night of the conference, after all, that’s why I was here! I was presenting as part of the IJSaP team the next day and my PhD work on the final day of the conference in three days. So I devised a plan that evening and the following day I’d spend at the conference. The Friday, I’d go explore more and take a cruise around the Fjords (how could you not when you’re here!) then the Saturday was another conference day before I had a final free day to explore. I won’t talk too much about the conference but wow, what a conference to finish on! A genuinely supportive and enjoyable event to have been a part of. I loved meeting loads of new people, I loved presenting my own work and as part of a team, and it was great to finally meet my fellow colleagues! It truly was a super ending to my time as a PhD student on my final ever international conference.

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Time for a Fjord cruise!

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Away from the conference, however, I skipped a few sessions (don’t judge) to go and explore more of this beautiful city and the surrounding fjords. In between, my two days of presenting, I took a day off from the conference to go and explore the Fjords (I wasn’t the only conference attendee to do so either that day!). I looked online the night before due to the first day with no rain forecast since I got here, for around £60 a cruise would take you out for three hours into the beautiful fjords, I couldn’t turn down such an offer!

My mind casts back to when I sailed out of the river Mersey in torrential April showers with the Battle of the Atlantic fleet, all 26 warships heading out into the wild Irish Sea was a fond memory, but, a distinctly cold one. I’d never been so cold, until this cruise! Walking to the harbour, there was a crunch of ice underfoot as the rising sun glinted off the frost on the ground. I thought I’d get to the boat 30 minutes before departure, but It seems everyone else had the same idea, so I was already far back in the queue. Annoying too as I really wanted to get on the top deck. I was aware of the potential for, but how could you sit inside a boat when you were surrounded by all this beauty! Living in a Norwegian Fjord

Morning in the Fjords

I watched as our ship pulled alongside and before long everyone was boarded and I found a really nice little spot on the top deck. As we trundled out of the city and past the giant ice breaker resupply vessels, it was decidedly calm as we crossed the harbour wall and out into the fjords. Well, that illusion was shattered as the captain opened the throttles, and as the waves and speeds increased, so did the biting icy wind. I had thermals on but I might as well been wearing a t-shirt that’s what it felt like! The pain of the cold and particularly my fingers curled around my camera soon disappeared as I got lost in the beauty of it all. Morning fog hung in the valleys of fjords and the island like a fluffy blanket, the sun now lost behind a thick grey layer of cloud. I couldn’t stop myself from taking hundreds of pictures as I slowly watched the bridges and the fjords loom out of the mist, to then watching the mist swirl and form different shapes and then finally, the sun broke through clearing the mist from the water to reveal stunning peaks and troughs, snow-capped mountains and cascading waterfalls.

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😍

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This has to be the most beautiful place I have ever seen. I get it now, I really get why people put up with the cold to go cruising around the Fjords. As an avid World War 2 follower with history, I was brought to the thoughts of what it was like for both allied and axis ships patrolling such waters in horrific weather and especially the Bismark and Tirpitz who would hide out in the Fjords. Such idyllic location for such a war to be fort, the juxtaposition of the best of mother nature and the very worst of humankind. After three hours and well over 500 pictures, we arrived back on dry land. I could barely move, and my muscles ached from the constant battering of -25c wind chill. I exited the boat and walked straight across the harbour to a coffee shop. The heat inside wrapped around my chilled bones like a much-needed hug. Weirdly, in Norway, everyone’s English accent is well, weird. I’ve heard South African vibes, I’ve heard American and in front of me serving my long Americano was a quintessentially British woman. “Ah, you’re from Liverpool?” I guess my accent was a give-a-way for that. “Yeah, where in the UK are you from?”…”Oh I’m not, I’m from Oslo, I go to university here”. That messed with my head!

“I spent two hours drinking coffee, wrapping my hands around that lovely hot bean juice as each sip thawed me out.”

As you know, I am a fond coffee lover, and I’ve sampled many coffee shops all over North America and Europe. There is something about coffee shops, their vibes, the music, the constant chatter and often that cosy feeling. This little coffee shop that looked out into the small busy cobbled streets of Bergen with the harbour glistening behind me was much like the fjords, perfection. I spent two hours drinking coffee, wrapping my hands around that lovely hot bean juice as each sip thawed me out. I chatted to the locals and tourists and flicked through my pictures. What a fantastic morning! Back in the hotel, I got the hottest shower I could cope with and got in bed to edit my photographs.

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Coffee views!

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After a sleep and some food, I headed back out into the city to climb that mountain again. Despite still feeling a little frostbitten, I was so amazed by the photo opportunities in this city that I just had to get back out there for a sunset and some star photography. I think whatever you do in life you have to go watch a sunrise or a sunset from the peak of a mountain for you to truly appreciate natures beauty. As always on my trips, I’m often fortunate for mother nature to gift me such epic and truly wonderful sunsets.

After the sun had set and the thermometer dropped well below freezing I ended up hiking through the forest in the pitch black to find a nice spot for some star photography. I felt completely safe here but its possibly not the best idea to hike through a mountain forest with no map or torch, in the pitch black. Not my best idea, but sometimes you have to risk it for a great shot. Of which after stumbling upon a little lake, I was so glad I didn’t turn back. However, out of nowhere, the fog from this morning rolled back in, and I could barely see my own feet.

Nighttime on the lake

Star spangled forests

I used my phone camera to light the way, and suddenly I heard footsteps behind me! I was ready to use my tripod as a weapon, but what it turned out as it passed me in a blur was a local, obviously very used to the weather fell running at night! What a crazy Mofo and I certainly nearly had a heart attack! As soon as it came, the fog went again and the summit cleared to the twinkling lights of Bergen. I sat on an ice-cold slab of concrete with no one else around gazing at the stars and the views of the city far below. I reflected on what a fantastic final conference it had been and how far I had come. My journey as a PhD student was ending, but as I sit looking down upon high, it had been one hell of a journey!

Full album of pictures can be found here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmmmE7Rj

Some thoughts about the PhD journey as i near the final battle.

So I started writing a blog about my journey on the PhD, and I’ve had to take a step away from it because I realise it’s really hard, to sum up, the vast array of experiences that I’ve had in the just under 3 years on the PhD! So while I got lost in a very long-winded analogy of ships which will become far more clear in this blog, for now, I thought why not break it down into some of my ramblings, bare with me!

It’s a battle and a journey, hell you’re at war!

PhDs are fundamentally, I believe most would agree, is a journey. It’s a journey of knowledge, research and often a journey of self-discovery. The word ‘Journey’ conjures up a lot of thoughts and feelings, when I ever see Journey or someone describing that they’re ‘off on a Journey’ my mind wanders between the 80’s power Ballard group and some exciting far-flung adventure. In actual fact, a PhD is a war, a series of many battles. PhDs are a battle. You’re battling others, you’re battling a system, you’re battling approval from experts at the end of the day, but above all else, you’re battling yourself.

I often think of the PhD journey like a ship in World War II trying to get back to England across the North Atlantic. You have to somehow cross the Atlantic to home base while avoiding a crossing fraught with a line of research U-Boats, Heavy Cruiser politics, Frigate sized inefficiencies and Mine strewn sabotage.

The biggest threat amongst many is quite simply, yourself as a PhD student. No matter how many words I could write or how many times I could tell you what a PhD is like unless you live and breathe it, you’ll never understand. Friends and family always ask how the PhD is going, and I got my soundbite down to a few sentences. Enough to answer without much detail but enough to keep engaged because if you were to tell them of something great that’s happened like a small thing of finding a P value less than 0.05 or the horror of a rejected RD9R form, they’d switch off. It’s not their fault, it’s just a very different and complex world we have to live in. That avenue and soundboard of advice and a way to clear my head was now lost. It doesn’t help when friends and family joke and with good intentions that “you don’t have a real job!”… “When are you going to finish school?”… “Pfft, you just sit around in an office all day doing nothing”. I laugh, I agree, the topic changes, I move on. Banter. They don’t understand that it is a job, an actual job that I have. I have the equivalent of a £23k job, I get paid tax-free just under £1300 a month,  work different hours to a 9-5 but equally as long if not longer sometimes, 1 a.m., 4.am, maybe a weekend.

I sit around in my office all day completing cutting edge research that could one day change the face of geoscience fieldwork teaching, ambitious, of course, but the potential is there. PhDs literally is the accumulation of someone pushing the boundaries and is the creation of creating new knowledge. See, the thing that people don’t understand is the PhD you’re right, is not a job in the traditional sense because no job does it actually become a way of life. No job from day one puts you under so much pressure to succeed yet every minute someone is trying to make you fail, no other job has the rule of one mistake and you’re out and no other job after three years of hard work cumulates in a meeting with an expert to decide whether you get to earn your job title or you leave with nothing. No other job has that setup.

Because of this and the lack of understanding, friends and family only ever see the successes, the awards, the conferences in exotic places (of which I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to go and present in 3 different countries) or the paper published or finally at the end, that giant book of paper that is your written thesis. They only ever see, much like an iceberg those things, so it’s unsurprising that people have this view of PhD life as easy, sitting in an office or going to different countries to talk about your stuff. What in fact you don’t see, is the tears of frustration when your research doesn’t work (which is often. I haven’t failed I’ve just found 150 ways not to make a Polygonal 3D SfM model of a field site), you don’t see my outward projection of overconfidence cracking when you get yet another research paper saying you’re not good enough which only fuels your ever-present battle with imposter syndrome. You don’t see that I’ve just nearly threw up in the toilets a minute before my presentation due to nerves, despite my love of public speaking and my confident projection and lack of shaking hands. What you don’t see is behind the smile in that social situation I’m thinking about what needs to be done next or what I should be doing, hiding the feeling of guilt for ‘not working’ despite the already 60 hour week I’ve done in secret because you don’t see the thought at 1 a.m. in the morning that spurs me on to open the laptop up and work in the wee hours of the night.

I say this as one of the good ones who have or at least had bar occasions and certainly the last few months of the PhD in the write-up phase, a pretty healthy work-life balance. I refused to work Fridays or weekends but worked incredibly hard Monday to Thursday. Working majority 4 day weeks I managed to finish my thesis in 2.5 years. Yet, despite having a strict work-life balance, I still felt and feel all of those things above. Now add onto that, the complexities of life that you have to deal with as well, family, friends, and relationships, deaths of family members and pets and general life stuff. It’s crazy. So please, for the love of whatever Devine entity you worship, stop saying to PhD students “you do nothing” or “to get a real job” because…just don’t. Just give them a hug and a coffee. Trust me when I say that even the ‘strong ones’ are struggling at times! PhDs are hard enough without having to deal with your shit banter.

Supervisors make or break a PhD

Now it’s hard enough surviving all those enemy ships and yourself that I mentioned before on your research crossing the Atlantic, let alone having your escort team have an incident of friendly fire or conveniently have a radio issue when you call for back up and assistance and then reply and turn up once the damage has already been done. If this was world war two crossing the Atlantic, my tiny ship in my escort has been flanked by my supervisors who have equally played a part in my survivability thus far. A veteran Heavy Cruiser and a newer built guided destroyer. They have been exceptional in absolutely everything. Giving me heads up on threats ahead, actively trying to mitigate them before they got to me or helping me to dodge those attacks and helped me plan my way forward across the choppy seas. I’ve been lucky.

Supervisors have been said, and I can only add to this, that supervisors really do make or break a student’s PhD. Please don’t take this lightly. It’s fundamental, and it’s a real issue. I 100% believe there is no more prominent part of a PhD student’s likelihood of surviving a PhD than what supervisor they have. There is a reason that on average only half of all those who take on a PhD survive until the end, in some faculties the attrition rate is only 1 in 5 stick it out and survive. You could be the GOAT of Grad School but you ain’t getting shit if you don’t have a good supervisor team. I’m not dramatic here, I’ve seen with my own eyes that at best, some supervisors are inconvenienced by their duty to mentor PhD students, because not like it’s their job or anything right? They see such an inconvenience as a way to increase their tally so that they can be promoted. Or, metaphorically speaking here rather than literal but I’ve seen supervisors literally tie their students up and place a gun in their hand. They either shoot you, get the system to shoot you or you get so marginalised and worn down that you use the gun on yourself. Let me shout this louder for the people at the back, if you’re a supervisor put aside your scramble to the top, set aside treating your students like stepping stones or cheap manual labour and instead treat them as valuable assets, and you know, actually, develop them. Crazy radical thought I know. Just remember you were here once.

I used to think such horror stories were the minority, yet coming up to three years and having interacted with hundreds of PhD students now, in person, at conferences or on social media, my supervisors were the exception, the minority. My supervisors have been beyond exceptional. I cannot express into words how lucky I feel to have had a team like I have had. I’ve always been fortunate to somehow luck out with mentors in my life. Of course, part of that is in how I interact with those mentors over the years and what words of wisdom and tricks and tips I’ve taken from one into the other. I’ve had experience of how it should be done and witnessed plenty of ways for how it shouldn’t be done. If I ever did become a supervisor, I’d make sure to emulate my great mentors of the past and present. What has been a real eye-opener is besides the small pocket of truly exceptional people and that is often faculty and discipline-specific who are very much for the student, i.e. my old department, geography in general, SaP folk and pretty much other PGRs and staff in Education, everyone else wouldn’t give two seconds about climbing over you to get to the top. The real eye-opener in grad school is actually while I thought it would be the students to be like this (maybe in other grad schools this may be the case, again maybe I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by incredibly supportive PGR culture, woo go EHC!) it’s actually the majority of staff who do some truly eye-opening things to get ahead. Sometimes I look at them and I actually feel sorry for them. A. because they’re like that. B. That the system and culture of modern-day Higher Education have made them like that and C. That those who don’t actively be dickheads and instead are decent, supportive, encouraging and want to get somewhere on their own merit, get left behind. All I can say is I shake my head in pity and shame of what the UK higher education culture has become. All I can say is, thank god for those exceptions, although becoming increasingly rare. There is no surprise why many PhD students like me are turning our backs on academia to head into industry. UK H.E has many fundamental flaws that are a blog in its own right which I won’t go into here but to name a few; Student’s as consumers, REF pressure, chronic underfunding except the elite and most depressingly a culture that rewards and glamorises overwork, competition and ill health to get ahead.

You can’t do it alone

If anyone says they’ve done a PhD, and it’s all down to them, well they’re an arse and they’re lying. You cannot survive a PhD on your own. There is too much pressure, too many challenges and obstacles for even the savviest or strong-willed person to overcome. I like to think that I’m a very self-sufficient guy and I want to believe that most of the time I know what I’m doing, yet even me who can be an emotional, rational, logical robot at times, I deeply value having people around me. In recent years there is no surprise that my most happiest times were the 2nd year of Uni, RA team and 2nd year of the PhD. What they all have in common is a supportive, close-knit group of people around me, who all have their strengths to bring to the team and for all who I rely on and confide in.

Something I learnt very early on in my days in the RAF cadets, especially in -5c at night on an SAS training camp, is adversity and a challenge brings the best out of people and brings people together, all they need is an element of common ground to enable a seed to grow. Before I ever ventured out onto the PhD, I had read countless articles about how lonely PhDs are. To tell you the truth, I was deeply concerned by this before I started. For the first month, my worst fears came true on the PhD. I would leave the house, talk to the guys at the ticket office for my train, and I wouldn’t open my mouth again until I got home. There was just a lack of PhD students in the faculty. I was in a giant hot-desking office that was decidedly cold and empty. Some of the 2nd and final year students would pop in once in a blue moon, exchange pleasantries and then leave after an hour or so, never enough to ever feel at home.

That all changed when my cohort started a month after I started. Our super group I imagine may well have formed anyway at some point, but our origin story fills me with smiles looking back. If it wasn’t for Laura venturing in to say hello that morning and following mornings and building that rapport with each other who knows where a. our friendship would have been, would we have been friends at all? And b. would the group have formed around us at the start, who knows? For me, that getting to know Vic, Rosie, Laura and later Katie and building that team was vital for me and it’s down to them and others too like Cara, Hannah, Sha and Rozie and the other PGRs which made the journey what it was.

Without being too emotional here as I have a reputation to keep! But the core H105 group went very quickly from being colleagues to friends, to best friends to ultimately, a family and a massive part of what I am right now. The PhD has been challenging, it has been a journey of research but also self-discovery. I’ve felt like I’ve developed more as a person in these two and bit years than I have in my previous 26 years and that honestly is saying something considering I thought I changed a lot in undergrad, masters and RA work. Yet, these hard, tiring, stressful few years have been offset by laughter, encouragement, guidance, and learning and above all, unconditional love and support from them. I don’t like to admit it, but I deeply value people like that in my life, and I’m at my happiest when I have that team around me. It actually kills me to admit it to myself but for the first time in a very, very long while have I felt outside of my own family at least, that I have a family and that I rely on them. That’s a very hard thing for me to realise that for once, I admit that I rely upon and that I need that PhD family. Without them, this PhD would have been far different.

As our group has at least in a physical setting changed with people moving away or getting jobs, it hit me hard this summer sitting alone in the office of just how significant an impact a group of people can have on you.

A PhD is not just another degree, a PhD is not just having the privilege of calling yourself a Doctor or the creation of new knowledge. The PhD is a life-changing and affirming process, which is emotionally and intellectually the hardest thing I have ever done.

While I still have the viva to go and I’m still a long way off from being Dr Cliffe, what scares me most about the next step in my life is not where what or how life will be post PhD, which has been something I’ve lived and breathed for nearly three years. While the terror of the unknown does indeed worry me, what upsets me the most is that that next chapter will be without seeing my H105 family every day.

I have one final PhD battle to go. For this one I must do it alone, to enter the battle field and come out as a Doctor or not at all. I await, the Battle of the Viva!