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

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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 🙂