Explorathon, Money and Personal Challenges, and Seriously Questioning What I’m Doing

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Hey all 🙂

The last four months have been really challenging for me personally and as such a skipped one of my regular blog posts. I’ve taken part in a public engagement event, undergone some challenges, and for the first time I’ve started considering whether what I’m doing is the best thing for me.

Explorathon

Once a year, European research of all kinds floods the public stage to provide 24h of entertainment (hopefully with a dusted with a smidgen of engagement too!). This year St Andrews hosted its wing of the event for the first time and my lab had the opportunity to put something together. We decided to do a small stand on bird song! Below is a list of the things which were put on.

explorathon

Bird song is something which has fascinated people from all areas of life for a long time. Scientists, artists, poets, amongst others hear the chattering of the dawn chorus and find something wonderful and interesting in it. Top left panel: Young birds learn to sing by first listening to the song of a tutor (usually dad). After this they practice singing until what they hear is a good a match to what they learned as possible. In some birds these stages overlap whilst in others they are separate, some learn but a simple song before adulthood and some continually add to their song list across the years. Learning depends on a collection of brain regions called the ‘song system’ which is in two main branches: the front, focusing on learning the tutor’s song, and the back, responsible for producing the bird’s own song. These regions are often bigger in males than females and this is reflected in the fact that in most bird species only the males sing. Top left panel: It is thought that this is because singing is something about a male which a female can use to select a mate. Song is also used to defend territories which would bring obvious benefits to a female. Bottom right panel: The quality of a male’s song can also relate to the strength of his immune system, his parental investment, and the size and survival of his offspring thus females can gain numerous benefits from choosing a mate based on aspects of their song. More recently an idea has been suggested that when a male sings he is giving away signs about how smart he is (as shown by the cute graduation hats and scrolls with grades on them) thus a female would also potentially gain a mate who more readily learns patterns of food availability for example.

birds

Our lab used this poster as a background and talking spot for our stand as well as provided a couple of activities. The first (and coolest) is the game Bird Idol which my supervisor co-created a number of years ago. The game uses real recordings of the parts of canaries’ songs and lets the player choose which parts and in which order to play them. This is done for two males and then the songs play and the female hops towards the male they prefer based on real evidence for the preference of females for certain aspects of song. Additionally, we used a laptop to let people see their own song in the same way we record a bird’s on a sonogram (bottom left panel). Overall, it was a good day and we are developing bigger plans to take these and more activities to bigger science festivals.

Money and Personal Challenges

The end of my third year has brought some serious personal challenges (which is probably why I haven’t blogged in four months). Third year is well known to be a bit of a panic for most PhD students as it tends to be when your funding runs out so you’re balancing finishing your research, writing your thesis, and applying for jobs with the impending loss of income looming ever closer. I have colleagues who dealt with this in different, frequently unhealthy, ways. However, the one benefit of my lack of funding is that I never run out of it; I research by day and work by evening and then I’ll write by day and work by evening. At this point I’m also not near to submitting as I’ll have another experiment to run as well so these pressures aren’t as impending for me. What was impending was my partner’s loss of funding so as a household we were looking at making some changes and picking up teaching hours to compensate. That was the plan…but then we broke up. Now I’m not using this blog as an emotional output but just to outline what’s been going on and how it’s effected everything. Breaking up brought its own challenges. I wasn’t a very healthy human for about a month and most things were just more difficult. This included research which can be taxing at the best of times never mind when you’re not in it mentally. Work as well suffered. I ended up dealing with this by taking everything day by day and by reaching out to friends. You really realise that you have people who care for you when you’re struggling to get on. I’ve developed some really good and supportive friendships from that time and without them I wouldn’t be where I am now. If you’re ever in that scenario the best thing you can do is listen to your body and mind and confide in people. The other side to a break up is becoming financially independent again. I’ve been in the incredibly lucky situation of being supported by student loans and a funded partner so have not had much in the way of financial struggles (and none since being an adult), for which I am very thankful. The abrupt change and worries they bring is really taxing mentally and impacts on everything else you do. I balance the amount I work such that I get enough hours to pay my bills and have a little extra without utterly exhausting myself. The downside to PAYE is the lack of cover if you need a day of which means I’m straddling the line most of the time and worry if I’m starting to feel ill. It also means that any small slip ups such as forgetting a bill can render you without anything until next pay day. It’s a stressful and abrupt transition which I’m still getting used to. Life skills you learn by doing can be intimidating when they have big impact. This doesn’t specifically relate to my research but as I’m sure you can imagine it’s a whole-life thing so it’s part of the big picture. However, I am also very lucky for being able to do teaching within the university and use that to build up savings again. So it’s not all struggle. Plus teaching is something I’ve always wanted to do as I find it incredibly rewarding so it’s a win-win. Which brings me to the next point…

Seriously Questioning What You Are Doing

I’ve never until now seriously questioned whether what I am doing is right for me. I’ve wanted to teach ever since a year 9 science class when I was so inspired by my teacher that I wanted to do the same for others one day. When I got to university to study biology I then learned about these fascinating people who not only share stories of nature but also find the answers to some of the questions about it too. From that I thought this may be the thing for me but without having some properly experience I could never be sure. I did what I could to gain research experience during my undergraduate and decided that a PhD would provide enough full on experience to make a good judgement as to whether researching and teaching at university was for me or if I’d be better suited being a high school teacher. Until recently, no matter how difficult it has been I’ve still been in that grey zone on unsureness. I’ve always told myself that I won’t make any judgements until I’ve gone through the full motions from ideas, to data, to story-telling. So far I haven’t managed that all yet and thus until I get the full experience I wanted to make no decisions. Recently, however, I’ve just felt so tired of everything and then with personal struggles on top of it all I actually started seriously considering moving to a teaching degree. I looked up courses and bursaries and considered where I may move to. It was a weird feeling being sat in Pret genuinely thinking I was in the wrong place in my life and that I should just stop and move on. Quite upsetting and it really makes you question a lot about yourself.

Suffice to say, I’m not leaving. But coming that close to wanting to when other aspects of life get tough has made me start to seriously think about whether after my time here I’ll want to continue. A research career just isn’t for everyone and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just a challenge to my personal views about myself and makes me question the last three years of my life. It’s tiring learning to learn about the world like this. A PhD is a real test of your grit and enthusiasm and determination. If you ever find yourself in this sort of situation then take heart at knowing that it’s not just you. It happens to a lot of people and sharing your story really will help. There’s also nothing wrong with deciding that this path isn’t for you. There’s lots of be gained from a PhD that isn’t just setting you up for a career in research.

So that’s me and my recent months. All a bit gloomy really…but there’s little reason to pretend that it’s not true. The next two months are going to be spent wrapping up this experiment (at last) and then taking a break to see family and friends over christmas. I’ve got a few posts in the works too and i’ll return with a bit of an overview of hour years 1-3 have gone.

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

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