Don’t look back in anger

Today, I can officially call myself Dr. Vicky Boult! Now, having had the chance to stop and reflect on the whole PhD experience, I think it’s important to document how I feel about it, for myself if for no-one else. Let me start at the beginning…

When I saw the PhD advert: ‘Modelling red deer and elephant behaviour using satellite data to estimate food availability’, all I really saw was: ‘Modelling red deer and elephant behaviour using satellite data to estimate food availability‘. The fact that I reeeeaaally didn’t know anything about ‘satellite data’ or ‘modelling’ didn’t bother me. My attitude has always been to adopt and embrace news skills and knowledge if it will address what I care about, in this case, elephants. (At this point, please don’t ask about the red deer. It’s the focus of an ongoing saga. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll have something to say about it, but that time is not now…)

Recent discussions with my supervisors revealed that even they thought it was an ambitious project, requiring a lot of different skills. So why me, given my obvious lack-of-know on 2 out of 3 major aspects of the project? I think I filled the missing piece of the PhD-puzzle. My supervisor Richard is somewhat of a legend on the modelling side of things and Tristan is a full-on pro where satellite data is concerned. But, I don’t think either will mind me saying, they didn’t know a huge amount about elephants. And that’s where I came in!

Year 1: One big scoping exercise

Considering I knew nothing about modelling or satellite data, I had a lot of reading to do. I also had to get to grips with programming, satellite imagery, elephant data and many, many equations. Combine this with supervisory meetings where I left knowing less than when I started, it was all a bit overwhelming and I didn’t feel like I had an awful lot to show for my efforts. So visiting Amboseli, my study site in Kenya, in May 2016 was much appreciated. Not only did I return with a gallery of photos (which will forever adorn my PowerPoint slides), I also gathered loads of information. I met project partners, got to grips with the methodology behind the elephant data, better understood the challenges facing elephants in the ecosystem and spent some heart-and-head-healing time with the most magnificent animals. And with that, year 1 was pretty much done. Looking back, whilst I felt I hadn’t made much progress, all of that scoping was crucial for the work ahead…

One from the Amboseli gallery and forever my PowerPoint title slide background.

Year 2: The wheels in motion

With PhDs, there is no particular divide between years. I mean, you don’t get a summer holiday anymore (I remind my grandparents every year!). But there was definitely a different feel heading into year 2.

I was now modelling(!) and analysing satellite data(!) – it felt like the wheels were finally in motion. Early in my 2nd year, I received some super cool tracking data for 5 elephants in Amboseli. I started playing with it and quickly found some interesting patterns. Now, this wasn’t a planned part of my PhD, and I specifically remember my supervisors suggesting to ‘come back to it later if we have time’, but I ignored them (sorry!) and this work eventually formed a chapter of my thesis and my first scientific publication (even if it did take well over a year and 5 submissions)! The rest of year 2 (and deep into year 3) was spent with my eyes glued to my computer, modelling…

Movement data of one of my elephants, conveniently named Vicky! 

Year 3: ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do just to stay in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast!’

Into year 3 I went with increasingly tunnelled vision. The work load really stepped up at this point. I was juggling multiple work packages under increasing time pressure. It was really tough. I felt like I had no time or energy left for anything else in my life.

About half way through the year, I realised that this wasn’t sustainable so I decided that I would finish this by December 2018, after 3 years and 3 months. Although I had the option of continuing until the 4 year mark, by this point I wanted it over. In a way I think this helped. There was finally some light at the end of the tunnel and I was excited for post-PhD life (I’d booked 3 weeks in South Africa in January – that was my motivation)!

And I got there. I submitted my thesis on 14th December 2018. With two published chapters and one more in review, I was lucky that the remaining processes (viva and corrections) were more of a formality.

So now you’ll ask me, would I recommend it?

I would be lying if I said it was a blast. That said many aspects of PhD life were pretty sweet.

The working hours were flexible. This meant I could get involved with teaching and I even spent my first 2 summers in South Africa supervising dissertation students studying (you guessed it) elephants! Great CV boosting activities above ‘just’ (haha) the PhD and a welcome change of scene away from my desk. I was also really lucky to have great supervisors. I met a cool bunch of friends, colleagues and contacts. I got my work published. And I’ve had opportunities that I certainly wouldn’t have had otherwise. Perhaps more than all of that though, I spent 3 years of my life completely indulged in something I really care about: my whole life was full of elephants!

But immersed in my PhD, I gave up a lot of what made me, me. I ran out of time and energy for reading, drawing and horse riding. At times, the stress was unmanageable and I was constantly on the verge of tears for 80% of it. There was also a lot about being a PhD student that made me angry: the crap pay, the general lack of recognition, the expectations and the non-guaranteed post-PhD prospects. All in all, I’m sure I was a pretty horrid person to be around.

I got there though, thanks to my amazing support network – Dom and my Mum, my friends and my supervisors – and because I cared wholeheartedly about what I was doing.

So, would I recommend it? I don’t know yet. I’m still busy piecing my life back together, reminding myself what makes me happy and working out what I want next. But I am glad I did it, and even more glad to have come out the other side.  

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