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I am Sarah Weldon and This is How I Work

Today, I am interviewing Sarah Weldon in the “How I Work” series. Sarah is a YouTuber, rower, charity Director, and Science Communicator. Her research is based on a world first solo row around Britain which will raise funds to provide education to young people around the world. Sarah was named by Skype for International Women’s Day as a ‘woman changing the world through technology’. She is a Google Glass Explorer, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and lover of wearable technology. 

Current Job: Founder and Director of Oceans Project, a UK registered charity which provides free, online environmental and STEM education to young people aged 5-25 worldwide, and uses technology to bring the ocean alive.
Current Location: Kendal, Cumbria (though I’m not home much!)
Current mobile device: iPhone
Current computer: MacBook Pro

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I actually fell into PhD research quite by accident as I offered to collect data on physiology for a number of universities, and was then offered a place on a PhD. I never imagined that offering to collect my poo each day at sea for the purposes of science would lead to so many opportunities! I spent a lot of time trying to narrow down my research question, to the point where my final topic was beyond the field of expertise of my Supervisors. I’m now in the process of moving university so I can get the supervision I need. There is very little research on ocean rowing and my expedition is a Guinness World record attempt to become the first person to circumnavigate Britain solo by rowing boat. Having never rowed before this project, I’ve become a bit obsessed with everything to do with rowing!

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?

Despite my love of wearable and new innovations in technology, I’m pretty much in the dark ages when it comes to tools, apps, and software. Part of the problem is that I moved to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, which is where my charity and the idea for doing a row to raise money came about. We didn’t have electricity or internet where I was living, and I was seen as pretty cool because I had a Blackberry phone, in fact just having a phone full stop! During the time I was living in Georgia, Smart phones, iPads, and touch screen technology were invented so I’ve been playing catch up ever since and only recently got a smartphone. It was an incredible experience!

I use Google maps all of the time because I travel so much, giving talks on cruise ships and in schools, and I love using Periscope to connect with my students, as well as Skype. I’ve heard about apps like Evernote but have never really used it yet, and still do most things on pen and paper. But I’m really eager to find out what tools, apps, and software will help me with my workflow. I’m a huge fan of Apple’s products but have come to realise that many universities only have PCs, so I find this quite frustrating at times as the Apple products integrate and run so simply but a lot of the PC packages are really alien and clunky to me. This is something I’ll need to figure out, especially for collection and analysis of data.

What does your workspace setup look like?
Living through war and human rights protests and being in remote parts of Georgia, I learnt to go from being very fixed in how I work, to being a lot more resilient, creative, and adaptive. I actually find it really hard to study in communal spaces like PhD rooms, because I end up really anxious about typing too loudly or disturbing the creative flow of others and I develop this kind of imposter syndrome.

I generally prefer to adapt my workspace environment to the mood I am in or the task in hand. Sometimes it’s good to inject energy into a study session, sometimes to be cosy in a corner, and sometimes just quiet and rigid at a desk.

If I’m reading papers, I prefer to do this on the go, on the train for example, especially if I have to make different train connections. The action of walking between platforms wakes me up and helps me break things into chunks somehow.

I love being in public spaces that are buzzing with energy, like the British Museum in London, it provides a kind of white noise but very uplifting atmosphere to work in. If I’m writing things and need to focus my thoughts, I can only do this in very quiet places with no distractions so I like my home office for this. I often sit for long hours, engrossed in my work so it’s important to be comfortable.

As long as I have my laptop, Stanley Travel Mug full of tea, Leichturm note book for jotting notes, and a nice pen, that’s all I need really. My office travels with me and the items I carry are associated with being ‘at work’ or ‘in my office’, I recently spent two weeks away as a cruise ship lecturer, which made the perfect venue for study as the ship had a library I would use for some tasks, and then I would move to a space with these 60’s style pod chairs, called ‘The Hideaway’ for when I wanted to feel a bit more isolated. I got so much work down. It was ideal….food was already provided, and I could visit the pool or steam room in between for breaks from study!

What is your best advice for productive academic work?
Don’t worry about conforming or feeling less than adequate because the way you study is different from the ‘norm’ or suggested advice. Work in a way that suits you best. Give yourself permission.

I undertook my undergraduate degree with the Open University whilst working full time, and my Masters degree was done in the same place I worked, around my work commitments. I need to feel connected to the non academic or ‘real world’ outside of academia to keep me grounded and being self employed and self reliant on generating funds to pay rent each month nothing is more important to me than my time and my energy.

From experience I know that I get really frustrated if I have to come into the PhD lab and sit with others just to keep my supervisors happy and show that ‘I am involved in PhD life’. It doesn’t work for me, as I end up sitting around wasting away the day, not able to focus, and then have to go home and start my work again. It’s really demoralising and a complete waste of time.

I generally work best really early in the morning and really late at night, when there are less distractions from emails or phone calls, and I have a lull around 3pm. A 9am-5pm day isn’t great for my productivity but I used to struggle trying to adapt this to suit others. These days I know how I work best and I’m more assertive in making sure that my PhD is centred around my needs as much as I can. I don’t think that in this day it’s necessary to be 9-5 in a formal office setting, especially with things like Skype available for connecting with Supervisors (without the same distractions you get when in face to face meetings). I much prefer to work from home when I can, it’s a lot cheaper, more productive, and I don’t feel any less connected to my peers. When I do go in to the university it’s for a purpose and my day is very structured, and less time is wasted in travel and earning the money to cover the cost of travel.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?

I’ve tried all sorts of systems over the past few years, but I seem to keep coming back to old fashioned paper! There is something different in the creative flow about being able to scrawl everything out onto paper and then being able to physically cross it off a ‘to do’ list when it’s done.

I find the most useful way for me, is to print out from the Google Calendar. I print off each month as a blank calendar onto A4 paper, and then I print off the individual days, 4 days to one sheet of paper and cut them up. I keep 18 months of one month view clipped together with a bull clip. And I do the same again with one month’s worth of individual days. I then put stickers to mark off any conferences or special events, and write in anything special that is coming up or important deadlines.
On the individual days I like to write a list of things I need or want to achieve on that day, and if it doesn’t get done, it gets carried over to the next day. As a task gets done I cross it off.

At one point I did use different coloured stickers to split up tasks into themes. A yellow sticker for a speaking event or conference, red for paid work or the student job, green for fitness training, and blue for charity or PhD tasks. This is now my favourite way of working and it helps me to remember where I was a few weeks ago, and what deadlines I have for today.
I cross off each day on the month view, and throw away the sheet of paper at the end of each day for the daily view. I have a separate piece of paper that I put on the wall which lists my everyday activities, for example: go to the gym, walk the dog, write 500 words of my thesis.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
I’m really lucky to be a Google Glass Explorer and am beta testing a number of new apps ad some gesture controlled technology. I really like the Google Glass for organising my day and can see myself using it all the time in the future. It has so much potential for decreasing my workload and making me more effective in my daily management. It isn’t robust enough at the moment to be my main tool – the battery doesn’t last more than a few hours and I worry how people will react if they see me wearing it in the street, but i has been a huge help and I wish I had more time to spend experimenting with it.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?

Having worked in remote and challenging environments for much of my life, and perhaps being an older student, I think I probably conform less and am a bit more of an extrovert – I’m quite stubborn, determined, and headstrong.

To me this is a great strength to have as an academic and it certainly helped me a lot when I worked for the Prime Minister in Georgia and on this big educational reform project. Actually I think that is why I loved Georgia so much, as people were open, honest and very spontaneous. They just lived in the moment.

When I’m passionate about something, I become all focused on it and I get annoyed when people tip toe around things and take my time away from my work. This is a strength as it means I get on with the task in hand and have a lot of stamina, but it has been a huge challenge and culture shock to come back to the UK and to have to read between the lines on what people say. Sometimes people can get very stuck in their ways and how things have always been done. In Georgia everything was constantly in flux so there was a lot more entrepreneurship and drive to try new things.

I don’t think my determination is always seen as a skill now I’m back in the UK, but I certainly consider it to be my leading asset, especially where my PhD is concerned, even if it does mean I have to move universities rather than changing my research question to stay within my supervisor’s field!!

What do you listen to when you work?

I don’t really listen to anything when I’m working, though in my teens I couldn’t study without some classical or some dance music in the background. I am very sensitive to noise if it isn’t consistent as it will distract me from my train of thought. I think that’s why I like to work in places that are busy and buzzing with people, as it provides an uplifting background noise, but is so consistent that you can zone it out.

What are you currently reading?

I’m not really reading much these days. Probably because I spend my day reading research papers! Instead I like to watch YouTube videos as I find these uplifting, and I love reading the Thesis Whisperer’s blog. Unusually, I am reading a book at the moment, but it’s because it was written by someone who really inspires me, and she also wrote a lovely piece in the book about how I had inspired her. That was really touching. The book is called ‘Success at Sixty’, and even though I’m not sixty it is still very relevant. It’s like reading the wise words of an older relative, all of their little gems on life and the universe. I’m biased, but I definitely would recommend it!

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?

I think I’m actually a bit of both. I have periods where I am the life and soul of the party, and periods where I really enjoy my own company.

I’m naturally very shy, but I use humour and bravado to mask this in public, especially as I often feel quite awkward socially! Again, this is what I loved about being in Georgia because I could just be myself without worrying about making social faux pas. For example, at dinner time, people just dig in to communal food, with their hands, no please or thank you, and make conversation and sing songs. This is very different to being at dinner in the UK, worrying about using the wrong knife or fork or being asked a question whilst you have your mouth full.

Becoming a YouTuber and having to become a public speaker and being filmed and photographed more as part of the ocean row I had no choice but to overcome my natural shyness and introversion. I’ve been really lucky to meet a lot of famous people and GB rowers which has really helped my confidence, especially as I realised that even they get nervous when in public or when speaking to an audience. It gave me permission to cut myself some slack and not worry about being a perfectionist.

I would definitely say that being socially awkward and naturally an introvert has hugely impacted on my working habits and is probably why I much prefer to work on my own, and in my own space away from other students. Working in a communal space, surrounded by others chitchatting about boyfriends or what to have for tea is my idea of hell as I never know how to engage in this chat, and often find myself getting annoyed as I want to focus on my work and not have people notice I’m in the room or pull me into their conversations. Not because I’m not interested in others, but more that I’m in my work zone and I’m focused on the task in hand.

But when I’m out socialising outside of my work I’m definitely more of an extrovert and I love to be the centre of attention.

What’s your sleep routine like?
I’ve been working at full pelt on setting up and running my charity for the past 18 months so my whole lifestyle has changed dramatically since becoming self employed. I work very long hours, often getting up at 5am or 6am and going to bed at midnight or sometimes 2am. Early mornings and working late in the evening are my favourite times because you don’t get as many distractions in the form of phone calls, emails, or postman ringing the doorbell.

In one respect I’m a typical rower as they generally will get up early and be on the water rowing by 5am or 6am. But in other respects I’m not a typical rower as most will be in bed by around 9pm.

Living in Georgia was ideal for me as people get up late, have a flexible and lose structure to their day, and will often drop by or invite you out for a coffee at 2am. Even children don’t have set bedtimes, but just fall asleep when they are tired enough. I’m also in the process of training myself to sleep for a maximum of 2-4 hours at a time as this is what I will get at sea when I’m rowing around Britain.

You would think that I would get less sleep as a result, but I actually get more sleep now than I did when I worked for the NHS. I think the secret is to go with how you feel. I usually won’t set my alarm, and I don’t own a watch, but I’m usually really excited to get back to my research and will wake up early ready to start. I’ll work through all morning, and then in the afternoon I’ll run some errands, walk my dog, go to the gym, or have a 20 minute power nap. At bout 7pm I’ll have my dinner and then get back to my research, working until I feel tired and start to get bored. Sometimes I have to force myself to stop my research as I’m so in to it, but this has a bit of an addiction feel about it, so I’m itching to get back to it the following day.

What’s your work routine like?
I tend to go with the flow depending on what my week looks like. If I’m doing a paid talk in a school or speaking at an event, I’ll probably spend much of my day on the train. If I know I have those days coming up, I’ll print out the research papers I want to read and save them to read on those journeys.

If I’m away speaking on a cruise ship, I’ll set myself tasks that require minimal access to the internet, so it’s a good opportunity to catch up on journals, or to work on lengthy documents or editing my thesis.

If I have a typical day at home, I’ll split my day into chunks based around my energy levels. If I’m not in the mood to sit still and focus on a complex task, perhaps I’m tired from being away or training a lot, then I’ll start with some more creative or energising tasks like planning my diary or looking for inspiration. If my list of ‘to do’ jobs is long and I’m feeling overwhelmed then I will start with the quick tasks that I can tick off easily so that I feel as if I have achieved something. I like to plan in down time to my day, ironing, taking a bath, walking the dog as I find these are the best ways to let your brain mull over things and are often when I end up finding the solutions to things I’ve been stuck on.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

I don’t know about best advice ever, but I heard an expression a few days ago that ‘your net worth is your network’. I think this applies not only to business environments and brands, but to undertaking a PhD too.

I do prefer to work alone and not to be surrounded by lots of people, but using your PhD to build your community is really important, it’s a chance to place yourself within your chosen field as the expert in your subject. Think about why you are doing your PhD research and what outcome you want at the end of it. Do you want to become a University lecturer, or the go to consultant in industry? So you want to be a Science Communicator, an author, or to find a cure for cancer for example. Whatever your end goal, the PhD is your chance to build up your CV and to grow your network so that when a job comes up after you graduate, you are already the person that people to turn to for advice.

Think of yourself as a professional, not simply a student. Thinking about my research in this way, empowered me to focus on what I need in order to succeed in my research and to be less afraid to challenge and not to settle for fear of upsetting the apple cart. I was always taught ‘to thine own self be true’. And to be true to yourself and your goals, sometimes you have to step away from the norm, even if it means fighting or upsetting things. At the end of the day it’s you doing the research so don’t be afraid to challenge when your gut instinct is yelling at you to do the opposite of what you are being advised.

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