Tag Archives: Postgraduate

Ph-inishe-D: PhD Submitted!

The sun is shining, the sky is brighter, the birds are singing…

Since I submitted my PhD for examination, the world has become a happier place.

I actually submitted just over five weeks ago, but only now am I really starting to feel human again.  Part of the reason for this was that submission took place two weeks after I finished writing the thesis, thanks to an unforeseen administrative error.  This resulted in me turning up at uni, support squad in tow, and being told that I wasn’t allowed to submit.  Hello world crashing down…  But t went in, eventually.

PhD submission day, complete with support crew and toy dolphins! (Note, this was taken prior to submission debacle - hence manic expression of relief on my face)

PhD submission day, complete with support crew and toy dolphins!  (Note, this was taken prior to submission debacle, hence manic expression of relief on my face)

The other reason for my vacant expression of the past few weeks is that completing a PhD is exhausting.

I’ve seen my fiance finish his PhD.  I’ve seen some of my best friends finish their PhDs.  I’ve seen my officemates finish their PhDs.  I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect.  But it’s a unique experience, individually tailored, and nothing can really prepare you for The End.  I still can’t particularly face writing about it now (why burst this happiness bubble?), but one day I’ll explain the whole thing in detail.  Probably after I’ve dealt with the eventual examiner comments.

So now for my long-awaited period of rest and relaxation!  Well, not quite…

I’ve spent the past six weeks on a Publication Scholarship, which essentially means the uni has been paying me to turn my thesis chapters into scientific publications.  One is submitted, another two should sneak in this week, and the final paper is due for submission in April.  Around this, I have also been working on grant applications, giving presentations, submitting conference abstracts, preparing for a trip to Europe, and attending a surprising number of meetings.  The last has actually been the most daunting – after several months of PhD lockdown, limited social interaction and working from home, it’s weird having to converse with dozens of people at once.  This combined with the ‘mushy brain syndrome‘ typical of recently-submitted PhD students has left me with a strong need to lie down in a dark room after meetings.  But I’m slowly improving.  And as much as I love my PhD project (no, I didn’t end up hating it!), it is actually quite nice to work on other things and bounce between different research projects.

Now I just need to keep my fingers crossed for some successful grant applications so this research can continue…

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Guest Blogger for University of St Andrews

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with Sonja Heinrich, the coordinator of the Masters program I undertook at the University of St Andrews.  She was really interested to hear of my science communication experiences, and invited me to write a guest blog post for the Masters website about winning the 3-Minute-Thesis (3MT) competition.

Field Trip to the Isle of Mull (April 2009)

Field Trip to the Isle of Mull (April 2009)

The guest post itself is up on the St Andrews Postgraduate blog.  But I thought this would also be a good opportunity to talk about my experience on the Masters.

I studied Marine Mammal Science at the University of St Andrews from 2008-09.  It was one of the most amazing years of my life.  I attended the oldest university (and one of the most prestigious) in Scotland, made a fabulous bunch of new friends, and met my amazing partner Phil.  We watched fascinating lectures and participated in interesting labs, both taught by leaders in this field.  We sailed the West Coast of Scotland, looking for whales and dolphins.  We scrambled down cliffs, conducting population surveys of seals (which led to a near-death experience, but that’s a whole other story).  We assisted in the necropsy of a stranded porpoise (seven years later, I can still vividly remember the smell…).

My thesis project led to it’s own collection of exciting tales (locked in a forest and rescued by gypsies; hiding in the sand dunes from a gun-man; trapped in a hut by highland cattle – to name but a few!).  But it also taught me how to organise fieldwork, developed my analysis and scientific writing skills, and gave me a real taste of independent research.  There’s no question that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for this course.

Saying goodbye to my Masters field site

Saying goodbye to my Masters field site

Masters Marine Mammal Science - Class of 2008-09

Masters Marine Mammal Science – Class of 2008-09

When I began, the Masters was only in it’s second year of existence.  Applications have now closed for the 10th year of the Masters in Marine Mammal Science!  Graduates have gone on to study PhDs, advance to post-doctorate research, or take up leading positions in government organisations.  They have dispersed all over the world, creating an amazing network of alumni.

Even after moving to Australia, I have still worked on projects with Masters alumni (it’s funny who you meet in the middle of the sea…).  One of them lives 5mins down the road!  Marine mammal science is a small world, but a pretty great one to be a part of.

PhD Christmas: Vaguely a Holiday

Whilst working extremely hard on my PhD this morning (ahem), I stumbled across this PhD Comic by the amazing Jorge Cham:

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham
http://www.phdcomics.com

Never be in doubt – you are ALWAYS supposed to be working…

But my supervisors are away overseas on Christmas break“, you may think.

This changes nothing. Apart from your sleep patterns by staying up to weird hours trying to match supervisor emails from a different time zone.

Well, at least it’s temporary,” you console yourself.  “Once I’ve finished my PhD it will be different!

Au contraire, mon ami innocent…

A PhD Christmas Story

Last Christmas marked the final 4 months of my partner’s PhD.  So we spent the festive season as all final-stage PhD students should – by working from home and pretending that this was a “treat”, because at least it meant we weren’t in the office.  It actually worked out quite well; I chugged through a LOT of manual acoustic analysis whilst he got some writing done.  And it was nice to spend the days together.  Even if they were days filled with sitting at our laptops in silence, at least we were doing so together!

We took two days off – 25th Dec and 1st Jan.  These days also coincided with our only two trips to the beach in the height of austral summer, despite living 10 minute drive from several lovely beach spots.  But it was all good – only temporary, right?

Life (and Holidays) After the PhD?

Well, now it’s Christmas time again and a pretty familiar scene is playing out.  Except this time it is me entering the PhD-Twilight-Months whilst Phil has moved onto the fabled, glorious lands of a Post-Doc.  But apart from this role-reversal and upgrade, the overall story seems to be pretty similar.  We’re still spending the summer days indoors, glued to laptops, desperately trying to catch-up on work before the universities re-open in January.

And we’re not alone.  Our later-PhD and post-doc level friends are all in the same boat.  Quietly excited to be working from home and enjoying all the little perks this brings:  your own space; no angry-typing from your office mate; option to play Glee songs out loud (and even sing along) without fear of disturbance or judgement; extra sleep as you dodge the morning commute; no meetings or work calls; ability to work in pyjamas and snack on xmas treats…

From what I’ve seen, this doesn’t seem to change much between PhD and post-doc.  Maybe at a higher-up level you eventually reach a stage where public holidays also translate to academic holidays, but it seems doubtful.  You always hear “With great power comes great responsibility” – no one mentions this also means a greater number of working hours.  But at this stage, it’s become so much the norm it is hard to imagine anything different!

Instead, the main frustration comes from people excitedly asking “So what are you guys doing over the holidays?“.  This, of course, is met with a blank expression and the solid reply “Working…” (duh implied).  It’s particularly annoying when this comes from people in the earlier (naiver) stages of their PhD (how can they justify time off?!  Don’t they realise that there is so much to do?!), who receive the same response.  But at least you can enjoy adding a slight hint of condescension, and jazz up the “duh” tone with a twist of “why – aren’t you?”.  And so the unhealthy cycle of PhD guilt continues, expanding to include new generations.  Can’t have Christmas without family!

Not all Bad

The weird thing is that there is a kind of peace to this working-holiday.  It’s nice knowing that most of the people who add to your To-Do list (undergrads, teaching staff, admin, anyone with a ‘real job’) have mysteriously disappeared for 2-3 weeks.  The only deadlines to meet during this lull period are your own – no one else wants anything of you.  Obviously supervisors will have an expectation of progress, but they will also be distracted by family commitments that we (as international orphans) do not have here.  You feel like you’ve won back a little bit of time, so you have to make the most of it by catching up on all the things that are running you dry the rest of the year.

The weirdest thing of all is that I’ve been looking forward to it for months.

Easy Christmas Crafts for Kids (and PhD Students)

My university closed for the Christmas break last Friday.  As everyone knows, this means nothing for PhD students.  Generally you are too busy to easily justify taking a few weeks off.  And even if you do convince yourself to have some down time over the holidays, you will still risk being hit with PhD Lifestyle Guilt.

This feels so wrong!

This feels so wrong!

Plus sometimes it’s just hard to get in the Christmas spirit.  As a Northern Hemispherean, I find an Australian Christmas hard to adjust to.  Every little fragment of my DNA is screaming that it should be cold, dark, and snowy – i.e. perfect weather to wrap-up in woolly jumpers, drink hot (possibly alcoholic) beverages, and eat plenty of mince pies to ensure survival through the winter.  So to be confronted with these same urges whilst sweltering through a 40° Celsius, sun-filled afternoon is pretty confusing.

An additional problem is the PhD budget.  Although we live pretty comfortably, there isn’t a whole lot of extra cash floating around at the best of times, especially not to be spent on decorations which only make an appearance once a year.

This will be our third Christmas Down Under, so we have accumulated a few festive knick-knacks.  But not enough!  Until now…

This weekend I spent some time Googling “Christmas Crafts for Kids” (because I’m aware of my own craft skill level).  I found some pretty cool sites (such as Kid Spot Christmas), and thought I’d give it a whirl!  The result is that I’ve now spent most of the morning improving my multi-tasking abilities by combining uni work with simple crafts.

Multi-tasking acoustic research with cutting paper snowflakes!

Multi-tasking acoustic research with cutting paper snowflakes!

For instance, I’m currently going through hundreds of acoustic files from the Swan River to see what I can hear (for the record, a LOT of snapping shrimp).  This means that my ears are busy, my hands are idle, and my brain is floating somewhere in the middle.  So whilst listening to my recordings this morning, I also started cutting out dozens of paper snowflakes.  At $2 for 180 small sheets of coloured paper, it’s a bargain and a time-saver!  These will eventually get strung up all over the house.  I also spent some time faffing around with glitter, but this came to a halt when I sneezed suddenly and managed to inhale a large amount of it.  Like I said, I know my craft skill level.

So teamed with a few yards of discounted tinsel, our pint-sized Christmas tree, and a few (surprisingly neatly wrapped) presents, it’s starting to feel pretty festive in here!  Especially if you turn on the air-conditioning and your imagination.

This is all greeted with a certain amount of suspicion from Phil (he still hasn’t forgotten our first festive season together, when I decorated the house with miles of tinsel then insisted on leaving it up until April).  But thankfully nowadays he only gives a single heart-felt sigh of resignation before assisting me with whatever new project has popped into my head.

I can’t wait until he comes home tonight and sees the house 🙂

Discovering Conservation

Discover Conservation_Sarah InterviewA couple of weeks ago I had a very fun interview with James Borrell, a conservation biologist with a passion for science communication.  Apart from studying the genetics of trees, James is also the founder of Discover Conservation – a website which aims to tell the stories of field scientists and, by doing so, inspire an appreciation for conservation in people around the world.

My interview with Discover Conservation discussed my PhD research on bottlenose and snubfin dolphins in Western Australia, but also touched on my “science story” and how I got where I am today.  It finishes off with some of my advice for young conservationists, particularly those currently trying to find work experience.

Interested in more information?  Read the full article here!

Over-whale-ming: Life as a PhD Double-Agent

For the last ten weeks, I have been living two lives.

Life 1: Sarah Marley, field biologist. Commences dolphin surveillance at 0500 hours, ceases observations at 1830 hours. Spends spare time managing an ever-increasing network of volunteer dolphin spies (aka “dolphineers”) to conduct regular river monitoring at select top-secret sites. She moves as a shadow, elusive of social situations, needless of sleep, as she begins the task of data hoarding…

Life 2: Sarah Marley, regular PhD student. Comes into the office a few days a week, and spends time reading papers, learning Matlab, teaching undergrads, and tackling a never-ending flow of emails. Existing mostly on caffeine and to-do lists, she has a desk-drawer full of snacks and several types of tea. Collects dolphin-themed desk decor.

Neither sound too strenuous. But recently, co-existence of these roles has become slightly tricky…

Sometimes study can be a bit over-whale-ming...

Sometimes study can be a bit over-whale-ming…

Life 1 is highly volunteer-dependent. My fieldwork needs at least a team of three (including myself), so my schedule varies each week depending on volunteer availability. I have an amazing team of dedicated, lovely, wonderful volunteers.  But – as I am trying to get out to each site 3 times per week – I inevitably have to spend a few hours trying to sign folk up to fill gaps. I live in constant fear of cancellations, and check my phone compulsively “just in case”.

Life 2 flows around the first; if I’m not in the field, I head to uni. But snatching office hours here and there can make it difficult to focus on larger tasks. As a result, when I make my weekly to-do list each Monday, I find myself re-writing the same few big jobs, along with a wave of new mini-tasks.

To try and combat this, I attended a time-management workshop last Friday. Which I was late for. But as a friend pointed out, I hadn’t attended the workshop yet so that was to be expected!  The presenter quizzed us on our degree courses, study habits, and sleep patterns. She assured me that “you only need four hours sleep to survive, so you’ll finish your PhD in no time“.  Funnily enough, this was not actually very reassuring.

Despite this we did pick up a few useful hints.  This week I have drafted up a timetable of activities based on how long each task takes.  Hopefully this will help me to use my time a bit more efficiently.  My New Years Resolution of getting a minimum of 7hrs sleep was becoming sadly neglected, so I’m also trying to “shut off” when I come home to make sure I’m rested enough to blast through those to-do lists the following morning! The ability to say “no” is something I’m working on improving.

I think the biggest challenge is accepting that there is only a given amount of things I can accomplish during the fieldwork phase.  This should only last a few more months, then there will be a seasonal down period, giving me plenty of time to tackle the desk-based stuff.

But I guess no one ever said being a Science Ninja was easy 😉

Pursuing a Higher Degree: Why I’m so happy to be starting a PhD!

Last week I officially enrolled as a PhD student at Curtin University!  Here I will spend the next three years studying the response of dolphins to underwater noise.

For the last two years, I have been applying for PhD scholarships.  At the same time, to try and continue boosting my CV, I volunteered on various marine mammal projects.  This meant a lot of late nights, working weekends, unpaid leave from work, neglecting my boyfriend and basically quite a bit of juggling.  There were times when I felt overwhelmed and wondered if all this effort was ever going to lead anywhere.  But there were also a lot of fun times, filled with interesting discoveries, new friends, and happiness at pursuing something I loved.

Hope the buzz lasts three years!

Hope the buzz lasts three years!

The day I signed the last piece of paperwork I spent the next 24hrs bouncing around, occassionally squeeling to myself with pure happiness (yes, really!).  Now, a week later, the excitement has become a bit more manageable but I still get a buzz every time I look at my student card.  I’ve chosen a desk in the Higher Degree by Research student building.  I’m changing my email signature.  I’m keeping a colour-coded PhD notebook full of lists, thoughts and notes (much to the amusement of my more cynical colleagues, who frequently ask how long that is going to last).

So why is this such a big deal to me?  What’s so great about a PhD?  Here are the top three reasons why I decided to pursue a PhD:

1.  Curiosity

When I worked in science communication, we used to introduce science to kids by saying “Have you ever asked a question?  Wanted to know why, what or how?  Then you’re a scientist!”.  A bit basic, but fundamentally true – much of science is driven by pure curiosity and the desire to learn.  A PhD is an excellent opportunity to explore several avenues of curiosity about a specific topic, at a depth and intensity that will eventually satisfy almost everyone (probably overly so).

2.  A Love of Research

My childhood dolphin-spotting point in Banff, Scotland (click here for live webcam!)

My childhood dolphin-spotting point in Banff, Scotland (click here for live webcam!)

As a kid I used to spend my school holidays watching the dolphins in Banff Harbour (Scotland), recording sighting times, group compositions and animal behaviour.  Although I didn’t realise it, this was the start of my research career.  Since leaving full-time education, I’ve tried a range of jobs:  sales assistant, bosun on a tourism boat, tutoring, supermarket check-outs, university lecturer, setting myself on fire in the name of science communication…  But any length of time away from research is painful.  I miss learning new things, the craziness of fieldwork, the excitement of getting results.  Research just fits me.

3.  The Challenge

The other thing I miss is being challenged.  Although it’s more than likely that I’m going to regret this statement at some point over the next three years.  But the truth is, it’s only by pushing ourselves and going beyond the comfort zone that we develop.  That’s certainly what I expect a PhD to do!

But of course, this is just my opinion.  Did you have other motivations for pursuing a PhD?  Or perhaps decide against it?  Let me know!  I know that this is the honeymoon period and the real work is yet to come, but for now I’m just enjoying the moment.  At least when I hit the (inevitable) hard patches, I’ll have this list to check back on!  After all, nothing worth having ever comes easy.