Where is my motivation fairy?

I have been blaming my lab mate, who is on the precipice of submission. It is so easy to chat about anything, really, when people around you are on the slowing-down part of the rollercoaster. But, actually, it is all on me (sigh). I am great at displacement activities, and do a lot of things external to my PhD which have given me invaluable growth and experience, although not contributing one word to my thesis.

I finished two manuscripts, sent them off, edited one again, sent it off again, and really, just can’t be bothered with my lab work. Which sucks, because it is hopefully the last round of primaries I will have to do in my PhD *fingers crossed*. I think my problem is that I am lacking direction for my last chapter of my thesis, as the results I found are interesting but difficult to relate to what I really need to. Pair with that essentially absent supervision, meetings where I am sent on wild goose chases, and needing to get data from an experiment I have never done before and need to rely on someone else to not completely fail at it.

I am avoiding the tricky stuff, and I need to face up to it (sigh). I need to plan my experiments, outline a story for the chapter, order all of my antibodies ($$$$$), book equipment – oh, and write that (second bloody) lit review. Teaching is over, and I am handing over some of my Fifty50 responsibilities: it’s time. Game time! (eek!)

Oops… I forgot to schedule.

I think I am quite organised. In fact, the most accurate descriptor a friend has given me is “intimidatingly thorough”. So when I read this article, I felt a little bit of shame – I am a big believer of goals (i..e my submission at 3 years), but, amongst the stress of everything, I had forgotten to schedule. How could I??

With less than five months of my PhD left (but, with 2/5 thesis content completed), I am trying to be super realistic that I am finishing soon and need to get cracking. But I have so many meetings with students and stakeholders, it is getting ridiculous.

I need a schedule. I think where I have come undone in my PhD is that when I schedule my lab work, as it is cell work, it sometimes goes in very different ways and my schedule gets thrown out. But, with things like writing my lit review (argh, will it ever be done?? Although mind you this is lit review #2..!) I have to block out time in my schedule, and be less flexible if people want meetings. I now treat Mondays as my meeting days as they are typically pretty unproductive, and so I need to allocate time to lab work, reading, and writing.

Excuse me while I go and work on my calendar…

The importance of rapport

Last semester I taught first, second, and third year students – and by far, the third year students were the worst. But, I had about four good students across two tutorial groups. Two students in particular would enjoy talking a lot of rubbish but surprisingly were always on to of content. They are both on exchange in Canada and recently posted a photo of themselves in front of a church describing the material change in the copper (that we had talked about in class) on my timeline. I thought this was very funny, and was a bit chuffed they had actually remembered something from class, but when I thought about it, it demonstrated something deeper.

Taking the time to develop a rapport with my students is key to my teaching, but oftentimes is not for many other teachers. However, with this rapport, these students connected their work to something external to university (and even their home country), all the while being a bit cheeky.

If we take the time to talk to our students, get to know them, help them when and where we can, they really aren’t the little monsters most academics would have you believe!

PhD student or personal assistance?

Talking to many of my colleagues, outside of my research group, there is a very common theme: supervisors don’t seem to be able to draw the line between PhD student and personal assistant.

Is this true with every supervisor? Or is it only the sample set of our department? And, I might add – this refers to male supervisors, and predominantly female PhD students. As a supervisor, it seems as though many hours are spent on administrative tasks, and very little on research (or again, is this just our sample set??), so it would be tempting to offload tasks to students. Is this exacerbated by the uncomfortable adjustment of not being able to dedicate 100% of time to research?

The more I read about PhDs, and the process you go through, it seems as though it really is about the student, and our experience, however, I have not seen that emphasis in the majority of relationships I have observed at my university – in fact, it really seems to be about getting more data to publish for the supervisor’s track record. That sounds bitter, but there is a lack of concerted effort to develop growth areas of students, look after their physical and mental welfare, or even assist in getting a job post-PhD.

These supervisors were PhD students once – so what happened? When did the forget what doing a PhD was really about?

The teaching-research tightrope

Last year – I didn’t know it at the time – but I used teaching as an escape, or at the very least, a distraction. Looking back, I didn’t have much support with developing my project in my first year, which meant I went into my second year with grand plans but zero scaffolding to ensure I wouldn’t completely fail, or would actually know which direction I was going and how that fit into my thesis. As such, I was a great teacher, dedicating 15+ hours to developing the course material and making sure everything was organised so it was a smooth ride for my student. They loved it, and I think to some extent, actually liked me as a teacher.

Cue me as a final year PhD student. I need to get out of here, I need to finish. Teaching is no longer an escape, because I don’t want to have to have an escape, or want to be distracted. I need to finish. On time. I have been in my current research group for five years this year, and so I am looking forward to leaving and finding a new research group – or, a new job out of academia. And so, I am balancing on that ever so delicate tightrope of teaching at one end, and research at the other. My class is smaller this year, and I am trying something that was/is quite challenging for them – and with a, let’s say, high maintenance, cohort, it didn’t go down so well, at least in the first half of the year. They were not forgiving in the least, with any small error. That is when I noticed that those 15+ hours a week really made a difference, but I could no longer manage that.

This semester, with even fewer contact hours (and sadly, a smaller paycheck), I am managing that balance better, and am having an impact across two cohort, working hard to make sustainable change within their program, and for their student experience. I am very glad that I was able to develop such a rapport with most of the students last semester, as that has made a huge difference in connecting with them, particularly when I compare to my experience of teaching a four-week intensive course with students from across the world.

Developing rapport, and caring about my students’ learning and development, as both students and people (although, they aren’t mutually exclusive), are my strengths as a teacher. And now I have been able to optimize time expended and impact, which, has come from practice, necessity, confidence, and maturity.

I will finish. I will finish. I will finish.

I started writing this post a month ago:

“This is why I plan – no one thinks I can finish in 3 years, so I set myself a deadline: lab work done by December. That sounded great when I had 9 months to do it all (so much time!). But now I have less than four months and it is scary. Normally I spread out my lab work amongst meetings, writing, and teaching, but lately I have scheduled a stupid amount of lab work, and am just fitting meetings, writing, and teaching in between. Yes, that is working… I love starting in the lab at 6:30am!

I looked back at my first post and it was on self-care, which is something that I have let go of late. I am not getting enough sleep, am not eating enough (or enough of the right food), and have gotten (too many) weeks behind on these posts, which was supposed to be a key part of my self-care routine, to encourage myself to take time out, breath, and think. The initiative I founded last year, has really taken off, in both good and aspects and I really love working on it, but it is taking a good 5-10 hours a week. I spend more time at home on the weekend but this is time I spend doing work, while my partner occupies himself!

My head is above water, but the difference between above and below is getting smaller and smaller I think.”

I remember sitting in my regular café and yes, with my head barely above water.

Thankfully, my lab work has slowed down but now is a crucial time for me – I need to plan my experiments carefully to tie up what I need for my thesis – no big deal, right? I am heading into just under a week of rec leave, which is sorely needed I think (even though it is to go to a Women in Science National Symposium in Melbourne!). I liked this article, about how resilience is really how you recover, not how you push through. I loved this shift in mind-set (as in my lab, ‘resilience’ means pushing through no matter what), and have felt a bit ‘naughty’ recently by doing 0 hours PhD work last weekend (whilst starting and finishing ‘How to get away with murder’ on Netflix!).

My aim is to do 0 hours work on my PhD during my rec leave – I get 20 days a year, which is a well-deserved break, and I really need to rest, recover, and recharge!

The prospective-career rollercoaster

When there are seven months until I submit my thesis, there are only seven months until I need to have another income source! I honestly don’t understand why our scholarships stop as soon as we submit our thesis (for examination, which can take months, after which we then have to do corrections without receiving our scholarship), but either way it is the system I have to deal with.

I am less relaxed about this than others (or maybe, more focussed!), as I don’t like not knowing what is next. I also feel a bit of pressure as I have to maintain mortgage repayments, and prepare to move to London, which I doubt will be a cheap endeavour. I started investigating post-doc opportunities a few months ago, and have had some positive discussions, but no surprise – it is all dependent on grant funding.

Since the start of the year, I have been on a prospective-career rollercoaster – one day I am heading straight for academia at high speed, and then suddenly I take a sharp left to non-academia, and so it continues. After attending the World Biomaterials Congress in Montreal, and talking to a few academics about post-docs, my passion for research was reinvigorated, after quite a hard time in my PhD. Research makes sense for me – I like working in the lab, understanding complex problems and using my knowledge and skills to solve them (or, only a small part!), and I enjoy teaching and supervising students. I also enjoy service aspects of being in a university, and so, I have received advice to stay in academia where I can maintain flexibility in the activities with which I engage.

However, now I am having a prospective-career crisis – probably analogous to when you are travelling upside down on a rollercoaster. Having an impact on the world around me is important. During my last crisis, I lamented working on a project that I find super interesting but am also under-resourced and –supported, and being in such a small lab. How was my work ever going to compare to labs at MIT that have 80 members and 20 or so post-docs, with proper facilities and experience? Here I am, a materials engineer by training with no formal biology knowledge, teaching myself a brain dissection from a Nature protocol and no other help. I have been getting small wins for myself, which would be given knowledge in other labs, but I really struggle to see the impact of my work – I was working with mice, and no-one is that invested in the success of my project. Maybe in 20 or 30 years’ time we would be able to control inflammation in the brain after traumatic injury, but gosh that is a long time. With a lot of variables between there and now to complicate things, and with me as such a small cog in a big machine.

This lack of impact is what brings me to my second crisis. That service aspect of being in a university that I said I enjoy? Well, yes… I enjoy it but it is hard work, and sometimes soul-crushing. I have to continuously remind myself that I have come a long way in a year, founding Fifty50 and increasing our impact to now have 100 students in our mentoring programs, securing sponsorship from Defence and the list goes on – because if I forget it, I will give up. I come across what I can only describe as brick-walls every day at uni, directly affecting my ability to be impactful through Fifty50. We have support from university leadership but not much trickles down to the front line, where I have to jump through so many hoops to only be essentially blackballed by those who can enable what I do, leaving me in great despair. I like challenges, but I don’t enjoy the feeling of complete disempowerment.

Interestingly, whenever I talk to anyone outside of academia – in innovation, consulting, or (actual!) engineering industries, everyone is so impressed by what I do, and assumes I must receive a bucketload of support (ha!). The advice I am given by these people, is to work for someone like McKinsey (I am working on my application as we speak..), where my skills and knowledge can be fully utilised, and my potential nurtured, to make an actual difference (and not just increase my supervisor’s last-authorships).

I honestly don’t know what it feels like to be in an environment in which I can thrive, as I have been at the same uni for seven years now – all I know is that it is definitely not here.

How would I feel if I no longer was an engineer or scientist? What would a consultant identity feel like?

Would it matter if I was actually making an impact? I am starting to think that it wouldn’t.

Students, reflection, grades, and the big picture

I have learnt a lot through teaching at a university (five years this year). One of the biggest lessons is that unless marks are attached to something, students will not care about it. As a teacher, this breaks my heart but I am nowhere close to being surprised by this fact, as their entrance into university is based on grades, and success is measured by marks every day until you step up onto the stage at graduation, we have really created this problem ourselves.

Because I love doing easy things (not), my teaching enhancement grant for this year is focused on elite student collaboration and changing attitudes towards formal assessment. Four weeks into the semester where reflections were not assessable, I was getting less than 50% completion rate, which I was not impressed with. I took the problem to my students – their solution? Treat the reflections as a class ‘ticket’ – to come to class, they have to have done their reflections (and so I also promised there would be cupcakes at class so they wouldn’t want to miss it!). Student-designed curriculum is the main tool I wanted to use to change attitudes towards formative assessment, so I agreed – and with 35 minutes until submission closes I have about 70% submitted, so I guess it does work.

But how will it affect the students who don’t complete it and will be refused participation in class? I am worried I will lose those students – but I did have an individual chat with all the students in class last week, and all I asked for was a maximum of 30 minutes spent on the reflection – they just needed to do something. As I am writing this, I have become more comfortable in sticking by what I said, because if they can’t honestly find half an hour in the week to write something, they don’t deserve to participate in class when all their peers have made the effort.

The underlying problem is that I think these students do not grasp the ‘big picture’ very well. And so I have eight more weeks to change that.

A PhD is a selfish experience

I laughed when I was first told that a PhD is a selfish experience – but one of those knowing, “yes it really is true” laughs, mixed in with a bit of sheepishness for doing something like that in the first place.

I was at my College’s first Engineering Alumni Breakfast, listening to Dr Nick Brown, Performance Science and Innovation from the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). He was a great speaker, and the gourmet breakfast burgers with a brioche bun didn’t hurt either! Nick was talking about all the super fancy advances they have made at the AIS to make their athletes better, faster, stronger. He had a huge focus on focusing on the actual user needs, and not just designing a cool product for a cool engineering problem (well, cool to us, anyway).

This perspective really resonated with me. I’ve had those angst-y periods that every PhD student experiences, multiple times throughout our candidature: “I’m not having an impact on the real world”, “my research won’t ever escape the ivory tower”. Particularly in my field (tissue engineering for the central nervous system), we see a lot of ‘cool’ research but not much of it leaves the lab. It seems a combination of the researchers not caring about translating the work, and the unsuitability of the research to be translated. As someone at a conference I attended said: “We are getting great at curing cancer in mice”. And so, to join the millions of tortured young researchers:

My work only counts if it becomes a paper and gets lots of citations

Have you thought of translating a treatment strategy for traumatic brain injury? Well, I have, or at least, have started to, and then stopped due to the million brick walls that appear when anyone contemplates an escape from the ivory tower. It is so much easier to just make an ‘academic impact’ with papers and presentations, and I think that is what perpetuates a disconnection between researchers and user needs (because what user needs a great h-index?). Have I ever talked to a surgeon who works with traumatic brain injury? HA! Of course not, my academic bubble is restricted to those above me deem worthy of collaboration (and who can get them more papers, as some seem to approach collaborations).

Only once I started to doubt my existence in academia did I actually think about the user needs and subsequent design, or lack thereof. So I asked Nick when he learnt to think that way, because God knows it has been beaten out of me since I finished my undergrad. And for someone who earnt his PhD 16 years ago, he said he learnt the focus on user needs in the last five years.


So I guess, yes, a PhD is a selfish experience. And I would say, the traditional academic path is also a selfish experience. Not an experience, an existence. A selfish existence, because the traditional academic path values papers, grants, and PhD completions.

Even though it may reduce my standing in my supervisors’ eyes, or mean that I’m not going to get those quick papers (churning out iterative research that will not even affect the lives of the mice we use), I want to focus on what actually affects the world around me. Academia is often criticized for being insular, but more and more of us are doing a Rapunzel and jumping out of the tower (or being thrown out, either way works!), to take into account the users of our research – in most instances, the public. Whether we mobilise our research effectively to have an effect on the public, or being more cognizant of the impact of our research and therefore better designing our research questions and experiments – that’s where I want to be.

Wish me luck?

Teaching beyond comfort zones

Last year, I LOVED teaching. I spent (way too much) time prepping for class, following up with students, giving detailed feedback. I really connected with the cohort and wanted to make a difference. This year, I got a bit jaded. A few bad experiences with power-hungry academics tainted my love of teaching. I drew a line – I no longer was happy to do truckloads of work, for which I wasn’t getting paid. And really, this should be a non-issue, because in any other workplace you get paid for the work you do, and it is unrealistic to be expected to work overtime with no compensation (PhD students as course tutors don’t seem to fall under this assumption).

However, upon reflection I think my teaching style relies on my heavy involvement in the course. Having all administrative components on-point, replying to each and every student enquiry (even though it’s up on the forums/course webpage…), and also being across all course content makes me being a mean teacher work well. And by “mean”, it’s more like I push students out of their comfort zones, into what I hope is their zone of proximal development. I assign students a problem, but no, I won’t give them a step-by-step guide. I will allocate students into groups, but no, I won’t tell them how/where to get into said groups. I will give students really hard problems to solve, and no, I won’t hold their hands. I changed by title (executive decision) from course tutor to course ‘facilitator’. I don’t want to step students through answers – I want them to find their own way, and to bounce off myself and their peers to get there. Essentially, I teach to facilitate independent and student-centered learning.

This teaching style worked really well last year, but wasn’t such a hit this year. Accounting for cohort differences, I have been trying to rack my brain as to why my teaching wasn’t as well-received. The only difference I could really identify was the amount of time I spent on course administration and the level of difficulty of the problems I was setting (no hardcore maths – think more creative problem solving). I don’t think I was a terrible teacher, not by a long shot, and I do think my cohort was particularly lacking independence, drive, and, maturity this year, but I also think that I could have possibly pushed them a bit too far out of their zone of proximal development. I think this ‘too far’ is a perception issue – I know what I was asking of my students was nothing extraordinary, or terribly difficult, it was just different. Without the safety-scaffold that was crafted by me working part-time teaching (and full-time PhD), students felt less comfortable in taking risks and their learning suffered.

This was highlighted to me in a rather different situation. Being part of the teaching team for an IARU Global Summer Program this winter (I know, welcome to the southern hemisphere), I taught one 2.5 hour workshop of their third day in the intensive 4-week course. I used my normal teaching style, and gosh I was horrified at how ‘slow’ these students were – not intelligence wise, but in terms of getting their feet wet and jumping into the tasks given. Again, I think this comes down to their perceived safety zone. Which definitely puzzled me, as these students had chosen to travel half way around the world to only be frozen by a new environment and teaching style. I thought the ice-breaker and setting-the-scene workshops were executed well, but I think students need more time to adjust and digest all the new information, to feel comfortable in a new learning environment.

Comfort zones are a funny thing, and sometimes I silently wonder to my students – why are you at university if you only want to stay in your comfort zone?

I guess for now I am happy to be the mean teacher that pushes them further than they thought possible!