Stellingen: The ten most important propositions from my PhD journey

University of BristolDominika Bijoś is a final year postgraduate researcher from the School of Clinical Sciences, based in the School of Physiology and Pharmacology. She studies smooth muscle contraction and examines how other cell types influence it in bladder tissue and in the whole organ. Initially, she used molecular and cell biology techniques, but spent last year watching and analysing moving bladders and the conclusion was – they dance the samba!

Getting a PhD is a ritual. Different countries have their own customs surrounding the process, preparations, ceremony, and so on. The thesis I spent the past three and a half years doing experiments for and writing up (like Richard), is an impressive brick containing over 40 000 words and 50 data figures. Let’s be honest: despite my best efforts to make this book readable, accessible and nicely presented, not many people except for my colleagues and examiners will read it. To ease this problem, Dutch tradition has a solution – stellingen (propositions).

In the old days, the 10 propositions (stellingen) would have been the ten statements of the thesis you actually defend. Nowadays, they present the most accessible summary of a few years of work and characterise the PhD candidate: their values and reflections regarding their work. So, I decided to borrow this custom to say what it is that I have learned over the past few years, not only scientifically but also personally. If you would like to know what I spent over 3 years researching, you can watch me tell the story in 3 minutes.

The top 10 messages of my thesis are:

1) A PhD is a Gesamtkunstwerk (from my friend Babett)

This German word describes a piece of art which uses many forms, a total artwork. I see my PhD as a total artwork: the art of honing my microsurgical skills, the creativity of troubleshooting, the beauty of statistical significance stars, the poetry in writing papers and reports, etc. The endless hours, months, years of perfecting all the techniques culminating in the thesis and title of “Dr”. The PhD is an all-together-piece-of-art.

2) If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? (Albert Einstein)

Doing postgraduate research is about answering questions NO ONE, not a single person in the world, knows the answer to. I often felt dumb (just like Madeline), and I didn’t always know what I was doing. Technical learning challenges were huge, data analysis difficulties were even harder. I struggled; I fought hard to trust the method, to distinguish a real effect from the noise. I won and I found out something no one knew.

3) Ano1 in juvenile rat urinary bladder (my thesis)

This is the title of the paper I published in the open access journal PLOS ONE. Getting my research peer reviewed and published makes my contribution to world knowledge publicly and freely accessible (and makes life easier for my examiners).

4) Movement depends on initiation, propagation and tone. (my thesis)

Although my research was on the movement of the bladder wall, what I learned throughout the project was that every action needs to start (initiate) and then be followed through (propagated). I made action plans, but they only mattered if I executed them.

There were times when I worked too much… and I also learned that constant contraction of the system is impossible. You need to relax too! This is a tricky balance, but when achieved, it gives happiness 🙂

5) In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm…in the real world all rests on perseverance. (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Science isn’t achieved easily, but enthusiasm and perseverance drive it.

For me, it was curiosity and love of discovery during the good times, and perseverance all the rest of time, learning to take things one step at a time (just like Rhiannon!)

I told my friend Bartholomew, we get the PhD for surviving the process rather than the actual achievement. It isn’t entirely true, but because in science we do so much more than the world will ever see, it cheered me up on many occasions after failed experiments. Every step, even failure, was a part of figuring out how the world works.

6) Your life, your PhD, your problem

I had problems. If you’re doing a PhD – you will have problems. It is your life, so take control over your career. Being at Bristol, there are plenty of options to solve the problems you might have: technical or personal. You’re not alone! Take control and act – plenty of opportunities land in your mailbox every week.

7) Curiouser and curiouser(Alice in Wonderland)

During a postgraduate degree, we are surrounded by loads of amazingly smart and passionate people. During my PhD I had the chance to hear about fascinating science and meet inspiring scientists. Did you know that this year’s 2014 Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, Edvard Moser, gave a talk in the Neuroscience department exactly two years ago (19 Nov 2012)?

I got my nose out of the lab and went to seminars to hear what else is out there and asked colleagues what they do. For science, one of the best forms of communication is coffee breaks, so use them – not to network, but to make friends. It worked for me – thanks to this I have an entire thesis chapter based on collaboration!

8) Communication – the human connection – is the key to personal and career success (Paul J Meyer)

So you are a rocket scientist? Well, unless you can write a paper about it, give a talk I can follow and understand – no one cares.

Writing is difficult for everyone, but you can learn to be an effective writer and better communicator. Online courses, onsite courses, practice, practice…There are plenty of options at Bristol Uni. Writing well and speaking well are assets, whatever you do.

9) Constitutive response to when something turns up is YES (Jim Smith)

When an opportunity came – I said yes. I had a chance to do something for others and created a yearly meeting for early career researchers in my field (the Young Urology Meeting). Saying yes to new opportunities gave me experience and created even more opportunities.

10) To pee or not to pee? (adapted from Shakespeare)

My research has contributed a tiny bit to the understanding of how the body works and parts of this might be used to answer the existentially painful question of patients in the clinics with bladder problems. But it left me perpetually full of questions no one knows the answers to. So for me, the only option is: Science: yes or KNOW!

Getting a PhD is a journey full of obstacles and interesting people, struggles and discoveries, dumb moments and personal growth.

My journey not only pushed the knowledge boundaries of the field, but most definitely pushed me. It pushed me to be at my personal best: in the lab and in the office, to be a better person, to be a thorough and tireless researcher and to be in charge of my project, my time and my life.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Top Tips

“Between a Rock and a Hard Place” began as an Earth Science PhD blog in February 2013, as a place to ramble on about PhD life and general science topics. Almost two years later, some of the contributors have finished, others have submitted, and the rest are nearing the end.

Together, they have compiled a list of their best moments and top tips, to showcase just how varied experiences can be, even within one department.  

Piston cylinder
Sorcha using the piston cylinder apparatus in the Petrology labs at the University of Bristol. She is manually topping up the pressure (to 30 kbar, equivalent to ~100 km depth!) whilst checking the run temperature recorded by the thermocouple – lots of multitasking!

Sorcha

PhD highlight:

Working in the lab was both the most exciting, and most frustrating, aspect of my PhD. Rather than jetting off to exotic field locations, I spent most of my days heading downstairs to the basement to carry out experiments on a piston cylinder apparatus to provide insights into deep mantle melting. Despite shedding blood, sweat and tears down there, the satisfaction of deliberately ending a successful experiment is hard to beat! Lab work was made all the more fun when shared with fellow experimentalists – discussing similar experiences, particularly failures (unfortunately rather common!) proved to be incredibly useful in planning future experiments and trying different approaches to improve methods.

Top tip:

My top tip is to talk to lots of people in the lab, and attend lots of seminars/discussion groups, about different techniques that you could possibly try out on your samples. Most lab-based PhDs tend to be a case of trial-and-error for the appropriate method so the more options that you are aware of, the better!

Charly

PhD highlight:

Bristol itself!

Having completed my undergraduate at Bristol, I never intended to remain in the same city for my PhD. Then up came an opportunity that was too good to turn down.

By the time I finished my PhD, I’d been in the same department for 7.5 years (!), but I definitely don’t regret being flexible and being prepared to stay. Bristol has a thriving academic scene and throughout my research I was able to interact with a constant flux of interesting and cosmopolitan people. Outside of my studies I got involved with student sports, which helped to prolong my undergraduate experience (even if my nickname was inevitably something along the lines of ‘grandma’), and Bristol itself is an evolving and exciting city – in my time here I’ve seen so much change that there hasn’t been a chance to get bored.

I know that some people in academia say that you shouldn’t do your undergraduate and PhD at the same place, but I truly feel like the most important aspect is have a stimulating project and inspirational supervisors. For me, this just happened to be at Bristol.

Top tip:

One of the best things about doing a PhD is the flexibility of (generally) being able to work whenever and wherever you want; however, most people find that slogging away in the early hours of the morning isn’t always the most productive approach. Try and treat the PhD like you would a job. Having a routine means that you’ll keep going even when lacking motivation, and limiting work to regular office hours during the week means that it won’t become an all-consuming, isolating experience.

Melanie

PhD highlight:

Whilst my research didn’t involve fieldwork in exotic places (or anywhere, for that matter), I was lucky enough to be able to attend conferences and see volcanoes up close in both Mexico (Cities on Volcanoes 7) and Japan (IAVCEI Scientific Assembly); they are most definitely the highlight of my PhD! Presenting and discussing my work, receiving feedback, and seeing others’ findings with the backdrop of an active volcano is a pretty unbeatable experience. The social side is great too – I’ve made lots of friends from all over the world at international conferences!

Top tip:

Take ownership early. Obviously your supervisors are academically senior to you, but it’s your project and end decisions are ultimately yours. Take guidance, not orders!

Elspeth

PhD highlight:

I have lots of little highlights: celebrating friend’s vivas; submitting my first paper; getting that code to finally work; and discovering something unusual and interesting in the data. The PhD process is long, very long and I’ve found that lots of little achievements have kept me motivated. In general, I think the aspects I thought would be the easiest during my PhD turned out to be the hardest, whilst the bits I thought would be hard were also hard! A PhD definitely requires commitment.

My best highlight was a great month on fieldwork in East Africa. Nothing beats seeing the volcano you’re studying up close and personal. Sure it was challenging and exhausting (working day-to-night for a month), but completing the fieldwork came with a great sense of achievement. As a bonus, climbing up volcanoes each day forced me to get into better shape!

Top tip:

Read blogs like this to get insight of what a PhD involves!

Fieldwork
KT demonstrating the fieldwork essentials: penknife, string, gaffer tape and a bored looking field assistant! Photo credit: Didi Ooi

KT

PhD highlight:

One of the best parts about being a geologist is the travel.  As an undergraduate you get the opportunity to visit some amazing places on fieldwork and for me this has spilled over to my PhD studies.  A significant part of my project has been based on North Andros in the Bahamas, and although I have been protesting for a long time that fieldwork isn’t a holiday, it is still a breath-taking location to work.  One of my favourite things has been sharing the experience with field assistants and watching their reactions as we reach the island for the first time; the people may be different but the reaction is the same – awe.  Field assistants are also great at keeping you relatively sane when you have been sampling (in the rain) all day and filtering most of the night.

Top tip:

Say yes (to most things).  I view the PhD as a training ground for a career, either in or out of academia, and that saying yes can help give you experiences and skills, which can be invaluable further down the line.  But be careful not to overstretch yourself too much because you still need time to finish the PhD!

Hickey

PhD highlight:

By a long stretch, the best part of my PhD has been the travel I have been able to do as part of my research. I’ve been lucky enough to do fieldwork and attend conferences in all corners of the globe. My fieldwork has taken me to South America (Bolivia and Ecuador), Asia (Japan), Europe (Italy) and the Caribbean (Montserrat and Dominica), while I have been to conferences in the USA, Japan and (less glamorously) different parts of the UK. On top of this I did a study visit at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Admittedly, my carbon footprint is probably huge, but the experiences, skills and network I’ve built up are priceless.

Top tip:

Take all your opportunities, and then make your own. While you’re doing a PhD there are numerous chances to attend extra conferences and workshops on various things. These are a great way to develop new skills. Plus, by talking to different people you can create your own opportunities for extra fieldwork and study exchanges.

The last year…and out of the other side

Photo of Richard BuddRichard Budd was awarded his PhD in September 2014, having successfully defended his thesis a few weeks beforehand. Based in the Graduate School of Education, he conducted a comparative case study of how German and English undergraduates understood and negotiated their respective higher education contexts. This required implementing a qualitative research design, conducting in-depth interviews with students at universities in each country. 

The last year of my doctorate presented challenges far beyond the intellectual. I started a part-time research assistant role a few months after my three-year scholarship ended, and this was then supplemented by an inter-university project coordination role a month later. Having the thesis, working full time, and having a young family, meant that I was working overtime for what seemed like an eternity. The workload was hellish, but I was still in love with my project; shaping it into a coherent narrative while reflecting on my academic development brought immense satisfaction, and this, along with supervisory support and desperately wanting to be finished, kept me going.

Tracking back a year from the end, I had finished the analysis and had well over half the thesis written. I presented some of the findings at a conference in the autumn and thought I‘d be done by Christmas. I’d underestimated how much was still to do by some margin! Some chapters were far from polished, while others were far too big, and it took me until the end of March to get to a full draft. By that point I’d been beavering away for 20-30 hours a week in addition to work, plus trying to be involved in family life. I had a little respite while my supervisors chewed through the draft, then it was another three months of the same. Draft Mark I went through various incarnations until it reached Mark III, and even then there were weeks of tweaking and tuning. Having thought for long periods that I was never going to be done, I worked through a final list of changes and suddenly, it seemed, it was off my desk.

One of the big problems for me over this period was not knowing where the finishing line was. Trying to work out what ‘enough’ might look like is pretty hard. Your supervisors have a good idea, but it is a tricky thing to articulate. Overall, in addition to the thesis being original and your own work, it has to be presented as a coherent, appropriately justified argument, and you need to know where it sits in the field/literature. These are big questions, and I’ve broken them down in more detail elsewhere: see ‘Unpacking the viva’ at ddubdrahcir.wordpress.com.

After submitting in July, I left it alone it for over a month. I needed to reconnect with family life, sleep, and revel in not feeling guilty for loafing about aimlessly in my free time. Free time! A few weeks before the viva, I read it through again. This was initially not very helpful, in that — in addition to the typos — I’d had time to reflect on the whole from a distance; you can’t do this just before submission because you’re too close, too caught up in the detail. I spent a few days worrying about how I could — should — have improved it, and one piece of advice really helped. This was that a PhD was always imperfect. It is supposed to be as far as you can go in the given time frame, and if you tried to perfect it, you’d never hand it in.

By the morning of the viva, I’d worked through rafts of potential questions and felt that I could answer them with confidence. Looking back, this was when I somehow knew that I’d (probably) pass; being able to field those questions made me realise the scale, depth and nuance I’d achieved in the thesis. The chief remaining question was the extent of the corrections: how much would be left to do? I was comfortable in the knowledge that I could have done some things differently; being aware of the pros and cons of all of your decisions over the lifecycle of the project is a key part of the process, not a sign of failure. I spent the morning talking it all through with a friend, and this warm-up — without any pressure — really helped. By the time I walked into the viva itself I was internally contorted with apprehensive tension, but then it got going and I was too busy thinking on my feet to have space for nerves. The defence took about two hours, although it felt like far less. The first half was heavy going and very challenging, but after a while it developed into something more conversational, a healthy exchange and discussion. After a brief break at the end, I was invited back in, was told I’d passed, and had pretty minor corrections.

The corrections took a (very long) day and now, a month after the viva, it has sunk in. At first I couldn’t believe that it was over, that this ‘thing’ I’d been gestating for years no longer needed any attention. I also missed it. There are publications and presentations to come, but the thesis itself is finished. Having it behind you is a serious fillip, a sign of being accepted into the academic ranks. It goes some way to assuaging the ‘imposter syndrome’ that I felt most of the way through my doctorate, that I was woefully short of some of the stuff I was reading, and my unmasking as an imbecile could come any minute. I’m still a little self-conscious about being ‘Dr Budd’, not quite used to wearing it, but it’s a marker of having changed. I’m intellectually unrecognisable from the person who walked into my first supervision meeting, and that’s the point of the whole exercise.