The whip? Or the carrot and stick?

A friend of mine recently blogged about the importance of getting away from their PhD to get a much needed dose of perspective, at least for a little while. It really got me thinking about how I organise my time and more importantly, my brain capacity. Something which jumped out at me as I read was their feeling of guilt, particularly how we inflict this sense of guilt on ourselves. It’s a strange form of self-harm when we actively make ourselves feel bad that we aren’t doing enough; we’ve all done it, when we’re trying to lose weight or study for an exam. We essentially become our own slave driver.

I would say that a disproportionate amount of my thoughts when I’m not at the office is worrying whether I did enough work today, or whether I should be doing reading instead of watching Netflix or playing Assassins Creed. I do 9 hours of work a day on average and I still have these thoughts. The best thing you can do is immerse yourself in something that doesn’t directly involve your PhD. For my friend it was to drive into the countryside and have a well-deserved cuppa and cake, for me it can be a number of things; the gym, reading, gaming. Something I have gotten really into in the past month or two is my Post-Graduate society.

I recently became Co-Chair with a friend of mine and we ran our first event last week for Red Nose Day. Our bake sale raked in over £200 for comic relief and we all had our fair share of baked treats!

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Along with running the committee, I’ve had a teaching group and plenty of meetings to keep my mind from focusing fully on the endless abyss of work that a PhD entails. However, I do think we make too much work for ourselves, there is only a finite amount we can do in first year. What a lot of post-docs and professors will tell you is that your first year should be about “getting a feel for the area” and general contemplation for your project considering its ever evolving nature. This is harder than it sounds, you want to DO something and it can be incredibly hard to allow yourself time to  relax and reflect.

I personally think that the problem is, when I think about my PhD I visualise a 3-year timeline and fret about what I need to have done by when or whether my research is ‘ground breaking’ enough for it all to be worth it. I know full well this isn’t the best way to think about it and I never did this at undergrad until the last 6 months! Extra activities and volunteering in anything that isn’t my project helps me take things one step at a time. We tend to put too much worth on the end of the course and approach it with an all-or-nothing attitude, that all your time must be spent on attaining this goal. Becoming a well-rounded doctor with transferable skills takes a back seat and it shouldn’t. We need these extra little challenges to build ourselves up and keep us going as we complete each one.

Overall, I think it can sometimes be a good idea to give ourselves a metaphorical kick up the backside to get us motivated and working hard, but we should at least dangle a carrot and give it a nibble – something to motivate and reward us. You could use a carrot; I prefer a large dominoes order and a jar of Nutella.

“What will you do after your PhD?”

2015 has been… trying. There are certain decisions and commitments you make during the early part of a doctoral degree which are resoundingly crucial yet exciting. The ever changing formulation of a ‘question’ is an example of this – a direction in which the further you go; the harder it is to see any other method of getting to the end of the three years. January and February was the two months of toil I went through to carve out that all important research question. I really couldn’t face blogging at that particular time!

‘Does feedback informed by self-regulatory learning microanalysis improve performance in undergraduate medical students when learning clinical skills?’

There are of course sub-questions galore which help you hold on to the far-flung hope that you won’t just become the ‘expert of nothing’, as some post-PhDs regularly quip. But, they’re right. Imagine all the knowledge there is currently in the world in a balloon, the sole purpose of a PhD project is to push past that outer boundary and add a unique spike of intelligence, bursting through to give a whole new perspective in that area. This is of course, less dramatic in reality. However, it is an incredibly quintessential factor in motivation to know that someday you will be the world expert in your topic (however large or small).

I’m not sure how my fellow students perceive the timeline of their projects, although most faculties will gladly give you a timeline riddled with deadlines and those all-important portfolio submissions. Constantly picturing the whole timeline is heavily detrimental in my opinion – by all means imagine the final result but don’t dwell upon it. There are steps and processes to go through, not all of which can be measured using a Gantt chart.

I have learnt to look at my time on my project in a segmented way; visualising a tower I build brick-by-brick (hopefully with a cap and gown at the top).

When I try to imagine my life after this degree I don’t see anything that resembles a particular job role or position; instead, I see an older (slightly haggard) version of myself perhaps wearing more jumpers with shirts underneath and sporting a big smile. I know I’ll end up somewhere, all I can really say when someone asks me the question I typed first on this post is: “I’m working on it”.

The decision of what direction to take may become marred with doubt and uncertainty. As with most things in life, it is the process which maketh the graduate not the 80,000 word thesis.

Transitions – “Variety is the spice of life”

Transitions are typically recurring throughout all our lives. There are big, confusing ones like going from being a teenager to a responsible adult (still haven’t hit that one quite yet), and smaller ones like trying a different brand of coffee – arguably life changing in my opinion. These are sometimes unavoidable, though we are in control as to how we deal with them. I relish the notion of unpredictability, and as a result will never get the same kind of coffee twice in a row. That may seem pretty trivial when you consider how some people brag about globetrotting or skydiving every weekend. I’ve never been travelling or lived anywhere else except Sheffield! I think we instigate and deal with as much change as we can handle versus what is essentially realistic and financially viable.

My own interpretation is the ‘small but often’ approach, small changes regularly leading to easier transitions through life as opposed to making big, scary decisions of the cuff. Although, I just got back from New York over Christmas and while I was there all I could think while sat in Central Park was, “I could definitely live here, why not?”

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“Why not?” is a dangerous question. One that often precedes poor decision making. However, it was also the same question I asked myself before I applied to Sheffield University to study my PhD. “Why not?” got me to where I am now, it forced me to work harder and become the happiest and most driven I’ve ever been.

There are certain detriments to transitioning we must consider; depending on the size of the change they can be pretty significant. Your social life is an ever-evolving thing; we’ve all ‘lost touch’ with someone from school, uni or work as a result of making a change. I can say with regret that I don’t speak to anyone from school, college and only a few from my undergraduate course, by no means deliberately. When we move away and immerse ourselves in different activities those who you were friends with before may not always come with you. “A friendship of convenience” is a term I would use here to describe those kinds of friendships; because you are in the same place doing a similar thing you are sort of forced to be develop friendships, albeit good ones.

I am hugely jealous of those people who are able to maintain friendships from years ago; maybe I’m just a sociopath! You should never get caught up in the past too much, things are going to change and it’s often out of your control if it happens to be job or living related. Make the best of it, adapting and evolving is part of the human experience after all. January is filled with wistful talk of change and is therefore consisted of lifestyle alterations and modifications destined to last just as long as the leftover mince pies. Have a look at #ResolutionsFor2015 on twitter, compare them to your own and decide with an informed conscience how you will “spice” your life this year.

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Compartmentalising and dreaming, a winning combination

A comment this Monday morning from my supervisor that took about 2 minutes to process fully:

“Think about the big picture, but try not to get off topic!”

It’s no secret that PhD supervisors can often be purposefully cryptic. I’m not sure it’s all that helpful before my 10am coffee, but it did strike a chord with me. At the moment, I am writing my literature review for my project, “Hearing the Feedback Message”. For anyone who isn’t sure what a lit review is, it’s a large background piece which carves holes in previous research and identifies gaps in which to birth novel approaches to a common problem. Ideally. My task at the moment is to delve into my specific subject (medical education), extract as much key research on my topic (feedback psychology) and present as much of this data as possible in a coherent report. Narrow thinking is required to stay relevant, but as my supervisor says, that’s not all I have to think about. There is more to life I suppose!

As Christmas creeps ever closer the pressure of hand-ins and unfinished personal goals from the last New Year still linger on. Despite feeling as though you are working furiously, almost forcing these tasks to fruition, it’s apparent there’s something about the run up to the New Year that increases your productivity tenfold. I feel a pressure to get things right before 2014 turns to 2015 but getting my work precisely right isn’t the reason why I’m doing a PhD in the first place. I yearn for an assessment guideline to tell me how to write step-by-step, but the element of freedom you get from being free of these strict principles is liberating!

Coming up for air after immersing yourself in a subject – no matter what you’re doing – is a healthy thing to do. Now my focus is narrowing in this PhD I can’t help but look to the future to feed my motivation. I liken choosing a path for the next three years to being a savvy Christmas shopper; instead of just picking up the first garish jumper or knock-off Ray Bans you see, take your time, try some things on for size. Frantically reaching for any old career path might get the ‘Christmas shopping’ done in the short term, but will you be happy with it on New Year’s day? Or 10 years down the line? It would be very naïve of me to suggest I have any idea about where I’ll be in a decade, but I know I’ll have tried everything there is to try when I get there.

08/12/14

You don’t look so smart, how did you get your PhD again?

It has been a busy 2 weeks! I was willingly torn away from my mound of undergraduate marking to attend graduation at Sheffield city hall last week (much to the distaste of my student group who all assumed I was 25). My fellow graduates and I converged into the magnificent interior of the building to be gowned, preened and paraded in front of our families and friends. I had had mixed feelings about the whole thing initially (mainly the fact that I now attend the rival institution), but nonetheless I did enjoy the traditionally steeped grandeur of it all.

Interestingly, no one asks how your summer was or how much you miss still being inebriated from the night before in your 9am physiology lecture. All anyone wants to know is “what are you doing now?”.

This is a run of the mill, straight forward sounding question until you realise that some people may be cataloging your answers and creating a theoretical ranking system. This may sound like the early stages of paranoia but some people seemed genuinely disappointed after I told them I was doing a PhD. Although I am very proud of my achievements and where I am/what I am doing, I do tend to be quite modest about it. Jumping from undergrad to PhD isn’t often done, this raises many other questions such as “how did you get that then?” and “did you know someone there?” all of which I received on the steps at city hall.

This got me thinking about attitudes towards appearance and first impressions in academia, what should an academic look like?

Confident Professor at Blackboard

For those who don’t know what I look like, mine is perhaps not the first image that comes to mind when you visualise a PhD researcher. I dress smart enough, but I don’t wear a lab coat with a pocket protector or carry around keys on my hip like a janitor (I have seen this combination). I feel that there is probably, in my experience, a lot of disparity between dressing academically versus actually being so. There are many examples of those that wear whatever they want in the office including Nick Hopwood who regularly wears sports gear when teaching. Arguably, the only time when we dress truly academically is at graduation! I am starting to realise that not looking like the stereotypical PhD student can attract certain attention, particularly those who wish to understand why that boy with the exquisite, backwards, tidal wave hairstyle is studying to be a doctor.

I spend a lot of my down time searching through fashion blogs such as I am Galla and Scout Sixteen or drooling over the new Ted Baker men’s collection. To me at least, my appearance is geared towards what I am going to be doing that day, from simple converse, skinny jeans and Letterman jacket for everyday desk sitting, to trousers, brogues and shirt for more formal affairs. It puts me in a certain mind set.

Of course, there are a lot more pressing issues I could cover here rather than my own personal one (particularly women in academia which I most certainly will do at some point). Overall, I think knowing I’m now an academic is all the validation I need to become a fully-fledged one. To be perfectly honest, it’s much more fun surprising people!

5 weeks in…

Going straight from undergraduate study to a PhD studentship was a lot like going from GCSE’s to A-levels; Distressing, jarring, and a hell of a lot harder, but exciting. Admittedly, I had accrued a decent amount of research experience (hence why I got the post in the first place) but the pressure valve was cranked up considerably, or at least I thought it would be. I spent a lot of time reading books such as “developing critical thinkers” (Brookfield) and  “Developing effective research proposals” (Punch) which gave me nightmares about a demon supervisor throwing hundreds of papers at me over their mahogany desk and kicking me out of their office. These were probably naïve choices for a fresh undergrad who hadn’t even graduated yet (I still haven’t). Admittedly, I worried myself too much before enrolment and half talked myself out of it!

A month in, these nightmares didn’t come to realisation; my supervisor(s) were nothing but supportive and understanding. I seem to have many ‘supervisors’, there are no shortage of experts (in many fields) in the medical education office, along with a few lively admin staff and an exuberant PGCert teacher to my immediate right who I can joke with intellectually and pretend I’m on ‘Frasier’.

I did have a chronic feeling that I was an imposter of sorts, feeling that I was going to be displaced any moment due to an admin error and that I was picked by mistake. A fellow PhD student, Rachel Handforth, at Hallam University (who inspired me to write this blog, check her blog out too!) expressed the same feeling of being somewhere she shouldn’t be. It has worn off somewhat but on the other hand I realised I ought to knuckle down.

However, the notion of knuckling down is perhaps an inappropriate phrase in this situation. Even though I come in to the office 9-5 Monday to Friday I don’t have a set amount of tasks to complete, I have a few meetings and administrative activities to please the Postgrad programme but otherwise I sit and muse upon reality 80 percent of the time. It’s a strange situation, the first few months are about adjustment and understanding the topic (so they tell me). I try not to worry about that too much; despite the guilt it can sometimes make you feel when you take 2 hours to read a 6 page research paper!

The social life hasn’t suffered (for now) and I haven’t fallen deep into depression yet so I’m taking that as a concerted victory for myself and my Xbox. I feel like I have a direction, albeit a vague one regarding my thesis but a meaningful one nonetheless.

Conducting qualitative research into the psychological implications of students receiving feedback isn’t an exact science in any sense so naturally it is rife with contrasting opinions and theories.  Of course this has its positives and negatives when it comes to my workload! It could however be much worse; I’m not in a lab which the other 73 PhD 1st years are. I have a desk with draws and a computer, what else could I dream of? The glamourous life of a PhD student.