My (self-funded) PhD, Three and a Half Years In…

Standard

Hi all 🙂

I have once again not posted for four months. This has been partly because very little has happened, partly because  I had about 6-8 weeks off of the PhD journey, and partly because I’ve been struggling a tad and not felt like I’ve had a mental energy to put this together. What I thought I’d talk about is a small wrap up of the progress, both academically and personally, of the last 3.5 years. So here goes it…

Year One: excitement and new beginnings

Year one was refreshing. New environment, new people, new start on a new journey. Moving in was fun and having already known a few people in the area (both new and old) it really helped to start getting involved. I went to all of the welcome events which were great and met colleagues both within and between departments. Overall, the autumn was a great and easy-going time. I also got down to a bit of work and started planning an experiment which we started in January. Nothing much came from this experiment other than “don’t use this model for these tests” but that in itself was fun and useful information. I also got a job soon before christmas which was great because although my partner’s income plus my savings was enough for a while it just took a load off knowing that I can start bringing it some significant income.

Come spring I gained my first university teaching experience by being plunged into the deep end of stats. That was certainly an experience given my near 0 prior knowledge of the subject. But my enjoyment of teaching far outweighed my worry about the content. I also gave my first departmental talk which was fun and I learned that practicing talks really helps you keep to time! Hehe. Post-experiment things became a bit chilled. I started learning a few lab techniques but bar that spent most of the time seeing friends and working. I was also getting on top of my health and was both the most active and lightest i’ve been in years. Approaching autumn again I managed to mess up royally and leave some rather sensitive samples out of the freezer (thus rendering them unuseable, sadly) but there are lessons to learn in everything.

Overall, year one was a blast and whilst it did end on a bit of a low it was a great experience and introduction to PhD life.

Year Two: challenges to learning and self image

Year two started as year one ended. Riding a wave of health and enthusiasm (with a bit of a  lesson of ‘pay more attention next time’) we moved into autumn. I decided to take up a load of teaching this semester to help build savings whilst gaining some fun experience. I was doing two biology modules and one psychology so suffice to say I was busy. During this time I was also working on plans for a bigger experiment which was progressing nicely without needing to commit set periods of time to it. I also got a promotion to the management team at my job so things were looking well.

Come winter things seemed less shiny. I got to the festive period to find that without realising it I had regained a significant amount of weight (my favourite jacket no long fit properly). This was quite demoralising and a big kick as I didn’t know how I could have done that without noticing. I’d had a few signs before of some challenges mentally and the rapid weight gain tipped me over (the scales, badum…) and I decided that come the new year it was time to start talking about it. I started counselling for various ‘me’ problems. This is not part of the PhD journey but it very clearly can affect it which is why I decided to include it in my blog. Whilst this was happening, I was still managerial at work, setting up an experiment, and teaching on two modules in the spring semester. It was quite a workload but I made it balance as a lot of the early stage of the experiment wasn’t very intensive.

The biggest hit of year two was my first year viva. I didn’t outright pass, due to being very under-prepared, which in itself felt like a massive fail. It hugely brought down my confidence and made me start questioning myself, my abilities, and my interests. I recovered from this with sufficient preparation and I am still here so it was perhaps a good thing. Second year continued and become less intense again after teaching ended and the experiment was set up. I had a nice holiday and then some down time.

Overall, year two was challenging but do-able and fun. I learned a lot about myself and my own limits and interests, balancing numerous responsibilities, and about really designing experiments.

Year Three: fatigue and questioning

Year three kicked off the most difficult period in my PhD so far and it continues until now (albeit for different reasons across those 18 months). I entered a period of testing in my experiment which involved 4-6 hour days 6-7 days a week for weeks at a time. The overall process took 14 months including a few breaks and by the end of it I just felt completely fed up and defeated. My drive went right down and was difficult to recover as there was little to no short-term reward. During this prolonged period I got small jobs done to do with admin, minor bits of analysis to present, and a vast quantity of the DC extended television universe. Largely, however, it was just quite draining.

Year three also brought a general sense of failing as well as questioning myself and my own intentions. It felt as if everything I tried fell short for reason or another. I don’t mean that in the scientific sense of finding the multiple ways in which things don’t work but more like I would make many small mistakes in most aspects of my life. I was messing up at work and making small errors or forgetting things during my PhD, for example. I also started, for the first time, to seriously consider if this path was right for me. I’ve always gone into my PhD as a testing phase to decide if research was for me; no matter how difficult I was finding things I have repeatedly told myself to not make a judgement until I’ve gone through the whole process, from design through experiment to storytelling. However, during year three I started to question if the “that’s interesting” step would even be worth it.

The other development of third year was realising that self-funding by evening jobs makes it very difficult to feel part of the community you are in. This is for several reasons. Firstly, a lot of social events are simply booked for when I’m working. With enough notice I can swap my shifts but usually there isn’t and thus can’t go. Secondly, with less free time comes less of a drive to use the free time for uni-related events. So even when I’m free and there are regular events it tends to be on one of only a couple of nights off when I want to do anything but that. Lastly, researching by day and working by evening truly burns the candle all over. Just a general sense of fatigue makes getting the gusto to go to events during the day a little more difficult. I don’t want that sentiment to belittle those who aren’t self funded but just to say that in my situation it has felt as if I’m so tired all of the time that I don’t have the energy mentally to commit to anything extra.

Overall, third year was tough. It was a trying year and full of personal lessons and challenges. I learned a lot more about my own limits and I’m still learning to not push them.

Year Four: rebuilding and bettering (hopefully…)

Year four started much as three ended: sluggishly. it all wound down though and I picked up some teaching which was nice. I had a really great lab bench of students which was a delight each week. After wrapping up the experiment mid-December, I took until February off of research which was nice. Since coming back to it all, I’ve started teaching again and have a game-plan for analysing some data. I’m not powering through that as quickly as I’d hoped but I am progressing which is great. I’ve also made my first application for funding to attend a conference this summer which’l be my first opportunity to present my own findings. I’m both excited and anxious which I guess is a good thing? It’ll be nice to, after four years, finally get the chance to tell my own story as well as travel and meet some great people.

I’m also planning on making better habits across the whole of my life in general. I’ve come to the gradual realisation that I don’t have a lot of the most efficient practices in my life which has probably made a lot of my struggles more difficult. I’m going to use the flexibility of this year to work on that and generally become a more adjusted and prepared person. PhD really has been challenging to all aspects of my self; intellectually, psychologically, and physically for sure but also in others I would assume. I’m in the process of relearning who I am, including my own capabilities and desires, and I’m going to make some headway on that in year four.

Overall, it’s been difficult and tiring but 3.5 years later I am still here and intend to continue this journey. My next two months will be spent continuing to acquire and then analyse data (I will hopefully know by then if I am presenting at the conference), starting to write a paper, and continuing my own personal development. Oh! And I’m going to be reviewing a convention as press which’ll be awesome!

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

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

Standard

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

Stats pain, presentation, and a (very) welcomed break

Standard

Hi all 🙂

The last two months have brought some analysis of preliminary results, my second departmental presentation, and a holiday which couldn’t have been better timed.

Stats pain

If you want to go present at a conference you need something to present. In general, this means data and with data comes stats. Stats brings anxiety to many people and, whilst I thought I was making progress, I was no exception. I came up against multiple problems and some seemingly simple questions I had I couldn’t find any information online. (I should add here that yes my supervisor is great and walked me through the things I was stuck on but I really wanted to give the full picture a shot on my own first). Combined with a few very long days, some sleep deprivation, and a general sense of being fed up I had a bit of a break-down; feeling defeated, it was the data which broke the camel’s back.

A little down the line and after a rest I went through the analysis with my supervisor and found a tentative hit! I had a significant result! Whoop! Conference here I come! The result in question was an interaction between condition and the sex of the individual but the important next question was what was that interaction? To illustrate what I mean I’ll provide an example.

Imagine that you’re interested in whether being stressed affects memory. So you give a group of people a list of words to remember twice: once relaxed and once when you’re putting the pressure on. You then ask them to list all the words they remember. Now you may expect a difference based on the situation (condition) but would you expect them to differ based on their sex? A third option is that both could happen in different ways. For example, males may perform better under pressure whereas females may perform worse or any other different response you can imagine. This is called an interaction because the results depend on not only the individual factors but how they combine. Now the stats tells you that you have a significant effect of condition combined with sex, but what is that interaction? Do females get worse under pressure but males don’t change? Do males get worse and females get better? To work this out you perform post-hoc tests which identify the differences between pairs of measurements (females stressed v female relaxed, female stressed v male stressed,…). To cut a long story short, when you do this you raise the threshold at which you consider the results significant, in essence making it more difficult to find one but leaving you more sure that it’s a real finding, and in doing so my significant result disappeared. “Damn you Bonferroni!” I exclaimed at my desk.

Anyways, whilst that was a rather simple tour of my recent stats, no conference for me. I’m nowhere near finishing my experiment though so any exciting results were quite unlikely.

Presentation

Each year every PhD student in the department gives a talk about their work. My last one  wasn’t great; it was poorly timed, not very well constructed, and I wasn’t able to deal with questions well. One of the biggest lessons learned was: practice it! This time I arranged to give the talk to my lab group before for some feedback. Suffice to say, that didn’t go well. I mean, it went well regarding getting constructive feedback but I started with quite a messy presentation. But that’s why we practice! I took the feedback, simplified the slides, refined a few ideas, and added in several more slides to make points clearer. It was a good exercise and made me think harder about what are the real take home messaged for each part of the research.

Then it came to the actual presentation. I was quite nervous. I felt jittery and ended up grasping some white-tac whilst I spoke as comfort. Once I started though I felt a lot more comfortable. I went in telling myself “you are the expert in the room” and that mentality made me flip from feeling like it was a performance I was being judged on to being someone who is essentially teaching a collection of interested viewers. That settled me a lot. Overall the talk went well, I was only about a minute over, and I had very interesting questions which I was told I handled incredibly well. The only negatives I received were that my background was a little long (for someone from my lab group) and to avoid having something to fiddle with! Curse that distracting white-tac…Anyways, it was a good boost to my confidence both in my knowledge but also my presentation skills. Sadly I didn’t have any data so I’m eagerly looking forward to the next one when I can actually tell my story!

Holiday

By the time I put this out I’ll have been on holiday for a while and it could not have come soon enough! Suffice to say that the last few months have just been getting harder. I’ve felt quite defeated and deflated and that is in no small part due to the fact that I haven’t had a solid break in almost a year. I don’t have a great deal to say about this to be honest. We all need breaks and sometimes what we do make that difficult. For me it’s a combination of having to work PAYE to pay my bills and having an experiment I can’t take much time away from. But it does slowly exhaust you and I’m pretty sure that even now when I’m feeling rested that I’m still fatigued. I’m off to South Africa to see Cape Town and then going to Ulusaba for the safari. It’s going to be amazing I’m sure and if it’s anything like my holiday last year I’ll be totally relaxed by midday on day one! For now though (when I’m writing this) I’m just counting down the days until it begins.

So that’s me. The next few months will involve enjoying this holiday, resting up, and finishing the last 30% of my testing (and seeing a certain Avengers movie).

Thanks for reading ☺

BCT

Testing (testing, testing,…), a two lab meeting, and academic journey so far

Standard

Hey all 🙂

The last two months have pretty much plowed on like the last two: testing, testing, testing, and more testing. I’m going to talk here a bit about reaching a point of fatigue in it all as well as a recent uber lab get together and my own academic journey.

Testing, testing, testing,…

Testing continues and I’m learning that it is a trying process in itself. You can’t predict exactly how long things will take and I’ve started to lose my enthusiasm at times. It’s a lot of work for little reward. Granted they come in the results and telling a (hopefully) interesting story at the end but for now it’s a lot of repetition whilst trying to not feel defeated when things aren’t progressing. I’m not going to lie: sometimes I’m really not fussed. I do the work but I don’t always feel the eagerness which drives science. The whole experience is challenging both personally and scientifically. I’m having to push myself become more persistent and resilient. Keeping the end goal in mind helps but sometimes that’s more difficult to do. Now I’m not saying that I do not want to do what I’m doing. I’m not about to drop out mid-experiment or anything like that. But I’m starting to really feel the struggles of learning to be a good researcher. I will stick to it though and I’m sure that when it’s done and after a spot of rest my enthusiasm will come back and I’ll be stronger for the next stage of my career.

A two lab lunch

Networking is a big part of most jobs and academia is no different. My supervisor has a colleague at another university whose group does very similar things to ours so we thought it’d be great to chat! So recently we had a visit from their group where we each gave a small talk on what we’re doing and had lunch in a relaxed environment. It was really good to meet people from another group with similar interests and to get their perspectives on things. One of the biggest things I’ve found is that everyone has different questions and suggestions for research and it seems largely to do with their background. Whereas a psychologist may question the processes of learning an ecologist may be more interested in the costs and benefits of it instead. Having a wide range of questions to your work challenges you to consider it from different angles and ultimately makes you more well rounded in your approach (that’s what I’m hoping anyway!).

My academic journey so far

I was listening to Spit’n’Twitches a podcast run by Dave Brodbeck, a professor of psychology at Algoma University, who studies cognition in animals when something struck me. He talks to researchers interested in animal behaviour about their work as well as their academic journey and a lot of the guests have led quite a focused path towards what they’re doing. They may have done undergraduate psychology or animal behaviour, gained research experience studying animal learning and done a PhD in the area etc. It made me think about my own route and how it’s a little different. I’ve jumped between interests and experiences quite a lot, nothing as drastic as from law to physics but still i’ve sampled a few areas of biology before settling where I am.

I studied human biology at the University of Birmingham. I started there with a broad interest but really enjoyed genetics, gained minor research experience in molecular modelling, and tried to biochemistry. (Looking back, I’m thankful that I didn’t as I wouldn’t have been able to study evolution and animal behaviour.) I then started delving seriously towards biophysics. I was interested in how we can study how molecules interact at the atomic level as well as how electrons move through proteins. I was excited,read ahead, and even visited a couple of researchers in my second year to ask about doing a PhD. At this point I should add that I also maintained modules in animal behaviour and physiology alongside the more structural end of things. Going into third year I maintained the split in my interests by studying integrated behavioural biology (genes, hormones, neurobiology, evolution) as well as structural biochemistry. I gained research experience in protein crystallography where I was almost able crystallise two proteins. By the end of this experience, however, my interest was fading. I still found the topic fascinating but not the actual hands-on aspect of crystallography. I was becoming more interested in what animals do and looked to that for my masters project. Unfortunately within my academic school the options were limited so I contacted supervisors from elsewhere. I started with to write a project with a behavioural neuroscientist in psychology looking at memory in rats. However this fell through when they ran out of space in the lab. I eventually landed a project in medicine studying a cell culture model of memory. It was exciting and full of new techniques but I decided it wasn’t the area for me.

Since 2013 I’ve been doing my research in the Mechanisms of Behaviour lab at the University of St Andrews. Here we study factors which effect an individual’s behaviour and learning using a range of models. What got me here as a specific topic I’m not 100% sure. In fact…is anybody certain as to why they chose their particular subject? I was inspired by the approach of studying behaviour by including genes and physiology by Roland Brandstaetter‘s teaching so I guess that must be part of it. Overall, it’s just utterly fascinating to see what animals do and having the opportunity to study just a tiny part of that is a real privilege.

The next two months will involve a department presentation, a very welcomed holiday, and hopefully applying to present at a couple of conferences!

Thanks for reading,

BCT 🙂

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

Standard

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

Being Welcomed into a Different Lab, Full Speed Experimenting, and Tutoring

Standard

Hey all 🙂

The last two months have just been getting busier and busier now. The most significant things to happen have been my supervisor being off for a while and my being accepted as an honorary member of another lab, getting on with the proper testing portion of my experiment (yay), and kicking off my new tutoring job!

Being welcomed into another lab

A couple of months ago my supervisor took some time off and I was left for the first time to really start pushing for myself. This was fine and understandable of course but the biggest thing for me was that sudden thought of “am I alone for this bit of time?” My supervisor’s style is very much one of ‘discuss ideas then go try something and come back if you’re stuck’ which is good, but they’re still always there if you’re stuck. So I had a smidgen of a worry thinking that somebody wouldn’t be there in the worst case situations. This wasn’t really an issue though, as there is a large support network within an academic community. Firstly, within the lab itself we have other researchers more experienced than myself who gave me some guidance during this time and additionally my secondary supervisor was fully aware of the situation and was attentive to how I was doing (as they always are). Finally though, and perhaps the more novel situation for me, was another lab letting me get more involved with their community. A different lab from a different school research similar topics to myself and have given me suggestions in the past and let me present at their meetings. Since then I’ve started to attend their weekly meetings as often as I can to be a part of their community. Giving back where I was given support myself. I’ve felt very included by this group and greatly appreciate the openness and time given to somebody from elsewhere. I’m finding this support and additional input to be very useful, as no matter how similar research can be people always have a different perspective or interest in what you’re doing. Plus the varying levels of expertise mean that you tend to get different sorts of insights and suggestions from each person too. Overall it’s adding to my ability and confidence as a researcher as well as my experience of research.

Full Speed Experimenting

So after quite a while of planning, setting up, and waiting for space and resources my experiment is finally going! I’m quite excited about this as after two years I’m yet to obtain much data. This has left me feeling a bit conflicted. One the one hand I feel as if I should have something to show from two years of being here but on the other hand I am part-time which means that effectively I’ve only done a year’s worth of work, so I should set my expectations a little lower for now. Either way I’m getting on with things which is great. Estimated completion date is the start of March (but as usual with science this could suddenly change at the drop of a hat) and then there’ll be all of the analysis and writing and hopefully using that to go to conferences and write papers! For the now though I’m spending 4-8 hours every day testing with the determination to get the aforementioned data. I’m sure in my next post my exhaustion will come across but hopefully some excitement due to some results too!

Tutoring!

So In my last post I mentioned a tutoring position coming up. I got the job! The role is ‘academic skills tutor’ which means that I help students with any transferable, non-subject-specific, academic skills such as time management, essay writing, exam revision and anything else you can think of. The job kicked off by my shadowing the other tutors during one-to-one and evening drop-in sessions to get a feel for what is expected, and in the last couple of weeks the training wheels have come off and I’m running on my own! I’m primarily doing an evening drop-in session at the university library. At this, students are able to freely approach with any problems they are experiencing and as long as there’s no queue forming they may get help for as long as is needed. For slightly more demanding struggles or if there are a few students waiting then they are recommended to book an hour-long one-on-one session during the day. It’s a great service and one which I think students should be making more use of. It isn’t the best advertised but I’m working with the team to work out how we can improve this. In the few weeks I’ve been working on my own I’ve seen a range of students covering a range of needs and it’s been thoroughly rewarding so far. I very much hope the service continues to be used and that hopefully in the future a position with more hours comes up!

So that’s it folks. The next two months will involve me continuing to push through this experiment, continuing the tutoring, and hopefully catching a quick break to visit the families over Christmas. See you in the New Year.

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT