My top eight tips for surviving a PhD

Posted by Jamie Stavert @jamiestavert

I’m sure this has probably been done a millions times before, but here’s my top eight top tips for surviving a PhD (I was aiming for the classic “top 10 tips” but I could only think of eight). Please keep in mind these are things that have helped me through my PhD and they may not work for everyone. Another disclaimer: I haven’t officially handed in my thesis which means i) these top tips haven’t actually got me over the line yet and ii) I’m still deep in the throes of writing, so my ability to clearly communicate ideas is somewhat diminished. Anyway, here they are:

  1. Remember your mum. Mums can be of great use, as can dads, brothers, sisters and other family members. At the lowest point of my PhD, somewhere in the midst of potting 8,000 plants for a ridiculous experiment that seemed doomed to fail, it was my mum who saved the day. She took time out of her busy schedule, drove to Hamilton (if you don’t know it, Google it…) and helped me pot plants. That got me through a super tough period and it’s fair to say I couldn’t have done it without her. So make a special effort to give your family time. Keep them in the loop and communicate regularly. I know for international students this can be tough, but there’s Skype etc. Sometimes a chat is all you need.
  2. Get physical. I’m of the firm belief that too many “academic type” people consider their bodies solely as a vehicle for their brains. Also, this guy who has way more credibility than me, thinks the same (watch from 9:40). Physical exercise releases feel good hormones, such as endorphins, and reduces nasty stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. I find exercise helps me come up with new ideas and solve problems. I’m astounded at how often I find solutions to problems while running or at the gym. I don’t know anyone who is creative or productive when sitting at their coffee stained desk, with adrenaline coursing through their veins.
  3. Care for your brain. The only thing worse than neglecting your body is neglecting your brain (I’m often guilty of this)! As an academic, your brain is your most important asset. It’s where ideas come from. It’s what writes papers and grant proposals and R code. But if it ain’t working properly, it makes PhD life tough. Meditation is a great tool for keeping your brain healthy. It helps you to centre yourself, clear thoughts and momentarily vacate your intellectual mind. You’ll start smiling for no reason! If you don’t believe me, then check out this guy. He’s living proof that a biologist can also be the happiest person in the world. Give it a go – 20 minutes a day will make a huge difference.
  4. Compartmentalize. A PhD is a massive undertaking. It’s often difficult to “see the light at the end of the tunnel”, as wise supervisors often say. I can now see the light. But when you’re one or two years in, all you can see is a steaming river of shit, somewhere deep in the sewer. In this case, you need to compartmentalize. Break the big thing down into smaller manageable things. Make a plan – what do you need to do in the short-term to achieve the long-term goal? This will help you stay in the present moment and be mindful.
  5. Confide in your peers. Yes, you might think that your struggle is unique and no one truly understands what you’re going through. Many of us PhD folk are after all, millennials. But guess what? Your PhD peers are usually confronted with the same barriers/problems/issues as you. So take no shame indulging with them in complaining about supervisors, reviewer number two and ridiculous university bureaucracies.
  6. Have a beer. Or something else that fires up your reward system. For me it’s a tasty double IPA on a Friday night. It’s super important to have something to look forward to. A reward will give you impetus to trudge on through debugging that nasty code or counting those last 100 seeds.
  7. Do something else. Yes your PhD is important but it shouldn’t be your everything. There will be times when you have to make sacrifices but don’t let a PhD get in the way of doing other things you enjoy. Prioritize and make time for the other stuff.
  8. Don’t be too stiff. It’s easy to become too serious in academia. I often cringe at my seriousness. Being a competitive person in a competitive environment will make you serious. But try to remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. Have fun with your research. Embrace your childish curiosity and try not to focus too much on the end game.

So that’s my eight top tips for surviving a PhD. Remember, there is light at the end of the tunnel, but embrace the journey.

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Jamie Stavert is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is interested in how functional traits influence ecosystem function and species’ responses to environmental change in pollination systems. He is supervised by Jacqueline BeggsAnne GaskettDavid Pattemore and Nacho Bartomeus.

 

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Communication: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Posted by Lloyd Stringer @lloydstringer2

In this age of mass communication, you’d think that we would be able to communicate our ideas well without any misunderstands occurring. Because of the junk that is filling the internet, we are encouraged to write short and punchy articles (providing supplementary files where the reader can actually find out what was done), and then advertise what we have done to improve the likelihood of being read.

I have been lucky enough to experience different sorts of science communication. I have tried tweeting, but I freely admit that social media isn’t my style- I rarely access my facebook account, so you can imagine how well I treat my twitter account. Another approach I gave a go, was a press release of an article I wrote a few months back. At least with this medium I was able to gauge the uptake by the public. After it was published in the Herald (probably in the online form only) it was picked up by Farmers Weekly (online and printed). It was at this point I knew it was out as I had family members and work colleagues contacting me.

Now there is a point to me blowing my own trumpet. While the press release we made was accurate, the rapid Herald release contained inaccuracies- which I believe looks bad for me (if any of my peers read it).

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The second Farmers Weekly article was a much better experience. I had a phone interview with the reporter, then the reporter sent a draft of the article so I could confirm and revise if needed, leading to better outcome for all.

A more recent experience is being caught in the ugly cross-fire between two groups of scientists with ‘opposing’ ideas of fruit fly eradications. I write ‘opposing’ as it appears that both groups are having separate conversations. An article which I am a co-author on was severely criticised and it all looks to be a misunderstanding based on our use of the words ‘same data’, we meant eradication data, where the group with the concerns has interpreted it as exactly the same dataset as theirs. In hindsight this is understandable. Rather than get pulled into the mire, we have decided not to reply to the accusations as:

  1. The journal (tabloid) appears to be trying to egg the discussion on with the use of boxing gloves above the article titles (to increase sales?)
  2. This type of communication is prone to misunderstandings and any outsiders or policy makers will be starting to question the validity of any of earlier reported results.

Boxing gloves

I guess where I am going with this is that we do have the pressure to communicate our information quickly, we are responsible for the words that we write and it is worth the time to ensure that we are as accurate as possible.

Lloyd Stringer is a PhD student at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland, and scientist in the Biosecurity Group and Plant & Food Research, Lincoln. He is studying the effects of population management tools on insect Allee thresholds. He is supervised by Max SucklingJacqueline Beggs, and John Kean

Baby it’s cold outside (where have all the insects gone?!)

Post by Anna Frances Probert @AFProbert

I often get asked where all the insects go in winter, which is a pretty good question considering how conspicuous mosquitoes, ants, wasps and cicadas are during the summer months. The presence of insects may be obvious in summer although they are seemingly absent during winter. We are all aware that there are some pretty amazing animals out there that spend the coldest months of the year in a torpid or hibernation state. But what about all our invertebrate friends that seem to disappear in the cooler months?

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It’s freezing! Dunedin Botanical Gardens in winter. (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

Like all animals, insects are faced with two options when it comes to the cold: move away, or somehow deal with it. The first option of moving away is something we might generally associate with larger animals – migration. Although insect migration differs slightly compared to that of birds and mammals in that the ‘round trip’ of the migratory path is usually made up of multiple generations, they can indeed travel vast distances to head to warmer climes to overwinter.

This is best exemplified with the North American migration of the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). The winter months in Canada and in many places in the United States proves to be too cold for the Monarch butterfly to survive. So to avoid certain death via freezing, come autumn, populations start moving south towards the equator, where the climate becomes more forgiving. Although a complete round-journey involves at least four generations of Monarch butterflies, individual butterflies have been recorded to fly more than 4000km.

But what if you don’t have the ability to move to avoid the cold? Overwintering and being “cold tolerant” becomes your only option. However, when you’re an insect you have different options of how to spend winter time. You can either overwinter in your egg, larval, pupal, nymphal or adult stages, depending on your life history. Yet insects, regardless of which life stage they spend winter, may be subjected to freezing temperatures, requiring them to adopt a strategy to avoid freezing to death. Essentially, like all ectotherms, insects subjected to freezing temperatures need to adopt a freeze avoidance or freeze tolerance strategy.

Freeze avoidance, the basal trait for cold tolerance in insects, is essentially the ability to maintain body fluids at a liquid state at temperatures below zero, existing in what is called a “supercooled” state. Insects achieve this by producing “anti-freeze” chemicals that prevent ice formation. For insects that adopt this strategy of cold tolerance, if the temperature slips below what they are able to maintain in their supercooled state, they usually freeze to death. Whilst this threshold varies largely between species, at the extreme end there is a species of parasitoid wasp that can supercool to -47°C.

 

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The Drinker moth (Euthrix potatoria) can tolerate the cold and hibernates as a larva during the winter. (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

On the other hand, freeze tolerant insects have the ability to survive the formation of ice within their tissues, via the production of ice nucleating agents in the extracellular body fluid. Freeze tolerance is a strategy adopted by many Southern Hemisphere insects including a species of alpine tree weta here in New Zealand.

So insects are still around during the winter, they may just not be as active, or in a stage of their life cycle where they are not so conspicuous. Although I don’t necessarily welcome the return of mosquitoes and social wasps into my life, it’s neat to know a little bit more about the amazing adaptations insects have evolved to cope with the cold.

 

MeblogAnna Probert is a PhD student in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is using ants as a model to assess the risk posed by exotic invertebrates to native ecosystems. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Jacqueline Beggs, and Darren Ward.

Life after PhD – the career at the end of the tunnel

Posted by Ellery McNaughton  @EJ_McNaughton

Six days ago I hit my three year anniversary – three years of commitment to the significant other in my life, my PhD project. It’s increasingly difficult to avoid thinking about what will happen when I can finally say goodbye to it. Ideally, this thinking should have been done before I entered into the relationship in the first place, but what can I say, it was a whirlwind romance. I was lured in with grand ideas about saving the world from the supposed evils of unchecked streetlight retrofits. Hard life evaluations and 10-year career plans didn’t factor into it as much as they perhaps should have.

Even if they had, plans can change. Preference for academic careers has been shown to significantly decrease over the course of a science PhD. I must admit that this rings true for me; the thought of academic tenure has swung back and forth between paradise and purgatory over the last three years. Perhaps I’ll eventually be struck with an epiphany that academia is the light at the end of the tunnel, but if I am, I won’t be the only wayward soul trying to reach it. Academic jobs are few and far between, and those that are available are contested hotly by post-docs who have graduated from a system that tends to elevate academia as superior to alternative career options. The spotlight on academic careers isn’t really surprising given that PhDs are awarded by academic institutions, and most students carry out their research in an academic environment, surrounded and mentored by those fortunate and successful enough to end up in an academic position. However, when less than 20% of doctoral graduates end up in tenure-track positions within 5 years of graduation, there is an argument to be made that academia is itself the alternative career option for science graduates.

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Career pathways of NZ science PhD students (MoRST report, data from 2006). Taken from https://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2013/01/29/from-science-phd-to-careers-outside-academia-what-might-help/

Thankfully, this isn’t something that has gone unnoticed. A university workshop I attended earlier this year focused in part on applying for non-academic careers, and as always, the internet can be a great source of helpful articles and blogs (some colourfully worded, some not). Of course, none of this helps me if I’m actively avoiding thinking about the future. I’ve been so focused on trying to get through this rusty frying pan of a PhD that I’ve avoided thinking about the fiery depths of career opportunities I’ll be jumping into. Here’s hoping I’ll figure it out before my next anniversary.

Ellery (2)Ellery McNaughton is a PhD student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. Her project investigates the effects of a city-wide changeover in streetlight technology on urban bird behaviour and ecosystem function. She is supervised by Margaret StanleyJacqueline BeggsKevin Gaston (University of Exeter, UK) and Darryl Jones (Griffith University, Australia).

The strange world of academic publishing

Posted by Julia Kaplick @julekap

A couple of days ago I tried to explain to my parents (non-scientists, obviously) how publishing a paper works and why it is so important for us scientists. No problem to wrap your head around the publish or perish principle. Naturally they wanted to know where they could read these papers and that’s where the story became a little bit more complicated and confusing for an outsider. It just doesn’t make sense to them that scientists give their work to publishers for free and that reviewers and editors, who also put in considerable work hours don’t see a penny either. The publishing companies on the other hand earn huge amounts of money by selling single articles to individuals and more importantly journal subscriptions to numerous university and research libraries worldwide. The big publishing houses basically make their profits from selling free work from scientists back to them through the university libraries with profit margins of up to 40%. Sounds a bit insane, right?

By Jorge Cham, PhD comics (http://phdcomics.com/)

By Jorge Cham, PhD comics (http://phdcomics.com/)

So what can we do about it? A long-term goal especially for the younger generation of scientists should be to stop publishing with the big five. In some scientific areas the five biggest publishing conglomerates cover 70% of the research output. It isn’t easy, but there is already a growing number of scientists refusing to publish with certain publishers.

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Picture by Sara Thompson (cc)

Publishing open access papers or publishing in entirely open access journals is becoming more popular, but this can be expensive and in most cases still fills the pockets of the bigger publishers. A lot of funding agencies are willing to cover this cost and some even demand that the research outputs of funded projects need to be published open access. This investment might pay off through increased citations and it is certainly a step into the right direction. Swiss universities for example have announced that by 2024 all research output will be published open access.

This is of course tricky and not always possible, either because there is no funding for open access publishing or because you really want to publish in a specific journal. To make your work more accessible to scientists who can’t afford the pricy journal subscriptions you can consider putting a preprint (which doesn’t violate journal copyrights) online. This could be done on a personal blog, a Researchgate profile or you could use one of the many preprint repositories.

There are also less legal ways. A survey by Science Magazine revealed that 88% of scientists don’t think it is wrong to download pirated papers from sources like SciHub. Illegal repositories like SciHub store millions of papers and give especially scientists from developing countries a chance to access scientific knowledge. SciHub is also highly frequented by scientists from the developed world, because more and more institutions have to cut back on journal subscriptions which cost university libraries several million dollars per year. Unpaywall on the other hand is a legal way to gain access to journal articles. It is a little plug-in for Firefox and Chrome browsers that lets you know immediately if there is free access to a paper somewhere while you are browsing through journal websites. Lastly, there is #IcanhazPDF on twitter to ask the scientific community for help if you have trouble finding a particular paper.

All this shows that there is a need for the current system to change. This won’t happen at once, but maybe in a couple of years I can explain the process of publishing academic research without getting these confused looks again.

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Julia climbing kauri

Julia Kaplick is a PhD student supervised by Cate Macinnis-Ng. She is currently working on the revisions for her first paper.