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

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

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Hello all 🙂

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

Frustrating Delays

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

A Welcomed Break

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

A Bit of Self-Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

Resubmitting a Report and Ongoing Personal Development

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Hi All 🙂

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

First Year Report…again

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

Personal Development

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

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

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

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

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