Another Milestone

A couple of weeks ago, I completed and passed my PhD confirmation, hooray!

I haven’t had much time to write about it since, and today I didn’t really have any excuses not to (Must. Stop. Watching. Breaking. Bad), so here I am.

In order to successfully “confirm”, I had to write a literature review and project plan and  then present it to a confirmation panel, comprised of external and internal markers.

I wasn’t too nervous about the presentation, because I’d already (successfully and confidently, I might add) presented my data at a local medical research conference just a couple of weeks previous. However, during the week leading up to my confirmation, I had volunteered to go and talk to a class of undergrads about my experiences with bioinformatics. I’d done the same presentation twice before for the same course, and I knew it “wasn’t a big deal”, so I didn’t spend much time preparing. Who can guess what happened next? Yup, I bombed. I stumbled through my slides, couldn’t remember how to say what I needed to say, and got extremely self-conscious. And thus I set myself up for a world of terror for my confirmation.

I knew that all I needed to do to get better at my confirmation presentation was to practise it as many times as physically possible. This was a bit difficult, because the day after the bioinformatics talk, my parents arrived to stay with me for the week. They were REALLY good at giving me space to practise when I needed to, but still, the temptation to go out to dinner and drinks etc. with my parents (who I only really see once or twice a year) instead of staying in to study was pretty overwhelming.

In addition to the constant battle of willpower, every time I did sit down to practise, it was a mission just to make it through the 15 minutes of me talking to myself without stopping to have a panic. Even though with every rehearsal, the words did come easier, I wasn’t any easier on MYSELF. I found myself subconsciously repeating one of my running mantras: “This was never easy and it never will be.” This way, instead of responding to my internal struggles by punishing myself for finding things difficult, I try to remind myself that there’s nothing wrong with something being difficult…and that there isn’t some better version of myself who “should” find things any less difficult than they are.

My friends and colleagues were extremely supportive with helping me to prepare. The time came and, aside from talking a bit too fast at times, everything actually went great. No one booed me off stage or even insinuated that I had no idea what I’m doing. I could answer my questions. 

 In the interview section, I was taken off to a room with my committee, where we discussed my project plan. I started off by trying to answer their questions as though I was in a job interview, but then I got the feeling that they were really just asking me things out of interest, as opposed to checking up on me. Not long after this feeling sunk in, one of the markers asked me what my publication plan was, and why I hadn’t included it in the confirmation document. I knew that I was supposed to include one, and I had known all along. I just chose to ignore it because, as I told the examiner,

“It just doesn’t seem very likely that I’ll get anything worth publishing.”

At first it kind of pissed me off that this this surprised them. What kind of world were THEY living in, where a normal person, like me, would be capable of writing a paper? I actually got quite defensive.  They kept suggesting all sorts of interesting experiments I could do. I agreed, “Yes, that does sound interesting,” whilst at the same time being sure to remind them that, “I don’t think I’ll be able to do that though.”

At the end of the interview, I was asked to leave so that my supervisors could comment on my progress. A couple of minutes later, I was called back in to finalise the confirmation process.

I apologised for my document being so long, and thanked all the markers for their time and patience with me. I was told, in return, that actually my document had been interesting to read, and very well put together. I was told that I clearly had a good comprehension of my material and possessed many of the skills which are important for being a researcher, such as pre-empting questions and being able to ‘sell’ my work. I was told that my research was “novel and important”. I was told that it needed to be published.

I was told that I needed to stop being so hard on myself.

I looked up from the table where I had been fidgeting with my USB from the presentation. My supervisors both looked so proud, as they grinned idiotically at me. Obviously I started to cry. Because that’s what I do.

But, I promise…I really am trying to be more positive!

Advertisements

A Letter To Myself In Six Months’ Time, When Things Are Likely To Not Be Going As Well As They Are Right Now (Because Generally They Aren’t)

Dear 25-Year-Old-Chloe,

Calm. The Fuck. Down.

I know what you’re thinking. “Yeh, whatever, it’s all very well for you, sitting on your pile of data, streamlined protocols and scientific reading. What about me down here, with all these new challenges to face, documents to write and troubleshooting to do?!”

Well, I’ve got news for you, kid. Those challenges I faced and overcame this year which LEAD to the pile of data and streamlined protocols and scientific reading: they were new and terrifying for me too.

Please remember that every challenge you face it just that: a challenge. Please remember to just have FAITH that it’s all going to come together eventually. It will take a lot of work, granted. And you need to have a very open mind when it comes to the question of what “everything having come together” is going to look like. In the very WORST case scenario, “everything having come together” is going to look like an abandoned protocol that just wouldn’t work out for you. It’s going to look like negative data which isn’t quite good enough to publish. It’s going to look like some self-important big-wig criticizing your work in front of a room full of people. None of these things are worthy of the levels of anxiety you are most likely devoting to them already; despite the fact that none of them have actually happened.

While every new challenge is a new challenge, the concept of a new challenge isn’t actually new. You know how to deal with it (i.e. just DEAL WITH IT), and you know what you expect (i.e. the unexpected). Don’t worry about not knowing where to start, because wherever you start is a great place to start. The point is: you’ve started. Don’t worry about wasting time by starting in the wrong place because…don’t you realise how ridiculous that sounds? You’re LEARNING: everything is new: everything is a starting point.

If you’ve just read those past four paragraphs and still feel like climbing into a time machine and strangling me for being a patronising wanker who could NEVER understand this pain, then you need to GO OUTSIDE. Failing that: watch a movie, have a nap, read a book, call your Mum, go for a pint, look at pictures of cats on the internet. There is no point in trying to be productive right now.

I’m pretty sure you can get through this PhD, and so does your supervisor, and so do your colleagues, and so does your family. I know you could argue with all these people to the ends of the Earth right now about how wrong they all are, and how stupid and incapable and overemotional and inadequate you are. But, before you do, please:

Calm. The Fuck. Down.

Kind regards,

24-And-A-Half-Year-Old-Chloe

Competitive Busy-ness

I am flying home to stay with my family.

Naturally, it coincides with a conference (that’s the life of an academic). I have decided to stay with my family from the end of the conference (late- November) until after Christmas. It was kind of annoying the way the dates worked out but I figured that I couldn’t pass off the opportunity to go home, and I will have lots of writing up to be doing, so being away from the lab shouldn’t affect my progress.

When I tell people I am going home for two months, in short: they don’t make me feel great about myself.

“Haha, alright for some!”

“How do you get away with it?”

“I didn’t take a holiday for 4 years when I was doing my PhD!”

They make me feel guilty. Which is ridiculous…I will still be working for the majority of time when I am at home. I know I will be OK. My supervisor knows I will be OK. I guess one thing I need to get over is giving a crap about what people think (unless of course those people are people whose opinions ACTUALLY matter).

But another thing this made me think about was the concept of competitive busy-ness. Exaggerating how hard we work or how little time we take off, or even how stressed out we are, and playing these things against each other. It’s a game we play with our…

…partners: “Today was insane, I haven’t stopped to think…” / “YOUR day was insane, you should have been at my office!”

…friends: “Sorry, I’ve just been so flat out with X and Y, I haven’t had the opportunity to call and catch up in so long!” / “Oh no, I’m just as bad, I’ve been crazy busy, I feel terrible.”

…and our colleagues: “I can’t wait to finish with this bloody X.” / “Oh tell me about it, I have piles of Y to do and it’s going to take up so much time.”

All this roughly translates as: “I AM JUSTIFYING MY EXISTENCE BY ACCENTUATING MY RESPONSIBILITIES AND THINGS I HAVE TO DO.” It’s a really unhealthy and depressing habit to get stuck into. It’s also a pretty dangerous game to play with yourself.

It’s quite easy to get stuck into though, and I found myself doing it this week. I have lots of data to gather for an upcoming deadline so I was coming into the lab early and leaving late. Towards the end of the day, my brain was frazzled and I took twice as long to do things as I had to keep fixing up my mistakes. I would go home, tired and grumpy, but come in and do the same thing the next day, because on some weird level, it felt good to be run-down and flustered. It meant I had got the most out of my day. I must have done, right? A 10 hour day HAS to be productive…?

In reality, I know that just coming in and having a thoroughly productive and focused 9-5 work day is 100% more effective and better for my well-being than working a scattered, depressing, 8-6 day. But at this stage in my research, it’s easier to count hours than it is to count productivity, and thus count those hours as “justification tokens”, just so I can feel good about myself. It’s an addictive cycle.

I hope that I can learn to accept that the quality and quantity of work I can achieve in a “normal” work day is definitely acceptable, and I shouldn’t try and out-compete myself if it only results in (and feeds) anxiety.

 

 

An Acheivement

While it’s great to be surrounded by successful people in the workplace, sometimes it can be just as intimidating as it is inspiring. I am the type of person who tends to compare themselves to everyone else. It’s a really terrible way to be, and it leads to jealousy and insecurity, which are two really ugly things to be.

After a lot of thought (I’m good at that), I realised that if I really have to be comparing myself to anyone, it should be to a younger version of me. That way, I will come to recognise just how much I have achieved, instead of resenting what I haven’t yet achieved (or maybe never will). It also serves as a motivational tool.

I bring this up now because I have just finished my first notebook of my PhD. I’m a big fan of notebooks, and the thought of having a bookshelf full of battered, crinkly paged notebooks containing my major thought processes, plans and ideas is a really nifty one. I work well from brain storms and diagrams, and a scientific paper makes no sense to me until I have scribbled a few pages about it. Hence I have been filling up those pages pretty quickly.

Here is me, stopping to recognise that, four months into my PhD, I have made a notebook-worth of ideas, plans, readings and…progress. While later stages of these timeline-of-me-comparisons may include publications, conference abstracts, promotions, projects etc. , this is all I have right now, and that’s fine with me. The four-month-younger version of me didn’t even have that.

Image

ImageImage

Image

Fear in the Face of Criticism

I’m finding it tough to stay motivated. With the bare bones of my project laid out, and the rest of it hanging in the fates of pending experiments, there’s not much else to think about while I’m waiting for some data: except for the quality of my project proposal itself.

Me being me, I keep on coming back to the same conclusion, namely: the project isn’t good enough. I feel as though my aims are of interest, at least for the sake of science, but in the context of cancer research, do they still stand strong?

In an era of personalised medicine, where words like ‘biomarker’ are more than commonplace, is it “enough” to study cancer cell function? Without blatant linkage to drug optimisation or discovery, or even to prognostics and diagnostics, those of us stepping ‘back’ into the more obscure field of cellular/ cancer cellular function are risking much scrutiny from our colleagues.

I know that my aims will unveil some mysteries about cellular function, and maybe (?) answer some questions regarding the failure of some drugs in the past. I also know that biomarker hunting and drug discovery can’t really function on their own. Whatever targets are identified, should (in an ideal world) be understood fully (or at least as far as is possible) before we start using experimental drugs.

Logical thinking should lead me to believe that my work will be valuable. However, I can’t help but feel that those who dabble in cell functional studies, for however long, can be more vulnerable to criticism…and that’s just a bit terrifying.

The Only True Wisdom is Knowing You Know Nothing

I’ve been lurking on PubMed for three months now.

I know the time has come for me to make a decision regarding what direction to go in with my project/s, but it’s so cosy here in PubMed land.  I can’t make any mistakes and no-one can tell me I’m doing anything wrong. Even though I have an idea/ ideas, and my supervisor and co-workers are supportive of it, I’m still terrified about going forward with it.

I was talking to my supervisor about this fear; that someone will tell me that my research is a waste of time, or someone will spot me for what I really am i.e. just a person, not a Scientist! She reassured me that everyone can feel this way, especially first year PhD students. Another friend told me that if I really care this much about my field and what my peers think of my work, then that automatically makes me a good scientist, so I shouldn’t be afraid of making the wrong choices.

My unconscious theory before these discussions was: I’ll read everything so that I can come to understand everything, then I can make a decision based on everything, and no-one can question me because I’ll know everything!

It’s only really after admitting this strategy to myself that I realised how ridiculous I was being. To quote Socrates,

“The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.”

…which is all well and good, but scientists have to meet in the middle here. We can’t jump into projects and experiments without forethought or planning: but a 1st year PhD student can’t be expected to understand an entire research field before they have even begun to work in it.

I think a less dubious individual than me might not have gone through these motions, but I have. Thankfully, I’m not doing this alone, and after a pretty hefty discussion with my supervisor, I think we both realised the only way I was going to move forward was if she pushed me off the edge. So we’ve got the gear ordered, and I’ll be stepping into the unknown (like there is anything else) any day now.