Tuesday, June 29, 2010


For the past eight months I’ve been hanging around the School of Psychology pretending to be a PhD student. Last year I worked as a research assistant for one of the academics in the department but since October last year when my role in that position ended I’ve had no official affiliation with university or the school.

Despite this, I continued to show up every day and pretty much perform the activities of the average PhD student. Such activities included conducting my own research, attending weekly lab meetings, attending weekly seminars and reading groups and tutoring. I even attended a conference in Melbourne where I presented research. I have a suspicion that a number of people in the department were under the impression I was doing a PhD. I felt a bit like Frank Abagnale Jr. only without a Hollywood blockbuster based around my life (the analogy is a stretch I admit but I struggled for another and I like the sound if it).

Anyway the Jig is up. After a drawn out application process and a minor hiccup with the processing of my application I am now officially enrolled in a PhD in the School of Psychology. Not a great deal has changed although I’m now being paid to be here which is great and I feel as though I now have a purpose to be here. With financial benefits comes responsibility though and my supervisors were quick to inform me that they now have real authority over me and as Matt points out I’m still just a lowly ‘Provisional PhD Candidate ‘. I’m not an actual PhD Candidate until I have been ‘confirmed’.

So what’s really changed? Well I’m now being paid to be here but apparently I’m still a no body and now people can tell me what to do. I can't help but wonder whether all I've done is sold my freedom :P ?

To be serious for one moment though, its incredibly exciting to be a new member of the UQ and Psychology research community :).

James Retell

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


I'm finally a real person. Last post I told you about the PhD confirmation process and how daunting the prospect was. After I submitted my conf doc I went to work on the conf talk.

It's a 40 minute presentation with 20 minutes for questions where you turn your conf doc into a talk for a broader audience, followed by an interview.

Standing up the front, like any other presentation, I was nervous. But I really started to sweat as I watched psychology academics, phd students, undergrads, researchers from other universities and national security experts trickle through the door!

The talk went well and I took some great (and some difficult) questions from the audience. Everyone then left and I was interviewed by my four readers. These are some of the smartest people I've ever met, so it was great to soak up their advice.

It was now my turn to leave the room while the readers asked my supervisor, Jason Tangen, how I'm really going in the PhD program. I returned and Jason left so the readers could ask me if I'm happy with his supervision and how things are going more generally.

After this seemingly endless process my readers decided that I have what it takes to continue, and they confirmed me as a bonafide PhD candidate. Smiley face.

My experience with this first PhD milestone was great. It was stressful, but it forced me to clarify my thinking in a way that would not have happened otherwise. The only problem is that now I actually have to do all the wonderful things I told the audience I would do.

Back to work I guess.

Matt Thompson
PhD Candidate

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What do you do all day?

Me and James with the best car I've ever owned (also the only car I've ever owned).

One of the most common questions I get asked by people thinking about doing a PhD is “what do you do all day?” This question is almost impossible to answer, because it’s rare that two days are ever the same. But here’s what I did today:

I got a call from the place where I took my car to get serviced, and they told me my car was ready to be picked up. I really didn’t want to have to catch the bus to get my car because that would end up taking over an hour for what should only be a 30 minute trip. I didn’t want to ride my bike because I didn’t want to be smelly and sweaty in my office for the rest of the day.

So, I asked my good friend and office buddy Felicity if she could drop me there. Unfortunately, Felicity was crazy busy with something or other so she couldn’t drive me to my car. BUT, she did say I could BORROW her car if it helped... which of course it didn’t, because I can’t drive two cars at the same time.

Fortunately, James had finished solving problems and was willing to help me out too and drive one of the cars. So James and I jumped in Felicity’s car and went to the car shop where James drove my car back to my place and then we both came back to uni. Piece of cake (except I forgot to tell Felicity where I parked her car so she apparently spent ages looking for it when she went home later that day)!

What does all of this have to do with my PhD? Absolutely nothing, really. But doing a PhD means that what I do with my time is almost entirely up to me. I set my own deadlines, I organise my own meetings, and I don’t have to ask a boss for permission if I need to leave uni spontaneously to run some personal errands.

It’s also great to work right next to friends who are willing to help me out with pretty much anything! Hmm... I wonder if they’ll help me clean my car now that it’s running so well...

Is that mold on my roof?!?!.


Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog?? Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Student Becomes the Teacher

Looking back over my long (and arduous) life I cannot think of any one second in which I haven’t been a student in some capacity or other. And boy was I some student – cheeky in class, disruptive in discussions, but oh-so engaged. Because I love teachers – they blow my mind and challenge me and make me want to become more than I am.

While in primary school I had a teacher who ran us around the playground, weaving stories that somehow tied in with tree-houses, swing sets and monkey bars. In high school I learned to calculate distance using the speed of light, to imagine imaginary numbers, and think critically about Dorian Gray (which was not too hard to do, let’s face it). On to my year as an exchange student in America, and I met a tiny gnome of a teacher called Mr. Ribbich – he and I argued gun laws and beat poetry and the political landscape that makes up America. Finally in psychology I found a department of mentors. In particular, throughout my PhD and now my post-doc I am (still) learning to think about understanding human behavior and thought empirically in a way that I never knew was possible.

Which brings me to the point of this post. While I have been tutoring and lecturing for a long while now, and am very comfortable with soap-box ranting about statistics and social psychology, this year has brought me my very first honours students. Having honours students (and masters and PhD students) provides a unique opportunity to teach and mentor. In large university classes you have very limited one-on-one contact with students, but as a supervisor you become an integral part of your student’s life and learning experience. All of which has led me to think about the sort of mentor and teacher I want to be to my honours students (and eventually PhD students). Below I review some famous examples of teachers – one that I refuse to be, one that I would like to be (but probably couldn’t pull it off), and finally one that I want to be.

The teacher I refuse to be:

American Mary-Kay Letourneau, at the age of 35, became pregnant to her 13 year old student. She eventually served seven years in prison, and upon release married the student. She now frequently hosts ‘Hot For Teacher’ events in Seattle. Do I even need to comment on why I refuse to be the Mary-Kay Letourneau of the psych department?

The teacher I could try and fail to be:

In ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ Robin Williams plays an inspirational teacher at a conservative boys’ school. He teaches the boys to appreciate poetry, stands on tables whilst doing so, and instructs them (a la Walt Whitman) to call him ‘O Captain, my Captain’. I want to be this teacher, and I want it bad – stirring students into a frenzied revolution of learning sounds like fun. Teachers who aim to emulate Robin Williams’ example, however, typically tend to fail spectacularly. They are met with rolling eyes, heaving sighs and general mockery. I do not necessarily abandon my hopes of being referred to as ‘Captain, my Captain’ someday, but will perhaps try for it when I become a little more eccentric in later life.

The teacher I want to be:

Finally, an example of the sort of mentor that I would like to be – that definitive teacher, Albus Dumbledore. Dumbledore (like all people) is flawed, but his influence on Harry is ultimately extremely positive. When Harry worries that his nature is inherently bad, Dumbledore says to him “It is choices Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” This quote has struck with me, perhaps more than any other uttered by Dumbledore (yes, I know he is imaginary). Dumbledore is profound, kind, and teaches Harry while allowing him to also grow and learn on his own. Yes, in conclusion I think that I am going to model my honours supervisory style on Dumbledore.

So… what sort of mentor are you going to be?

Thursday, June 3, 2010


I just had a friend come and visit me in my office for the first time. He made a joke about how much the office hallways made it feel like we were in the famous prison Alcatraz. Is doing a PhD really any different from being in prison?

My office hallway, actually.

I guess superficially there are a lot of similarities between being a PhD student and an inmate serving a 3 - 5 year sentence: we are put in small rooms with limited daylight, we spend long hours with nothing to do but read, we have to share basic bathroom facilities, we often eat the same food day in and day out, we might not see our families for long periods of time, we have to go through several review processes before we can “get out”, the building gets locked down after 9pm, and when you’re ready to scream you can’t out of fear that the anxious guy sitting next to you will shank you in your eye ball.

Obviously being a student is nothing like being a prisoner - I got given a brand new computer when I started, the people I share my office with are awesome, I get flown to really fun conferences at no expense of my own, and, of course, I can leave whenever I want.

The freedom and perks of being a PhD student don’t stop some people from feeling trapped, though. Even after being a PhD student for less than a year, I certainly have felt at times that I can’t leave my office when I want to, even though I’m the one who holds the key to my door.

Fortunately for me, feelings of being a PhD-prisoner are few and far between and 99% of the time I love my time at uni. I attribute a lot of the joy I have during my PhD to the fact that I took a lot of time, a whole 6 months actually, working out whether or not I wanted to do it in the first place because it is a big commitment. I also took this time to think about who I could be happy with as supervisors for years on end, because they're the closest thing to the "prison wardens".

I wasn’t planning on being preachy in this blog post, but I do feel like I have to end with this final point. If you are considering doing postgraduate research, and I highly encourage it, take the time to think about it and plan it carefully and you’ll never feel like you’re in prison!

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog?? Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

and the winner is...Science!

Last week I posted one of my favorite statistics puzzles on the blog and promised to reveal the answer this week. While writing this post it became apparent that the real trick is not solving the problem but adequately explaining the solution. Here goes...

The scenario is the following: You are on a game show and you are faced with three doors. Behind one of the doors is your dream prize (my very own lightsaber) while behind the other two doors are dud prizes (a homeopathic contraceptive). You are given the opportunity to select one of the doors and attempt to win your dream prize. After you select a door but before revealing the location of the prize, the host reveals to you one of the doors that did NOT contain the prize, leaving the door you selected and one other. The host then asks you whether you wish to stick with the door you originally selected or change your decision and choose the other remaining door.

This problem is referred to as the 'Monty Hall' problem and the question is whether a) you should stick with your original decision, b) change your decision and selected the other remaining door or c) it does not make a difference either way.

So the answer is that if you wish to increase your chances of winning your dream prize you proceed with option b). That is you should abandon the door you originally chose and select the other door. By doing this you increase your chances of winning from 33% to 66%.

There are a number of places where people can go wrong with this puzzle, however in my experience the most common response is c). That it makes no difference whether you switch or stay. This response suggests that there is an equal probability of the prize being behind each door or that you have a 50% chance of winning regardless of the door you choose. This is in fact incorrect for reasons I'll now attempt to explain.

Hopefully you can all see that to begin with, the probability of guessing the door which contains the prizes is 33% or 1 in 3. This also means that there is a 66% chance that the door you chose does not contain the prize. That is, there is a 66% chance that the prize resides behind one of the other two doors.

When the host reveals one of the doors that does not contain the prize the chance of your door containing the prize does not change, it remains at 33%. Importantly though we know that the probability that the prize is behind one of the doors is 100%. So given there are two doors remaining and the probability of your door containing the prize is 33%, the probability of the other door containing the prize must be 66%. There was a 66% chance that one of the other two doors contained the prize. Now however we know that one of those doors does not contain the prize, therefore the other door must account for the remaining 66%.

If you're not yet convinced by my solution or you're having trouble getting your head around it, imagine the exact same scenario only instead of 3 doors to guess from there are now 100 doors. Your chance of guessing the correct door is now 1% or 1 in 100. So you guess a door and then I take away 98 of the doors that did not contain the prize leaving just 2 doors. The one you chose and one other. I now ask you whether you'd like to stick with your original choice or switch doors, what do you do? You switch obviously because you know that the chance of getting it right the first time was 1 in 100 (1%). The probability in this case that the other door has the prize is 99%.

No one emailed me the correct answer which means I hold onto the used handkerchief. The good news though is that this means the prize pool doubles for the next time I post a problem. So check back in if you're eager to win the handkerchief plus an additional prize of equal or lesser value.


Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au