The Day in the life of Tony Cliffe

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

Tag: PhD

Life of a PhD student three months in.

So i’ve been a PhD student for three months now, so i thought i’d do a fun little blog about the trials and tribulations of gaining the hardest known academic qualification. Dr Awesome!

  1. So you’ve done your undergraduate degree, probably gone and got your Masters degree, maybe even worked as a research assistant for a few years. By this point its pretty clear you’re never leaving the education system so hey. Three year PhD, why not?
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  2. Even better when for the first time in your academic career people are paying you to be a student! Not only that, you’re now tax exempt on that money for three years! It’s basically a 22 grand job!
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  3. So you’re a student but you’re also staff. You’re a PhD researcher which means you get to use the staff room, have your own office and generally feel really cool walking around campus.
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  4. You have these big and bold ideas and you can’t wait to start! You’re the best in your field, you’ve made it through the gruelling application process. You can do it! Your research idea is going to change the world.
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  5. But your supervisory team are like…
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  6. You either get on great with your supervisor who will do absolutely anything to support you and build you up to be the best Dr ever. (luckily like mine!)
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    Or you can despise them or more likely they despise you, you’re an inconvenience and an embarrassment to the research empire
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  7.  So you start reading every journal, book, piece of information ever created in your chosen field. Your supervisors are telling you to look up theories, research paradigms, people keep saying big words and random french dudes names and you just sit there like
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  8. So you write a first draft of your lit review and your supervisor tries to be supportive
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    and you’re holding back tears as everything you’ve done gets ripped apart
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  9. But you realise you’re not alone, the other people in your lab/office have started the same time as you. You’re all in the same boat and through your mutual anguish of the PhD you all become friends and instantly feel like a PhD family.
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  10. You help each other out, keep each other motivated and before you know it, you’ve formed your own supergroup which will last for three years
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  11. More than likely your research idea will have to pass a boards approval before you can start. No one tells you how to fill the form out so you rely on other peoples information.
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  12. So you submit your forms and after a stupidly long time, they reject it outright. Not because its bad, it’s just they love to fuck with you and keep you in your place.
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  13. You make some changes which take far more time than they should and you get rejected again, expect this time their pointers are extremely vague which makes you question if they have actually read your report…Because it’s cool if you haven’t, i mean you didn’t just spend two weeks in a caffeine induced comma to write it or anything, no biggie.
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  14. By this time, you and your PhD office friends are so over this form. By this point you gather around to help each other. You can do this! We will do this! But we won’t let anyone else see how much its killing us.
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    You try to vent to your friends and family outside of the PhD life but they don’t understand as much as they try to.
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  15. So at this point you’ve done some work but you haven’t actually been approved for study yet because a committee of unknown evil people keep writing vague comments on your research report. No one in your office has passed yet. You’re all at the point of mental exhaustion and a lack of motivation.
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  16. You check your emails and it comes back again…

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  17. This is it. THE LAST TIME YOU A-HOLES|
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  18. IT’S FINALLY PASSED AND APPROVED. A committee has approved your study, your methods and basically you’re finally a PhD student.
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    And the rest of your office are pretty much approved too!
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  19. So now you can get on with sciencing the shit out of your research and take small steps on the way to becoming a Dr.
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  20. Then you realise its another three years of this. Better buckle up.
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    but you can do it! We can do it! As a PhD student, you wouldn’t have it any other way.
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Long time no blog! Leaving one home and finding another

Long time no blog

Hey guys! Long-time no blog right? It’s been a busy few months and certainly a hell of a lot has happened since my last blog which was my Canada part 2 blog. You can read both day one and two here Canada Trip Blog 1: The long trip west Canada Travels: Blog 2 – Airport escort and Toronto Islands. Now that I’ve finished for Christmas I promise I’ll finish that blog series off. I don’t want to rush them or do them half arsed because I want to do that trip justice! So expect a fair few blogs coming at the end of 2016, especially the standard year review blogs that I’ve done for the past few years. 2016 may have been a bad year for many and certainly if you’re a celebrity who was over 60 but for me it’s been a truly interesting and on the whole, a very positive year. I have some great moments to share from my 2016 review so watch this space.

“I loved the place, loved the people and loved the job”

So to fill you guys in on why its been such a void space of blogs in the past few months, I might as well begin with arriving back from Canada in May.

Those of you who follow my blogs and on social media know that April was a bit of a topsy turvy kind of month. I was excited, I needed in fact, that solo adventure away to Canada at the end of the month, but the news that my job post wasn’t going to be renewed due to budget cuts was a real downer. I’d worked as a student and staff in Chester for six years, I loved the place, loved the people and loved the job. So I was pretty bummed that it was going to be over. In the run up to going away to Canada I was in constant negotiations, in the end my terms weren’t met by senior management and it became a “thanks but no thanks” for what they offered me. Which was one day a week and half PhD fees paid for, which would have meant I’d actually lose money. As much as I loved Chester and working there, that’s pitiful for someone at Masters level and working as a Research Assistant on three high profile research projects. So, I made the decision to seek new pastures, which was both exciting and terrifying. I might aswell jumped off a cliff and hoped that half way down I’d sprout a pair of wings. It was a huge gamble.

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Me making that decision like…

During negotiations I really wanted to stay because I absolutely hate change, at least sudden change and I loved the place. Why move from a place of comfort for six years? However that’s when people like me have issues. We imbed ourselves in new places, give it our all, make new friends, build a team around us, and make improvements. We’re comfortable until we achieve everything we can achieve in a place and then you want to move on to do bigger and better things, there is always something new to achieve, another mountain to climb. I’m incredibly hard on myself as a person. There is always something to improve, always something to achieve. Rarely am I satisfied with an achievement if there is another one to get.

It was good that my contract was coming to an end because I’d achieved all I possible could there and I was starting to stagnate in my development. Got my BSc and went to parliament and BCUR with my research, successfully got my MSc, worked on three distinct and challenging research projects as lead research assistant, helped the department win Gold at the NUS green awards and even won the title of University of Chester’s 2016 outstanding academic support staff winner! There was literally nothing else to achieve. That award though I must add a caveat to as its one of my proudest moments this year, it was truly special. That was an award voted for by students, to be nominated was amazing, to win it was truly heart-warming. It’s great to know students felt so grateful for my help this year to recognise me for the award. There are hundreds of very special and dedicated staff who help students out every day, I was honoured to be the one to win. I’ll go into more depth in the 2016 review but I always said I’d give back to students as much as I could just like my old supervisor did for me. So thanks once again!

Just before I left for Canada a PhD came up which was almost written for me. It is funny how life and the universe has a habit of putting you in places that you didn’t think you’d be, but where you need to be. Life has a funny way of closing but opening doors if you work hard and build a door so that if opportunity comes along, it has a place to knock. If it wasn’t for Sara pushing me to apply for it and making me make that final step to seek new, greener grass I doubt I’d be where I am today, I might not have opened that door, so thanks works mum! I went ahead and applied, came back from Canada with a completely new outlook on things, totally relaxed, nailed the interview and got the post. Seriously it’s as over the moon as I have been in so long. It was like absolutely everything was riding on that interview. It’s one of those moments I know I’ll look back on as a major pivot point in my life, if it didn’t go my way, things would have been so much more different than they are now. That wait before going into that interview was the most pressure I’ve ever felt. Just imagine right now if you had an interview in five minutes and you knew the outcome of it would affect your life massively. Then imagine the self-doubt telling you, you’ve got one shot and not to fuck it up. Thankfully, I have a great, if not scary knack of being completely calm and emotionless in high pressured situations. I was probably the calmest I’ve been all year in that interview. I came out really happy and in the mind-set of if I don’t get it, then there isn’t anything I couldn’t have done any better. For instance, while practicing my presentation to the board which was meant to be 10 minutes, it was varying between 8 minutes to 12 minutes. On the day, 9 minutes 59 seconds! Boom.

They wanted me to start right away but I wanted to see out the remaining few months of my contract at Chester. Senior management was a clusterfuck but my department have been nothing but pure gold. The head of department tried absolutely everything to keep me and was so open to negotiations but they were having none of it. The whole team were a family, a vastly under resourced but amazing and dedicated family. I was so excited to start the PhD and that new adventure and challenge I craved but so gutted to say goodbye to Chester and team GID. Six years is a long time to be in once place.

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Team GID!

2010 I arrived there as a person I barely recognise looking back now. Six years has changed an awful lot within me for the better. Looking back on it now, it was kind of fitting how full circle it all felt when I finished my final day in the office. Back in 2010, I couldn’t wait to start University. I’d long since outgrown school, again achieved everything there was to achieve, even getting headboy and going to parliament to win the first ever national school speakers award. Never truly fitted in. Fed up of small minded people who didn’t see the bigger picture outside of school, more than fed up of bitching, backstabbing and immaturity at Maricourt. It wasn’t the case of big fish in a small pond, it was more the case of a normal fish being suffocated by toxic algae. So I started Uni as a young boy who desperately wanted to spread his wings and find himself and yearned for that new adventure. Boy, what an adventure it was. People who never went to Uni will never understand it. I’m not talking about the course content here but the journey you go through. Add to that love and heartbreak which you all know so well about from my blogs! Six years later i left as a man, who had his adventure, found himself and was ready for a new exciting adventure. Chester will always be a big part of me and I still keep in touch with old friends from Uni and still go out with my old work mates and that will always continue.

I signed off my job in a big way, presenting at the International Conference of Higher Education in Amsterdam. What a way to end the Chester story! Amsterdam is worthy of its own blog for the stuff that went on but such an awesome place and experience. All expenses paid trip to Amsterdam is one way to sign off! I loved it so much that me and Emma are going back next March. I cannot wait!

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Can’t wait to go back

I had a few weeks off over summer before starting my PhD in September and it was my first proper break for two years. It was amazing to wake up without an alarm, no four hour commute each day, cycle when I wanted to, plenty of walks and photography. The odd glimmer of romance faded as quickly as my Costa club cards could amass and as usual the fishing line was cast and while some catch a big fish, some catch a boot, I caught thin air! From that Amsterdam conference I was offered the position of Co-editor on a new International Journal of Students as Partners. That’s a really interesting and challenging volunteer work I do. To be an editor at my age and stage in my career is unheard of. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. That keeps me busy!  Ah, such a happy and relaxing time. By time it came to start the PhD, I was fully relaxed, recharged and motivated.

I wouldn’t say I had cold feet but I was very apprehensive in the week running up to my first day. The size of what I was about to take on suddenly became very, very real. Also complete shock that I was actually going to be paid for once to do my own research on a really interesting topic and not for someone else! It almost felt like I was expecting an email one day to say waheeey, this is all one big sick joke. Thankfully it is real! I was nervous about the challenge. I had no doubt in my ability to do a PhD, this is a person who has far too much misplaced self confidence/ arrogance in himself to let that bother me. It was more the getting to know a new unfamiliar place, putting your mark down there and building a foundation to work from. It was the people I’d meet to. Would they like me? Would I like them? I’d just left a tight knit family of work colleagues. Would I find that bond again? I’m here for at least three years. The first step on this three year journey was about to begin and I really was stepping into the unknown.

“It’s only been a short few months but already it feels like a family”

The first month was a really weird one. I’d gone from spending every day around people, staff, students, noise to sitting in an office alone. I started on the 1st of September and the new PhD students weren’t starting till the end of the month. I’d leave my house and wouldn’t utter a single word until I arrived back home 7 hours later. They say PhD’s are one of the loneliest things you can ever do, I just didn’t think they meant that literal. On the plus side because I had worked as a Research Assistant doing anything and everything in the department that I was so used to working at a fast and efficient pace. The word count rocketed up, especially with no distractions from an empty office. My supervisors were blown away with how much work I had done, I think its normal because that’s what I was paid to do in Chester! It was only in October and November that this new office, this new life path felt like home and felt like I was in the right place, doing the right thing. Those of you who know me well, will know that as much as I am self centred and egotistical narcissist, I love to surround myself with a core group of good, honest and different people. I work best in a good working machine. I like to think of my inner circle of most trusted friends are testament to that statement.

This brings me onto the new team. You also know I often joke that my life is a TV series on a parallel universe with the random things that happen to me. Like all good series you’ll have your favourite characters. If my life was a series then the Chester series had just finished, we’d have the summer break and now the LJMU chapter of my life was about to begin. People started to fill up the office, we started to get to know each other and while that process is still on going and will continue to develop, it already feels like home. If an audience was watching and was gutted that the old characters of Chester where no longer season regulars, they’d be more than happy with these guys! It’s only been a short few months but already it feels like a family. As much as friends and family take an interest in your PhD, they honestly haven’t got a bloody clue what you go through. Trying to explain why completing an RD9R form is worse than standing on multiple upturned plugs to them, you just get a “its only a form” or a “oh right” as they think you’re a drama queen. Say RD9R to a EHC LJMU PhD student and it might promote rage or tears or both. These guys are all starting at the same time as me, we’re all aboard HMS Wingit sailing through the choppy seas of the PhD Ocean. They’re there for you with advice any day and hour of the week. We’re all in this together and they just get it. They’re a cracking bunch of people and I look forward to the years ahead with them.

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“Wisdom leads to the stars” A logo i made for our new office. Team EHC.

So, there we have it, a busy few months and certainly big changes have occurred but all for the better. I’ve already started to achieve here, I’ve done so much work already that I’ve been fast tracked to the PhD direct route, which means I can finish in two years if I wanted, rather than the required minimum of three years. Meaning I get to skip the MpHil and transfer Viva. I’ve also passed my 3I’s programme which means I’m now an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. I always feel like I should own a cloak or something with that title, or a monocle. It means I get to add AFHEA after my name now.  I get to buy my drone next year, I’ll be a fully qualified UAV pilot by this time next year and the exciting data collection part of my PhD will begin. It’s going to be another challenging year for sure but hopefully another rewarding one. I finished the other day for Christmas, so I’m going to sit back for a few weeks, recharge and get some time to catch up with my blogs. I’ll try my hardest to keep them regular but PhD, you never know!

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Merry Cliffemas

Until next time.

Toe