Resubmitting a Report and Ongoing Personal Development

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Hi All 🙂

Just a short post today. Not an enormous has happened in terms of progress (getting experiments set up can take a long time) but a few significant things have occurred.

First Year Report…again

Two months ago I posted about how the combination of my first year report and viva were unsatisfactory. I was given 2 months to resubmit and be re-examined. That came on the 9th of April and I’ve been waiting for a decision. A couple of weeks ago I learned that as this was a re-submission a viva wasn’t required unless the examiners thought it necessary. After discussing my report I passed without viva! Whoop! A massive weight off my shoulders. I’ve received good feedback on the report and experiments in general which is useful but in general I am so happy to not have to be examined again (at least until my final viva!!!).

Personal Development

Personal development is a buzzphrase businesses and similar throw around and generally involves improving the skills of their employees. Over the last year or so I’ve come to feel that personal development is a lot more…personal than that. It’s more about how you develop as a person whether that be emotionally, socially, professionally or similar. Now on these lines the last few months have been hard. At times very hard. PhD involves a steep learning curve which challenges both you and your perception of your self, ambitions, and abilities. The biggest hit for me was the realisation that I’m not as competent as I thought. By all means I never thought I was brilliant nor do I think I’m now incompetent but when the way you work has done you well for long enough and then you suddenly feel like you’re drudging through treacle then you tend to get struck by that realisation. So not only is my PhD pushing my technical and intellectual abilities it’s also challenging my ideas of who I am and what I am capable of. Being self-funded is bringing its own challenges as well. Working 3-4 evenings a week on top of full days in the lab means I’m challenging by body and it’s limits. In particularly I’m having to very quickly learn to work efficiently and adjust my life to when I work optimally (see my post ‘Cheer Up Sleepy Genes‘). Overall PhD is bringing challenges on just about every level and I’m currently straddling the line between ‘enthusiastic and just a little overwhelmed’ and ‘exhausted and running out of determination’. I’m certain it’s the former. Driving against a tide (caused largely by yourself) is exhausting but my interest and passion for learning are still there I just let things get on top of me. I’ve got another few years of this so to make the most of it and do best for my health I need to get on top of my plans. I will.

The next two month are going to involve starting the heaviest period of this experiment and I’m also going on a much needed holiday. I’ll also be thinking of something to post on the sciencey end of things so any suggestions are welcome.

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

Viva, Experiments, and Getting Things Done

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Hey all 🙂

The last two months have been tiring with some bad news but things are picking up and I’ve got a lot to tell you about PhD examinations and ensuring you keep the ball rolling during your studies.

Viva

Well…in the style of Chandler Bing: could this have gone any worse? Yes. Yes it definitely could but it still didn’t go well and brought on some emotional difficulty at least in the short term. First of all I feel I should give you a brief description of what a viva actually is.

A viva, or to give it its full name a viva voce (meaning “with live voice” in Latin) is an oral examination of a body of work. In academia all large written works submitted for a degree (masters or PhD for example) are examined in this way. The general format in the UK is that two people (one of which an expert in the area) will read the work and take notes to question you as they see fit. After this the formal viva occurs whereby you sit down with the examiners who…examine you on it. They look to see that you understand and actually did the work, can justify the questions attacked and methods used, and that you and your work are in general up to the standards of modern research.

During a PhD most (all?) departments require students to pass some sort of first year test to ensure they are on the ball and capable of continuing to complete the PhD. This is what I had recently and which I did not do as well hoped on. After drafting my report up to the mark 2 stage I handed in and a few days later had the sit down. It started well with a light chat about the topic and what I found interesting about it. Then it progressed very quickly into probing my ability to justify why we would care about it at all and the train of thought from big picture to questions. The latter is where I fell down because whilst I had a good idea of why for the topic as a whole I was less confident and knowledgeable for those small justifications. These really are the meat of your argument for tackling your questions in the way you chose to. The viva proceeded in much this same fashion and whilst I learned a lot of peripheral things from my examiners the over-whelming result was that I could not answer the questions they were putting to me well enough.

Later that day I received the verdict: unsatisfactory; re-submit for re-examination in two months. My figurative heart fell deep. Whilst this wasn’t an actual fail it certainly felt like one. I knew no one who had not outright passed so this felt like a real downer. I felt as if I’d let myself, my partner, and my supervisor down. Suffice to say the evening was taken off for junk-food and fun TV therapy before getting back on track the following day. I made a game plan with my supervisor and I’ve been battling through that since to improve my knowledge, re-structure my report, and generally better prepare myself as I have to pass properly next time.

The whole thing was not a resounding negative however. The motivational problems I’ve felt for the last 6-8 months have certainly been given a big kick and as such I’ve been a lot more productive as of late. It was also very nice and appreciated to have a proper sit down with my secondary supervisor (one of my examiners) who before anything said that at no point did he nor the other examiner think I was incapable of doing my PhD. My enthusiasm was also praised which made me smile. So overall it was never my ability but my preparedness which was probably related to these motivational issues I’ve been feeling. If you ever get into this situation do take the time to recover from the initial beating because it is defeating. But do learn from it and take the feedback to work out why you got the result you did. Nobody wants you to fail but at the same time it is their job to ensure you are fully prepared to do the best research you can to keep up in the modern academic world.

 Experiment 1 and Being Organised

Experimental time is getting heavier now which is good. I feel a lot more productive on a day to day basis and the required structure is slowly pushing itself into the rest of my time. This is a good point to make a comment about the differences between undergraduate and PhD education. In the former your time is structured around your lectures, tutorials, and practicals etc. These form the backbone of your time and though you have to push yourself to revise and finish assignments in your own time you still have those nine o’clocks to get you going. PhD has none of that. It is all on you: your work, your time, and your will-power. I have for one reason or another let this get bad and as such my motivation and organisation have greatly diminished and a suite of problems have followed. The viva was a real kick in the behind to address these issues which is something I have started. Lesson to learn: start with structure as well as immediate-, short-, and long-term plans for yourself so that you have constant rewards for keeping on top of your workload. It’ll benefit you later when small problems can have big repercussions.

That’s it for now. The next two months will be spent getting into the real crux of this experiment, continuing with some undergraduate teaching, and working on my organisation. Oh! And that pesky re-viva! The first year report mark 3 is already in progress. I’ll also endeavor to put up some sciencey ramblings on the first of April as well.

 Thanks for reading 🙂

 BCT

Report Writing, Motivation & Organisation Problems

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Hey all 🙂 and happy New Year!

This has been a good albeit slow year for me. I’ve had a disappointing pilot experiment and funding issues. On the plus side I’ve gained some great teaching experience, am getting ever more enthusiastic about my topic, and have been to a couple of conferences which have been really useful. The last two months have really highlighted to me that my main  weakness is motivation (and to some extent organisation) and for that reason I’d like to tell you about these and how they’ve impacted my first year report writing.

Report Writing

 I have been posting bits and bobs about writing my first year report for quite a few months now. Just as a reminder: every PhD student has to pass their first year with a report covering their topic, any work they’ve done so far, and any plans for the rest of their studies. I had mine planned in the summer with the aim of drafting it to send to my supervisor by the first of September. Well…that was the aim. For one reason or another including working more hours in the evening but mostly because of my own lack of motivation it didn’t get done. I subsequently extended my personal deadline, failed to hit it, extended again,…you can see where this is going. Ultimately I didn’t end up polishing this off and sending it to the supervisor until the 30th of December. Thankfully this does provide enough time for her to provide feedback and me to improve the draft but it would have been much better to have this out of the way earlier. Towards the end my hesitation became less about motivation and more a…fear or anxiety (for want of a better word) about having it finished and send for judgement. I actually finished the words and everything needed far earlier but I just sat on it which is not the way forward. This is also very unlike me to be hesitant or worrying about things. Overall I haven’t been happy with myself when writing my report but I feel that the writing itself is now good and it certainly has given me an awakening I needed to get better planned for the coming year.

Motivation & Organisation Problems

 Now on to the crux of the matter: motivation. Since about the middle of the summer my motivation has been low. It’s not been a case of a lack of love for my topic now what I’m doing in general. Just a lack of drive to do it in the first place. I have been quite disappointed in my own lack of productivity as I don’t want to be wasting time. By all means I know that we all need down time and this is a separate lesson PhD students need to learn but achieving nothing for prolonged periods is not really an acceptable way to spend one’s time. One of the main things with these sorts of problems is obviously realising they exist but also trying to figure out why they are. For me I think my problems are caused by a lack of structure. I don’t give myself a daily routine nor targets to achieve so tasks just blend together until they build up and become intimidating. The main way I am going to deal with this in the new year is to give myself immediate, short-, and long-term targets and then make my day more structured with work and relaxing periods. This will let me be more productive and see that I have been so. Win win!

This is a big and important issue which can come up in your studies but I don’t actually have an enormous amount to say on it. Ultimately if you are feeling a lack of motivation in what you are doing then first try to work out why. Have you lost interest in your topic? Or in pursuing research in general? Are you like me in that you just need some structure in your studies? If so perhaps introduce your own targets or failing that ask your supervisor to give you some! Could there be an underlying problem medically that you’re uncovering? If all else fails then perhaps talking to a few people about it could help. Even to start with other students who can reassure you that your experiences aren’t unique. Overall, this time of your life is important and time is generally precious so we want to make the best of our time even if that means realising that the track we’re on is not for us.

I also wish to start making these posts more regular as I believe it will be more enjoyable for you to have something to read more often than every two months! As not a huge amount changes in the case of research every two months I am going to continue my UG2Phd posts as they have been (i.e. January, March, May,…) and on opposite months add posts about science and nature. I will write about my topic, things I find interesting, recent findings and how they’ve been portrayed in the media. I am also considering adding a ‘popular myths’ section where I post on an as-and-when basis. How do these ideas sound? Any suggestions are welcome.

My next two months will be spent polishing off my report and having my viva, setting up my first big experiment, and kicking myself into gear with my new plan.

Thanks for reading 🙂

 BCT