Monday, 18 May 2015

18-month(ish) report

I submitted my 18-month report a while ago, and the other day I had my 18-month review (although it has actually been 19 months). The review is there for a few reasons, but it particularly serves to identify major problems in time to solve them, and to scare the student into working if they haven't already started. You give a brief presentation, and then your supervisors and an assessor discuss your findings so far, and your assessor asks lots of questions, and they identify concerns. If you're in a really bad state in your project, they can supposedly kick you off it, but I think this is a story told by supervisors to young students to scare them into being good. I've only heard of people who have heard of people who have been kicked out. That said, as a graduate student you shouldn't need to rely on your supervisor to kick your arse into gear. You should be disciplining and organising yourself by now. That is what I tell myself all the time, anyway.

My report went OK, but the assessor had a lot of questions. That's fine really, because they don't know my project that well, but she raised some concerns that I thought were just interesting things. Like the fact that Cantuaria molecular data and morphological data say completely different things. I have the equivalent of two identical-looking lions, but their DNA says one is a tiger, and I also have a tiger and a lion that have DNA so similar that they might as well both be tigers. I thought that was quite interesting, and a nice illustration of how morphology and genetics don't always agree on how a phylogeny should look. It also means lots to work on with regards to taxonomy, which is great because I have special funding for taxonomy alone. But my assessor said it is a massive problem, and I need to find males to back it up (which I am looking for but cannot find!), and it is going to get in the way of landscape genetics. I'm not really sure that it is though, because I am not basing any of my inferences on morphology - just genetics - and I have always been working under the impression that the morphology will be misleading. I just hadn't reckoned with how misleading it would really be.

Overall though, my main supervisor says it went well. I need to get more sequences and more funding for tuition fees, but I have enough work for a PhD and it is meant to have challenges and be hard. I can keep going. They all gave me some useful pointers about landscape genetics to look into. More on that when I get to that part of my PhD. For now, I must continue to try and get rid of this inhibitor problem that I am having!

Thursday, 7 May 2015


"There comes a point in your PhD when you've hit rock bottom. And  you've either gotta kill yourself, or do some work. I recommend the latter."
-Hamish Patrick
I love my PhD. I looked forward to doing it throughout secondary school and undergrad, and was even more excited during my masters when I got a taste of what full-time research was like. I knew that it would be a hard slog, but I also knew that it would be the only time in my entire career when I get to focus 100% on my own single research project. Unlike some poor schmucks, I even got to design my own research project based on what I'm interested in. I have an awesome advisory team, a great place to live, my own office space and a project that I love.

Yet even I have succumbed to what they call the "two-year slump".

Here's what I was told about the two-year slump: the honeymoon period of your PhD is over. You have finished planning everything and coming up with new ideas, and are fast discovering that things take a lot more time to do than you realised. You feel as though you haven't accomplished enough, and aren't living up to expectations. You have also, by now, read enough around your subject to understand that what you're doing isn't really that important or revolutionary.

This pretty much describes what I'm going through. A year and a half isn't enough time to do a venom phylogeny, a boosted regression analysis on habitat selection, develop microsatellites for Cantuaria and do ground-breaking landscape genetics with them, describe a bunch of new species, AND finish my phylogeny AND write my thesis. So far I have only managed to collect samples and habitat data, and mostly optimise PCR protocols. That took a year and a half. Seriously! A year and a half isn't as long as I thought it was.

It's not like I've been slacking off, either: I kept work as work and play as play, prioritised my work over everything else and did everything I thought good students do. I have a timeline, a diary and a list of goals broken down into weeks and months. For the last two weeks, I haven't met them, because I have been doing an average of about 3 hours of work per day and procrastinating for the rest of the time. It's really hard to motivate myself, because what's the point? So far I have done my best and got a tiny fraction of my PhD finished. It's unlikely I'll even have a third year, because I don't have the funding for my third year of tuition (research funding, tuition, and salary/stipend are all obtained separately. Research funding is relatively easy to get, stipend a lot harder, and tuition fees nearly impossible). My work uses techniques that have been around for a while to add a tiny piece of evidence to an already enormous body of evidence (much of which has been gained using modern techniques that are more exciting than mine). It will add a sizeable chunk of knowledge to what little we know about a genus of trapdoor spiders that nobody really cares about.

But that's what the PhD is: someone once told me that, as a postgrad, you're not the one at the front of the line, slashing through the vegetation of unexplored jungle: you're at the back of the line, with a magnifying glass, trying to see if we missed anything. I don't mind that my research isn't profound. I'm happy that, so far, I've found out a lot about trapdoor spiders, including that they are a lot more interesting and complex than I ever thought. I'm not really furthering the progress of science, but I'm educating and improving myself, so that I can learn to be a researcher.

I'm not going to do everything that I set out to do. I'm going to do a phylogeny, calibrate it with geological dates, and see if the date of divergence from the outgroup is before or after the Oligocene Drowning. Then I'm going to see if that answer makes sense, given what I have found out about the ecology and genetics of Cantuaria. The other stuff? Maybe I'll do that at some point. It's not essential.

I've just got to work around this slump. It helps if I do something I like doing, like sorting through things or writing my thesis (I'm writing a pretty cool chapter at the moment). The worst thing to do is lab, because it takes me all day to do one tiny thing because I know the end result will be a gel with no bands. That's (I hope entirely) because of inhibitors in the spider DNA, which I have ordered a few things to help with. I need to go and collect some more habitat data from the West Coast, too: now that I've got rid of a lot of stuff from my PhD, I have to rely a bit more on the ecology results, so I really have to get that done.

Wish me luck!

"Luck? I don't wish you luck! I wish you sense!" - Boris the goose (Balto)