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Summer Schools

February 4, 2013

Most PhD students will get at least one and often even many opportunities to attend a summer school during their studies. Are they useful? And how do you pick the best one for you – especially if you’re work falls between multiple disciplines? I’ve just taken part in my second summer school – a week long workshop run by Greenseas, which was quite different in structure to my first – a bio-optics summer lecture series in Villefranche last July (if you skip between hemispheres, it can always be summer :P)

Time is of the essence in the third year of your PhD – if, like us in SA, you only have 3 years, now is the time to be wrapping up ideas in to concise and well explained conclusions and writing chapters and papers. So a decision to take a week or two off to cram more information in to your already overworked brain is not one taken lightly. For this reason, I was a little concerned in the few weeks before last weeks Greenseas workshop. The last year has been a tough one where I’ve had to push through coding difficulties, endless hours of trying to form a coherent data set from years of inconsistent in situ data and try to understand plenty of theory rooted in complex physics. I guess this is the status quo if you want to produce “new science” as a researcher, but anyway, most PhD students I’m sure will be familiar with that feeling of being completely overwhelmed and overstretched. The thought of spending a week trying to learn more, or spend time on things not directly related to my work, was unnerving. But my last summer school had been really helpful, giving my bio-optics knowledge a much needed boost, so I determined to keep an open mind about the upcoming workshop.


The Greenseas project has a detailed list of aims but in short, the project brings together knowledge and data on phytoplankton from in situ, satellite and modelling methods and aims to make this available for answering global scale questions. My PhD research falls pretty well within this, and so I applied for the summer school as a good arena to discuss my ideas. The week started with a few days of lectures about in situ data collection methods, ocean colour remote sensing and biogeochemical modelling, with a big focus on how we can combine and assess these data sources, despite their vastly different assumptions and spatio-temporal resolutions. Lectures and practicals on statistics and data processing, supplemented these sessions, providing tools in matlab and R that would be useful for the second part of the course. Though a lot of the academic content of the lectures was not new to me, it provided a great set up to explore the statistical and data processing tools which I know will be vital for my work in the next year – the scripts provided to regrid data, extract time series and conduct meaningful statistical analysis will only need minor adjustments to apply to my data – saving me a lot of time coding!

After the first few days of lectures and practicals, we were split in to groups of 5, with at least one student with a specialism in each area of in situ, remote sensing and modelling data. Our task was to investigate a particular ocean region, using in situ data from the Greenseas data base, combined with ocean colour data and output from a model. I had previously felt this would be a waste of time, why would I want to spend days working on a region unrelated to my own? But the case studies actually proved to be an incredibly valuable experience. Though I consider myself an interdisciplinary scientist, I became very aware of how stuck I am in my own little sphere of work. Being forced to work with others, using different data sources, was a great exercise in learning how to communicate across disciplinary boundaries and recognising how to draw expertise together. A side effect of this approach, was to go someway to alleviating that most dreadful of PhD conditions – imposter syndrome. Most students (and probably many senior academics) I’m sure will admit to feeling like they aren’t smart enough or don’t deserve to be working where they are. Being able to share your skills with others, certainly makes me realise that I do have things to contribute and has given me a big confidence boost. With the pressure of a deadline, a report to write and presentation to give, I managed to develop some new skills in R in a very short time, whilst simulataneously getting lots of ideas and new contacts to help with my own work. If I ever organise a workshop, I will definitely try and bring in the case study approach used during the Greenseas summer school.


I’ve found that one of the most valuable things I’ve gained from summer schools I’ve attended, is a sense of perspective – both about the interdisciplinary field of oceanography itself and my place in it. Here’s a few things I would recommend thinking about when trying to find a suitable summer school to apply to:

Guide to picking a good summer school:

• Look for one that’s not directly in your field. If you’ve been doing your PhD for two years, the chances are you know the basics through and through already, so maybe think about looking for a school that will bring added value to your work. E.g. a workshop on statistical techniques, or one on different data sources that you could use to support your understanding of your system of interest.

• Look for one that will give you cross-disciplinary skills and tools. I may have given up a week of work for Greenseas, but the tools provided would definitely take me more than a week to develop myself.

• Home or away? I’ve attended two summer schools – one a significant distance away and one at my own university. There’s benefits and disadvantages to each. Obviously travel takes time and money, so it may be easier on your budget/schedule to attend a summer school at least in your own country. However the opportunities to network internationally are also very worthwhile. I got the best of both with Greenseas, being an international project, the students came from all over, but being held at my university made it very easy for me to keep in touch with work commitments here – much less stressful.

Do you have any experiences at summer schools? What aspects did you find most useful? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Many thanks to the Greenseas project (funded under the European FP7 Environment Program, Grant agreement no.265294), everyone who attended the course, especially the lecturing staff and my team – “baklawa”.

Also thanks to Lauren Biermann and the Greenseas team for the photos used in this blog.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Ceinwen permalink
    February 4, 2013 3:40 pm

    Nice one Hayley! I’m sorry I missed out on this one, heard the first two days of lectures were really great! Look forwarding to chatting more 🙂

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