Getting ready for new projects, and advice for grad students starting out

I am leaving for a series of exciting research trips at the end of the week, and I have been preparing intellectually and logistically. I am giving a couple of talks next week, so I am expanding my defence presentation with material about future directions and research questions, and a little bit more nuance on past methods and results. I am then participating in a number of workshops in a different state, but I will wait to prep for that closer to the date.

Preparing for the P-FUTURES work though is by far the most demanding (but also lots of fun because I have amazing collaborators). I am understanding the enormous size of administrative and logistical tasks necessary to conduct large research projects (I knew about it but I had never “done” it except for my Montreal field work ). It was a lot of preparation to write the grant and we planned the timing, tasks, and budget for the project. But, now that we are actually doing the project, lots of little things we hadn’t explicitly mentioned in the proposal are popping up. For example, to do the workshop in Vietnam we hadn’t planned the translators, the ethics approval process for all universities involved, or the process of getting visas for everyone to attend. We are of course managing all these things, but when you add that to the tasks of writing “punchy” invitation letters and “so what” research summaries for stakeholders, and planning the actual workshops, it becomes a lot to handle. Thank god for skype, but collaborating with people on 4 continents and 5 countries means strange working hours.

Although I am moving on from graduate school now, I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to sit on a panel of other fellow finishing grad students to give advice to new grad students in our department. Although all of us had different research foci and experiences, we all had common advice. I would say these were the main points:

  1. Physical and mental health (take care of your self)
  2. Time management (you need to keep yourself accountable, but also remember that you do have time for other things than thesis work, which includes #1)
  3. Communicate and collaborate (including networking)
  4. Ask for help and help others (this includes your advisor, your labmates, and others, you are not in this alone!)
  5. take statistics classes (at McGill, online, or other university, and there are great books)
Bridge on a walk through the forest. I feel like mid-october to mid-december represent a time to bridge the end of the PhD to the beginning of the Post Doc.

Bridge on a walk through the forest. I feel like mid-october to mid-december represent a time to bridge the end of the PhD to the beginning of the Post Doc.

Over the past month I have been gathering a plethora of links and articles that would be interesting to link to my work or the writing/communication process but I will just share two today.

A post-doc in the lab shared this essay on creativity, and it really resonated with me. Trying to balance knowledge and systems thinking with boldness, and balancing working alone and in small groups (which need to be relaxed). There is also a recent PNAS piece on this creative part of the academic process.

Liz Banse shared on twitter a link to a photographer reporting on sea-level rise. I was really moved and deeply scared when viewing the images and explanations. I know I read about climate change, sea-level rise, and flooding in academic papers all the time, I have been reading about it since undergrad. But it is happening now! We need more than indicators and predictive models, we needs ways to cope with this complex issue (both the physical and the social equity components). I feel like these images are powerful communication tools about environmental change for the public, but also really puts into perspective the work we do as academics, and perhaps the need to make stronger links between the social and natural, and between science and policy.


Post-defence and back to the litterature

The PhD is done! I have defended my thesis and submitted the final version. It was stressful but went well in the end. The only thing I can really offer as advice post-defence is that one needs to accept that you can’t really prepare for the questions you will get.

Now its time to ensure I make very good progress on my ongoing projects and start to prepare for my post-doc beginning in January. Some of this preparation must involve a return to the literature (and social media) as I have been so micro-focused on the papers that were directly related to my thesis.

At the moment in the lab group are reviewing key papers (as well as novel papers) in the world of ecosystem services literature. It feels great to get back to the literature and be able to discuss with a group about where the interesting questions are, where there is confusion, and where there is clarity. This feels like such an important step in the intellectual process, but I feel like its not what takes up most of our time.

The lab group is also revising our common interest in science communication (and more specifically the ES Montreal project, and some of the great tools we learnt in COMPASS training). We are thinking of creating some 30 second videos about our research interests and I came a cross a post on science video creation that I think we can add to our list of resources to pull from. The twitterverse has also shared a some more resources on science communication and engagement I am eager to try. First I want to read this book on writing (its all about being clear and concise, and I will even go get to see the author speak on Friday!), and a blog post on how good writing often breaks the rules we are often though to follow. Then there is a tool on editing screenshots, which could be really useful when creating step-by-step guides I think. AAAS has some interesting talks planned on science communication (I know I can’t go but it does look like fun!). Finally, The Story of Stuff project has come up with a new model for engagement. This last one caught my eye because in revising a manuscript a couple of weeks ago a looked into the science-policy gap literature a bit more (mostly related to urban issues and sustainability indicators), and found that the problems seemed well articulated, but I still felt fuzzy on how to deal with the problems (I got as far as understanding that we can’t deal with simple, complex, and complicated problems the same way, but only read about very local example of success in dealing with wicked problems).

Here are a couple pictures of the amazing skies in Montreal on Thursday October 9th, the day after my defence. Amazing skies for a pretty amazing week! IMG_0439 IMG_0435

Defence preparation

I will be defending my thesis next Wednesday in front of the panel of examiners as well as the public (mostly made up of friends and labmates which will be nice).

Of course presenting at the conference was a wee bit of practice for the defence, but more was needed. I was actually preparing the defence talk at the same time as my conference one, so I was able to give the defence presentation a couple of times informally when traveling. Upon my return, I gave a practice talk to my labmates, who gave me some helpful pointers (although I must admit I now feel that I am at a point where I want to ignore some suggestions in order to stay true to my own style and the goals I have set out for my presentation). I think the weakest area of my talk, as of last week anyways, are my transitions between chapters (which my lab helped me see of course).

Usually I tend to write out my important talks to practice, even though I don’t read from the script at the actual final presentation. I haven’t written the text for the defence talk, but based on that weak area of transitions, I am thinking that maybe I should. I guess I didn’t want to write a speech because I feel like I have been over this material so often that I want the talk to be more fluid and natural (like a rehearsed conversation). However, with the 20 minute time limit, I need those transitions to be very tight, so I think I need to write a speech to learn those key transition sentences (my plan today and tomorrow). Practice makes perfect so I will try rehearsing in front of the mirror out loud a few times, and maybe to a few more friends. I think now I actually want more help on the question part of the event (which is really the most important part of the defence).

Although the presentation still needs refinement and practice I am proud of 2 parts in particular: the first slide and the last slide. I open with how P is in the news and thus a current concern, not something from the distant past or for the far future. I end my talk about making cities into brightspots of P management instead of simply hotspots of P cycling on the global landscape (which makes me think, I can’t wait to see what the wonderful Future Earth project lead by my advisor on brightspots will find). I feel like I am starting and ending on catchy notes.

I am also reviewing my thesis document as a whole so that I am prepared for questions after the presentation. I am very sad to report that I have found typos…….. After all the work of reading and rereading and getting the computer to read it to me….. still punctuation and missing word typos. It is upsetting but there is nothing I can do about it except correct them for the final version now (I am using track changes as I go through the document now).

Over the past couple of weeks I have also managed to finish (well almost finish) the revisions necessary on 2 of the 3 manuscripts we had sent out before the thesis submission. Although I was a little sluggish starting, the revisions were not that hard, and I think will make both papers stronger. In both cases it was about framing and writing, and not about the data or analysis themselves so it was all doable in a reasonable amount of time.


The trees are changing color as we enter fall in Montreal. A little like the academic transition time I am going through this season.....

The trees are changing colour as we enter fall in Montreal. A little like the academic transition time I am going through this season…..