Tag Archives: progress

The Annual Progress Report

It’s that time of year again, when all the postgraduates get to reflect on how little or how much they’ve achieved over the past 12 months, all thanks to the university administration. I understand the reasons the university gives for the report, we need to be sure you’re not stalled in your research, we need to know you’re being supported by your supervisor, you need to pause and see what training you need to complete in the coming year, will you actually be finishing this degree? The rationale doesn’t make the report any less depressing or time consuming to complete.
For me, it seems like I have achieved little between this year’s report and last year’s. I got one or two interesting results that need further work. I got some very interesting results to go into a paper, but the reviewer wants the work repeated a lot more before acceptance for publication. I don’t have a chapter’s worth of data, but I have a number of leads. I have zero papers, and zero presentations (oral or poster) at conferences, (two minor inhouse poster presentations probably don’t count).
I learned how to use some key instruments in my lab and my collaborator’s. I taught a lot of people how to use various pieces of equipment, and just generally taught a lot of people (demonstrating for undergrad practicals and supervising final year projects). Teaching and learning aren’t counted in the metrics as outputs for my research however.
The honest feedback I received was that, while I don’t seem to have a lot done on paper, accumulating new techniques is the most important thing I can be doing in my 1st/2nd year of the PhD. The teaching is important, but I need to learn to be more selfish in the future, and limit how much helping I do for others. The internet tells me that my regular forays into the world of science communication are very useful for my CV, but the progress report doesn’t care for that, and from the looks of it, the thesis won’t care either.
I have dealt with a number of small flare-up’s of my arthritis during the past year, but it’s hard to tell if they are what are slowing my progress, or (more likely) my distraction by more interesting science going on elsewhere. Certainly when I have a lot of experiments to do, my feet get especially sore, and I get pretty tired, and I need to take a day off to sit down and try to relax. It’s hard to relax though, as I’m anxious at my apparent lack of progress compared with my colleagues and at the approaching deadlines. The annual report doesn’t help with this.
The annual report should help me plan the coming year better, but so far, I’ve found that it’s difficult to plan very far ahead. Experimental results can change what you expected to achieve, and somethings take a hell of a lot longer to optimise than you anticipated. When I see others produce Gantt charts of their project and plans for the future, I’m torn between scepticism and inadequecy, “will they really achieve that in four years?” and “should I have more done by now”.
Anyway, for now it’s time to fill in the form and get my supervisors, independant advisors, head of school, and probably half the administrative staff to sign it.

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Overwhelmed or underwhelmed

It can be hard to be constantly, permanently and eternally fascinated by your project work. I go through phases of loving it and not really being overly pushed about it. Sometimes there are far more interesting things to be doing/reading/considering. While I’ve always had an interest in sci comms and policy, reading about it and commenting is taking precedence over my work of late.

The sheer volume of work I need to complete over the next few years is pretty overwhelming when I think about it, especially when I consider how much (or how little) I have done to date. I came back from recent conferences invigorated and excited about science and what I can achieve, but that wears off. I enjoy reading about my field, I like designing experiments, and teaching people around me, but actually executing my own experiments with my hands is harder than it should be. Not due to the arthritis, but a lack of will.

At the moment, I spend a lot of time ordering supplies for the lab and doing various housekeeping chores like preparing for health & safety inspections and clearing out the remains of PhD’s who have long left the lab (seriously, how can people not archive the relevant work and discard what doesn’t need to be kept). This work keeps me occupied and useful, without necessarily progressing my PhD work. In a larger lab, these duties might be spread across more people, but in our tiny lab it’s primarily my responsibility.

So for now, things are tipping away, but I should probably see if Santa Claus will bring me focus and motivation next month…

Learning about writing

I’m collaborating with a colleague in another department, and the plan has always been to write a paper on the work we’re doing. When it started, I suppose I didn’t really think a lot about it, I just assumed I was provided a bit of labour and reagents and that most of the thinking/writing would be done by the postdoc.

Now I’m realising that the share of the work will be more equal as I have more knowledge in the area than he does, and that well, I need to learn how to do this stuff. Not only is the physical work shared, but we’ll share the writing, I’ll write on my side of the field, he’ll write on his, and we’ll share the writing on the combined work that is the project itself.

So basically, I need to be writing right now (and probably not this blog post). Happily, he’s a great help, and has been assigning me the writing in chunks, so that the final paper should slot together in a sensible fashion. He’s given me some of the guidelines for the journal he reckons we should aim for (aim high, if at first you get rejected, you can improve and have another go, in fact, that’s science).

He’s talking about assigning authorship appropriately, and plans to raise this with his supervisor to make sure I’m given all appropriate credit. During his PhD, his own postdoc helped him greatly with writing his first papers, and made sure he was put as first author when his contribution was at least equal to that of the postdoc leading the project. In fact, he wants to raise the possibility of pushing me to first rather than second author on the paper, or at least joint first, but he’ll have to see what his paymaster says about it.

All in all, these carrots are certainly encouraging me to do a lot more thinking about the project, and it’s applications (all nice bits for the paper). I need to do a lot more reading, but I enjoy that part. Pulling the words out of my head to put on the page, now that’s a whole other challenge…

Post Script: I think I need to find new words for write/writing/written, but I think “crafting a paper” would be a bit much, this is one of the things I shall ponder for the next few days…

One experiment a week…

At the moment, I seem to be averaging one full experiment a week. The sort of thing you set up the night before, spend ALL the next day working on it, and head home an hour late with a file full of results.

Naturally, as a fresh-in-the-door first year PhD student, surrounded by people much further on in their research, this doesn’t appear like a lot to me. Some of my colleagues think this is a grand amount of work, others seem to imply I should be doing more. My supervisors seem to be thrilled with progress to date (I really do mean thrilled, whether I’m doing well or they’re not used to feedback, I haven’t quite figured out).

While the experiment only takes a day to carryout, planning the work and then figuring out the collected data takes a whole chunk of time too (about a day or so of analysis including writing the mini-report). The supporters of my one experiment a week method applaud my planning, and how I control for as many factors as is reasonable.

A large part of why I spend so much time planning my experiments, is that physically preparing the work can be very tiring. A poorly designed experiment, doesn’t just waste my time and reagents, but adds to how much tiredness I have to deal with in the long run. This is clearly not cool.

At this rate I should have about 150 experiments complete by the time I come to write up in three years time. Presumably all these won’t go into the final thesis, but none of them should be work that had to be repeated for being ill-thought out…