Saturday 5 April 2014

Conferences, PhD routes and funding for postgrad students!

So, I've been at it again... I'm sure all lobsterologists out there (and my close friends!) will have heard that the 10th International Conference and Workshop on Lobster Biology and Management (10th ICWL) is coming up, and this year it is in Cancun, Mexico. Aside from the amazing location, this is a 'must attend' conference for me, since it only happens every two years and as I am in the final year of my PhD I feel like it is a very important opportunity to make contacts, talk about my current work and even future collaborations. So, in true 'Charlotte' style, I have been on the hunt for travel grants..

'More grants?!' I hear you all ask... but yes, really, this is how I get by. I have mentioned this before, but I am a self-funded PhD student. Whilst most of my research is funded, as I have mentioned in previous blogs, I personally do not receive a 'stipend' like most PhD students would do traditionally. This means that I have had to work part time throughout my PhD in order to pay for food, rent and personal items. Before you ask, the bank of mum and dad closed a long time ago, for which I am extremely grateful - I have learnt to be careful, self sufficient and at the same time, developing my grant - application skills!

Why start a PhD that isn't fully funded? The answer to that is slightly complicated...  I started my PhD in a rather unusual manner; after graduating in 2011, I knew that I wanted to continue studying, preferably in a research environment, after having such a great time doing the work for my undergraduate dissertation. I applied for a fully funded MRes in Aquatic Ecology and Conservation, but found out on the day of my graduation that I didn't get the funding and I knew that doing it with none and paying my own fees would be excruciating. I know Professor Rowley, my supervisor, had a really cool project lined up, so I quickly applied for an MSc by Research in Aquatic Ecology, which was a new course that came with a £3000 bursary if you were successful, in order to help pay the fees. Luckily, I was successful and my masters began technically in August 2011, a month after graduation, when I volunteered with Dr. Emma Wootton, a post doc from my lab, on a research trip to Lundy Island, which was funded by Seafish.

Fresh from graduation, sampling on a fishing boat!
I'll take a minute here to explain the differences in 'Masters' courses. All masters, unlike undergraduate, are a full year, as opposed to the usual academic year of September - June. An MSc is a 'taught' masters, which means that it is very similar to your third year of undergraduate, in the sense that it is 2/3's taught (ie. lectures and exams), and 1/3 research (a dissertation, or thesis), which usually begins around June/July. MSc's are 'graded', much like an undergraduate degree but rather as a pass, merit or distinction. An MRes is the opposite, it is a 'pass or fail' masters, 1/3 taught, usually with exams in January, after which you begin your research project, which continues until the summer. An MSc by Research is a relatively new idea, it is much like the first year of a PhD (see where I'm going with this...?), in the sense that you start your research from day one, and it continues throughout the year. You don't usually have lectures or exams, however in my case I had to sit a 'skills and stats' module, for which there was a short exam in January. The outcome of this exam does not go towards the final grade, you merely have to pass it (50% or more) in order to continue with the masters.

For me, by May, I was thoroughly enjoying my research, and finding out some really cool stuff, but I couldn't help but notice that it didn't seem to be ending. The original project was going well, but there was also some unanswered questions, and some really cool follow up work which I wanted to do. Luckily, I was able to convert my masters to the first year of my PhD, which I wouldn't have been able to do if I was doing an MSc or an MRes, so that day when I didn't get the funding to do my original choice was a blessing in disguise! Andrew, my supervisor, did warn me that it would be difficult and to think carefully before I made a decision, but that he was able to pay my tuition fees, shared with my second supervisor in the school of medicine. I took the plunge.

This is where my journey into obtaining funding began. I found out that you can get funding from Grant Giving Trusts, which are organisations who help others, be it charities, institutions, NGOs or individuals, in the form of grants. I popped down to the local library and took out a copy of the Charities Aid Foundation 'Directory of Grant Making Trusts' to make some notes. What I found was unreal - there are thousands - and while some ask for a formal application, others just request a letter. I drafted around 20 letters and sent them out, I heard back from a few, but not all and some took months, so you need to be patient. I was eventually rewarded when I received a letter from the John Mathews Educational Charity with an offer of £1500 - it was more than I could have hoped for and really helped me get through the second year of my PhD.

Obviously part-time work helps, and during the second year of my PhD I worked part time in a pub in Swansea - however, this was only for about a year as I was tired all the time and when I couldn't get time off to go to an important Shellfish Association of Great Britain conference, I had to quit. I demonstrate within my department, which means helping out in undergraduate practicals, on field trips and sometimes even guest-lecturing. I also mark work, which includes practical and field trip write ups, essays and CVs. This work is dependent upon when I am needed by lecturers, so can fluctuate; as can my work as a student Ambassador, which involves helping out on open days talking to prospective students and their parents. Work is often seasonal at the university; in the past I have helped out on the clearing helplines for admissions and worked as an ambassador at a summer school. There is always work around if you can be motivated enough to find it - I know that there will always be something around the corner, even when times are tough.

I often get asked how I obtain my funding, or how I am 'so lucky'... really there is no luck involved, just a motivation to succeed and a passion for my research. You may or may not have noticed, but I LOVE my PhD and really care about my subject, which I hope comes through in my applications. I know exactly why it is important, maybe not to everyone, but to fishermen, pathologists and seafood lovers, it is!

For those I keep promising to write a list for, here it is! To date, a list and sources of all funding I have applied for and received (and some that I am ineligible for - but definitely recommend).

Marine Biological Association of Great Britain Travel Bursary to attend their 2013 10th Postgraduate Conference at Aberystwyth University. I was given £200 to attend, which paid for travel costs and accommodation for the week. This conference was invaluable and I also attended the 9th one at University College Cork in Ireland the previous year. Loads of postgrads from all over the UK attend, there is a really informal atmosphere, definitely worth it for Masters or PhD students - a great practice for larger conferences and great to meet people in similar fields. This year it was held at the Centre for Environmental and Marine Sciences on the Scarborough Campus of the University of Hull, definitely worth a look if you are a Masters or PhD student in marine biology.

The Educational Charity of John Mathews - An award of £1500 to assist in the costs of my PhD, The Educational Charity of John Mathews encourages applications from young people seeking to build upon their talents and improve their educational and career prospects.
Society of Biology Travel Grant - A £500 travel grant towards the start up of a new collaboration between University of Prince Edward Island Lobster Science Centre and Swansea University, which is the reason I started this blog!

Climate Change Consortium of Wales Travel Bursary - A £500 travel bursary toward the start up of a collaboration between the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, and Swansea University, looking into shellfish disease affecting both European and American lobsters and how climate change may be displacing lobster populations (more about this in my next blog!)

Society of Experimental Biology via the Company of Biologists - A £500 travel grant in order to present at the 10th International Conference and Workshop on Lobster Biology and Management in Cancun, Mexico.

Challenger Society for Marine Science - A travel grant of £250, again, to assist towards costs of presenting at the 10th ICWL in Mexico.

The British Ecological Society Training and Travel Grant - I was awarded £465.92 again, to assist towards the cost of presenting at the 10th ICWL - Mexico, especially when the conference is right in the centre of the 'Hotel Zone', is an expensive place!

I also applied for, but was unsuccessful:

The Paul Kanciruk Student Travel Award for the International Lobster Conferences and Workshops - this is specifically for the ICWL conference, but if you are looking for conference funding, always get in touch with the organisers - they sometimes have money for poor students like us!

Plus, here are some which I have come across but I was ineligible for...

The Fisheries Society of the British Isles (FSBI) Travel Grants, primarily aimed at early-career scientists studying fish biology or fisheries science. Grants are to enable researchers to present their work at international scientific meetings other than the FSBI annual conference.
With most of these awards, you need to be a member of the society itself, so it's worth checking before you apply - some even request that you have been a member for a certain amount of time before you may apply. Personally, I like to have memberships with a lot of societies as it opens doors and helps you make contacts in similar fields, as well as discounts when submitting papers to certain journals (again, a big plus if you are self-funded). On top of the blog post for the Society of Biology, I have recently been asked to give a talk at the Cheltenham Science Festival - the day I arrive home from Mexico!

So there we are, another monster post - but one I've been meaning to write for a while... How is it May already? Someone told me this week that I was on 'the home straight'... I'm not sure what that meant, but it did remind me that I have huge amount to do (and write!)... to the lab!


  1. I love it!! Great blog post and title, and now that I've actually seen the movie, "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" it's all becoming much clearer to me.

  2. Oh, and by the way, I am also a lobsterologist and wish I had met you in New England. Very impressive story you have.

    1. Hi there!

      Great to hear from you - another lobsterologist, I wonder if you will be attending the ICWL? If you would like to hear more about my work, head over to my website

      Thanks for stopping by!


  3. You have done a great job on this article. It’s very readable and highly intelligent. You have even managed to make it understandable and easy to read. You have some real writing talent. Thank you.
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