Remember to Enjoy

I see one of two dispositions in almost every pair of eyes when I am face to face with my fellow researchers. They are two very common looks in academia. Let’s call them the cynical demeanor and the cutthroat demeanor.

Ah, the cutthroat demeanor. These are the folks who are still ambitious. They are the over-achievers, the ones with subpar but acceptable papers published in all the “right” journals. They know the lingo and know what’s en vogue. Often times they rush through material and are productivity driven. They are gunning for those few and far between research gigs in higher academia. It seems as though they are constantly running and never stop to actually think about what they are saying.

And then there were the cynics. These are the ex-cutthroats. They have decided they would rather not join the rat race. Their eyes are tired and suspicious. Instead of learning from the “fast track” of eat-or-be-eaten and slowing down, the cynics often dismiss the whole enterprise and just settle for getting through the research, as if it is an unfortunate slog, a mere hoop to jump through.

Personally, I oscillate between these two demeanors. I suspect that is the case for many if not all researchers. They are dangerously easy camps to get entrenched in. But I would like to learn a third way. I believe it’s possible.

Maybe it would look like enjoyment. Enjoying my research without obsessing over ambition and success. Enjoying my research without resigning from the thrill of engagement with colleagues. In short, choosing not to be cutthroat, nor cynical.

No matter what you do, remember to enjoy it. Don’t compare yourself to others and don’t lose heart when others do the comparing.

Just remember to enjoy.

Not All Books Are Created Equal

Books. You cannot write a PhD dissertation without them. In many ways, writing a PhD dissertation is you writing your own book! But before you can write, you have to read. And boy is there alot to read for a PhD.

But fear not! This book reading is fun! One usually embarks upon a PhD because they love what they are studying…enough to commit years of research to the topic! If anything, a PhD student has the problem of too much reading! There are a vast number of complex primary sources, and a seemingly endless scope of secondary sources on your chosen research topic. Your PhD is you demonstrating a deep understanding of the first and a masterful awareness of the second.

One thing I have learned in my PhD so far is this: Not all books are created equal.

Some books I need to sit in. I need to not rush through them. I need to soak in them, read every word, know every footnote, and be formed by the work as a whole. These are the books worth every precious minute you give to them.

But if I treat every book like this, I will literally end up never finishing my PhD! It would be nice but there is simply not enough time.

The reality is there are many books I will only “speed read.” One professor described this to me as “Emergency Room Reading.” This is where you look at the Table of Contents, find the Chapter relevant to your thesis, and skim through it to find that one quote you can use in your research writing.

I am realizing to finish a PhD well, I have to intentionally separate these two kinds of reading. If I don’t, I will either always be reading and never finish writing, or I will never be formed by any good books! Both are important, both are necessary.

Not all books are created equal. Choose wisely, researcher!

Academic Courage

To be a researcher is undoubtedly to be a person of courage. This is something I am realizing more and more on my academic journey.

Courage of what kind? Well, courage to say something. That is the thing about the academic world: its really hard to be in it without having something to say. And its really hard to say something if you don’t have the courage to speak.

Any yet so much of a researcher’s environment militates against this necessary courage. Questions and doubts linger and agitate the mind. How do I compare to my colleagues? How will this thesis be received? Is it the kind of thing said in the kind of way that will gain the respect of my peers? Is it just controversial enough to be interesting without being so controversial that it offends?

Besides these, one can find oneself in paralysis by the sheer abundance of data and topics available for exploration. With all the vast detail and scope of my discipline, even if I have original thoughts, where do I begin in assimilating them? Assessing the landscape can leave the researcher frozen.

What is the answer to all these questions? What is the anecdote for paralysis? How do we begin to speak?

I’m not sure I have an answer, nor am I sure that one would really satisfy the gravity of the questions. But I do know this. At some point you have to stop caring what people think. You have to stop assessing all the data. You have to stop thinking about saying something and just say it.

To do this takes courage. And self-trust. Hey, you got accepted to the program, right? You clearly have some idea of when and what to say.

So take heart, researchers. Sure, have one eye on your critics as you write. Sure, keep collecting data.

But say something.

Who Am I?

When thinking about my first post for the post-grad blog, I wasn’t sure where to start. Do I just say what I’ve done this week? That seems a bit empty without context. So I thought that I would give you a small overview of who I am and what I’m hoping to communicate on this page. Then future posts can relate to that and more detailed about my week-to-week activities. Seem like fun?

I’m Ben Turnbull, I did my undergraduate in Biology at The University of Birmingham and have spent 4.5 years doing my PhD here in Psychology. I’m a Biologist in Psychology clothing, so to speak. I’m 4.5 years in, as opposed to having finished, because I registered part-time, having received no funding. This gives me longer deadlines, including an ultimate 7 years for submission. I’m aiming to be done in the lab within 5 years, submit in 6, and graduate in 7.

I’m a huge proponent of opening up and humanising experiences including those of academia. We learn a huge amount about the basic process (apply, PhD, life…) but very little is spoken about the actual experiences of that. To address this, I started blogging during my masters and have done so every 2 months since. Under the premise of #UG2PhD I talk about my experiences and pay particular attention to how I felt during those times. I urge you to check out that page for any insights into the application process, dealing with shortcomings and frustrations in the lab, ‘failing’ exams etc. I’m going to slowly transition that blog to focus a bit more on science communication now as I have joined this team and blogging here more frequently means I’ll talk in more detail about what has been going on.

Other than my research hat I also am an avid wearer of a teaching one. I am a lab demonstrator in both biology and psychology as well as an academic tutor for CAPOD. I’ve racked up several hundreds of hours of teaching experience since being here which I something I thoroughly enjoy. I pay my bills with another hat: Dominos Pizza. I was lucky enough to get a job in the first 3 months of living here and have sustained it since then. So if you ever pop in, do say hi! Bar these commitments, my interests are pretty standard…I read comics (and still have a novel in the works), play music (and likewise for an album), am a big lover of films, and always love to see my friends.

Wow, that was a bit longer than I intended! But that’s me. I look forward to talking to you soon and as always feel free to ask me anything :).


The Surprising Research Process

Researching is hard. There are no two ways about it. It is hard because the process comes in just about as many shapes and sizes as the people and topics that are chosen. Some people are highly regimented (I am one of those types). These folks micromanage themselves and keep on a detailed word count schedule (please don’t tell me I’m the only one who does this). Here’s how the inner dialogue goes:

“So, I’ve got a 4,000 word essay due in two weeks. That computes to 2,000 words per week. That computes to 400 words per day if I want to maintain my Monday-Friday 9-5 schedule. Okay, I can do that. 400 words to write today. Just 400 good words.”

My father in law calls this principle “The Law of Doable Chunks.” Doable chunks are a good thing. They make things… well, doable. And let’s be honest: postgraduate research is something quite complex that can use a good dose of doability.

But there are other types too. These people are… well, let’s say unfettered. Its less about the benchmarks, less about the productivity. And, ironically, giving up the obsessive desire to be productive ends up being profoundly productive.

Being on vacation this week with my wife’s family, I am discovering the value of getting some more “unfetteredness” into my natural inclination toward regimentation. On this week of vacation in which I planned to do no “productive” work, I have ended up writing a substantial portion of ideas of a surprising high quality, and I am almost 100% positive it will end up in the final draft of my dissertation.

What’s the lesson in all this? Be prepared to be surprised, researchers. The process is as diverse as the people and topics that fill it. And you might be surprised by what will end up working for you too.