Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Data entry and preliminary stats

Over the last three weeks or so I've been working pretty hard with my data. All the data on bird registrations have been entered in my database and I've been analysing them a bit. It's pretty crude still because the only habitat data I've entered so far are overall habitat types. This is a gross over-simplification, because in Cyprus we still have this wonderful landscape where there will be lots of different crop types in a small area.

For example, cereal fields often have olive and carob trees growing in or near them, vineyards are often bordered by almond tree-lines, and there are field margins with natural vegetation. This kind of habitat diversity is widely accepted to be fantastic in supporting high biodiversity, including farmland birds. My overall aim is to figure out where on the island these different habitat characteristics are most valuable, and for which birds, so that they can be protected as agricultural practices change.

At the moment, I've done some ordination analyses of my data, which basically compare the different bird communities across all the sites I sampled. Even with my crude habitat classification, I can already tell you that the bird communities do change across habitat types. Forests, in particular, stand out. This is important, because, not only are the birds in forests different, there aren't that many species that are found there. So farmland is really very important for most  species of conservation concern.

Cereal-dominated habitats have the fewest species. Although cereal is also quite distinct, on the opposite side of the spectrum to forests, there is a huge variety in the bird assemblages that are found in cereal fields. Vineyards have the most species, and then it's citrus groves. The bird communities in these types of agriculture, along with olive, carob and almond groves, and semi-natural scrub habitat, aren't actually that distinct though.

This is where I will be going into more detail next. I want to tease out the differences between scrub, vines, groves and cereal. But to do that I first have to get back to data entry.

It's quite boring entering data. But I suppose it's calming in a sense. You need to concentrate enough to get the right information in the right place, but that's about the only thinking that you're doing! After a few days of entering data, statistical analysis is a welcome change. And it's really satisfying to see the data I collected during months of fieldwork actually show some results that will eventually be publishable.

There's still some way to go, but hopefully by the time I leave for my winter field-season.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Depression must stop!

My mood swings have been phenomenal recently. From the highest highs when I'm with my boyfriend away from the office, to the lowest lows when I come home after a day of doing so much less than I know I should have. Over the course of a few days I went back to the mindset I had before starting the fieldwork: why am I doing this, I'm not cut out to do a PhD, I've wasted my entire life fighting for something I'm going to fail at.

I'm not over this. I probably won't ever get over it completely. I don't know what I want to do with my life, so the doctorate is the default. If I don't just get on with it, I'll be wasting an opportunity and will probably regret it for the rest of my life. So I'm just carrying on.

It's so easy to lose all motivation, though. This is why I really appreciate it when I can meet with my supervisors. They give me direction. After a long time being very focused on getting the fieldwork done, having to come back to the University and step back into the big picture of this research has made everything feel so daunting. Everything is freaking me out so much that I don't know where to begin and I'm scared to touch anything.

I need to break things down and focus on one thing at a time, otherwise I feel overwhelmed. But at the same time, I mustn't focus so much that I get lost in the details. It's so easy for me to get hung up on little details and get stressed and frustrated and bogged down by them. How can I strike a balance?

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

I'm not the only one

1 Minute Log: Four Pillars of a PhD

Note the comments under that post. They span more than three years. And prove that I'm not the only person who googles "phd depression."

Less than a week ago everything seemed pretty optimistic. I don't know what happened, but it's all bleak again and the guilt is eating away at me.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Brain in gear

It has taken me a while, and I still feel a bit on the slow end of the productivity scale, but I'm feeling like I'm making progress! My database is all set up and is gradually being filled up with information, the first steps at making use of GIS have been taken, and practically all the housekeeping has been taken care of. What these things effectively mean is that data analysis, and hence the reaping of the rewards of my "gruelling" field season, is about to begin, my disabling inability to ask for help is being tackled, and, most importantly, I now work in an office with people, natural light, and easy access to tea and coffee, and toilets.

As it is the last few weeks of the academic year, the university is very quiet. There are no Undergrads or Masters students, many staff are still on leave, and a large proportion of PhD students are either away working in the field or are taking a well-deserved break. But my thoughts are on those PhDs who are writing up and preparing to submit their theses in about a month's time. For most of them it's a very stressful time. I say most of them, because one guy is just too chilled out about it , it's not normal - apparently he's only got the introduction and conclusion to write... I can see myself behaving in the exact opposite way when my turn comes in three years' time.

One interesting thing I've found out is that quite a number of people get a job in their final PhD year. This seems to be the case with the person whose desk I inherited, and one of the girls in my office (they are both due to hand in next month). Occasionally, this happens because a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity appears. This happened to one of my supervisor's old students: she gave up the PhD in favour of a position in her country's government. In Cyprus, government scientific positions often only open up when someone retires, in this limiting one-out-one-in system, so I understand that this person took a now-or-never approach to it. However, the more general picture is that of people needing the money.

The government Research Councils here in the UK fund large numbers of PhD students. They pay their university fees and also give them a stipend, or living allowance. The problem is that the funding lasts for only three years, and the thesis must be submitted within four years. It seems that most PhDs are finished in four years, rather than three, particularly in disciplines like mine that require periods of time to be spent collecting data in the field, so a PhD student will be faced with living on no income for that final year. Plus, the submission deadline is incredibly strict. The university gets penalised when students don't finish in four years: the funding they receive for research is reduced.

Fortunately, some positive changes are being made by some Research Councils, especially where fieldwork is involved in PhDs. So there is some recognition of how work in the field most often means longer duration of study.

Of course, all this doesn't actually affect me in any way, since I am not funded by a Research Council. Also, as a colleague pointed out, worrying about this sort of thing is pointless at this stage. What's important now is to just get on with it and work as best we can. Many people have completed their PhDs within the deadlines, so it is possible.

I just can't wait to finish.