The school of hard knocks…

Throughout the coming year we will be showcasing the various members of the BDC team, so that you can learn our stories and get to know us a bit better. We’ll be kicking off these posts with Loriel Anderson, the Student Development Officer at Bristol Doctoral College. Loriel began working at the BDC in September, 2013, while writing up her dissertation. She completed her PhD in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Bristol in February, 2014.

I really love working for the BDC. Although this is not where I had thought I would be when I started my PhD, I find my work very fulfilling, which probably wouldn’t be the case, if my PhD journey hadn’t been so rocky.

I came to Bristol in 2007 to begin a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. My background was in History, not Ancient History, so I knew that I would have a lot to learn, and that completing a PhD would be a challenge, but I don’t think I realised just how challenging it would really be. My journey, like most others, was not a smooth one. In addition to the intellectual hurdles I encountered, which I had somewhat expected and prepared for, I had a number of personal difficulties to face as well. In January of the first year of my PhD my mother passed away very suddenly. I immediately flew back to Canada to be with my family, and consequently missed most of the second teaching block of my first year. With time I managed to re-focus and get my studies back on track, but then in March of my third year my father was in a very serious car accident and almost passed away himself. I again returned home and spent a month caring for him in hospital. Needless to say, the separation from my family while I studied has been one of the most difficult aspects of my programme. Given these family emergencies, and the fact that I was asked to return to my previous University to teach for a semester, I was granted a one-year extension to my programme.

I submitted my dissertation on September 30th 2012, went to Greece for two weeks to celebrate and relax, and then returned to Bristol to assist with delivering a Greek unit for a term while I prepared for my Viva. I had my Viva in January, 2013, and although I had felt quite prepared, and was proud of what I had produced, I failed. That’s a hard thing to admit. Anyone who pursues a postgraduate degree has undoubtedly done well in all of their previous studies. I had never failed anything and now I had just failed the most important examination I had ever faced. My examiners acknowledged that my research was interesting and innovative, and noted that I had made a significant contribution to our understanding of the field, but felt that I hadn’t expressed those findings clearly enough. I had been too diffident to other scholars in my field, too submissive. They wanted my “voice” to come through more clearly, and asked me to re-write my dissertation and re-submit it. As you might imagine, this was not an easy process. Having to pick yourself back up after this kind of a failure is extremely difficult. The disappointment and defeat you feel in yourself are not easy to contend with. Looking back on it, I can see that my examiners had a point – that’s also not easy to admit. I wanted them to be wrong. I wanted to feel that I had been cheated, that it was all some kind of horrible mistake. Once I got over myself, I was able to see what they meant, and I spent the next 9 months ruthlessly editing, revising, and re-writing my entire dissertation. And it passed, with no further corrections, and no need for another Viva. And so I received my doctorate.

But I still feel a little like they stole the joy I had felt in my research. I no longer love my research the way that I had, and I certainly have no desire to continue in academia, despite the fact that I recognise that I am now a much more rigorous scholar. What I do love is helping other researchers through their degrees. My journey was not a smooth one, but I did have a great supervisor and a strong network of friends and family who helped me through the process. I know that I would have benefited from the support that the BDC is now able to offer. Being a part of a research community, feeling like I wasn’t the only one who was struggling, the only one who ever failed, would have significantly improved my experience. I would have benefited from workshops on how to plan and manage your PhD, how to write your dissertation, how to manage your time. I suppose this is why I am so passionate about what I do now. I love working with other researchers, ensuring they have access to the resources that I didn’t know were available. I love helping others to tell their stories, so that no one else need feel so alone. I love being able to respond, when people ask for help, knowing where to point them to get the support that they need, or simply being a shoulder that they can lean on.

Not everyone’s experience is as difficult as mine was – indeed, I hope that no one else will have to go through the things that I did – but it’s also important to acknowledge that doing a PhD is never easy. And it wouldn’t be worthwhile if it was.

Dumb and Dumber


Madeline Burke is a third-year postgraduate researcher in the department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine.  Madeline did her undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering before switching disciplines when she started a PhD with the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials (BCFN). She is currently building a 3D bio-printer that can create human tissue by printing stem cells. Madeline’s research is interdisciplinary, using concepts from chemistry, cell biology and engineering, to design matrices for stem cells that not only support the cells, but cause them to grow into desired tissue such as cartilage. Most of her time is spent in the lab, designing new experiments and building her 3D printer.

One of the hardest things I’m finding about my PhD is the constant feeling of stupidity overwhelming me at every turn. All the way through school and my undergraduate degree there was a huge importance placed on getting things right; getting the right answer to a question, understanding theory, reciting facts. The set of skills you worked so hard to acquire during school and your undergrad are almost entirely useless when doing a research degree, when something isn’t working you can’t just look the answer up in a text book.

This hit me the hardest recently when I asked the longest-serving postdoc in my group, who to me is the fountain of all knowledge, to help me with a problem I was having. Her answer, that she didn’t know how to solve the problem, astounded me. I asked around the group, no one knew the answer. If this group of highly intelligent people, who had worked in this field for many more years than I had, didn’t know the answer what hope did I have at succeeding? I went home feeling really dejected – why was I putting myself through this when someone who was far more experienced than me didn’t have the answer to one of my smaller research problems. Then I realised, that is the point of a research degree. No one knows the answer, it’s uncharted territory. I am working on a completely new research problem; it’s up to me to find the answer to my own question.

It took me a while, but after I accepted that no one knew the answer it suddenly became a whole lot easier. A couple of days of wading through papers and trying different things yielded a promising result and I realised that I’m not stupid, but that feeling stupid had helped to motivate me to find the answer. Stupidity and ignorance are feelings that most of us will feel throughout our PhDs. Initially I thought this was a bad thing – who wants to feel dumb all the time? But is feeling stupid really a bad thing? Maybe it’s the reason we strive harder to reach the next goal. The person that sums this up the best is Martin A. Schwartz who in 2008 wrote an essay in the Journal of Cell Science about “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research”.

In his closing paragraph he reasons the importance of being productively stupid;

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.”

I’m very lucky, having completed an undergraduate degree in engineering I have been schooled in creativity, problem solving and iterative understanding. Engineering takes known and clearly understood facts and applies them to a problem to solve it; this is essentially what we are doing in a scientific research degree. Taking the knowledge we know and using it to explore the unknown research problem. The feelings of stupidity I experienced in my engineering degree – not knowing if the filter I built using denim instead of expensive filter paper would work – I still feel today. In this case my ignorance worked, I discovered a much cheaper filter material, and my design worked. But more often than not the experiments you design don’t work, and the feeling of ignorance and stupidity persists. But hard as it is, I am trying to embrace that feeling. I don’t know the answers to all my questions, and maybe never will, but I’m definitely going try and find out.