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

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Hey all 🙂

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

Explorathon

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

explorathon

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

birds

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

Money and Personal Challenges

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

Seriously Questioning What You Are Doing

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

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

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

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

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Personal qualities you need to be successful in graduate school

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Inspired by this tweet:

I had a think and decided that from my experience the following are important (but not all the) personal qualities which you really need to be successful in graduate school. Now these aren’t isolated traits, they definitely interrelate and support each other, but I’m going to outline here why I think they’re important and how they benefit you.

Enthusiam

The first one is so obvious that it probably wouldn’t even be considered by most people: you need to be enthusiastic. Wrapped up in enthusiasm is a passion for learning and a fascination with your discipline/topic but you ultimately have to find what you are doing genuinely interesting. As a starting point this is a must. It’s no good trying to dedicate a significant proportion of your life to something you do not find intrinsically interesting because you won’t put the time in, you’ll be less determined, and ultimately less likely to be successful. It’s the interest in the first place which brings us to want to learn more. Now this interest could be in a ‘pure’ sense (just a basic interest in the way something works) or in an ‘applied’ one (looking to solve particular medical, economic, or technological issues) but the driver has to start with interest and enthusiasm for the subject. At this point I’ll say that this doesn’t mean that you’re up and ready to go to do your work and talk about your topic at any given moment. We all have hard days/weeks/months and sometimes that interest wains. But it’s important that it’s there in the first place to get you through. On the topic of getting you through…

Resilience

Resilience is a life-lesson. You learn it by pushing further than you did before and using that to understand your limits next time. Resilience is a key aspect of any working environment and academia is no exception. Firstly, a lot of things don’t work. In fact, most things don’t work. There’s that quote out there about finding 99 ways to not make a lightbulb. Refining ideas and testing hypotheses is a lot like that. We test and test and test until eventually we’re left with the few results which tell a story. To push through that seemingly relentless series of obstacles or defeats you have to develop resilience. It enables you to take a set-back, work with it, and push on to find another way to achieve. It’s not something you have best refined before you start but it is certainly one you need to have developing and are willing to continue to during graduate school.

Humility

At first, humility may seem like a counter-intuitive quality to need. Think about it: you’re going to convince people to let you spend 3 or more years of your life egotistically studying something you find interesting which, in all honesty, probably won’t have any significant impact on most people bar those you tell the story to. That was a long sentence…That sounds like you certainly need a great sense of self-worth and great view of your own importance in the world. But I’d argue that in fact you need to develop a great sense of humility for exactly those reasons: you are seeking to study an immensely small part of a massive picture for which it will take a long time for anybody to appreciate. You cannot treat it and yourself as if they are the greatest and most important things in the world because they’re not. You are not the most capable or brilliant individual whose had the greatest ideas. You are one of a lot of very capable and determined individuals who are looking to add their own small piece to the puzzle of the world. Humility grants you the ability to be ok with failure and to look upon your colleagues not with envy but with understanding.

These traits work together, of course. Enthusiasm with resilience builds determination,  whilst with humility  enables you to be better at communication, and resilience with humility helps soften the blow of defeat as well as to learn from what’s past. Taken together, I would deem these the three pillars on which success in grad school lay.

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

Does it matter how I define myself?

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During the last year and a half or so, I’ve noticed differences in how PhD students refer to themselves and the staff they work with. I didn’t think much about it at first, it was perhaps just a cultural (American v British perhaps?) thing but my secondary/pastoral (or which ever word you choose) supervisor pointed a few things out to me about what a PhD actually is. This made me think a lot about how your actual choice of words may effect your attitude towards your studies (or job, or roles in general). I thought a bit of reflection on the matter would be good and as such what follows is what I’ve concluded.

Phd…student..?

When I was really struggling to keep up with my workload, a PhD was described in a very different way to how i’ve thought about it before: as an apprenticeship. Typically the word ‘student’ conjures images of exams, all-nighters, drunken antics until the early hours, and a general sense of being told what to learn and for what reason. It also suggests something quite dissimilar from a job and this is supported by the typical semesterly student year (at least up until undergrad). A PhD is very different. It’s more of a job in that you work full time, hopefully receiving a stipend which is comparable to a decent take home salary from a first job, and in absence of semesters you have time off when you can afford to or are permitted by the work you’re doing. Sound familiar?

Doesn’t sound like being a ‘student’ does it? (As a side note, I frequently have to explain this picture because a ‘PhD student’ isn’t a well-defined idea and most people tend to assume I’m book-learning and taking exams). This all sounds much more like an apprenticeship: you are spending time training to do research with the guidance of somebody who has been doing it longer than you. The distinction may seem trivial but I think it’s an important one. Firstly, shifting to consider yourself an apprentice transfers a lot more of the onus and responsibility of learning onto you. Rather than giving you answers and telling you what to do, you look to your mentor for guidance instead. You really start to look at the work as your own, with support from somebody more experienced, rather than your doing of somebody else’s interests. The focus is on your development and learning which is great because nobody wants you to finish unable to think and drive things for yourself. Secondly, it allows you to go easier on yourself when you struggle. PhD students are renowned for exhaustively working as well as comparing themselves to their colleagues (inevitably concluding their inferiority; the dreaded ‘impostor syndrome’). Considering yourself an apprentice means it’s already more understandable when you struggle because you are learning as you are doing. There is no practice for a PhD because it is the practice time. Now I’m not saying that these points do or will alleviate all of the anxiety and troubles that a PhD can bring but they can at least go somewhere to improving your outlook and resilience across your training and ultimately leave you more confident in your own abilities.

Supervisor or Adviser?

The other word describes that person whom guides you during your training: your ‘supervisor’ or ‘adviser’. I think this distinction is less important because it’s really a case of how you interpret each word but I feel that the latter is more constructive in the same way that considering yourself an apprentice is. To me, ‘supervisor’ carries connotations of somebody who is guiding you through something pre-determined. Much akin to the supervisor role in a retail environment, it sounds like it could be describing somebody there to keep you in check and ultimately take the heat if you mess up. Ultimately this is accurate I suppose as, at least in lab-based research, if you cause any significant issues it is them on whom it will also fall. But I think that considering their role as supervisory, much like considering yourself a student, removes the onus from the one who is learning. Contrary to this the word ‘adviser’ suggests to me, at least, a sense of somebody who is providing support, mentorship, and training for something you want to do. The distinction here again being that the work is yours and not theirs. So whilst their experience and support are integral to your training, it is really in the position of guidance both intellectually and practically that the role brings to you.

Overall I guess it doesn’t really matter as long as you get on with it all, ask for help when needed, and come out better trained and prepared from your future whilst having learned interesting things about your topic. But what’s interesting for me is that I feel a shift in my motivation, self-accountability, and attitude towards my struggles by considering myself an apprentice of the academic process which seems to only be positive for my well being.

Thanks for reading ☺

BCT

Frustrating Delays, a Welcomed Break, and a Bit of Self-Reflection

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Hello all 🙂

The last two months have been generally pretty good albeit it quite slow. I thought this would be a good point to comment on dealing with setbacks beyond your control as well as being aware of yourself.

Frustrating Delays

As you may know, my experiment has been going very slowly so far. This is partly due to its nature (there’s a lot of time needed for things to mature before any testing can be done) and partly due to limits beyond my, and my lab’s control. We waited for 4-5 months for some equipment whilst there was miscommunication with the supplier. Eventually though it all came and this predated my experiment. Following this an accessory piece took a total of 9 months with my lab-mate bothering the suppliers weekly by phone. We were all miffed. Unfortunately, they are the primary supplier of both and the exclusive supplier of the latter. Thankfully a secondary supplier for the former was found and when we needed more it took but 3 days from order to delivery! Whoop! Winning! More recently, however, the same lab-mate has been waiting on MORE equipment, albeit it from a different supplier. I feel so sorry for them for they are a lot more pressured in terms of deadlines than I am. They have been left essentially sat twiddling their metaphorical thumbs. How this affects me is that by the nature of any working environment space and equipment are shared. I need some of the resources currently used by my lab-mate who cannot be relieved of them until the second troublesome product is sorted out. So it’s one small chain of waiting in some ways. I don’t really have any decent advice for dealing with this kind of issue other than to be patient and polite whilst standing your ground with suppliers and be thankful for the relative down time and perhaps use that to get things sorted which you won’t have time for at another day. Overall, set-backs occur and we all need to ensure that as few of them as possible are due to us.

A Welcomed Break

I had a holiday! Whoop! My partner and I went away to a resort in Turkey for two weeks and I also took three whole weeks away from the bill-payer. Never have I appreciated some down time as much as that holiday. The one thing I realised was that we don’t really notice when a break is needed until we either…break (down) or actually take one. On just my first day relaxing by the pool I felt a huge amount of tension released and in general far more relaxed. The holiday really provided a time for us to do nothing but stay relaxed and not even consider work of any kind whilst exploring the area and generally spending time together. Overall, everyone needs down time and I don’t mean the time in the week when I get to watch the films you’ve been meaning to (though this kind of personal time is important) but to actually get away mentally and unwind really benefits us all. If you’re getting to the point where you’re feeling every more down in the dumps, finding it difficult doing what you’ve been doing before, or that you’re simply not enjoying it any more then consider a holiday. No one is going to begrudged you taking some you time so even if it’s just a long weekend away walking in the hills just do it. It’s very refreshing.

A Bit of Self-Reflection

Building on take time for yourself is learning to be aware of your own needs, abilities, and desires. By this I mean that we all have different strengths, lessons to learn, perhaps misconceptions about our own abilities, as well as ways in which we work best. Think: is what you’re doing the best for you? Is it what you expected? Do you need more enforced structure or are you good at self-discipline? It’s not the easiest thing to know and I’m sure no one ever gets there entirely but it’s important to be able to at least approach this sense of self. That, I suppose, is also one reason why I maintain this blog: it allows me to look back at issues and see how I dealt with them as well as see if I’ve got better and dealing with situations. I’ll garnish this by talking about myself.

I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. I say always…since I was approximately 14 I’ve wanted to be a teacher. More specifically: a science teacher. It seemed a no brainer to me as I was always so inspired by teachers, and nature in all its varieties had me in awe. I did the usual thing of going to uni and whilst there I found interest in being the person who answers someone of the questions of nature myself; i.e. to be a researcher. This all led me to where I am now. Since starting I’ve very much enjoyed what I’ve been doing. Learning both intellectually and practically is great and my topic is fascinating. I also have gained experience teaching which has been amazing. And that’s exactly what makes me think: am I enjoying teaching more than research? It was also teaching which came first before but then again I haven’t really gone through the full motions of research and had a result at the end to get excited about so is it too early to judge? It’s something I need to learn about myself and my aims but I can only do that by continuing and hopefully finding an answer! Either decision is good by I do fear a sense of “what now?” if I find research isn’t for me because for a few years it’s been the only real option to me. Additionally, I’ve had issues with motivation and organisation. I’m learning about myself that without small goals/deadlines I find it difficult to get myself going and for this reason I’ve started giving myself immediate-, short-, and long-term goals so that I’m always working towards something.

A final example is a very important albeit rarely considered one: when is it best to work? I myself am a mega early-type. I fall asleep between 9 and 11 and wake up with the sun (so around 4:30am at the moment) thus for me working early in the morning is best. I’ve known this for a while. My issue at the moment is that my trips to the bill-payer are always in the evening and sometimes don’t end until gone midnight. By the time I’m home, relaxed, and ready for sleep I then do so badly as I start waking up in but a few hours. There’s not really an easy answer to this but the point is that we all need to work out when we work best and to try and fit our days into that as much as possible. Night owl? Try working from the afternoon. Morning lark? See if you can have you working day start nice and early. It’s remarkable how much of an effect sleeping and working at times unnatural to yourself can have (think jetlag!).

This is one of the longest posts I’ve made and the point I’m trying to get across is that we all need to try to be more aware of our needs and wants and different ways of being. The more we can learn about ourselves the more we can tailor our approaches to all aspects of our lives to do so as well as we possibly can. What’s the secret to doing this? No idea. But I’m sure that starting by trying to be more self-aware is the first step.

The next two months will involve actually starting the real crux on my experiment (whoop!) and continuing my personal development. Bar that, I’m just happy to be more focussed and relaxed than a few months ago.

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

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