Friday, September 30, 2011

Secrets of Highly Successful PhD Students

Last week was Graduate Student Week here at UQ. Across the week the UQ graduate school organized a number of presentations, workshops, and panel discussions to help UQ RHD students make the most of their time as a research student. As an aspiring graduate student, I decided to attend a workshop titled 'The Seven Secrets of Highly Successful PhD Student'.

Running the session was Maria Gardiner maximizing performance in high achieving groups like PhD students and academics. She presented hints and tips, based on research, which can help PhD students work productively during their candidature and finish on time.

It seems I am not the only one keen to unlock the secrets of a successful PhD. Earlier this year secret number 1 – The Care and Maintenance of your Adviser was published in the journal Nature. That’s right, although we may at times think it is our supervisor’s responsibility to guide their student, it is just as much a student’s responsibility to ensure that they are well guided through their PhD.

So how do we go about getting the most out of our student-supervisor relationship? Here are some tips/ideas that were presented in the workshop and also in the article. 1. Ask for help - We often think that we are high in the priorities of our supervisors and that they know when we need help. Supervisors think that when their student needs help they will come and ask. Therefore, if you need help, you need to go and ask. If you are waiting for your supervisor to read your mind you could be waiting a very long while.

2. Meet regularly - The very most important factor that predicts timely completion of a PhD is regular meetings. This should be one-on-one time set aside to talk with your supervisor about matters relating to your current research. Regular meetings should not be avoided … even if you feel like you haven’t gotten anywhere since last meeting. This may be a sign that you need some direction to get back on track. We all know our supervisors are super busy people but given the value of meeting regularly, it is something all research students should attempt to attain/maintain.

3. Get as much as you can out of your supervisor meetings - To get the most out of meetings, make an agenda. This will ensure that you cover all of the things that you planned to cover and that you don’t get side-tracked (and if you do it will help you get back on the point). A bit before the meeting (a day or 2 before) make a list of points that you want to cover in the meeting and e-mail them over to your supervisor. You can also print out a copy for you and a copy for your supervisor and hand it to them at the start of the meeting. This will provide a framework for the meeting and help the meeting stay on track, stop you forgetting things you meant to ask and stop you from deciding not to ask things that you really need to know because you might ‘feel silly’ asking.

4. Be on the same page as your supervisor - After meetings you should e-mail your supervisor with a few dot points of what you are going to do (and maybe what they are going to do) now based on the outcomes of your meeting. They should be specific e.g. "I will write method section of paper X". So that you and your supervisor can see you are both on the same page (and so they can gently direct you back on track if you were misguided). Writing down the outcomes of each meeting and what needs to be done also makes you feel accountable for the jobs you have to do before your next meeting.

So go forth and take responsibility for getting the help you need from your supervisor.

Kearns, H. & Gardiner, M. (2011). The care and maintenance of your adviser. Nature, 469, 570.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Congrats Matthew B Thompson

So I just saw this on Facebook:

My translation of this is that my good friend, colleague and collaborator, regular UQ Psyc Blog blogger, and illusionist, Matthew Thompson has just won the Australasian Three Minute Thesis Competition. I know this has required a huge effort on Matt's behalf for more reasons than are obvious, so it's a huge credit to him, and also his main advisor Jason Tangen.

Well done, Matt, we're lucky to have you around!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Thinking about talking

It is the holidays, apparently. For many postgrads this reads as 'work time where one does not teach'. For a PhD student, the concept of holidays is largely a self-directed process. It is perfectly legitimate to wake at 11am on a Monday and simply declare 'to hell with my work today' and spend the entire day in one's pyjamas . . . possibly writing a blog post or two (Note: I didn't actually do this, but the idea is a logical one).

Of course, provided your work ethic is not a withered broken husk that feeds upon guilt and shame (not to get too self-referential or anything) then you probably will come and work. For myself, this means experiments. Speaking of experiments, I mentioned that I would be doing so this blog around, and thus I shall avoid linguistically opening fire on the injustice of working during the holidays, and proceed with something more interesting. Potentially more dry, but just as interesting. At least, as far as I'm concerned it is, and I'm the important one in this relationship :)

The basic experimental design I use at the moment is called the Picture-Word Interference Paradigm, or PWI. Very simply, it is the presentation of a picture, with a word. The task is to identify the picture as quickly as possible. It's my kind of thing; gloriously simple and yet, when properly manipulated, can give you a true world of information to sink one's metaphorical chompers into.

We're using this design to work out how people select words to put into speech. True to form in the sciences, this is not nearly as simple as it sounds. It turns out there's quite a few stages in the speech process. You have a semantic/conceptual stage, where concepts are abstract representations without words or meaning attached (There is research to suggest that concepts are actually complex sensory representations). You then have a lexical stage, where the concept is attached to a kind of grammatical code, called a lemma. Then it gets actual sounds attached to it at the phonological stage, at which point we think it gets forwarded to motor areas to be turned into processes for your vocal cords etc. to deal with. And of course all this happens after your low-level visual processes have gone through and dealt with the basic properties of what you perceive.

Essentially the PWI throws a cognitive spanner in the works; by varying the relationship between the picture and word (sometimes the word is related to the picture, sometimes not), we can determine the process/structure by which we select words and meanings. Happily, in recent years there have been a few papers that generated an almighty stink amongst the researchers of speech production and thus new research is most welcome to try and resolve matters to some extent, which is what I'm aiming to do.

Speaking of which, my work ethic awakens with a roar and a snarl, and so I should get back into it. See you next week!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The journey begins. . .

Hello! My name is Harrison Vieth, and I’m a PhD candidate in Psychology. I study language production, specifically the nature of lexical access. While my ego requests, nay demands that I continue with an exposition about how wonderfully accomplished and amazing I am (feel free to insert sniggers as you see fit) what I shall instead write of is a general account of an ordinary day in the PhD life.

Having awoken to discover that I’d had roughly 4 hours of sleep, (due in part to not being able to sleep, but also due to an obsession with a certain video game or two) the immediate concern is the acquisition of coffee. If you saw some disheveled, semi-zombified homunculus of a 20-something year-old shambling about the SBS building or at Merlos last Thursday, that was almost certainly me. As you might be able to tell, I love coffee to an amount that many regard as being slightly concerning if not at a clinical significance just yet.

At the moment, I have several deadlines to meet. The first and most powerful is a marking deadline. I tutor a second-year course, and the first set of assignments has returned and thus we tutors must nose-to-the-grindstone and mark. For the more painfully capable tutors *coughNoniecough* this is the course of a weekend's work. For those of us far less practiced, it takes a week or so, especially given I have a near OCD-like tendency to go back and check things. Over, and over. . . .and over again. While I am told this is a normal symptom of New Tutor Syndrome, it's still painful. Still, the pleasure one gets from tutoring outweighs this, for the most part, save when one must resist the consequent urge to take some kind of non-lethal firearm to my next tutorial in order to more forcefully educate the philistine undergrads in my care of the finer points of concision and clear writing. Of course, I wrote some shockers in my undergrad career and thus my rampant hypocrisy remains checked for the foreseeable future.

I'm also designing my third experiment, still in its infancy as a result of tutor deadlines looming. The nature of the behavioural experiments I run (to be the subject of the next blog post) requires a great deal of fine-tuning the stimulus, and thus this week and the following week will be finalising that. While it does sound like most of what I do involves sitting in front of a computer screen, it's just as tiring in many ways as any other activity, and also just as fulfilling.

Alas, the candle burns down and I must return to my marking, but fear not (if you were afeared in the first place), I shall almost certainly write again in the near future about any number of things, including experimental testing, data analysis, and the various legal proceedings involved in rationalizing a marking-based psychotic breakdown.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

PhD Tips and Tricks (or learning from others' experience)

The first day of Spring just passed us by, meaning a number of post-grads have recently notched up their first semester and a bit of PhD life. As with any other new undertaking a lot of lessons have been learned by the fledgling PhDs. The student-led Social Lab Group decided to create somewhat of a repository for recently enrolled PhDs, comprising both the lessons we learnt and some useful tips for surviving your first semester.

I'll preface the list by saying the tips seem to fall into two (maybe one) broad categories; 1) DO THESE THINGS ESPECIALLY IF THEY SCARE YOU, and 2) USE SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY TO TRICK YOURSELF INTO BEING PRODUCTIVE.

  • Conduct your first study as soon as possible, and definitely before you feel ready.
  • Make yourself accountable by creating small goals and deadlines and announcing them to your advisor or scheduling meetings on their due date. It's not your advisor's responsibility to harass you about this, but simply telling them of what you plan to accomplish by X date or Y meeting can be a good motivator.
  • If you're looking to wrap up a meeting, taking a moment to summarise the key points out loud is both an effective hint and it makes you look totally engaged and on top of things.
  • Visit the journal websites to sign up to their free email notifications for new issues.
  • When reading a newly released journal article that appears to have completely and perfectly investigated your PhD topic, you should print it out and get out your angry highlighter and big red pen and lay into it. Identifying what the authors in their incomparable stupidity have failed to look at, control for, or explain is not only very therapeutic, but will help you realise that a) you still have a contribution to make, and b) people care about the topic you're researching!
  • Get in as much writing practice as you can. If you don't have any data of your own to write up, your advisor will definitely have some data somewhere (e.g., old honours student data) that they would be happy for you to cut your teeth on. The best of this is that your lack of emotional investment in the dataset will make the inevitable and crushing rejection substantially less crushing.
  • Look for potential paper collaborations as a 3rd or later author. Providing comments - even doing substantial editing - on a draft initially written by someone else is by far less exhausting than starting from a blank page.
  • Encourage, accept and laugh (as applicable) at criticism you receive. If someone is giving you honest and constructive criticism, that means they care enough about your work (yay!) and want to help you improve it (double-yay!). By seeking out criticism you are seeking out opportunities to improve your work and your understanding.
  • It is important to note that as a PhD student you are in research training, and are not expected to have all the answers. You are in research training, and not expected to have all the answers. You are not the exception to this expectation.
  • Tutoring is great for you. It allows you to develop presentation experience, deal with left-field questions, work on explanations for that much-venerated "intelligent but non-specialist audience", hone your time management skills, and pays well. You should do it at least once during your PhD, the earlier the better.
  • Force yourself to present wherever possible. Say "yes" to things like lab group, 3 minute thesis, RHD-Day, and conferences. When someone asks you "what do you do", use that opportunity to hone your 30-second version (and your self-control when they follow up with "so why does that matter?").
  • Attend conferences, summer schools, small group meetings (mini-conferences), seminars, lab groups and coffee dates wherever possible. The importance of your peers' and colleagues' contributions to your work, whether formally or informally, cannot be overstated. They can ask uncomfortable questions, point out flaws, grant blinding insight, listen to you whinge, and order another bottle of wine. How invaluable!

So, on behalf of the students from the Social Lab Group, I hope you can take something away from this post that helps you at some point during your candidature.

Feel free to add any of your own tips and tricks in the comments :)