Why attend your PhD Graduation?

So we have reached the final step in finishing your PhD!

The hand in, the viva, the corrections and now the question is:

Do you want to attend your Graduation?

I had considered not going to graduation as the ceremony was 9 months after I handed in so I thought I might have moved on in my life and it might feel a bit silly celebrating something that I have already had multiple celebrations for.

However I changed my mind as I looked back over the PhD journey, I don’t think you can really over do the celebrating after the amount of hard work that has gone into it.

Also I think graduation is a really useful event for giving you closure.

Until about a month before my graduation I still had boxes filled with the many drafts of my thesis, random notes and academic papers. I hadn’t felt able to throw them out even after the my corrections had been accepted as it just didn’t feel official or final enough.

But when I started to receive all the graduation information I felt it was time to let go. To do this we decided we needed to burn all the paper associated with my Thesis… For others thinking of doing this I would recommend symbolically burning some pages then putting the rest in the recycling! Burning all of it takes longer than you would imagine.

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On the day of graduation, don’t feel surprised if you are a tiny bit nervous. I was surprised at myself but others I talked to felt it too. It was like we were all half expecting the PhD to be ripped away from us at the last minute or that we would stumble on that last leg of the PhD walking across the stage to accept our degree!

I am happy to report that in my ceremony there was no tripping or even wobbling so our worries were unfounded.

Also I had underestimated how good it would feel to finally have the official proof of my hard work in my hands, the swell of emotion I felt walking across the stage to receive it was really unexpected but it had finally sunk all the way in that I had successfully completed my PhD and that I didn’t have to worry about it anymore. 

I would fully recommend attending your PhD Graduation as it provides closure, its a fun day and you get to take lots of pictures in your bizarre gowns!

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How to pick your PhD project

Once you have decided you want to carry on doing scientific research the next question is:

What area am I going to do my PhD in and how am I going to pick a project?

This is a big decision as the subject of your PhD will be the main focus of your working hours for the next 3-4 Years! So it is important to pick a research project that you find fascinating.

But having a successful and enjoyable PhD depends on more than just the research topic. The supervisor, lab set up, colleagues and funding situation are all key factors, which if selected carefully can improve the experience of your PhD.

There are differences between PhD adverts in the UK with some PhDs being linked with a direct PhD project and supervisor and others being adverts for general Doctoral Training Programs in broad subject areas.

It is quite hard to get a feel for what a PhD project will be like from just the advert, you can tell if you are interested in the area of research, then you have to carry out some detective work.

If looking at a PhD at a different university to your undergraduate one, try and find out about the supervisor and research group from your current network of lectures and tutors.

Once you are invited to interview, you should get a tour of the lab and opportunity to talk to some of the current members of the group, this is the best opportunity to learn what working here would really be like.

Top questions to ask

  • What do you like best about the lab?
  • Do you socialise outside the lab?
  • How busy is the supervisor?
  • Have you been on any conferences?
  • Do you socialise with any of the other lab groups on this floor?
  • What stage of your PhD/Post Doc are you?

But overall this is only a 30-60min conversation, where you are not able to grill them as you are still trying to make a good impression because you are still being informally interviewed.

So is there a better way to choose your PhD project?

Maybe, the BBSRC Doctoral Training Program at University of Nottingham offers a broad range of bio-science projects, then you can pick 3 of these labs to do a mini project related to the 3 advertised PhDs. These mini projects last ~8 weeks and provide an opportunity for you to find out about the people and environment you could be conducting your PhD in. With the idea being that you can try before you buy and develop some useful lab techniques along the way!

What to look out for in your rotation projects

The 8 weeks gives you more time to gradually build up a picture of the real working environment of that lab group and allows you to compare experiences in different lab groups to help you pick where you fit in best. Here are some of my key areas to watch:

  • People: How many people are in the lab, what stages of study or post doc are they at, will they be leaving soon or keeping you company through most of your PhD?
  • Support: Is there any technical support? Is there enough room and equipment in the lab for you and everyone else to work productively? Have people been involved and taught you techniques in the lab?
  • Work/life dynamic: Pay close attention to the ‘condition’ of the later stage PhD students, some signs of exhaustion are to be expected but if they are demotivated and a bit broken this can be a warning sign. Don’t just put this down to inevitable stress, this may be a sign of a dysfunctional lab. Do they go for coffee breaks and socialise outside the lab?
  • Supervisor: How often is the supervisor around? Is it easy to schedule a meeting? Are there regular lab meetings? Be aware that as a rotation student extra ‘one on one’ time with you may be being factored in to persuade you to pick their project. So remember to consider the time that the other students and staff are receiving, as this will be more likely your PhD experience. Also think about the supervision style of the supervisor as this may not match your own personality, for example do they micro-manage or provide too little direction for you personally?
  • Vibe: What is the general feeling in the lab and lab members, is it friendly? Try and get them to speak freely about the good and bad parts of their PhD, if they only tell you good things they are probably under instructions from the supervisor not to scare you away- which may be a negative sign, as perhaps there are aspects of the lab dynamic that are being hidden. Another area to watch is how anxious people get before lab meetings, this should be a productive space to talk about your work, but in a badly managed lab can become a place of over the top criticism and public humiliation.

Even after 8 weeks of immersion in a lab it is difficult to predict how the next 3 ½ years will pan out, but it gives you a better chance of finding a lab that fits you. Hopefully having a PhD project on a topic fascinating to you paired with having the correct environment and people around you can help get you all the way successfully through your PhD and make in a more enjoyable process.

Nottingham Festival of Science and Curiosity 2017

Last week for the third year running the people of Nottingham were able to experience science through The Festival of Science and Curiosity 2017.

What is the The Festival of Science and Curiosity?

The festival is unique to Nottingham and was put in place by the STEM city partnership. The STEM city partnership is made up of a group of some really great Nottingham organisations with some noble aims:

  • To engage citizens in STEM learning activities both in the classroom and in the community
  • To enable citizens to make informed choices about STEM careers and understand the benefits of STEM
  • To empower citizens to participate in the knowledge economy and share in the future success of the city

Because of these aims the festival does a lot of work with schools but also with the public and families. This year the main day for families and the public to enjoy science together was Saturday 11/02/17 with events held at the Broadway Cinema, Central Library and Broadmarsh shopping centre.

Broadway held ‘The Explorers Fair’, this had talks, shows and the chance to try at being a science presenter. Central Library held ‘Hands on Science’ with activities that let children play with science and Broadmarsh had an inflatable planetarium and plenty of scientists too.

How did I get involved?

I had just finished my PhD when the call went out for festival volunteers. I signed up straight way keen to get out of the immense detail of a PhD and go right back to the basics of Microbiology…

The event I proposed was ‘Make your own Microbes- get creative with PlayDoh’

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What was my event about?

This event tried use playdoh and playing to explain to younger children what microbes are. It can be a difficult concept to understand, but it is best to try and introduce the idea of microbes early, this is happening more commonly now in the curriculum- normally through explaining the importance of hand washing!

(See some very good comics on this area by the Microbiology Society)

The main barrier to understanding what a microbe is the fact that they are so tiny that they are invisible to the naked eye. One of the best ways to describe them is as tiny creatures or microscopic animals (just as Antonie van Leeuwenhoek did -one of the founding fathers of microbiology) he also tried to explain how tiny they were to his friends by saying how it would take 1 million of them to be the same size as a grain of sand.

The trouble with the description of ‘tiny creature’ is they don’t have the same obvious physiology as the animals and insects that we can see and all the parts of a microbe have complicated names.

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Naming components of a Bacterium

However for children this can be simplified, for example:

  • A propeller that bacteria use to move called the flagellum becomes called ‘a tail’ (represented by cut hair ties).
  • The pilus/ spikes that cover a bacteria and are important for gene transfer/moving/sticking together in a group, can be called ‘hands’ or ‘legs’ depending on what you are using them for (represented by cut straws).
  • Plasmids which are circular DNA that can be passed between bacteria and sometimes pass antibiotic resistance properties can be referred to as superpowers (represented by gems).
  • And lastly googly eyes can be used to represent the complex sensing systems bacteria have in place to navigate their environment- in complicated terms called chemosensing or quorum sensing.
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Child friendly parts of a microbe

So with the help of PlayDoh and poundland I was ready to help children start to visualize the typically invisible microbes.

What happened on the day?

I held this event in Nottingham Central Library where the staff involved had been very organised and had set up a separate science room for the occasion.

I was in good company with other volunteers doing the science of visual illusions, chemistry experiments and the science of eggs!

I was lucky to be by the door and had lots of interested children all day. I think that by having playdoh, a plaything that children are familiar with allowed them to easily approach the stall and not be intimidated.

The age range was varied and so were the conversations, in some cases the playdoh kept very young children entertained while I talked to their parents about science. In other cases it was interesting to find out what they already knew, many described them as ‘germs and bugs that make your tummy sick’. This was a good opportunity to talk to the slightly older children about good and bad bacteria.

I had made some example playdoh microbes for the children in case they wanted something to copy but it turned out they were all very creative and I wish that I had photographed the children’s own creations. There was a slight trend of the younger ones describing their models as spiders or monsters, but I think that is understandable when you are trying to understand something that is invisible!

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My own attempts at playdoh microbes

Hints and tips for running a stall at a Science festival

  •  Always have one visual thing that a child will be familiar with on your stall so they are not too intimidated to come and investigate.
  • Remember its not just about your target audience, engage everyone at your stall.
  • Ask permission and take pictures of the child’s work. Upload this picture onto an online gallery  and give the parent the link to access the picture- I wish I had thought of this before hand. It acts to captures the engagement but also it may have saved many parents from having to carry a playdoh model in their bag for the rest of the day!

I fully recommend getting involved in the Festival of Science and Curiosity, its great to see how much curiosity and creativity the people of Nottingham have! Already looking forward to next year

 

PhD Thesis corrections: How to get them done and dusted!

So you have had your Viva and have finally passed your PhD!

Well done! Go and celebrate!

But we all know that thoughts of the corrections are lurking- try and suppress these thoughts for a few days.

What type of corrections have you got?

3 Months 

The most common result of a Viva is 3 months corrections. This means there really isn’t too much wrong with the Thesis, which is great, but it still means you have to open it up again.

Common changes:

Formatting, typos, additional explanation/clarification, minor alteration of figures, in some cases editing, occasionally re-writing a page or so of the discussion.

1 Year 

Our University has recently removed the 6 months option which means if the examiner thinks the corrections may take longer than 3 months, the next option is 1 year! This can alter your perception of the amount of work that needs to be done quite a lot. It might be that the changes are similar to the ones mentioned above, just that the number of these changes are greater. Or it could be that the examiner wants some data shown in a different way or takes a different view on a set of results, meaning multiple changes in the discussion to reflect this. These changes are not necessarily hard but may take time and if you are working full time may take more than the 3 months. So do not be deterred by 1 year for corrections, you will probably complete them in less.

Should you start your corrections quickly or wait?

Personally it took me 3 weeks to get started on my corrections.

I felt this worked quite well and would recommend it. It gave me time to celebrate properly and have a relax. It also gave time for my examiner to send me the full correction list ( I had a bullet point list given to me at the end of the Viva of the main changes) and for my letter to arrive from the University.This contained both my internal and external examiners reports- this allowed me to have a better idea of what they thought of the thesis, so I could understand my corrections better.

How do you force yourself to start?

I had a good Viva but by this point I was bored of my Thesis. I had revised from it in the 3 weeks leading up to the Viva and worked on it for months previously. After my 3 hour chat about it I felt well and truly done with it!

For me after the 3 weeks of ignoring the corrections, I started to feel a little worried. I thought perhaps these will take longer than I have estimated, I’ve got a Job now maybe it will take the whole 3 months!

This made me look at them and work out a timetable for getting them done!

I was lucky that the Christmas Holidays were coming up so I scheduled to do a lot of work then, I did a bit but not as much as planned and just enjoyed Christmas. January arriving fired me up, I was not having corrections hanging over me in 2017!

Because of not using the holidays as much as planned I had to do corrections in the evenings and on the weekends, which is a pretty common situation, but is still difficult to find the motivation after a full day of work.

In total it took me about 10 days of work but scattered around rather than working solidly. Its difficult to force yourself to do it but you just have to keep telling yourself how close you are.

I would recommend making a timetable and having an extra incentive to be finally done.

Also it is important to factor in allowing your internal examiner time to look over your corrections and approve them for final submission.

Many universities no longer require a hardbound copy of your thesis which takes the stress of printing out of the equation, with just a simple PDF upload to do instead.

But it does feel good to get the hardbound copy done. I wouldn’t wait too long after getting your corrections approved to do this step as otherwise ending the PhD process gets dragged out and I know many researchers that even after 3 years of  post doc haven’t yet found time to get their Thesis bound.

 

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Hardbound copy of the Thesis means time to celebrate!

Overall 

Finishing a PhD is a long process with many end points, finishing lab work, finishing a first draft, handing in the Thesis, having a Viva but handing in corrections is the true end point on the journey.

 

WELL DONE EVERYONE FOR FINISHING!

(and if you are not quite finished yet know that it is possible!)

 

What to expect in the PhD Viva: My Experience

So after all those experiments and months of writing you are finally facing the most daunting step in the PhD process, The Viva.

The idea of the viva can be pretty scary to a PhD student (it was to me). There are plenty urban legends about terrible vivas and horrible examiners to put you off and make you very nervous about you own.

And though there are plenty of articles out there saying what a great experience a viva can be, when you are preparing for a viva you can be very skeptical of these articles. In hindsight though they weren’t far off what happened for me.

My Experience (on 28th November 2016)

My own personal experience of the viva was very positive,  it still felt like a test but the time passed quickly (3hrs) and none of the questioning felt confrontational. At points when I didn’t know any more on a subject we just moved on. At some points it was a very fluid and flexible conversation between me and both examiners about some of the constraints that are currently in our area of research.

The Process 

  • First my examiners put me and ease by explaining how the next few hours would progress and which chapters we would spend more time on and which we would discuss briefly.
  • Then we had some more settling questions about why I picked this PhD, what did I do on my other PhD rotations, what did I do for my placement and what am I up to next.
  • After that we started on the introduction, there were questions on the two main aspects of my thesis, the bacteria I worked on and the signalling molecule I focused on. In my case there were no direct questions about identifying specific ideas from specific papers, just questions where you were summarizing or expanding on general things you had written in the intro.
  • We skipped the methods chapter complete (which appears quite common from talking to other students, but I had prepared to be quizzed about them) and methods were discussed when talking about particular results as we went through.
  • Then onto the results chapters…

Examples of questions I was asked

  • What value do you think is high enough to to be considered a significant interaction?
  • Did you think of doing X / why couldn’t you do X?
  • What other control could you have done/ what would have been a better control?
  • What was the aim of that mutation?
  • Talk me through these set of results (to clarify difficult or confusing results).
  • Explain how you set X up and what sort of error could you encounter?
  • Could you have done a scatter chart to show distribution of values, rather than relying on the average?
  • Talk me through your proposed hypothesis and explain why you have proposed it.
  • Could you have used software to do this?
  • How easy is X  to count or define?

And many other questions I can no longer remember!

Then closing question:

What would you focus on next?

I liked this question and felt it allowed the viva to end well as there were many potential experiments to investigate the work further.

The wait 

I was sent out of the room and about 10-15 minutes later go back in, have my hand shaken and am told ‘congratulations’.

We then sit down and briefly discuss:

  • My performance in the viva and the overall quality of the thesis. I was very happy that they said it was obvious it was my own work and that I had worked hard on it.
  • Then on to the 3 month corrections, my external examiner had prepared a list of 6 bullet points, this included some typos, some cross referencing, formatting the reference list, adding detail to some figure legends, making some figures larger, checking the scale bars on some images.

However am told my internal will send a full list later.

How I felt after the viva

I disagree with a lot of the stuff out there that says it’s an anticlimax. For me this had been the last hurdle of my PhD journey and I was so glad for it to be over it. I couldn’t stop smiling.

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Holding my Thesis with pride after the Viva

It’s a difficult one to know how to celebrate, I was fairly low key on the day but it didn’t matter to me as I was just so happy.

And the first thought the next morning was that it was done, the viva was done, the PhD was done and that I had done enough! This was accompanied with such a sense of relief. I felt a sense of total freedom- even more so than when I handed in the thesis. As though handing in felt good there was still part of my brain holding back as I knew it wasn’t quite the end.

Some may argue it is still not the end as there are corrections and I agree. But for the following week after my viva I found it easy to block out the thought of corrections and enjoyed using the title of Dr.

Tips and Advice for Viva day 

  • Start re-reading thesis about 3 weeks before if you have a full time job.
  • Try and stop preparing at about 6pm the night before.
  • Get your outfit and materials  ready.
  • Spend the evening relaxing or do something active if you  are having trouble relaxing.
  • Make sure you eat breakfast.
  • Know where you have to wait.
  • Remember that the examiner is not their to trick you and they are not looking to fail you.

Good luck!