Psycholoquia, Building the Bigger Picture, and Planning the End


Hi all 🙂

The last two months have felt strong and I’ve made some good progress regarding my physical health. PhD wise, I’ve given a presentation, started getting to grips with the bigger picture of my research, and taken steps to plan for the end of my PhD.


As an absolutely rarity, I’m actually writing this at the time it happened (as opposed to writing the whole post just before submission). In our department, we present 3 talks over our PhD and these are termed ‘Psycholoquia’. My first (2014) was fine but a bit of an overly long shambles, 2016’s was ok but essentially just ‘this is what i’m going’, 2018’s was different. I have data now and a good chunk of the story I’ll tell in my thesis. That’s quite exciting but got me much more nervous than usual. At the end of an intense 4 days of stats, talk prep, lab practice, teaching, and work I’ve now given my talk and from what I can tell it went down positively. I’ve received two bits of praise, one of which is embedded below. Overall, I felt it went well considering that it was unrehearsed. At times, I felt myself rushing and some of the organisation could have been better but I’m very glad that it’s done and happy with myself for doing it that well 🙂


Building the Bigger Picture

One of the things I’ve been struggling with in the past few years is considering the bigger picture of my research. I’ve found that having a broad interest has made it difficult to hone in and provide some clarity on the direction and focus of my PhD. Theses, in general, will have a central narrative and I’ve found myself lacking the focus to come to recognise my own. Lately, and in no small part aided by the vast amount of statistics as well as the presentation I’ve done, I have finally started to get to grips with the bigger picture of my research. It’s not finished yet, of course, but I am more confident when discussing the research to present it in a way which supports some overarching questions as opposed to simply isolated interesting questions. I’ll keep going with this and it is going to help with the direction of my final experiment as well as my thesis. Speaking of which…

Planning the End

I have started to not only think about what I want to do next with my life but also how to put together my thesis in the first place. A thesis can be structured in a number of different ways, depending on your data and the way your questions flow together, and as I’m winding down to the writing phase I’m starting to think about this. I’m going to look at the bigger picture and how the experiments I’ve done fit in that to draft a chapter by chapter plan for my thesis. I’ll include what each chapter is aiming to do and its role in the thesis as well as a first go at a decent title. My supervisor will then no doubt beat the ideas into shape when I see them next.

Something I have to really start thinking about now is what I want to do next. I’ve always been interested in teaching so I’m certainly going to look for careers where I use my experience and knowledge to aid others but beyond that I’m still unsure. I’d happily be a teaching fellow at a university or a science teacher in a school or do something to do with outreach work at museums or charities. I also have not ruled out continuing the academic route and looking for my first full-time position working in somebody else’s lab. With that in mind, I’ve already started a few conversations with potential bosses and I’m going to continue this over the coming year as well as at a conference in the summer!

It’s been a good two months and I’m feeling stronger in myself. The next two will be spent finishing some analysis for this experiment, (hopefully) having written the next experiment’s ideas, and applying for a conference!

Thanks for reading 🙂



Things I’m Proud of and Plans for the Future


Hey all 🙂

Another year has started and I’m once again reflecting on my progress. This time last year, I talk about how things have gone 3.5 years in. This year I  thought I would talk about the achievements which I’m proud of and my plans for the near future to continue striving to be a better me.

Things I’m Proud Of

For the first time in four years I have started to feel like I am getting a grip on this research thing. A research apprenticeship (aka a PhD) involves no practice trials, you learn to do research whilst actually doing it. This double learning curve is quite steep and as such it can sometimes feel like your struggling to stay afloat. Now that I’ve gone through the motions from ideas through execution to analysis to presentation I feel like I’ve taken a step up in my abilities. I feel far more confident in doing good work as well as keeping up with workloads. Now this isn’t complacency, I’m not sat here thinking the work is done. However, I am happy within myself for the progress I’ve made.

Related to the above, I’ve become more confident in communication having had three experiences which have shown me that I am competent in engaging others in ideas. First, outreach in schools. I spent a day at a science festival for primary school children where i taught them how to get DNA from strawberries. Working with such young kids was endlessly challenging but I managed to hold my own and they seemed to get something good from it! Second, summer school. I had my own class of 5 students for 4 weeks during which I introduced them to many areas of biology as well as hands-on experience they wouldn’t get in high school. The class was engaging and well received so I must have been doing something right! Lastly, conference presentation. I had my first opportunity to present my own research this year in Portugal. I gathered more interest than expected and held interesting discussions about my work with a large handful of people including two whom I’m going to keep in contact with in case of future job opportunities!

Across this year, I have pushed myself to try new things which at times has meant getting quite out of my depth. Being in a routine can be good but challenging yourself to get out of your comfort zone can be also for a number of reasons. Firstly, you may just find something new which you enjoy. Secondly, it can keep you alert mentally and help to develop new skills. Lastly, taking small steps to leave your safety zone can help give you the confidence to take a leap of faith or simply be vulnerable in other aspects of your life. This year I’ve tried many things, including: film and TV reviews, cosplay, archery, mixed martial arts, and novel writing. Whilst not all of these have stuck, the experiences have been invaluable and I am very proud of myself for giving these things a go.

Plans For The Future

In the last two or so years of this PhD thing I need to start doing some serious thinking about what I want to do with my life. Since I was young, I have always wanted to teach. I’m not sure precisely why but engaging others and helping them to learn interesting things and develop skills always appealed to me. I went to university with this intention but during my second year it struck me that I could not only be the one telling people about the world but also the person learning about it in the first place. You never know if that career is for you, however, and whilst I did get experience during my undergraduate I didn’t have the chance to ‘live’ research. I decided that I would go into a PhD to get some full experience and use that to decide whether the academic route is for me or not. If it was I’d pursue research and lecturing, if not i’d be a school teacher. Now, 4.5 years later, I’m no better informed about myself. There was a time when I was ready to leave but after a bit of adjustment (in research and life in general) I’m feeling much enjoyment and competence in research now. So i’m still a bit stuck. All that I know is I want to work in an area where I can use my experiences to help others. Thus, across this year I’m going to do some serious thinking and learn about the opportunities out there.

I want to spend my year continuing to make new experiences as well as stick with some of the ones I’ve most enjoyed. Archery is going well and I’d really like to keep on top of that. I can only make 2/5 sessions a week but that’s enough for some catharsis and development. It’s such a supportive community there no matter what your experience and intentions. I’d like to continue this over 2018 and perhaps attend a competition or two if I’m ready! I’d also like to actually put a decent dent into novel writing. I had a story idea earlier in the year and have since written a summary draft as well as a detailed plan. I’d really like this to not be just a fruitless idea and actually put my creative muscles to work. I’m a musician too but have found myself stalled in terms of writing in recent years. Novel writing gives me the opportunity to express myself creatively in another way and also give myself some writing practice in general!

Lastly, I want to seriously focus on improving my physical health. I’ve always had weight issues  but even when I was considerably heavier I was fitter. My physical health (not just weight) has gone up and down over the years but I really nailed it in 2014 before taking a sharp fall backwards. Over the years, I’ve managed to get research right, life-balance right, and health right and 2018 is when I’m striving to get them all right together. As with a lot of things, I know the answers it’s just about making good habits. I feel I’m in a better place mentally now to make these habits and stick to them. This will include healthier and more controlled eating, less caffeine/alcohol, working on sleep habits, and more exercise. Small steps, I know, bu ultimately being healthier physically which snowball into more positivity in general.

So that’s it. Perhaps this time next year I’ll be telling the other side of this story with some good outcomes. My next two months are going to be spent starting a new experiment, working on my novel, and improving my health.

Thanks for reading 🙂


PhD Planning, Comic Con, and Trying New Things


Hey all!

The last two months have been slower than the previous ones but all round positive. I’ve been getting into some analysis and research planning, had a great birthday weekend away, and have started making some positive decisions including trying new things!

PhD: recent and planning the future

I believe I had a similar headache some 18 or so months ago regarding statistics. I’m not the greatest at stats but I am getting better. However, each time I ‘level up’, so to speak, there’s a new boss waiting to be overhauled. I’ve spent numerous weeks now trying to get something to work and all of the guidance online suggests it’s not particularly possible. The trouble I have is that a most of my results are negative. This isn’t innately a bad thing, not finding a result when you expect one tells you as much about the world as finding one: something about your best ideas is wrong. The trouble is is that my experiments involve small sample sizes and thus I am unsure as to whether I have true (therefore interesting) null results or whether I just haven’t made enough observations to find an effect. So what I’ve been teaching myself is a ‘Power Analysis’. This takes together various aspects of your data, including sample size, and provides you with a measure of if you are likely to catch a genuine effect if it’s there. There are very nice and simple ways of doing this, for simple data and tests…My models are quite complicated and the best guidance out there seems to suggest a simple power analysis doesn’t exists for the type of statistics I’m using. So I’m a bit stuck…I’ve tried a few things, done some reading, and now have contacted some more stats-savvy colleagues. I hope I can find a result!

I’m starting to outline some short- and long-term plans for the remainder of my PhD. I had a very constructive meeting with my supervisor during which we made a plan for the remainder of the year. The idea being to wrap up all of the results I have so far and to start putting them in a form geared towards papers and thesis chapters. It also helps to start opening questions for my final experiment. I am also continuing to practice some lab techniques so that I am ready to analyse some samples which is great as it’ll add a whole bunch more data for me to analyse. My supervisor is very good at getting me to step up at a good pace from following to driving ideas and I’m now moving on to that the next part of that. I am also starting to consider my outlook for the future. In a year or so I need to start applying for the next step and thus 2018 is going to be a year of networking and attending the best events to support me. For the now, I’m going to be having a strong think about what I would most like to do next and then we’ll be making a game plan to support it. Lots of thinking, lots of maturing, lots of scary but lots of good.

Comic Con – Glasgow

In the continued interest of my developing nerdery, I attended my second con! This time, a troop of 7 took to Glasgow together for a weekend of fun (which also happened to be my birthday). Costumes were wonderful across the board and the con was largely a success. I’ve written a review of it which will pop up on The Wonky Spanner sometime soon! I had an absolutely lovely weekend and, though one was too ill to come, had a great time with friends. We saw the con, bought far too much merch, played minigolf, visited an arcade, went bowling, ate out a lot. Overall, a great weekend. The ride home sucked a tad, however, as we broke down on the motorway and it took ages to be picked up by the insurance company. A 1.5h journey became a 10h one including a stint in a services carpark. Overall, a great weekend though and I hope my students weren’t too put off by my fatigue the next day!

Trying New Things

Part of attending the con was my decision to give cosplay a go. The most I’ve done to dress up before hasn’t amounted to more than painting my face but I thought I’d try it. The result wasn’t amazing but as my first attempt I’m quite proud of myself.

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The decision to do so has come with a series of positive choices in general, most of which involve trying new things. My first good decision came when I demoted myself at my job. I’ve been a ‘shift-manager’ for a few years now and with that came guarantee of hours plus a small increase in wage. In general, this has been fine and is good experience for the future. However, the further along it went the more the late nights and mental stress which comes with that position took its toll on my health and ultimately interfered with my PhD (the very reason I have that job in the first place…). I made the decision to step down and my boss has been entirely supportive. I now do no late shifts, have no responsibility, and keep up enough hours.

After cosplay, I also decided to put my mind to story writing. I’ve never been a writer, at all, and I’ve rarely delved into literary fiction but a short Ted Talk and a small bit of imagination got me thinking. So I wrote a 3 page summary covering the main strokes of the story and gave it to a few people to read. I’ve had nothing but positive feedback and am eager to continue filling out the story. I’ve also been given some suggested reading to help and as such I’m combining a well known book, comic/film, and some historical accounts together into my ideas. I have no idea how long this will take but it has given me another thing to think about and is forcing me to practice my writing which is never a bad thing!

Taking a walk around the sports fayre here, I had a whim to give a few things a go. I signed up to archery and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and since then have been attending some of their sessions. MMA was…interesting. Very alien to me in almost every way but still fun in its novelty. I was very impressed by how safety conscious they all were which was great. I ended up going to 3-4 training sessions but found myself getting overly anxious before them. I wasn’t sure if it was MMA specifically or just that I was trying TOO MANY new things but on the balance of it I stopped going. What was important to me, though, was that I tried it. I stepped out of my depth and gave it a go. Regarding archery, I’m still going and loving it each week! I can only make 2/4 of their sessions but that’s totally ok and all of the people there are really friendly and wanting to help. I have no idea whether I’ll aim to compete or not but for now it has given me a regular activity to focus on each week. As a side benefit, I’ve found myself completely focusing on it at training which is nice as it serves as a break from anything else.

So that’s me. The next two months will be spent finishing my analyses and writing them up, planning the next experiment, and sorting stuff out for a quick family visit over the festive period. Oh, and continuing with my new things!

Thanks for reading 🙂


Kinloch Science Festival, Oxbridge Summer Schools, Swiss Workshop, and ‘Behaviour 2017’


Hey all 🙂

I’ve had an all-round positive four months involving some outreach, intensive teaching, a workshop, and presenting at my first conference!

Kinloch Science Festival

You may recall from a previous post that I had visited a wonderful primary school in Kinloch Rannoch for a smidgen of outreach. Well we were invited back for a mini-science festival and they brought another 3 local primary schools with them! It was absolutely fabulous. The teachers were so enthusiastic and well prepared (we had banners for our stations!) and the kids were a delight (if at times tiring!). We had activities including extracting DNA from strawberries, the bones of the body, animal sounds and others. Overall, it was a delight to bring some science-related activities to such a friendly and remote community and I learned very quickly how exhausting it can be looking after 8 primary school kids for 12 minutes (never mind the full classes all day!). I eagerly look forward to returning and more outreach in general!

Oxbridge Summer School

Oxbridge Academic Programs is a series of live-in, international educational programs aiming to provide high school kids with some university and life-enriching experiences. I was recruited to be this year’s molecular biology tutor at the St Andrews branch and took to this eagerly (I in fact couldn’t sleep until i’d outlined my curriculum on the day I was interviewed). The program gave some great flexibility in what I thought was the best content and how to present it and I had great support in terms of budget and human resources. I ended up planning a nice few weeks and then proceeding to throw 2/3s of the plan out of the window as I worked with my class to build something more tailored to what they wanted. Overall, we went through fundamental molecular biology, biotech, molecular models, evolution, mermaids, bioethics and many more. We had trips to museums and the aquarium. Students gave presentations on things they found interesting and everybody gave feedback and we had lab visits to both active research labs as well as teaching ones to give the students something hands-on to do. The total experience was fantastic and it was an utter privilege to be able to work with such freedom and with some very enthusiastic young scientists.

Swiss Workshop

I also attended a wonderful workshop in Arolla, Switzerland. It formed part of a doctoral training programme’s yearly training series which was opened up to other researchers around the world. This year’s theme was combining theory with experiment to develop new ideas about the future of the research field. I spent three nights in the alps including two whole days of talks and student-focused, hands-on activities. I met a great bunch of people and played some pingpong! The aims of the workshop were well satisfied as I was introduced to some theoretical approaches and results which I wasn’t even aware of. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn of different perspectives and ways of thinking. COmbining approaches, be it theory with experiment or simply different research tools and tpics in general, can be very valuable to the development of knowledge. My lab, for example, contains neuroscience/psychology majors, zoologists, chemists, molecular biologists, and behavioural ecologists and we all come together to understand similar questions. We each bring a different perspective to group meetings which is challenging but also very useful. Overall, a wonderful opportunity for which I am incredibly thankful to be able to indulge in.

Behaviour 2017

I got to present my results for the first time in four years! Woo! *mini mexican-wave in celebration of me* (it’s a Chandler Bing reference). I went to the lovely Estoril in Portugal for Behaviour ’17, an international get-together of people interested in animal behaviour from a myriad of viewpoints (including nearly all of those from the workshop!). At first, the conference was quite overwhelming due to the vast quantity of people (~1000) but after getting some sleep at hitting the ground running on the following days I got into my groove. Overall, I read ~400 posters, attended 57 talks, and met some really interesting and enthusiastic people (some of whom I was previously aware of and others which I wasn’t). When it came to my research, I gathered more interest than I expected. I think I had 8-10 detailed conversations about the findings which gave me a decent boost in my morale. Overall, a great experience and I’m eager to get out there again and give a talk next time!

Other than the above, I’ve been getting really into writing reviews and have put out a few more on the Wonky Spanner (Kong, Defenders, Wonder Woman, EdiCon, Power Rangers, Iron Fist, and Logan were mine!). My next two (yes two, I WON’T let it go four this time) months will be spent continuing to analyse my data, planning the next experiment, undergrad lab teaching, and finishing my costume for Glasgow ComicCon!

Thanks for reading 🙂


Conference Application, Outreach, and Edinburgh Comic Con!


Hi all 🙂

What a refreshing two months i’ve had; for once I’m starting to feel productive in what I do. I’m going to tell you about the conference application I’ve put together, the outreach I did in a school, and my first experience of being press at a convention!

Conference Application

I have spent 3.5 years doing this PhD with at times very little (if any) innate reward. I had a short-lived pilot experiment with no resounding findings, a bit of a break from it all, and then a high workload 2 year experiment which ended in December. Now that I’m into the data analysis phase of the experiment, I’m finally at the point where I’ll potentially find some cool and original things and start telling the story of my own tiny part of nature. I’ve had troubles with the data (odd distributions, incomplete data sets etc) but eventually, with the invaluable guidance of my supervisor, I have a good approach to the data. Powering through this last week, as the deadline fast approached, I found a few hits which fit together nicely and I put together a conference application. The conference is Behaviour 2017, an annual gathering of animal behaviour researchers from across the world. This provides the first opportunity for me to not only attend an international conference but also to do so presenting my own data. It’s all very exciting. I am also in the process of applying for funding to cover the various expenses for the trip but all in all it’s going well.


Something I really enjoy is talking to people about nature and science but whilst I’m in experiment and data analysis mode very little of that extends beyond my immediate research project. As such, I have done very little outreach lately so when the opportunity came up I said yes without a moments hesitation. I accompanied Mhairi Stewart, the head of public engagement, and a small team to Kinloch Rannock primary school where were showed 20 children the wonders of extracting DNA from strawberries, the components of colour, and moods. All activities were hands on and very well received by students and teachers alike. The school themselves were incredibly warm and welcoming, made everything from the start very easy, and even put on a wonderful lunch for us all. Overall, a long and tiring but very rewarding day.

EdiCon 2017

A few weeks ago, I had my first experience of not only a convention but also being press at the aforementioned. A good friend of my runs the website Wonky Spanner including co-hosting one of its popular podcasts Nerd Versus World. WS serves as a platform for media reviews and content of all kind. Whether it’s games, TV, films, of conventions they have it and through their reputation have been able to visit events as press as well as interview multiple people on panels etc. I was gifted two press passes for Edinburgh Comic Con which was a wonderful experience. The passes got us in for free and gave us priority seating during panels. I had a great time overall and definitely spent too much money. My review will be up soon on WS with accompanying pics. I am now eagerly looking forward to my next convention (whether attending as press or not!).

So that’s it for now. My next two months will be spent chasing up funding sources for this conference, more data analysis and writing, and starting to consider how the next experiment can improve and expand upon the last one.

Thanks for reading


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


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 🙂


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


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.


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.


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.


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 🙂