The Day in the life of Tony Cliffe

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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!

Another Single Valentines day

Hey guys, well it’s that time of year again where single people like me wallow in self-pity. Doubly so this year as I can’t even comfort eat the numerous heart-shaped chocolates in the shops as I’m lactose/dairy intolerant, so it’s a double dagger to my jaded heart. Cruel. I mean I’m totally cool with being single for the 7th valentines day running, who’s counting…sniff…I say as the crumbs of my 25th consecutive Oreo falls into my beard (attractive I know ladies!).

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Valentines day blogs I’ve covered everything from the perfect gifts, to the bitter blogs about it being a corporate day which has origins in a Roman guy who stalked a girl, then died pushing her out of the way of a runaway cart. People say that’s cute! I say that’s a Netflix criminal documentary. These blogs, the emotional robot Tony (yes I do have them) often allow me to discuss my feelings on subjects of love and women. They’re often my favourite blogs over the years. After all my love of writing blogs came from me trying to deal with the shitstorm of 6th form. Over the years I’ve felt less and less inclined to wear my heart so openly online, I’m sure you’ve either read or can find those past blogs somewhere online. Yet, despite that I still love these types of blogs. Some of them are fun like a blog I wrote about why I’m single The Single Life of a Tony, or one of my favourite and actually most read blog was my joke take on what the perfect woman would be What would the perfect girl be if she existed?! Other blogs, well they’ve been a bit more sombre but packed a message like this one Cheating in relationship, is it in the Jeans?.

For this one, well I’ll try and strike a balance between the two! Lately, I’ve given some thought to relationships, I’ve been a bit preoccupied for a while with other stuff. I’ve had close friends start new relationships and others ending, I’ve seen those on a high and those struggling. Add to that I’m coming to the end of my PhD and in all honesty having absolutely no clue what lies in store for me next and the terrifying feeling I feel about leaving that life and for the first time probably ever, that I don’t have a solid plan or goal, it has made me think about a lot of things lately. Top piece of advice, I may seem like I have my shit together, but I’m just like you, a twig in a river just in for the ride having no clue.

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The last valentine’s day I spent with someone the tap jammed on and the kitchen nearly flooded with boiling hot water, and we spent the evening filling pots and pans to stop the water from flooding the kitchen. If that wasn’t a metaphor for how that relationship would eventually end, I don’t know what is haha! I’m not going to throw shade in this blog at people in relationships and whatever it is you do on valentines day. Whether you make it special or not, it’s your relationship and I for one and not in a position to judge. You know my thoughts on having a day to celebrate your love for another person and whether I think this is how it should be done.

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In terms of me, well yeah another year single. I honestly thought that last year that would have changed but as per usual with me and my love life well it’s often a square trying to fit into a circle, it never quite fits. I’ll pass on three scenarios or instances where I thought it would change, but the universe as usual laughed and went no.

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For the first time in a long, long time did I entertain the thought of being with someone, people commented on how I was smiling a lot more and was funnier and yeah, I did want to be a better person for her. I’ll take a side step here for a second to explain something. Despite my opening remarks, I’m actually a pretty happy single, I’ve written blogs before about how important it is when you come out of a relationship which you give your all in, to recharge, rediscover yourself and ultimately, forgive your flaws. After all, if you can’t love yourself then how can anyone ever truly love you and you to love someone else? What this means, however, when you’re very self-assured of yourself as well while you may miss having that one person to entirely rely on, or the cute things like morning kisses, on the whole, you enjoy life, you appreciate who you are and that’s important because you’re whole as a person and don’t need someone else to make you whole. I think that’s incredibly important! So when someone comes along who when you are a whole person make you sit up and think, well hey, this girl I want to be better than I am now and they’re going to enhance what I have. Take yourself from 10 to 11, that extra level you haven’t unlocked yet.

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So I met someone who for the first time in ages those thoughts crossed my mind, of course as per usual they were taken. I rolled my eyes, we’ve seen this episode before in the sitcom or is that the horror show that is my love life? Anyway, long story short the classic I’ll wait for her to sort her stuff out and I’ll be a gentleman and not tell her how I truly feel about her, it was too late. The moment had gone. That’s cool, we’ve been here before. As another joke, there was someone else who passed the Tony test, someone I didn’t really think would but did, and I enjoyed every moment with them, but circumstances meant that that would never happen. At least I now have a pretty good yardstick of who to compare to, to live up to my idea of a perfect woman. Lastly, while those two were the standard typical me issues, the latter is when I came to realise that I am destined to be single probably for another few years. It’s like every time something crops up to close that door. Those on Facebook will know about the Bumble story.

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Eugh. If that wasn’t a sign, then I don’t know what is. People used to think I’d be taking the piss with how unlucky I am with women, but that just proves it. To quote one of my dear friends “Tony, you really are the most unluckiest people in love I’ve ever met”. I have to agree. If you don’t know the story, well, after months, probably years of “You need to go dating, go on the dating apps” I caved in and dipped my fishing rod into the sea of online dating. Hardly any fish bit except one. A really good looking redhead (you know my Achilles heel), smart, super funny, loved black coffee and aviation, I was thinking well finally, here she is, the one that ticks all the boxes. We get on like a house on fire, and before I could ask to meet up on a date, I get ghosted. No messages for a week. From 100mph to 0. I’d heard about this dreaded phenomenon in the online world of being ghosted. I was, to put it mildly, fuming. After a week I go back onto my message on bumble, I couldn’t face it until then. That’s when the universe played a blinder and to be fair if I weren’t the butt of the joke I’d have pissed myself laughing at it. My phone and the app for whatever fucking reason decided to hold all her messages and not inform me she sent them. So while I thought I had been ghosted, I had inadvertently ghosted her. Her final message “Wow, I really thought we were getting on so well. I didn’t expect you to ghost me.”

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I messaged to explain the situation to no avail. I guess she read that and was like suuuure your phone did that, you complete dick. So yeah, whoop. That was fun, and by fun, I mean about as fun as being on Merseyrail.

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So while my single life is a shitshow as per usual someone asked me a question recently that actually got me thinking about where I stand on it all. She asked me, “Tony, would you trade in all of your degrees, all of your numerous awards and all of your successes for a happy and lasting relationship right now?”

I didn’t even hesitate in answering.

No.

No, I wouldn’t, and I’ll tell you why and why I feel comfortable single. Every degree, every award, every accolade I’ve done that on my own. I haven’t needed someone to confide in, to console, to complete me, that’s all me. It’s a badge of honour. It shows myself that I can do things, I can achieve and when it all goes to crap, I can always rely on myself. Behind those degrees and awards is a lifetime of failure, stress, self-doubt, imposter syndrome to name but a few negatives. Yet, it’s each fall, each hurdle, that I’ve had to pick myself up, learn, move forward, always moving forward. So no, I wouldn’t trade any of that in for a relationship.

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That got me thinking then that while I joke that the universe is against me when it comes to the opposite sex, I think actually I’m the problem! I’ll tell you why or at least why I think I am. The first reason is that I am a problem solver and I give advice, and I don’t beat around the bush. While I am deeply emotional as a person, you’ll never see that in person. I value rational thought and logic over emotions. While that is one of my strengths as I can cut through bullshit and sort mostly any problem out and I would say that those who are close to me value that quality that a spade is a spade. While that’s great as a friend or a colleague would a girl always want to be called out on the bad things to be improved? I’m not trying to be mean, not at all, just if I see you can be more efficient or improve something I’ll tell you. Of course, while I try to be a bit more inclined to the emotionally sensitive people, I imagine that how I come across is a bit abrasive.

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The second problem on those lines is I am so hard on myself. Always have been and probably always will be. Daft but a recent example, I’ve just finished writing my thesis in 2 years 5 months, way faster than the average and while so many people have been like that is amazing, you should be so proud. My first thought, why didn’t you finish it in 2 years 4 months, why didn’t you push yourself to write more papers instead of the one etc. I can’t ever just pat myself on the back, and when others send praise, I brush it off as it’s nothing. What that transpires into is that I demand a lot from myself, so those who I hold dear I demand their best too. I mentioned before that I’m a problem solver, my default is okay, here is a problem, right, how can I sort that for you so that you’ll be happy again or can move forward. What I’ve slowly become to learn is actually a lot of women just want to be listened to, to have someone agree and say you’re in their corner. Not to solve their problems but to say yeah, I’m standing with you on this one.

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Finally, what this all boils down to being single for so long is that I am utterly shitting myself for my next relationship. I’m terrified to take that step again, to open up my heart for fear of the damage an ending will have again. Heartbreak is the literal worst thing you can experience. It’s easier to not be in a relationship to not be hurt, and therefore walls are set in a solid foundation. When you’ve thought for just yourself for so many years, to then, think for two people will genuinely be a challenge for me. I know that one day I’m going to have to find the courage to retake that leap of faith, lately, each time I pluck up the courage something crops up. I know people say everything happens for a reason, well I’d like to see that reason sooner rather than later!

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Sometimes I sit here though, and I’m glad that I’m single. I see the pain that some people post break up go through, and I relive that crap time. I sympathise. I then see people really not happy in relationships but are so afraid to start again, to take drastic steps to be happy themselves that they stay in unhealthy relationships, denying themselves a better option and being in denial that things will get better. One thing that being single for so long gives you is clarity. Sometimes I think people fall in love with the idea of love and not the person. Love is fucking hard. Love isn’t holding hands, it isn’t supporting each other in the good times or telling them you love them when you feel like it. Love is when the shit hits the fan in your life, and the other person stands with you, love is when you’ve been chucking your guts up and look like death, and they tell you you’re beautiful because to them beauty if way past what you look like. Love is when you fundamentally disagree on an issue, but you put that aside and support unconditionally because you’re a team. You rely on each other. Love is making those efforts in the moments where it all seems like it could fall apart, but you work at it because you’re both invested.

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What I see, more often than not, however, is people think they’re in love when in fact they’re in love with the idea of love. They don’t love themselves or know what they want, so they settle for what they think they deserve. What this breads in the end if people who let their partner take liberties or actually when they take a close look realise they have nothing in common or actually we’re a team publically but behind closed doors we’re as far apart as can be. If you’re not happy in a relationship, you really need to leave, for your own sake and for the other person. Sure, it’s a weird single world out there, and I bet the thought of starting again is fucking terrifying, but at least you’re giving yourself the real possibility of finding happiness again. Find yourself or at least a teammate who’s going to always give you 100%.

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However, I see why valentines day is the day it is. Love is crazy, messed up, it’s fire and ice, it’s a rainbow in a storm, a light in an endless tunnel. I get it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss having someone back me 100% as more than a friend, I’d be lying if I didn’t miss morning messages or random hairs on your clothes, and I’d be definitely lying if I didn’t say I miss the sex life. Which, for those asking is I think has now gone past drought to the UN’s definition of extinct! I’d be lying if I didn’t miss the powerful emotions that come with love. Future girlfriend better get ready for the best 10 seconds of her life!

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So, if you’re in a happy relationship and you love the person you’re with, on valentines day, I get it, I really do, and I applaud you. Tell that person you love them, not just on the 14th but every day. Sure, you’re going to hit turbulence along the way but make it work if you’re both committed. Never lose sight of the fact that you’re a team.

If you’re in a relationship and you’re deeply unhappy. As scary as it is, leave. It won’t get better, it never does, I’ve seen it a billion times before. You’re denying yourself a chance of happiness. If you’re newly single or just single, yeah this day sucks, it reminds you that even people like Hitler had a partner and you don’t. You’re literally less desirable than Hitler. I feel your pain. The 14th is brutal. But guess what, you are strong, you are you, you fight your battles every day on your own, you’re valued, and you won’t be as unlucky as me because I think I’m taking one for the team when it comes to love.

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So for next year, who knows if it’ll be 8 years or I’ll be one of those annoying over the top soppy people. Tune in next year guys. As always though, whatever happens, love yourself and give yourself a break!

Until next time.

A look back on 2018 part 2

July

Starting July with a 50-mile cycle around Lake Geneva in my books is one hell of a way to start a month off!

A fantastic few days away this was. I look back fondly on my trip to Croatia and the trip to Switzerland, perfect days with not a care in the world with the best company. Sadly for a long time that would be the last time I’d see Laura as she headed off to new pastures down south and its when the year started to get a bit crap without my sidekick with me!

But despite the turn for the worse from July onwards, this caption sums life up well.

I brought a new phone in July after dropping mine while trying to take a selfie on the bike in Geneva, oops! The Samsung S9+ is, however, the best phone I’ve owned to date!

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Selfie mode on the S9 plus is awesome!

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I was home for only a few days before I was off on my travels again. This time I was heading to deep South Wales after I was invited by the British Ecological Society to run a workshop on Drone with their A-level course down in Port Talbot. What a totally rewarding and fantastic few days away that was, it was hot and hard work but the kids were lovely, and it really felt like I had made a difference to these kids.

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Moth traps set for tonight

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2 days later I was back on my travels south again, this time for pleasure as we headed off to the Royal International Air Tattoo. The biggest airshow in the world and we just so happened to have front row seats!

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Front row flightline seats! Let's goooo!

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F35 is a bit loud!

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I still snigger at this. Lolz.

I also finally got around to putting some pictures up in my room of my travels.

August

While the UK baked in one of the hottest summers on record, with the office empty of people as they were either on a break, in new jobs or were travelling, I was working flat out on the PhD alone. This summer was one long montage of movie themes and hard work.

In between all the hard work was the brutal extraction and complicated extraction at that of my wisdom tooth. I’d been putting up with the pain since April and finally got it sorted but holy fuck it was one of the worst pains having that out that I’ve ever had and that’s coming from someone who’s had multiple operations and 8 leg breaks!

A summer of editing and writing

Amazing what painkillers and determination will get you.

This picture summed up 2018 at times, just when everything is going well you fall down haha.

While the PhD was the focus of my last summer as a PhD student, it didn’t stop me taking some time out with my Ginger Zinger to go hiking. I’d wanted to head up to Mau Famau for ages and when Ro called up and wanted to go on an adventure, i knew the place to go!

And I’m always happiest outdoors up a mountain! Where the geographer belongs.

September

After a month of solid writing and spending my downtime hiking or cycling I was as fit as I’d ever felt.

Which just left more room for many many BBQs on what was fabulous weather for once!

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Mmmmmmm BBQ!

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And plenty of time catching up with the best people!

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Sunday impromptu walks! 😁

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Another day, another conference. This time I headed up to Leeds to present at the Enhancing Fieldwork Learning conference. One of the best conferences I’ve been to and I loved presenting my work there.

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Light pollution over Leeds at night.

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Finally, a few days off came. Happy times!

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Woo not in work for over a week! 😁

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But the days off don’t last long and once again I was on another train heading north, this time to Newcastle for the BERA conference. The biggest conference I could present at as an Education, PhD student. I was nervous but excited!

While my presentation went well, the conference itself was a bit crap! Too most elite for my liking but thank god my friend and office buddy Vic was presenting too at the conference! She made that conference for me 😀

As a life long Newcastle United fan, after being a Mascot for them as a kid, I finally managed to visit my favourite club!

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I finally visited my favourite club!

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And Vic holds the record for being the only person to get me out to drink in a town centre at 1 a.m. Many have tried but failed!

Back home it was time to relax by going to see the Royal Tattoo but this time in Liverpool. We’ve done the official one on Edinburgh before, but as a treat to my Dad we had a great father-son evening, drinking whiskey, eating steak in Millers & Carter and watching a fabulous show.

October

October started off pretty well I’d say!

After a hell of a lot of work over the summer burring myself, my first draft of my PhD was finished. This was quite emotional to get to this point. The PhD was nowhere near finished but its a major point in the life of a PhD student, the end which was once so far away was finally starting to come into view. It was time to enjoy the moment before months of editing and rewriting was to come.

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One phd draft equals half a forest

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While the family were on holiday abroad, I spent the many nights on my own stargazing in the back garden and rewarded with capturing a meteor!

For those of you who follow my Instagram stories will all recall this night well haha

October brought death in the family that hit me the hardest this year. Great Uncle Peter I absolutely idolised. I was and still am to know he’s no longer with us. When the family asked me to say a few words at his funeral, I wanted to, but I was aware of how much responsibility that was, to sum up, someone’s life who meant so much to you. Weirdly, that’s my proudest moment of 2018. Delivering that Eulogy which was my trademark sincere but full of humour style, what he would have wanted, getting a lot of laughs at a funeral is something not everyone does every day that’s for sure. Seeing the family proud and that I summed him up to a T really helped me and I’m glad I could do him proud one last time. I miss you, Pete.

I didn’t have too much time to process the funeral as I was straight on a flight to Norway for my final international conference as a PhD student.

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It's a bit cold here.

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Bergen was a truly fantastic place to visit for the ISSOTL conference a bit of time for solo travelling.

One of my favourite memories of this year was sitting in this coffee shop, with my cold hands wrapped around the cup, watching the people of Bergen pass the windows as coffee house music floated around me. It was the best coffee shop I’ve ever gone into. I had just stepped off a 3-hour Norwegian Fjord cruise, despite being layered up I was frozen to the bone. I spent 2 hours warming up, chatting to the locals and going through the hundreds of pictures of what was an amazing few hours in the Fjords.

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Coffee views!

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And the Fjord, wow. They were stunning.

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😍

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Bergen is surrounded by mountains, and every night I was there I took the lone hike through the forest up the mountain for a nighttime hike. I was rewarded with stunning clear skies and amazing stars.

Bergen is just as stunning at night as it is in the day.

That was it, my last two presentations as a PhD student was officially over. I’d presented in different countries and at two major international conferences. Hundreds of miles away from home at the top of a mountain I reflected on the journey on a such a cold but clear night. The following is one of my favourite pictures of 2018. Where the adventure will lead next, I have no idea, but I can’t wait to find out.

You’d be mad after a week of hiking and travelling to come home and go straight back out hiking, but that’s exactly what I did!

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Frozen in the rain but worth it!

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October started with a £100 win, and it ended with one too, boom!

And the Pumpkin of the year…

November

Autumn had arrived, I hate Autumn, and I hate winter, but I love it for the colours and photography.

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#autumn🍁

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Remembrance Sunday help a poignant and special meaning this year.

As with the lows in life, there are often the highs too. I was on my travel again to the Midlands to see my best friend from Uni, Han get married to Dan. A couple I had shipped for so long and was so happy to see get married! And what a wedding!! It was amazing, and it was great to catch up with the old housemates, and they’re witness to a very rare thing, me dancing!!

This sums up editing a PhD thesis.

Again, when you’re about to give up its often the moment that you make a breakthrough to carry on. I got my first ever academic citation from my paper I wrote last year! Aaaaaaaahhh!!!

December

What better way to start December than having our yearly jaunt around Liverpool Christmas market with Ro!

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Yearly christmas market selfie! 🎅

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The next day I took Em out for her Birthday meal in Millers & Carters. Can you get a better present than steak?

Of course, Meryseyrail where still being Merseryrail so I had no choice but to drink coffee and go Christmas shopping.

We finally got a new kitchen!

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Our new kitchen is done!

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Which meant our Xmas celebrations were way off kilter and at the last minute we managed to get out tree up. Phew.

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Tree is finally up! Merry Cliffemas!

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But to me, the best gift for Christmas was being reunited with this one for a little while before she headed back off for new adventures and more hard work!

Who knows what 2019 will bring? For me, I should finish my PhD and become Dr Cliffe. I plan on going travelling to new countries, continue to photograph everything in sight, value and cherish the moments I have with those that I love and hold dear whether they’re near or far. I don’t know what job I’ll have or where I’ll end up or what 2019 will be like. This year can be topped, but as I look back, there has been a lot of highs and some crushing lows. The hardest thing for me in the second half of the year was adjusting to work-life alone again. Laura heading off, Katie and Rosie moving to different countries and Vic travelling over summer meant a lonely summer slaving away on the PhD. I realised how much I’d come to rely on their company and humour each day. They made 2017 for me, and the adventures we’d shared in the first half of 2018 meant everything. 2019, I head out alone again on this road, but while they’re not here next to me, they come on this journey in my heart, and whatever we do in 2019, I’m sure it will be worth it, we’ll get there!

So no matter what your goals are or your aspirations for 2019, remember with the right attitude and hard work you can achieve it. I wish you, my followers and readers, a 2019 that is better than 2018 and I hope its a fantastic year for you. As always, you’ll see my 2019 on here, the good and bad. Who’s ready for another year of adventure hey?

Until next year,

Toe

X

My look back at 2018 part one

 

 

Hey guys, 2018 well I’d give it a solid 7. The first half of the year was up there close to 10 but the second half of the year hasn’t been so great so brings it down to a 7 overall. I’ve had worse years, but I’ve had better ones that’s for sure. However, in this first blog, I want to look back with the help of my Instagram to talk through my year with some of my favourite images that have captured those moments this year. So let’s have a trip down memory lane!

January

For me, the picture above was one of the first ones I took in 2018, and it’s one of my favourites of the year. For Laura’s birthday, we made a snowy trip up to the Lake District and after battling snow and icy roads we decided to stop at the top of the valley, stand in the middle of the road to capture this image. It was a brilliant day and a great first trip of note in 2018. Even if I did have to run in the snow!

January wasn’t all play, sadly there was a lot of work too. By the end of January, I had analysed the first part of my PhD data, but that didn’t stop me going a little bit doolally.

February

By the time February came around work was well underway and the weather started to take a turn for the wintry. February is often one of my favourite months for photography, at least for star photography anyway. This year the full moon in February didn’t disappoint.

Of course, when it comes to wintry weather and merseyrail, they’re two things that never quite go together. This commute home took me a grand total of just over 3 and a half hours. It involved numerous cancelled trains and a 2-mile walk to then get a delayed train. Joys of commuting in winter.

When the weather abated it was time to get the bike out of the warmth of the house and head out onto the open road. It became a standard thing on Sunday to go out on our cycles together, this is one of many cycling selfies this year!

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Winter training continues in crosswinds!

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With the winter Olympics going on at the same time in Feb the office decided to get in on the action too with a closely fought sweepstake. Each day I would put the medal total on the large chart we made in the office, but after a close 2 weeks of competitive nature, Vic was the eventual winner of the 2018 PhD office Olympics!

Finally, after 8 years we finally got a good snowfall in Maghull!

I would often every Monday morning do a doodle to leave on Katie’s desk and this was a fitting PhD related message when everyone felt like they were in a slump, including me!

This picture still makes me laugh. I had walked home in the crunching snow and the closer I got to home the more the temperature had dropped. Underneath the snow was sheet ice, I hadn’t heeded the warnings of a few near slips as I ploughed on home. I often take pictures of St Andrews church near my house, but I’d never taken any pictures of it quite like this in the snow. Polar Express was playing in my headphones as I crouched down to take this shot with the glow of the street lights and the snow, my footsteps the only ones on the show. I love this shot, except as soon as I stood up it was a comedy of me trying my hardest to stay upright before eventually gravity won and I slipped on my arse and busted my knee. Totally worth it…

March

March saw the Beast from the East arrive. While this brought chaos to the UK with snow and winds for me, nothing sums the beast from the East up more than trying to have a bath, but the wind sounded like a train. Choo-Choo mother fuckers, the beast from the east has arrived!

As an office, we decided to do something cultural and have a look at the Terracotta army that had come to do an exhibition in the Liverpool Museum. I must admit I was a little underwhelmed by the experience, but that didn’t stop my usual humour replacing that disappointment.

March was fieldwork time for me, and the joys of being a PhD student is you get to look after your bosses dog on fieldwork. While that sounds like a great thing, I’m allergic to dogs and Pip wasn’t that happy with me but at least he stood still for 2 seconds so that I could get this picture of him!

I do love to get out of the office on fieldwork, however, and this picture sums up any Geographer on fieldwork. Muddy boots!

March also saw one of the greatest Six Nation tournaments that I can ever remember watching, and the mighty Ireland team won a grand slam. Dad and I were very happy!

I was off on one of my first solo trips of the year up north to see one of my favourite people ever!

Chloe has been one of my best friends since we first met on a cold Slapton beach on our first-year Geography field trip. I have a lot of women in my life, and Chloe has always been the one I often seek counsel on anything and everything. Quite simply my life would be very different today if the choices made on that day sitting by the River Dee were different. After talking through everything we both decided to take drastic choices, her to start a PhD and me to turn down the logical job offer and do the irrational thing of becoming an RA. If it weren’t for her clarity, I wouldn’t be here doing this PhD, and I’ve always owed her for that. We hadn’t seen each other for such a long time, since my Master’s graduation and so it was such a fabulous weekend meeting up with her again and exploring Hull. The best part of it all within 30 seconds of meeting up it felt like we’d never been apart. Next time I see her will be at her wedding! We’re all growing up so fast!

From one mentor to another, on my way home I popped into York to see one of my old students and someone who’s become a good friend over the years. It fills me with such pride to see her doing so well in the job up North!

April

April started off a little weird with me witnessing a Sparrowhawk take out a pigeon in my back garden. I love birds of prey, and while it was a bit gruesome to see, it was pretty awesome!

I was still getting bullied in the office by my female coworkers.

This evening was one of the most unexpected but brilliant evenings of the year. Laura and I skipped out on our plans and instead got coffee and roamed Liverpool on one of the first warm days of the year, chatting and laughing until the sun went down. One of those spontaneous evenings which just made it all the better! What a way to start spring.

Before long I was back on my travels again, this time with my sister from another Mr, Emma. This time it was back to the Lakes for a few nights away in a hotel that Beatrix Potter’s holiday home.

The weather was a complete contrast to when I came with Laura in January. The snow had gone, and the sun was up in the low 20’s. Emma not only drove me to the Lakes but drove the boat around Lake Windermere. That was the life!

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What a way to spend a Friday!

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We’ve climbed many metaphorical mountains together over the 10 plus years I’ve known Emma, but this day we climbed an actual mountain. 26c the climb up over 1000ft was tough, but the views were worth it that’s for sure. Well, it was tough for me, Emma accidentally dopped on Nurofen for a migraine and therefore was pain-free hiking up near vertical rock faces at times! Grrr.

Still the best Bath EVER!

It really was a fantastic few days away in the Lakes with many stories to tell that’s for sure!

I finally got around to cementing our office by designing our office door sign. When I finish my PhD, I’m taking this with me as a memento of my time in H105.

May

May I turned 26 and what better way to celebrate than with a long ride on one of the hottest days of the year!

What’s better than that celebration? A double birthday celebration in Wagamama’s that’s what!

May saw one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. The University 3 Minute Thesis final. I’d made it through the preliminary rounds to find myself in the final with amazing contestants from all the different faculties. I’ve never felt more nervous standing up in front of a couple of hundred people with nothing but a static slide and having to talk engagingly for exactly 3 minutes no more, no less, about your PhD. The winner would go on to represent the University in the UK final. I fell short with a 2nd place but I never expected to win, and I was so over the moon to get 2nd place and finally get an Education student on the podium! What a fantastic day and a nice cash prize too! A nice thing to add to the CV.

Sadly in May, I was off to Ireland for less than pleasant reasons, and Ryanscare still suck arse.

May also saw me make my best financial investment this year, buying an espresso machine. There isn’t a day that this baby doesn’t pump out some amazing espressos for me to guzzle down.

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Gone and treated myself! Mmmmm coffee!

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As good as an investment was, it’s a shame Karius in the Champions Leauge wasn’t as good as an investment as my espresso machine.

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Allez allez allez lads!! Come on!

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Best bank holiday ever.

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I've had worse bank holiday weekends

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June

Over the winter and spring, our Sunday rides cumulated in Laura’s first ever sportif, the Croston crusade which we bossed like Pro’s…well-ish. Hey, we finished me a great time, and for me, I made it up Hunters Hill without stopping, that’s 25% gradient in some places, a brutal climb. I was happy and no more happy to cross the line with her. Good job!

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Croston Crusade completed!

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Unfortunately, the highs of that day were overshadowed with the news that my grandad had passed away.

After the funeral it was back to work, banging my head against the desk trying to figure out how to make my models work for the umpteenth time.

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😴

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June is conference season, I had a nice little warm up at the faculty conference before heading out to Split, Croatia for my first ever international conference.

Which was all well and good considering my latest model said it was going to take just a little more than a few days to render :o.

Before heading out to Croatia, I was treated to the amazing night show and the rare phenomenon of the Noctilucent clouds. What a fantastic sight to see they were in this part of the world! They truly are beautiful.

My first international conference was a complete success, and I enjoyed every minute I had in Croatia to round off my June.

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Conference time!

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After Croatia, I flew from there to Geneva Switzerland where Laura met me 😀

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Look who i found in arrivals!😁

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Geneva was a fantastic place to visit, and this was a fantastic evening!

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Not as good as the palm house 😂

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END OF PART ONE

Drones for Education: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Regulations

I recently wrote this blog as part of my PhD, go and have a read via Drones for Education: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Regulations

Geneva with Laura

Those of you who had read my last blog My visit to Split, Croatia might be asking the question of how do you go to a conference in Split, Croatia, and end up in Geneva? Good question. To answer it is in part logistics and well any other excuse to go travelling. I’m fortunate as a funded PhD student to get £1500 per year for expenses to use for conferences, travel and anything PhD related. As beautiful as Split is, it’s an awkward place to get to, that also makes it expensive to get to. Flights from my part of the world are few and far between, i.e. once a week! But annoyingly that meant that while I could get to Split the day before the conference, it meant I couldn’t go back until three days afterwards at the cost of £500 return, not to mention how much an extra three days in the apartment may have costed me!

While I could afford that, I knew I had applied for my second international conference in Bergen, Norway in October so if I was accepted, I needed the £300 plus for the registration fee. So I hedged my bets that I’d get accepted and therefore needed to keep the money left of my expenses for the year (they run August to August) for that conference. So I got creative. The flight out to Split was £110 one way. I went on FlightRadar24 and had a look for departures from Split on the Saturday after the conference to see what destinations they flew to and using my extensive avgeekary I know pretty much all of the destinations served from Liverpool and Manchester. So my plan was to find somewhere I could fly to from Split and then after a few days get home again. That’s when I saw Geneva on the departure board. Much like Croatia, Switzerland and specifically Geneva, was on my 12 holidays in 12 months plan but I never got around to it, so it felt like a perfect excuse to go! The flight from Split was £60 and the return to Liverpool £80, bargain! As I book so many hotels every year I’m a genius member on Booking.com, so I get 15% off most hotels, I found a brilliant 4* hotel in Geneva for less than £200, and before I knew it that was my plan post-conference!

Those of you who follow my blogs know that 90% of my travels are solo affairs and I’ve written many times about how much I love that. However, they can get lonely at times, and as much as blogs and pictures try to convey the experiences it’s never really the same, and sometimes you can create special memories by sharing it with other people on the trip. While out on one of our many cycling rides, I told Laura about my plan and that all she needed to do was get her bum on a seat to Geneva and everything else was paid for. Yay! I had a travel buddy and even better that we decided to go hire some bikes to cycle the beautiful Lake Geneva.

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Time to head to Switzerland

Usually, as I waited for the local bus to the airport from Split, I’d be sad to leave such a fantastic place, but the thought of another couple of days away was exciting. I thought Split was hot, but Geneva and central Europe were in the grips of one of the most blistering heatwaves in recent times and so was in the high 30’s and the day we had planned to go cycling it was expected to hit 38c! As much as I loved Split, one thing let it down, and that was the airport. My god, that airport is shambolic. It’s such a shame too! It’s too small to handle the summer traffic, and for 2.5 hours I had to stand in the departure lounge due to a lack of seats, and there was only one tiny booth selling food and drink. I have never been in such a chaotic airport departure lounge. I watched Laura’s flight from Liverpool take off on my app, and before long, I was up in the air myself heading to Geneva.

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Lack of seats meant chaos trying to walk through the tiny terminal

As much as the landing into Split was epic, flying over Mont Blanc and the Alps on approach to Geneva was really awesome! The views on the flight flying over Venice, North Italy and then the Alps certainly made up for the cramped wait in Split. With clear blue skies and a gentle landing, it wasn’t long before I was in the arrivals hall waiting for my bag and I exchanged what leftover Croatian money I had into Swiss Franc which is probably the most Monopoly-ish money I’ve ever had! The great thing about Geneva is their exceptional system of providing free travel passes to visitors to get you from the airport to anywhere in the city (including trains, trams, buses and ferries… all for free!) all you had to do was press a button in the arrivals, and the only stipulation was you had to use it within an hour of getting it.

Laura’s plane had arrived about 45 minutes ahead of mine, so it was a comedy of WhatsApp calls trying to find each other in the arrivals, but we eventually did! For me, it felt like two spies meeting in a neutral location to swap stories, but that’s probably just the author in me! Laura had become one of my best friends in the short time I’d known her and is still one of my favourite humans, so I was really looking forward to exploring this new city with her.

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Meeting up in arrivals!

We navigated the train and ended up in the city where a wall of heat hit me. While Split was hot, there was a constant sea breeze which made it pleasant. In between the heat of the buildings of the city of Geneva, the heat was oppressive, which didn’t help to lug a giant suitcase through the streets. With thanks to Google Maps, we ended up at the hotel, and there was another brilliant perk of Geneva. Any guest staying in a hotel within the city boundaries is given free travel passes for their entire stay to use again on trains, trams, buses and ferries (such a fantastic idea to increase tourism!).

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The chair

After quickly freshening up we headed out to explore this place but not before going on a wild goose chase to find a supermarket! Wow. I mean that was a trek and a half to find this supermarket! After loading me up like a human packhorse, we headed to our closest landmark from the hotel, the UN building and the chair. I’ve visited the other UN building in New York, so it was really cool to see and get pictures with the main UN building! The chair is also iconic, and I didn’t know its three legs is a symbol of a reminder of landmines hence the one leg blown off, kind of neat in a weird way. After plenty of pictures outside the UN, we walked through their botanical gardens, which were sublime! Sitting on the grass felt surreal chilling like we usually do but miles away from home in another country like you do on an average Saturday!

 

 

 

 

Walking along the lake with the views of the city in the distance was so cool and walking through their park (and the customary picture with the WTO building. Geography bucket list tick!) it made us both think what giant city parks should be like. Sefton Park is okay, but it wasn’t a patch on this place. Music, parties, the smoke and smells of numerous BBQs drifted across our path. There was a wedding, there were family picnics, and people were jumping in the lake. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, the buzz and vibe of this place were already fantastic. You know what too? People were drinking responsibly, cleaning up after themselves and everyone was out enjoying the hot Saturday afternoon sunshine with no agro! If only our British culture weren’t so opposite! I can only imagine the scene in Sefton Park if this was to happen there.

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Lac Leman

After a long walk along the lake and as the sunset over Geneva, we went and got some food (that classic Swiss dish of McDonald’s) and headed back to the room for the night. The next day was really what we’d come for, a cycle around Lake Geneva!