Friday, April 30, 2010

Your research on a poster

Wen and Steph at EPC!

Will, Matt and James have all shared their wonderful experiences at the latest Experimental Psychology Conference in Melbourne. I thought I would shed some light on what the girls got up to during this conference.

Just like Will, Matt and James, Stephanie Goodhew and I made our way to Melbourne for the 2010 Experimental Psychology Conference. It was Steph's first time visiting Melbourne, so this trip was very exciting for both of us (me being from Melbourne, I was excited to show Steph around). We were also extremely excited about the conference dinner, because it was held at the Melbourne Zoo this year. The conference was held at The University of Melbourne, which is situated in an inner northern suburb of Melbourne called Parkville. Steph and I shared a room near the university, which made our trip extremely affordable.

At the conference, Steph presented a talk, and I presented a poster. Presenting a poster is another way to get your research out there without the pressures of doing a talk. Because a poster presentation is more informal than a talk presentation, I was able to get a lot of individual feedback about my research. Unlike talks that were scheduled throughout the day, the poster session was one big session scheduled in the evening of the first day. At the beginning of the poster session, I stood quietly in front of my poster, felt very nervous about what I was going to say and how I was going to answer the questions that people may have had about my research. As I waited for people to make their ways toward my poster, a very well known researcher in the area of faces walked towards me and asked: "Would you like to tell me about your research?" Filled with excitement and anxiety, I walked her through my poster. From then on, I became more confident, and all my nerves turned into excitement and enthusiasm.

This conference was a great opportunity for me to present my research and gain invaluable feedback. It was an eye opener for me. I was inspired by all the experimental research that people are involved in around Australia and New Zealand. And last but not least, it was wonderful to have shared this experience with Steph.


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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

CV Envy...When aiming high hurts.

I’ve been lucky to meet some amazing researchers of late. You know the ones. Those that fill your nerdy little heart with joy when they present the neat findings of their incredibly clever studies, that inspire you to take on 3 extra lines of research even though every 2.5 minutes of the next 5 weeks are already scheduled into your Google calendar, and get you daydreaming of a lecturing job at Cambridge when you should be focussing on writing a first draft of a manuscript.

Meeting researchers we admire is one of the best parts of being a PhD student, the chance to hear about exciting new findings, and run your own ideas past the people who edit the journals you fantasise about publishing in, and generally get yourself known to those who might offer you research collaboration and job opportunities in the future. The worst thing about high achievers? Looking at their CVs.

However irrational it might be, I somehow can’t help but look up the CVs of people I admire, and directly compare myself and my achievements to these high flyers. Somehow my tres-high impact, lonely, single publication in Journal of Environmental Psychology starts to look incredibly dubious next to double-digit Psych Science articles. Media mentions in the Bundaberg News Mail look a little lame next to The New York Times. I start to question why I’m here, to feel like a fraud, and wonder if I will ever succeed in academia at all. A perfect example of the optimally de-motivating upward comparison, or so I thought.

I mentioned these feeling of inadequacy to my supervisor. How the sight of the endless lines on superstar CVs sometimes make you feel like assuming the foetal position on the floor of the office and ignoring your dubiously consistent data altogether. She laughed at me, and proceeded to assure me that many of the most successful academics she knows were on the verge of tears after perusing the CV of one recent international visitor. It turns out that practically no one is immune to the hazards of CV envy; that us postgrads should relax and not worry about comparing ourselves to unbelievable levels of productivity and brilliance. I found this thought comforting for about 5 minutes. But soon the urge to plan new studies, pursue collaborations and apply for overseas awards took over. When I look around the department the other postgrads also seem too busy getting started on that new line of research, pitching their papers at top journals, and applying for prestigious overseas conferences to dwell on their academic inferiority for long. Perhaps a little CV envy doesn’t hurt after all.


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Friday, April 23, 2010

On perpetual questions, the meaning of life, and the risks associated with starting a controversial line of sex research

“Love is the answer, but while you’re waiting for the answer, sex raises some pretty good questions” Woody Allen

The hands down, knock down, down and dirty best thing about being a researcher is the fact that you not only get to wonder, you also get to know. What excites me about my PhD, and now my job, is that the I can turn things I always wanted to know into research questions, and research questions into studies, and studies into answers (or hints), and answers into articles.

As such, my guiding passion for racial equality has led me to research into race-relations. After several years of researching almost exclusively on race-based topics, and having just conquered my fear of saying the word ‘race’ in public, and engaging in this hot topic of research, I have recently decided to turn my SPSS hand to something a bit different.

In particular, I have always been fascinated by the disparity between men and women’s sexuality, and the need to talk about women’s sexuality honestly and openly. Recent articles that I have read about female anorgasmia (inability to orgasm or difficulty reaching orgasm), and related evolutionary articles about the evolutionary uselessness of the female orgasm compounded my interest. Accordingly, a few weeks ago I launched an online sex survey that asked members of the general public to tell me the ins and outs of their sexual experience. This survey has been an incredible challenge, and an unrivaled learning experience. I found it very confronting to gather my materials, compose my questions, and disseminate the study with my name publicly attached to it. Likewise, participants reported that it was good, but also scary and shocking, to be asked these questions and answer them with candour.

About a week after I launched this study I attended what I think is my 6th conference of the Society for Australasian Social Psychologists, in Perth. Being the sort of ambitious tool that I am, I decided to present the preliminary results of my sex research – results of a study that had been running for less than a week.

On the plane, sleep deprived and wary, I downloaded the results from about 500 participants, and set to analyzing. At first glance, the findings were extremely promising and interesting (I am currently writing a report for participants). Despite this, however, I was not thrilled. While they were very interesting and above all important to me, it became salient that I would be presenting on salacious and shocking data, that really delved into sex – not just vague sexual attitudes but specific sexual practices and knowledge.

“Oh no!” my inner dialogue began. “They will think that I am a strumpet!”

“No, no.” I reasoned back to myself. “They will understand that it is valuable research, even if it is a little sexy.”

Never to be defeated, my defeatist self replied “Who are you kidding – you are going to be banned from returning to another conference, and also will be stoned to death I bet.”

Thus soundly beaten, I continued working on my slides, dreading the mocking from my peers that I knew would come.

So what happened? Well, yes, my talk raised eyebrows. It made people giggle, and it made people blush. After the talk, it seemed to disinhibit people as well – various other academics and PhD students approached me and told me ribald jokes. At first glance it looked like maybe I was right – that sex research simply couldn’t be taken seriously, and that this was risky departure for me career-wise.

BUT WAIT! Since the conference I have been inundated by e-mails from top-level academics from the conference who have told me that they have been thinking about my research, and have some suggestions about what factors may explain my findings. I have had about six offers to read drafts of my first article on this topic from people that I previously did not engage with. Members of the general public have sent me over 50 e-mails, thanking me for talking about this topic, telling me how personally important it is to them, and inviting me along to small group meetings at hospitals and public venues so that my next survey may better tap in to the wide range of factors that make up who we are sexually.

Going down this research road has been TERRIFYING, challenging, and already, exciting and rewarding. Presenting this research at the conference, and publicly outing this line of research before I felt ready was a risk. But hey! I think that now is a good time to remind myself (and you), that this is what is so EXPLETIVE DELETED sensational about being a researcher! We get to ask and answer the questions that we are intrinsically interested in. We get to gather knowledge about the crazy phenomena of human existence and feed it back to the public. Hoorah for research! Knee-knockingly frightening, overwhelmingly important and interesting, and a challenge worth taking.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How to publish, or: No seriously, how to publish?

There are many unspoken rules to abide by as a PhD student, but one trumps them all: publish, publish, publish. Gone are the days when people committed four years of their lives to write a tome, only to spend a further 6–12 months condensing it into publishable chunks. As ‘thesis by publication’ becomes the normative standard, we are expected to write up and submit papers throughout our PhD. But how can we maximize our chances of getting published? As someone who has received my fair share of rejections, this naturally is a question I am keen to answer.

Recently I attended the national social psychology conference and got some advice from the experts. I attended a postgraduate workshop on publishing given by Professor Shinobu Kitayama, editor of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. He summarized what he saw as the qualities of good empirical papers: they make a substantive advance to the literature (i.e., are novel and interesting), have a clear theoretical story, with data that are rigorously (and appropriately) analysed. Naturally, you need good data to get into top journals, but Professor Kitayama’s point seemed to be that you can get away with a lot by telling a good story – it’s up to you to make people interested in your topic (even if you lost interest ages ago) and want to read more.

I think this is great advice, but as a social scientist I’m interested in actual data. I attended another talk by Dr. Nick Haslam who has analysed the publishing strategies of successful and unsuccessful academics. There were some great pearls of wisdom in this talk, like the fact that there is a non-linear relationship between being first author on a paper and academic success: having a minority of first-author papers is beneficial career-wise, but too much solo publishing is actually detrimental. The same goes for publishing in teams: a bit is good, but you shouldn’t always be one of many. Perhaps most interestingly, he found that quantity of publications predicts impact better than quality. So the message is to publish lots, not necessarily to publish well!

I feel a little better informed now than when I started, but the answer of how to publish is still elusive. What you can do is maximize your chances by following advice from people who know–your supervisor, other academics, and your peers. Look at the programs of the conferences you attend; you will always find roundtables, workshops, and seminars devoted to this topic. I find this sort of comforting; it just goes to show that no one really has it all figured out. There’s no magic formula you can follow to get published, but if anyone figures it out please let me know!

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??
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Friday, April 16, 2010

Risk and Reward

The Psyc Conference -- Part III

Last week I travelled to Melbourne to present a poster at the 37th Experimental Psychology Conference (EPC). If you read my previous post you’ll know that my lead up to the conference was by no means smooth sailing. The weeks prior to the conference were filled with sleepless nights as I rushed to finalise experiments and piece together my presentation. On top of this I was racked with anxiety at the thought of presenting my research to my peers and having it ripped to pieces.

I am here to report that contrary to my fears the conference was an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable experience I’ll not soon forget. My expectations were exceeded and my fears were quickly quashed. There was a wonderful relaxed vibe that really fostered the communication and discussion of ideas. It wasn’t long before my anxiety of presenting was transformed into excitement.

It was incredibly cool discussing my research with people who seemed genuinely interested and intrigued by it. Suddenly the stresses of the previous weeks seemed so irrelevant and trivial. If this was the pay off then I’d gladly go through them all over again. In retrospect I’m thankful that I was able to overcome my anxieties and take advantage of the opportunity to promote my work and meet new people.

So if like me you harbour an inferiority complex and think who would ever be interested in what I do, give your head a shake and jump at the first opportunity you get to put yourself and your work out there.

So now I’m back in Brisbane brimming with confidence from the conference and unscathed by the experience. Unfortunately though my poster didn’t survive the trip back home. Not because it was ripped to pieces by my peers but because I left it sitting at gate 7 at Melbourne’s domestic airport...

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

“You’re too comfortable…but I like it.”

 The Psyc Conference -- Part II

At first it was strange sitting at the table with high ranking academics at the EPC dinner. I felt unworthy, and a little out of place. But it soon became clear that they weren’t interested in maintaining my delusions of inferiority. They, like me, just wanted to relax after an exhausting day of talks.

So I gradually became less inhibited and, before I knew it, I was speaking as though I’d known these people for years and we started to banter. But I thought I’d gone too far when one of the top vision scientists in Australia said to me, “You’re too comfortable…but I like it.” I shat myself and thought I’d overstepped the mark.

But he went on to tell a story about the late great physicist Richard Feynman. As a grad-student, Feynman stood-up and questioned the Nobel prize-winning Niels Bohr during his talk. Feynman later shat himself when he was ushered to Bohr’s chambers for “discussion.”

But it turns out that Bohr sought out Feynman because most physicists were too in awe of Bohr to argue with him. Feynman had no such inhibitions and said he felt as much respect for Bohr as anyone else, but once anyone got him talking about physics, he would become so focused he forgot about social niceties.

Academic etiquette in the 40s was a little different to the way things are now. I doubt a first-year PhD student like me would be allowed to sit at the same table as full Professors, let alone engage in some pretty risqué banter. I love this change and really appreciate being treated like an equal. (Some have even added me on facebook!)

So whoever your academic heros are, when you read their awesome work and see the impressive things they’ve achieved it’s easy to forget, they’re just people — don’t be afraid of getting too comfortable ; )

Matt Thompson

Click here to see Part 1!!!

Click here to see Part 3!!!

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Conference hangovers are so worth it.

 The Psyc Conference -- Part I

Matt, James and I just returned from Melbourne where we attended my first Experimental Psychology Conference, and it has been one of the best experiences of my life! I had my nerves tested when I presented some data to a packed lecture theatre of academics from Australia and New Zealand, and then I had my liver tested when I celebrated my presentation on the first night, the conference dinner on the second night, and the goodbye party on the final night!

As great as some of the science discussions were, what really made the experience for me was all the crazy interactions outside of the conference. The conference dinner was certainly a highlight - a room full of experimental psychologists with a never-ending amount of beer, wine, and champagne... My abs got a great workout from laughing at all the things coming from academics' mouths!

As if partying until 4am with renowned academics wasn’t enough (one academic even stayed out until 6.30am on the morning of his own presentation!), but we also got to see what PhD students from other universities were like. They were all great - talking to students from Victoria and Western Australia for the first time was as easy as talking to my old friends down the hall at UQ. For example, at one bar where we were surrounded by people dressed in suits and drinking expensive wines, I spent 30 minutes talking with a student from the University of Western Australia about whether or not to include error bars on graphs! That’s pretty special (albeit extremely nerdy).

The UWA girls with Matt and I. From left: Matt, Rachel, Kat, Vanessa, and me.

I think the best part of the conference was the range of experience of the young researchers. Research assistants, Honours, Masters and PhD students all got involved, and all were really impressive. If you hear about a conference coming up that is in your area of interest - find a way to go! You don’t even need to present data - you can just go and see the sort of research being done by other people and make new contacts.

Three days later I’m still exhausted and I feel like I haven’t slept for a year. But it was all worth it - I’ve made some great new friends with students and academics, and I got some great feedback about my own research. It was also great fun to share this experience with two friends, Matt and James, and it makes me wonder what we’ll get up to in the future!

James and me... this must have been one of the 4am moments!


Click here to see Part 2!!!

Click here to see Part 3!!!

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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Love and some Hate

On wednesday next week I am heading down to Melbourne for the 37th Australasian Experimental Psychology Conference (EPC). Although I've been to conferences before, this is the first conference at which I am presenting my own research and I won't lie, I'm incredibly nervous. The last few weeks have been a mad rush to get experiments finalised, data analysed and a coherent presentation put together.

Two weeks ago I was running what I thought would be my last participant through an experiment I plan to present next week at EPC. This particular participant was quite interested in the experiment and afterwards was eager to know more about what I was studying (always nice when someone shows an interest in what you're doing). I proceeded to debrief them.

As I was explaining the results the participant commented on my conditions and suggested that I had excluded one from my analysis. Slightly alarmed by this remark I attempted to clarify what they meant.

Their response: "I'm sure I saw such and such happen during the experiment."

I immediately felt sick, the participant had alluded to a potential confound in my design and there were only two possible explanations. Either they were asleep during the experiment and dreamt what they saw or there was an error in my code. Participants falling asleep during my experiments is not as unlikely as it may sound, it happens quite regularly. This particular participant seemed quite switched on though and I was immediately suspicious of the latter.

I opened the experiment and begun scouring through the code for the error. It didn't take long for my fears to be confirmed, the error was obvious. I began to stress a little. Without going into the details of the error I clung to the hope that it hadn't shown up in the data despite my last participant's testimony tending to refute the possibility. There is was though, where I had previously overlooked it, the error was blatantly obvious. I began to stress a lot.

So a long story short, I have been scrambling to rerun this experiment plus an additional experiment as well as trying to compile a presentation for EPC. Since monday this week I have run 41 participants across two and a half experiments. this includes running an entire experiment (7 hours of testing) on wednesday. The anxiety of potentially finding null results wreaked havoc on my sleeping patterns throughout the week.

I can report though that the results look fantastic for now and my presentation is coming along nicely. So onward to EPC where my results and presentation will likely be ripped to pieces by the academic elite. More sleepless nights ahead I suspect.

James Retell
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