PhD in a pandemic

It’s been an interesting few months, globally and personally, and I haven’t had the time for this blog that I would have liked. But things are settling down (personally), at least for now, so it’s time for an update.

When Covid-19 hit the UK in March, I was in the process of writing up my first analytical chapter (of three), and was in early planning for the second. The write up was a really challenging process; I’ve written it as a paper for submission, and as with many other stages of this doctorate, I hadn’t done that before so it was a real challenge. It is nearly done now, and I’m very proud of it. We have some really interesting and new Fody behaviour to analyse and present and I think I have succeeded in communicating that. Pretty soon it will be ready to submit, and then I might see my name and my science in print. More on that later.

Leo’s school closed in March; and suddenly I became a homeschool teacher, on top of everything else. Tom had been working from home for a couple of weeks, and his employers are very flexible, so we-organised the day. He started work at 8; I homeschooled for the morning and then made lunch. At 1, Tom stopped work for a 2-hour lunch break and took over looking after Leo and I shut myself away and did PhD for two hours. At 3 we swapped back again- Tom went back to work and I took over with Leo and whatever remaining schoolwork we had to do that day. Two hours a day is not tons, for doing a doctorate, and I did (briefly) consider suspending until Leo was back at school. But in the end I was very glad that I didn’t, as it turns out that two hours a day actually works really, really well for me and I’ve made a huge amount of progress, both in terms of the thesis chapter and my own scientific development and knowledge.

My first chapter was about quantifying reproductive behaviour of the Fody, which eventually we unified under a single metric of ‘non-breeding time’, which is simply a total of the available days in each breeding season that each bird is not engaged in breeding behaviour. The results showed that birds able to minimise their non-breeding time had greater fledgling productivity than their peers who waste more time. The second chapter considers variation in this metric; some birds have very little non-breeding time (and lots of fledglings) and others have a lot (and fewer fledglings). There are many, many potential reasons for this, and we looked at two different types of factor. The first affect all birds equally; population density, sex ratios, and environmental and climate factors. The second are individual and affect birds differently; age, territory quality, and social network. I’m still collating the results, but it’s nearly ready to be written up, and some of the results are fascinating. More on that when it’s complete.

I have learned a whole host of new statistical methods in R to build a picture of how these seasonal and individual factors play into non-breeding time and reproductive success. My data is nested; I have multiple observations of the same individuals across seasons, and variance partitioning tells me whether non-breeding time varies more across seasons or between individuals. Repeatability analysis compares each bird’s performance against the seasonal mean, and tells us if birds are generally good or generally poor across years or whether there’s random scatter. And, my new favourite, global modelling followed by dredging and model averaging tells me which of the many factors we included are most significant in influencing each bird’s non-breeding time.

There’s a lot of detective work in this sort of science, and a lot of working out what the correct questions are; a lot of the answers are very simple, but working out the proper questions takes time and a lot of jumping through hoops. Luckily my supervisory team are excellent, and willing to take time to work out how I work and learn most effectively. As a result of their patience, and a lot of hard work, I’m still on track to finish this chapter and move on to the last one right on schedule, which is incredible. This last few months have been very tough at times, but the science hasn’t stopped.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *