The Research School of Earth Sciences has a long history of pitching the staff against the students in a biannual sporting competition. The staff have dominated in the last few student vs staff sporting competitions, especially cricket, where many of the student team had never bowled a ball or held a bat before. Read more about last year’s cricket match here.
This year strategy overtook tradition and the students challenged the staff to the inaugural student vs staff lawn bowls tournament. There was more participation than ever before with even a few of our youngest coming along to support their parents.
The weather was a sunny 29 degrees as we all made our way down to the RUC. The tension was thick and strategies were forming as the instructor explained the rules of lawn bowls.
I recently crossed the 3 ½ year mark of my PhD, went off scholarship, switched to part-time, got a casual admin job, didn’t get into a graduate program, bought a bunch of IKEA furniture and received reviews for a paper. It’s fair to say that I’m giving a lot of mixed messages about my PhD status.
A few weeks ago I attended a conference that was a little out of my research comfort zone. The title of the conference was ‘Gender, science and wonder’ and it was run by the Department of Gender, Media and Cultural Studies. I decided to attend for two reasons: 1) a friend of mine was giving a talk, and 2) there would be free food. Plus the conference was only for two days and was just a short walk away. Little did I know how valuable this experience would be.
I started my PhD over a year ago, here are some ‘valuable’ life lessons I’ve picked up along the way.
Being self-driven is hard. I have really struggled with having no-one hold me accountable if I don’t show up or do any work. I could just not come in for a week and probably no-one would notice. As an ‘adult’ though, obviously I am just shooting myself in the foot if I slack off. This took me a shameful amount of time to realize.
Having just finished my mid-term review I thought I would give you some advice and observations from my experience. Your mid-term review will be completed at 16-18 months into your PhD. Lucky me, I got to do mine at 15 months, but most people wait for the later option. I feel like my biggest source of anxiety was not knowing what exactly to do/expect. I hope this little article hopes you to understand what to expect.
My research is in paleoclimate, which involves looking for clues in the world around us and putting these clues together to investigate past climatic changes and build a picture of the way Earth used to be. It’s a bit like being a detective (well at least it is in my maybe slightly overactive imagination).
For my blogging debut I thought I would share some of my experiences with moving to the other side of the world to start my PhD – the good the bad and the ugly (but mainly the good). A year on into my studies is probably a good time to write this as I’ve been here long enough to become settled but haven’t yet been over come by the demon thesis.
Firstly, why did I decide to make the move from sunny Leicester, UK to wet and windy Canberra, Australia*? Well, at some point in my life I wanted to live abroad and I’ve always wanted to study for a PhD – so why not kill two birds with one stone? After mentioning this to my master’s project supervisor, he pointed me towards the Research School of Earth Science, ANU, where he also studied for his PhD. I looked into it and made contact with my potential supervisor, Hrvoje Tkalčić – it was pretty strange having an interview at 11pm due to the time difference! So after submitting my application, waiting a few months, and a few more, I was accepted, found somewhere to live, and the next thing I knew I arrived in Canberra in the middle of a 40 °C heat wave. The first thing that crossed my mind was “what have I done, how will I cope with this heat!?” Turns out I needn’t have worried, the body is very good at adapting to, for the most, perfect weather. My supervisor, Hrvoje, kindly greeted me at the airport, we went to grab some lunch and I was introduced to some of the Australian residents (figure 1).
In my opinion, if you want to move abroad, doing it for your PhD is a great time. In many cases, especially if you come straight from an undergrad/masters like me, you have very little tying you down and stopping you moving. When you arrive, you will also have the support of an academic institution around you in case anything goes wrong or you need advice or financial support. Your research group turns into your academic “family” so you always have people to hang out with or talk to if you have any concerns. Mine were great at making me feel settled and answering my many research and non- research related questions (figure 2).
Living abroad also gives you that extra push to become fully independent. In my case during my undergrad I was living a 40 min drive from home, so was home most weekends (even with the occasional load of washing – sorry Dad!). Living on the other side of the world means you can’t do that. Even you have a problem during the day where it would be nice to hear the advice of a family member, you can’t even phone as they will be sleeping – so you learn to solve things yourself, and if I were to be very cliché about it, become an actual adult (maybe)!
Now onto the (not so) bad. These are very Canberra specific and are probably more like minor grievances – those of you who have spent the last year with me probably know exactly what I’m going to say here! Number 1 – the temperature inside houses. Canberra gets very cold winters (down to -8 at night) and none of the houses are insulated which quite frankly, baffles me. However this is not a reason not to move to Canberra, I just enjoy a good shameless rant. Number two – the public transport system – not so great in Canberra. However I have solved this problem with spending far too much money buying a bike – Canberra really is great for biking, and anything outdoorsy in general. In fact, in the last year I have done outdoor things I would have never even thought I could do, for example, climbing, rogaining and entering triathlons and even winning one as part of a team! (Figure 3)
So a year on, I can honestly say moving abroad has been one of the best decisions of my life. You just have to remember that even though you are very far away you are only a flight from home** – it’s crazy how small the world really is.
* was that right?
** or two in my case! This is advice I was given before I moved and it really is so true. Travel may be expensive but it really is easy to just jump on a plane.
In science, a big part of your daily work is to critically assess other peoples and – more importantly – your own work. This can sometimes lead you into states of mind, which let you seriously doubt that everything is okay with said mind. I have ventured into such a state last week.
In particular it was a state of paranoia – paranoia about the abilities of past-Thomas to get anything correctly done.
You are probably familiar with the concept of past-, present- and future-self’s, especially if you have watched How I met your Mother. But just to avoid confusion, I will quickly explain:
If, let us say, I go out this evening and have a beer too much1, then I do this because it is not a problem for present-Thomas (aka “the guy who enjoys just-one-more cold beer”) but for future-Thomas (aka “the guy that wakes up tomorrow morning with a hangover”) who will curse the by then past-Thomas (aka “the guy who enjoyed the cold beer”).
But back to present-Thomas`s5 (aka “last week’s Thomas”) paranoia about past-Thomas`s (aka “last year’s Thomas”) “insufficiencies”.
Present-Thomas was comparing his own chemical data set with literature data and “just-to-make-sure-cause-something-seemed-a-bit-odd” was having a quick look at an Excel-Sheet which past-Thomas had used to do his data reduction6 …
72 hours later: Present-Thomas had found a huge mistake in the data reduction sheet7, had glanced over past-Thomas`s notes on the problem, had fixed the problem, had found that this totallyscrewed up the out coming data, found that the problem actually was already addressed in the original data reduction sheet (just in another place) and found that this was actually explained in past-Thomas`s notes, if he would have read them and not just glanced over them. He also found that past-Thomas had indeed done a small mistake. For a few elements of the data set he had not chosen the highest quality ones. Mind you, he had worked out which data was of the highest quality, but for some reason had chosen the slightly lower in quality elements.
To use an analogy: If past-Thomas would have built a car, and present-Thomas would have noticed that it feels “a bit funny” while driving, present-Thomas would have taken the car apart, fit another motor in, got it out again, got the old motor back in, to then realize that past-Thomas had accidently put the spare wheel on and one of the normal wheels in the boot.
I think it is totally normal that we distrust our past self (Figure 1), and while growing older we more and more realize that our future-self will not understand what our present-self was actually up to. However, doing a PhD (or science in general) distorts this view (Figure 2) – and that can sometimes be a bit worrying, as you do not know how much distortion is good for you (Figure 3).
The first year of this PhD is coming to an end I am not even sure what PhD stands for (pretty hard degree). I am sure I have spent (most of) my days doing something, but what do I have to show for it? A title to a project that makes people ask questions that I have no idea how to answer.
We all came from honours or similar degree where our hands were held and we were walked through how to do everything. Finally, you became an expert on your (tiny) subject. That year, you achieved so much, in only ten months!
Now comes the PhD (prolonged happiness depleter) and ten months have flown by and all I can tell you is what not to do if you’re trying to grow crystals. We have blundered our way through these first months, feeling guilty for achieving very little, very slowly, and looking out longing for a hand to hold.
But I believe we are learning, if very slowly, and better yet, teaching ourselves how to learn. I know we know a lot less than many of the people that work here, but you have to realise (in some cases), they have been studying geology for longer than you have existed. You may get lost in a conversation or not know what that acronym stands for but if you ask a question then you will know! It’s that simple.
This year, a lot of us started a PhD (pondering hopelessly deep) and we’ve been learning from each other’s mistakes. It’s a bit of blind leading the blind, but at least once someone falls down a hole they let the rest of us know to avoid it! We will get through this; get more efficient, more knowledgeable, more confident and become a real researcher.
By the end of these 3-4 years we will once again be experts on our tiny aspect of geology, graduate, get to call ourselves doctor and realise….
With my revolution slowly grinding to a halt (I haven’t decided about this yet) due to a very strong opposition, I have turned to better things to do. Like my own research. Mid July I have done my midterm and received excellent feedback and guidelines on how to proceed.
After a month off, I almost felt like working again, so I happily jumped into my glorious research. A month in – I am stuck again.
I am pretty sure a majority of you (if not all) know how this feels. After all, we have a word for it – the Valley of Shit. One moment you’re happily working on one aspect of your research feeling all good and mighty, and then… something creaks… and stops.
You can’t move it. You try gently poking it, then pushing it, then you apply a crowbar, and then you straight out throw stuff at it hoping for some magic.
And the thing … doesn’t … even … budge … a little!
It turns into one of those things from fairy tales – you have to say some sort of magic words, but you don’t know what they are. You turn to other aspects of your research, all the while thinking – “I’ll get back to this” – and then after a while you realize those routes are blocked as well. They are all depending on those magic words.
At times like these I feel like I have no clue as to what I’m doing, or why I’m doing it in the first place. I look around me and see my officemates staring at important looking figures and graphs on their screens, concentration welded into their faces. I hang out with other students and see them go after a while leaving me with the words “I have to try this” or “I have to do that”…. Everyone seems to know what they’re doing. When I ask them about it, they all say they feel exactly like me, most of the time. So how do you do it then? How do you find the magic words? What do you do after you’ve tried everything you could think of?
This is not the first time I’m stuck. In fact I think 75% of my PhD so far I was stuck. Usually I try everything I can. Then I try everything that is so stupid that I wouldn’t ever consider trying it, but I’m desperate. Sometimes, incredibly, this helps. Turns out your problem was something stupid that you hadn’t thought of, and you’re lucky – moving on, magic words worked.
If that doesn’t work, I despair for a while. Then I despair some more. Then I can’t take it anymore and I finally turn outwards for help. This means I go around and talk to people I think could help me. If they can’t help me, I turn to people who probably can’t help me, but I still do it. Among all the truly amazing people in this department someone will have the solution. Maybe it will be a direct solution to your particular problem (“I had this happened to me once…”), maybe it will just be an area of this person’s greater expertise (“let me just take a look at this one tiny detail here…”), maybe they will have a better idea than you, or they will come up with something you hadn’t thought of (“have you tried xy?”) or maybe they will just encourage you.
My most recent help came in the form of a very encouraging conversation just before lunch time today (October 1st). This wasn’t even related to my being stuck right now, it was a conversation addressing different problem entirely. But overall it made me look at things a bit differently – most of all, I left with the message that PhD is learning, it’s a process during which I am developing new skills that I can’t possibly learn anywhere else. And the important thing is people outside (the department, the academia…) will appreciate these skills, because not everyone has them.
It’s not easy, it was never supposed to be easy, but we are all developing skills and evolving in a particular way that makes us better at how we approach problems. Looking at it that way, I realize that I am actually working on myself as well as on my own project. And yes, I do want to be better at what I do and who I am, so I will try and take all the stuff I already threw at my immovable block and build them up so high that I can climb over it. Probably this stuff will collapse a few times, I will be frustrated still, but I will find a way to climb it.
By Brendan Hanger
Recently a number of the original OnCirculation contributors have reached the ‘end’ of their PhDs including Evan, Kelly, Nick and myself; however this has led to the question, ‘When is the true end of the PhD?’ or in popular terms ‘Can I call myself a doctor yet?’. Here in Australia, the PhD approval process is different to many other countries, based on our relative isolation from the rest of world. In this post I am going to talk about the various ‘end’ points and where they fit into the process. These stages are what I have been through or still have to come here at RSES, but are similar to most departments around the country.
It has been so very long since I wrote a blog post I barely know where to start. In this instance, I feel compelled start at the end…
I SUBMITTED MY THESIS!
The first article I ever posted was called ‘M’ is for Midterm and finally, two and a half years later, I get to write ‘F’ is for Finished! I have learned so many things since that first post, about blogging, about research, probably most importantly about deep-sea coral (that was* after all my PhD topic) and an AWFUL lot about myself; some things that I shall carry forward and a few things that I shall gladly leave behind. The whole process of doing a PhD is often described as a roller coaster, which was most definitely the case for me. The extreme highs were coupled to some rather uncomfortable lows. So perhaps I was naive to think that the ride ended on the day of submission, and I was not entirely prepared for how strange it would be to put my feet back on the ground. Like the astronaut returning from space readjusting to earth’s gravity, I discovered on my own re entry, that perspective on Planet PhD was so different to that on Planet Earth that I needed some time to learn how to walk again.
I’ll save my survival tips for another post, although I will say that Evan pretty much covered most of them in PhD: Epilogue. What I’d like to tell you about is the incredibly surreal period that culminates in the days leading up to (my) submission, and in my next post, the days that follow **.
Last time I posted on this blog, I was in a pretty stressful state of being. Deadlines were piling up, as I was preparing for a presentation at the AGU Fall Meeting (BTW, the presentation was a success). At the end of the post, I concluded by saying:
I think the best cure is to work hard and get things done!
Well, it is late April, and here I am sitting in Japan, a week removed from handing in my PHD thesis (note, this post was written April 25). I have spent the past week not thinking about it! I have to say, I had hoped that I would have completed things at least a month earlier than I did, but that is not how things worked. It came down to the wire, and the hours piled on much more than I would have liked. For those of you who are in a PHD program, but not yet at the end point, here are some comments on my experience. Continue reading “PHD: Epilogue”→
As anyone who closely follows the this blog might have noticed, my blog output has dropped considerably in the past few months. This is, of course, related to the fact that I want to be done my PHD in the next few months. During the past few weeks, I can noticeably feel the levels of stress increasing past thresholds never experienced in the past.
When doing my masters thesis, I cruised to an easy victory, so it seemed. I finished on schedule and my defense went off without a hitch. When the biggest criticism from your external examiner was failing to put scale bars on maps, I think it was a good indication of success. My current supervisor told me recently that he would never have accepted a student who had to work extremely hard for their honours/masters.
A PHD is a different beast. You have much longer to finish relative to a masters degree, though the expectations are far higher. There is no course work to help you along, so you must be self motivated to learn all the skills required to finish on time. Things don’t always work out as planned, and delays inevitably happen. At the end, there are things that conspire to raise stress levels: running out of money, the need to find a job, deadlines for graduation, summer holidays. Will I be able to go on a holiday this summer? That is a question I will not be able to answer right now. Will I find a nice post-doctoral fellowship somewhere? Can I finish my thesis before my money supplies start depleting, and to get my graduation papers by June 2014? These are all things that drive me right now. And of course, there is always that lingering feeling of imposter syndrome.
To compound the problems are computer troubles. Because of limited time, I needed to change scripts that run programs. Of course, nothing ever works perfectly first time, but it can be extremely frustrating to track down mystery bugs. I got it working, but it took nearly three work days. I am going to the AGU Fall Meeting in December, so I need results! It is getting close, but I think it is possible to get the required results by then.
What possible way is there to get out of this period of high anxiety? This is a fairly new experience for me, but I think the best cure is to work hard and get things done! Ultimately, finishing solves all the problems. I think it is a good idea to step out and breathe some fresh air sometimes (and maybe play some ultimate frisbee!)
Last week the RSES Student Conference was upon us. This is an annual event that gives the students at RSES the opportunity to present their research to the School in a short 5 minute presentation. The more than 40 talks covered most of Earth History and reflected the huge range of projects going on in this school.
I have a love-hate relationship with many of the inductively coupled plasma type machines I use to perform analyses on seawaters and foram shells. Today was another multi-hour long battle, which fuelled some thoughts on the joy of smashing up machines, until I came across a study* from the University of Duisburg-Essen, in Germany in which humans were found to empathise with robots. This made me think, would I feel bad during my abusive actions… Continue reading “Rage Against the Machine”→