Thursday, May 27, 2010

Surviving the Second Year Blues

Have you ever had one of those dreams in which you are trying get somewhere and you can’t? I am having these dreams with increasing frequency; I think it’s my subconscious mind’s not-so-subtle hint that I’m hitting a lull in my PhD progress. Something I rather naively hadn’t realized until now is that the demands of a PhD increase as you go along. Studies start piling up; rejected manuscripts need to be rewritten and sent to another journal; resubmitted manuscripts need to be thoroughly vetted to maximize their chances of getting accepted. This may not be the case for everyone, but I have certainly found myself to be under more pressure in my second year than in my first. I’m sure also that the pressure will only increase in my final year.

Pressure can be motivating or it can cause people to freeze. I believe that the trick to dealing with the pressure of the later stages of a PhD is to do with passive and active responding. Passive responding to pressure involves withdrawing and freezing which, although dysfunctional, at least has the benefit of keeping you out of contact with the thing that is causing you anxiety. Unfortunately I think that a lot of people use this strategy (you know the ones – they’ve been here forever and their catch-cry is “I just need to run one more study before I write up…”). Active responding is harder than passive responding. It involves forward planning and strict adherence to the deadlines that you (and other people) set for yourself.

My advice to anyone who, like me, is experiencing the second year (or third year, or fourth year) blues is just to get on with it. Confront the issue head on and try to make headway on small tasks by writing up a results section here, a general introduction there. Have a serious chat with your supervisor about the direction you’re heading in and the timeline you need to meet in order to finish. And above all, don’t let it get you down. Most people feel like this at one time or another in their postgraduate degree so don’t sweat it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

First prize is a used handkerchief

I’m not going to lie, my past few weeks have been largely unproductive and uneventful. The majority, if not all off my time has quite literally been taken up marking student essays and reports. It is an incredibly boring, tedious and painful exercise and I do not wish to reminisce on the experience here. Instead I thought I’d present a statistics puzzle that I just gave to my first year statistics class and that I find very cool.

Suppose you’re on a game show and you’re given the choice to pick one of three doors. Behind each door is the prize that you’ll win. Behind one door is an infinitely cool prize (insert an infinitely cool prize of your choice), behind the other two doors are foils or dud prizes, lets say someone’s used handkerchief (not much fun). It is important to know that the host of the game show knows what is behind each door.

So lets say you pick door number 1. Before they tell you what you've won, the host then opens door number 3 and reveals a used handkerchief. The host then says to you, “Would you like to change your choice to door number 2 or stick with your original choice of door number 1?”

The question is, given the new information provided to you that door number 3 did not contain the infinitely cool prize, should you change your decision and pick door number 2, stick with your original choice of door number 1 or does it make no difference either way?

Anyway have a think about it and I'll post the answer this time next week. If you know the answer please resist from posting it in the comments section. First person to email me the correct answer though will win one of my very own used handkerchiefs. Get to it!


Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog?? Send Will an email to find out how:

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Conf Doc!

Last week I submitted my confirmation document, or ‘conf doc’ as we say in the business. It was daunting and I’m glad it’s over. The thing is, you’re not actually a ‘PhD Candidate’ until you have been ‘confirmed’. (Until recently, I assumed the PhD confirmation process was just like the catholic one.)

So I’m still a lowly ‘Provisional PhD Candidate’ until I’m told otherwise. To become a PhD Candidate I need to submit my conf doc to a small group of academics (my readers) who will decide my fate: Am I on track to producing research worthy of the Dr. title? Do I need a few more months and a bit more guidance? Or maybe I’m just not cut out for a PhD.

The conf doc is ten pages with a few sections:
  • Proposal (i.e. “What are you gonna do?”)
  • Literature Review (i.e. “Surely someone has done it before?”) 
  • Feasibility (i.e. “Is this even possible?”)
  • Importance (i.e. “Will anyone care?”)
  • Funding (i.e. “Don’t ask for more money.”)
  • Timeline (i.e. “How long will all this take?”)
  • Work Completed (i.e. “What the hell have you been doing for the past 12 months!?”)
So after all this I’ll be confirmed right? Unfortunately not. I now have to turn this document into an hour long seminar for my readers, other academics, PhD students, and guests from other universities. As if that weren’t enough, the audience will then leave the room and I’ll be interviewed.

I present in two weeks on Thursday 3rd June at 12pm 2.30pm (Sir Llew Edwards Bldg 14 Room 115) and you’re welcome to come along. Or you can wait for my next post when I’ll reveal whether or not I’ve been confirmed... 

Matt Thompson

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The purpose of a lanyard.

After being harassed about it for about 4 months now, I’ve finally decided to contribute to the Psych blog, to represent the clinical psych student component of the school.

This year I switched to the combined PhD program- clinical masters and PhD. My first year in the clinical program was the most enlightening, testing, rewarding, challenging, busy, enjoyable, and awful year of my life. But, having lived through it, and now being able to take a breather from the fast pace of the clinical program and complete it at a slower pace whilst starting my research, I can look back and see how much I learned and how far I’ve come!

It is nerve-wracking starting the program, organizing registration, college membership, blue cards, text-books, etc. and over coming your anxiety about actually seeing your first REAL client- “what forms do they need to sign?” “Do I tell them about the limits of confidentiality first, or after I’ve made polite chit-chat?”, “what if they tell me they are suicidal?”, “what if my pen runs out?”, “where can I sit so I can see the clock?”, “How do I stop them talking off topic without seeming rude?”, “what if I haven’t ticked all the boxes on my intake form?”, “what if I forget how to speak?”, “Have I asked a double-barrelled question?”, “Is my posture making me look warm and engaged?” “what if they don’t like me?” etc. etc.

Then once that’s all sorted out, you find yourself juggling 5 classes, case presentations, 8 clients, research projects, supervision requirements, MSATs, exams, assignments, board paper-work requirements, client reports, progress notes, and discharge summaries, plus trying to have a life, and make a living somehow. Actually the last 2 tend to not happen very often- you find yourself having a chocolate bar and a diet coke for lunch, and then by the time you get home at 11pm, you’re too tired to make dinner, you have had no time or money to go to the supermarket, and you know you have to be in there at uni again by 7 am anyway so you just collapse into bed (after a shower- although sometimes personal hygiene slips a bit as well) !

Ok, so maybe it’s a little bit of an exaggeration, some weeks are better than others, but this story was true for too high a number of my weeks last year for my liking.

But you do learn a lot about organization, time management, the importance of work-life balance (through learning first hand what happens when it’s absent), psychopathology (again, through first-hand experience with anxiety, mood disorders, stress, and sometimes a little psychosis), and of course a little bit about interpersonal skills, psychological treatments, and about the field in general.

I was asked at lunch today, why I felt I needed a lanyard with all of my keys, swipe cards etc on it. And I would like to clarify this for everyone, so that you don’t think it’s just the clinical psychs being pretentious. When you are in the situation as described above, it is very easy to forget things, leave things places, forget your clients’ names, write the wrong names in reports, be disorganized, lose things, AND lock yourself out of places at 7am or 11pm when there’s no-one around to let you in.

SO, the purpose of a lanyard is to decrease the chance of this happening, or even just to decrease the chance of having to walk back to where you came from to get your photocopy card because you forgot it (these things tend to be enough to tip you over the edge when you’re in this situation). You only have to remember one thing and you have instant access to your St Lucia clinic key, Herston clinic key, computer lab swipe card, photocopy card, locker key, and USB. The importance of this was demonstrated one morning last year when I didn’t have my lanyard for whatever reason. It was 7am and I had a presentation on “Theory of Mind and the Frontal Lobes” for neuroanatomy class at 9am (Which was barely started), I arrived at the computer labs, put my stuff down and went to make a cup of tea. Without my swipe card. I had to wait about 40 minutes for someone to arrive and let me in and my presentation suffered greatly!

This year, although I am finding myself with a much better work-life balance ( I actually get weekends and the occasional evening off!), I am still juggling clients, coursework, therapy research projects, supervision, board requirements, reports, paperwork, a folio, and that little thing called a PhD. So my lanyard now has:
Photocopy card
Swipe card for UQ
Swipe card for Royal Children’s where I have a desk
Key for office at UQ
UQ clinic key
Herston clinic key
Locker key
Filing cabinet key
And USB.

It is not because I like to look important- it is because my brain is so scattered and in about 10 thousand places at once, so my lanyard is my safety blanket that keeps me slightly sane and with everything in the right spot.

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??Send Will an email to find out how:

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I bet you can't stop your eyes from moving.

I’m fascinated by the control we have over our eye movements, because we first use our eyes to explore the world around us. Our control over what our eyes do largely commands how we complete complex behaviours like driving a car.

Some of our eye movements are automatic and made reflexively in response to some visual event. Imagine, for example, standing on a train platform and looking across the tracks to a friend on a platform opposite you. If a train flies past between you and your friend, your eyes can’t help but to flick back and forth, following parts of the carriages. This is an eye reflex called optokinetic nystagmus, or OKN for short.

To induce OKN in the lab, I get people to sit in a pitch black room and stare at the centre of a computer monitor while I track their eyes with the eye tracker. I tell participants that their goal is to stare directly at the centre of the monitor. But then I display 800 little white dots on the screen, all moving at the same speed from left to right at a rate of a few centimetres per second. Because there is nothing in the centre of the monitor for participants to keep their eyes fixed on, their OKN kicks in. My participants end up following a single dot smoothly for a short period of time until their eyes flick in the opposite direction to start following a new dot - this pattern repeats over and over regardless of how much the participants try to keep their eyes still.

Testing OKN in the eye tracker (the ghostly face at the far right is Morgan).

Below, I’ve graphed examples of what the data end up looking like, but let me quickly explain the graph before you click on the picture to see it in full size! Along the x-axis is time, and the y-axis plots how much the eyes move left and right. If someone kept their eyes perfectly still, the graph would be a straight line along the value “640”. Values higher than 640 represent eye movements to the right, and lower values are movements to the left. Each coloured plot represents about 2 seconds of OKN from a different participant in a different condition.

Eye data showing less and less OKN for different conditions -- click the image to make it bigger and see the paragraph above the photo for more detail about the graph.

You can see that, over time, participants eyes smoothly move right, and then really quickly flick back to left, making a saw-tooth like pattern. This pattern is most obvious for the red plot, and becomes less for the purple, and even less for the blue plots. The decrease in OKN over these examples is because of an experimental manipulation I employed to help people keep their eyes still - even from this small amount of data it’s obvious that it worked!

The results from my experiments will hopefully inform our knowledge about how motion and eye movements affect our perceptual organisation of the world.


Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog?? Send Will an email to find out how:

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Hands-on research.

I may be just an RA (research assistant) but I get to do some pretty cool stuff. Take fingerprinting, for example. Part of my job is to collect fingerprints from people so we can use those prints in experiments where we look at how people process complex visual stimuli.

Believe it or not, taking someone’s fingerprints is actually pretty difficult. You have to (gently) twist a person’s arm in really awkward ways to roll their fingers evenly across a 10-print card. At the moment I’m pretty crap. Here are some examples of crap print rolling:

A twitch during the roll (the vertical smudges in the centre), and too much pressure (the smudging along the top)

Not enough ink covering the finger

Too much ink (coupled with too much pressure)

Sigh. Looks like I've lots of practice ahead of me...

- Morgan

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??Send Will an email to find out how: