Why doing a PhD is like gathering mushrooms


The author with her gathered mushrooms. Photo: I. Wade (Sep. 2014), taken with an Olypus Digital Camera

People in Russia love to go mushroom gathering. In the autumn months especially, people head out in droves to their out-of-town small holdings (dachas) in the evenings and weekends. Equipped with buckets or baskets, a pocket knife, and plenty of tacit knowledge about how to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ mushrooms picked up over the years from their parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, older siblings, and others, they head off into nearby woods and grassland.

One September when I was in Russia, I was invited by a friend to join her and some friends on one of their mushroom-gathering expeditions just outside Moscow.

Here are four reasons why I think that gathering mushrooms is a process similar to writing a PhD.

1. Both activities demand effort and concentration

Just as you have to focus on the ground in front of you to find mushrooms and then identify whether the mushrooms are of the edible kind, so too with a PhD.

2. You need to persevere

Don’t give up! Finding mushrooms and completing a PhD take time. Both can be frustrating at times. The rewards can be great at the end, so keep sight of the goals!


Laying out all gathered mushrooms afterwards. Photo: I. Wade (Sep. 2014), taken with an Olympus Digital Camera

3. You have to look carefully in ways and places you would not normally to get desired results

Mushrooms are good at camouflaging with the fallen leaves, dead logs, and soil. Part of the tacit knowledge about mushroom gathering (i.e. the knowledge that is hard to transmit via books or other printed media) is about where different kinds of mushrooms are most likely to be found. Some like to grow on dead logs, others under certain species of trees, and others still under dead leaves.

This photo shows a typical woodland in Moscow region – you can see there are lots of leaves, which might be hiding mushrooms!


Mushrooms can be really hidden away! Photo: I. Wade (Sep. 2014), taken with an Olympus Digital Camera

4. A solitary activity

Both gathering mushrooms and writing a PhD are essentially solitary activities. Yet it is also true that you are part of a group – whether your friends or family when mushroom-gathering or your PhD cohort in your department or school. Don’t isolate yourselves from these people as they can be an excellent support network: good company, sharing lunch or tea, exchanging advice (for example, about telling the differences between good and poisonous mushrooms), and moral support.


Giving feedback on a paper – patter

If you’re working with a writing partner, or a group, there’ll come a time when you want to give each other feedback. And you’ll want that feedback to be affirming not debilitating, and helpfully critical and not crushingly negative. Here’s a few starting points that you can consider. They are leads to help you to … Continue reading giving feedback on a paper

via giving feedback on a paper — patter

The parallels between a canoeing trip and doing a PhD

Photo of us in a canoe, 03.06.2015

Photo of us in a canoe // Photo: Chantal. 03.06.2015

At the beginning of June this year, my mum and I were lucky to be invited by our extremely sporty French neighbour to go canoeing in the Ardèche region of France. Just west of the Rhône river, the Ardèche region is a remote plateau area with an elevation ranging from 40m above sea level to 1,754 metres (Mont Mézenc). The Ardèche river has carved out some dramatic gorges as it winds its way eastwards through the area down to join the Rhône river. It is these gorges that are now a major international tourist destination, with dozens of companies offering canoe or kayak rentals. The evening before, the three of us drove the 2 hour journey in our neighbour’s camper van to the start of our canoeing descent of the river, complete with a kayak on the trailer. We pitched up right at a camping site beside the river, and bedded down for the night.

The next morning we awoke bright and early, feeling determined, energetic, and – for my mum and I – a little bit anxious about what lay ahead! We were worried that our neighbour’s view of a ‘pleasant day leisurely canoeing / kayaking 24km down a river’ would be different to our own interpretation of such a day, which involved a lot of lounging around, reading books, swimming, and sunbathing. We were right. After renting a 2-person canoe and getting a quick tutorial on the basics of paddling from my mum (who was passing on her knowledge from a recent sea kayaking holiday in Greece), we set off. A 2-person canoe and a solo kayak. The day turned out to involve going through a handful of rapids, capsizing in one rapid and losing a hat, much hot sun, and a test of our endurance.

Here is my (light-hearted) take on why a canoeing trip is similar to doing a PhD. Below I go through six reasons.

1. Both are a long journey – endurance and stamina needed

Our canoeing and kayaking trip was 24km and took us the best part of 8 hours to complete, including three breaks. I was so tired for the final stretch on the river that I felt like we would never reach the end – I began to be bored by the ‘same-old’ landscape on either side of the river and to resent every next bend in the river. Undertaking a PhD in a UK university usually requires between 3 years and 6 years (depending on your level of commitment and whether you do it full-time or part-time).

2. Rough at times

A PhD, like our canoeing and kayaking trip, can be rough at times. Both can give you euphoric feelings at times but more often feel like a hard slog. After just an hour of paddling in the canoe, I felt the beginnings of blisters on my hands (probably from gripping the paddle too hard, out of stress and uncertainty about what to do). Luckily, borrowing a waterproof glove from my mum helped. You just have to keep going and keep your final destination in mind.

We were warned by the guys who rented us the canoe that there were a few rapids and that to successfully negotiate the worst one (‘la dente noire’, or the ‘black tooth’) you should steer to the right, where the current was slower and there were fewer rocks to hit. However, our teamwork and canoeing skills (see point 6 below) were not at the level where we could manage to follow those instructions…. like around 30% of other people doing the same route as us, we went straight through the middle of the rapid and collided with a particularly big rock – and promptly capsized! My mum was at the back of the canoe, while I was in the front of the canoe and my shoulder took a bashing (which came up in a big bruise later).

Luckily, we came to no serious harm. Our life jackets kept us afloat and we allowed ourselves to be pushed downstream by the fast current, and then recovered our canoe. Our neighbour also capsized (despite her confident assertions that morning about how she ‘never capsizes!’) Sadly, she lost her straw hat which floated away to begin its own little adventure.

3. A beautiful journey – if you care to look around you


View from the road onto the Ardèche river and and gorges. // Photo: I. Wade. 03.06.2015

Doing a PhD and canoeing 24km down a river are both very intensive activities, meaning – unless you are a super experienced researcher or paddler – you need to concentrate on them and work hard to make progress.

However, if you allow yourself to keep your ‘blinkers’ on and not look around you at all, you can miss some beautiful sights. On our journey down the river, we were lucky to see soaring cliffs, birds of prey gliding above our heads, fish jumping out of the water with a ‘plop’, and we heard the songs of countless small birds in the trees and bushes.

Similarly, take time while doing your PhD to look around you, reflect, and consider the broader implications of your particular research topic – and maybe you will find new ideas and directions for your thesis.

4. Noise can be an issue

Particularly towards the end of our 24km river journey, where the river flattened out, the beaches of the river became crowded with day-trippers from the nearby towns and villages. Many of them were clearly enjoying themselves and were playing music loudly from portable radios or speakers. To us, however, their music was just noise and was in stark contrast to the silences and sounds of nature that accompanied us for the earlier part of our journey. When doing a PhD, it is also common to meet a lot of noise – whether that is noise in your data (in economics and statistics, noise means your data are inadequate for various reasons) or distractions along the way that divert your attention too much away from your thesis.

5. Longer than planned

Our super fit neighbour thought initially that we would be finished by 5pm. However, it was after 6pm by the time we managed to drag ourselves and our canoe out of the water and onto the waiting trailer and minibus that drove us back to where we had left our car. Our neighbour overestimated the fitness levels of my mum and me, and often had to wait for us to catch up with her.

Likewise, I have taken much longer than planned to write my PhD. I am now nearing the end of my 5th year as a (part-time) PhD candidate at UCL. Initially, I thought I would have submitted my thesis by January 2015. It is now July 2015 and I am still gathering data and writing. On the positive side, I have been able to experience a variety of opportunities, from spending 6 months in the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) on a policy placement via UCL (more information available here) … to doing a 3 month internship funded by CEELBAS in the online digital commons, openDemocracy Russia (more information here).

6. Teamwork is a not-so-simple necessity

Although a PhD is undoubtedly a solo venture in the sense that only you write the thing and you are the ‘driver’ of your research project, it is important to remember that teamwork also helps. From working in a team to collaborate, knowing whom to ask (and when) for help with data or access to interviewees, to working effectively with your supervisor(s) – the art of teamwork is a critical factor in being able to successfully complete a PhD. Similarly, canoeing 24km down a river relies on effective teamwork between the two people in the canoe. When you get it right, you can really feel the power of the canoe gliding through the water. Yet, if you get it wrong you end up either zig-zagging your way along the river (a very inefficient way of paddling because you have to go twice as far!) or worse, going round and round in circles. My mum and I zig-zagged a lot but also managed eventually to go straight for short distances!

Cathedral Rock_03.06.15_Chantal

Cathedral Rock // Photo: Chantal, 03.06.2015

So, on both a canoeing trip and during a PhD, it is key to define your roles clearly from the start. In a canoe, the person at the back of the canoe steers and helps out with paddling, while the person at the front concentrates on paddling evenly on the left and right hand sides of the boat to make the boat go forward. Clear, reassuring, and unstressed communication between you (and both understanding what certain key instructions – such as ‘paddle hard on the right!’ – mean) are also crucial! It took me until lunchtime to figure this out on our epic canoeing trip… by the end of the day, I had much improved (but still very much a beginner).

Overall, I strongly recommend a canoeing trip in the magnificent landscape of the Ardèche region of France – though avoid peak summer time as this is when the river is most crowded.

I hope that this short, light-hearted account has given some insights into what it is like to do a PhD. It is a journey that has its ups and downs as well as good and challenging parts!

writing where the energy is

Today’s resolution to myself is to do some free writing today on anything to do with Russian science and innovation!


The conventional writing advice offered to people who have some trouble writing is to engage in free writing. Write, usually in timed sessions, whatever comes into your head about a particular topic. Write without stopping. Write perhaps to prompts about a particular aspect of your work. Write without stopping to think, because it is the thinking that gets you into trouble. Shut off your inner editor and just write.

There are many versions and modifications to free writing. One that I like is what is called “Writing without a parachute”. Parachute-free writing, or what Barbara Turner-Vessalago calls free fall writing, is a process designed for creative writers. It has five basic tenets, three of which are easily applicable to academic writing:

1. write what comes up for you – this suggests that you don’t have a plan or prompts, you just write what comes into your mind

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Learning from the French? French competitiveness poles and Russia’s new clusters

Today I read an interesting report about a seminar that took place on December 8-11, 2014 in HSE, Moscow. It was organised by the centre for the development of a nuclear innovation cluster in the town of Dimitrovgrad, Ulyanovsk region (Центр развития ядерного инновационного кластера города Димитровграда Ульяновской области). The keynote presenter was Jean-Francois Boisson, a French businessman and the main founder of an aeronautics and space cluster called ‘Pegase’ in southern France.

The key points covered in the report are:

  • state policies and support clusters in France
  • towards financial independence for France’s competitiveness poles
  • Governance and strategy
  • Building up a critical mass
  • Attracting new companies as residents of the competitiveness poles, both large firms and small and medium enterprises

The report also has a useful map of all the competitiveness poles across France as of October 2014.

The original article can be read here: http://issek.hse.ru/news/141026538.html (published January 14, 2015)

A subjective take on the most interesting economics research about Russia in 2014

This is a rather nice list. It gives the authors, the title of the paper, and a link to the full paper. It is in Russian.


ТОП-14. Самые интересные экономические исследования 2014 года, посвященные России


Here is the link to the original article: http://opec.ru/1784375.html

Patent applications: Russia and the world

Patent applications: Russia, the rest of the BRICS countries, and a few other countries compared

PCT patent apps non-residents-2005-12_BRICS+

The graph above (data source: World Bank) shows how Russia compares with selected other countries in terms of patent applications filed through the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) or a national patent office between 2005 to 2012. Data are from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) – the World Intellectual Property Indicators – and published by the World Bank as part of the World Development Indicators.

What does this graph show, and why is it interesting? It compares the performance of the BRICS countries plus Indonesia, Mexico, and Japan on a widely used indicator of innovation output – applications for international patents. Here are some key findings:

  • In terms of the number of PCT patent applications by non-residents, China is well ahead of the other seven countries looked at here: Russia, Brazil, Mexico, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Japan.
  • China saw a steady increase in PCT applications since 2005, from 79,842 to over 117,000 in 2012. That’s a 47% increase in 7 years.
  • Brazil is second to China for number of PCT applications.
  • Russia (followed closely by Brazil and India) saw the biggest percentage increase from 2005 to 2012 – a huge increase of 80% (Russia) and 75% (Brazil and India).
  • Mexico and Russia had approximately the same number of PCT applications in 2012 – 14020 for Mexico and 15510 for Russia. The difference is that Russia saw a huge increase since 2005 while the number of Mexico’s PCT applications remained relatively stable since 2005.
  • Only Japan saw a percentage decrease in PCT applications – fall of 5.6% between 2005-12.

Russia’s huge increase (of 80% between 2005 and 2012) may be explained by the government’s modernization and innovation policies which started around 2007/2008. This is something to investigate further.