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

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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 🙂

Pilot experiment, Jobs, and the past year in general

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Happy new year! Here’s what I’ve been up to for the last two months and a summary of the year as a whole 🙂

Pilot experiment

The vast majority of my last two months has been planning, organising, and starting my pilot experiment. As a side note I WILL furnish you with details of my research topic, the techniques involved, and general scientific tidbits but I need to make certain of what I can and cannot say first (science can be so sensitive sometimes…). I’ve been learning a lot about acknowledging and checking the finer details as it is often those which can make us stumble the most! There have been a few set-backs as well such as finding the resources needed to just start the experiment! I’ve also spent quite a bit of time building things from card and plastic which is always fun. Overall it’s been a good few weeks getting my hands dirty (metaphorically and literally) and I’ve really enjoyed being back in a lab again!

On the non-lab side of things I have been busy with writing. Firstly a poster. Every PhD student in the school present a yearly poster of their research (examples of scientific posters to come but if you’re really eager google finds many!) in a group setting. This involves designing a clear way of showing the background, questions, methods, and results in a concise way without too much text. The session involved the whole cohort together in a room where we could chat about our work with each other and members of staff (and drink a decent quantity of wine!). It was a great session and incredibly useful experience for the future as posters are one of the many ways of presenting work at conferences. On the topic of conferences, I will be applying to present a poster at two in the coming year, one in Manchester and the other in Prague, so already having one is useful as it can act as a template for the next ones! Beyond posters and thinking about conferences, I have been planning my literature review (a comprehensive discussion of the background to my topic setting up the ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ of my own work) which I will start writing in the new year. I’ve also been keeping an eye out for funding opportunities and a particularly wonderful one has come up so I am also drafting an application for that to go over with my supervisor.

Jobs (again…)

Just a short comment about jobs. My current position is very convenient but as it would never be enough to support me in the long run I have always kept my eye open for something new. I applied to work in Sainsbury’s, to no avail, and to the new Dominos Pizza, with success! Somewhat annoyingly my smart shoes tore just before so I had a quick panic for new ones! I start this coming weekend and I’m very excited about it; the people seem really nice and who doesn’t like pizza?!

The first 3 months (and past year) in general

Overall, I’ve had a great three months starting my PhD: nice people, great supervisor, feeling like I’m doing something I’m passionate about and have control over, and a really nice area. There’s always a sense of inferiority when you look around at your colleagues (the infamous ‘imposter syndrome’) but I tell myself that that is normal, that everyone experiences it, and to just deal with it. You can always ask questions and none are too small nor stupid as everyone has to learn the ropes at some point. It’s important for that reason to have an understanding supervisor with whom you get along.

All in all, 2013 has been a good year. I had a great time finishing my degree and having something to show for the last four years, my public engagement experiences were incredible, visiting family across the pond was fun, and then the whole experience of moving and settling in in St Andrews. I’m hoping that 2014 will bring ample interesting and exciting opportunities  🙂

In the next couple of months I will be continuing (and hopefully finishing) my pilot experiment, writing my literature review, and applying for funding.

Thanks for reading

BCT

Settling in, Reading, and Job Hunting

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Hey all! Lots has been happening in the last two months so I will try to not waffle on too much! 🙂

Settling in

Starting out at 5am (yes FIVE) we got on the road with our picnic and, sat like sardines in a tin, wedged into the trucks. At this point I should point out that my partner’s family provided the trucks and drivers for the move for which I am incredibly grateful. It was a smooth drive up followed by a manic unpacking at roadside as the flat has no off-road parking. The cluttered new home was rapidly vacated in favour of the local pub (which by the way is less than 60s away. Yes. I timed it) which we’ve nicknamed “McClaurens” due to its resemblance of the bar from How I Met Your Mother (dork alert). We met up with another new PhD student who wasn’t only new to the area but also to the country having come over from the states!

As with the typical chaos of any move it took a while for the internet and other necessities to be set up (first world problems). As such I lived in the library for their wifi for the first couple of weeks. Since then I’ve been exploring the area a lot and just familiarsing and settling in in general. St Andrews town is practically on the beach so I’ve ventured down a few times already (although it’s getting a tad cold already so perhaps no more ventures late in the day). I’ve also been attending the many induction events which the university puts on for new students. These have been fun and I’ve met lots of people, given lots of paperwork and free travel mugs etc! Lastly, the university organise a whole host of careers-related training courses and I’ve been making use of them! They cover everything including statistics, academic writing, planning your PhD, CV and interview workshops and many others. They have been useful and enjoyable so far!

Reading (reading and more reading)

The first portion of a PhD involves a lot of reading to really get to know your topic area and find the holes in the knowledge so you can start designing experiments to fill them! I’m really learning the art of narrowing down my reading because you really can just keep going without any real structure or significance! I have already drafted a pilot and extended experiment (I will post more about my research area once I have a nicely written background) and received some constructive criticism. I am currently in the process of improving and updating those and I should hopefully have my pilot study going soon! Overall, there has been a lot of reading and a lot of planning to make sure things will work. It’s all a work in progress and there’s a lot to learn about doing research other than the knowledge but I’ll get there 🙂 The one piece of advice I would give anyone at this point is to set yourself small goals: break down your near and far targets into chunks that you can tick off. There’s no point getting overwhelmed and by ticking things off you can see just how much you’ve done!

Job hunting

As soon as I got here I started handing out CVs with cover-letters and applications. I have made numerous applications so far in any area of work appropriate to my position. It has been laborious but not only is it something I must do to support myself during my PhD I’d have to do it if I wasn’t doing the PhD. One position became available and said yes and I’ve been working there for a few weeks. It’s hard work and won’t be enough to support me in the long run but it’s good for now.

In the near future I will be running my pilot experiment, looking ahead for the long-term jobs wise, continuing to search for PhD funding, and generally trying to not lose my mind 🙂

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

Graduation, Bursary Application, and Job Hunting

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Hello there. I haven’t posted for a while for a few reasons. Firstly, the awkward limbo period that is the gap between results and starting a PhD is a tad…uneventful. Secondly, this limbo has been punctuated with packing to move (which is by nature boring to chat about). Thirdly, I’ve been just a bit lazy! Through it all there have been three things happening which are significant to the main narrative of this blog: Graduation, a bursary application, and continued job hunting.

Graduation

The process of graduation started a while back with confirmation my attendance. On results day in mid-june I then submitted measurements and paid for my gown hire. The day itself was exciting and tiring at the same time. Starting with arranging for family to converge at a useful time and then sorting out the best places for them all to be for the day; students are guaranteed two guest tickets thus additional family members need seats out of the ceremony! It was all a tad pretentious but good fun and it was amusing to see my lecturers in their robes! It was remarked numerous times how chilled and nonchalant I was when shaking the hands of the chancellor which I’m not sure is a good or a bad thing! Perhaps everyone else thought it was a situation to be worried about…ah well. Afterwards there was a nice wine reception with lecturers which I got to early by skipping the cohort picture as to avoid the crowds. My mother decided pictures with lecturers were required (mothers hey?). The whole event was good fun. I spent the evening with my family having cocktails and great food at Frankie and Benny’s before a well earned sleep!

Bursary Application

In a previous post I mentioned that I did not secure a fully funded studentship for my PhD thus am in search of income to both support me and pay tuition fees (yes they exist at post-grad level too!). TARGETcourses have started running yearly bursary competitions in which 5 winners a year win £2k towards tuition for any PG study (they provide a list of example winners to demonstrate the diversity of recipients!). To win this, I answered three questions on my post-grad study in the most engaging way possible: How will postgraduate study contribute to your career goals? How will your postgraduate experience and qualification benefit the community, the economy or indeed any other person or group? Apart from academic knowledge, what else do you expect to learn from postgraduate study? Neither I nor the University have heard anything so I can safely assume I didn’t receive the bursary. Either way, it was a good exercise in writing about my interests, research topic, and life goals 🙂

Job Hunting

I am continuing to search for a part-time job on a weekly basis and two have come up lately. The first was an administrative job in the lab of a researcher at St Andrews which would have been perfect. The hours and wage was good and the research interests of the lab were interesting. Unfortunately I didn’t make the interview list for that though. Ah well. No point feeling glum about what you can’t change hey? I’ve more recently learned of a retail position associated with the University which would be excellent! I’m starting my application as I type this (well…not precisely as I type this). I’ll let you all know how that goes 🙂

In the near future I will be continuing my job hunt, settling in to St Andrews, and getting on with some reading for my PhD!

Thanks for reading.

BCT

Public Engagement: Cheltenham Science Festival and Science Communication Workshop

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I have recently had two great experiences of public engagement and communication in science: The Cheltenham Science Festival and a Science Communication Workshop. I will elaborate below 🙂

University of Birmingham Biosciences organised a stand in the discover zone of the Cheltenham Science Festival this year and for two of the days I attended as a demonstrator. The aim of the stand was to tell people about animal anatomy and diversity. To assist we had a large range of anatomical models arranged over two tables accompanied by a small quiz to see if (mostly the children) could identify the animals from what they saw. We had a lot of interesting guesses including suggesting that a Gorilla skull was actually of a dinosaur and that a chimp skeleton was a dog! All guesses allowed us to talk about the animals and provide interesting little facts about them and the wider animal kingdom. It was a really fun and tiring two days and I met a lot of enthusiastic visitors ranging from hoards of school kids through small families to elderly couples, all of whom brought their own interests and questions to the day. Interestingly, a reporter for an Irish radio station was talking to the various demonstrators about their stalls and he spoke to me! He didn’t disclose the station but I’ll be out there in the digital world at some point! It was a great pair of days and I am very grateful to have been permitted to help 🙂

For the past two (now three) years the Society of Biology, Society for Experimental Biology, and the Biochemical Society have jointly hosted a Science Communication Workshop (see #scicom2013 for this years chat!). This is aimed at early-career researchers with an interest in science communication activities be it to the public, between scientists, with schools, or anything beyond the lab bench! Those interested apply with some preliminary ideas and a certain number are accepted to attend for the day. Attendees are then grouped roughly into similar interests and ideas before being assigned two facilitators whose roles are to guide discussion of their ideas as well as provide constructive feedback where appropriate. This year, following on from my organising of LESIS More being featured in The Biochemist, I was invited to be one of those facilitators! I was quite nervous when I found out about those who were attending as I’m pretty sure I was the least experienced researcher there! It was a great day though and I felt I contributed well to the sessions.

The day started with a meet&greet session with refreshments where people networked and various demonstrations, leaflets, and magazines were available. We then had an introduction from Sarah Blackford of the Society for Experimental Biology before a lecture from Jenny Rohn (jennyrohn.com. @JennyRohn) on scientists in the 21st Century. She discussed how the role of scientists must continue to progress from merely bench-top research being published to including two-way interactions with government, the media, and most importantly the public. We were then assigned our groups and started with the first ideas discussion session. At this point, each of my group had ideas in various stages of development but all were strong and with potential to greatly benefit those at which they were aimed. I don’t feel I can be specific as they are not my ideas but these included ideas for increasing collaborations between labs, promoting interaction of those with related research and lay-skills, and bridging the gap between researchers and schools to allow scientists to play a better role with schools. The day continued with lunch before returning for a lecture from Oxford Brookes’ research and public engagement fellow Anne Osterreider (plantcellbiology.com, @AnneOsterrieder). Anne presented on the ways of communicating science with an emphasis on being creative. She talked of collaborations with literary researchers in building exercises where participants wrote short plays to communicate ideas, chance meetings leading to science music videos (youtube.com/user/plantendomembrane), and plant-related poetry! The day continued with our second discussion session before visitors filled out a larger and more extensive idea form. These was then attached all around the room for a ‘Silent Debate’. This involved everyone putting their feedback and comments on post-it notes and attaching them to the posters. Afterwards, visitors retrieved their ideas to read the feedback before voting for the best idea on their tables. Each table’s winner received a prize and they all had their photo taken. The day was wrapped up again by Sarah before a refreshments (including Peroni!) and networking session. Overall, such a great experience and I am very grateful for the invitation to facilitate!

Both of these activities provided a great experience for me and I strongly suggest anyone with even a remote interest in communicating science to the public and other audiences to seek out these opportunities 🙂

Thanks for reading

BCT

Final assessments and visiting St Andrews

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Apologies for my recent digital silence; there is no valid excuse bar being a little bit lazy. A few things to tell you including the finishing of academic work, visiting St Andrews, and gaining experience with some science communication activities (though I am dedicating a single post to the latter!).

The MSci year has been finished off with tiredness, relief, and excitement. I wrote up and submitted my masters thesis which was an interesting experience; my project had a lot of set-backs so it amounted to more of a report of glitch-fixing than anything else but still a good experience regarding the real world of science! For my project, I also had a viva (also known as a “viva voce” meaning “with living voice”) which is an oral exam of project work. In this exam I was questioned about my project to test my understanding and to allow me to prove that I did in fact do the work. It was a bit scary at first, having never done one before, but during and after it felt good to have had the discussion :). The research-led modules were finished off with a news’n’views article and a poster presentation. The former involves presenting research findings in a way which is more accessible to a wider scientific audience and/or lay-readers. This was a great exercise as, though I’m very enthusiastic about presenting interesting science to wider audiences, I had never written one before! I did well and received great feedback so I think I did well! The poster presentation was a similar task except instead of a written document I had to present the findings of a study as a full academic poster. This was harder than the article as the posters have to be catchy and accessible as well as strike a good balance between covering the necessary content and being too wordy! Overall, I have really enjoyed the MSci program and highly recommend it to anyone doing an undergraduate degree who either wants more experience before pursuing a research career or who is unsure of that as a career and wants a bit of a bigger taste before! I feel a lot more confident now to start my PhD (as well as a heap load of other communication skills) than I ever would have felt this time last year.

I visited St Andrews! It was such a long journey to get there from Birmingham but it was definitely worth it! The town is incredibly small and appears to be dominated by pubs! All of the people I met were incredibly friendly (a little unnervingly at times..) and the town itself is wonderful. My partner and I stayed with a friend who lives there which was nice as we didn’t need to find a hotel and we spent numerous occasions in pubs! I met my supervisor who was wonderful and took me and her group for smoothies! Afterwards I was shown around the buildings and labs. It was really good to see where I’ll be working! On one of the days, my partner and I met one half of her future lab for a drink and after which her co-supervisor treated us to dinner which was awesome! Bar the fun of getting to know future colleagues, there was some seriousness. As I’m unfunded, I am in need of a job to support me during my PhD. I wrote a cover-letter and attached it to my, ever so updated, CV and proceeded to hand out 30 of them to everywhere I could! Hopefully someone will see something hire-able in me 🙂 We also house-hunted. Eventually settling on a flat just out of the town we started the standard procedure with a very friendly letting agent. Only a few hours later a PERFECT looking flat in the town centre appeared. We rushed the next morning to see if we could swap and the wonderful agent and the current tenants graciously obliged to let us view the place and change our application (we bought both parties a nice box of chocolates as a big thank you!). We have since then learned that we have been accepted for the flat which is great as now we have one less thing to worry about! I have also since received my welcome with my student information and have set up my University of St Andrews email account 🙂 I’m really looking forward to it all. Both excited and terrified at starting my PhD!

One last thing. Yesterday I received my degree classification. I have a 2.1! Which I’m very glad about 🙂

Thanks for reading

BCT