The Women in Ecology and Evolution Podcast

Start your PhD with W.E.E.

September 23, 2020 Dr Kirsty MacLeod Season 1 Episode 2
The Women in Ecology and Evolution Podcast
Start your PhD with W.E.E.
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Dani Rabaiotti joins me from London to discuss her research on climate change impacts in African wild dogs, as well as her interests in science policy, and writing popular science books. This episode's Paper in Focus is from Erin Kane, getting into her research on oral processing in Diana monkeys. Then, Dani and I are joined by Sam Helle and Ashwini Mohan to share our experiences of starting a PhD - in Sam's case, during a pandemic! Plus - some more of your "Elevator Pitches"!

Hosted, as always, by Kirsty MacLeod. Drop me a line anytime: hello[at]

Paper in Focus
Oral Processing Behavior of Diana Monkeys (Cercopithecus diana) in Taï National Park, Côte d’Ivoire

Elevator pitches: Jen Moss, Aparna Lajmi, Ellen Brandell, Catherine Young, Leila Fouda


  • New kids version of "True or Poo" co-authored by Dani is out now! Get it here.
  • Conservation NGO co-founded by Sam Helle, Project Conservation.
  • Ashwini's website.
  • The American Society of Primatologists' fund to help field sites and habitat-country researchers to maintain safe operating conditions during the COVID crisis - donate here:
  • Carrie Cizauskas's excellent project management spreadsheet - note that in the episode we refer to this as Kevin Burgio's creation - this is an error, as he publicised it on Twitter but did not create it. Thanks to Carrie for making it, and Kevin for drawing our attention to it!

Hey everyone! Welcome to the second installation of the women in ecology and evolution podcast. I'm your host, Dr Kirsty MacLeod (in bold), joining you today from my parents attic on the Isle of Mull in Scotland! As we talked about last episode, the pandemic is affecting many of us in weird ways. I'm certainly not the only person who's ended up not being quite where I expected to be this summer. More on how it's affecting listeners and guests starting their graduate programmes a little later on. I've been blown away by the wonderfully positive response to our first episode so thank you to everyone who subscribed, rated the show on podcast platforms and shared it on social media. I've really loved hearing that you've enjoyed it as much as we enjoyed recording it. It's another great show today! Today's paper in focus is with Erin Kane, and it takes us to the forest of Cote d'Ivoire and her research on oral processing and Diana monkeys. We have some more elevator pitches from you. And Sam Helle and Ashwini Mohan join to talk through their experiences of starting PhDs. But first up, Dr Dani Rabaiotti from the Zoological Society of London. You know her from her amazing work on African wild dogs, her series of popular science books, and being hilarious on Twitter. That's coming up next on the women in ecology and evolution podcast.


00:02:00 Dr Dani Rabaiotti

I'm thrilled to be joined today by the multi-talented researcher, author and science communicator, Dr Dani Rabaiotti! Dani is a postdoctoral researcher at the Zoological Society of London and the co author of three fantastic books including “Does it fart?” which Waterstones describes as the fully authoritative guide to animal flatulence! Dani, thanks so much for taking time to chat.

DR: Yeah, thanks so much for having me! I'm super excited to be on this podcast.

So in the last episode I talked to researchers about how the pandemic has been affecting their work, and lives and seeing as it hasn't magically ended since that episode came out I have to ask how has this year been for you so far?!

DR: Yeah, it's been a bit of a weird one actually, most of my research is computer-based, I take long term datasets and field datasets and I model climate change impacts using that data, so you'd think it wouldn't really impact me, but actually we were just about to deploy some quite high tech collars in the field this summer, so that's on hold. We have not been going out to South Africa and Kenya, unsurprisingly, so yeah that's been quite a big impact. Because we work at some seasonal sites and, obviously, we put these GPS collars and actually the new collars, are accelerometer based so they're kind of like a really fancy Fitbit for African wild dogs. And so the manufacture got disrupted because they're quite niche, and then also the deployment got disrupted, so all a bit frustrating. I miss the field very much.

Yeah, I bet! So you mentioned African wild dogs, I've always associated you with African wild dogs, which are your PhD study species - we'll come back to that in a moment - but you also have a tonne of experience working on other mammal species, back to your undergraduate degree at Bristol. Can you walk us through your bio a bit and how you ended up at the Zoological Society in your current project?

DR: Yeah, so I did my undergraduate Bristol University. I did my dissertation on fox territory use, that was a pretty weird research project, to run around Bristol in the middle of the night spraying artificial fox urine everywhere, and following them using a transmitter I put on the top of my car! Almost got arrested a few times, it was very cold, mostly got completely unusable data, but it was an interesting experience!

So there are collared foxes in Bristol?

DR: yeah there's a whole project running, a Bristol Fox project out of Bristol University, and they radio collared loads of urban foxes, urban foxes in Bristol are ridiculous there's so many of them, they're so unfazed by people. It's quite a cool study organism! But ours mostly just sat under a shed so our data was a bit rubbish.

So how did you anticipate their response being to the fox urine? 

DR: So we thought they might avoid these areas, but because our Fox only sat under a shed before, it's still sat under a shed afterwards to so he didn't really change anything! 

And then from that you moved into bats…

DR: Yeah, so actually as part of my course at Bristol I did a really cool field course, where we went to Costa Rica. That was my first research paper that I was involved in, where I helped to collect data on bat flight speed. I just love the fact that with bats you do data collection at dawn and dusk, and you’re done. All my master's work was with bats, both in the UK and then in Kenya as well, which was a weird overlapped as obviously I ended up doing my PhD in Kenya, but on a very different animal. I took a year post-Masters… I ran my whole three month field project, it was completely conceived and executed by me, so I was pretty tired after that. So I am took a year and looked around for PhDs, and spotted the PhD that I ended up on. The process was very different to a lot of PhDs where I didn't actually apply for specific projects, I applied for the programme. I essentially ended up on the project that I did because I was looking for a project that had a little bit of field work, that would allow me to develop my computational skills. And I also wanted a supervisor that was interested in policy work. And so, when I met Rosie, I was actually originally looking for a badger project that would be more policy related but she was like “oh I've got this project on wild dogs and it’ll be in Keyna”, and I was like yeah this sounds amazing. So, I hadn't really set out to work with wild dogs, it was more a really interesting research question, which was the impact of climate change using long term data from this wild dog project, and then also a supervisor that I thought I was going to get on well with.

And that's Rosie Woodroffe.

DR: Yeah, so she runs the Laikipia rangelands wild dog and Cheetah project. And then also, the Cornwall badger vaccination project.

So you touched a bit on the focus of your project, which was the impacts of climate change on African wild dogs. How did you actually go about studying that?

DR: The rangelands project is really cool because Rosie's been running it for 17… Well, more than that now, like 18 years now. So that's quite unique really, those kind of long term datasets on big mammals. I took that data which had births and deaths and dispersal data, and I looked at how temperature was impacting these variables. And then what I was able to do was to get parameters for how temperature affects death and birth and how many offspring are surviving to adulthood. And then I could pop that into a model - that makes it sound a lot more simple than it is but essentially, you then heat up the wild dogs in the computer because it's not like we can do that in the lab. What we get from the field data is a value for, say, “wild dogs are 10% less likely to survive to adulthood” - that's a figure plucked out of thin air but that's an example - if it's one degree hotter. So for every wild dog in that model, if you put the temperature one degree up they’re 10%, more likely to die per month for example. So, once you put all that together, you've got each of these wild dogs and they're interacting with each other in a pack, and then, for example pack size is having an influence on how many pups they have, and it's having an influence on how they survive. They're very social and so the model quickly becomes very complex. And then you run that over time. So, all these dogs are interacting in the model, the temperatures are impacting the survival rates, and birth rates, etc. And then that allows you to look at population trends, so over time whether the population is increasing or decreasing, or staying stable. And I could also turn that into maps of where there would be the biggest or the least declines in the future under different climate change scenarios.

Had you done a lot of that sort of statistical modelling before this project or was that a steep learning curve on the job?

DR: It was definitely a steep learning curve, because of the complicated structure of the packs and the fact that every social variable is impacting every other social variable and it's all interlinked. I had to build everything myself from scratch, without using already established packages or models that already existed, so that was, I'm not gonna say fun, but it was very rewarding in the end, but it took quite a long time.

Seems like a really useful skill to have going forward though, I'm quite jealous.

DR: Yeah, I mean I'm great at coding now,I have faith that I could build most models now. So that was great.

So what were the main findings of all of that work?

DR: Not all of that is published yet, still working on it, but the first paper that came out of the temperature work was about recruitment. And we found that African wild dogs were less likely to survive to adulthood at high temperatures. And then essentially the main finding from the climate change projections, I can't really elaborate much more than this because it will take a while, there's quite a lot of intricacies in there, but yeah, climate change is not good, not good news for wild dogs, when you heat them up unsurprisingly your population decreases.

So when you say high temperatures in those scenarios, are they close to being at those high temperatures, or is that a projection that is looking quite far into the future?

DR: I projected to 2050 and 2070. So it kinda depends, the worse the climate change scenario, the worst they are going to do. So for example, when it was one degree hotter (which we've already seen happen on one of the study sites in that paper in Botswana), you could already see the repercussions on recruitment, there was a reduction in recruitment in that study site already. So, yeah, it's not great news and part of the work I do now is to kind of unravel the mechanisms behind all this in the hopes that that will help us identify ways conservation interventions that might help buffer these impacts of climate change. There's a number of different ways that any animal really can adapt to higher temperatures, a really big one is by changing their behaviour. So wild dogs are crepuscular, they hunt at dawn and dusk. I only work on species that are active at dawn and dusk, apparently!! And so, in the day they're just sleeping, it's really hot. They don't like it very much, it's not great for hunting. So I wanted to know - why don't they just hunt at night? So, I took all the data that we had from the GPS collars and accelerometers and I basically looked at if, when it was hotter, they were more active at night. And the answer was: a bit, but it wasn't really enough to compensate. So we think that's probably why we're seeing these demographic impacts on wild dog recruitment at these high temperatures. 

So it's essentially squeezing the time suitable for their activity to a smaller time period? 

DR: Yeah, so on a hot day, the period in the middle of the day when it's too hot to hunt is longer. And it seems like for whatever reason they're not keen on hunting at night, might be because there's lions and hyenas around which compete with them and kill them, or it might just be they can't see that well!

So you've finished your PhD and you're now working as a postdoc, is that continuing the research that you did for your thesis?

DR: Yeah, 100% it is, just building on that, so now we're working with Swansea University, and we're using what are called daily diaries - the technical term is a triaxial accelerometer, but it's basically how much the animal’s wiggling about, you know, up and down backwards and forwards side to side. That's the three axes that's why it's tri axial. And these will be attached on to collars on the dogs, and they record 40 times every second so you can see every footstep that the dog is making. We've been doing some work with the dogs at the zoo, where we put these collars on them, and we can see like eating behaviours. And so you film them, you look at the eating behaviours you look what's going on on the collar, because you know what time it was when all this happened. And then you look for signatures in the data that can identify feeding behaviours. And they also weigh themselves, it's very handy with zoo animals! Don’t get that out in the wild. So you can see how much energy they're taking in. And the idea is to apply the zoo data to the data from the wild, and estimate energy intake and then energy expenditure from that activity. And that gives you this really fine scale temperature impacts on behaviour. So some really neat work. 

Tech is at that point where it's still incredibly cool but still quite scary and probably will replace us haha!

Yeah, well to be honest with this data, when you're trying to programme in rules for identifying the feeding behaviour, even my eyes can see the feeding behaviour but trying to tell the computer what it is, does give me a little bit more faith that we will not be replaced by a robot! 

That's reassuring! So, during your PhD you also pursued interests in science policy which you said was important in your choice of PhD project. You did two policy placements during your PhD, one based in the parliament and one at the Royal Society. What did those entail and how has that informed your research, or how you plan to do research going forward?

DR: So I really, I really really enjoyed doing the policy placements, I think it gives you as a scientist a really good insight into how policy is made, both from a parliamentary position but also from, I'm not sure if I would necessarily say a lobbying position. But yeah, like people lobbying for science, you kind of have to because industry is lobbying so if you don't want the industry position, if it goes against science then you do need to lobby for the scientific position. And I think it was quite unique in that respect, to kind of see the other side and see what you're up against. I think scientists don't always understand the time pressures that policymakers are under. So I think it definitely influences how I would engage with policy and engage with policymakers going forward.

So of course to top off an already extremely busy and wide ranging and fascinating PhD you also co wrote three popular science books. Does it fart. True or poo. And Believe it or Sno. How did that happen? Were you always interested in writing Popular Science?

DR: No I think primarily going in, I was interested in science communication, but it was mostly policy, but you know sometimes things come along, come your way! I never thought I'd write a book, but the way things happened, it essentially evolved organically from a conversation that I had on Twitter. I just couldn't not do it, it was just such a great opportunity to communicate about animals which I love doing. Yeah, I just leapt on it really!

And they've been hugely successful, translated into multiple languages, Does it Fart it was on the New York Times bestsellers list. And now there are versions there specifically for


DR: Yeah, so when the first book came out, it did really, really well but I had a lot of people asking what age suitability is it and I normally say like 8+ depending on reading age, but there was huge demand for a younger kids version. And those have been really great to work on because it's another challenge, on top of writing books in the first place, is really stripping it down but making sure all the information still there, but is it suitable for kids.

True or poor is the last one that came out in July, it got a bit stalled, because, again, pandemic but it's out now. It's very exciting. They're really neat books, they're different, but just as hilarious!

They really are great. Lastly, I'm sure you get this question a lot or versions of this question a lot, but what is your favourite poo-related fact that went into the latest true or poo? 

DR: So I really like the fact that the beaches in the Maldives, the white sand, a very large proportion of it has passed through a parrot fish, so a lot of it is essentially made of parrot fish poo!

That is a great fact, I will be regurgitating that and will definitely be giving all the young people in my life, true or poo this Christmas!


00:18:13 Paper in Focus: Dr Erin Kane

Welcome back to the women in ecology and evolution podcast. I'm joined by Dr Erin Kane. Erin is a postdoc at Boston University, where she studies orangutan ecology and life history. Hi Erin thanks for making time to chat about your paper!

EK: Hey, thanks so much for having me on. I'm excited to talk about it.

So would you like to just start by giving us a kind of brief intro to who you are and what

your research is on? 

EK: Sure. So, like you said, I am a postdoctoral researcher at Boston University. I studied the ways that primates respond especially to changes in environmental predictability or unpredictability. I did my PhD in anthropology at The Ohio State University. My dissertation research was on these Diana monkeys in a forest in Cote d’Ivoire, and now I am studying the ways that orangutans cope with their unpredictable environment.

So your new paper, which just came out in Folio Primatologica is called “Oral processing of Diana monkeys in Tai National Park”. So can you just start by describing what you mean by oral processing, and then give us some background on this study? 

EK: Sure. So the way that we think about oral processing in this paper is like actually physically the way that they chew their food. So, the number of times they put a piece of food into their mouth, the number of times they chew with their incisors, with their canines and with their cheek teeth. Anthropology and primatology more specifically has this concept called the fallback food concept - so the idea is that animals have kind of preferred resources that they like to eat that are relatively easy to process - they're relatively nutritious, and they may only be available for a short part of the year based on annual cycles and food availability. And when these preferred foods aren't available animals fall back on resources which are supposed to be more challenging to process, so they might be tougher or harder. And they might also be kind of lower in nutritional quality. So a lot of the ways that people have tried to see if this explains the ways that we see primates selecting foods, and then it explains the way that we see different kinds of dental morphology, is by looking at actually what animals are eating over the course of a year, and how that reflects changes in food availability and things like that, but we sort of turned it around to see how animals are actually chewing the food they're eating at different times of the year and if you can see times of the year when they're working harder or less hard to process the foods that are making up the bulk of their diet.

So what would be an example of a sort of easy to process versus a harder to process food in that system?

EK: So a lot of kind of fleshy fruit is pretty easy to process, something that you can bite into and don't have to work really hard to like propagate a crack through it. Something like bark and seeds are often considered fallback foods, mature leaves may be another example. So they tend to be just the kind of lower quality, pretty abundant resources.

So for us it would be like a strawberry is very quick and easy to eat, versus like a whole salad full of kale.

EK: Yeah, exactly. So turns out Diana monkey diets are pretty easy. They're pretty soft, they don't work very hard, there's nothing super complicated. Even so, I suspect that there's going to be some ontogeny, and some kind of developmental differences in the ways that juveniles are eating foods, compared to adults.

Was it challenging to work on an arboreal species? 

EK: Um, yes! They’re up in the kind of the main canopy. So when we're collecting this chewing data we have binoculars in one hand, I don't know if you've seen the like clickers that people use to count the number of people going in for like sporting events or something like that so you can use that to count the number of kind of molar chewing cycles. And then actually when I started, I had a notebook and was just kind of making squiggly lines every time there was an incisor chew! And so it comes a little bit complicated because you just don't have enough hands!

It sounds like, like all great papers, this is giving you lots more questions to potentially go back and look at so what's sort of next on your agenda in feeding ecology either in diana monkeys, or in your new system?

EK: So there are two pieces that are coming out of this particular paper. So Diana monkeys live in a forest with seven other monkey species, and we're trying to contextualise sort of the whole primate communities oral processing behaviour to look at how oral processing behaviour can help explain or contribute to niche differentiation among really closely related species. We're also really lucky because we have jaws from the same population that we have this behavioural data for. Susan Ladd who's a postdoc at Notre Dame and some of our other colleagues down at University of Florida are looking at the histology of different species who have different dietary adaptations to see how their bone is responding to the different sorts of chewing loads that are being put on them based on their dietary adaptations. And then I'm also using the same sort of chewing counting thing to look at the development of ecological competence and wild orangutans, so we have videos and I have an army of undergraduates who are sitting counting chewing cycles and videos of orangutans eating different things and we want to try to get at some of these same features.

So will you be able to get back to the field at any point?

EK: That's a good question. I really hope so. So the research station in Indonesia is currently being staffed by a local team, our long term employees who are, you know, they essentially are quarantined at their research station, it's about a seven hour hike into the forest. So they have data collection ongoing. In Tai it’s a similar situation with our long term employees who are still able to be collecting data. When it will be safe and ethical for me to fly from the United States to these places, I don't really know. I mean I'm having dreams about following monkeys so I really hope that it’s soon.

So speaking of fieldwork. You had mentioned to me before that the American Society of primatologists conservation committee has set up a fund, do you want to just mention that quickly?

EK: Yeah, I'd love to. So basically, a lot of primatology is sort of funded and done by Western scientists who go into host countries and do research, but there's a huge and growing number of host country primatologists who are managing field sites and who are doing really amazing long term research. And the American Society of Primatologists is funding small grants to provide things like personal protective equipment for host country primatologists who are trying to keep things going at the research station and keep local communities safe, so if people are interested in contributing to that you can donate at the American Society of primatologist website.

Yeah, I'll put the link in the episode notes so if you want to donate to that very worthwhile fund, then you can do so. Last fun question. What do you like to do to celebrate a paper coming out?

EK: Oh. That is a great question. So COVID has sort of cramped my go to the bar with a couple of friends, and have a nice cold beer ritual but I am I ended up watching Moana with a beer that I took out of the fridge. So, something relaxing. 

Well congratulations on the paper, and we'll put the link to the paper in the Episode Notes as well. Thanks for coming on Erin and hopefully we'll have you back soon. 



00:26:38 Elevator pitches

For our first episode nine fantastic scientists sent their elevator pitches, introducing us to who they are and what they work on, and they were such a huge hit with our social media community and such a great part of the episode that I just had to share some more with you. So coming up are pitches from Jen Moss, Aparna Lajmi, Ellen Brandell, Catherine Young, and Leila Fouda. Just a quick disclaimer, there's some great outdoor noises on there so you are about to get blasted with some cicadas in Georgia and windy birdsong in Tasmania, but like last time there are wonderful videos to go with these that will be on our Twitter and Instagram at the_wee_podcast.


Hi, my name is Jen moss, I’m a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Georgia and I study natural populations to understand how variation in behaviour between environments translates into evolutionary change, particularly when these changes are filtered through the social environment. My current project is investigating how rising temperatures influence family dynamics in a subsocial burying beetle native to this neck of the woods and when I'm not doing my job, I still enjoy being outdoors, looking for critters, walking my dogs, and just enjoying nature.


Hello, I'm Aparna Lajmi, and I'm a postdoc at the University of Haifa. For my PhD I studied biogeography and diversification of geckos. Currently I'm studying desert ants, and trying to understand the genomic basis of social polymorphism in them. Other than doing science, I love to cook and play Ultimate Frisbee. 


Hi everyone, my name is Ellen Brandell and I'm a PhD candidate at Penn State University. My research interests revolve around understanding pathogen trends, especially the drivers of pathogen infections in their hosts and the consequences of those infections on host demography species and behaviour. My focal species is the Grey Wolf, and I study wolves in the amazing Yellowstone National Park. My fieldwork includes observing wolves and taking samples from them for pathogen testing. Other than watching wolves, I love to mountain bike, hike, and be outside in the mountains in general.

Hi, my name is Katherine Young, I am a behavioural ecologist, and I primarily work with birds, and particularly interested in their social systems and breeding behaviour. I'm currently based in Tasmania. Outside of science, I do bird guiding. And I love to make and decorate cakes.


Hi, my name is Leila Fouda and I'm a marine ecologist. For most of my academic career, I studied the acoustics of cetaceans, but for my PhD, I've waded into the feeding and movement ecology of loggerhead sea turtles. A fun fact about me is that apart from trying to explore all the green spaces in London with my puppy is that I like to do improv.



00:29:46 Roundtable with Dani Rabaiotti, Sam Helle and Ashwini Mohan

Welcome back to the women in ecology and evolution podcast, and to our roundtable segment where I'm joined by three other researchers to discuss our experiences in science and academia. I'm back with Dr. Dani Rabaiotti, postdoctoral researcher and author, and we are joined by Sam Helle, a conservation biologist and PhD student at the University of Wisconsin Madison, and by Ashwini Mohan, a PhD candidate at the Braunschweig, University of Technology in Germany. Sam and Ashwini Would you like to give us a brief intro to who you are and what you work on?

SH: So, as you so graciously introduced I'm a conservation biologist and brand spankin new PhD student at the University of Wisconsin Madison and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. I have been working in Nepal since 2014 on social and biological aspects of Tiger conservation, human wildlife conflict and community based anti poaching with a number of organisations but primarily Nepal's National Trust for nature conservation, Nepal Tiger trust and recently Fulbright Nepal. So my PhD research is going to focus on ecology of tigers dispersing outside protected areas into community managed forests between the two largest Tiger populations in Nepal. Nepal has nearly doubled its Tiger population in the last decade, from 190 to about 235 animals and we know a lot about tigers in core conservation areas, but not a lot about these Tigers that are dispersing outward. So my thing is using biological data about wildlife, combined with a deep contextual understanding of a social system and what we call “social ecological systems” to create realistic conservation management plans that both benefit Tiger populations, as well as meets the needs and includes in both monitoring and planning the communities that steward critical wildlife habitat.

So as well as working on conservation yourself in your own project you also have co founded a nonprofit organisation called Project conservation that supports conservation research, can you tell us a bit about that?

SH: I don't have like an academic background in my family, I'm first generation college student. So I found at the end of my undergraduate degree, really frustrating, this language barrier between science wildlife biologists in particular in the general public, and I'm like, Where did I get attracted to wildlife and that was seeing them on TV or through media. I started project conservation with my best friend Emily Erhart who is a director, so she does all the videography stuff to kind of bridge that language gap between Wildlife Research and facilitate Wildlife Research so what's going on on the ground and bring awareness to the general public. 

Ashwini Would you like to introduce yourself? 

AM: Yeah. Hi, I'm Ashwini, and I'm a PhD student in Germany, working on a geckos in the Indian Ocean islands, they are those bright green coloured really pretty ones, and they’re exclusively an islands group of geckos, they have only reached different islands, and they diversified after reaching those islands so I'm trying to understand that through population genetics, some evolutionary ecology work where we're trying to understand the dietary niches of different species with the sympatric species communities, and a little bit of

comparative phylogenetics. 

So your field site for the last few years has been Andaman Islands?

AM: Yes Yes, I've been working there for several years now, I was doing my master's thesis in the Andaman Islands working on a freshwater snake. I was extremely interested in understanding how freshwater organisms dispersed between different islands especially because these are continental islands that were once connected to each other. So, that got me really interested in the Andaman Islands, it's a nice system to work with.

Have you always had a passion for reptiles, or did that develop as you began your research career?

AM: I grew up in a really big city with more than 8 million people so I had very little exposure to reptiles as such, except house geckos right, they’re really drab looking! So when I first had the opportunity to get out into the forests that are surprisingly still extremely biodiverse despite the fact that we have so many people around it, I was exposed to all these snakes and lizards and somehow they were the first group that really attracted me. I think I was trained as a naturalist and I started identifying things and I got into taxonomy and then slowly I got into the evolutionary side of it. Yeah, so it's been sort of a long journey from there!

Okay, so let's dive into our main topic for today's discussion. All across the northern hemisphere, at least, people are starting new masters or PhD programmes, and in the southern hemisphere that will start in a few months of course, so I thought this was a good opportunity to share what will inevitably be a range of experiences between us of starting a PhD. And what we learned along the way and what advice we'd give to people starting now. So Sam I think we have to start with you because you've literally just started your PhD in very odd circumstances, I'm sure. So how has that been going?

SH: I'm gonna keep it real and, you know, be very vulnerable this moment: it sucks. When I was applying for PhD programmes last year it was definitely not my dream to be starting, moving to a new place and new university, new faculty, new bureaucracies, in the middle of a global pandemic. And I say this because I know that there are other students like me that are going through the same thing, my anxiety has been a 15 out of 10, the past 48 hours and varying degrees past couple months and I want other students that are in this situation to know that it's not 100% Okay, all the time.

So what does your day to day look like at the moment?

SH: My day today is waking up, trying to keep to a schedule, so I have synchronous classes, only on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but I'm taking like an online stats course which takes, there's online lectures, it takes a lot of time, so trying to do school stuff sometimes broken up throughout the day every weekday and then I give myself the weekends if I can, to either work on grants and writing and other projects or give myself a day to just decompress because walking back and forth in your own apartment alone in a new city is enough to make me want to pull my hair out!

Ashwini you're I think the only one of us that moved the country to start your PhD, well I went from Scotland to England but that's not quite the same as moving from India to Germany. So how did that shape your experience of starting a PhD or or how was that process for you.

AM: It was really exciting initially because I honestly had no idea what I was getting into. I've met a lot of really nice people here, and Germany has been really nice, in the sense you know having a good work life balance. I only work on the weekends when there are like really urgent deadlines on one day and things like that. Otherwise, there's no push for working on Saturdays and Sundays. You're not really treated like a student, you're treated more like a person who is also working alongside everyone else like a postdoc, because we don't have coursework so from day one, it's only research so that's something I think it was new to me. And so far it's been great.

Yeah, there are some commonalities I think with my experience, I did my PhD in the UK at Cambridge where there was no taught element to my course so I didn't have to do any classes so it was just straight into research, which was good, and I also enjoyed that, but I think it meant that my time was really unstructured and actually that was quite difficult to get used to, that was harder to get used to than I had anticipated it would be. My PhD was

Overwhelmingly a very positive happy experience. But when I was prepping for this podcast. I was thinking more critically about those first few weeks and how I'd found that and actually remembered a lot of bumpiness. I think I went into it quite naive about what research entailed, and realised quite quickly that the project that I plan to do was not going to be feasible. So it was stressful to begin with. I mean I started my PhD… scary to think about it but it was coming up to 10 years ago! And back then there was not the social media community, and there wasn't the same emphasis on prospective students going and speaking to other students in the lab or asking thoughtful questions of the supervisor, so I showed up. And looking back I was quite unprepared. Yeah, I was unprepared for I had different my PhD supervisor would be for my undergraduate supervisor, we ended up getting along really well, worked well together, but I just wasn't prepared for his style of supervision to begin with, and that caused some stress to begin with, definitely. Dani you also did your PhD in the UK, how was your experience?

DR: for anyone that's not super familiar with the UK I moved from the north of the country to London, and it's not quite a cross country move, but the difference in living costs is like, I just can’t even describe it, my rent tripled when I moved here, and I was on a PhD salary which is 16,000 pounds a year with some of the highest rents in the world so that was a shock.

My PhD was really my first experience of fully independent living because I was quite young, I went straight from undergrad to PhD, and during my undergrad had lived in a catered residence. So yeah, I also have memories of making a pint at wetherspoons last for several hours because I was so poor. Okay, we're going to switch gears a bit, and be agony aunts for the next bit of this section. I reached out to listeners on social media to see if they had any questions or things that they'd like us to talk about so I'm going to give you some of those now. First off, a recent graduate on Twitter asks, could we share our thoughts about applying to grad school this year versus waiting a year in their words “due to the whole global pandemic thing”. So Sam I’m going to punt this one to you first. Was deferring your start date something you considered, or would you have done that in retrospect? 

SH: I don't think I would have deferred, just because I think I like to be busy. Despite the challenges of being a starting PhD online. I know that I keep moving in this direction and get field projects off the ground. My advice is always reach out to potential advisors and get your name in there and just start talking with them because, and just getting a feel for what that programme is like, and asking them about what the temperature is in that programme in this moment, because I think a lot of schools and departments are showing their colours, and you don't want to be signing up for a graduate programme in a university that isn't going to have your back.

DR: The first thing I would say is you don't only get the first one you apply for, I applied for loads. I’d say it’s just worth applying because at least you get some feedback on your application, even if you don't get it. That's always super useful. But the other thing I would always consider and I was always considering when I was applying for PhDs is kind of like what's your financial situation? there's a weigh up with a PhD - the salary is not very good, but it is guaranteed for three to four years, so I think it will depend on that.

That was the first thing that came to my head - if being able to do the PhD is going to rely on additional income that might not be there in this climate, then that might be something that some people need to think about. Ashwini any thoughts on that question? 

AM: As a PhD student, international PhD student, you could still start, maybe long distance but you can always start. I mean if you're really into research and if you want to continue in academia, you can also start your own research project, you can start applying for funding agencies, get some kind of independent funding that you could in the future convert into a PhD. That's something I did because in the first year I wrote to more than 26 professors and nothing really worked out. So I started an independent project and I said if it works, it works, otherwise if you have a project go on and then the next year I only applied to one and I got it. So this is something, that I could continue with the project and half my PhD data actually came from that project which is, it kind of worked out in the end but yeah at that point I was really stressed out! It's easy to say no but, but you should still keep going, I would say.

Okay, so, Sarah on Twitter asks, do we have any tips on establishing good organisational habits early on at the start for a PhD,? that is like the unanswerable question…

DR: I got this, I got this because I am, I'm known for being organised somehow ,somehow, but in my head I am in complete disarray, which is why I'm so organised. I have to be otherwise I just nothing is going to get done at all. So I would just say: lists are your friends, make lists of everything, that's just number one. Number two, make sure you map your research out and do it regularly because things change super often. Then I would say get folders set up in email, get some folders in there, put things in by topic so you can find them, and sort them out once a week, Monday morning I sort my emails out. This sounds really excessive but I have to do this otherwise everything descends into disarray! My other tips are just give yourself admin time, you need admin time to stay organised, if you don't spend any time on admin, that's when stuff gets lost and you forget about things, things don't get done on time. And then I guess just if you have any deadlines try and get it done early. I know we get told that from school but I find that really helpful, else I'm just like a ball of stress. So, yeah, I think just spreadsheets can be useful find a system that works, could be folders, I handwrite all my lists, and I have a paper diary, some people might be like “there’s more exciting tools to use” but it works for me.

Yeah, I also have used a worksheet, somebody posted on Twitter, I will try and find it… Yes. Yeah, Kevin Burgio’s spreadsheet [*NOTE! THIS SPREADSHEET WAS ACTUALLY CREATED BY CARRIE CIZAUSKAS – SEE EPISODE NOTES*] to track your projects. That's my Monday morning ritual is to open that up just think about which projects are falling behind or where I need to focus, and then I try and give myself just two or three tasks in a week because if you end up with a tonne of tasks on your to do list and you'll just feel rubbish if you don't get it done,.Ashwini what keeps you organised?

AM: I'm definitely not as organised as for both of you! But when I started my PhD I was taking some courses and something that I started doing: I use a OneNote. And I sync this Microsoft OneNote across different computers, my laptop, my desktop in the institute and everything so every time I have an idea – oh and on my phone - I'm always putting it down there. I think that's the maximum organisation that I can spend my time on because like you said it's really boring to do that. I also made excel sheet, and for example if I'm writing to someone, if I'm applying if I'm writing to potential supervisors I always make an Excel sheet of when I wrote to them, which Institute are they in, so when I look at it, I'm like, Okay, this is done and then I have to go forward with the certain professors…

That actually sounds very organised!

AM: But writing things down and giving your Monday mornings to actually organise, I never do something like that and I always regret later because when I look back, it looks like

all over the place.

DR: yeah I just find it's a result, the reason I do it is it's almost a result of disorganisation because there's always stuff I've missed, a week where I owe someone a response or I owe someone some work or, you know, so then I catch it before it's like too late, so it seems organised but it's just how I avert disaster when I inevitably open an email read it and then immediately Forget about it!

Does anybody have any other last organisational tips? 

DR: if anyone's doing coding just my organisational tip is to sort of make it reproducible, make it commented, R markdown is a really useful tool if you're using R, or GitHub. Just get it on there because otherwise you're coming back to a giant mess of code, and you will regret it later, put the time in at the start to make it accessible, that's, that's my code organising tips, I do not follow them my code is not as well organised as my inbox! 

That's a very good tip, and also something that I strive for and then usually end up when somebody says, “Oh can you just send me the code for that” and I’m like ARGH and then go through and annotate everything! So it is worth putting the time in at the start. So we also had a couple of questions about work hours, unsurprisingly: what is normal, what to do if your supervisor has different expectations to you, etc. I don't want to put you on the spot but roughly how many hours a day do you think you do? 

DR: Eight. But I have another job as well so I don't want to like be like, I get my books and my job done in eight hours, you know people say oh, have you never worked a 60 hour week?, obviously I have, because I wrote a book and did my PhD at the same time but I couldn't work like 80 hours, I couldn't work 80 hours on two jobs I don't know how people claim they do it on one!.

I always tried to stick roughly to a nine to five, when I was going into the office. I think just because I needed that structure in my day. But, like anybody who works a nine to five job. You're not doing intense number crunching writing or whatever, from 9am until 5pm.

SH: My days are very varied. Some days I'm working four hours and other days I might work, 10, and I will also say I am somebody who's completely unproductive in the morning. So I get up early to have that time for me and to procrastinate all morning and then I work, you know, sometimes noon to eight o'clock at night because that's when I've gotten everything out of my system, and I can be productive and I know that about me and that's what works.

I think the thing is that it is really individual isn't it? in most places it’s really flexible and you can work the hours that are, that work for you, which is amazing. I think when I started, I felt a bit pressured to work the hours that everybody else, worked. So if I got in a bit late, you know some people would occasionally be like, “Oh, you know, nice of you to join us”. And it took me a while to actually not be bothered by that. 

AM: There were people who always worked a lot and I felt like I also have to do it just because it would look weird if this one person just leaves at six or 630 and everyone else was there until nine or 10, but sitting there for me I was not even doing something productive! and then I stuck to my own timing, and like sitting in an office doesn't always really reflect how much work you’re doing. 

Yeah, absolutely. And I think also, don't be fooled into thinking that the hours that you work reflects your enthusiasm or your passion. So lastly I had a question over Instagram looking for advice on stopping and restarting a PhD if things don't work out with the original project. I don't think that's something that any of us have direct experience of. So I'll broaden that to say what would you advise somebody who started a PhD, and is maybe having second thoughts for the project.

DR: I think it depends on why they would be having second thoughts because if it's about the research, then I think you can go to your supervisor, and maybe negotiate taking the project in a different direction. Don't be afraid to push back if you think an element of the project is too much or not going to work out or you just don't find it interesting. But on the flip side, I would say, if it's a problem with the supervisor, then maybe look into what mechanisms, there are for doing that with that within your university because you might be able to swap supervisors or swap universities as well.

SH: And, or get a co advisor. So you have someone else to lean on, maybe you can't just completely jump and leave but if it's a toxic environment, get out of there.

And don't feel like a failure if you actually decide that it's not worth continuing. Okay so final question. What was the best piece of advice that you received when you started your PhD, or is there any advice that you would give now?

DR: I feel like I'm just harping on about money but people said to me, take side jobs and save up as much money as you can because it's hard to finish up your PhD and apply for jobs at the same time, that six months between my PhD and starting my postdoc, I was so burnt out, finishing my PhD, written my third book, I was exhausted and I, I would have really struggled to go straight into a job so thank you to everyone that advised me to take on all these weird side hustles because it saved me, and also other jobs give you other skills, and I've really, really benefited from that. So, 100% recommend, weird teaching, articles, whatever you can get paid for. 

Ashwini any good advice that you got, or would like to pass on?

AM: the best advice I think I've got so far is learn to say no: when you can't do it, when you don't want to do something, when you don't want to work on something that you're not interested in, or whatever. Say no to ideas that you don't want to do, don't be shy to say no.

Great advice. I'm still working to say no to things but yes I will now have your voice in my head, adding to that. Sam? 

SH: I got great advice from one of my master's advisors in learning how to set boundaries between work and home, and this is difficult tight now since a lot of us are working from home but having physical spaces, this is where I work, and this is where I relax because that commingling is not good for your mental health, you need to be able to just step away and be yourself the human being outside of this working academics are creating those work home. Balance spaces and set boundaries in that. 

Super important at the moment, I found that just having a separate desk for work that wasn't in my bedroom was massively important. I think the best advice I got was probably in my first couple of days of my PhD, a postdoc in the research group I was working in just said, don't struggle with something for more than half a day. If it's code, statistics, a paragraph, whatever, try and figure it out on your own, but if you’re working on it for more than half a day then, just ask somebody because you don't need to know all the answers. That's not the point of a PhD and actually as I've learned since then, nobody ever knows all the answers.

DR: and I would add to that, especially in pandemic times if you can't ask someone in your lab or people might not know the answer - So I was working on stuff that like Neither of my supervisors, really did a lot of work on - You can always ask the internet and Twitter in particular will come through for you!

Any other thoughts before we wrap up? 

DR: Just like good luck to any incoming PhD students. This is a tough time, it’s more important than ever to kind of keep those networks strong.

SH: Yeah. I also really appreciated you saying that you loved your PhD experience, that you had a good experience because all I got inundated with, when I was starting was like “buckle up. It's awful”. And that is so terrible, like I am wanting to enjoy this and I think other graduates are too, don't tell people that! don't tell graduate students that! tell them that it's going to be good and that's going to be okay, there's already enough going on. So thank you for saying that!

Yeah, odd circumstances, but things will get better, you will still have fun. You will still learn a lot and you will still do great research. So, yeah, good luck to everyone starting it. 


If you've just started a Graduate Programme, or will do so in the coming weeks, I'd love to hear how you're getting on. Drop me a line at and let me know if we've missed anything that you'd like to hear about that will help you get started. Best of luck. 


And that's our episode! As always, thanks to all our guests. Their info as well as any links we've mentioned including Erin’s paper will be in the Episode Notes on the website. The podcast has received funding from the British ecological society. Be sure to check out their website for grants and funding opportunities. Membership is really worthwhile.

I'll be back in a few weeks with some more brilliant guests. So in the meantime, stay safe!

Dr Dani Rabaiotti
Paper in Focus: Dr Erin Kane
Elevator Pitches
Roundtable discussion: starting a PhD! With Dani, Sam Helle and Ashwini Mohan