Saying “no”: Making Good Choices for Your Health

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Hey all 🙂

My first posts each year tend to focus more on big picture stuff such as things I’m proud of and my feelings on a PhD so far. One of the lessons I’ve really taken from doing this is to know when to say “no” and take a step back and this is what I’m going to discuss in my opening to 2019.

    Those who know me know fully well that I’m trigger happy when it comes to doing things. Outreach, teaching, discussions etc. I want to pick up hobbies, try new things, I outline research ideas I’ll never get to. It leaves me sometimes attempting a lot and achieving little. This isn’t inherently a bad thing. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone, growth comes from challenge. It’s also good to enrich your life with other interests, hobbies, and activities, as it is very unhealthy to bury down into one thing and make that all which matters to you. I know, for example, that I could have finished my doctorate sooner than I am currently on track to. However, my well-being would have been far poorer were I to not engage with the amount of teaching that I do. Teaching for me is intrinsically rewarding; that is to say that I would do it for free (though am very happy for it to add to my savings). The other small activities I do as well such as outreach and beginning to start writing a novel also help me relax, test my skills in other areas, and be more rested for when I focus on the research.

    But a balance is needed and sometimes you just have to say “no” to be able to stay healthy as well as commit to the things which are important to you. There’s no point trying everything if you get nowhere with anything and mostly importantly: you are the centre of your world, you matter. I expressed this sentiment on Twitter in what turned out to be my most liked, retweeted, and responded to tweet:

My supervisor, rightfully, called me out for my phrasing here as it comes across that I’m suggesting that mentors and the like should be ACTIVELY involved in structuring a student’s life balance. This isn’t what I intended. I more meant that, because academia has such an issue with work-life balance and, in particular, PhD students committing themselves to more work at the expense of their health, a shift in attitudes and increased transparency of expectations needs to be seen at all career stages. This includes increasing awareness of detrimental schedules but also mentors taking the lead with how they make their balance work and, ultimately, when to say “no”.

So I was left this coming Spring intending on doing a multitude of things to do with my research, my job, and my creatives hobbies. But also I planned on doing two things which I’ve decided not to do for the sake of balance across my weeks in order to give myself the time and energy to focus on the more immediately important tasks of finishing my lab work, writing papers, and maintaining my job. The two things were Masters level education modules as well as (potentially) drafting a research grant idea. I will get round to these thoughts but for now they are less important and I will get to them later. Take home from this: explore and do all the things you love but know when to say “no”. That point is when something takes over your life, infringing upon your health, or when something new would give you less time for what is currently important.

So that’s me for the last two months. The next two will be spent starting my last stint of lab work, writing a paper, and continuing to try new things.

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

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Balancing Research, Summer Conference, and Summer School

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Hey all 🙂

The last few months have been a good busy. I’ve progressed on my research, been accepted to present at a conference, and commenced teaching on a summer school!

Research

Lately, my research has swung from full throttle to nothing and back again several times. I’ve been finding it very difficult balancing it with summer school, work, and finding ‘me’ time and at times the research has had to take a back burner. I’ve specifically been working on song recordings. I’m looking through numerous sound files for bouts of bird song, copying them into a catalogue, and then analysing them for various things which we think are important. None of this is difficult but it is repetitive so sometimes I’m on a roll and really into it and others it’s just tiring thinking about it. It’ll get done though. I’m 25% through 340 or so bouts. I just needs to get back on the wagon, even if means doing 10 or so a day in my breaks. Thankfully, the data I’m hoping to present at a conference later this year is all prepared so the current work slowing down is ok. Speaking of conferences…

Conference!

The accepted me to present at the conference in Liverpool! Quick reminder: it is the European Conference on Behavioural Biology which runs every 2 years. This year it is in Liverpool which is great in terms of time and money needed to go. I applied for a talk but unfortunately they were quite oversubscribed for them so I was given a poster slot. Still an opportunity to present my research though and have some great chats as well as meet some nice people! I have also, thankfully, been granted some travel funding to help pay for this trip too. It won’t cover all of it but the vast majority and any deficit is more than made up for by the summer school payment. Speaking of which…

Summer School

Summer school is off to a great start again this year!  I am teaching ‘molecular biology’ again and have 4 great students from a variety of backgrounds and countries. This year, I’ve learned from experience to make my program more hands-on and about doing things as opposed to content. To make that happen, i’ve drafted a balance of ‘lectures’, research lab visits, collaborations, hands-on lab experience, and student-directed sessions. Three classes in and I feel it is going well. Although, I have the continued anxiety of known that whether I think it’s going well is irrelevant as it is the enjoyment of the students which matters. It’s difficult to judge that but I’ve heard positive things from those running the program. The program has a blog which has a few awful pics of me so have a look through for a regular update 🙂

So that’s me for the last two months. The next two will involving finishing summer school, finishing the next step in my data analysis, and attending a conference!

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

Things I’m Proud of and Plans for the Future

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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 🙂

BCT

What Even IS a PhD Anyway? (and a bit about the academic levels)

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It has struck me numerous times that we’re not very good at telling people about what a PhD is never mind the rest of the academic stages. I noticed this most when I was an undergraduate masters (more on that in a bit) student who spent some time socialising with PhD students. I didn’t really have a clue what it meant to be one, all I know was that they seemed to know everything. Since then, I’ve spoken with numerous people both in and out of formal education and realised that this whole academic system is very mysterious to most people and that we don’t do anything to make that clearer. So, in recognition of this, I’ve decided to use what experience I have to outline the different stages in an academic career from school to professorship. Keeping in mind that this is a very UK-biased perspective and that subtle differences exist in other countries, I hope this gives you at least some clarity on the subject.

High School/Secondary School/College

Compulsory education in the UK used to stop at 16 whereby school kids could leave with GCSEs and move onward. At this stage, you do largely compulsory subjects and usually do a large range of them (I did 11, for example). These are graded A*-U and provide the standard suit of qualifications to move on to college/6th form, apprenticeships, or simply leave school. College/6th form continues schooling until age 18 and students spend 2 years studying 3-4 subjects to gain A Levels. These form the entry requirements for most university courses but are also used for the same reasons as GCSEs. More recently, education has become compulsory until age 18 so these lines have become more blurry. Scotland, also, has a slightly different system but the fundamentals remain the same: compulsory school, optional school, final grades. they also narrow down the number of subjects taken towards the end.

Undergraduate Degree

The term “undergraduate” is a little vague but encompasses everything before one has a degree from a higher education institution (such as a university). In the UK, most students take a single subject (e.g. maths, history) from the start and over 3-5 years go from a broad education in that subject to specialising in certain topics and taking on large projects in the form of dissertations or research experience. Different places allow students different amounts of optional modules both within and from out with their majors. The 3-5 year range is caused by a variety of reasons. In Scotland, all degrees are 4 years as standard. By doing this, they essentially create an addition year prior to those which count towards a students degree. Thus they are able to provide a greater range within their foundation topics before specialising. There are also a few ways in which a standard 3 year degree can be extended to 4 years. Firstly, you can continue for a fourth year and achieve an ‘undergraduate masters’ degree. This is held to the same level as a masters but without completing two separate degrees. During this option you will get additional specialised training and/or research experience during this time. Secondly, placements to study in another country exist. Students will leave for a year prior to their final year and spend time studying the subject in their chosen country. they will have language lessons throughout their degree and be expected to maintain a certain grade in them. Finally, work placement years also exist which work similar to studying aboard but instead doing full time work in industry or similar. An undergraduate degree is graded as 1st class (1), upper 2nd class (2.1), lower 2nd class (2.2), 3rd class (3), or fail. You almost exclusively require a 2.1 and above to get onto a PhD and a 2.2 or above to get into a masters.

Postgraduate Degree: Masters

Masters degrees require you to already have an undergraduate one. They come in a huge range of types and content including specialist knowledge, research training, and conversion courses (for example, to law). They are 1-2 years and 12 months a year (as opposed to the 8 months of undergraduate ones). People often take these to change career direction or gain additional experience to make them stand out in the job market. They are graded as Distinction, merit, pass, or fail.

Postgraduate Degree: Philosophical Doctorate (PhD)

Here’s where things get a little vague: what the hell is a PhD anyway? It’s taken me a lot of time and conversations to get a real sense of what one is. The trouble comes from the fact that you’re still working towards a degree (and are thus a student) but you do not have semesters and modules, barely any deadlines, and work full-time. It really blurs the line between what we think of as a “student” and something more. The simplest way I’ve learned to think about it is this: a PhD is a research apprenticeship. During a PhD, you spend 3-4 years learning to do research independently whilst under the guidance and support of somebody who has already succeeded in making a career out of it. You’re expected to work on your own interests and come up with your own ways of approaching it. Your supervisor isn’t there to give you tasks and assignments but is their to train you in developing ideas by shaping them with you. Where appropriate, they also are their to train your practical skills.

The second vagueness about a PhD is funding, so let me clarify this. PhD studentships are financial packages including money for the host institution to pay tuition fees (yes, we pay them too) and a tax-free sum for the student to live on (a stipend, paid monthly). The best of packages pay above the minimum (~£14k) in stipend and also provide some money for research costs. These studentships come from the government (via taxes) who allocate some to research and development councils, who in turn distribute them amongst specialised research bodies, who then give them to university departments. This is based, I’m sure, on a huge host of factors which we won’t go into. In the simplest way: departments in universities bid for funded studentships from relevant research councils and use them to attract and fund PhD students. Now, this isn’t the only way. A not insignificant number of PhD students are self-funded (largely in the non-sciences, sadly) and independent researchers can apply for PhD funding within their research grants too (from, for example, The British Heart Foundation). But this is the more common way.

Postdoctoral Research Assistant/Associate (postdocs)

So you’ve done your degree, you’ve done your apprenticeship, you’re ready right? Not yet. Postdocs are finite research positions working under a researcher and their grants on a specific project. They are 1-5 years long though 1-2 is very common. During this time, you are expected to be independently working on a project and whereas a PhD is learning to be a research a postdoc is more akin to putting it into practice. Postdocs may be expected to do more lab management as well as training of younger students as well but usually are given no formal teaching. A hugely variable number of postdoc positions are taken by researchers until they get a permanent job and thus a long time can be spent applying for jobs whilst doing others whilst dealing with uncertainty.

Lecturer

The first step on the ladder in academia (at universities) as lecturer. You are employed by the university to do a combination of research, teaching, and administration but the balance of those depends on the particular position and the number of research grants you attract. Ironically, a “lecturer” can actually be a position where you don’t lecture which seems a bit odd, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day. As a lecturer, you are expected to build your own research lab and network and contribute to the department. We’re beyond my own experience here so I can’t talk too much more about the fine details. After this, it’s all about promotion.

Senior Lecturer/Reader

The next step on the hierarchy is senior lecture/reader. From my understanding, these are equivalent positions and on the same pay level though Reader is considered higher at some universities. The distinguishing factor seems to be the significance of teaching with a heavier commitment expected from senior lecturers than readers. More admin may be expected but otherwise this is a continuation of the lecturer position.

Professor

At the top of this hierarchy (excluding taking roles such as heads of school and higher) is Professor. This is often awarded in recognition of a long and/or significant career contributing to their field and is highly regarded. The recently promoted will also often give an ‘inaugural lecture’ as professor where they will present a history of their key work. The status of prof in the UK is distinguished here from that in northern america where it is used to denote one who teaches at a university.

There are other job roles in this system including technicians, various administrators, outreach officers etc but what has been presented is more akin to the primary or classical route. I hope this makes some things more clear. I welcome more questions and especially clarifications where I’ve made some wrong calls about the things I am less well versed in!

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

Meeting of the Scottish Neuroscience Group, Tutoring Job, and Some Thoughts About Science

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Hi All 🙂

It’s been another slow, but this time positive, couple of months with little to report. As such I thought I’d weigh in my two cents regarding a few things about the world of science after talking about the two main things which have occurred lately: a conference and a potential tutoring job!

Meeting of the Scottish Neuroscience Group

The Scottish Neuroscience Group are a collective of researchers across institutions in Scotland who meet yearly to network and discuss the broad range of fascinating work done. This year’s meeting was held here in St Andrews and it was a no-brainer for myself to go. The program is given here. Overall the entire day was great, the usual refreshments aplenty plus some surprising pulled pork baguettes! Oh, and the talks too! Talks spanned control of movement in fly embryos through to gene signalling cascades and to measuring firing resonses in the brain when we notice something novel in our environment. There was also an extensive poster session with around 40 different presenters which provided ample chance to meet more people and learn new things. I was particularly happy at the presence of 3 people who research circadian rhythms as this is a topic i thoroughly enjoy, but is unfortunately not represented here. The final talk of the day was given by Dr Nelson Spruston of the Janelia Research Campus, a massive and very well funded research institute in America specializing in neuroscience. The message he was trying to get across in his talk was that we need to rethink the way the brain works. Models of how neurons talk to each other have for years relied upon the idea that you add up all the positive and negative inputs to a neuron, and if this breaches a certain level the cell fires. He listed quite a few examples of phenomena which cannot be explained with this simple model but unfortunately I did not take a notepad, so cannot garnish this section with examples. The take home message was that the range of neuron types varies hugely depending on how you define them (shape, location, gene expression, connections) and that there isn’t always a simple relationship between what you measure (such as shape) and function. It was very eye-opening and thought-inspiring. After his talk we spoke over wine about whether our experiences are merely the activation of the connections in the brain (and if that would be a satisfying answer). Treading neuroscience, psychology, evolution, and philosophy it was a great discussion which really captured the open enthusiasm and thought process of academia. Overall, a great day and I look forward to hopefully presenting next year!

Tutoring Job

Those of you who have followed my posts for a while will know that I self-fund my PhD via working 3-4 nights a week. Whilst I appreciate my job being there for me and permitting my studies it does leave me incredibly lethargic and out of whack sometimes as I’m not very suited to late nights. Enter a tutoring opportunity. A few weeks ago the careers centre here announced the need for a tutor on a flexible, low-hours contract to help students of all ages and levels with all the generic skills one needs in academia (and wider areas): organisation, planning, reading for comprehension, referencing, essay writing, and I would assume anything else that comes up which isn’t subject specific. For me as an aspiring teacher this is a fantastic opportunity because not only will I be able to supplement my income doing something I thoroughly enjoy but I would be able to cut back a shift at work which will allow me to get into a healthier sleeping pattern. I put together my best looking CV and supporting statement and promptly applied. A few days later and I was informed I made the interview! It’s next Thursday so I’ll be spending a significant amount of time until then getting prepared with my thoughts about teaching and experiences which I’d bring to the role!

Some Thoughts About Science

This last section is going to be a bit of my thoughts trickling straight from brain to fingertips as I have a lot of thoughts and opinions about what science and research should be like and I feel I should put some to my blog (I’m sure others will come up later). We can discuss every aspect of academia and be here for ages but for now I want to focus on three things I feel passionately about, I will no doubt return to them in the future: respect for teaching, (artificial) boundaries between disciplines, and defining yourself.

The first of these is one I feel very strongly about: teaching. To me teaching is near enough one of the greatest and most important things we do as a species. Without teaching we don’t continue. We don’t have scientists, doctors, writers, musicians or possibly any significant roles. A great teacher has the ability to completely change someone’s view of not only a subject but also themselves and their own ability whilst a poor one can do the complete opposite. Teaching puts you in a position of great power and you have the ability to change someone’s life with it. Unfortunately through my, albeit short, academic career it’s becoming more and more apparent that teaching at this level really gathers little respect or priority. There is an air of “must we” or “doing this because I have to, not because I want to” about it at an institutional level. By this I don’t mean specific departments but the actual institution of academia. Research first, then teach if you have to pay some bills. This seems like a remarkable fallacy to me as I can’t imagine where the researchers would come from without their teachers before them? Granted, you do need some semblance of research or at least theories about the world to teach but really without teaching you would only have the handful of remarkable individuals who just know things and can piece things together without prior knowledge or instruction. How we’ve landed at this point I do not know, and neither do I know how true this is across the world but all I do know is that I find the undertone of derision for teaching to be awful as well as its reflection in phrases such as “bought out of teaching”. Teaching isn’t a bill-payer, it is part of an entangled role academics have: push boundaries, tell people and help them to do so as well. Two sides, same coin. Now I’m not saying that teaching-driven academics do not exist. Far from it. I have met, been taught by, and taught with some truly inspiring, enthusiastic, and intelligent teachers who are beloved by their students and manage to make even the driest of subjects exciting and manageable. It’s just that the system is set up such that a love of teaching is just that: a love of it. There doesn’t appear to be any acknowledgement or reward for doing so other than personal enjoyment. Atop of this when individuals are forced to teach begrudging it is very obvious and detrimental to students (I can attest to this personally from my not so long ago undergraduate lectures). Overall: I hold teaching in high regard and cannot imagine how we have an educational system which doesn’t agree.

The second point I have is about how administrative boundaries artificially break up disciplines. Nature is continuous (quantum physics aside for a moment); there is no point when physics becomes chemistry, chemistry becomes biology, biology becomes psychology. All of these phenomena are continuous and intertwined, and a good appreciation of any subject requires you to have at least some understanding of others surrounding it. Even within disciplines this is true: there’s little to be gained knowing about hormones without understanding the cells they affect and how they change the behaviour of the organism, it doesn’t help to know how a cell works without the context of its surrounding cells and organs, asking why an animal does something can’t be answered by just thinking about how the behaviour benefits it but also requires you to know what events went on inside to lead to that behaviour. These are quite narrow examples from my personal field of work (biology) but this is true across the sciences which aren’t linear, they’re a network. There are people in the same department as me with backgrounds in physics studying what could be biology, physics, or psychology. There are other people working between computer sciences and psychology, others who are through and through biologists. There are also across universities people who can do very much the same thing but be in departments of neuroscience, biology, or medicine. Same tools, same question, different departments. And that’s the problem: departments. Our slicing up of nature like this creates the illusion that these topics are distinct and unrelated which couldn’t be further from the truth. Now this isn’t a university thing. Universities actually do this better than the levels before but they still maintain some semblance of distinction, especially from an undergraduate’s perspective. The point I’m trying to make is that nature doesn’t fit into buckets where one thing stops before another starts and neither do our interests. Just because I studied biology as an undergraduate doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have taken modules from psychology or geology if given the chance. But I only knew about these things by going out of my way to learn about them. I set up a cross college talk series in my masters year for this very purpose: to open staff and student eyes to topics in other schools as well as those which transcend schools. Overall, I believe the experience of students as well as the development of research could only benefit by there being far, far fewer barriers between subjects. This lends me nicely to my third thought.

Defining yourself. I’ve had this thought for a while but a recent blog post from another wordpresser discussing her hesitation to describe herself as a psychologist gave me a kick to actually discuss it. Given everything I outlined in the previous paragraph about the continuity of nature and how department names don’t seem to greatly restrict what someone does I believe it would be constructive for us to describe ourselves by the questions we want to answer not by academic titles. That way by being question-defined you carry fewer misconceptions with you and you are simply answering those questions with the tools you see fit. Whether they are from physics, computer sciences, molecular biology, or psychology. I believe this will not only ameliorate the anxiety felt in that blog post but also add to breaking down boundaries between disciplines. I should put a huge caveat here: my experiences are with science and these examples work well with science. I will never assert that non-scientific disciplines should do similar as I don’t know how closely they can mingle. I do welcome all input on the thought though.

Well that’s all from me this time. The next two months are going to be diving in the deep end of my experiment (I’m already preparing myself for how tiring this is going to be), finding out about the tutoring job, and hopefully keeping a bit of time for myself too!

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

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