Being a publicist – My Pint of Science experience

Being a publicist – My Pint of Science experience

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This post is coming a couple months late but it’s allowed me time to reflect on my experiences of an exciting project I was part of this year. In January 2017 I was given the opportunity to be involved in the amazing science festival “Pint of Science” as publicist for the Southampton events running 15-17th May.

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This was a totally new experience for me! Since starting my degree I’ve completed a masters and now I’m in my final year of PhD, and after all the time in the lab I’ve decided that academia isn’t a career route I’d like to pursue. In all honesty, coming to that realisation is a little scary as on paper that’s what I’m trained to do. So it was time to explore other options and get a feel of what else is out there, so hello science blog, and through that I’ve been given the opportunity to write for magazines. Science communication is now a route I’d like to test out (we’ll see where it takes me), and being publicist for PoS’17 was another side of science communication to have a play with! Life is all about testing out new things, figuring out what you like, what you don’t and eventually your experiences will guide you to great things. Well I believe that anyway.

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For those that don’t know, what is Pint of Science?

Pint of Science is a science festival that happens yearly across cities in the UK and has now expanded to numerous countries across the world. The concept is simple – scientists take to the stage at local pubs to deliver unique talks, demonstrations and live experiments with fun science-related activities and comedy sets in-between talks. It’s all about reaching out to the public and sharing the amazing research that happens behind those university doors. In one city there are 6x teams of volunteers all with their specific theme (Atoms to Galaxies, Beautiful Mind, Planet Earth, Our Society, Tech Me Out and Our Body), and each team hosts their three nights in a pub. What better way to learn some science than with some food and a drink or two?!

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My experience of being a publicist

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#1 – Create and promote

Generating promotional materials was a key part of my job role. Posters, flyers and business cards were designed, printed and distributed to our six teams and displayed all across Southampton. It’s a little more creative than my usual PhD work so a bit of Photoshop and a little less of the spreadsheets from time-to-time was a nice change!

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#2 – Camera, lights, action!

I developed a press release for our Southampton events, and with the University of Southampton’s media relations manager Charles Elder, I liaised with local media companies including a local TV station, radio and newspapers to set up a media launch event at Mettricks (love this place!).  This was a lot of fun and very rewarding, but wow it opened my eyes up to the fast paced, last-minute style of work the media world has! A little stressful but it all went to plan.

The morning was a massive success. My fellow publicist Sophie (at Soph Talks Science), three of our PoS Southampton researchers/speakers (Dr Nick Evans, Emma Osborne and Dr Becks Spake) and myself were all interviewed about the event, which was a fun experience in itself! The pressure was on not to stumble! You can watch the That’s Solent TV interview here and listen to the Radio Solent clip here!

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#3 – Upping my social media game

The final week before the event was all about social media and upping my Twitter game (also trying to actually figure out Twitter!). The Southampton PoS publicity team did an amazing job if I do say so myself! Team Southampton sold 970 tickets with 16 out of 18 events selling out. A Southampton record!

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#4 – Event nights!

After all the madness it was time to attend events, have fun and share what PoS’17 Southampton had going on with you guys via Instagram and Twitter! Here are some snippets of the event nights…

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Getting the chance to experience being a publicist was great. I’ve gained so many new skills and learnt so much. To be honest with you, I thought it wouldn’t take up much time. At the start we had an easy ride where all the six teams were planning their event nights, but one month from the festival and wow it was crazy busy. PhD-ing whilst doing publicity on the side was not easy and my time management skills were put to the test even more! I’m so thankful for having this opportunity and to anyone who is thinking about science communication as a potential career path, give this a go next year at PoS’18! I met some great people, learnt new science, had so much fun and would do it all over again.

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What experiences have you had of science communication? Any other PoS publicists from different cities out there? Comment below, I’d love to hear from you!

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Science Diaries: The inbetweeny stage

Science Diaries: The inbetweeny stage

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For those of you who have read my previous blog posts or follow me on social media, you’ll know that I’m a PhD student and I finished all my lab work in December 2016. In my final week of running around like crazy getting everything finished up, I published a blog post called LabLife: the final week showcasing what a day in the life of a science PhD student was like.

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With being out of the laboratory setting I thought why would people want to see a day in the life post without all the exciting experiments? But in actual fact the lab part is only one chapter of the PhD process, admittedly a very big one, but there is so much more to research than running experiments! There’s a lot of data handling, image processing, statistics and thesis/publication writing to do as well before we get awarded that Dr title! So I feel that this side of PhD life is important to show to those thinking of going into research, or for current researchers who like to have a nose at what others get up to!

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So where am I at with my PhD?

Little bit of background: my research is all to do with Are you what your mother ate? I investigate how maternal diets (high-fat and vitamin D deficient) during pregnancy alter the baby’s muscle function in later life. In terms of experiments I carried out long contractile studies to test the peak force generated by the muscles, and I’ve carried out staining techniques to visualise the different types of muscle fibres and also the amount of fat accumulated in the muscle samples (changes can alter muscle function). This all means a lot of files, a lot of microscope images… and a lot of time sitting analysing all of these. I call this the inbetweeny phase – lab work is over but thesis writing isn’t quite on the radar!

It took me ages to analyse the different types of muscle fibres in all my samples as this involved counting and drawing around 1000s and 1000s of cells. That finally got done (yay!) and then I moved onto quantifying the amount of lipid accumulation in the samples. Admittedly I struggled for a while with focus and motivation (useful tips here!) as for a very active person sitting all day every day and doing the same thing day-in day-out is hard! I was also juggling other exciting science communication opportunities so it took a little longer than planned. BUT that analysis has now been completed and here is another post in the Science Diaries…

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Alarm goes off at 6:15am. Surprisingly I was pretty good on the snooze front! I have a little scroll through Instagram and Twitter to wake myself up properly and to see what’s going on in the science world. I’m so much more productive in the mornings so I’ve been trying to shift my working day earlier. Top tip: playing to your strengths makes working so much more effective!

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6:32am: Breakfast time, my favourite meal. My good ol’ trusty protein porridge to give those brain cells their much needed energy for a day in front of the computer clicking some buttons.

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8:10am: Today was an on-call day for me. For a little extra cash now my PhD funding is over (super sad, I know), I process placentas when women give birth who are consented to the NiPPeR study. The study is all about nutritional intervention before and during pregnancy to maintain healthy glucose levels and offspring health. I do my 10 minute round route to check for any deliveries throughout the day. If there is a placenta my job is super simple, cut some chunks of placenta and umbilical cord, and freeze them for another scientist to analyse in the future.

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9:04am: Getting through more oil red O analysis. This was the technique I used to stain my muscle samples so any fat/lipid in the tissue was stained red. I previously took multiple photos of each sample with a fancy microscope and I’m now using a programme called Fiji Image J to get the images ready for lipid area quantification. I want to know the total muscle tissue area and how much of that is made up by lipid. It’s a pretty long process, and not the most exciting!

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11:00am: Tea break. Like I mentioned in my top 10 PhD survival tips, caffeine is an important necessity when it comes to doing a PhD.

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11:34am: Tea break over and time to check Twitter and emails before carrying on with the oil red O image analysis. Got a lot of work on and need to keep focussed? Top tip: don’t open up your emails first thing in the morning, this can put you onto a different path than you were planning on for your days work. Limit those distractions. Is it really that important that the email can’t wait until a few hours in?

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1:15pm: Super duper happy as my image processing is done and now it’s time to run my macro to generate my oil red O data. I select all my files, I press “run” on the macro (piece of code I wrote telling the computer programme what to do) and I sit and wait for the computer to do its thing. How wonderful!

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4:43pm: After the computer gave me the numbers I wanted, I compiled all the data into a spreadsheet… and voila graphs! Science is funny, after many weeks of lab work and many days of analysis I get four graphs (each row showing the same data, just a different format). Annoyingly some of the results aren’t what I hoped for (that’s science for you) but some data (third row down in particular) is really intriguing when considering some of my other data, so that’s pretty cool!

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6:31pm: The daily CrossFit workout done – heavy deadlifts and some running. Time for drinks and food with friends. Accomplishing my work goal means guilt-free treats! Exercising and socialising is so important for that work-life balance, it means your life isn’t all about work and gives your body and mind that much needed time out.

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What stage are you at in your PhD/science career?

Is there anything about life in science/academia you’d like to know more about?

Comment below!

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Restoring the work-life balance

Restoring the work-life balance

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Work life balance – something everyone needs! However, many PhD students or researchers in academia struggle to maintain this. There are different groups of people: those that wrap themselves up in their science bubble, those that allow their social life and other commitments to become priority, and those that do actually have this nice equilibrium of work and life. So, where do you fit in? Do you have the balance just right? Or is this something you need to work on?

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It is so important for us PhD students to have a good balance. A PhD is by no means an easy ride, your social life and mental well-being is just as important as your work productivity – no matter what your supervisors say! Working faster and harder is not always conducive to good quality work, whether that’s in the lab or writing a thesis.

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All work = brain overload = reduced efficiency & productivity = unhappy

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My PhD has been full of ups and downs, but on the positive side I feel that I’ve learnt a lot, both about myself but also how to manage certain situations. I’ve also become even more aware of the importance of having a good work-life balance. So please don’t let PhD take over your life! I know I work hard, but I also know that having time off is vital for my well-being and consequently how productive I am at work.

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Top tips

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Feel like you’re all work and no play? Here are some tips for restoring your balance.

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Focus and get the work done

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Working all day and all evening on PhD is admirable but how many of those 12 hours are you actually being productive? Working all day tends to be associated with procrastination. Planning your work and setting deadlines is so important. It gives structure to the day/week and ticking of those items on the daily to-do list feels great! Plan your work but also set time aside for your non-work plans. Doing this means you have a certain portion of your day to work hard and be productive, but have play time too. Check out my previous post “How to get your focus and motivation back” for more tips.

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Manage expectations

In research we get results, they lead to further questions, and supervisors will think up more experiments for you to do. This becomes a cycle and you get to the point where you have so many experiments to do but not enough time, so be realistic, can you keep saying yes to more work? Some supervisors will have your well-being in mind, but some will be focussed on maximum data for those papers. It is okay to say no that can’t be done right now – be aware of how much work you can take on without compromising your well-being and still having a balanced life. This leads me onto…

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Prioritisation

Prioritisation is key. Feel like you have too much to do or too much that you want to do? Weigh up what you REALLY NEED to do and the things you REALLY WANT to do. Inbetween bits can wait. Prioritising is key to balance. Get the work done, enjoy life but don’t feel over busy causing yourself unneeded stress.

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Hobbies and socialising

Find a hobby, even if it’s just going for a walk every evening to get out of that desk chair. Exercise is ideal. I CrossFit most week day evenings which is a great way to unwind and clear the mind, especially after a day of image analysis and writing! Make time to socialise too. Meet your friends at the pub or for dinner, socialising is important for mental health and gives that PhD brain a much needed break.

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Don’t just live for the weekend

Get out and have fun in the weekday evenings! Self-care is not just for the weekends. Don’t work 12 hours a day during the week with your hobbies and social life left to the weekend. This just leads to burnout, after all, how productive are you really being at the end of a normal 8 hour working day? My guess, not very. So have fun!

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Holidays

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You can’t be thinking about and doing science 24/7 no matter how much you love what you do or how much your supervisors would love you to! Having ‘you time’ in the week is important, but so is having a proper holiday with a solid one or two weeks off. This gives your mind and body a much needed rest, allows you to de-stress and regain focus and motivation. It is ok to take holiday, everyone is entitled to it, and don’t even think about checking those emails!

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The unexpected hold-ups

Admittedly getting this work-life balance is not always as easy as following those tips. Doing a PhD comes with its moments of intense work that are unavoidable such as endless long animal experiment days, and all scientists will run into those unexpected hold-ups when experiments don’t go to plan and the lab day is extended. When you are faced with these moments, allow yourself those guilty pleasures to make the day easier. And remember, this isn’t every day!

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Whether you’re a workaholic or you allow your social life to take over, try to put these tips into practice and allow yourself to have a good work-life balance!

 

Do you struggle to get the balance right? Do you have any more advice? Please comment below as I would love to hear what you have to say!

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Women in Science: #wearestemsquad

Women in Science: #wearestemsquad

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One fact about the science world is that women are not represented equally in occupations related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Although the number on women in STEM has increased over the past few years, most recent statistics from the WISE campaign (a campaign for gender balance within STEM) revealed that women only make up 14.4% of the UK STEM workforce.

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  • Only 33% of girls who take maths and science GCSEs progress into a STEM A-level (or equivalent qualification).
  • Only 7% of girls who take maths and science GCSEs study a STEM qualification in Higher Education (or equivalent).
  • 50% of STEM undergraduates are female.
  • But only 17% of senior academics in the EU are female.

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The gender gap in the STEM workforce could be due to many different reasons. Many women in academia have to consider when a good time to start a family is. Time out of academia immediately puts that career path of post-doc to professor on hold. There are now numerous organisations campaigning for a gender balance in the world of STEM.

Since I’ve started this blog I’ve come across some really supportive communities for female researchers, particularly through social media. There is a wealth of Instagram accounts specifically showcasing the research and lives of women in STEM all across the globe which have been fascinating to look at.

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The STEM Squad

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Throughout the month of March The STEM Squad launched a photo-a-day challenge for all women and girls in STEM on Instagram. This involved posting a photo related to a different topic each day and adding the hashtag #wearestemsquad. The STEM Squad is a supportive community for all women and girls working (or just enthusiasts!) in STEM. This challenge gave loads of women across the world an opportunity to share various aspects of their lives with others.

In case you don’t have Instagram, or haven’t seen already, here are my #wearestemsquad photo-a-day posts! Take a look to see what I get up to in and out of the PhD world…

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Day 1: “Me”

1. Me

This is me, Lisa, a final year PhD student at The University of Southampton UK. Over three years of lab work done and now time to write up all of those results into a beautifully large thesis! I’ve recently started science blogging so check out the link in my bio! Follow me to keep up to date with my journey through PhD and science, and for future blog posts.

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Day 2: “History”

2. History

Here’s a throwback to my masters graduation and a little bit about how I got to where I am now.

My first memory of being interested in science was when my parents took me to @Bristol Science Centre. One of the exhibitions was having a go at being a weather girl and from that moment it was all I wanted to be! But it wasn’t until my A levels that I decided Biology was my thing. My science journey started off by doing a Physiology degree and then a Masters of Research in Maternal and Fetal Health at The University of Manchester. I loved the pregnancy and developmental research, and had this amazing group of people with me all the way through.

The advert for my PhD popped up and I immediately knew that was what I wanted to research, so here I am at The University of Southampton studying developmental physiology and in my final year. My PhD journey has been a tough one and I’ve decided that academia is not for me. I enjoy the writing side of the PhD so hello new science blog and although it’s early days, I absolutely love working on it! I’m now looking into jobs in scientific/medical writing and I am so happy to have found an area which allows me to combine by love for science, writing and creativity.

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Day 3: “Field”

3. Field
My PhD is all centred around the question “Are you what your mother ate?“. I’m investigating how various diets (high-fat and vitamins D deficient) during pregnancy affect the development, structure and function of the baby’s skeletal muscle function in later life.

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Day 4: “Inspiration”

4. Inspiration

My PhD has not been the easiest journey. There was a time when I wanted to quit so badly but my friends encouraged me to stick with it through the tough times. They are the ones that gave me hope, told me not to give up and that good things will come from completing this PhD. I am so thankful they did. I will get this PhD and I already have exciting opportunities coming my way.
I learn a lot from my friends, both in work and life situations. It’s those friends who inspire me.

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Day 5: “Reading”

5. Reading

I am currently reading “The 4-hour work week” which has already taught me some good tips on how to be productive, and how to see work/life balance in a different light.
Next on my list “The Telomere Effect”, the science behind telomere length (part of our chromosomes that determine how fast our cells age) and how we can look after them to slow down the ageing process. Excited to read this one!

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Day 6: “Workspace”

6. Workspace

Having the luxury of working from home this morning. Now I’m out of the lab it’s good to mix my workspace up from time to time. Little bit of the office, little bit of home comforts and the occasional coffee shop visit!

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Day 7: “Equipment”

7. Equipment

Throughout my PhD I’ve used a lot of different equipment from my electrophysiology muscle contraction setup to open field activity monitors to assess behaviour. But now it’s lab gloves off and time to blast through this image analysis and write my thesis! All I need is my laptop, earphones to listen to science and fitness podcasts (helps me with endless analysis!), and glasses so I can actually see what I’m doing!

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Day 8: “Routine”

8. Routine

My normal week day involves eat, work, eat, little more work, bit of scicomm, exercise and socialise, eat, sleep!
I love CrossFit and Wednesdays are always for gymnastics class. Today’s session was progressions to get that strict muscle up. Muscle up, I will get you in 2017.

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Day 9: “Home”

I grew up and spent my whole childhood in a town just outside Bristol. I love going back for the odd weekend to get away from the PhD bubble and spend quality time with my friends and family.
Things are now changing, my parents have just moved to Brussels for the next three years but Bristol will always be my home. I am so lucky to have a lot of close friends living back there after we all went separate ways for university. My home girls, I love you!

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Day 10: “Details”

10. Details

As a physiologist I love to learn about the finer details on how our amazing bodies work. I’m also mindful about my nutrition. Getting the right foods in my body sets me up for a productive day, I need that all important brain power at work (this thesis won’t write itself!) and I need the energy to be strong when I workout in the evenings. I do my best to stick to the right proportion of macros (carbs, protein, fat) each day. A typical breakfast for me looks like this:
– 40g porridge oats
– 1 scoop whey protein powder
– 160ml coconut milk
– cod liver oil
– multivitamin
– big glass of water
Having awareness of the nutritional details is one factor that keeps me fit and healthy.

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Day 11: “Unwind”

11. Unwind

Yoga is a new thing for me and I couldn’t recommend it enough for relaxing and unwinding after a day of work. Absolutely love my one-to-one sessions with my lovely friend Fran.

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Day 12: “Creativity”

12. Creativity

My main creative outlet is for my science blog. I love doodling on a piece of paper and turning my drawings into illustrations to make my blog more personal and unique.

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Day 13: “Goals”

13. Goals

I can’t recommend setting yourself goals for the year enough! The feeling of ticking each one off throughout the year is just great. They give you focus and makes you realise how much you can accomplish. Read my blog post on how to go about setting yourself goals.

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Day 14: “Materials”

14. Materials

What would I have done without my trusty pipettes?! They were there throughout the long animal studies, many PCRs and those months of immunohistochemistry work. Time for a new owner now because lab work, I am done with you!

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Day 15: “Methods”

15. Methods

A little bit of training with a side order of caffeine. These are two ways which help me stay focussed during my PhD.
Exercise: it’s a great stress reliever, it gives those hard working brain cells a break and keeps you healthy. Don’t let PhD become your life. Go for some runs, join a team sport, throw heavy weights around. I love picking up those weights and practising my handstand holds at CrossFit Solent most evenings after a day of work!
Caffeine: a saviour during those sleepy moments at my desk. I’m pretty sure most PhD students have discovered the wonders of caffeine!

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Day 16: “Memory”

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It’s good to reflect on things from time to time. I have so many amazing memories with all my amazing friends and family. Lots of exciting plans this year, and many more memories to be made.

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Day 17: “Food”

17. Food

I’m all about the meal prep. It means I stay healthy (most of the time!), eat the right foods for me and spend as little time as possible cooking in the week when I’m PhDing. Less time cooking also means more time to do those extra things in life I love. As I’m posting this I’m having all the cookie cravings!

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Day 18: “Colour”

18. Colour

It’s all about having a colourful fitness wardrobe!

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Day 19: “Break”

19. Break

Everyone needs a break from work, especially from all the stresses and pressures of doing a PhD. I’m not one to work on my thesis every weekend, and today was a day of friends, food and the coast.

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Day 20: “Now”

20. Now

I’m in work and planning what I want to achieve this week as we speak. Setting yourself daily and weekly goals helps to keep you focused. Stay tuned for my blog post on keeping focussed and motivated during a PhD.

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Day 21: “Writing”

21. Writing

This week I’m planning and writing a new blog post for my “PhDLife” feature. This one is all about keeping that focus and motivation we all struggle with from time to time. It’s going to be published this Thursday and will be packed full of advice so keep your eyes peeled!

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Day 22: “Organisation”

22. Organisation

Being organised is all about having a good filing system, neat lab books and planning out your days and weeks in a diary. My cute fluffy fat cell is always there watching over me and keeping everything in check!

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Day 23: “Fact”

23. Fact

It’s been 3 years since I graduated from my Masters of Research in Maternal and Fetal Health at The University of Manchester, and today I found out our paper has been accepted for publication! So happy right now!

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Day 24: “Fiction”

24. Fiction

Definition: “describes imaginary events”. It’s great to have aspirations and dreams in life, but we have to put in the hard work to take them from our imagination to our reality. Imagine it, then create it.

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Day 25: “Fun”

25. Fun

Had all the fun soaking up the sunshine rays today… summer is slowly on its way.

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Day 26: “Numbers”

26. Numbers

So Friday marked the end of the CrossFit Open 2017, and here are some numbers to throw at you!
3 = third time I’ve done the Open
1 = first time doing all workouts Rx
17.1 = 219 reps
17.2 = 78 reps
17.3 = 38 reps
17.4 = 151 reps
17.5 = 19 mins 23 sec
This weekend has been all about active recovery, enjoying the sunshine and drinking tea.

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Day 27: “Communication”

27. Communication

One important aspect of science is being able to communicate research findings effectively. Travelling and presenting my PhD work at various conferences has been so rewarding. They have without a doubt developed me as a science communicator. Now my attention turns to scientific writing, so let’s see where this journey takes me.

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Day 28: “Diversity”

28. Diversity

One of the things my transfer thesis examiners were happy about was the wide range of techniques I had used in the lab. I’ve done a lot in my PhD life… from animal dissection, to radioactive experiments, to molecular biology, to electrophysiology, to immunohistochemistry, to behavioural studies, to microscopy.

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Day 29: “Love”

29. Love

What do I love?…. CHOCOLATE. Chocolate cake, chocolate brownies, chocolate cookies, all the chocolate. Oh and of course my friends, family, CrossFit, cycling and working on my scicomm projects!

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Day 30: “Reflect”

30. Reflect

I think it’s great to self reflect. Life is full of fun but everyone has stresses at some point. Reflect on the things that have been tough, don’t shy away from them. Process what’s happened and think about how you can change that situation for the better. Understand you, and learn from you.
If you’re going through a tough time with your PhD then look back and reflect on all the amazing work you’ve achieved so far. You’ll surprise yourself. Check out my blog post for tips on focus and motivation. Get your sparkle back.

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Day 31: “March on”

31. March on

It was all black for me last night as I marched my way towards birthday cocktails. I had the best day and I’m now a wonderfully young 26 year old!

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So there’s a little insight into my personal/scientific life for you! I had a lot of fun with the #wearestemsquad Instagram challenge! It definitely got my creative brain switched on in order to reflect the 31 different topics through photography. Such a great science communication project. Even better is that it provided me with an opportunity to read about other scientist’s lives and experiences in STEM!

Are you interested in the lives of other women in STEM? Check out The STEM Squad’s Instagram page or scroll through the Instagram hashtag #wearestemsquad.

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How to get your focus and motivation back

How to get your focus and motivation back

Welcome to another one of my PhD SOS tips and tricks blog posts. Today’s post is all about how to stay enthusiastic, inspired and focussed. Everyone is guilty of losing focus and as a result feeling demotivated from time-to-time. Doing a PhD can be a long slog. Here in the UK a typical PhD takes 4 years to complete, and over in the US it’s a whopping 6-7 years! It’s no surprise that as PhD students, our levels of passion and determination can go through peaks and troughs. Post-doctoral researchers have a tough time of it too. The need to get the data, to write those papers and to hope a grant will be accepted so you’re not out of a job can become a little stressful to say the least. But it’s not just scientists that have these struggles, any career can have the highs and the lows! We can also feel unmotivated in aspects of our home life, such as training for that half marathon or learning a new language.

So, how can you stay focussed and motivated?

I’m going to ask you some important questions, so stop what you’re doing and have a proper think about your answers to what I’m about to ask. By doing this, you’ll hopefully find that burst of determination!

My top 5 questions from me to you

#1: Why did you choose to do what you’re doing?

When things get stressful or boring, and you lose the motivation to put the work in, it can be very easy to say the words “why am I doing this” or “I’m so fed up” or even “I want to quit”. At times like this you need to ground yourself and remember why you started what you’re working on. There’s clearly good reasons why you’ve chosen this PhD right? Rewind that clock back, why did you make the decision to take on this task? What inspired you to in the first place? Ask yourself these questions and remind yourself of all the positives in why you started what you’re doing. Revisit those feelings and remember your ‘why’.

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#2: What is your destination?

What is your end goal? What do you want to get out of it? These questions will really help you refocus on your aspirations and desires in life, and what makes you have that important sense of accomplishment. I’ve had my fair share of low moments during my PhD and with that came periods of zero focus or motivation. What helped keep me going? Knowing that I will eventually become Dr Jones, that all my years learning about science were not wasted, and it would lead to an exciting career somewhere in science. Imagine the moment when you get to your destination. Think about all the awesome potential it has for you. Imagine how fulfilled, proud and happy you’ll be to know you pushed through the harder times and ticked off that end goal. Thinking about those moments in the future will help motivate you in times of need!

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#3: Can you break the work down into small fun-sized pieces?

The answer is always yes. Little steps at a time. This is so vital to anything you’re lacking focus or motivation in. Completing all the lab work for your PhD or writing the thesis can seem like a mammoth of a task. Breaking the work up into small and easy to manage pieces is fundamental to focus. Check back over onto my “Top 10 tips for surviving a PhD” where I mention how focussing on the small steps can make the mountain that is your goal a much easier climb. This trick allows you to focus on the now. Trust me, the work will suddenly feel a lot more manageable, and you’ll achieve your end goal with much less stress. Make daily and weekly goals to reach those more significant ones.

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#4: What makes you happy?

Feeling unfocussed and demotivated often brings stress. So let’s focus on YOU and YOUR wellbeing. What makes you happy? What de-stresses you? What makes you full of life? This is the bit of advice I like to hear, go and do something fun! Treat yourself! Have ‘you time’. For me I love to CrossFit in the evenings, do some yoga, work on my science communication projects or hang out with friends. It is so important to do the things that make you happy. Yes, you might love your PhD for the most part, but when you do find yourself in a period of very little focus then you need to balance your time with other things that are relaxing and fun. These factors that chill you out will make you happier. In turn you’ll think more clearly, have a more positive attitude, feel more motivated and therefore be more productive. It’s all about that positive feedback loop!

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#5: Who is there to help you?

When you are having those dips in focus and motivation, having a good support network can really help. It’s healthy to get someone else’s wisdom and advice, perhaps they can say something that will empower you and boost your ability to focus. In my top 10 tips blog post I spoke about the importance of a good support network in relation to a PhD. These people could be fellow PhD students, post docs, supervisors, other academics, head of faculty or student services. Friends and family members are always a good place to talk things through with. The internet can also be a good place to seek support, and surprise surprise, I’m going to suggest blogs! You are not going to be the only person who is struggling with focus in the type of task or challenge you have committed yourself to. Search the internet and seek out other people’s advice who you can relate to. As you’re reading this, I hope that I can be one of those people in your support network! One thing I’d say is that to get the best help you need to identify what the issue is. Once you’ve done that, there is a wealth of support out there for you. Don’t struggle alone.

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My bonus tips and tricks!

A serious procrastinator?

How often do you aimlessly scroll through social media, read the celebrity gossip or think you can watch Netflix whilst working? If you are guilty of procrastinating regularly then here are some tips to cut back and concentrate!

  • Set yourself a certain amount of work before allowing yourself to do these things.
  • When you do them put an alarm on (e.g. 10 minutes) so you don’t find an hour has passed!
  • For those serious procrastinators amongst you – consider using blocking websites!

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Take breaks… but manage them!

Having breaks throughout your working day enhances productivity. It gives those hard working brain cells a little rest, and helps keep focussed. My friends and I always have morning tea break at 11am (which I LOVE!), so that helps me to focus and get lots of work done before, which in turn makes me feel great. But remember, manage your breaks! Time flies by when you’re having a cup of coffee and catching up with friends. Schedule in the breaks but have a time in mind for when you’ll start work again.

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Sleep well

Getting optimal sleep is vital for that all important brain power. The optimal amount of sleep varies from person to person but we should be getting 7-9 hours a night.  Getting the right amount of sleep for you will make your whole day so much easier. You’ll wake up ready to start the day. You’ll have a good amount of energy and so your ability to concentrate and focus won’t be as much of a struggle. Good quality sleep also helps with those happiness levels. Having a positive mind set for the day will naturally make you more motivated, focussed and productive.

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Exercise

Take yourself out of that working environment and move around, shake off any stress. Exercise helps to improve concentration, but how?

  • Increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain – better brain performance
  • Stimulates hormones and growth factors – promotes growth of brain cells, slows down age-related decline
  • Hippocampus highly active – improves memory and learning skills
  • Releases serotonin and other endorphins – improves mood and mental health
  • Reduces risk of many diseases – improved overall health

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Celebrate successes

When you achieve a specific goal celebrate! You’ve put in the work, now do something for you. In my last “PhD SOS” blog post titled “The halfway milestone: the transfer thesis” I had a whole section about treats. This tip works for me anyway! When you accomplish your short term daily/weekly goals and your longer term goals, treat yourself. Do something fun. Go for a walk, go out for dinner, take a day trip to the beach, drink cocktails with the girls – whatever floats your boat. Planning these celebrations for when you reach those goals makes it all a lot easier and gives you that focus and motivation.

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So if you were feeling unfocussed and unmotivated before you read this post, I hope my 5 questions helped you to feel more inspired and ready to knuckle down and achieve the awesome things you set out to do. I want this blog post to be a resource for you – if you are having one of those dips in productivity and focus, then read back over this! Ask yourself those 5 questions again, and go back over those tips and tricks.

As always, if you have any other golden nuggets of advice, please comment below as I’d love to hear what you have to share!

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Get involved with science – British Science Week

Get involved with science – British Science Week

Friday marked the start of British Science Week! The one week in the year which is dedicated to all things science. I know what you’re all thinking, how awesome! Well, me too.

Science is not just for us scientists and researchers, it’s for everyone. One of the reasons I’ve made this blog is to break down complicated science and explain it in a clear way for everyone to learn from and enjoy. So many researchers can get bogged down into the hardcore science, writing paper after paper, but when asked to explain their science to a non-scientist they actually really struggle. Public engagement and outreach is becoming more highly recognised as an important area to target. I believe it is so vital that all the hard work scientists put in to advance the field is relayed back to the public. Plus, it’s always good to develop yourself and learn new things!

So what is British Science Week?

British science week

It’s a festival dedicated to science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), but weirdly it’s across ten days, not seven. There will be a huge range of science activities for all ages to engage with across the UK.

“British Science Week 2015 saw over 5,000 events engage more than 1.6 million participants, with activities taking place across the UK.”

It’s such a great opportunity for everyone. It encourages the scientists to develop their ability to explain the research to a lay audience, and to think outside the box to create some really fun activities. Most importantly, it shows that science is fun and interesting, and provides a platform for anyone to get involved with the science community.


 

How can I get involved?

 

There are going to be hundreds of events across the UK. Interested in Biology? Chemistry? Physics? Maths? Engineering? The whole combo?… well there is something for everyone. The best place to check out these events is by clicking on British Science Week’s website. From there you can get more details on how to get involved in your local area and what exciting activities you can get stuck in with over the ten days.

For those that don’t know, I’m a PhD student at The University of Southampton, so I’m going to talk about a few ways you can immerse yourself in science across the UK but also specifically in the city of Southampton.

Southampton Science and Engineering Day

 

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Photo from University of Southampton

Living in or around the Southampton area? Or visiting next weekend? Saturday 18th March is the Southampton Science and Engineering Day, and it’s a great day out for the whole family. Check out the programme to find out what you can discover on the day. There are plenty of interactive games and activities to have a go at!

I’m going to be there jumping between two stands. The first one being Pint of Science (which I’m ecstatic to be publicist for!) and my department’s stand which is all about how maternal nutrition can affect the baby’s health throughout their life course. So come over and say hello!

What about outside of British Science Week?

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Are there events outside of British Science Week to get involved with? Of course there are. We’re not going to make you wait for another 51 weeks! Check out British Science Association website  to find out what events are happening after this science festival across the UK. Here are a few good ones to bare in mind…

Pint of Science

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Scientist or non-scientist – stop what you are doing and add Pint of Science to 15th, 16th, 17th May 2017 in your diary/calendar/planner! This is one science festival you don’t want to miss. Pint of Science is happening in lots of different cities across the UK, and I have the privilege of being the publicist for Southampton!

So what is it?

The festival has grown immensely over the past few years. There are six different themes (Atoms to Galaxies, Beautiful Mind, Planet Earth, Our Society, Tech Me Out and Our Body) and each theme hosts their three nights in a pub somewhere in the city, cool right? There are typically two or three speakers at each pub talking about their research. It’s a relaxed way for anyone to come and learn about the research going on. Event nights sold out last year, so go to our event page, keep an eye out for when tickets go on sale, come along, grab a pint and engage with science!

 

Bright Club

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Photo from Bright Club Southampton

Do you consider scientists to be comedians too? Well Bright Club is when researchers become comedians for the evening. This originally started at University College London but has since grown across the country. Here in Southampton we’re lucky enough to of had a dedicated team of postgraduate researchers to start their own Bright Club Southampton. The event nights are open to researchers in any field to give the science/stand-up comedy mix a go, but of course anyone can come along to learn about the science going on behind the scenes and have a laugh!

Interested in a specific speaker who performed at a show? Well they’ve just started doing podcasts so you’ll be able to listen to the interviews and learn more about that researcher and all of their hard work. Next event is in May, so stay tuned!

Soapbox Science

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This one is for the female scientists out there! Soapbox Science gives passionate women in STEM the opportunity to tell the public about their research.

“It won’t surprise you that science suffers as much from the gender-biased leaky career pipe as any other demanding career… up to 60% of science undergraduates are women; yet only 15% of UK science professors are women. Soapbox Science is born from the hearts of active female scientists who are deeply concerned about the loss of excellence from the women of the UK’s science community”.

Events are happening in multiple locations within the UK (including Belfast, Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Exeter, London and Manchester) as well as in Germany, Canada, and Australia. Ladies, get stuck in, stand up on that soapbox and share your exciting new research findings!

BioBlitz

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Are you interested in conservation and ecology? If yes, have a look into BioBlitz. This is a fantastic opportunity for nature experts and the community to unite. It’s all about exploring the local wildlife and biodiversity – finding and identifying as many different species of birds, bugs and plants as you can.

 

University of Southampton Roadshow

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Photo from University of Southampton

 

This is all about “bringing research to life”. The team get on the road and attend various public events across the south of England, sharing all the different types of research that goes on here at the university with you. Click here to find out where they plan to go this year. Watch out for them at Southampton Science and Engineering Festival, Cheltenham Science Festival, Glastonbury Festival, New Forest Show and many more!

The Science room @ The Art House

The science room

The Science Room is a unique organisation that hold events on alternate Saturdays. It’s all about science led by the community, which is super cool. Events are based on your questions, and then relevant researchers are invited to discuss the answers. It’s great, it allows those questions which many people wonder about to be discussed, like “why is the sky blue?”. It’s a great chance to meet new people and engage in a whole new community, creating a dialogue between the scientists and the public.

Researchers’ Café

Researchers cafe

Want to know more about the research that goes on behind the University of Southampton’s doors? Attend a Researchers’ Café event! Sit back, listen to researchers explain their research, sip some hot tea or coffee and be part of the discussions.

Café Scientifique

Cafe scientifique

“Science for the price of a coffee”

Café Scientific is run multiple locations worldwide. It’s all about wondering into a café or bar and enjoying a coffee or glass of wine whilst enhancing your scientific knowledge. Discuss current research and debate scientific issues. Get those sciencey brain cells working!

 

 

Scientists – get involved too!!

Are you a scientist? Don’t just hide out in the lab, get out there and share your exciting new findings! Educate those that do not work in STEM, and enhance the amount of science others can learn. Wherever you are in the world, check out what opportunities are in your area and ask to be involved!

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So whether you are a non-scientist or a scientist… get stuck in!

 

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The halfway milestone: the transfer thesis

The halfway milestone: the transfer thesis

Welcome to blog post number two of my new feature “PhD SOS”. To start this off I wrote my top 10 survival tips for a PhD – go check that out if you haven’t seen it already! This feature will now be focussed on various aspects to the PhD, going into more depth, and I’ll be giving out some useful advice for you researchers out there. Not a scientist? Some of these tips could be of use to your job or studies, so don’t run away just yet!

I’ve been busy brainstorming ideas for this feature and trying to decide what my next post would be. I was umm-ing and aah-ing for a while, but then it became clear. Last week I was working in the office analysing my very pretty multi-coloured fluorescent images of muscle cells, and I soon discovered that quite a few fellow PhD students are in the process of doing their transfer thesis. One friend was messaging me about the stress of balancing lab work vs. trying to get the report written. Another friend asked to look at my report for structural/writing style inspiration as she’s starting to write hers now. A guy from a different research group was submitting his final draft to his supervisors and another girl in the office was getting her final printed copies bound ready to give to her examiners. It therefore seemed the perfect opportunity to dish out some advice and pointers on how to get it done.

The transfer/upgrade – what is it?

What is a transfer thesis I hear you say? So in the UK a PhD takes 3-4 years and at The University of Southampton we have a halfway report named the transfer thesis. It’s exactly how it sounds, a report based on our current findings 18-24 months into the PhD journey.  Once the report is written we have a viva (oral examination) which involves two examiners from the university questioning us on what we’ve done. It’s a big milestone for us and can seem like a mountain of a task to complete, and complete well. This comes with some stress!

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I went through the transfer thesis process about a year ago. I was in my second year PhD slump at the time due to struggling physically and mentally with 18-hour lab days, and some how needed to find the motivation and positivity to smash the transfer thesis and viva. It was a big learning curve. So whether you’re writing a transfer thesis or another report somewhere along your PhD here is my advice to you…

 

1. Stop comparing yourself to others

Not everyone’s PhDs are the same, so not everyone’s reports will be the same. Yes this sounds like common sense but it’s very easy to start comparing the amount of data you have to the amount your friends who started at the same time have. First day of my PhD I was right in there dissecting the teeny-tiny soleus and extensor digitorum longus muscles from the mouse legs and then straight into electrophysiology experiments where I was measuring the peak contractile force generated by those muscles. As a result, I had a lot of data from my first year so I had a lot to include in my report. On the flip side, I know people who were predominantly reading background literature for the first few months, and some people who worked for a long time on setting up their methodology. This meant generating data was a slower process for them and therefore less data in the report. That is ok! After all, it’s a report to show what you’ve done so far. Science is science, and some times things take time!

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Completion of transfer reports and vivas can happen at different times. For my cohort there was a very hazy deadline of 24 months from the grad school, but I had important mouse experiments at this time and for about 3 months after. This was one of my very long lab day phases, so writing the report at the same time was never going to happen. Too unrealistic. I took a long Christmas break to refocus, in January 2016 I concentrated on the transfer thesis alone, and 36 months into my PhD I finally passed my viva. All my other housemates had written their reports and were viva-ing before me but I made sure that didn’t get me down. Don’t let it phase you that you might be going through this process slightly later than other people, it happens at the right time for you.

Take home message #1: stop comparing yourself to others! It will drive you crazy if you do. Focus on your work and your project alone.

 

2. Play to your strengths

Understand you and understand how you work best, and be clever with it.

When are you most productive? What time of day do you struggle to keep your concentration? I know I work a lot better in the morning so I’ll get up early and be one of the first in the office. This means by lunch time I’ve got a lot of work done (make me feel good!) and I’ll allow myself to have the evening for ‘me time’. PhDs have flexibility, if you work best in the evening/night don’t force yourself into a 9-5pm routine – you won’t be as efficient.

Are you a multitasker? Or do you work better having one day to focus on one thing? I’m not one of those people who can switch between lab work and writing multiple times throughout the day. It takes me a while to get into the writing. I took three weeks out of the lab to write the report, to then solely focus on research afterwards. That meant overall I got a lot more work done in a given time frame. So understand you! Some supervisors will be happy with you taking time out. Some won’t like this at all – it’s all about generating that data in their eyes. But play to your strengths, if you work best taking time out to write than that’s overall a lot more productive and less stressful. Just have an honest conversation with your supervisor and come to some agreement.

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Where do you work best?

Write in the best place for you. I wrote at home so I didn’t have the office chat distractions but it can get a little lonely. My plan for writing my actual thesis is to do bits at home, bits at work and for those less brain-intensive tasks like making graphs I’ll be chilling out at the local coffee shop. Perhaps mix it up?!

Take home message #2: do what works best for you

 

3. Make a plan!

Again, sounds like common sense right? It’s surprising how easy it is not to do this when you are stressed about the large volume of work ahead. Making a plan is the number one thing on your report to do list. Set yourself a deadline to hand in your first draft, and work out your stepping stones in order to get to that final deadline. Set smaller daily goals to make the report more manageable. It will make the transfer thesis mountain easier to climb. First step: make a document with your chapter headings and subheadings.

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Take home message #3: realistic planning and small steps makes it a lot easier

 

4. Arrange regular meetings with supervisors

Regular meetings with your supervisory team are extremely important. They keep you accountable and regular deadlines/meetings forces you to get the work done! It also means if you are struggling or losing focus you have a regular time slot to talk about these struggles. They allow for discussion which will help with the write up. You and your supervisors may think about results in a different light, and talking through this can be very beneficial to how you discuss your results.

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Take home message #4: meetings mean you don’t go off track

5. Sit down and write!

You do just have to sit down and start writing. Something I find really useful is starting with bullet points in each section. I’ll show this to my supervisor so she can check the flow of logic before I spend a lot of time in forming the points into paragraphs. Once you’ve done this and have your foundations to a section, writing into prose is a doddle. Trust me, this makes it seem so much easier.

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Take home message #5: Bullet points first help you to start engaging your writing brain

6. TREATS!

Now that got your attention! This is a tip from my mentor. As someone who values a good work/life balance I absolutely loved it when she started talking to me about treats. It’s as if I’m a little child, but hey it works for me. Treat yourself when you reach your small daily/weekly goals. Go out for dinner, chill with friends, go and exercise, something fun for you. Also, if you achieve that daily goal earlier on in the day than planned, why not allow yourself to have fun – even if that’s just slobbing on the sofa watching the next couple episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. You have a plan of how to get to your deadline, so as long as you stick to it allow yourself treats on the days you get the work done quicker than you anticipated. Alternatively, if you’re in a good work zone you could ‘treat’ yourself with getting onto the next day’s goal!

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Take home message #5: Treats and self indulgence helps a lot!

 

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Urm, what’s the point?

So you’re writing a transfer thesis halfway through your PhD (or another type of report) but you have so much lab work to do and it feels like it’s just getting in the way. Is it a waste of time? No! Here’s why, and focus on the benefits of doing it:

  • Makes the final thesis/writing research papers that little bit easier.
  • An opportunity to really think about your data so far and what it means.
  • Allows you to assess your PhD – what are the strengths? Where are the holes? What else needs to be done?
  • The viva is a discussion about your work. Your examiners aren’t just there to ask hard questions, they can be of use and suggest potential research ideas to help guide you.

 

Viva time!

The report is handed in (yay!) and you are waiting for the viva day. It’s normal to feel nervous. I think people make it into a bigger deal than it actually is. Some say it’s when examiners “grill you” on your PhD topic and results. I think this is a bit extreme. Yes, some examiners can be unnecessarily harsh, but if done right, it should be more like a nice discussion and should be relatively relaxed. The examiners aren’t there to catch you out. They are there to discuss the data, make sure you understand what you are doing and ask you questions, but also a chance for them to learn something new. They’re scientists too, and although you’d ideally have examiners in your related field, you are the expert in your project. Naturally (as good scientists) they’ll want to learn from you. Remember this! After all, it’s not your final PhD viva, they should be there to encourage you to do well in your PhD and give you confidence, not make it hard for you and cause extra stress and worries about the final thing!

Top tip for the viva – prepare a three-minute summary of your thesis. This seems to be a popular request from the examiners!

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So there we are, my advice and tips on how to get through the transfer thesis process!

Don’t have to do a transfer thesis in your PhD?

I was surprised to find out that not all UK universities have a ‘transfer thesis’ and in fact other countries have a completely different PhD structure. So, if you’re reading this and you are from a different university/have a different system please comment below as I’d love to hear about your experience! And of course, if you have any other useful advice please share it below.

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