Friday, 20 October 2017

A Guide to Applying for a PhD

This time last year I was navigating the minefield that is applying for a PhD. Spoiler alert, it all worked out and I'm currently in the first year of my DPhil at Oxford (DPhil = PhD). Now that the ocean of emotion has washed away, I can share my advice with you all. Get yourself a hot beverage and settle into your chair, it's going to be a long one.
  • Do a master's first. It will give you experience in postgraduate education, especially conducting independent research, thus making you a better candidate for a PhD. It also gives you a one-up on funding applications, which are highly competitive.
  • If you're applying for a subject that requires you to put forth a research proposal it's a good idea to begin working on it ASAP, especially if you're taking a master's because you'll be busy with your classes and exams around the submission deadlines. 
  • If you're flexible about your research area, it's a good idea to check out what projects universities are interested in. There will often be generous funding available if you're willing to mould to fit their interests. As an added bonus, it may lead you into an area that you love but would never have considered before. 
The only way to research productively is in a coffee shop in
full view of other people. Isolated research reaps no results.
  • The application form is often long and tedious. You have been warned. 
  • Don't copy and paste elements from one to another. Universities can spot bland general comments a mile off and they don't take them well.
  • A lot of application deadlines are in December or January, but some universities accept them on a rolling basis. Make sure that you do your research well in advance and write down the closing dates so that you're not caught out. 
  • Spread your applications across a number of universities. Acceptance rates vary from subject area to subject and university to university, so I can't give you any detailed advice on how many to make. However, I can tell you that the best way to find out what's normal for your subject is to ask others in your field (groundbreaking, I know). 
  • Universities will often automatically consider you for internal funding opportunities, but some schemes require additional applications. This is tricky because the deadline for applying will be before you know whether you've been accepted. You can waste a lot of time on funding applications, especially if you're applying to multiple schools. At the same time, you're going to need funding. Apply for as many as you can, but be aware that it's a never-ending source of work.
  • The decision-making timeline is a joke designed to play with your nerves. If you haven't heard back after a set date it's no indication of success or failure. 
  • Check your spam folder if you use Gmail. I should have found out that I was accepted to Oxford on St. Patrick's Day, but I didn't receive the news until a month later. A month is a long time when you spend the majority of your waking hours obsessively picking apart your value as a person. 
  • Rejection can be hard to process, but don't beat yourself up. Often it's nothing to do with the quality of the candidate or the idea, but whether the university is interested in that field (for courses that require a research proposal). 
  • If you've put in multiple applications and your first response is a rejection it can be easy to lose hope, but try not to obsess about it and wait to hear back from everyone before you freak out. 
Dr Schrödinger famously wrote terrible checklists.
  • When the offers start rolling in it's a good idea to take a step back and think about what you really want. One school might offer better funding than another, but what quality of life can they guarantee? Location and culture are important factors for consideration. If you have the time, take a trip to the different campuses and see which one gives you 'the feeling'. 
  • Further to this point, but so important that it requires its own bullet, is accommodation. As a victim of the Dublin housing crisis, I can personally attest that the quality, price and location of accommodation is the most important non-academic consideration. Nothing could have prepared me for the carnage that was house hunting before I began my master's.
    The questions you want to ask are: does the university offer housing? Does it offer a service to help incoming students find housing? What is the private rental market like? What is the average cost of renting? If renting privately, who will you live with? How far are you willing to commute?
  • Finally, if you've been rejected by the university you had your heart set on, take some time to consider your options. If you have offers from other universities, ask yourself whether you're happy to go there. As mentioned before, visit them and see where you find yourself.
    If you decide that you're not ready to give up on your dream school, consider taking a year out of education to work. Your application may benefit from a year's relevant work experience and it will give you time to work on a new research proposal (if your subject requires one). Taking this route may be difficult to accept at first because you feel like you're putting your life on hold, but concentrate on the positives i.e. it will help you to prepare financially for a PhD.
Overall it's a nerve-wreaking time. I won't gloss over my own experience. I was incredibly stressed and a general misery to be around, but now it's just another chapter in life. And remember that you're not alone, everyone who wants to pursue higher education has to go through this.


Friday, 22 September 2017

A Guide to Writing your Dissertation

If you're going on to study at postgraduate level chances are you'll have to write a dissertation as part of your assessment. Likewise, some undergraduate degrees require a dissertation or an extended project to be written during your final year.
It's a daunting task, but it's not impossible. As part of my master's I had to write a dissertation that was maximum 25,000 words, excluding footnotes (!!!). When I first heard that I almost died, then I wanted to cry, and then...well I pretty much danced between the two for a while. But, luckily for you, I got through it and can now share my pearls of wisdom.

My baby

Beginning with your first month of class, you've probably have had ideas floating around your brain all summer. Now is the time to leisurely research them and sketch them out on a piece of paper. There's no need to cling vehemently to the original idea; your research question is often fluid at first. It's also better if you chose a really specific question and explore it in detail, rather than attempt a broad stroke across one area.
Once you've narrowed down the question, set out a chapter plan and the headings within each chapter. It's amazing how much easier the project looks once it's broken down into manageable chunks.

In terms of the writing process, routine and structure are key. A helpful tool can be, what I call, the algorithm of pain. This involves setting yourself a daily word target - say 500 words. I recommend not including footnotes in this number, even if your final dissertation word count does. This is because it will make the days that you include new sources imbalanced in effort. Divide your project's length by your daily target to calculate how many days it will take you to write it.
Once you know this you can begin estimate your dissertation's timeline for completion. Needless to say, the earlier you start writing the less pain you need to go through each day. Of course, extra time ought to be allotted for editing, but this will give you a rough idea of when your dissertation will be over - this in itself can be a great motivator.

The flip side of start early, work calmly is not to overwork yourself. Whilst it's tempting to push yourself to do better than yesterday, the human brain is not a machine. Unless you're really on a roll (in which case you probably won't even be looking at your word count), you need to learn to close the books too. Leave the library, have a conversation with another human being, eat. Taking care of yourself and your mental health is as much a part of the writing process as research and, er, writing.

Getting a bit drunk helps too.

Related to this point is your dissertation deadline. Whilst most universities allow you the summer to write it, some don't. I went to a university that wanted my dissertation to be handed in at the end of June, a mere month after my final exams. I had to balance my six classes alongside my dissertation, which meant that I had to factor in revision periods to my plan.
If you find yourself in this situation, allot yourself extra time to get reacquainted with your dissertation and materials. I generally spent an entire morning re-reading my work and my notes to get back into it all.

It's also important to not beat yourself up for missing targets or self-imposed deadlines (chastise yourself for missing university ones though). I aimed to have my first chapter written before I returned to university after the Christmas break. Instead of 4,000 words I only managed 500. It wasn't down to poor time management, I spent extra time on my studies for my modules. Life doesn't always go to plan, it's how you handle it that counts.

No one's writing process is so artsy and Instagrammable. 

Postgrad students especially suffer from the affliction of perfectionism, but if you're to get timely feedback on your work you need to quell that voice inside of you and send through a true first draft to your supervisor. This is especially important for your first chapter because you could be making a glaring mistake in your method. It's better to be given editing advice when you haven't already spent your soul writing the piece.

Another important piece of advice is not to leave your bibliography until the end. When you're writing a >5,000 word essay it's normal to leave the bibliography until the eleventh hour because it's only a mater of going over 100ish footnotes, a lot of which will be ibid or cross-referencing. When you're working on a substantial piece you need to get savvy, unless you want to lose a few hours of your life to something as mind-numbing as mechanical editing. Have a separate Word document that you add to as you go along.

The final arduous task will be getting someone to proof-read your work. There are two options for this: swap with a friend or pay a proof-reader. If you go for the latter you don't have to read anything but there's a hefty price to pay for that luxury. Whatever you do, don't proofread your own work. It's umpossible.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Review: Ambr Eyewear Glasses

As a postgrad student, a social media accounts manager and a Netflix enthusiast, eye strain is a a regular feature of my life. My eyes tire easily and often feel sore, even dry. They're also prone to becoming alarmingly bloodshot.
To counterbalance the ridiculous amount of time I spend staring at screens, I've installed a blue light filter on my computer and my phone. This works by tinting my screen red, which is slightly annoying to look at. I've also swapped to a large-screened desktop. Taking these steps has definitely improved the situation, but my eyes still suffer.

I first heard about Ambr Eyewear Glasses when I was flipping between radio stations in the car. There was an interview with the founder of the company, who explained that the glasses filter out 55% of the blue light emitted from electronic devices.
The glasses use clear glass, so unlike the filter installed on my devices, they filter out the blue light without changing the colour of the screen.

After hearing about these glasses I knew I had to give them a go. Here's how I got on.

The website: Because Ambr glasses are only available online there's a lot of guesswork involved in choosing the frames right for you. Going forward, they really need to invest in a virtual trying on feature; although it should be noted that they offer free returns so it would be possible to order a few styles and send back the ones you don't like.

Style: Currently they offer 4 styles of glasses, with a few colour options for each style. All of the styles are quite large.
I picked the Aurora glasses, which are the smallest. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that the lenses need to be large to fully protect your eyes, especially if you're looking down at a device like a phone or a tablet.
I liked that I could pick a 'Tortoise' design over standard block black because it's better suited to my colouring.

Fit: The glasses claim to be unisex and one size fits all - note my use of the word claim. They're too wide for my face, so if I suddenly turn my head they slip slightly. As well as this, I think they would sit a bit higher on my nose if they were better sized to my head.
I only  wear the glasses for an hour or two at a time so I can cope, but if I was an office worker who was staring at a screen all day I think I would find the fit annoying. Glasses should be so comfortable that you can forget you're wearing them. Quite frankly, Ambr should dispense the notion of one size fits all and offer more sizes.

Performance: These glasses are fantastic. I turned off all my screen filters with no ill effects. Even more impressive is that I could play on the PS4 without any ramifications on my eyes. Usually a one hour session leaves my eyes disgracefully bloodshot, to the point that I avoid going on it unless I'm really in the mood for a game.

Prescription: Ambr glasses do not incorporate prescription lenses, so they're only suitable for people who don't need glasses to look at screens. Unless, of course, you were to wear two pairs of glasses simultaneously.
During the radio interview that I listened to, Ambr said that they're in the midst of sorting out a prescription option.

The glasses range from €38-€49 and they all come with a sturdy case to keep them safe. There's free delivery to the UK and Ireland, which is a massive bonus.

Verdict: I don't love how these glasses look and I wouldn't want to wear them in public for the sake of some short-term computer work. If I was an office worker, however, I'd have to learn to deal with my own vanity for the sake of my eye health.
Fashion aside, their functionality is all there, even though their fit leaves ample room for improvement. For these reasons I'm scoring the glasses 3.5/5.

General Remarks: I like that Ambr have tackled a widespread problem using a clever, but simple, solution. My complaints are all related to the wearability of the product, which I think really takes away from how good it could be.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Review: Breakfast by Bella Granola

As I previously mentioned in my Granola Topped Porridge Bread recipe post, the good folks at Breakfast by Bella recently sent me some of their product to try.

I'll begin with my own tastes in cereal, so you'll know whether we're on the same page, then I'll talk a bit about the Breakfast by Bella brand, and finally I'll tell you how I got on with the granola.

Breakfast by Faye

Breakfast in my house means one thing: a nutritious meal that will keep you going all morning. I typically buy plain cereals like Weetabix, Shredded Wheat, or porridge oats, but every now and then I push the bounds of excitement by opting for Cornflakes.

My simple taste is down to the fact that I was never allowed add sugar to my cereal as a child, let alone buy something like Coco Pops or Frosties (although I could use honey to sweeten things because I grew up with health enthusiasts, not monsters). Now that I'm older I can obviously eat whatever I want, but years of being in the good habit of having a sensible breakfast means that what I want is pretty much what I've eaten for the last two decades.

In terms of granola, I never buy it. I tried it years ago but it was too sweet for me. Sometimes when I'm in the supermarket I pick up a packet, but upon reading the sugar content I put it right back down. Another problem I have with granola is that I found it to be quite crunchy and hard, which makes me worry about chipping a tooth - I'm not hypochondriac, I recently chipped a tooth whilst eating nuts.

So, basically, going into this review, I'm not a granola lover because I like a healthy cereal that poses zero risk to my teeth.

Breakfast by Bella

Breakfast by Bella is a new company that was started in 2017. They're an online-only business run by Bella herself.

In their own words, they're "aim[ing] to bring you products that are refined sugar free and made with gluten free and organic ingredients, containing none of the nasties associated with artificial preservatives and colourings."
Straight after reading this I knew that their granola wouldn't be the same as the sugary stuff I'd tried years ago, and their focus on health made me interested in seeing what a granola that was genuinely good for you would be like.

Breakfast by Bella also has an Instagram page where loads of cool granola creations are posted. Looking at it evokes a mixture of awe and envy. For this blog post I had to try and create artsy photos of my food, which is not something I particularly excel at.
What I especially like about their Instagram, however, is that it gives you new ideas about how to eat granola and what to team it with. It turns out that in a bowl with milk is the equivalent of socks with sandals.

The Granolas

I was sent three flavours to review: Nutty Nosh, Peanut Butter Me Up, and Cacoa Crazy. They come in resealable sachets, which is great for keeping the granola fresh. Nutrition wise, they're all made with organic British ingredients, and they're gluten free and vegan too if you need those boxes to be ticked.

Breakfast by Bella also promises that their granola is refined sugar free. After some serious label reading, I was surprised and delighted to see that they're not too sugary either - after all, a jar of raw honey is refined sugar free but it's not how I want to start my morning. Nutty Nosh, Peanut Butter Me Up, and Cacao Crazy contain 3.8g, 4.4g, and 5.4g of sugar respectively. To put that in context, a teaspoon of sugar is 4g.

Nutty Nosh was my favourite of the three. This granola is a made up of oats that have been baked with rapeseed oil, and sweetened with Canadian maple syrup and cinnamon powder. As the title suggests, it contains nuts: almonds, brazils, cashews, walnuts and hazelnuts to be precise.

Nutty Nosh was fabulous because it was subtlety sweet and there was a generous amount of nuts mixed in there. This is really important because I'm a horrendous person who will often pick out the nicest parts of food, so when I say there was a generous nuts to granola ratio I mean that there was enough for a nice portion and for my greedy little hands to pinch extra.

The Peanut Butter Me Up is, again, oats baked with rapeseed oil. This time the sweetener is agave syrup. And there are some redskin peanuts in there too. I found this one to be plainer, which is why it went well with my granola bread recipe. I typically paired it with cinnamon or cacao powder.

Finally, the Cacao Crazy granola is made up of oats baked with *drum roll, please* rapeseed oil, raw cacao powder, raw cacao butter, coconut sugar, agave syrup, cacao nibs and pure vanilla powder.
It's the sweetest of the three so I preferred this one as a sweet snack or pudding, rather than as a breakfast. From the ingredients list you can see that's it's a totally acceptable healthy breakfast, but it worked best as a sweet treat for me.
I enjoyed the chocolately flavour. I've eaten cacao nibs before and found them to be really hard on my teeth, but the ones in this granola must be milled finer because there was no unpleasant crunch.


Overall I was very satisfied with all the granola flavours because they weren't too sweet, nor were there any hard clusters. In fact, the consistency reminded me a lot of muesli because it was fairly soft, although there was a pleasant crunch to it.
It was also a lot of fun to make artsy yogurt bowls, even if my skills don't quite match that of Bella's.

I'd recommend this to anyone who's into health foods and playing about in the kitchen, or people who are on the go and want something to fill the void without inducing food guilt.


250g of Nutty Nosh or Cacoa Crazy sell for £4.95, and the same sized pouch of Peanut Butter Me Up sells for £3.95 (available here). I've checked with Breakfast by Bella and they've said that whilst P&P will currently set you back £3.50 they're in the middle of brokering a deal with Royal Mail to secure free P&P. Until then, they'll cover the postage costs if you spend over £20.

If you want to buy in a physical store, keep an eye on your local Fenwicks.

Unfortunately, they only ship to the UK right now but international delivery will begin soon.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Granola Topped Porridge Bread - Vegan Version

My granola topped porridge bread recipe can easily be tailored to suit the vegan lifestyle. Here's how.

Granola Topped Porridge Bread

1 tub dairy alternative yogurt*
1/2 banana
1 TBSP dairy alternative milk*
1/2 TSP salt
1 TSP agave syrup or maple syrup
Dash vanilla essence
2 tubs porridge oats**
2 TSP bread soda**
Breakfast by Bella granola (I used Peanut Butter Me Up)

*Use your favourite, be it almond, coconut, soya etc.
**make sure to check that these items are gluten free/processed in an area free from gluten if needs be

Empty the yogurt into a large mixing bowl. Whizz the banana in a food processor or with a hand blender until smooth, then add it to the yogurt and stir. Add the milk, salt, agave syrup/maple syrup, and vanilla essence. Mix well.
Fill the empty yogurt pot with porridge oats twice. Stir until it's combined with the wet ingredients. Then add the bread soda and mix well.

In a cup, mix together an extra blob of agave syrup/maple syrup with a dash of water. Lightly brush this over the top of the bread before sprinkling on granola, but avoid creating a thick layer.

Empty the mixture into a 1lb loaf tin. Bake in the oven at 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4 for 45 minutes. Take the bread out of the oven, remove it from its tin, and then bake on a tray for a further 10 minutes.

This recipe should help to to create your own perfect loaf, but I must stress that it's all about what suits you. Play about with the recipe and see if you can improve it. I once baked the mixture in muffin cases instead of a loaf tin to get a more lunchbox-friendly bread.

It's worth mentioning that this type of experimenting is how I came up with the vegan version of porridge bread in the first place, which I've made many times as a way to mix things up in the kitchen. Although, because I've only just thought of topping it with granola the pictures above are of the non-vegan version, so apologies must be made for this.

My own twist on porridge bread is to turn off the oven after 45 minutes and leave the bread to sit in the warmth until the end of the hour because I prefer a tackier consistency. This is why the bread above is slightly uneven in its colour. I'm sure I'd score me nil points on GBBO, but home baking isn't about slavishly adhering to a recipe. It's about creativity and tailoring things to your own taste.

Granola Topped Porridge Bread

Porridge bread is a real superstar. It's gluten free, more filling than regular bread, and so easy to make. Because it is naturally plain, I like to experiment by adding different flavours. Some successful past creations have included: apple and cinnamon; almond; and a chia seed and millet superbread.

I was recently sent some Breakfast by Bella granola to try out and review. One morning, when I was munching on porridge bread topped with granola (see below), I had some baking inspiration and created this recipe.

Plain porridge bread topped with dark tahini,
homemade gooseberry jam, and BBB's
Nutty Nosh granola 

Because so many of the Breakfast by Bella fans are vegans, I'm also going to post a vegan version of this bread so that everyone can enjoy it.

Granola Topped Porridge Bread

1 large tub fat free yogurt
1 egg
1 TBSP milk
1/2 TSP salt
1 TBSP honey
Dash vanilla essence 
2 tubs porridge oats*
2 TSP bread soda*
Breakfast by Bella granola (I used Peanut Butter Me Up)

*make sure to check that these items are gluten free/processed in an area free from gluten if needs be

Empty the yogurt into a large mixing bowl. Beat the egg in a separate cup and add to the bowl, keeping a little back for late. Also add the milk, salt, honey, and vanilla essence. Mix well. 
Fill the empty yogurt pot with porridge oats twice. Stir until it's combined with the wet ingredients. Then add the bread soda and mix well.

Lightly brush egg over the top of the bread before sprinkling on granola. Use enough so that the top is covered, but avoid creating a thick layer.

Empty the mixture into a 1lb loaf tin. Bake in the oven at 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4 for 45 minutes. Take the bread out of the oven, remove it from its tin, and then bake on a tray for a further 10 minutes.

This recipe should help to to create your own perfect loaf, but I must stress that it's all about what suits you. Play about with the recipe and see if you can improve it. For example, I once baked the mixture in muffin cases instead of a loaf tin when I wanted something a bit more portable.
My own twist is to turn off the oven after 45 minutes and leave the bread to sit in the warmth until the end of the hour because I prefer a tackier consistency. This is why the bread above is slightly uneven in its colour. I'm sure I'd score me nil points on GBBO, but home baking isn't about slavishly adhering to a recipe. It's about creativity and tailoring things to your own taste.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

My Experience with Facial Sun Creams

When other people see the temperatures rising they immediately think of lounging out in their garden, barbecues and fruity ciders. I, on the other, begin to crank the wheels of worry because of my skin's inability to deal with sunlight. It's the price of being a redhead.
It's not just burning that I'm wary of, it's freckling. Yeah, sure, they're super cute, but they're my body's way of telling me that I'm getting too much sun. Plus, while freckles fade in the winter months they're really hard to fully get rid of. Fast forward twenty years and they blight your skin.
In my quest for protection I've tried countless sun creams with varying degrees of success. One area I've had particular difficulty with is my face. It's the most important area to protect, but it's also the trickiest for a lot of us because of the delicate nature of facial skin. Additionally, if your skin is prone to sensitivity - like mine - heavy or oily sun creams can make you break out.
With this in mind, I thought I'd share with you all some of the sun creams I've tried.

Available here
Soap & Glory - Make Yourself Youthful Sunshield Superfluid SPF 50 (30ml)
Application: You're meant to apply this on top of your moisturiser on a morning and then put on your make up. Sounds great, but it requires re-application every 1-2 hours. Who has time for that? And who wants to build layer after layer of sun protection on their face?
Appearance: Gives the skin a beautiful glow.
Packaging: It's neat plastic bottle and lightweight design make it ideal for popping into your handbag, not surprising seeing as you'll have to have the thing glued to your person.
Price: €20.99 from Boots
Verdict: It's a great way to liven up dull skin, but as a sun protector it's too much fuss to be practical. 1/5

Available here
Clinique - City Block Sheer SPF 25 (40ml)
Application: It goes on before your make up. One application will do for the whole day. It's notable that this is only SPF 25. It's marketed as an everyday product, not as sun protection for your holiday. In Ireland and the UK, unless it's a real scorcher, it should be enough. An SPF 40 version is available too; it's called the "Super City Block".
Appearance: It's slightly tinted. I found that it makes foundation appear heavier, so it's a good idea to reduce the amount of foundation you use when using this. The product is on the oily side so this wouldn't be suited to anyone with greasy skin.
Packaging: The tube sits upright when not in use so the wonders of gravity will help to ensure that you get the most out of your product.
Price: €24
Verdict: It made my skin break out, so it's difficult for me to give a fair appraisal. My skin is fairly sensitive so this wouldn't be a guaranteed effect for other people. To use the tube up, I only applied it to my cheeks and neck (they're my skin's safe haven) and it was absolutely fine there. My own view of this product is therefore a 2/5 - but yours may vary.

Ultrasun Anti-Age Face SPF 50+
Application: Once a day, but I'm yet to find information on whether it can go over or under moisturiser and make up. I use it by putting on moisturiser after cleaning my face, waiting for at least five minutes, applying Ultrasun, and then putting on make up.
Appearance: It dulls the skin immediately. To counteract this, as well as putting on foundation I've started to use a highlighter. Yet another thing to put on...
Packaging: Its easy pump bottle is small and can be put into a handbag. But it's once a day, so you don't need to bring it anywhere.
Price: £24 from their website. For Irish readers, M&S sells it in store (not listed on their website) for around €35.
Verdict: Because I combine Ultrasun with a highlighter its dulling effects aren't noticeable. However, my skin is left permanently covered in products. I don't mean that it's sticky or greasy, but I'm aware I'm wearing several things and I don't like that feeling.
Apart from this it's a very good sun protector and, most importantly, doesn't make my skin break out. I wore it every day for a week whilst on holiday and my skin was actually better on the flight home than it had been on arrival. I give it 4/5.

Ultrasun Anti-Age Face SPF 30+
Application: Same as above.
Appearance: Unlike its 50+ cousin, this product has a lovely gloss to it that makes the skin glow.
Packaging: Same as above.
Price: £20 on their website, M&S in Ireland for around €30.
Verdict: Because this Ultrasun product is a lower SPF than the one above, it doesn't have such a heavy effect on the skin. The trade-off, obviously, is that it offers less protection. Some say that SPF 30 is plenty and that SPF 50 doesn't offer much more in practical terms, but this has to be weighed against the fact that most of us don't put on a thick enough layer of sun protection so we won't be getting its full benefits anyway.
As someone who is susceptible to the sun, I wouldn't choose this product for my holiday wear. People who don't feel like sunny weather is a personal attack may be satisfied with it. However, it's great for use when I'm in Ireland because we don't get an extreme amount of sun. Overall I give it a 5/5, with the * that it's not suitable for gingers abroad.