Conferences: Secret PhD Drivers

Conferences: Secret PhD Drivers

Conferences are an integral part of a PhD. They are the forum for spreading the word about the newest science and developing professional relationships. But as a PhD student they are more likely to be a source of palpitations and sweaty palms. This week Kiran Chotalia writes about her personal experience on conferences, and lessons learnt over the years.

Kiran Chotalia. PhD Student at Dept. of Earth Sciences, University College London, UK.

My PhD is a part of the Deep Volatiles Consortium and a bunch of us started on our pursuit of that floppy hat together. Our first conference adventure was an introduction to the consortium at the University of Oxford, where the new students were to present on themselves and their projects for a whole terrifying two minutes. At this stage, we had only been scientists in training for a few weeks and the thought of getting up in front of a room of established experts was scary, to say the least. Lesson #1: If it’s not a little bit scary, is it even worth doing? It means we care and we want to do the best we can. A healthy dose of fear can push us to work harder and polish our skills, making us better presenters. Overcoming the fear of these new situations takes up a lot of your energy. But it always helps to practice. In particular, I’ve always been encouraged to participate in presentation (poster or oral) competitions. Knowing that you’re going to be judged on your work and presentation skills encourages you to prepare. And this preparation has always helped to calm my nerves to the point where I’m now at the stage I can enjoy presenting a poster.

Regular work goals that crop up in other professions are often absent, especially when we’re starting out.  The build-up to a conference acts as a good focus to push for results and some first pass interpretations. At the conference itself, it makes sure people come to see your poster and you can start to get your face out there in your field. Lesson #2: Sign up for presentation competitions. AGU’s Outstanding Student Presentation Award (OSPA) and EGU’s Outstanding Student PICO and Poster (OSPP) awards are well established. At smaller conferences, it’s always worth asking if a competition is taking place as, speaking from experience, they can be easily missed. They also give you a good excuse to practice with your research group in preparation, providing the key component of improving your presentation skills: feedback. Lesson #3: Ask for feedback, not just on your science but your presenting too. If you’re presenting to people not in your field, practice with office mates that have no idea what you get up to. By practicing, you can begin to find your style of presenting and the best way to convey your science.

Me, (awkwardly) presenting my first poster at the Workshop on the Origin of Plate Tectonics, Locarno.

Sometimes, you’ll be going to conferences not only with your fellow PhD students, but also more senior members. They can introduce you to their friends and colleagues, extending your network, more often than not, when you are socialising over dinner, after the main working day. Lesson #4: Keep your ear to the ground. These events provide a great opportunity to let people know you are on the hunt for a job and hear about positions that might be right for you. At AGU 2018, I became the proud owner of a ‘Job Seeker’ badge, provided by the Careers Centre. It acted as a great way to segue from general job chat into potential leads. A memento that I’ll be hanging on to and dusting off for conferences to come!

One of the biggest changes to my conferencing cycle occurred last year after attending two meetings: CIDER and YoungCEED. Both were workshops geared towards learning and research, with CIDER lasting four weeks and YoungCEED lasting a week. Lesson #5: Attend research specific meetings when the opportunity arises. Even if they don’t seem to align with your research interests from the outset, they are incredible learning opportunities and a great way to expand your research horizons. By attending these meetings, the dynamic of my first conference after them shifted. There was a focus on catching up with the collective work started earlier in the year. Whilst the pace was the most exhausting I’ve experienced thus far, it was also the most rewarding.

Between all the learning and networking, faces start to become familiar. Before you know it, these faces become colleagues and colleagues quickly become friends. In our line of work, our friends are spread over continents, moving from institution to institution. They tend to offer the only opportunity to be in the same place at the same time. This also results in completely losing track of time and catching up into the early hours of the morning, so the next lesson is more subjective. Lesson #6: Know your limits. Some can stay out until 4am and rock up at the 8.30am talk. I wish I was one of these people but I have a hard time keeping my eyes open past 12.30am. Whatever works for you!

Me, presenting my most recent poster at AGU 2018 with my job seeker badge!

After the conference finishes, you are often in a place that you’ve never visited before. Lesson #7: Have a break. If you can, even an extra day or two of being a tourist is great treat after a hectic build-up as well as the conference itself. If staying for a mini holiday post-conference is not an option, make sure you take some time when you get home to rest and readjust before you get back to work and start planning for the next one.

Last but not least, Lesson #8: Don’t forget to have fun. The stress surrounding conferences and your PhD in general can at times be all consuming. Remember to enjoy the small victories of finally getting a code to run or finding time on the SEM to analyse your samples. At conferences, enjoy being surrounding scientists that are just starting out and the seasoned professionals with a back catalogue of interesting stories. And if you’re lucky enough to be at a conference somewhere sunny, make sure to get outside during the breaks and free time to soak up some vitamin D!

The Shanghai skyline after the Sino-UK Deep Volatiles Annual Meeting at Nanjing University.

A belated happy new year!

A belated happy new year!

It was that time of the year again: holidays! Time to take a break from work, relax, and see all your friends and family again. The blog team is no different: we took a break from blogging for a little while as well, so you had to survive the holidays without us! Did you survive Christmas day without one of our blogposts? It must’ve been dreadful, I know, but that’s life! Luckily, we have some good news: we are back with some belated happy new year wishes and wintersport recommendations. We also tried to write limericks. Also also, we discuss chocolate and peppermint. Because we can. Cheers to a good blog year in 2019! 

Iris van Zelst

I once tried to ski down a slope
as friends thought there might be hope
I was covered in snow
from my head to my toe
If they invite me again it’s a ‘nope’

So, as many of you might have guessed, winter sports (or any sports, really) are not entirely my thing. Particularly skiing did not go down well for me. However, as a true Dutch girl, I do really enjoy ice skating and can recommend it thoroughly! However, this year no winter sports at all for me: I flew towards the sun in an effort to actually destress from work (feeble attempt as I brought my laptop, but still, kudos for trying, right?). I hope everyone had a very nice holiday and relaxing break. May all your (academic) wishes come true in 2019!

I also tried cross-country skiing once. That was infinitely better than alpine skiing. It was actually fun!

Grace Shephard

In hemispheric defiance of the “wintersport” edition, I am currently back Down Under where I have replaced the (seemingly eternal) television coverage of cross-country skiing with cricket, swapped a toboggan for me ‘togs’, and exchanged a pull-over for some ‘pluggers.’ I wish all of our blog readers a very happy and safe end to the year that was, and a fabulous start to the next!

What Aussies call swimming-related attire from

Anne Glerum

This year I spend winter in Berlin,
Where no snow has fallen and the ice is too thin.
So I drink myself heavy,
With hot chocolate and Pfeffi,
And wait for the fresh air of spring!

In the weeks before Christmas, Christmas markets dominate the streets of Berlin. Besides delicious food, they offer mulled wine and, as I discovered this year, hot chocolate with peppermintliqueur. A green version of the liqueur is made by Pfeffi, while a colorless Berlin-made peppermintliqueur is called Berliner Luft. It’s as clear and fresh as Berlin’s air according to the manufacturer. Although the freshness of Berlin’s air is debatable, the combination of chocolate and peppermint is delicious. I wish everybody a fresh start of the New Year with loads of hapiness!

Get conference ready!

Get conference ready!

It’s almost time for the AGU fall meeting 2018! Are you ready? Have you prepared your schedule and set up all your important business meetings? Here are some final tips to nail your presentation and/or poster!

Nailing your presentation
The art of the 15-minute talk: how to design the best 15-minute talk
Presentation skills – 1. Voice: how to get the most out of your presentation voice
Presentation skills – 2. Speech: how to stop staying ‘uh’

Making the best poster
Poster presentation tips: how to design the best poster layout
The rainbow colour map (repeatedly) considered harmful: how to make the best scientific figures

CIDER summer school

CIDER summer school

And we’re back! After a refreshing holiday (or was it?), the EGU GD Blog Team is ready to provide you with amazing blog posts once more! Although holidays can be great, one thing that can be even more great is a good summer school. Yep, you heard that correctly! Let me convince you to apply for the CIDER Summer School program next year.

Let’s start with the basics. What the hell is CIDER? Well, CIDER stands for the Cooperative Institute for Dynamic Earth Research. One of it’s main focusses is the interdisciplinary training of early career scientists. To that end, they organise a summer school every year (usually in June/July) that lasts for 4 weeks.

4 weeks?!

Again, you heard that correctly. You are very good at listening!
The first two weeks of the summer school are dedicated to getting up to speed on the topic of the summer school by means of lectures, tutorials, a little field trip, etc. During the last two weeks you will work together in groups on a project of your choosing. The projects are determined during the first two weeks, when you figure out where the knowledge gaps are and you start making teams (no worries, nobody will be left out). You will come up with possible project topics yourself, so you can imagine that there can be quite some lobbying going on to make sure your team gets sufficient members to pursue your favourite project!

Together with your team of students and postdocs, you will confer with established experts in the field to make your project a success. After two weeks, you can probably show some reasonable first results during the final presentation in front of everyone.

If you want to continue working on your project with your team afterwards, you can even write a small proposal to CIDER to request some funding to meet up again and turn your project into a paper. Although they can’t reimburse intercontinental flights, it is still a pretty awesome opportunity!

The topic of the summer school changes every year and alternates between a ‘deep’ topic and a ‘shallow’ topic. I attended the CIDER 2017 summer school with the topic ‘Subduction zone structure and dynamics‘ – a shallow topic. This year (2018), the topic was ‘Relating Geophysical and Geochemical Heterogeneity in the Deep Earth‘ – clearly a deep topic. If you want to know more about this year’s summer school, our Blog Reporter Diogo wrote about it here. Students from all kinds of different disciplines are encouraged to apply: geology, geochemistry, seismology, geodynamics, mineral physics, etc. The more diversity the better, because you need to learn from each other!

More/actual reasons to apply

Now that we have all the details out of the way, I can properly start to convince you to apply! Did I already mention that the summer school is in an exotic place in California, USA? In 2017, the summer school was in Berkeley and this year it was in Santa Barbara. These locations are always fixed, with the ‘shallow’ topics being held in Berkeley, and the deep topics being held in Santa Barbara. Maybe this can act as your guide for finding out which kind of topic to ultimately pursue in your career.

Also, can you imagine? Four weeks, in beautiful, sunny California for ‘work’? Because, yes, it is work, technically, but it won’t feel like it. Actually, it’s kind of like being transported to one of those American high school / college movies. Does anyone else watch those? Nope, just me? Okay then. You will get the full American student experience, as you will sleep in an actual dorm with all your fellow students and go to the dining hall religiously for breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day and every day! Yes, also in the weekends, because it’s free and you’re a poor student! Minor side-effect is that you want be able to look at – let alone stomach – burgers, fries, pizzas, and hotdogs for at least a year, but it’s totally worth it for this all-American movie-like experience. Obviously, sharing a dorm with all your fellow students and complaining about the food will forge bonds that will last far longer than the duration of the summer school and you are guaranteed to have a lot of fun during the summer school also after the lectures.

Although the program is pretty packed, you will have free evenings (during which you might catch up on your actual work) and you will have some days off during the weekends. Of course, you can’t have all weekend days off, because it wouldn’t be a proper summer school experience if you don’t return completely exhausted, right? However, on your precious days off, you can go and explore beyond the campus and do some nice day trips to a nearby city or nature reserve. You can of course also use your free evenings and weekends to sample some of the night life of whatever Californian city you are staying in!

My CIDER 2017 experience

I thoroughly enjoyed my own CIDER experience in Berkeley, 2017. I learned loads of things about subduction zones and a lot of my knowledge was refreshed, specifically on geochemistry, mineral physics and geology. It was great fun to live on an American campus (I mean, I really did feel as if I’d stumbled into an American teen movie) and we did some pretty cool things besides the summer school! There was a lovely field trip to learn a bit more about rocks and it was also a great opportunity to see something of the landscape and enjoy incredible views over San Francisco. Of course, San Francisco itself was also visited during one of our days off and I finally saw the Golden Gate bridge up close and ate crab at Fisherman’s Wharf. Unforgettable experience. Best day of the summer school. I cannot recommend it enough! We also went out for dinner and drinks on occasion in the city centre of Berkeley and we even snuck in a visit to the musical ‘Monsoon Wedding’ at Berkely Rep.

After the summer school, our project group applied for funding to meet up again (I just couldn’t get enough of the American vibe) and lo and behold, we actually got the funding! So this spring, I found myself in Austin, Texas, to work on our project.

Howdy y’all!

It was pretty amazing to have an opportunity like that, and I can assure you that we also had lots of fun in Austin. I mean, it’s Texas, what did you expect? I was already over the moon by the fact that I had the possibility of spotting men wearing cowboy boots for real and not just for carnival!

All in all, I can thoroughly recommend the CIDER summer school as a great learning experience and opportunity for meeting fellow scientists interested in your topic of choice.

Next year, the topic will be ‘Volcanoes‘, so if you have any interest in that, be sure to apply! There is also always a one-day pre-AGU workshop, where you can get a little taste of the summer school, as the progress on the projects of the previous year is reported and lectures anticipating the coming topic are held.

So, are you going to apply to CIDER next year? I mean, who doesn’t lava volcanoes?!