Nunnery Lakes Nature Reserve. Sophie Bennett

Avoiding tunnel vision during a PhD

Sophie Bennett reflects on her recent three month placement at the BTO and the value of taking a step back from a PhD.

Sophie Bennett

Sophie Bennett

PhD Student

Sophie is a PhD student at the UK Centre of Ecology & Hydrology and the University of Liverpool researching seabird population ecology. She is a keen bird ringer and BTO volunteer and can normally be found in or next to the sea.

Relates to projects

During intensive and often solitary projects like a PhD or Master’s programme, it can be all too easy to develop tunnel vision and lose sight of the bigger picture. This was especially the case during the worst periods of the Covid-19 pandemic where outside distractions were muted or removed entirely. Seeking to prevent this for myself, and wishing to gain some additional experience outside of my own PhD, I started looking for an opportunity to try my hand at something outside my field of seabird research.

I knew several colleagues who had undertaken placements as part of their own projects and found them to be a great way to broaden their experience outside of their PhD focus area, and a valuable opportunity to gain additional experience and develop some new skills. It was with this in mind that three years into my PhD in late 2021, and after three delays due to the pandemic, I embarked on a three month placement with the BTO supported by my PhD funders (the ACCE DTP).

The placement

For the core of my placement I was working at The Nunnery with BTO’s Dr Rob Robinson and Dr Philipp Boersch-Supan to develop a model to estimate survival in a range of UK passerine species. The data we were using were derived from BTO’s Constant Effort Scheme (CES), a sub-project of the BTO Ringing Scheme now entering its 35th year. CES volunteers across Great Britain and Ireland capture birds in mist nets over the course of the breeding season (May-August) using a standardised methodology, fitting the birds with uniquely-marked metal rings, recording the birds’ age and measurements and then releasing the birds back into their habitat. In many cases, these birds will be caught again the following breeding season and identified by their ring number.

Cows around the Nunnery. Sophie Bennett
Greeting some of my colleagues on the walk to The Nunnery. Sophie Bennett 

By looking at the ‘recapture’ rates of ringed individuals over the many years of data, it is possible to calculate comparative annual survival rates of these species. Our work involved developing a model to investigate how we can interpret survival rates estimated from the scheme’s data, and whether different species groups showed different trends in survival over time. 

I had a steep learning curve to get to grips with the analysis techniques, but with some excellent support from Rob and Philipp, by the end of my placement we had developed the model sufficiently to yield some very neat results. These will inform future interpretation of survival and recapture estimates for the CES and similar schemes -watch this space for more information about our findings!

In addition to working on the CES data, I had a taste of some of the other diverse work carried out by other teams at BTO. One of the highlights of this was learning more about the incredible work done by the youth engagement team, the Youth Advisory Panel and their equipment donation scheme which provides optic equipment to young people in the UK.  I also worked with the Wetland and Marine team on the Seabird Appeal investigating the  barriers which prevent people from a diverse range of backgrounds becoming involved with seabird ringing and monitoring in the UK. Both of these additional opportunities were hugely rewarding  and it was very inspiring to see the efforts that BTO are making to improve access to ornithology for all.

BTO Archives. Sophie Bennett
The Nunnery also had some an incredible data archives to explore with data from BTO surveys going as far back as 1928. Thankfully all the data I was analysing had already been inputted! 

Reflections & some advice for those thinking about undertaking a placement

I had an overwhelmingly positive experience in all aspects of my placement and I can honestly say that my time at BTO is one of the highpoints of my PhD; I learnt a huge amount and was able to benefit from working alongside experts carrying out cutting-edge research and I experienced a great deal of support and encouragement from colleagues. 

Undertaking a placement at an organisation with its own nature reserve was another nice bonus. Sophie Bennett
Undertaking a placement at an organisation with its own nature reserve was another nice bonus. Sophie Bennett 

The biggest positive for me personally was how incredibly welcoming the staff I encountered at the BTO were. The extent to which staff went well out of their way to talk to me about my placement and put a great deal of effort into allowing me to get involved with many aspects of the BTO’s work was striking. (I promise they haven’t bribed me to say that). 

Following my experience, I would strongly recommend those in a similar position as me to take up a placement opportunity if they are able (and naturally, I think that BTO would be an excellent place to do it). 

It can be hard to know where to start when it comes to a placement, however, so here are a few pieces of advice for those thinking of undertaking one:

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  • The what and the why? As a first step you really need to think carefully about what you want to get out of a placement. One of the biggest positives of short-term placements is how flexible you can make them - you can try something completely new and outside of your comfort zone. But, first you need to draw up a shortlist of what you want to do, how this will be useful to you, and make sure it’s achievable in the timeframe you have available.
  • The who? (no, not the band) Carefully research potential placement host organisations.  You need to make sure that they can help you reach your desired outcomes from the placement and that they are a good organisation to work for. Do some investigating to see if they’ve hosted placements before and whether the experiences of these past placements match up to what you’re looking for (and talk to some of their staff if you can, to get an idea of whether the working environment is suitable for you).
  • No really, who? Specifically, research your potential supervisor too! It’s important to know that you’re going to be working with someone who is well suited to helping you achieve your goals, and who has the time to support you in your placement. They’re the person you’ll likely be working most closely with so it’s a good idea to try and make sure you’re a good match.
  • The when? Timing is key. There’s no doubt that you can get a lot out of a placement, but this shouldn’t come at a cost to your PhD, Master’s or whatever work you’re taking time out of to pursue a placement. Ideally any pause to your work should come at as natural a break as possible, e.g. after completing a thesis chapter, or after completing a field season. Managing your time in this way will ensure that it’s easy to get back on track with your work when you return after your placement.
  • The how? The really tricky one. I was very fortunate that my PhD funders were able to financially support my placement. Most individual organisations, in the environment sector at least, aren’t able to support students in this way - but it’s definitely always worth asking. If you’re not in a position where your funders can support you, but you are based at a university or college, contact your student support team to see if they can provide advice on any available grants - they will often have or know of funds to support students aiming to have these types of experiences. There are also many types of placements that are independently funded, such as the government’s POST fellowship, but these are often competitive and with early application deadlines it’s important to start looking for opportunities early.
  • Make the most of it! Take initiative in your work, introduce yourself to people, go to any events your host organisation organises, say yes to as many opportunities as you can, and enjoy it!

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