I think many PhD students agree that it gets really frustrating at times when experiments do not work, writing is impeded, procrastination creeps up all over, or you do not find suitable ant colonies to conduct your experiments even after spending many days (in my case). Something needs to be done. Here is what I think might help, and it helped me.
- Do something new for a day. Learn about something other than your PhD work. I went on an insect walk (looking for an interesting wasp) with a fellow PhD student at ANU (The Australian National University). I got motivated to learn more about other miniature creatures (apart from ants). I got an idea for a new structure for my blog, which you will read here in future.
- Talk to your peers about it and realise you are not alone in that.
- Volunteer for a day if you can. It can have transformative effect on you when you talk with other people and about their work (non-science). I visited ANU community garden to learn about gardening.
- It is just a state of mind, of many possible states. So the feeling can be changed. It helps to change routines or maybe the way your desk is ordered. I changed the times of my work slightly, walked to uni instead of biking, started reading a book on insects while waiting, cleaned up my desk space…
- Lastly, write about it and share your thoughts with others.
Yes! It is exactly one year since I started my PhD. There is always a lot more to do than what I have already done. Here are some of my thoughts and insights from one year of being a PhD student.
I am not quite satisfied with everything, but that is how most of my colleagues seem to have felt in the beginning. Let me start with things that I did not achieve, but I wish I did.
Things I did not achieve
- Good time management; I should use the Pomodoro technique
- Saying No and knowing when to say; It is quite important, I realise.
- Having less number of distractions from the thesis; a few is enough.
- Learn to drive and swim.
- Finished at least one chapter and sent off for publication
- Write a feature article in a popular sci-comm outlet
- Ask one question a week
Things I learned
- Over-planning is bad. Sometimes unexpected results, observation and events are good.
- Plan data analysis before the experiment. It helps in designing a proper methodology.
- One should expect months of non-productivity, but working all the while towards the thesis
- There is a lot of politics in science. But try to be nice to everyone. In academia, most people have their own motives, most of the time.
- Scientists make mistakes, some are selfish, but all scientists are people (unless cats are conducting secret experiments on us)
- Published work is not always right. There is a lot of room for scepticism.
- Doing science is more important than sci-comm and outreach? If I want to be in Academia, I will be hired mainly for my science! I was given this advice after doing ‘too much’ sci-comm. I still need to strike a good balance.
- The feeling of guilt after a non-productive day or procrastination is quite common among PhD students. I need to learn to enjoy guilt-free weekends by setting short weekly and daily goals.
- Information diet! Internet sucks up all the time and pukes out lot of information that I don’t use/need. I should learn to go on less information diet.
- Collected data for 2 chapters of my thesis, and started writing a review.
- Won a few awards: Barbara Rice award for best field based presentation at departments conference, ASSAB conference best speed talk, OEH/ESA award (NSW Office of Environment and Heritage/ Ecological Society of Australia) for outstanding outreach for 2016, along with 5 more people from different universities in the country. All the six winners will be registering with the Scientists in school programof CSIRO to work on a collaborative ecology project in schools from different parts of the country. I will be working in a school in Canberra ACT. Through this school project, we aim to turn some bright young minds on to science!
- New skills
- Slightly improved writing skills
- Miscellaneous: Kayaking, sailing, stand-up paddle boarding…
- Attended Ant course 2016 and got to interact and network with many ant scientists and learned a few techniques like dissection, taxonomy, morphology etc.
- Started doing some science communication: Wrote a few articles to popular science outlets like The Conversation, The Royal Institute of Australia, Insectes Sociaux; gave an interview to ABC radio national, started a podcast called just-questions; made 30second biology videos, exploration videos of one new place a week; participated in outreach programs like ant walk and open day at MQ uni; joined HDR mentors to mentor new HDR students; started tutoring and learnt some human physiology!
New skills to acquire
- Neural electro-physiology, Neuropharmacology, brain dissection
- Computational modelling
- Scanning electron microscopy, 3D brain imaging
PS: This post has been more of a note-to-self, but some of it might be useful to others.
“How does studying ants help the HUMAN society?” is a question that I often get asked, sometimes from my peers who study human diseases or engineer ‘stuff’. I often explain them by giving examples. The following material sums up my response quite well.
An interview with a scientist, Justin Marshall: