Testing problems, long weeks, and some reflection on things so far

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Hi all 🙂

The last two months have been busier  and things have been taking longer than expected in the lab but have provided some time to think about how things are going so far.

Testing problems & long weeks

In the last couple of months I’ve learned more about how scientific testing rarely (if ever) goes to plan. I have two broad waves of testing in my experiment and the idea was to finish the first before Christmas and then start the second. Now, a few months on, the first wave is only around half done. The solution to this is simple: overlap the waves so that it’s a constant level of testing. The only big downside to this was that I wasn’t able to take a small break over the festive period and thus had no chance to visit people. I suppose this happens to everybody eventually and whilst I’m not the most Christmasy of person, the chance to take a few down days and see people would have been of great benefit. In certain types of experiments there just is no way around this as things take longer than anticipated and we just have to work with what we have.

These past months have also brought about long weeks: ~45h research, 20h working, and 4h teaching. I’ve been racking up the equivalent of almost two full-time jobs. I’m not suggesting my situation is any more difficult or tiring than anyone else’s. I know many people work more jobs or more hours and whats more people have families which are responsibilities you cannot take a break from. For me it’s been the fact that my experiment requires daily attention thus leaving few to no days off. On top of which my job takes me to the late evening regularly and it has just felt like I have had no time to stop.

Overall it has been a strong learning curve both physically and mentally. I’m hoping I come out the other side of it better able to deal with problems and workloads in the future.

Some reflection on things so far

When I was thinking about what to post this month I was a bit stumped. As you can tell from the previous section there hasn’t been much to actually update on. Things are rather routine and whilst I have a stuff to do in the coming months, the biggest change has really been how I’m dealing with the workloads. So I put the question to the Twitterverse and Akira O’Connor (likewise of Psychology & Neuroscience at The University of St Andrews) responded with zeal. Using his questions I will reflect on my experiences two years in.

  • What technologies (from Egyptian through to electronic) do you use to improve your workflow?

I wasn’t sure how to interpret this question largely due to my own ignorance of the origin of various technologies. I know that paper comes from the Egyptians and a little reading suggests that the use of ramps and levers was pioneered by them too. Whilst I can’t say that ramps are of particular use to my workflow I can comment on a few things I’ve learned.

The single biggest piece of technology that has benefited my working has been reference managers such as Refworks and Mendeley. These allow users to put references into a body of work and the software keeps track of and formats them appropriately. It will also generate a reference list in the style you wish. Better still: it’ll update it depending on which references you’ve used! No more hand typing out all of your references and double checking that you’ve got them all! I personally use Mendeley as it also functions as a pdf reading and note taker so I can read, annotate, and organise my papers there.

  • What’s a part time PhD like?

Difficult and challenging, mostly on a personal level. Having never done it full-time I cannot comment on the challenges which those bring and I would never assert that my situation is harder than it would be. In my position I am part-time and self-funded. This means that my deadlines are longer and that I work in the evenings to pay my bills and tuition (I am very grateful to have a superb supervisor who pays for my research). In reality by the nature of my research rather than being part-time continuously I am more akin to full-time then no-time. The breaks are really refreshing but as I alluded to before working the number of hours takes its toll. You end up feeling like you’re burning the candle all over (never mind at both ends) and it’s incredibly easy for things to suffer because of it. I’ve had troubles with my health and I’ve made silly mistakes which could have had gross results in my research and my job. It forces you to create self-discipline because like all PhDs you are assumed to be independent. Or as independent as you can be. But on top of that I’ve had to learn to balance numerous responsibilities and structure my life in a way in which everything benefits. I’m not fully there yet, it’s a continual process of self improvement but the learning curve is steep.

All of that was quite negative and I apologise for giving that impression. If it was all bad then I would no longer be doing what I’m doing but what are the good aspects of my situation?

A sort of counter-intuitive positive is my lack of funding. Whilst funding would have been absolutely amazing and made a lot of things easier, not having funding means I have no end of funding. I don’t have the panic that my colleagues are experiencing as they count down to their money running out. I work evenings to fund my research and I’ll work evenings to fund my writing up, submission, and examination. For me the status quo won’t change and as such I’ll be used to the situation come the end of my PhD. Registering part-time means I have longer deadlines.

My reports and presentations and general submission dates are all longer than it would have been if I were full-time. This means, for example, that I only give a departmental poster and talk once every two years and that I have a hard deadline of 7 rather than 4 years to be done and dusted. Now I have no intention of using those 7 years, I’m aiming for more like 5, but the longer deadlines gives me the freedom to take more down time between experiments if I need it to work more and save up cash or to just take some me time.

A very important positive is just the aspect of doing a PhD itself: the freedom and privilege to explore a subject I find fascinating with the resources to do so. This is not unique to a part-time one but it is no less significant because it’s why we’re here in the first place. No one does, or should do, a PhD because it’s something to do. It’s an opportunity to develop subject-specific as well as broader skills whilst studying something you find particularly interesting. More interesting than a lot of other things because that’s what you’re focusing on. The actual fascination with your topic is what should push you into this position and as such whether you are funded or not it is really the perk of the role.

Overall, a part-time PhD is difficult but (at least so far) is worth it if you’ve got the topic, the environment, and the willingness to develop the self-discipline to do it.

  • What is St Andrews like for someone from a non traditional St Andrews background?

What a question. There are a lot of people here who did their undergraduate here, they must be doing something right(?). It’s very different in some ways. The university seems to have a good balance of topics and research areas in the departments which I have seen. This is something which isn’t always as attainable in some institutions who decide to focus more on one area or another. Whilst specialism in to some extent needed it can be at the sacrifice of good facilities for teaching and attracting a large range of students. Being such a small town which feels essentially like a university plus other things is nice because everything is so close. You can go from a talk out for lunch and back to the lab all in no time and you get a nice walk doing so.

What I do find odd and a bit difficult to understand is the number of quirky traditions they have here. There’s a lot of St Andrews unique things and I can’t really understand the need for them other than them happening because they happened. I’m not much of a traditionalist at all so the extensive wearing of gowns, dining groups, events among others leaves me a bit flabbergasted. I think I would have felt quite uncomfortable were I have come here as an undergraduate when it came to this extra-curricula activities. One thing in particular stands out. The notion of ‘academic families’. Whilst in principle it’s meant to be a support system where older students take younger ones under their wings and just provide general support, it descends into the usual university drinking culture which basically defeats the point. Everybody takes it so seriously as well and absolutely none of it clicks in my head. Maybe that’s more my issue but it’s still a quirk of the St Andrews.

All in all it’s a great town and a great university it just carries a few odd quirks which i don’t understand but they are more focused on the undergraduate experience.

  • How do you prep for talks?

By excessively staring at a powerpoint presentation. But seriously. Having only given one here I have little to draw on. I haven’t presented at any conferences or similar yet unfortunately. For my first talk I prepared by distilling my topic to its key points, trying to find the most visual ways of presenting these, and when I had a few results making sure they were as clear as possible. I also did a smidgen extra reading in case of any curve ball questions. I ran the structure past my lab and then was ‘ready’ to go. The talk then went well, I think, but my main issue was timing. I went very close to the limit (the +10mins for questions limits) and there was one way I could have prevented this: practicing. The first time I gave my talk was the talk so whilst I knew everything I needed to say I had no idea how long it would take. I think I repeated a few points which would have saved time.

Lessons learned: read more before hand, fewer words, and give it at least one practice run.

  • What have you learned about teaching/research balance?

At my level or above? I can’t comment too much about a PI or lecturers balance and I have my opinions about where this should and should not be which I’ve covered in previous posts. So far my teaching experience has been a few stats labs in my first year, 5 modules covering biology and psychology in my second, and academic skills tutoring in my third. What I’ve learned about the balance is that just that is required: balance. I could do 3 modules in autumn of my second year because I wasn’t doing any research. I was planning and writing but no hands-on research. Teaching on 2 modules in the spring of second year was fine as well because though research started it was in a lower-key stage so was manageable. What should have given around that time was work but this isn’t the teaching/research/work balance. I think teaching is important and is something I intend on maintaining during my PhD but too much can detract from research or at the least make it more difficult to focus on. My academic skills tutoring job is a great way for me to maintain some teaching without it impacting upon my research because it’s on an as-need basis and I have to submit availability to do it so I can work it around my research schedule. It also provides a great break from being in the lab all the time and a sort of refresh button on the brain to focus on something else.

Teaching grounds us. It helps us learn the best ways to explain things and reminds us that we all started off in that position. I want to be strong in teaching as well as research but I want to do so not at the detriment of either. Next time I pick up some formal teaching I won’t be taking on quite so many modules, just 1-2 per semester depending on workload.

  • What are your academic new years resolutions?

In short: to be better. We should always aim to be better versions of what we are now and I truly believe that we are all a work in progress. I also believe that maintaining that mentality helps to stop us becoming complacent but it’s not exactly a resolution.

I want to get this experiment done. Experiments can be as long as pieces of string but I want to get this done, analysed, and written up so that I have something I can look at and say “that was me”. Some graphs, words, conclusion, and (most importantly) questions to show for my time and effort. Relating to this I will also want to start drafting papers to get this information out there.

I also want to feel more independent. I want to have developed more skills to come up with better ideas on my own, troubleshoot them, and decide on the best way of approaching them. Up until this point I have felt like I have half ideas or even sometimes no ideas. Now I realise that a PhD really is an apprenticeship and as such I am learning. We are all learning, everybody discusses ideas with others. But what I want is the feeling of a new idea or connection which I’ve really brought into focus. This will hopefully come from this experiment being analysed but it’s just that feeling of “what a great idea” that i’m aiming for.

I want to be more integrated within my academic community. There are many talks, groups, outings and the like which I’d like to be involved with but have passed over due to tiredness or have been working during and other reasons. I really want to make the effort this year to attend these get togethers no matter how informal and where lacking try to organise them myself. I’m a huge believer in academia being about more than the work. The human element is so important in making you feel a part of the community and who doesn’t enjoy talking about interesting things?!

Lastly and sort of related to the previous point I have a few projects I’m developing on the social and teaching side of things. I won’t say too much yet as they need to be planned and discussed with various people before being implemented. Overall my resolutions are to see the products of my research efforts and use this to drive my development as a scientist. Additionally I want to become better integrated into my community both at the researcher level as well as contributing changes to the educational and social experience of students.

That’s it for now. If you ever have any questions you want to know about my experience then please do not hesitate to ask. My next two months will be continuing testing, focusing on health, and developing projects.

Thank for reading 🙂

BCT

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2 thoughts on “Testing problems, long weeks, and some reflection on things so far

  1. “not having funding means I have no end of funding. I don’t have the panic that my colleagues are experiencing as they count down to their money running out.”

    A lovely way of putting things.

    I threw all those ideas out there just in case one took your fancy, so it’s lovely to read considered responses to them all. A fascinating insight, so ever. Thanks Ben.

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