PGR Profile- Elisabeth Matthews

Name: Elisabeth Matthews

Discipline: Astrophysics (forth year, full-time)

Location: The physics building – if you don’t know it, it’s the really ugly one right on the top of the hill!

What is the working title for your research project?

“Direct imaging of planetary mass companions and circumstellar debris disks”

Can you describe your research project in more detail?

I’m trying to detect planets around other stars, using the “Direct Imaging” technique: we basically point some of the biggest telescopes in the world at some of the brightest, closest stars and then try and filter as much of the starlight out as possible to reveal the planet. I’m particularly interested in stars with lots of dust – in these we can model the interactions we expect between the dust and the planets, and hopefully find some planets.

… and can you explain it in a single sentence?

I’m searching for planets around other stars, to understand how they might be forming, and how they are related to the dust that is sometimes also present around the stars.

What is a typical day like?

I try to get in by around 8:30, although this doesn’t always happen if we’ve had an astrophysics pub trip the night before! I start by checking my emails and diary for the day, before getting down to some research. My most productive hours are early in the morning so I try and get some serious work in here: writing a few more paragraphs of a paper, debugging some code I’ve been writing or reading a relevant publication.

We break at 11am for a coffee in the interaction area – everyone from PhD students to lecturers attends. Conversations vary between serious and scientific, and much sillier topics, and sometimes we even do a Guardian crossword! Then it’s back to my desk to get a bit more work in. Since we’ve just had a coffee break, lunch is usually a quick sandwich at my desk. By about 3pm I’m starting to flag, so I do some of the tasks on my to-do list that don’t require thinking as hard – running through some routine data analysis, tweaking a figure for a paper I’m writing or drafting some slides for a talk. We break for coffee again at four, and squeeze in a bit more work before heading home, or out for the evening. I try and fit in a gym trip or a run during most days, so I’ll normally end up staying in the office a bit later to make up for the hour I took out during the day! It’s great to be in a flexible environment where I can head out and exercise whenever I like.

My evenings are pretty varied: sometimes we’ll have astrophysics pub nights or cinema trips, sometimes I’ll have a rehearsal with the university folk band or for the upcoming EUG&S production of “The Mikado”, and sometimes I’ll just head back home and relax.

What would you say is your proudest moment during your research journey so far?

The first discovery I made: just under two years into my PhD I finally directly detected a debris disk, a ring of dust orbiting the nearby star HD129590. This discovery has now led to my first paper as lead author, which was accepted back in May.

What do you like to do when you are not researching?

A good mix of activities! I like to keep active, and have just completed a half marathon. I’m also a keen climber with the University club. Outside of sport I’m a flute player, and am in a couple of university ensembles: the folk society band ‘Pigasus’, and the pit band for a university production of ‘The Mikado’. Apart from that I like to relax at home by watching terrible TV, or head out to the pub!

If you could start again, what would be your advice to yourself as a new postgraduate researcher?

PhDs can be really tough on your mental health, and I wish I had been more prepared for that. I’ve struggled a lot with Imposter Syndrome, which is where you feel like you’re not good enough, and that sooner or later someone will realise that you’re secretly really stupid and kick you out. This also lead to me having a pretty unhealthy work/life balance because I was convinced that if I stayed in the department late every evening working then I could start to make up for the fact that I wasn’t really smart enough to be here. I’ve experienced some feelings in the realm of depression and anxiety, and some mild panic attacks – although I’m lucky and have never got to the point where I’ve needed professional help. Mental health is a constant journey for me, but I’ve grown to understand my brain and the way it operates far better, and feel much more equipped to cope with some of these feelings.

If I could go back, I’d warn my 22-year old self that the Imposter Syndrome was coming, and give myself a few tips for looking after my mental health more generally.

And finally – can you explain your research project in 5 emojis?

🔭- We use some of the best telescopes in the world to collect data for my project. World-class telescopes don’t look much like this, but it’s the closest that the emoji world gets!
🌟 & 🌍- We’re looking at nearby stars to try and identify exoplanets orbiting around them.
❓ – Are there planets around the types of stars we’re looking at?
✖️- This is maybe a pessimistic choice, but so far it appears that there’s not much out there. The answer to the question that the previous emojis pose is negative. That agrees with the literature: although planets are incredibly common (latest results suggest more planets than stars in our galaxy!), the specific types of planets that we’re looking for are rare, and are hard to detect. It might sounds like a negative, but is still very important in understanding how different types of planetary systems form.

Want to learn more about Elisabeth and her research? You can view her 3 Minute thesis video or follow her on twitter @astro_lizzie

A celebration of a mid-life return to the academy

Aimiee Middlemiss Aimee Middlemiss is embarking on an ESRC funded PhD in Sociology and Anthropology entitled ‘Contested Personhood in Second Trimester Pregnancy Loss in Britain.’ In this blog post Aimee shares her experience of returning to academy after being out in the world as a BBC Radio 4 producer, a Truro College Anthropology teacher, and a mother. That last one is ongoing…

It’s twenty years since I first left academic life and set out into the world. A brave new world in which Labour had just won its first general election for years. A world in which dial up internet was chirpily starting to link people’s homes. A world in which salaries rose every year, and where paid temping was a good way into the BBC, and London rents could be afforded by a couple of university graduates who weren’t picky about a mouldy bathroom wall and the odd bit of rodent activity. A time, in retrospect, of brightness and hope for the future.

For me, the move out of the academy was a step into that brightness and hope. Studying Social Anthropology at Cambridge at the same time as my parents’ divorce, I had spiralled into a bleakness which still colours my memories of undergraduate days. At home, everything had fallen apart and anarchy ruled. At university, the big fish from a state school was uncertain and minnow-like, afraid of having her head snapped off by a fearsome academic, trying to swim fast enough to keep up with the other faster, sleeker fish who seemed to be from some altogether other school.

Aimee Middlemiss- on achieving her Undergraduate

Aimee receiving her Undergradaute degree

And then the subject matter. Anthropology as a route to nervous breakdown. How to live, when others live so differently? How to build your own morality, when you know morality to be contingent? How to know what is real, when everyone claims something different, and they are probably all right? How to have the right to speak about anything, ever, as a young woman of privilege who knows nothing at all? Hovering in the shallows, the difficult questions threatened to pull me into the depths.

Easier by far to leave, skipping into that hopeful world outside the university where the music was loud, and the city lights bright, and the chances were things could only get better.

Aimee Middlemiss- on the day aimee got the PhD offer

Aimee in Exeter when receiving her PhD offer

And yet I’m back. Two decades on, I just spent a year completing a Master’s in Science and Technology Studies, and now I’m starting my PhD in Sociology and Anthropology. Drawn back in by the very uncertainties and big questions which pushed me out, my work has themes of boundary disruption, life and death, kinship and embodiment, meaning, uncertainty, change and power. It turned out that the bright world outside was made up of that stuff too, it wasn’t just in academia that the waves kept on breaking. But out there, in the bright world, you can feel you are hovering just on the edge of something bigger which needs time, and space, and the like-minded shoal around you to go a bit further to see what is there. And then, coming back in, it seems those big academic questions from twenty years ago are still there too, in the university, about representation, reality, partiality, and situatedness. Really, one of those swifter fishes might have resolved things, while I was away.

But this time into the academy, there is a change. Something has grown, in the interval, in me. Over those two decades, and two careers, a husband, children, a life built in places where I don’t come from but can still belong, something has taken root. I am grounded now in the adult world, and despite knowing its contingent, constructed nature, there is freedom there. I don’t need to resolve everything, I can live with uncertainty and partial knowledge. Middle age has brought perspective. I know what I want to do, and I have some plans for how to do it. I know now things may not get better, and I am, as are we all, on borrowed time, but instead of despair and a retreat from the deep, the hope is to have a quick dive down before that time runs out…

Written by: Aimee Middlemiss
@almiddlemiss on Twitter


PGR Profile – Imogene Dudley

Welcome to our new PGR Profile series! Get ready to meet our first PGR – Imogene Dudley.

Imogen Dudley

Name: Imogene Dudley

Discipline: History (third year, full-time)

Location: Practically living in my Queens office, it seems!

What is the working title for your research project?

“Women’s waged work in the south-west of England, 1500 – 1700.” It is very vague and will probably change!

Can you describe your research project in more detail?

I am researching women’s waged work in the south-west of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I use household account books from the period to explore what tasks women were paid to do, how much they were paid and in what format, and how the life-cycle and family networks had an impact on women’s working lives. Specific research questions involve the gender division of labour, the gender wage gap and the effect of marriage and childbearing on female employment.

…and can explain it in a single sentence?

I explore the issues relating to women’s work in the early modern south-west counties, such as the gender division of labour, wages and the impact of the life-cycle on female employment.


What is a typical day like for you?

I leave my flat at 8:30am to walk to the Streatham campus, meaning that I am sitting at my desk, eating porridge and answering emails, by 9am. Our office is sociable, and it is a nice working environment. The work I do is mainly related to my PhD and involves data transcription, data analysis and actually trying to write! I will also be writing conference papers, planning teaching or engaging in my responsibilities as History PGR Liaison Rep and co-Editor of Ex Historia (the History PGR journal and seminar series) – the latter two positions involve a lot of emails! I maintain a fairly regular working day, with a half-hour break for lunch with other members of the PGR community in the Queens SCR, and usually head home at about 6pm, to make tea and spend time with my partner and the pet cat.

What would you say is your proudest moment during your research journey so far?

I would say it was definitely receiving the email that told me I had succeeded the interview and was being awarded the studentship and three years funding – either that or passing the upgrade, which was a big step for me.

What do you like to do when you are not researching?

Nothing that out of the ordinary, I’m afraid! I enjoy books and television (mainly historical fiction, fantasy and period dramas). I also like exploring the countryside, visiting new cities and heritage sites, travelling abroad when I can, socialising with my friends (with or without a glass in hand), shopping, meals out, dancing and the occasional cross-stitch project.

If you could start again, what would be your advice to yourself as a new postgraduate researcher?

Have an organised system for note-taking, not only for your project, but also for meetings and training courses. I found having separate notebooks for things really helpful as you always know where notes are – one for any thoughts and notes to do with the PhD, one for supervision meetings, one for training and career development, one for conferences. This is something I wish I had done earlier!

And finally – can you explain your research project in 5 emojis?

  1. 👩‍-Woman emoji – the focus of my thesis is on women!
  2. 💷 -Pound signs emoji – the wage aspect of my thesis.
  3. 💪- Strong arm emoji – this reminds me of Rosie the Riveter and therefore women working, also labour more generally.
  4. 👪- Family emoji – this relates to how women (and men!) often gained employment through their family connections, and how marriage and childbearing can affect female employment.
  5. 📚 -Book emoji – to represent the household account books which are my sources!

Want to learn more about Imogene and her research? You can look at her research profile, or follow her on twitter @imogene_dudley!


What do you want to do after you finish your research degree?

what am i doing with my life

Although a lot of us may feel like this (sometimes daily!), carefully developed career management skills could really help.

But what makes someone good at managing their career?  I always pose at the beginning of my career management sessions, and without fail it elicits an interesting discussion. This enables me to offer some structure and advice, and introduce a framework based on research – the Career Development Cycle. Based on the DOTs model (Law & Watts, 1977, 1996), the Career Development Cycle offers a step by step approach to career decision-making:

career planning

Step 1 – Understanding and developing self- awareness:

Giving yourself time to reflect on who you are, what you’re good at (and not so good at!), and what is important to you. This provides a solid foundation for future career decisions. What do you want your working life to look like? What does work life balance mean to you are all good questions to ask yourself?

Step 2 – Exploring and researching opportunities:

As professional researchers this should be an easy one!!! Effective and proactive research can introduce you to roles that you didn’t know existed.  You could just apply for advertised jobs, but approximately 70% of jobs are NOT advertised so developing those professional contacts, through research, will be prove vital (plus help you get past the glossy marketing speak and find out what jobs and organisations are really like).

Step 3 – Decision making and prioristising:

We all make decisions in different ways. Some of us are naturally more risk takers than procrastinators. An awareness of what works for you is key to move from feeling trapped, to moving forward step by step  (however slowly!) with your career decision making – cue action planning!

Step 4 – Transition planning:

Aka surviving the “Recruitment Game”!!! It is competitive out there but if you know the tricks of the recruitment game, you will be successful. There is a real art to producing an effective CV, a succinct cover letter and performing well whilst under intense pressure during an interview – you just need to know the rules and tricks of the trade.

Of course a theory that blows this all out of the water is John Krumboltz’s “Planned Happenstance”, which suggests that indecision in career planning is beneficial as it enables an individual to be more open, take advantage of unplanned opportunities, be more curious  and be more adaptable to the ever changing world.

Do you want to engage in the discussion and explore your Career planning style?   Then sign up for my Career Planning: Where Your Doctorate Can Lead session on Tuesday 17th October from 10am-12.30pm. You can find out more and book your place on My Career Zone.

And don’t forget – we are building up the Career Management resource on our ELE page too!

Written by: Kate Foster- Researcher Development Careers Coach

Kate Foster

Meet Malaka- Vice President for PGRs in the University of Exeter Student Guild

Malaka- Guild President

My name is Malaka Shwaikh, a third-year PhD student in Palestine Studies. I am also thrilled to be elected as Exeter Guild’s first VP for PGR students. Very excited to be working with you to ensure that the University and the Students’ Guild are inclusive and mindful of your needs and experiences. Whenever needed, I also critically hold the University to account, on all matters of postgraduate research-related.

I am responsible for representing your views and needs to the Guild and the University, with well-being, welfare and academic as my focus. I am striving to:

  • Represent issues facing postgraduate research students at the University of Exeter, and encourages the participation of these students in the work of the Guild and the life of the University
  • Ensure that the Guild is effective in its representation of postgraduate research students within the University, and that the organisation is sensitive to the needs of the whole postgraduate community
  • Provide guidance on the Guild’s communication methods, ensuring that all relevant information about activities, support and commercial services is effectively communicated
  • Provide support for the full-time Guild Officers in representing postgraduate research student needs, and where necessary, attends relevant University and Guild meetings

My priorities this year are:

Welfare: the PhD process can be both isolating and exhausting. I plan to work with both the University and the Guild to insure better mental-health tailored facilities are available for PGR students, at all times.

Social: I am working closely with the Postgraduate Society, and working to create a new Research Committee (that you can get involved in!). I want to ensure all students are involved in social activities that are not only good for networking, but also for studying – having reasonable breaks is always the best way to have more effective studying.

Academic: I want to ensure we get the best academic experience, not only as students but also as Postgraduate Teaching Assistants (PTAs), many of whom are struggling with unfair systems like eClaims, which is also on my agenda for review.

I am also currently working on a Research Hub – a safe place to share ideas, ask questions, find relevant details, and hold me to account. I will also be publishing a monthly blog update to tell you what I have been up to, so you can comment and share your thoughts on any of my progress or any setbacks. I’m really looking forward to having some interactive discussion with you all.

To contact me about any PGR-related issues, please email me at

Follow me on twitter: @ExePGR

Viva Survivor: a drama in four acts

dr johnson(Dr) Emily Johnson is still very proud of the two letters before her name, which she was finally awarded in August. In this blog post she takes us through her end-of-PhD journey, from submission to corrections. You can continue to follow Emily’s research on twitter, or on her blog, where this post first appeared in a series called Viva Survivor.


Viva survivor: a drama in four acts


When I approached the start of my fourth year it was time to think seriously about my PhD Viva! We decided upon my examiners well ahead of time in October, as I had initially aimed to submit before Christmas (2016), but it became clear that that was a little optimistic. In the end, I had finished writing and editing my thesis by the end of March (2017), the same time as my funding ran out!

I printed my whole thesis off on a Saturday when no one would be in the Archaeology department. I camped on the sixth floor of the Laver building, by the printer, as three sets of 300 double sided pages slowly appeared. Printing was not without its dramas – a huge paper jam had me digging about desperately in the printer with a ruler!

Fig 1

Figure 1: Printer jam of epic proportions

Packed in a cardboard box, I took all copies of my thesis to the Print Shop for binding on Monday morning, then handed it in at the SID desk! Finally, the thesis was submitted!

Fig 2

Figure 2: The relief of thesis submission!

Viva Prep

Months of intense work suddenly ended, and I faced something of a crisis of self identity. Who was I if I wasn’t working furiously on my thesis? I decided I needed a holiday, and there was plenty of time between submission and my viva at the end of May. Viva prep tip #1: GO ON A HOLIDAY

Fig 3

Figure 3: Four nights with all-inclusive cocktails in Tenerife with my sister? Perfect.

I returned to the department 6 weeks before my viva to start prepping in earnest, and immediately was embroiled in DRAMA. My Internal Examiner had a forty-page section of my thesis twice, meaning my External Examiner could be missing those forty pages! In the end, all pages were present and correct, but for a while my thesis was 565 pages ± 40.

Fig 4

Figure 4: One of these theses is not like the others…

Mild crisis over, I started my prep.

Firstly I caught up on scholarship and reread the thesis, making notes of any corrections I would want to make.

I composed responses to generic and specific thesis questions, including my ‘nightmare’ questions that I didn’t want to be asked. Having thought about what I would say made me more relaxed about this!

I put post-it notes at the start of each chapter in my thesis making it easy to turn to key places in my thesis during the viva.

I planned what I was going to wear – comfortable, but professional – and regardless of outcome I knew I would need a drink with my friends after my viva, so I booked a table for dinner.

One of the most useful things I did was practise describing my thesis in different amounts of time – in one sentence, in five minutes, and then in fifteen. The first thing they asked me in my viva was to describe what I did, and so it was great to have all my thoughts in order.

My absolute top tip is practice saying things aloud. You may feel like you sound a little silly talking to yourself or a willing/unwilling test subject, but you’ll be glad that you’re able to respond to questions and talk about your thesis coherently when you get to the viva!

The viva!

The day of my viva dawned bright and sunny. I got up and caught the bus to campus, and sat at my desk reading through my discussion and generally getting all nervous and tense the closer it got to 10am. I scoffed a cereal bar, knowing I’d be hungry (the viva could last for hours!) and filled up my water bottle. On my way back to the office I bumped into my External Examiner, who I’d never met, and helpfully pointed him towards the restroom! The ice was somewhat broken after that!

My viva was held in my internal examiner’s office, which I was really pleased about, as the atmosphere was friendly yet professional, and I was in a building I was familiar with. The first thing my examiners told me was that I had passed with minor corrections! YESSS! They then asked me to talk about my thesis, and I relaxed into the viva. All my prep meant the description just rolled off my tongue, and I could almost sit back and listen to myself talk, occasionally thinking “oooh nicely put, Emily” with my second thoughts!

We then went through my thesis chapter by chapter, picking out a few errors and clarifying a few things. Some of the questions they asked me I had prepared for (WIN) but they didn’t ask me my nightmare questions, thank goodness! I still was glad I prepared for them.

Finally (after 12 case studies) we reached my discussion chapter. I think they were glad to get to it after so many case studies, and had little to say about it apart from how well it summed up the thesis. We chatted some more about my work and the implications, and suddenly my viva was over – it had been 2 hours! Let the celebrations begin!

Fig 5

Figure 5: I passed my viva!!


Several hangovers later I started to work on my corrections. I had minor corrections, related to both content and format. Some of them I could carry out fairly quickly – for example, I had to ensure all my graphs had axes titles, something I could do swiftly by tabbing through graphs and using keyboard shortcuts to edit them. A few other quick edits were clarifying my role on the overarching project, and what I did not do as part of my thesis. I added a few missed references and explanations, and clarified some sections.

Fig 6

Figure 6: Doing your corrections is a great excuse to buy a new notebook.

Other corrections took longer. The most tedious was adding raw proportions after each percentage – so I had to change 10% to 10% (1/10). I had total values in associated tables and charts but my examiners wanted it to be more obvious and immediately accessible. There were over 800 percentages in my thesis, not to mention p values, and I had often calculated my percentages as one formula, so I didn’t have values to hand. This meant it took quite a long time!

In doing these corrections I actually found several instances where my formulae were incorrect! I was mildly horrified that I hadn’t noticed these errors, although with thousands of formulae used to analyse my twelve bone assemblages it’s hardly surprising that some slipped through. I was glad of my corrections then as it gave me time to rectify some errors and redraw the offending graphs, and in some cases, edit my explanations. Nothing too major to affect the thesis conclusions of course!

The submission of my corrections was almost more scary than submitting the actual thesis for the first time! I knew that if there were mistakes in this one (even if they were not picked up by the examiner) then they would stay in my thesis for all eternity. So with trepidation I sent a highlighted copy of my thesis in to be looked at by my internal examiner, and she approved the corrections within a week! I then had to upload the thesis to the Exeter University online repository, and about a week later received an email confirmation of the conferment of my degree, addressed to Dr Emily Johnson. My PhD journey was over!