The PhD journey: a personal perspective

Posted By on Jan 16, 2019


The PhD journey: a personal perspective

by ACCE PhD student – Alexander Askew

Alex Askew

Doing a PhD is often likened to a journey. There are many challenges on that journey and everyone embarking on a PhD may find the future rather intimidating. These are my personal reflections on the last four years as an ACCE PhD student. Hopefully, they may be of some interest or use to my peers and colleagues.
First, some context. I conducted my PhD on microfossils from northern Spain of Middle Devonian age (nearly 400 million years old). By extracting them from rocks, identifying the types of fossil preserved and in what proportions, we can infer what the environment and plant communities were like in the distant past. My PhD expanded the number of species known from these rocks enormously and allowed me to deduce that the assemblage was significantly endemic to Iberia. This supports palaeogeographic reconstructions of Spain as an island during the Middle Devonian, the first time this has been done using fossils. I could also date the rocks far more accurately than ever before, allowing me to show they were deposited very rapidly just after a major extinction event called the Kačák, supporting the idea of this event having an environmental cause. Materially, my PhD has given me a 298-page thesis and 4 scientific manuscripts, either accepted or in a review, that together represents a comprehensive treatise on the Middle Devonian palynology of northern Spain.
Now, all this probably sounds very daunting. How are you supposed to gather all these reams of data, write a sizeable book, write papers, pass the viva etc. etc. in only four years? I felt the same way. For me one of the most daunting things was fieldwork. When I began my PhD in October 2014, my supervisor gave me two jobs: ‘Do a lit review’ and ‘Plan a week’s field trip’, for January. It turned out I was in charge of finding field sites (good exposures of bedrock) from the literature (much of which is in Spanish), finding them on maps, planning routes to them, and making sure it fits in with the week’s accommodation and travel my supervisor had booked for us. All in about three months. That trip definitely didn’t end up going swimmingly. We wanted to get samples early, so we went in winter. That meant half my sites were under three feet of snow! This was after my supervisor was nearly hit by a falling rock at the very first site we visited. I found myself going back for more samples at the end of summer, alone this time, under a lot of pressure to get good material. I’m not pretending I had a difficult field area. I wasn’t going to a remote jungle or the Arctic wastes, but for me, who had only been abroad once before my PhD, it seemed a formidable undertaking.
That wasn’t even the end of it. Once I’d got all my rocks back from Spain, I had to dissolve them in various deadly acids, strain out microscopic fossils, mount them on microscope slides, and spend months staring down a microscope, counting thousands of different-shaped blobs. I had to learn how to identify and name the blobs, I had to work out what certain blobs did or did not mean for interpreting the assemblage, I had to try and put it together into a coherent message that would pass the gauntlet of scientific scrutiny. But, nevertheless, it occurred to me, around about July 2018, that I’d done it. I had finished.
One thing I always say when talking to other PhD students is that no two PhDs are comparable. They are all different by virtue of having to be novel, therefore one person’s PhD cannot be compared with yours. This is particularly true across disciplines: my thesis is nearly 300 pages, another equally good one on a different topic may be 200 pages or even less. It is easy to get disheartened during a PhD, particularly if you see others doing ‘well’, but if you think about the problem, apply yourself and go about it at your own pace, you can do it.
Alexander Askew
University of Sheffield