Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Advisor, not “supervisor”

I want this blog entry to be a reminder to those who are already doing a PhD, and a point of consideration for those who are planning on starting a PhD. I want to clarify a misuse of terminology that I think every PhD student has probably made at one point or another, or, like me, far more often. PhD students don’t have “supervisors”, we have “advisors” -- the distinction between these two words is very important.

When I first started my PhD, I soon realised I could run pretty much any experiment I wanted (like this one) with minimal involvement from my advisors. In fact, a lot of students find it quite (frustratingly?) simple to go weeks at a time without even speaking to their advisors.

Sometimes going long periods without seeing the people you work with isn’t a good thing, but, advisors aren’t “supervisors” who stand over your shoulder checking your every step. PhD students need moderated independence from their advisors so we can learn how to stand on our own feet, work through some problems on our own, and learn from our own mistakes.

For me, the flip side to having independence from my advisors is knowing when to go to them for help, to clarify my thoughts, to ask “dumb” questions, or just to tell them I’ve got the shits with an experiment. Remember, PhD advisors are experts in their fields, and they’re probably familiar with a lot of the problems students encounter on their PhD Journey.

I encourage everyone to remember that the role of a PhD advisor is to give advice, not to supervise. If you’re already a PhD student, ask your advisors questions about things you’re not sure of and how best to plan for the road ahead. If you’re thinking of doing a PhD, find an advisor who you will feel comfortable going to for advice.

Personally, I like to try new things and test what I’m capable of doing on my own, but if there’s something I need advice on, I ask my advisors.


Friday, August 27, 2010

The quest for a 'useful' PhD topic

One of the first challenges a PhD student faces, is coming up with a PhD topic. This may not sound particularly challenging, but keep in mind that you will largely be dedicating the next three years of your life to this topic. When first setting out on my quest to find a PhD topic, I went well packed with my supervisors' support, a healthy dose of enthusiasm, as well as a list of requirements that my potential topic would have to meet. In short, the list I had created looked something like:

The first four points, from the beginning, provided some guidance in my search for a topic. However, the fifth point initially seemed to hinder my progress more than that it helped. I should have foreseen this, of course, when changing it from is useful for society to is 'useful' for society. Assuming that I am not citing somebody else's work, quotation marks in my writing usually indicate that it is unclear, even to myself, what I am trying to say.

Even though I didn't know what I meant exactly with the fifth point, I did know what I didn't mean. I didn't start my quest looking for a PhD topic that would revolutionise society [I'd probably never have finished in that case]. Neither was I looking for a topic that would make the world knock on my door in awe to find out about my research [idem ditto].

Though, had I known then what I know now, I clearly would have chosen chocolate as my topic.

Instead of exhausting myself trying to find a PhD topic, I saved a small amount of energy to ponder on the mysterious meaning of 'useful' for society. For many psychologists 'useful' may mean contributing to improving treatments for people suffering from debilitating mental disorders. But did it mean that to me too? No, I was quit sure that wasn’t the 'useful' I was looking for. Instead I expected that mystery would be more likely to be unraveled if I focused on everyday behaviour in everyday people.

After a couple of days largely applying Unconscious Thought Theory I agreed with myself that what useful means to me is that my research should have some value outside the lab. No matter how small. To keep myself motivated over the next few years, my research has to centre around a topic that could potentially be interesting for everyday people and their everyday behaviours.

In the end, the fifth point on my list proved a critical factor in deciding on my PhD topic. While I started out looking at how a specific type of emotional stimuli influences attention, the first, fourth, and fifth points on my list have lead me to wonder how attention is influenced by emotions themselves.

Though I cannot rule out that one day I may fall victim to media temptation, abandon the above topic and dedicate my life to finding out how attention is influenced by white chocolate.

- Joyce

Friday, August 20, 2010

Atypical day in the life...

Despite this blog being called ‘a day in the life of a psychologist', and Will pretending that he spends his days driving around Brisbane and on skiing holidays, there hasn’t been a description of what us PhD students do all day. This is not only because there are so many wildly different areas of research, but also because our work and personal lives vary so much.

For example:

People have many different jobs. These may include (on top of being a PhD student):
Tutoring, research assistant work, programming, part time checkout chick, research guinea pig, babysitting, bee keeping (you never know...)

Our work can also vary greatly depending of the stage of the experiment or study.
We could be frantically researching to ensure our brilliant idea hasn't been done yet, or stuck in the lab trying to figure out where our programming went wrong. We could be wading through data and statistics, or writing an article that is going to make us famous.

Schedules vary depending on the size of your social circle!
There are the coffees and lunches, and then the journal clubs, meetings, presentations and seminars. If you're really nice, or just can't think of an appropriate excuse in time, half of your life is spent doing friend's experiments for them!

I would like to share one such day. This was my Thursday:

Arriving at uni at 8:30 (damn car parks filling up so quickly), the first half hour was spent catching up on emails and facebook (this is the last I mention this, although you can be sure it occurs regularly throughout the day of a student).
9-10am: Analysing data and doing statistics for my first completed experiment (yay!)
10-11am: Writing an outline for presenting these results to my supervisors.
11-2pm: Testing participants. As this primarily consists of watching first year psychology students press buttons, this also allowed me time to practice a speech, grab lunch, and start programming a new experiment.
2-3pm: Finished programming the experiment, and then decided it was terrible.
3-5pm: Analysing the latest experiment (those were the last participants needed!), and adding these results to my presentation outline.

At 5pm was the three-minute thesis competition. I do not like public speaking, however being a researcher requires presenting your research, so I entered this to get feedback for future reference. I will leave the details of this competition to Will Harrison, and offer my congratulations for his winning it! For those interested, the SBS finals for this take place on the 1st Sept, come along and support psychology!

Keep in mind that my day is in no way indicative of how others spend their time. For example, while I tend to stick to the hours of 8:30 to 5, many of my colleagues stay after hours and weekends. I prefer to keep my weekends free for things like drinking, sleep, trips to Melbourne, and bacon.


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, August 12, 2010


Last week, Katie gave us some tips on how to write a lot. Her best bit of advice was to allocate an hour, lock yourself away, and write. Although sometimes—especially with the constant interruptions and the regular chime of email notifications—an hour just isn’t enough.

Each year, academic staff receive strategic funds to spend on improving their research or teaching. Rather than being selfish and getting an iPad, my supervisor treated Wen and I to a writing retreat week on Stradbroke Island. Although there was lots food and even more red wine,

it was largely a serious affair. We rented a beautiful house near the beach and severed our internet connections...

We put on our pajamas, brewed some coffee,

and wrote...

And wrote...

And wrote. Until Wen’s pet parrot could no longer bear the boredom and proceeded to chew everything in sight.

The lab writing retreat was a great experience and we each achieved a lot. So if you have writing to do (and who doesn't), I suggest putting yourself in a situation conducive to writingwhether it's escaping to an island for a week, or just unplugging the net for a couple of hours ;-)

Matt Thompson

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Code for Success

Three weeks ago I set myself the goal of learning how to program experiments and run data analyses using MATLAB. Up until now I've been working with a program called Presentation Neuro-Behavioural Systems which uses a language loosely based on C and Basic. Although the capabilities of Presentation meet my programming needs at the present, a number of my colleagues currently work with or are switching to MATLAB and I feel I should follow suit. On top of this MATLAB is just a far more powerful software package than Presentation, capable of performing complex data analyses that presentation can not.

So how much progress have I made over the last three weeks? Conceptually very little sadly, though I have manage to successfully write my first MATLAB based program which displays a series of Harry Potter images. It's always a bonus when you can mix work with pleasure :)

Learning a new programming language is tough and it doesn't come naturally, at least not to me. I find programming is very much a love hate relationship, especially when you're starting out. I seem to spend a lot of time cursing profusely at the computer and flailing my arms around, frustrated that MatLab won't display or do what I want it to.

In fact I find it much like trying to learn a musical instrument. You know the sound you want to produce, it's all there in your head, yet when you try to play it it just sounds like white noise. The same goes when I'm learning to program. I know exactly what I want my experiment to look like and I just wish I knew all the MatLab commands to make it happen instantly. Instead my efforts are met with countless errors telling me that my script reads like nonsense.

Perseverance is the key though because the upside is worth it. Finally getting a line of code to work or even better an entire program is incredibly satisfying! It's like a shot of adrenaline and when it happens make sure you've got a beer on hand cause you're going to want to ride the high...seriously. Victories can be short lived so make them count.

So if you’re considering research in the field of psychology, particularly cognitive psychology, it can be extremely beneficial if you have some programming ability. Possessing even just basic programming skills affords you the freedom to tweak and optimise your experimental parameters and conditions such that you maximise your chances of finding the effects you're after. And we all know how fickle some of our effects can be sometimes.

Going into honours I'd had zero experience programming and my supervisor told me I'd have to learn a programming language in order to program my experiment. Suffice to say I felt like I was up sh*t creek without paddle. It was hard work and a lot of hours at the computer for not much immediate reward. It certainly paid off in the long run though and I'm very thankful I was forced to learn it. So my advice for any prospective honours or post-grad students, if you get the opportunity to dabble in some programming, jump at it. Being able to program has certainly opened up a lot of opportunities in research for me.

Happy programming


Thursday, August 5, 2010

How to write a middling to fair amount

It’s the bane of every PhD student’s existence: writing. You’ve conducted the research, analysed the data, made sense of it all…and then you have to put metaphorical pen to paper. What was so clear in your head all of a sudden seems clunky and rambling when it’s written down. That witty title you thought of a week ago is trite when you’ve read it fifteen times in a row. So you agonize over sending the draft to your supervisor and end up missing the deadline. Again.

Unfortunately, this is a normal experience for a lot of students. People often have angst over writing – is it good enough, does it make sense, if they read it will people finally recognise me for the fraud I am? The natural response when people feel like this is to avoid writing all together. This is not a functional response.

So the trick to reducing angst about writing is to do it. A lot. In his book How to Write a Lot, Paul Silvia offers this advice: write every day. Not only should you write everyday, you should jealously guard your writing time and lock yourself away like a hermit to do it. This might seem a bit excessive and impractical for those of us who share an office with other postgrads. So what is another option?

Peer pressure, pure and simple. Have other people pressure you into writing when all you want to go is put it off and collect more data. Silvia recommends starting a writing group for people who need social support (or pressure) to meet their writing goals. In a writing group, you publicly announce your writing goals then own up the following week if you haven’t achieved them.

I can speak as someone who is a member of a postgraduate writing group that this system doesn’t always work so well. Being friends with the people who are supposed to berate you for not meeting your goals can make it hard to get critical feedback on your progress. We have recently found a way around this problem, however: money.

We each put $20 into the pot at the start of semester. Then we commit to a group goal – we will each write at least 500 words a week every week. That includes weeks that we are testing, marking, and on holiday. If at the end of semester we have made the target number of words, we have a rocking party with pizza and beer. If we don’t make the target, we donate the money to something we all agree is heinous and should never be funded, like the Society for Drowning Kittens for Fun.

I’ll keep you guys updated on our progress. For now, think about starting your own writing group and get creative with ways to stay on track with your writing. Silvia’s philosophy is that it doesn’t matter what you write about, so long as you are writing every day. Try writing a blog entry for the UQ Psyc Blog. This one is 513 words – that’s my target met for the week!

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