Over-whale-ming: Life as a PhD Double-Agent

For the last ten weeks, I have been living two lives.

Life 1: Sarah Marley, field biologist. Commences dolphin surveillance at 0500 hours, ceases observations at 1830 hours. Spends spare time managing an ever-increasing network of volunteer dolphin spies (aka “dolphineers”) to conduct regular river monitoring at select top-secret sites. She moves as a shadow, elusive of social situations, needless of sleep, as she begins the task of data hoarding…

Life 2: Sarah Marley, regular PhD student. Comes into the office a few days a week, and spends time reading papers, learning Matlab, teaching undergrads, and tackling a never-ending flow of emails. Existing mostly on caffeine and to-do lists, she has a desk-drawer full of snacks and several types of tea. Collects dolphin-themed desk decor.

Neither sound too strenuous. But recently, co-existence of these roles has become slightly tricky…

Sometimes study can be a bit over-whale-ming...

Sometimes study can be a bit over-whale-ming…

Life 1 is highly volunteer-dependent. My fieldwork needs at least a team of three (including myself), so my schedule varies each week depending on volunteer availability. I have an amazing team of dedicated, lovely, wonderful volunteers.  But – as I am trying to get out to each site 3 times per week – I inevitably have to spend a few hours trying to sign folk up to fill gaps. I live in constant fear of cancellations, and check my phone compulsively “just in case”.

Life 2 flows around the first; if I’m not in the field, I head to uni. But snatching office hours here and there can make it difficult to focus on larger tasks. As a result, when I make my weekly to-do list each Monday, I find myself re-writing the same few big jobs, along with a wave of new mini-tasks.

To try and combat this, I attended a time-management workshop last Friday. Which I was late for. But as a friend pointed out, I hadn’t attended the workshop yet so that was to be expected!  The presenter quizzed us on our degree courses, study habits, and sleep patterns. She assured me that “you only need four hours sleep to survive, so you’ll finish your PhD in no time“.  Funnily enough, this was not actually very reassuring.

Despite this we did pick up a few useful hints.  This week I have drafted up a timetable of activities based on how long each task takes.  Hopefully this will help me to use my time a bit more efficiently.  My New Years Resolution of getting a minimum of 7hrs sleep was becoming sadly neglected, so I’m also trying to “shut off” when I come home to make sure I’m rested enough to blast through those to-do lists the following morning! The ability to say “no” is something I’m working on improving.

I think the biggest challenge is accepting that there is only a given amount of things I can accomplish during the fieldwork phase.  This should only last a few more months, then there will be a seasonal down period, giving me plenty of time to tackle the desk-based stuff.

But I guess no one ever said being a Science Ninja was easy 😉

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