One step ahead of the game

It’s that time of year again, when my friends and peers are busily editing, formatting, referencing and proofreading their final PhD thesis drafts. Inevitably, this has brought the goal of my PhD to the forefront of my mind. But more so than at the end of my first year, this has come with an additional sense of impending panic about my post-PhD plans.

autumn path

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I’ve written before about the stressful consequences of not thinking about and planning my career soon enough. So I know all too well that it’s never too early to start preparations for the next step. Naturally, these preparations involve researching available options.

So what are they? These generally split into options that involve staying in academia and research vs. options that do not. Much has been said recently about the general difficulties facing PhD graduates in terms of leaving academia, even though statistically speaking, the majority of us are going to do just that. As a psychology postgraduate, I could:

  • Leave research and compete against the 100s of other graduates to try to get a place on a training course to specialise as a clinical, educational or other psychologist
  • Leave psychology for a vaguely related but new subject (e.g. medicine, social work or teaching)
  • Leave both psychology and research all together and get into science communication or join some graduate scheme or something entirely different

Yes, those are all viable options… but not ones I am keen on. I want to stay in research because I love it and this is what I really want to do. According to my “individual development plan”, my skills, interests and values are most compatible with being “Research staff in a research-intensive institution”. So, with that in mind, what should the next step be?

  1. Becoming a lecturer in the hope that in between preparing and delivering lectures, marking coursework, supervising and mentoring students and doing admin work, there will be time to squeeze in a bit of research
  2. Competing for a coveted but short-lived post-doc position on somebody else’s grant
  3. Failing getting a post-doc position, trying for a research assistant post (for which you wouldn’t need a PhD). Judging by the difficulty of getting one of these without a PhD, I’m pretty certain a lot of PhD students end up doing this.
  4. Applying for your own grant money via one of the supremely competitive “early career” fellowship schemes

Every option is bound to be competitive and all options (except perhaps the lecturer route) are going to be short-term (1-4 years from what I’ve gathered) before you need to try for a new post. Many of the options may also involve moving to a new university/city, which can come with all sorts of complications.

At the moment, it is far too early for me to think about the first 3 of these options as positions will only be advertised at most a couple of months in advance. I have just over a year to go before my funding runs out. The fellowship route on the other hand would involve about a year-long application process, so now would be the time to start considering this option.

I’ve recently been to a few talks and workshops on fellowships and have been looking into specific schemes that offer something I might be eligible for. Although it sounds like a really exciting and appealing option, it also looks pretty tough and competitive.

One of the trickiest parts is coming up with a brand new, exciting and viable research idea. I’ve already had to come up with an idea for my undergraduate dissertation and then an idea for my PhD, followed by several more specific ideas for my PhD research chapters. The trouble is trying to find time to work on developing a new project idea (fellowship), while still working on the last one, which is still far from done (PhD).

Perhaps that in itself is a useful skill I should practice, given that that is what the cycle of grant-writing appears to be like. From my limited experience of seeing supervisors and professors writing grants, there is only a short grace period in between successfully receiving grant funding and beginning the next grant application, while the current work is being done. Well, it can’t hurt (too much) to try, right?

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Thinking in numbers

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I read an intriguing and slightly baffling quote by Ernest Rutherford the other day; apparently, he once said: “If your experiment needs statistics, you ought to have done a better experiment.” I guess in his day the fields of psychology/psychiatry weren’t considered scientific. Statistics are so much at the centre of what I do, they’re really the sharpest tools in my PhD toolbox. However, statistics without knowledge, conceptual understanding and a thoughtful study design are worse than useless, potentially leading to all sorts of trouble like the dreaded Type 1 error (i.e. a false positive finding), which can easily occur if you simply run enough tests – see here for a good illustration of this. So in effect, statistics are a vital set of tools (at least in psychology/psychiatry – perhaps physicists will have some insight into what Ernest Rutherford was talking about) which need to be used in the right environment and in an appropriate way.

Having come a long way since learning about t-tests in my first year as an undergrad, it seems that hardly a day passes without me finding out something new about statistics. The funny thing is that I don’t really especially go out of my way to do so. It’s just that the more I look at real data sets full of real numbers describing real people, the clearer it becomes that those “textbook” examples you first see when you come across a new stats technique, can be fairly unhelpful. The problem is that so many methods rely on a number of important assumptions, like the residuals of the model you run being distributed at random (i.e. normally around the mean, like a bell curve) or variables not being overly related to one another in a given test. If these assumptions are violated, you need to backtrack and take another route. In the last couple of months, I’ve seen massively zero-inflated distributions, bi-modal distributions, heavily skewed distributions and not-positive-definite matrices. It gets to the point where seeing a normal distribution gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling inside.

In trying to learn how to correctly tackle data with these quirks, I occasionally get the impression that some other researchers either don’t notice these problems or perhaps ignore them. A bit like the impression I had when I discussed the problem of missing data previously. Though, to be fair, some of the techniques of how to address such problems and discussions around how best to use them are relatively new. Another problem is when there just aren’t enough details in a method section to provide a comprehensive “recipe” that you can follow, which is somewhat frustrating when you’re trying to learn how others use a given stats method. It would seem that my PhD examiners may be in for some pretty tedious, if thorough, methodological sections! But at least I feel like I’m putting in the effort to use the statistical technique the data call for and to understand what I’m doing.

When science fiction becomes reality

a picture of glasses and a fake eye

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This post is a little different to my usual ramblings about PhD life, with some thoughts on how science fiction always seems just a short step ahead of science & technology – enough to captivate and tantalise some of us with the awesome (and occasionally disturbing) possibilities.

Given the combination of my long-standing interest in psychology and the constant awe and gratitude I feel at some of our day-to-day technological wonders, I really love when psychology and technology collide through art. By art, I mostly mean films and books, but there is currently an exciting-looking exhibition on at the Wellcome Trust in London, which I really want to check out – it deals with the concept of how people are continually developing new ways to enhance our bodies (from physical features such as height, to our senses and minds).

Sometimes it seems that the fictional worlds and technologies I like to watch or read about are all too realistic. Last December, I watched Charlie Brooker’s 3-part Black Mirror TV series. The last episode (which you can apparently still watch here, but probably only if you live in the UK) was about a world where everyone seems to have an implant in their brains which records everything they see and hear, with the possibility of replaying it in your own head or on a screen for others to see. Arguments are changed forever when it is so easy to just go back in time and prove to someone what exactly they said and did, in a parallel way to how nowadays, disagreements in the pub about what year something happened or whatever are quickly followed by someone putting an end to the conversation by looking up the answer online.

In a very similar vein, I remember really enjoying The Final Cut, a film about brain implants which record everything you see, so that a film of the highlights of your life can be created once you die and the implant is salvaged. Morbid, yes, but a good story nonetheless.

More recent fictional ideas I’ve seen have gone some steps further, beyond implants recording information to reality augmentation. Last week, H+, a new web series of (very) short episodes started. It’s set in a world where people have a brain implant connecting their minds to the internet. On the other hand, in a short film project, called Sight, the fictional technology allows you to play games and watch TV in your head, get nutritional information, plan your wardrobe and have access to all sorts of other information.

Which brings me to Google glasses, a real item, which looks like it might be on the market someday very soon. These appear to be a version of a smartphone worn as glasses, with a little screen and camera in one corner. They give you access to a seemingly infinite number of apps, as well as recording and being able to share what you see. Sound familiar? Although I’m not convinced how practical these will actually be and definitely not keen on the potential for marketing and ads getting in the way, I can easily envision a future where they are as common as smartphones, which themselves can be viewed as an enhancement – a way to store information without needing to try to remember things and a combination of unlimited tools, given that there is basically an app for everything nowadays. I wonder if the Wellcome Trust exhibition will have mention of Google glasses and other such reality augmenting technology.