Psycholoquia, Building the Bigger Picture, and Planning the End

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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.

Psycholoquia

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 🙂

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

PhD Planning, Comic Con, and Trying New Things

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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 🙂

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

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

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Hi all 🙂

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

Stats pain

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

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

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

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

Presentation

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

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

Holiday

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

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

Thanks for reading ☺

BCT

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

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

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