Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Inspiration vs. motivation

I have survived one whole year as PhD student! It has been a crazy year of ups and downs, and I have learnt a lot about what doing a PhD really involves. I still have my confirmation to look forward to, however looking back at the past year I’d like to share one or two things I’ve learnt.

Firstly, to not compare where I am to where others are. It can be hard seeing what stages your friends are in their research. When they’re ahead, it looks scary hard, or they’re so advanced that you think you’ll never get there. If they’re just starting, they have so much potential! Each of our journeys are different (I enjoy stating the obvious), so we shouldn’t look to others for where our paths will take us.

We all start and finish in different places!

One of the most important things I’ve learnt, in my opinion, involves motivation and inspiration. Inspiration comes and goes, and we need to use whatever motivation we can find to ensure that when we lack inspiration, our work doesn’t come to a standstill. This means it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing the work for the “right” reason or the “wrong”, as long as it gets done!

My first blog post was about how difficult the decision to stay in my PhD was. I wasn’t able to find the motivation to continue working. However, once inspiration hit, I was full of ideas and enthusiasm! Throughout this past year, while inspiration has come and gone, I’ve had to find the motivation to come into work even when all I wanted to do is find a rich guy to marry so I'd never have to think again.

It’s on these latter days that doing work is hard. We’ve all experienced it – that feeling that you’re not getting anywhere, that everything you do it pointless, and you’ll never be as good as others. Some days you’re just not going to feel inspired, and you need to find other reasons to continue work. There are days when I have to remind myself that life as a researcher means flexible work hours and paid trips overseas!

It’s ok for these motivations to be whatever they have to be to keep you working. The end product is often rewarding in itself – a PhD! Or a published article, or successful experiment. However it takes time to get there, and you need something to keep you going in the meantime. If you can remember that you’re working to win a Nobel prize, great! But if you need to motivate yourself to finish an article with a chocolate reward, or plan a celebratory dinner to motivate yourself to finish writing up that paper, that’s fine too. It’s even ok agree to give a presentation or work late to try and impress someone (whether it be your supervisors, or that hottie down the hall).

The important thing to remember is that once you’ve decided you want to finish this PhD (or degree, assignment, experiment, or any other goal), it doesn’t matter what the motivation is to get through the tough parts, as long as it keeps you working in between those magical days of inspiration!

One you’ve decided you’re going to finish this thing, if you can’t find the “right” motivation, look for the wrong one!


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cognition in the Wild

My posts usually attempt to impart some kind of pseudo-wisdom to unwitting students thinking of doing a PhD. Now I just want to tell you about a freakin’ awesome time I had.

I do basic cognitive psychology research in a lab on human identification of complex visual patterns. But I also try to make it so my findings can be applied in the wild. It turns out that fingerprints are a kind of complex visual pattern and, contrary to what you see on CSI, it’s a human fingerprint expert who decides whether a crime-scene print belongs to a suspect or not.

But, despite its 100 year history, there have been no properly controlled experiments on the identification accuracy of fingerprint examiners. They have even claimed to be infallible, but mistakes made to date have resulted in innocent people being wrongly accused. So, in my PhD, I’m trying to determine how accurate fingerprint examiners are and explore the psychology that affects matching accuracy.

Off the back of this, I was invited by some lawyers to a workshop to help figure out what forensic examiners should be claiming in court and even how best to present their claims to the jury. It was all expenses paid with fine wine, food and my own beach view room in Sydney. I was the only kid in the group and felt privileged to be there.

As Katie said last week, it’s hard to say no (even when you probably should be focusing on your research). But in this case, I just couldn’t resist ;-)

My Sydney view. Lawyers sure know how to spend their money.

Matt Thompson
(Post title stolen from Ed Hutchins)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Biting off more than you can chew: How not to, and how to cope when you do

I have been grinding my teeth in my sleep. A bit of an over-share, I know, but it’s relevant to this post. You see, the reason I’m stressed and ruining years of orthodontic work is the eight studies I need to run this semester. I will preface my post by pointing out that this is definitely not the norm in psychology – I don’t want to scare off any potential postgraduates, nor make new ones wonder what they have gotten themselves in for.

Here’s the way things often go during a PhD. You begin a young ingénue determined to run the perfect first study. After realizing that this is an impossible dream you settle for running the best study you can design. Data arrives. You excitedly write your first paper. Meanwhile, you begin running a second study to build on your findings. You remember your Honours research and set about writing it up for publication. You meet a new collaborator and design a study together. Your reviews come back for the first article you submitted – the editor has asked for new data. Your second study gave you completely different results to the ones expected. Now you have two new papers to write (both needing additional data), one to revise, and one currently under review. Wait, don’t you still have most of your proposed project to run? Repeat, ad nauseam.

Certainly there are different conventions in different areas of psychology and with different supervisors, so this may not be representative of everyone’s experience. It has been my experience, however. Hence, my desire to run eight studies in 12 weeks and subsequently poor dental state. If you would prefer to avoid this experience, I would recommend becoming familiar with saying ‘no’. You may need to say ‘no’ to potential collaborators who see an overlap with your work. You may also need to say ‘no’ to your supervisor if they recommend running an unnecessary study. You may even need to say ‘no’ to yourself, to stop exploring that new and interesting topic that has caught your fancy. I would definitely not recommend turning down every opportunity that comes your way during the PhD, but be judicious in the choices you make. Remember also that what might seem like a manageable number of projects at the start of your PhD can balloon out into a teeth-grinding fiasco by the end.

How I plan to cope with my behemoth study load this semester is with lots of forward planning and lots of external support. Firstly, I am making sure that I am only running studies that are absolutely crucial to finishing developed projects–no new topics, no matter how interesting. I am prioritizing those associated with my PhD and those that will be packaged into papers that need to be resubmitted to journals by a certain date. Secondly, I have made sure that my supervisor is on board. She is assisting me by hiring RAs to help with data collection and data entry. Without her support I couldn’t hope to accomplish all that I aim to this semester. With it I am hoping that data collection will be completely finalized for my PhD by June, leaving me a breezy six months to write my thesis and get the contents published.

For people just starting the PhD process I’ll give you this advice: don’t bite of more than you can chew. For those who already have, I recommend getting a good dentist.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

To a PhD and beyond

Recently I attended a session on post-doctorial positions which prompted me to give some thought to my career options once (if) I finish my PhD. For those like myself who are interested in research and aspire to forge a career in academia the obvious and arguably necessary next step is a post-doctorate position. A post-doctorate position is exactly as it sounds. It is a position for those who have completed a doctorate and it is often used as a stepping stone into a fulltime academic position. In fact as I understand it, a post-doctorate is becoming a necessary position to fulfil in order to progress along the academic career path. The trouble is there is an oversupply of PhD students in the system and as a result the competition for securing a post-doctorate is fierce, very fierce.

Although I already had some appreciation for how just fierce this completion is, I would be lying if I said that walking out of the information session I didn’t feel a little anxious and unsettled. The CV’s of UQ post-doctorate and ARC post-doctorate recipients were intimidating. Far beyond what I can imagine, at this point in time, achieving over the next couple of years. There are of course other avenues to securing a post-doctorate position, namely academics recruiting you using grant funding. This I am led to believe is the more common method of securing a post-doctorate position though be aware, the competition for these positions would seem to drop off only marginally if at all. On top of this I came across the following article published in Nature by Jennifer Rohn which paints a pretty grim picture for aspiring researchers.

All of this together, I can’t help but let my mind wonder to a number of my friends who many years ago completed 3-4 year business degrees and are now reaping the financial benefits.

So have I made a huge tiny mistake? Well time will tell I guess. Perhaps I am naive but for now I am comforted by the fact that I can honestly say I love what I do and that I wouldn’t trade it for close to anything. I chose this path because I am driven by curiosity to no other end than to finding answers to my questions and right now I am being funded to do so! That I think, as well as being infinitely cool, is a privileged position to be in and I intend to make the most of it as this opportunity may not arise again. (Warning! Cognitive dissonance detected)

May your curiosity drive you to success.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

"In Pavlov We Trust"

One new year, two new presidents and a HUGE range of social events, information sessions and good old support! But first, the story so far...

...The year was 2009, I began psychology inundated with preconceptions about clinical psychology – being a first year, and a naive one at that, I didn’t realise the full extent of where my degree could take me. All I knew was that I wanted to do something that directly related to the brain and helping people.

Interested in clinical neuropsychology, I began looking for a club that could connect me to people with similar interests. Luckily for me, orientation week was right around the corner! As market day finally arrived, I scouted the stalls for anything that resembled psychology; the Psychology Students’ Association seemed to be just that.

After joining I realised that the club was really a non-entity. There was barely a mention of the society and nobody really knew why it was there and what it did. For whatever reason, the PSA had fallen into disrepair and was barely surviving - which is through no fault of the previous PSA committee; it’s just that the enthusiasm from students wasn’t there. The next year appeared to be a catalyst for the PSA, with Zan and the other exec. putting in much effort to return the association to its former glory!

BUT! That was then and this is now. Voted in as president, I paired up with Ben Cochrane (Co-president), Maria Lee and Jocelyn Chak (Co-Secretaries), and Richard Bunker (Treasurer) to create a new face for the PSA. After supplying psychology merchandise and re-vamping the entire image, we collaborated and reached a decision as to what we will do for 2011.

The first thing will be to hold a “Back to School” themed trivia and band night where students can interact and socialise with each other. Continuing down the same road, more social events will be held, as will information sessions (PhD Roundtables, Honours information sessions, Masters Roundtables and more), general meetings and at the end of the year a psychology ball.

We really want this to be the BEST year ever for the PSA, so if you are interested at all, please feel free to contact us either by: email or via our social networking page and we will set you up with membership, merchandise or tickets to any of our events!
Rob (co-president)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Learning for the first time all over again

A new year has started. This means two things for PhD students - we again have to fight for car parks, and we have a new batch of first year students that “volunteer” to participate in our experiments.

I’ve been looking forward to this fresh batch of participants because I have a fresh batch of experiments I want to collect data for. The problem that I faced today, however, is that for the past few months of uni holidays I’ve only been testing a handful of my friends in my experiments. My friends participate in a lot of my experiments so I don’t need to spend too much time explaining the tasks... After testing the first few fresh students, I quickly found out how much I take my friends’ participation experience for granted.

For some of the participants who showed up for my experiment today, this may have only been their second day at university ever. Wow. I can’t even remember my first week of uni - I can’t imagine how I would have dealt with having to participate in an experiment that challenges my basic perceptual abilities...

And I realised that for someone who has never thought about cognitive psychology (and I can admit that’s probably 95% of everyone), participating in one of my experiments is probably outright weird. I ask my participants to rest their chin in a chin rest and to rest their head against a headrest that mostly immobilises head movements. Oh, and I turn off the lights so participants are in darkness. I then tell them to stare at flickering images on a computer monitor for about 30 minutes, pressing one of two buttons over and over again. I’m halfway through my PhD and even I find this completely abstract.

But I rediscovered one of the joys I take in testing completely naive participants - working out how to explain my seemingly abstract concepts in a way that any person can understand. This is a huge challenge for anyone doing research. You can’t use any lingo or jargon, you can’t talk about other researchers, and you can’t talk about statistics. Most importantly, being able to communicate clearly to an average Joe or Jane requires that you know exactly what you are doing and why.

I think it’s important for our participants to get something out of their participation, even if it’s just a basic understanding of a methodology. So with the new uni students who are learning how to do experiments for the first time, I am re-learning how to test new students!

Hopefully my participants don't end up feeling like Little Albert: