Tuesday, 24 September 2013

A real scientist?

When can one call themselves a real scientist? I guess in case of other jobs one has to be paid for what they do to call themselves a professional. In case of being a scientist I also think one should be active in their field, doing research and preferably publishing papers.*

Recently though I felt like a scientist. And let me tell you, it's an amazing feeling.

As I mentioned before I have been awarded a grant from the Genetics Society (@GenSocUK) to do a summer project this year. It has been a great experience, the people in the lab, staff and visitors, have all been very friendly and supportive. I've learnt new techniques, got to play with some cool machines and got to actually do a bit of proper science. It was more than that though: I also tried to help out visitors in the lab and I discovered just how complicated a "simple" analysis can be. Learning how to use R alongside attempting to use several programs I have never even seen before to deal with my data has been challenging. I never knew people still used DOS for anything. I think the last time I saw DOS before this summer was when my home PC was running Windows 98. I'm still waiting for algorithm-paper-nightmares to come. I don't have anything against maths in general, but when I open a paper and it has more equations than words I know it's going to be a very long night. Then again, I think this is what it's about. About learning, discovering, trying, sorting problems out and overcoming all those little, but-oh-so-very-annoying difficulties.

It was however after the project itself that things somehow shifted for me. It wasn't just one thing, but a whole series of smaller and bigger events. The Genetics Society organised a series of workshops at the UEA where all their grantees could present their work as well as work together during several activities. It was good to see what others did and the range of project topics was definitely worth noting too, I think we all learnt something new and were pleased to meet so many great people. The whole thing was fun, but also educating - I think this is what 'school' was supposed to be like! Presenting my project at the workshops definitely gave me a little bit more confidence too. I got asked to present my work to three labs in our department next February and I agreed to do it, hopefully it will go alright. This is the first time I got asked to do any scientific presentations outside of my degree. Nerve-wracking, but also exciting! Similarly, I got several emails from various people asking me for advice and help with programs, data sets, primer design etc. and to my surprise all those people are higher up the scientific ladder. It's flattering and I'm very pleased that I'm finally getting to a point where I can be of use to the community.** Even if it is in such a tiny way!

I was also lucky enough to be able to go to the Biology of Spermatozoa conference. It was brilliant, with crazy-smart, but really nice people. I loved the atmosphere and sharing of the unpublished work in progress. It was great to be able to talk to people about science and sperm without getting some silly looks too. I just tried to explain what my Masters is going to be about to some colleagues at a training session for work the other day and they looked at me like I was slightly mad. Just a bit, but still, "better nod along and don't make eye contact" sort of reaction. Strange reactions never stopped me from telling people just how awesome science/sperm is, but it tends to be a one way conversation, where they ask what I do and then try to change the subject before I go into too much detail - all excited and waving my hands around. But at BoS we could all get excited about sperm rather openly! The conference was also followed by two days of CASA workshops where once again all things science were cool - including a nearly jump-up-and-down excitement while watching fly sperm twitching under a microscope.

I feel very blessed that I could be a part of it, all the talks and the less official dinner chat were very inspiring. It was strange, meeting the people you know and admire because of their work, because of what you think you know about them and finding out that they are even cooler in real life than you imagined. I hope that I can become a real scientist and always be a part of this amazing community.

*When I look at it like that I'm not a scientist yet. I don't really get paid and I haven't published a single paper. But I got some small grants to do projects and I'm trying to get bits and pieces of research in (it should get better seeing as I'm about to start my Masters!).
** People with proper scientific jobs are probably laughing at me here...

Saturday, 24 August 2013

How to make it in academia?

I was a part of a lab group discussion. It revolved around work-life balance, the number of hours required to be put in and the willingness to do it. It was quite interesting. We all read this article beforehand.

We didn't manage to find a solution, but there were a few general points to which we circled back a few times and I think they are worth mentioning.

It seems to be pretty obvious that it's the individual's personality that plays a huge role in whether they make it in academia or not. Academia is not a 9-5 job. You cannot simply leave it behind and go home. You cannot stop thinking about the problem you've been trying to work out for the past month or year just because it's after hours. For many, it's more than that. We cannot switch our brains off, true. But also, we don't want to.

Of course, it's not like that for everyone. I have just finished my degree, so I can mainly talk about the Undergraduate students, but I've come across many who come to university and then complain about it, complain that they have to read scientific papers and books, they have to study. Frankly, I don't get it. I understand everyone gets frustrated and overwhelmed, I do too. And yes, there have been "directed reading" papers, coursework topics and even entire modules which I found a bit tedious, but that's exactly why I read other papers in my "free time". Papers that I find interesting. I'm here to learn, to grow, to develop. I don't get why people bother to come to university if they are here (often supported by their parents) to do the absolute bare minimum of work. I guess some are young and come to the university because they were told that they should get a degree. Some might not know what they want to do with their lives. Some are probably here to party. I imagine those are the people who don't make it in academia very far. Not because they lack brains, but because they lack the attitude.

I also know many students who are just the opposite: bright, but also very creative and enthusiastic about their degrees, taking part in extra curricular activities, bettering themselves. I expect those to progress and do well - many of them are off to do Master degrees and PhDs. Most people I know higher up the ladder are like that too: driven and busy doing everything. Getting experience, teaching, reading, writing books and papers, doing research.

Besides personality, there is also the why. Why academia? This is certainly not a job to get if you want the big bucks, especially if you want them relatively early in your career. This is the job to get because you want it. You want to do it, you want to put the hours in. Because there are questions needing answering and puzzles needing solving. There is research to be done. Once you taste it, once you know it, once you get it you can't go back. It leaves behind a very specific hunger. I believe that this is how you make it in academia. It's not just work, it's not something you leave behind in the office. It's something that's a part of your life and it's a part that you don't want to lose. If you feel like that, then you have a chance, a real chance to make it. Or so I hope. How can academics put so many hours in? In short, they find their work rewarding. Despite the low salary and pressure. If academia turns out to not be for you, then you can walk away. But if you fall in love with it, then it might be a life-long affair.

I am just at the beginning of my scientific career and at the moment I'm pretty flexible and independent. This certainly makes things a bit easier for me - families with young kids and people further along in their careers will have more responsibilities than I do at the moment. We thought that this is another important point: your partner matters hugely if you want to make it in academia. Especially if you want to have children and even more so if you are a woman. How supportive and understanding is your partner? Are they willing to accept the long hours and the fact that you can't leave your work in the office? Are they happy to share the house chores and the childcare? Do they understand your love for the subject and the demands of academia? If they do, great. But if they don't things might be considerably harder for you. Putting in the crazy hours will be harder, if not impossible, if you are dealing with the majority of the childcare and all somehow have to squeeze in running the house too. Additionally, if your partner doesn't understand that you love your job and you actually really want to read just one more article it might lead to resentment.

Different personalities make people better suited to different things, not everyone is cut out to be an academic. The current system encourages competitiveness, which pushes people to work longer hours: to progress, to make it, you have to be the best. I hope that in the future the system evolves and will be more friendly towards those bright, creative and enthusiastic, but not necessarily wildly competitive individuals - there should be more than one way to get to the top. Those willing to put the time and effort should be rewarded even if they don't want to trample over others. Hopefully they can also get the support they need from their partners, families and friends.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Notes, notes, notes...

I have been rather busy over the past month, working on a project involving genetic basis of behaviours. I haven't done much molecular work before and so I had a lot to learn. I have been also building my first PC and writing up some project reports and protocols created over the  last year.

It is incredible how much difference can be made by well kept lab book and by detailed notes.

To start with, the protocols. I wrote and tested some of them last summer. A few are rather lengthy and complicated - several pages A4 long, take a week of work to complete. When you are running a time limited project losing a week of work can be catastrophic and so it's really important to get it right. It's of course easier to follow it when you are in the lab and you carry out the same protocol time after time. However, after a year of not using the protocol it could be really tricky to avoid mistakes. It's also important that the protocols are written clearly enough for other people to follow without additional instructions. I wanted to type up some of those old protocols from my lab books, as I needed to include them in one of my reports. My obsessive note taking turned out to be really useful: I have lots of notes, clear, numbered, organised, with important parts marked, with safety notes included. Writing the reports up was just a matter of typing them up and in some cases making them a little bit more formal. It wasn't difficult though, just time consuming. If my notes weren't clear it would have been much more complicated - I would have to consult several sources and manuals to ensure that I include all the necessary steps and caution notes for all procedures.

Things look similar with the project I'm working on now. Everyone in the lab is incredibly helpful, but also rather busy - people usually only have the time to explain something once, twice tops. It's necessary to ensure that after being shown how to use a machine or how to carry out a procedure you can actually do it. What's more, since I'm working in a training lab I should be able to not only carry out the procedures myself, but also to walk new students through any procedures I know and can teach. Again, it's crucial to have good notes and communicate things clearly.

During work in the lab it's also very important to ensure that all the samples and solutions are labelled correctly and kept track of - during molecular work there is no other way of recognising and telling apart the samples/solutions once you taken them out of their respective containers. They all look alike, have no distinctive characteristics or even worse: they can't be seen with a naked eye or are toxic and dangerous, while looking like something harmless, e.g. like water. Label things and once again: notes, notes, notes! It's a good idea to keep a lab book in addition to any digital notes you take and it's necessary to back up your digital data too.

Now off to write some more reports and do more data analysis. While writing protocols and reports up is relatively straight forward (although can be lengthy and a bit tiring) data analysis and stats are proving to be a lot more complicated and tricky. Each step I attempt to make seems to require learning a new program!

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Checking in

I will update the blog shortly. I have been building my own PC and trying to get it up and running, but most importantly - organise it. This together with my research has been keeping me busy. I'm trying out Bloglovin' to see if I can keep track of some interesting blogs this way and I'm rewriting a couple of project report drafts today.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Who needs time off?

I finished my BSc. I should know how I did in about two weeks. Scary stuff. I'm staying at Uni to do my Masters year and finish with MBiolSci, which somehow makes the end of my third year a little bit less final. After all, technically I'm still not done with my degree.

While the majority of my friends are embarking onto adventures and exotic travels to celebrate the end of their degrees and to relax and experience freedom before finding jobs or falling into their PhDs I am staying right were I am. I will travel one day too. One day. But what will I do instead this summer, you ask?

Well, most of my plans for the summer holidays were up in the air till very recently, but everything is starting to slowly fall into place. I love it when things come together - I feel very blessed. It might not be Nepal or India or even a roadtrip in the USA, but I think life is what you make of it. I can be miserable stuck where I am longing after trekking through Cambodia, or I can enjoy my summer and make the most of it. Or die trying.

I have been lucky enough to be awarded a Genetics Society grant to carry out a project over the summer. This is great, not only because I get to do an exciting project, work with great people and learn a number of new techniques (I have no practical molecular background), but also because I spent quite a big chunk of the beginning of last term preparing applications and proposals - I invested time I could have used to work on my dissertation. One by one my applications were rejected and my heart was sinking - what if I get no funding at all? I will have to frantically look for summer jobs... Maybe I should have just put that time and effort towards my dissertation? What if I not only don't get any funding, but also do worse in my dissertation? Uncertainty is not a great feeling and I'm so glad that my effort paid off.

I got the grant and I have started my project on Monday. It's been going great (or so it seemed) till today when it turned out that my sequencing didn't work. Back to square one. Tried to catch up and thought that I might be even able to run another sequence overnight, but then it turned out the lab is all out of big dye. And one cannot sequence without it. Or at least that's what I'm being told, I guess there is more than one protocol in existence... Research, right? Need to wait for the dye. Fingers crossed it gets here tomorrow morning (unlikely, but possible!), otherwise I will probably have to wait till Monday.

So anyway, I'm going to be carrying out this rather exciting and tricky project over the next two months. Hopefully little will go wrong and I will get some results. After the lab work and analysis are all done I will need to produce a report. I'm hoping to be done by mid-August.

The plan is to then jump ship and go into another lab - my MBiolSci lab - and do a little prep consisting of learning programs used by the lab group and of butchering some quail... I mean learning to dissect quail. They are bigger than the zebra finches I will be working with and so a good starting point. Poor birds, they won't know what hit them. I'm not very squeamish, yet I worry the tiniest bit that I might not like gutting birds much... I used to keep zebra finches as pets. I preferred them alive and unopened. Oh well. In the name of science, here I come.

My September is filling up quite nicely too - I will be doing some workshops with the Genetics Society and I am also going to the Biology of Spermatozoa conference. Which is hugely exciting, as I have never been to a proper conference! I hope I don't make a fool out of myself... I have a tendency to do that.

Even though I'm staying were I am, I shouldn't be bored. I have all of the above planned, I still have my part time job for another month, I have lots of reading to do and catch up on, painting, climbing, maybe some weekend trips up to the Lake District... I'm thinking of taking up yoga/pilates too. Should be a good, productive summer. Bits and pieces in the second lab will probably take about a week or so in August. Which means that I might be able to fly home for a week at the end of August, if everything goes well. It would be nice to see my family before Christmas. On the other hand, that would probably mean that I don't get to have a single week of holiday this year... But who needs time off?

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Working smart

I've been thinking about my progress through the years over the past semester, mainly because my style of working has changed drastically since I came to uni. I learned how to make the work easier and how to be more efficient. I thought I might post some pointers here - who knows, maybe a fresher out there reads this and learns from it.

I rarely delete anything from my computer and rarely throw things out - which means that I have copies of most papers I've ever read and a lot of notes. I decided to try and organise it all (in progress, it takes a while to organise over 6 years of stuff spread across several computers and two countries!).

I decided that instead of having dozens of random folders with papers I should create one huge library and keep adding papers to that in the future. I've been slowly adding all those papers and references from notes into a referencing program. I used Bibdesk/Mendeley combo for a while and had a little set back a couple of months ago due to my library file getting overwritten... I had to start from scratch and now I'm using only Mendeley, since the library can be also stored online, which makes it a bit safer. So a note of caution here - it's probably better to pick one referencing program, not mix them together!

Having my references and papers in one place makes things easier. First of all, I don't have to search my entire computer, but can go straight into my library, make a key word search and see all relevant papers - papers that I have already read, many of which are highlighted/with notes. No more "I read it somewhere, but can't remember where".

I found that having a library like that helps me to make links between modules and to integrate the reading I've done for pleasure/during holidays into my university work. Which is a great thing when you are short on time, but want to support a point you are making with a scientific reference - for instance if I needed a general reference about habitat fragmentation I just search my library and quickly recap a couple of papers I'm already familiar with, rather than go and pick a random paper and attempt to read it back to back. It really does help hugely when you are working close to a deadline and need to ensure that all facts in your essay are appropriately referenced. Why not use the directed reading you did in your first year? Why not use those books and papers read in College? Why not use papers found on Twitter and read over breakfast? It speeds the process and makes it easier to get coursework done, but I also love seeing how different bits and pieces come together - I think this is what making progress at university is all about: it is learning to see the connections, to see the bigger picture. It's getting away from doing the bare minimum of work, of having a couple of papers per module - it's bringing it all together and applying knowledge, thinking like a scientist. Soak up all the knowledge you can get.

The above is more about keeping tract of things and organisation, but what about writing itself?

I cannot stress enough - if you make notes on papers make sure that you write down where are those notes coming from for further reference (section or page numbers help too) and write the notes in your own words. It's really important. I find it easier to write notes as I go, on each paper that I read. Then later on I can just pick and choose from my notes, copy the relevant bits out to a new file and edit that. I don't have to re-read the papers, but if something is unclear I can quickly find the sections I should have a look at to clear any confusion. Writing the notes in your own words ensures that you don't commit plagiarism. It's easy to forget what's re-written and what was copied out of the paper, so if you ever copy and paste make sure you have a way of explicitly marking those passages and re-writing them later.

I was also persuaded to give LaTeX a try. I did and I really like it - it's a typesetting system, check it out. It produces beautifully and professionally looking documents, takes care of all the formatting details for you, can be even used to make figures and tables - and I especially like the tables, you can get really nice scientific tables. Some of the scientific journals out there even give you templates, you can download them and then just drop your text in and voila, you have a paper that looks exactly the way it should for that particular journal, references included. LaTeX can also handle references from Mendeley, so I just link the two. I know some people who still do their references for coursework by hand at the end of each essay... This is a silly waste of time to say the least. There is more to LaTeX that the "technical" side too: I find that since I don't have to worry about the formatting at all I can focus on the content and content alone. No more playing with subtitle font for half hour.

I think it's also good to get into the habit of doing all of the above as early in your scientific career as you can - I cannot imagine writing my Masters/PhD thesis in Word! LaTeX deals very well with big documents and a paper library and a good referencing system will be crucial then too I imagine. It's good to stretch and to try out different programs and style of work. Above works for me, maybe it will for you too, but even if it doesn't you should be able to pin point why it doesn't. Once you know that you can move on and try out something more appropriate. Get in the habit of paying attention to detail, but thinking big, of doing more, of reading broadly, even if the papers seem unconnected. It will make you better at what you do, more efficient. It will teach you how to read quickly, but also how to get the most out of each paper, what to look for. With time you will work out your own system of highlighting and note taking, build a reference library and find an efficient way to compile your work. It will make things easier and more enjoyable. Being able to enjoy your work is a truly great thing.

Monday, 6 May 2013

On Twitter and Social Media

I have drafted a post about what I'm enjoying about Twitter and what I'm getting out of it. But then Naomi's post about social media being possibly classified as one of those "great good places" made me think that maybe I should include all the other great tools and virtual places. So here we go.

I've had a Twitter account for a few years and I never used it. It's quite overwhelming and confusing, all the abbreviations and hashtags, what to twit, who to twit to, who is worth following and how do you get followers - do you need followers? Frankly, I'm still learning and not really twitting much and pretty much every time I do twit I feel it's a bit inadequate. Probably should have followed more boring people and then my twits wouldn't look so miserable in comparison. Oh well. I'm hoping I will get better with time.

Even though I'm not doing much twitting myself at the moment I still get a lot out of Twitter.

It's all about following the right people. Twitter is proving to be a great platform to keep up to date with interesting scientific papers and events, it allows me to keep an eye out for the conservation projects I'm interested in and to find out about outcomes of conferences and proposed legislation changes. I love that I can pick and chose from many great and interesting links from my Twitter feed - some of them are things that I would not have found otherwise. Some are very scientific in nature, others are academic blogs full of tips of how to write and deal with research problems.

Those blogs and Twitter chats make me feel like I'm less alone in all this. I have a tendency to make friends with people older than me and this is also true when it comes to Twitter - I feel more comfortable within the PhD groups (e.g. @PhDForum), even though I'm not doing a Phd yet. I think that many general issues faced by Masters students are the same though and I definitely feel like I can relate, especially having a partner who is currently going through the pain of writing up his PhD thesis. I like to think that maybe I can try out all those great coping and writing tips during my final year and have a few things worked out even before I start my PhD. It might be a bit cheeky, but why not?

So I tend to use Twitter in semi-professional way, to gather information, stay up to date, get stimulated by the great minds out there, meet people who are in the same boat. But there are also other little perks of Twitter - like being up to date on the hatching of peregrine falcons (@peregrines2013) or finding a new way to listen to music (neverendingplaylist.com twitted by @mcgeechan), getting a free copy of a book about R statistics or being informed about podcasts about parrot diseases (@charliemoores and @ParrotTrust). Twitter can be a great tool and can also be made relatively rubbish-free by following the right people and/or organising them into lists.

I'm hoping that in the future I can twit more myself and twit about my research, it would be a great way to get it out there and share with people what I'm doing and what I'm passionate about.

In addition to Twitter I also use other social media.

I use Facebook to stay in touch with my classmates and friends, to deal with University societies/clubs and committee communication. It's great for arranging climbing sessions or outings. I can also just throw random things in there, like a video of that song that has been stuck in my head for the past week or an irritated status about my wisdom tooth. It's a tool, but it's also an outlet. I don't have to worry about it too much.

I use LinkedIn for my CV/resume and as a professional contact list.

All of the above however allow me to only show this somehow "general" part of me. Scientifically minded on Twitter, random on Facebook, professional on LinkedIn. What about all the other parts of me? Well, those get to run around free on a few forums. And they love it. Forums can give a great sense of belonging and community. They also help me to ensure that I'm not boring my housemates/partner to death with my passion for certain, let's say quirky, things. And so I have a forum about parrots, where I can attempt to pass on my knowledge and sneak in a bit of science; a forum about dreadlocks, where I can complain I've been asked for drugs in broad daylight yet again; a forum about handpans, where I can dream that one day I might be able to make music too; a forum bringing together my fellow countrymen and women who, like me, went to study abroad (College/University) and have to deal with all the things an emigration at a young age brings.

Social media are a great tool and should not be ignored. They can be a great source of information and an easy way to communicate. They can be used to find, store and organise things, to keep track of contacts and meetings. But sometimes they are more than that. They are more than that when I have been stuck in an empty house the entire weekend with no-one to talk to, lonely, stressed and buried under work. They are more than that when the specificity of my issue means that an average person just won't get it. They are more than that when I need to vent and I can use my blog to do so and it will help regardless whether anyone reads it or not.

Monday, 15 April 2013

On procrastination

I procrastinated last week for a little bit and made a list of topics I could blog about. I seem to have misplaced the list... So I will write about procrastinating instead. I'm sure there have been other posts dedicated to procrastination and I probably won't say anything that hasn't been said before. But then, this is my blog and my writing-training-ground. So why not? We all do it, at least to some degree.

I do it relatively a lot. I think it started as a way of dealing with pressure, taking a breather. I'm a perfectionist, I like things done properly, and it can be very overwhelming. Then however, the tasks became harder and more complex, the procrastination escalated hugely and started to frustrate me - why can't I just sit down and work? Why can't I just get this done and have some real time off? This was getting me nowhere, as what used to be a coping mechanism became a problem in itself. Something needed to be done.

I still find myself procrastinating in the worst, most unproductive ways from time to time. However, I found some ways of productive procrastination, as well as ways of reducing the opportunity to procrastinate.

Time management is not necessarily an issue - I often knew exactly what I need to be doing and yet just couldn't bring myself to stop procrastinating. But making sure that you always know what's to be done, and so can prioritise easily, helps. I make lists. A lot of them. I make sure that there always are achievable things on those lists in addition to real tasks. Lists allow me to prioritise, to ensure nothing slips my mind, to split goals into those needing doing today, over the next month or "after the exams". But the little achievable goals give me something to procrastinate on when I need to. Something that needs doing, is not urgent and gets overlooked, but still - it's better if I do that little thing, than if I troll the YT endlessly. Ticking achievable goals also reassures me that I can do things. If I can do all those little things on my list, then surely I can do one a little bit bigger thing, right? Every time I start to procrastinate I try to have a look at the lists and do something I can tick off.

I feel the need to procrastinate especially strongly when I'm under a lot of stress - close to a deadline or an exam. Little things from the lists don't always help in those times. I pull the big guns out then: cleaning and cooking/baking.  My house is never cleaner than during revision times and all my housemates know that I have a deadline if I'm down in the kitchen producing tons of cookies. Those forms of procrastinating are useful (besides the obvious benefits of a squeaky clean kitchen and availability of good food) - they require manual work. Which is great, because as long as you do a little bit of work first and then procrastinate, you allow your subconscious mind to keep working on the problem in the meantime. Sure, it won't help much if you need to be cramming stuff in for a memory-based exam, but just the other day I sorted a few coding problems in LaTeX that way. The answers just came to me, I suddenly knew what to try - and it all worked. Definitely felt better than 3 hours I spent on those problems sat in front of the computer, pulling my hair out the night before. What do I do when I can't afford to spent hours on cleaning or cooking and so need to avoid that sort of procrastinating? I plan ahead and make sure that all the cleaning is done and that there are no baking ingredients. I shop and cook in bulk, for a few days, so I don't procrastinate by cooking 3 times a day. I'm like a Pavlov's dog, I get hungry when I see my notes or papers to read. Making sure I eat enough helps to avoid procrastinating under the excuse of the need to eat.

Other than that I try to make my procrastination as productive as possible by picking specific things to do. Preferably those things should be beneficial in some way, new and stimulating. Blogging could be considered one - it allows me to vent, but it's also a good practice when it comes to writing and allows me to warm up before switching to more academic writing tasks. Twitter is a great distraction for a minute or to, but also following the right crowd means that I can get a lot out of it  - advice, links to papers, science news etc. I like to play with LaTeX and a little coding, I'm planning at playing around with R a bit more in the future. I'd like to learn more scripting (I made some little apps for my computer that make life easier). Cleaning my desktop, updating my reference library and making sure all pdfs are added makes future work more efficient. Reading a paper or an article that's not directly relevant to the current piece of work, but interesting, widens my horizons and can come in handy - that's good too.

When I really don't feel like any of the above I try to do things that motivate me - read or watch something inspiring, involving wildlife, travel or science of some sort, even when it's not about a biological subject. I read about mountains and rock climbing and all the spots that I could go to on the next vacation. I look for conservation projects that maybe, just maybe I could get involved in one day. I daydream for a bit. I daydream of what can be if I get the work done.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Babies instead of a degree?

I just spent two weeks at home. As usually I bumped into quite a few people who know me or rather people who know my parents - when you come from a small place everyone knows everyone and people tend to be, let's put it nicely, curious about the lives of others.

This is normal and I'm used to it. It's always been like that, especially after I left the country to study abroad. However, there has been a change in the types of questions I've been getting during the last few visits.

I'm being asked whether I've finished studying. When I explain that I have not and that I intend to continue onto Masters and PhD I get the look. The look of slight surprise, disbelief and disapproval, followed by why? what for? and more and more often by various variations of when are you going to have children? why are you not having children? you should be having babies! it's high time for you to  have babies!

There are several issues here, starting from the lack of understanding of underlaying reasons for me to do a degree to the new baby-having problems. It seems like it would be acceptable for me to do an Undergrad degree if I were to stop straight after to be a stay at home mum. Even then however it seems like to those people doing a degree is a whim of mine and if I must I should get it out of my system and settle down.

The pressure of society on young women to be the centre of the family, to have children as soon as possible and to dedicate their whole time and their lives to those children is now catching up to me. And frankly, I'm not sure what to do about it. I understand the advantages of having children when still young, healthy and full of energy. I know the dedication needed to raise kids too and if I had kids I'd like to always be there for them - I admire the stay-at-home mums.

But there is more. I'm currently a student. An unmarried, full-time student working several part-time jobs to stay afloat. Living in a cheap rented room in a shared house. How on earth could I have a child right now? And if I abandoned my education how would that make finding a good secure job and providing for such child easier? Unless I won a lottery I can't see how I could support another human being right now. Additionally, I have no family here, so no-one to potentially help with childcare while I'm at university/work.

I know "there is no good time to have children", but I feel like it's especially true for young women in science and academia right now. As an undergrad juggling other things besides the university work load I struggle to find excessive amounts of free time and energy for much more. It won't change during my Masters. I imagine that PhD will only get harder and while in some fields PhD might be a time of relative flexibility, especially during thesis write-up, I think that for me it will be rather structured. Lab and field studies tend to be very time-specific, both when it comes to season in which they are carried out and in amount of time needed in one "burst". One cannot simply do a day here and there if the procedure takes a full week to complete. From what I'm hearing it also looks like the end of one's PhD is not the ideal time - interviews for post-doc positions apparently tend to not go so great for those visibly pregnant and likely to want a maternity leave. So what, wait till you are well established in a lab? Till you have your own lab?

But what if that doesn't happen? Or even if it does, what if after all that it's too late?

I wish I could say I'll happily give up my career to have children and be a stay at home mum. I quite like the idea of growing and learning for the next few years, child-free, but God forbid I said that to the questioning people. At the moment even if I did drop out of uni, I still wouldn't be able to support a child and I can't imagine deliberately brining one into this world while knowing I can't give them a good life.

And if chose to have a child, but not quit academia? Will I be still judged by those people, because I'm not loving or caring enough to stay with my baby? Will I be considered less of a mother by one side and less of a professional for having a baby by the other? Is there a way out and a perfect solution?

So what can I do? Continue to study, to work, to think - and to be pressured by the society telling me I'm living my life all wrong and that I'll be ultimately unhappy with the choices I've made.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Behind the schedule

Last semester was pretty busy. It sounded like this semester is going to be easier - no group work, so studying should be easier to fit around work, a lot of coursework, but if one gets organised it all should be fine. If one gets really organised, one might even have some free time! All the reading I will be able to do...

I planned and scheduled.

Then I needed to prepare a project proposal for my masters year and started applying for funding to carry out a piece of research over the summer and got so stuck in in personal statements, CVs, drafts of proposals and applications that somehow I've 'lost' a month*.

I was a month behind the schedule I prepared. So I prepared a new schedule. Currently I'm about two weeks behind that new schedule.

Am I just unlucky with lots of things popping up here and there and eating up my time, schedule badly with not enough time or am I simply not organised enough to stick to the schedule? I guess it's probably a mix of the three - I didn't realise that project applications will take so much time, but then I could have probably squeezed a bit more work in-between lectures. I find it hard to do 10 different things one day though, I much prefer to have a big chunk of time to work on something and get it done, as it takes me a long time to warm up. Maybe that's the problem, maybe I need a different way of working. How does one go about re-wiring their brain though?

All will get done in the end, no matter what. It always gets done and I work better under pressure.

Maybe there is no point in planning and scheduling. Go back to general to-do-list instead of a schedule? Or maybe there is some secret way to schedule so that it's actually achievable to do everything according to the schedule?

So to sum up, I'm attempting to find out what's the secret of perfect scheduling and how to re-wire my brain. There must be a way... I'm only going to get busier over the next few years and have to deal with it somehow!

*Will be really worth it if I get the funding and can do the project!

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Email greetings at university

A month or so ago I came across this blog and post:
FemaleScienceProfessor: How To Annoy Your Professor

It was a poll on the things that professors find annoying in their students. There are quite a few and I can definitely see that some of the would be annoying. There was however one that made me wonder...

I'm talking about email greetings at university.

According to the blog informal email greetings are inappropriate and annoying. I've been starting emails to quite a few of my lecturers with hello over the past few years and to be perfectly honest I have never  thought that it might be inappropriate. I'm slightly... Well, worried is a big word, but I certainly don't like the idea that I might have been accidentally rude to people I respect.

I use appropriate titles whenever I write to a lecturer I don't know very well, someone I've never written to before or if it is only a one-off question or administrative/technical issue etc. However, when it comes to people I correspond and work with on a regular basis I tend to use whatever format of an email the lecturer uses. For example if the lecturer signs their email with first name alone, I'm assuming it's alright to use their first name in the reply, even if they have never directly said I can use their first name. Similarly, if their emails start with plain hi is it  really rude for me to reply with hello?

Is hello considered rude in general? Or are there differences between countries and fields? Or maybe it just depends on the relationship between the student and lecturer (doctor/professor)? What I gather from the blog is that the lecturers over the pond would like to be called professors whether they have a professor title or not*. I partially understand - my high school teachers were called professors too (even though none of them had a title higher than Masters), it's a cultural thing. But is it the same at the UK universities? How important are the titles in such correspondence?

I feel like this should be one of the things taught to first years, University 101, as students, especially international, might simply not realise what the rules are. I have been in the UK for a while and clearly I still don't know some very basic things.

*I'm deliberately not going into the issue of men being addressed as professors and women being addressed as Ms/Mrs.

Hello & Disclaimer

So here I am.

Who am I?

I'm a fledgling behavioural ecologist/evolutionary behaviourist... Not quite sure how to classify myself at this point in time or where the next few years will take me. I'm passionate about wildlife conservation. Birds (parrots in particular) are my favourite animals and preferred study system.

I study full-time and have 2-3 part time jobs to support myself during my time at the University. I try to have a life in-between it all. I'm a keen rock climber, even if I'm not a strong one. I enjoy the great outdoors and wish I could cook/bake more and read more outside my degree.

Why am I here?

I process out loud. I love to talk. I don't think that forcing my friends to listen to me all the time is fair though. I'm hoping that I can get it out of my system here when needed. Maybe some of the things I say will be of some use to someone out there? Who knows.

What will I blog about?

I'd like this blog to be about science and "student life" from an academic point of view, progression through university, associated challenges, possibly a bit of research, lab and fieldwork, science outreach, women in science... As a student I often feel a little lost and confused. My brain gets stuck on problems and goes over them over and over again. Maybe blogging will help to make some sense of it all.


I have a tendency to talk a bit randomly and use mental shortcuts. I will try my best to be coherent and hopefully will get better with time, but please do not try to "catch me out" on semantics. I usually mean well.

The views on this blog are mine and are true at the time of writing. I consider myself open minded  and do change my mind if new convincing evidence comes to light. I'm always keen to learn something new and I'm happy to hear what others have to say on the matters discussed.

Lastly: I'm busy. We all are. I'm not sure how often I will be able to write, so I make no promises right now.