Post-PhD viva feels

Post-PhD viva feels

Okay, so confession time. I originally planned to have this up on my blog two weeks ago, a couple days after my viva whilst the emotions were all fresh. Truth be told (which I think is a totally valid reason!) I needed a few days away from the laptop to indulge in bubbles and cake, to catch up with family and friends as well as getting back into Crossfit. Life is good!

To give a bit of context to this blog post, I submitted my PhD thesis to the graduate school here at University of Southampton mid-January after 4.5 years of hard work. That was massive relief number one! On Tuesday 27th February I passed my PhD viva and I am SO thrilled to say I am now Dr. Lisa Ellen Jones, massive relief number two!

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What is a PhD viva?!

The format of a PhD varies hugely across the world. Here in the UK we have a ‘viva voce’ which means by word of mouth. To prove that we are worthy of that Dr title we are questioned on our knowledge of the research subject, our methodologies, what the data means and the greater impact of our work. This is carried out by one internal examiner (at the same university) and an external examiner (from another university), both in a similar field of research.

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My viva experience

Everyone says you can’t fully prepare for a viva, you can’t really predict what questions the examiners will ask and how thorough/pernickety they’ll be. Very true. Everything I revised did not come up! Despite this, there is no such thing as being over prepared for a PhD viva.  Revise as much as you can because if it doesn’t go well after all that hard work, you’ll be kicking yourself!

So, the day arrived and I kept my cool until I got to work. Examiners met to discuss what they thought of my thesis in private, so waiting in the coffee room until they were ready for me felt incredibly long. They called me in and we chatted for a little bit before the viva started. It’s pretty common (from other people’s experiences) for the initial questions to be ones that ease the candidate in, e.g. summarize your main PhD findings in 3 minutes. Yeah, I did not have that! I think my first question was to define what ‘developmental priming’ is in a couple of sentences which was not mentioned in my thesis. The second question (from memory) was delving into the intricacies of epigenetics which was not part of my thesis. Tough start! My viva lasted for 4 hours and it was a page-by-page thorough going over. At times I felt incredibly stressed, but at other times I was able to relax into the questions a bit more. A PhD viva is all about defending your work… and gosh I did! Sometimes I felt that my ability as a scientist was being seriously questioned due to the intensity of the discussion, but the examiners are there to push your knowledge and to also learn themselves – remember that! I think I lost the perspective that I was the expert in my research field and some questions were not to trick me but were because they wanted to learn themselves.

After the 4 hours I was asked to step out of the room so they could discuss between themselves. I felt like I had no idea how it had gone. Part of me felt that I had failed as every little result was questioned and I really had to defend certain methodologies and statistical analyses. I walked back into the room and my external examiner smiled at me, shook my hand and said “congratulations Dr. Jones”. Hearing those three words were incredibly overwhelming (yes, my eyes totally welled up). For those of you that have read my previous blog posts (e.g. PhD slump) or followed my science journey on Instagram, you’ll know my PhD has been far from easy. Two years ago at the end of 2015/start of 2016 I really did not think completing my PhD was a possibility. With an incredible amount of love and support from friends, family and my mentor I decided to stick it out and persevere. To have carried on in the lab, written a whole 271 page thesis and to pass my viva and to be called “Dr” is amazing to me. I am so proud of what I’ve accomplished and I have so much respect for all PhD students out there.

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If you’re a PhD student reading this, I want you to know how amazing the feeling of reaching the final milestone and proving that you are worthy of that PhD is. In those tougher moments remember that you CAN do it. Be strong, be curious, work hard (but PLEASE not 24/7.. sleep and having fun is kinda important) and celebrate successes.

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So what now?

Now the madness of thesis writing and viva prep is over I am currently working for my PhD supervisor to finish off some image analysis as an extension from my PhD work. I’ve also got some fun scicomm projects on the go and I’m in the process of applying for jobs! I guess it’s time to enter the adult world. BUT not just yet. I’m all about treating yourself on completion of milestones, so in just over a week I’m taking myself off to Thailand and Bali for a month to relax, have fun and to get some energy back in me!

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Thesis writing: Preparing in advance

Thesis writing: Preparing in advance

It’s time to talk thesis writing, a topic I know a lot of my followers are waiting to see pop up on my blog! For for those that don’t follow my science journey, I’ve submitted my thesis and my PhD viva/defence is next week! Throughout the process of writing my thesis I noted down bits of advice I thought would be worth sharing – a combination of things that really helped me and things I wish I had done in hindsight.

Of course, every PhD is different and our experiences are all going to vary hugely. However, there are definitely some golden nuggets of advice which will hopefully help everyone out.

There is SO much information I want to discuss so I’ve decided to break in down in to a series of posts. So let’s start from the beginning. Here are some tips for how to prep for thesis life when it’s not the sole focus and you’re still in the laboratory/generating data.

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My top 10 thesis prep tips:

 

1. Plan ahead. When do you want the research component finished? When will you start to focus primarily on your writing? When will you have a first draft completed by? Set these deadlines earlier than you’d like. Everyone I know has said the process takes longer than you expect, me included.

2. Prioritise. To achieve the above, prioritise! Make a plan for the rest of your laboratory/pre-writing work. Discuss with your supervisor the list of priorities… 1) What is necessary for you to pass your PhD. 2) What would be nice additions if you have the time. 3) Extra work which would be an additional bonus for your thesis, it’s not vital and could be a project for a student.

3. Make a thesis outline plan. Get a plan together of chapters and headings so you can start to think about the thesis flow. Arrange a meeting with your supervisor(s) to talk about this so you know you’re on the right track. Once you have that flow you’ll have a clearer idea of how your thesis will shape up, exciting!

4. Familiarise yourself with thesis guidelines. Check your university’s thesis guidelines and apply this to your outline plan. Most likely there will be specific margin requirements, font size, line spacing, order of content etc that your thesis has to be inline with. Check if it’s required to be bound double or single sided (if double you need mirrored margins to account for the binding edge. Having a play with this and getting it all set up when you have a spare hour here and there prior to writing will save you a lot of time formatting in the long run..

5. Make graphs as you go. Graphs tend to be more time consuming to make than you think! If you have a spare 30 mins in between experiments and you have data to plot, graph them! Arrange them into a layout so they’re good to go into the thesis. I use GraphPad Prism to make my graphs, a really user-friendly bit of software.

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6. Little bit of reading each week. Even if it’s just one afternoon a week, try to set time aside to stay on top of the literature. It keeps you in the loop with current research. Some people say you should read every day. Well, from my experience that was totally unrealistic. In fact, squeezing in reading every week was tough due to the nature of my experiments. A lot of my reading was done during the thesis write-up. Not ideal, but hey!

7. Note down all the details. Make sure any protocols and methodologies you use throughout your PhD are written in detail (including manufacturer/product details). It’s the little details that can be forgotten so quickly! When I came to writing up about the animal model I set up, there were so many steps and considerations that I had forgotten when it came round to writing the methods section… so thank goodness I’m thorough and all those details were already in a document. A lot of time information searching saved.

8. Utilise the positives of social media. A PhD isn’t like an undergrad or a masters where everyone in your cohort has the same exams and the same deadlines. Thesis life can be a little isolating in that respect. If you’re on social media utilise it for your needs! Follow and interact with other people in the same position as you. It can be a good source of support, Instagram was great for that!

9. Look at previous theses. Ask your supervisors, colleagues and friends to look at previous theses. They will give you an idea of what you’re going to be embarking on.

10. Remember the lab work/thesis is never a finished product. There’s always more experiments which could be done and different ways to analyse the data. You have to draw a line under the work at some point in order to get that thesis written, submitted and be awarded the title Dr.!

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Science journey update & 2018 goals

Science journey update & 2018 goals

After 4.5 years of PhD-ing, my thesis is finally written and I submitted it to my examiners last week! The PDF version got sent off on the Monday (little bit of an anti-climax!) but the printed & bound copies got sent off on the Wednesday. It started to sink in once I saw my hard work in a physical form and I feel like a massive weight has been lifted off of my shoulders! The last month of thesis writing was pretty stressful as I had a few road bumps which made it tougher than expected… but it’s now done! I can be proud of what I achieved and I can (sort of) relax! The journey to getting my PhD, however, is not quite over!

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So, what’s next?

  • My PhD viva/defence is end of February, so there will be a bit of revision required for that and practice vivas to be had! For those of you who don’t know what a viva is, or don’t know how it works over here in England, I have one ‘internal’ examiner from my university and one ‘external’ examiner from another university (relevant to my field). They will quiz me on my knowledge of the subject and my PhD work for 3-4 hours in order to see whether I’m worthy of being Dr Jones.
  • In the mean time I’m doing some image analysis work. This is carrying on from fluorescent microscopy I carried out in my PhD but the analysis was beyond the scope of my thesis. So, I’m back to counting and circling around muscle cells again!
  • My supervisor and I will be having weekly meetings to get the ball rolling on writing journal articles from my PhD work, so fingers crossed for some good publications.
  • It’s now time to be more proactive about my future. I’ll be updating my CV, LinkedIn, and applying for jobs etc etc!
  • In amongst all the ‘serious’ stuff I’m going to be getting back into a better fitness routine like I had before, and I’m in the process of planning my post-PhD travels! I’ve never had a gap year and I know I need time away to re-energise myself in order to come back and start my first post-PhD job all guns blazing!

I also want to use this blog post to share with you what I want to achieve in 2018. It’s not a secret that I love goals – whether that’s daily/weekly work goals, fitness goals or life goals! In fact, I wrote a blog post back in January 2017 on how to make effective goals, so go and check that out here!

This is the third year of making a goals board and it really does give me a sense of fulfilment when I tick them off one-by-one. In 2016 I ticked all of my goals off but in 2017 only half were achieved. Why? A few of them were all based on me submitting my thesis and having my viva in 2017, which didn’t happen! Thesis writing time had to be extended and that meant some of my goals suddenly became impossible. So, here’s to 2018 being a more exciting year! I’ve already achieved my first goal (submitting that thesis) and here’s everything I aim to achieve this year…

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I’m not one for New Years resolutions and it’s never too late to decide on what you want out of this year. What career/lifestyle goals do you want to complete in 2018?! Comment below, being a goal-geek I love to hear about them!

 

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A grad student’s Christmas guide

A grad student’s Christmas guide

It’s the last working week before the holidays and only six days to go until Christmas Day! Some of you may already be winding the work down for Christmas, but for some of you it’s a mad stressful rush to get all those things ticked off of your to-do list!

So, to try and help you manage that pre-holiday stress, here’s a few tips from me to you…

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Don’t panic! Yes, easier said that done. Do all of those items on the to-do list NEED to be done by Christmas? Take any self-imposed pressure off of yourself.

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Set goals, make a plan. Make a realistic plan for the next few days. Set small goals for each day and stick to them. Making a plan also helps you to think through the most time-efficient way of working. No faffing!

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Take control. If you’ve had a meeting with your supervisor and they’ve piled on a few more items to your to-do list, ask yourself the question in tip #1. Does it really need to be done this side of the holidays? Be in control of your plan and your week.

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Don’t open emails first thing. Opening emails first thing can really derail your plans. Are they really that important they can’t wait?! Perhaps add “Check emails” to your plan for midday. It means you start work and attack your daily plan head on!

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Think smart, act smart. Plan your days wisely to make the week easier. Set time aside around your work for those extra tasks e.g. last minute Christmas present shopping, doing the Christmas food shop, wrapping presents, writing cards, packing to go away. You don’t want a last minute panic.

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Look after yourself. As always, sleep well, eat right (I know it’s hard with all those festive treats!) and hydrate. They all help with work productivity, brain function and general feel-good positive vibes.

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Make the start of 2018 easier for yourself. Make a list of any work you need to do straight after the holidays whilst your brain is in work mode. It will make coming back to work slightly easier after a (hopefully) very relaxed time off.

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Don’t ban yourself from festive fun! Right, I want you to revisit tip #1 again (yes it’s an important one). It doesn’t have to be all work! Get the work for that day done then join your friends/colleagues for a few Christmas drinks!

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Take time out. Even if you are going to have to work over the holidays (like me – bad time for thesis deadlines!) make sure you take a few solid days off to properly unwind. Relax, don’t even think about work over those days and just have fun. Embrace this time with family and friends.

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For more PhD tips and advice, check out my other PhD SOS posts.

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Have a wonderful Christmas!

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PhD self-care tips

PhD self-care tips

Working in the world of academia as a PhD student can be very demanding. We don’t get awarded the title of Dr for simply generating some good data or coming up with an awesome idea, we work hard to earn that PhD. Hard work comes with stresses and sometimes a few road bumps along the way.

One thing a lot of us can forget is that all important self-care. A PhD is like an endurance event, it’s a long and rewarding journey, but we need to take care of ourselves to get to the finish line.

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So how can we look after ourselves? Here are my top 10 PhD self-care tips:

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Stop comparing yourself to others

You may start your PhD the same time as other students but everyone’s PhD is different. Comparing yourself to others on occasion can be a healthy kick up the backside if you’re slacking. But trust me, for the most part it’s unhealthy and causes unnecessary stress and unhappiness. Focus on you and your PhD.

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Need help? Ask!

Whether you need help with a protocol or you’re having a few struggles with mental wellbeing, seek help. We all need help at times no matter how big or small the problem is, and there is a wealth of support out there for you. Know the right people to ask for help in the lab, find out what support services your university provides, and read blogs to help with issues related to the PhD life.

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Don’t just live for the weekend

Looking after yourself is not just for the weekends. Working 12-hour days during the week with those fun things left to the weekend is going to lead to burnout. Be honest with yourself, how productive are you after the normal 8/9 hour working day? Probably not very. So take time for you in the evenings, whether that’s just relaxing, going to the gym or seeing friends. Living for the weekend can lead to you associating the week with negative thoughts, that’s not exactly a great way to live.

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Emails. You don’t have to be attached 24/7.

Does your phone notify you as soon as you get a work email? If yes, I really suggest turning them off. Having them on means you never have a true break from work and in some situations this can lead to anxiety. Also, try not to check emails fist thing. Checking emails as soon as you get to work can lead you off track from your original plan for that day. Try opening them up a couple hours into work so you start your day off well. Are they really so important that they can’t wait a few hours?

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Sleep well, exercise regularly and eat right.

Being mindful of the foundations to leading a healthy life (mentally and physically) is so important. Getting those 7-9 hours sleep improves brain function. Regular exercise keeps you fit, allows you to focus on something non-work related and is a great stress reliever. Eating a balanced diet and not relying on sugar to keep you awake whilst working gives your brain and body the right fuel to function well. Being and feeling healthy helps to keep a positive mindset.

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Be organised

The deeper into the PhD journey you get, the more studies you’re juggling and the more items you have on that to-do list. Being organised is key to keeping yourself on track, focussed and motivated. These all lead to reductions in stress levels. Set short terms goals. I advise making daily goals at the start of the week or the day before and tick them off as you go along. Small steps make big progress.

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Play to your strengths

PhDs come with a degree of flexibility in how you work. If you are most productive in the morning, then start and end your working day earlier. Maximise that time you work well. If you aren’t a good multitasker then set aside blocks of time in your week to do your research, reading and the other odd jobs. There’s no point trying to tackle everything in one day if you know your brain doesn’t function like that!

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It’s ok to say no

You can’t take on everything your supervisor and others want you to. Saying yes to everything will lead to burnout. Be aware of the work you can take on without compromising your work/life balance. Developing this awareness does take time but it allows you to then manage the expectations you have of yourself, and enables you to manage your supervisor’s expectations of you.  

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Celebrate successes

We work hard so reward yourself when you’ve reached a goal. Allowing yourself treats will help you to stay motivated. For the smaller goals treat yourself to something little like your favourite dinner, and for the bigger milestones reward yourself something super fun like a trip to the pub/cocktail bar or a day trip to the beach.

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Time off

Remember we are entitled to time off, everyone needs a break. Taking time off helps us to relax, unwind and gives that overworked brain some nice relax time. It helps us to come back to work energised and proactive. If a certain phase of laboratory work means it’s hard to take a whole week off, make sure you’re planning in some long weekends.

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Are you mindful of putting self-care into practice? Any other tips you can enlighten us all with? As always, I love to hear from you! Just comment below.

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[ I originally wrote this blog post as a guest contributor for Let’s Talk Academia. Check the website out here! It’s full of brilliant advice and experiences about life as a postgraduate student and working in academia. ]

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Science, scicomm and supporting women in STEM – Sasha Weiditch

Science, scicomm and supporting women in STEM – Sasha Weiditch

For November’s Scientist Showcase please welcome the fabulous Sasha. Sasha is a PhD student over in Toronto, Canada. Her passion for science, engaging the public with research, and mission to empower women in STEM is so inspiring, passions I can really relate too! Sasha shares her science life over on Instagram as @scigirlsash which you have to check out! Over to you Sasha…

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What are you researching?

My PhD is in biochemistry, specializing in protein chemistry. Protein chemistry is a big field, because proteins are arguably the ‘do-ers’ in an organism. Your DNA holds all the information that makes you, well, you (aka your genes). Genes are encoded into proteins that float about in the cell and get all the molecular processes going. I’m looking at a specific organism, the bacteriophage, and how it’s molecular workings cause it to perform its function, which is to kill bacteria. Scientists are now looking for alternative sources to fight bacteria in our bodies, food or anywhere really because of the rise of antibiotic resistance amongst bacteria. This makes the study of bacteriophage an exciting prospect for the future.

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“I loved doodling the Krebs cycle in high school biology and thinking about all the elements in the periodic table in chemistry. Putting it all together and understanding that these beautiful and intricate processes drive us and our world forward, it’s really something wonderful to investigate”.

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You started #PhDenomenalPhDemale – tell us more!

It’s pronounced phenomenal female, and the hashtag was inspired by the well, ‘phenomenal’ women I am fortunate to have met throughout my graduate career. These are women who are choosing science, pursuing challenging PhD programs and following their passion to use science to create a better tomorrow. I thought – ‘I already know about these inspiring women, why don’t more people, and especially more young women?’. Throughout my academic career I had experienced the plaguing uncertainty, the challenging competition with peers, the long hours of studying, the feeling of ‘why am I even doing this?’ and yet, above it all, I made it through. While I am now accustomed to those feelings being a natural part of the PhD process, I am aware of how debilitating those thoughts are as a high school or university student. Thus, PhDenomenalPhDemale is a way to give real life examples that with the right amount of perseverance, hard work and belief in yourself, your dreams are attainable.

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Let’s talk scicomm! Your Instagram is just beautiful.

I enjoy using Instagram for science communication as it’s a fast and fun way to be part of a community of scientists and bloggers. I love sharing cool science, or, everyday science that’s cool. Using IG to learn from other scientists and followers who comment and ask questions is one of my favourite ways to share information! I love that anyone can tap into their device and ask a scientist a question, or see what day-to-day research life is like. I’m hopeful that this type of interaction will shed a positive light on scientists and break stereotypes for women in science.

I’m also very aware of the negative aspects of an app that is on a device that is with you literally all. the. time. In one minute, harmful societal notions of how your body is supposed to look, what you’re supposed to say, eat and dress like are reaffirmed by these falsely idolized figures. So basically, I was sick of it. I wanted to be part of a space that promoted real women doing inspiring things in their lives and in science.

SoapBox Science

I recently took part in Soapbox Science, which I found out about through IG! I was honoured to be part of this event as it aligns with my goals as an ‘instagrammer’, which is to promote women in STEM. Standing on my Soapbox in the busiest intersection in downtown Toronto wearing my lab coat, I got asked many questions on my topic, the bacteriophage, by young and old, men and women. And – it was a lot of fun!

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How do you balance work, scicomm and personal life?

A valuable piece of advice given to me that sticks into my mind all the time: not every day has to be balanced to achieve ‘work-life balance’. Sometime days are longer, some days are shorter. Some weeks are longer, some weeks are shorter. Being a PhD student, this resonated with me because I often (like I think many millennials are) am trying to fit it ‘all’ in and succeed in my professional goals. I try my best to make time for things like fitness, spending time with family and friends and of course, keeping up with blogging and social media. Still my PhD work is primary, so keeping this advice in mind, I remember not to stress when the ‘balance’ isn’t met and make up for it in the future.

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For other current/soon-to-be PhD students, what are your dos and don’ts?!

Do NOT think that you are alone in experiencing the roller coaster of success and failures in your research or graduate school life. Great discoveries are spawn of the curiosity to try something that may not succeed (or better, you learn from that negative results as well!).

Stay focused on your research goals but also make time to find out what else excites you outside the lab or in other research groups. There’s a whole world waiting to collaborate in many cool ways.

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And finally, a day in the life of Sasha!

 

A huge thank you to Sasha for sharing her life as a scientist, science communicator and promoter of women in STEM. To see more of what she gets up to head over to her Instagram and give her a follow, or you can find her on Twitter!

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The power of mentoring – Stemettes & MonsterConfidence

The power of mentoring – Stemettes & MonsterConfidence

It’s National Mentoring Day tomorrow, a day to recognise the importance and benefits of mentoring, whether that’s being a mentor or being a mentee.

One of my aspirations is to inspire the younger generation to pursue a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). I was fortunate enough to be part of the amazing MonsterConfidence event here in Southampton with Stemettes a couple of weeks ago.

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Who are Stemettes?

STEMETTES 'Monster Confidence' @ Southampton  - ©Paparazzi VIP Photography

Stemettes is a social enterprise who aim to empower young women to consider a career in STEM. They do this by introducing these ladies to amazing women who are already working and succeeding in the field. Stemettes organise many events throughout the year ranging from panel events to “hackathons” to the MonsterConfidence tour.

“Women only make 21% of the core STEM workforce.”

Wise Campaign

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They’re doing a fantastic job at accomplishing their mission. Just under 15,000 young women have attended their events, and a whopping 95% of attendees have increased interest in STEM after just one Stemettes event.

So! If you’re a young women aged 15-22 in the UK and Ireland, and would like a boost in confidence and become more informed in what the world of STEM has to offer you, then check out their upcoming events!

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Mentoring at MonsterConfidence

Head Stemette Anne-Marie has set up the MonsterConfidence tour to provide confidence, inspiration and guidance for girls and young women who may want to get involved in the world of STEM, or are unsure whether it’s the right path for them.

Just under 100 young women attended the Southampton event which was full of inspirational talks, interview practice, mentoring, career workshops and meeting people in industry. It was a fun day full of energy, encouragement and of course food!

STEMETTES 'Monster Confidence' @ Southampton  - ©Paparazzi VIP Photography

As a speed mentor I spoke to young girls one-to-one for a speedy 6 minutes a time. I was there to act as a listener, a source of support and an advisor. We discussed my journey, what they liked at school, what they struggle with and where their next steps in education might be. I was there to answer all the different questions they had and it was great to talk to a wide variety of students. Some knew their career direction already, some had an idea of potential options, but many students felt unsure. A few of the girls I spoke to said how much the event had inspired them which is fantastic. One girl even said a talk in the morning had inspired her to look into a completely different area of STEM! That just proves the power these type of events can have.

STEMETTES 'Monster Confidence' @ Southampton  - ©Paparazzi VIP Photography

I was also given the opportunity to do a lightening talk at the end of the day. I spoke about my experiences from school (and how I thought I was always going to go into graphic design) to my PhD in physiology and current aspirations to be a science communicator.

“Many expressed an improved perception, awareness *and* confidence in STEM careers.” 

Stemettes

 

Despite being there as a mentor, even I got a little bit of mentoring! Dr. Jen Gupta, an astrophysicist by day, a comedian and presenter by night shared her journey with us, how you can have more than one passion, and how you can have confidence in what you do.

The event ended with the attendees taking part in a Soapbox challenge where they shared what they had learnt from the day. They showed confidence and they showed that they were mindful about their future. It was incredible to see what they had learnt, and truly proved that Stemettes is doing a brilliant job.

STEMETTES 'Monster Confidence' @ Southampton  - ©Paparazzi VIP Photography

I never had opportunity like this when I was at school. Looking back, I only really had the guidance of school teachers and my parents. Don’t get me wrong, that was great. I went to a great school and my parents were supportive of my choices, but there is so much more support out there now. No matter whether you want to pursue the STEM route, or go another direction there really is a wealth of support out there for you. Seek it out!

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Once this PhD is finished and I have a little more free time, I aim to carry on being involved with mentoring events like this for young people in STEM.

Stemettes – hopefully I can become one of your Sherpas in the not too distant future?!

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Follow Stemettes on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and check out their website!

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