Archive Philippa Rickard

(Not) climbing the academic ladder

By Philippa Rickard

As early-career researchers we navigate uncharted waters in the pursuit of a PhD. Really, that is the whole point of a PhD; to train us to push the boundaries of knowledge, and to ultimately produce a novel piece of work that expands current understanding and provides a stepping stone for further exploration (of a very niche area). All sounds very noble, doesn’t it?

In reality, postgraduate research is a juggling act. We are the whole package: laboratory technician, data analyst, teacher, writer, presenter, administrator, marketer… to name a few. And all of this before our career actually begins – make no mistake, a PhD is the bottom rung of a very rickety academic ladder. What awaits on the next rung is more of the same, yet with (hopefully) somewhat more attractive remuneration.

So, what? What about the next rung, and the rung after that? Where does your ladder lead?

In their 2017 Graduate Survey, Nature found that the future of early-career researchers is uncertain. It is well known that worldwide there are more PhDs produced annually than academic jobs available, but 75% of the 5,700 respondents stated that they will likely pursue an academic career anyway.

The sad reality is that only 3-4% of us will land a permanent academic position in the UK, even less in the US. A fact to which we seem blissfully unaware; nearly 60% of respondents see themselves finding a permanent non-trainee position within 3 years of completion. It is heartening that we remain passionate about what we do and want to continue doing it – that’s why we got ourselves into this in the first place, right? But do we need a reality check? Truthfully, the next rung is as wobbly as the one before.

Despite the insecurity, only 20% of respondents feel less likely to pursue a research career after embarking on a PhD. I am one of those 20%. I don’t have a postdoc plan. I’ve been told I should, but I don’t, and I like it that way. Right now, I am concentrating on the job in hand. Writing up my thesis. After that I will see where I am, how I feel, and what opportunities have come up along the way. Am I just another disillusioned PhD candidate or am I being realistic? After all being a scientist does mean having a healthy relationship with scepticism and evidence. Either way, don’t let me put you off. If you dream of that professorship, then get your head down, work hard and be lucky. But beware of tunnel vision. Gaining a PhD opens so many non-academic doors, there are other options and opportunities out there. Just look through the list of skills you have gained training as a researcher. Don’t be scared to explore them.

Nature articles:
Nature, 550, 429 (2017) doi:10.1038/550429a
Nature, 550, 549-552 (2017) doi:10.1038/nj7677-549a

Archive Philippa Rickard

Eyes to the skies

By Philippa Rickard

I don’t need to tell you about the sheer volume of rain falling from the sky recently, but have you seen the meteors? Every year, over July and August, we pass through debris from the tail of Comet Swift-Tuttle; we know this debris as the Perseid meteoroids. Most are as small as a grain of sand but some are as big as a marble, and all are travelling up to 133,000 miles per hour (that’s 37 miles per second!). They light up our skies when they are about 60 miles from the ground, as they burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere as meteors.

Swift-Tuttle is composed of ice and rock with an orbital period of 133 Earth years. Its diameter of 26 km and mass of 7,500,000,000,000,000 kg make it the largest comet to periodically orbit Earth. The last time we could see Swift-Tuttle pass by Earth with our naked eye was 1992 and the next time will be in 2126.

The 2017 Perseid meteor shower will reach its peak this coming weekend. The normal rate for this shower is 80-100 meteors per hour, but this year NASA are predicting enhanced rates of about 150 meteors per hour. That’s a few meteors per minute. Unfortunately, the fainter Perseids will be outshined by the bright light of the waning gibbous moon. But don’t despair! If you can see stars in the sky then you will see meteors.

It is certainly worth heading out to catch a glimpse of this annual phenomenon, and you will have a better chance of seeing more meteors away from artificial light. We are incredibly lucky in Newcastle, we have Europe’s largest area of protected night sky on our doorstep, Northumberland International Dark Sky Park. The shower will peak during the pre-dawn hours of 12th August, but there will be a decent show over both Friday and Saturday nights. Perseids appear to radiate out of the Perseus constellation, but you don’t need any special equipment or knowledge of the stars. Just look north-east and be patient (and maybe take along a cosy blanket, a reclining chair and a flask of tea).

Archive Philippa Rickard

The Natural Health Service

By Philippa Rickard

Urban experiences dominate our lives, with 90% of us in the UK living in cities (1). Meanwhile, the gap between us and nature widens (2). Unsurprisingly, the perception of being disconnected from each other, ourselves and our environment has resulted in poor mental and physical health (3).

Nature is filled with stimuli that involuntarily and discretely grab our attention, which provides restoration from mental tiredness (4,5). Urban environments are less restorative, because they are filled with stimuli that dramatically grab and require additional attention, like hazards such as moving vehicles (4). Think about how different it feels strolling along a countryside path to negotiating a busy street.

The benefits of a view of nature from a window have long been known and have been seen to help recovering surgery patients (6), but why is this? It can be explained from an evolutionary perspective (7), the Biophilic (attraction to nature) hypothesis (8). Due to our evolution in natural environments (7) we have an affinity with nature, not with built settings (9). We respond positively to places that would have been favourable for the survival of our ancestors (10). This positive emotion is not only an indicator of good mental health, it actually produces it (11).

For many of us our only contact with nature is through urban green spaces, such as parks (12). These spaces provide benefits such as longer life expectancy and a decreased risk of mental illness (6,13). Exercise in the presence of nature, or green exercise, is unsurprisingly more beneficial than exercise in built settings (11). Green exercise has been shown to improve self-esteem and mood (indicators of mental health and protectors against long-term physical health threats) (14). GPs have even been recommended to consider green exercise as a treatment option for anyone suffering mental distress (15).

Interacting with nature is a therapy that is readily available to us, has no unpleasant side effects and can improve our mental and physical wellbeing at zero cost4. Looking out over nature from your window or spending 5-minutes in your local park can make your day better, increase your confidence and lift your mood. Nature provides an important health service, use it.


  1. Dallimer, M., Irvine, K. N., Skinner, A. M. J., Davies, Z. G., Rouquette, J. R., Maltby, L. L., Warren, P. H., Armsworth, P. R., and Gaston, K. J. (2012) Biodiversity and the Feel-Good Factor: Understanding Associations between Self-Reported Human Well-being and Species Richness, BioScience, 62:1, 47–55.

  2. James R. Miller, J. R. (2005) Biodiversity conservation and the extinction of experience, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 20:8, 430 – 434.

  3. Nurse, J., Basher, D., Bone, A. and Bird, W. (2010) An ecological approach to promoting population mental health and well-being − A response to the challenge of climate change, Perspectives in Public Health, 130:1, 27 – 33.

  4. Berman, M.G., Jonides, J., Kaplan, S., (2008) The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature, Psychological Science, 19:12, 1207 – 1212.

  5. Roe, J. and Aspinall, P. (2011) The restorative benefits of walking in urban and rural settings in adults with good and poor mental health, Health & Place, 17,103 – 113.

  6. Ulrich, R. S. (1984) View through a window may influence recovery from surgery, Science, 224, 420 – 421.

  7. van den Berg, A. E., Maas, J., Verheij, R. A. and Groenewegen, P. P. (2010) Green space as a buffer between stressful life events and health, Social Science and Medicine, 70, 1203 – 1210.

  8. O’Brien, L. and Murray, R. (2007) Forest School and its impacts on young children: Case studies in Britain, Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, 6, 249 – 265.

  9. Ulrich, R. S. (1993) Biophilia, biophobia and natural landscapes. In: Kellert, S. R. and Wilson, E. O. (eds.) The Biophilia hypothesis, 75 – 137. Washington DC: Island Press.

  10. Kellert, S. R., and Wilson, E. O. (1993) The biophilia hypothesis, Washington DC: Island Press.

  11. Roe, J. and Aspinall, P. (2011) The restorative benefits of walking in urban and rural settings in adults with good and poor mental health, Health & Place, 17, 103 – 113.

  12. Dallimer, M., Irvine, K. N., Skinner, A. M. J., Davies, Z. G., Rouquette, J. R., Maltby, L. L., Warren, P. H., Armsworth, P. R., and Gaston, K. J. (2012) Biodiversity and the Feel-Good Factor: Understanding Associations between Self-Reported Human Well-being and Species Richness, BioScience, 62:1, 47–55.

  13. Wipfli, B., Landers, D., Nagoshi, C. and Ringenbach, S. (2011) An examination of serotonin and psychological variables in the relationship between exercise and mental health, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 21, 474 – 481.

  14. Wells, N. M., Evans, G. W., (2003) Nearby nature: a buffer of life stress among rural children, Environment and Behavior 35, 311–330.

  15. Mind (2007) Ecotherapy The green agenda for mental health, Mind week Report.

Archive Philippa Rickard

Quench your thirst for science.

By Philippa Rickard

Like a pint? Like science? Pint of Science is for you! Exactly what it says on the, erm, pint glass. Quench your thirst and hear about current science it from its source: 3 days, 4 pubs, 12 exciting topics and 24 local scientists. No prior knowledge required, just a willingness to be inspired to think… and to maybe sink a drink or two.

Over the 15th, 16th and 17th May you can explore the four themes hosted this year at four local watering holes: Our Body at The Old George Inn, Atoms to Galaxies at The Tyne Bar, Beautiful Minds at The Percy Arms and Our Society at The Town Wall.

See where you fit into how our brains work and when they go wrong, how the media treats female politicians, the paradox of technological globalisation and personal isolation, battling invisible killers, how physics affects us (there will be fire!), the future of Newcastle in industry, science and art… and much more, including live experiments, puzzles and quizzes.

Get involved with this exciting and fast growing international festival, hosted simultaneously in 100 cities across 12 countries. Last year was a sell-out in Newcastle, get your tickets quick:

Archive Philippa Rickard

Academic anxiety – you’re not alone.

By Philippa Rickard

Eureka moments typically come during the most mundane activities. Washing the dishes, cutting the grass, showering, driving. It was during one long motorway stretch that I realised surprised: “The intellectual challenge is less than I anticipated, but the psychological challenge is so much more”. I was talking about my PhD, and my post-grad peer in the passenger seat nodded enthusiastically in agreement.

The PhD experience, for me, is a perpetual swing from feeling like a dog with a ball to a cat in a bath, great accomplishment to existential angst and back again. I have lost count of the number of times that I have burst into tears in front of my supervisors; because of malfunctioning machines, workload bottlenecks, exhaustion, even just ideas for further experiments. They tell me that it’s not the be-all-and-end-all, and they’re right, it’s not. There are so many bigger things happening in the world: wars, famine, disease, poverty, climate change. In the bigger picture, at this moment, what I’m doing, what I’m stressed about doesn’t actually matter. What I am suffering is, by popular definition, very much a ‘first world problem’. While this is a well-meaning truth, and provides some much needed perspective, ultimately it undermines my anxiety and in turn intensifies the isolation.

The University bubble is very insular, and research is a bubble within that bubble. The stage of your studies doesn’t matter or whether you are dealing with exams, coursework or general university life; stress, loneliness, anxiety and unworthiness are commonplace. You are not alone. The fact that these feelings are somewhat routine in academia is not OK (and that is another story all together), but there are ways to help yourself.

  1. Talk about it. To anyone inside or outside of your university life. You are not a failure for feeling unable to cope, and you certainly aren’t letting anyone down by admitting it. You will be surprised by how many of your peers feel the same.

  2. Plan your time each day. Especially important is to plan free time. Free time is not a luxury. If you struggle to find it, write it in your diary and stick to it.

  3. Break down your to-do list, and each task, into manageable chunks. Group things into how soon they need to be done and how critical it is that they actually get done.

  4. Assign different tasks to different times of day, according to your own cycles of focus and productivity.

  5. Find your own work locations, be it a quiet office, a noisy café or at home.

  6. Sleep properly.

  7. Eat properly.

  8. Take holidays.

  9. Spend time with the important people in your life.

  10. Do what works for you and do not compare yourself to others.

Often I feel as if I am leading a double life. I keep my ‘work’ life very much separate to my ‘home’ life. Being a PhD student is not my whole identity. Actually, it doesn’t even come close to being half of my identity. I struggle the most when I have to make sacrifices in my home life to make room for academia. To mitigate this I have learned to plan my time, down to the hour, weeks in advance. First, I plan in my time dedicated to what I enjoy, which for me is my chosen sport. Second, in goes digital or face-to-face time with friends and family (who I have normally been neglecting). Then, dead last, in goes my work time in line with deadlines and other commitments. This is by no means a perfect process, curve balls get thrown that you can’t control, and dealing with those is something I’m still learning.

That is the point of all this though. Learning. Nothing is perfect, no one knows everything, and learning is a perpetual process. There is more to life than academic credit, learn to be kind to yourself.

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