Resubmitting a Report and Ongoing Personal Development

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Hi All 🙂

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

First Year Report…again

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

Personal Development

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

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

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

Viva, Experiments, and Getting Things Done

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Hey all 🙂

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

Viva

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

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

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

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

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

 Experiment 1 and Being Organised

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

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

 Thanks for reading 🙂

 BCT

Report Writing, Motivation & Organisation Problems

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Hey all 🙂 and happy New Year!

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

Report Writing

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

Motivation & Organisation Problems

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading 🙂

 BCT

iCog14 and generally get on with things.

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Hello all 🙂

The last two months have been pretty uneventful. I’ve had to postpone my next experiment until the new year for a number of reasons which has given me more time to focus on writing my first year report and to get involved with teaching (I will write a post on my experiences of this at the start of the new year). For now the only major thing which has happened was iCog.

 

iCog14

iCog (http://icog.group.shef.ac.uk/) was a network set up a few years ago aimed at postgraduate and early-career researchers who are addressing questions in cognition. In doing so it aims to unite, create collaborations, and generally facilitate discussion between very diverse researchers. Cognition is studied from numerous and far-reaching perspectives including psychology, neuroscience, biology, philosophy, and computer science and in light of this the idea was a brilliant one.

 

I recently attended their second annual conference (iCog14: perspectives on learning; University of Edinburgh; http://icog.group.shef.ac.uk/conferences-and-workshops/2014-conference/) and it was both fascinating and challenging. Being so diverse meant that nearly everything was unfamiliar in its approach so I had a lot to learn. We first had Alex Doumas (http://www.doumaslab.com/Home.html) discussing the results of a new computational model of learning followed by Richard Stockle-Schobel (https://lmu-munich.academia.edu/RichardSt%C3%B6ckleSchobel) introducing some philosophical limitations on how much we can infer mechanisms from observations. Then Jean-Mar Dewaele (http://www.bbk.ac.uk/linguistics/our-staff/jean-marc-dewaele) talked about how we process emotions in first versus second languages with a section focussed on swear to much amusement. The first day ended with a couple of talks on language acquisition in typically versus atypically developing children as well as topics in education psychology. Day two included Andrew Philippides (http://www.sussex.ac.uk/profiles/23611) talking about navigation in ants; Vicente Raja Galian (http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Vicente_Raja_Galian) on learning in technologicaly-assisted environments; and Andrew Manches (http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/education/about-us/people/academic-staff?person_id=466&cw_xml=profile.php) on using gestures to understand how children learn about numbers. The conference was rounded off with Szu-Han Wang (http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/integrative-physiology/staff-profiles/1.31746) talking about mechanisms of learning at the cellular level; Jessica Diaz talking about perceptual learning; Anjuli Manrique (http://uk.linkedin.com/pub/anjuli-manrique/47/3ab/582 ) discussing how fields of anthropology need to be reorganised to include field psychology and behavioural neuroscience into the study of literacy; and Rosie Flewitt (http://www.ioe.ac.uk/staff/EYPE/85713.html) on multimodal ethnography and its role in learning.

 

I realise that was a very listy/linky bit of writing but I felt that those who are interested in following these researchers would appreciate it.

 

So that’s it really. Nothing much else to report. The next two months will be spent continuing to process some samples from my pilot experiment and completing a draft of my first year report for my supervisor (hoping it doesn’t come back covered in TOO much red ink hehe) .

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

Part-Time Research Conference, Report-Writing, and Messing Up

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Hello all 🙂

The past two months have been a bit uneventful (and I’m relaxing quite thankfully!) but I have been to a great little conference, writing my first year report, and had a bit of a colossal mistake!

Part-Time Researcher Conference

Firstly the positives! I attended a one day conference/workshop aimed at part-time researchers. This was organised by Vitae and hosted by the University of Dundee. The event was a great idea as there is very little support directed at part-time students and it was a great opportunity to meet others in similar situations; there were other self-funded researchers as well as people taking a PhD on the side of their current jobs and each came with their own story. The day was based on four workshop sessions for each you chose from four options. I attended: research in context, identifying employability skills, finding time to write, and presentation skills. As a side note: finding time to write was a fantastic and often humorous presentation by Dr Daniel Soule of Grammatology (@grammatologer); he talked through a number of the main walls we throw up to stop us writing and highlighted how we are the biggest obstacle. It was very informative, amusing, and engaging and I’ve taken several tips away from his session; principally you should just write something because once it’s on paper you can edit it! The other parts of the day were a very welcomed lunch as well as two plenary sessions. The opening plenary was given by Sue Black who has spent years in and out of academia as a forensic pathologist. She took us through her life and career from a small girl until now to show how little things can point us to where we are heading (often without knowing it at the time!). She also highlighted how academia doesn’t have to be a straightforward path so it’s good to create your own journey. Ultimately she stressed that our research should be exciting, fun, and not feared; if it becomes laborious even thinking about going and running those experiments. getting out in the field or dusty in those books then it’s most likely the wrong career for us. Enjoy ourselves! The end plenary was given by Eddie Small who talked about his equally unusual through academia from an evening degree through to writing books on Scottish funerals and lecturing! Overall it was a very informative and fun experience and I look forward to the next one!

Report Writing

On the topic of writing…I’ve been truly kicking myself in to the process lately. I have finally accrued myself a significant number of notes and a, hopefully well thought out and logical, flow and argument for my introduction. I’m currently reviewing what I’ve written so far and working out where I have gaps in the evidence I’m presenting. If you’re at this point in your degree be it PhD, masters, undergraduate reports, or anywhere in fact the biggest pieces of advice I’d give you are: have an idea of structure before taking notes, that way you remain focussed on relevant information as opposed to related or interesting but which doesn’t help you answer your questions; and write a little every day (or on every 5 or 6 or so days a week), just a few more references ready or a paragraph written or a section edited is more than you had done before and means progress!

 Making a Mess

Ok. The negative. I spoiled some pretty fragile samples which I cannot get back through no fault that my own haste and lack of awareness. Suffice to say my anger and disappointment in myself were severe and I’m sure I let my supervisor down as well. However, I have learned something from this experience. From talking to others about it: these things happen. We don’t want them to happen and sometimes more than others it’s worse news but everyone messes up occasionally. Secondly: I will never do it again. Thankfully my spoiled samples came from a smaller experiment (which I’ve already said was a bit of a failure) and not my upcoming larger experiment. But still, the lesson learned here is to slow down and practice a tad more awareness.

 

The next two months are going to be more writing and starting the next experiment! Exciting times.

Thanks for reading 🙂

 BCT

Being rejected: is it personal?

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When thinking about a topic for my next post I got a tad stumped; nothing particularly eventful has happened in the last two months as my pilot experiment is just plodding along. I tweeted words to this effect and later that week whilst demonstrating a colleague suggested I blog about the rejections accompanying a search for funding. They added a (what seemed to me) surprising comment: “it feels like a personal attack doesn’t it?”. My response was a quick and resounding “no, not really” (I mean, that’s just how things work right? Not everyone can get the funding). Nevertheless, it made me think: is it personal or should I at least feel as if it is? So that’s what this post is about, I hope it’ll open up some real feelings about the topic.

I applied for a rather generous studentship with my supervisor a few months back. I’ve been very excited about it as it would obviously make life a little bit easier removing the need to split myself between work and research (and friends and hobbies). The application went off into the digital ether just prior to my last post and since then it has been roaming around the back of my head. It came closer and closer to the deadline without any contact from the society which made me curious but I just figured that they may not contact the unsuccessful applicant (fair enough…kinda…). Eventually the actual interview date passed and that was it: I didn’t make interview therefore I just didn’t make the cut. It was at this point when a colleague asked about how personal it feels. I was happy to move on from this and look to the next opportunity (lack of funding isn’t going to stop me from doing my PhD) so didn’t take it much to heart. I did think though that some feedback would have been useful. What were the strengths and weaknesses of the project? How could I improve my input to the idea? In light of this my supervisor emailed to enquire. The response may have tipped my feelings towards the personal side: the application was lost, a digital error. So now I was left not rejected but not even considered!

Is this personal or just an honest mistake? Well after having gone through two outright rejections, a post-interview rejection, a denial of funding, and now a lost application I can see why those who have been doing this for long enough would feel that way. I mean if you spend a significant part of your time applying for funding to do the things you want which ironically detracts time from doing your work in the first place, why shouldn’t it feel personal? Your work is an extension of you and these rejections are people essentially saying “you and your work are not good enough” so they may as way say that you are not good enough. It’s understandable. However, funders are in a tight position as well. They want to fund as many people as possible but there are always more people wanting than there are funds. So how do you deal with that? You find a set of criteria to rank applicants and you fund the best by those standards; the ones you feel will do best and gain most from that funding. So in reality is it personal? It certainly can feel so and that is totally understandable but in reality with limited resources it’s just a case of balancing pros and cons and seeing what comes out on top (I won’t comment on whether the criteria themselves are the best. That can form hours of debate). Overall, I guess it’s ok to feel that things are personal but we must all remember that everyone is in the same boat and that we do what we can with what is available to us.

In other news my pilot experiment is over (in terms of collecting data, now comes the hours of processing and analysing the data) which means my time will be more flexible until my next long-term experiment which starts around early September. I’m currently working on three plans. Firstly I’m going over some data with my supervisor to learn how to better approach this efficiently. Secondly I’m drafting my first yearly presentation within the school. They’re called ‘psycholoquia’ (psych = psychology, quia from quium = meeting). I get to present for 10-20 minutes on my topic and current work followed by 5-10 minutes of questions. It should be good! Lastly I’m putting in place a plan for my first year report in terms of its content and structure as well as when I wish to submit. As a part-time student I have a later deadline than the full-time ones but I’ve decided to give myself an earlier deadline!

The next two months are going to be data analysis, report writing, maybe a conference, and generally having fun. As a part of a continued effort to get people together I’m organising bowling for the first year PhD students in my department! It’s very important to keep the areas of life you had before PhD as it isn’t everything. Work, play, and down time makes for a healthy and well-rounded person 

Thanks for reading

Studentship Application, Experimental Delays, and Demonstrating

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Hey all 🙂

It has been a slow but important two months.

Studentship Applications

With my supervisor I have recently applied for two studentships: a fully funded PhD and a package for a lab technique.

Firstly, the fully PhD studentship. The Society for Experimental Biology offer one 4 year package per year which rotates through their themes (Cells, Plants, and Animals; www.sebiology.org/membership/studentship.html). This studentship was particularly appealing for numerous reasons. Firstly it is for 4 years where most studentships are for 3; this would allow me to do over 3 years of experiments AND take anywhere up to a whole year to write up with funding (a luxury most students do not get). Secondly the stipend (a tax free ‘maintenance’ grant paid monthly or quarterly) is at £3k above the minimum required by the British research councils which is always a nice perk! Lastly, unlike most studentships, this comes with money to spend specifically on research (known as consumables). I wrote a draft application which my supervisor polished off before sending it through the processes in the department and then submitting it. I’m still awaiting response for this but since the interviews are held on the 26th March I’m assuming I will hear soon!

Secondly, the ‘Primer Design’ package. Primer Design (www.primerdesign.co.uk/home) are a company specialising in real-time PCR. PCR stands for Polymerase Chain Reaction (www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polymerase_chain_reaction). It is a technique used to create numerous copies of a piece of DNA as to allow the sample to be analysed (this is particularly useful when samples contain very small amounts of DNA for example from small tissues samples from crime scenes or biological research). This process is known as “DNA amplification”. Real-time PCR, or qPCR for “quantitative”, improves upon this technique by visualising the process and allowing the number of copies to be counted. That was a bit of a technical tangent so I will return to the main narrative. Primer Design offer award packages involving specialised hands-on training for students with projects utilising qPCR as well as discounts on their products. My supervisor applied and we won a package! So now, once I get to that point in my first experiment, I will receive the training and with my supervisor be able to get some discounted kits! I can also put the specialised training on my CV so it’s a win-win (-win?) situation!

Overall I recommend that you apply for everything potentially useful to your post-graduate studies. Even if it seems unlikely it’s worth going for and you never know how useful it could be!

Experimental Delays

My topic is trying to understand the learning abilities of animals and if there is one thing I’ve learned so far it’s that animals are unpredictable and at times very stubborn! I am currently training them on a task involving food placed in a tray with 12 wells (think of an egg-carton) with lids covering the food. The idea is that they will learn that lids mean food so if they remove the lids they get the food! Most have been progressing slowly but with great inconsistencies including randomly not understanding what they should do! A few are brilliant and one is utterly useless so overall working with animals is less than straight-forward! I’m acquiring some great skills and insight though and the big picture is very interesting so I will continue J. I also have a great lab group who are always happy to discuss options and are help out so I’m in a great position; I will get there eventually!

Just a side note at this point: if you feel that as a student you’re not supported or that you’re basically a data-churner or that you have no control of your project then you need to deal with that problem as soon as it arises. It’s far too easy to get dug into a hole and lose yourself, your motivation, and ultimately not learn how to do what your studies are training you to. Speak to the people who can help. Chances are your supervisor doesn’t realise how you’re feeling but if they are the type to not train their students well/see them as extra pairs of hands then you must sort that out by speaking to others about it. There will always be someone who can help. Remember: it’s your project so your ideas and your learning are what are important.

Demonstrating

PhD students are (usually?) given the opportunity to get involved with teaching. This rarely involves giving lectures but instead involves assisting in practical sessions, giving tutorials, and marking. This is a very good opportunity to both increase your experience of teaching and get paid for doing so. I signed up a tad late this year and first years are often not encouraged to get involved but nevertheless I am a demonstrator on a second year course in the School of Psychology & Neuroscience. I have worked on two sessions so far. The first was a poster session from the cognitive part of the module which involved students reading a published paper and designed a poster to present it. This is a great exercise for second years as pposters are a lot harder to design than you’d expected: you have to balance text overload with getting the information across, making the flow easy to following, and make it catchy and informative. The session went well and I learned a lot about designing posters myself from giving guidance to the students.

The other session type was from statistics. The students had a computer session were they worked through example questions of how to run the statistics they have learned in that week’s lectures. This was a bit of an eye opener for me as someone who is computationally novice, utterly naïve with SPSS (a statistical program), and with very little knowledge of statistics! The session went smoothly and the lecturer’s notes were very good so overall the students (and I!) managed to do well.

Overall, it has been a really good experience and I’m hoping to pick up more next year across both Psychology & Neuroscience AND Biology. I highly recommend getting involved with undergraduate teaching when you have the chance to 🙂

Overall things are going well albeit slowly. Next steps are to continue training my animals, start writing a literature review of my topic (which I will then post a slightly less dry version on here!), and generally do some chilling out when possible.

Thanks for reading 🙂