Speaking to new graduate students at Firbush, Loch Tay

One of the side effects of being able to do public speaking is that people ask you to do it. If you’ve given a few successful talks and you aren’t terrified of standing up in front of a room full of people, then you’re going to get asked favours that involve public speaking. Especially if you can be informative and engaging when you do it.

I’d really recommend even the most timid public speaker to get experience with giving talks for this reason. And because once you’ve done two or three that have gone well, it’s kind of addictive. My first real public speaking experiences came through science outreach and public engagement activities and they opened so many doors. The invitation to speak about gravitational waves at the University of Surrey was just one of them, and one that will look really great on my CV.

About a week and a half ago, Prof Harvey of the University of Glasgow’s School of Physics and Astronomy asked if I could give a talk to some students who were just about to start their PhDs. These students are members of the Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT). They’ve spent two semesters doing courses and are about to embark on short summer projects before they start their PhDs in around October. Prof Harvey wanted me to give them tips to help make sure they got into good habits and had a good time during the start of their PhD work.

Now, this is pretty similar to a talk that Heather Lambie, the Graduate School manager for the College of Science and Engineering, asks me to give about twice a year for the new PhD students joining the school. I’ve actually recently said that I’d rather a current student gives it since I’ve now passed my viva and I think it’s easier for brand new students to relate to fourth-year students than it is for them to relate to postdocs, however recent. Still, I’d never spoken to the CDT students before and Prof Harvey seemed to think it would be fine.

Plus, this talk would be an after dinner talk given at the CDT weekend away at Firbush, an outdoor centre on Loch Tay in the central Highlands. I was invited to join them for the whole weekend with promises of hill walking, kayaking, mountain biking and basically whatever else they got up to. Unfortunately, I already had plans. I agreed to give the talk after dinner on Friday evening but had to be in Edinburgh by lunchtime on Saturday*.

Friday came and we set off. I don’t drive and it’s routes like this that make me regret that. The drive between Glasgow and the Highlands it particularly picturesque. As it happened we arrived in Killin, the village closest to Firbush just as the sun was setting. When we got to Loch Tay we were treated to this scene:

Loch Tay at sunset

Having found my room and settled in, I joined the others. A few of the students were trained to keep the bar for the evening and, having served their first beers, we went upstairs for dinner (very activity centre catering: broccoli soup followed by pizza, chips and salad and then a choice of chocolate fudge cake or banoffi pie).

The bunk rooms at Firbush. Very school residential

Knowing that at this point people would be feeling warm and comfortable, and tempted by the opportunity for a second beer, I’d always planned to give a fairly brief talk. I spoke for about twenty minutes about the importance of planning, maintaining good relationships with your supervisor and taking breaks. I gave my top tips and then opened for questions. Later, in the bar, I had more discussions with some students who were concerned about what the viva was like and what my best advice for writing was. I’d say the whole thing was a success.

In the morning I was treated to this scene from my bunk room:

Loch Tay in the morning. Look at the snow on the mountains!

Honestly, I’m a little jealous of the weekend the students must have had. The weather was incredible and it’s hard to think of a better place to be learning to canoe. I had a lovely time just visiting and I hope that I’ll be invited back next year.

*That was a small adventure. I got a minibus to Callendar, then a bus to Stirling and then the train to Edinburgh. A beautiful but kind of slow route.

4 thoughts on “Speaking to new graduate students at Firbush, Loch Tay

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