Over the past 12 months, members and visitors to the lab have been meeting weekly to discuss a topical paper from the literature. In our journal club, a different person picks a paper each week for everyone to read, and explains the paper before leading a discussion about the questions, methods, and results. Given that the journal club is taken as a class by undergraduate and masters students (who present most often), we have also focused on details of the writing—how has the presentation of the ideas, methods, results, and discussion contributed (either positively or negatively) to our perception of the quality of the paper?
Coming up to about 18 months of cumulative fieldwork in Africa (starting with dwarf mongooses in South Africa and moving on to vulturine guineafowl in Kenya), I am ready to share a few tales. Giving a “general description of a fieldwork day” is an oxymoronic task, as two days in the field rarely resemble one another. Sure, there is some routine in data collection times and protocols, but in my experience of working in the wonderful field of behavioural ecology, the animals run the show.
As is the case for many of us, it was good science communicators that got me interested in science in the first place. As a child I remember enjoying Primo Levi’s tales of experimenting with explosive chemicals, Oliver Sacks’ stories of human neurological disorders, and Gerald Durrell’s animated anecdotes of animal behaviour. By the time I was at the end of high school and had realised my keen interest in biology, I was consuming every book I could get my hands on, on topics of evolution, sexual selection, and animal behaviour. Reading Richard Dawkins largely inspired me to pursue a career in science, but dissuaded me from popular science writing; I knew I could never write as well as such an eloquent writer. However, around the second year of my undergraduate I heard about a science writing competition which not only offered prize money but also the opportunity to meet with one of my idols, David Attenborough. I decided that if I worked hard at it, I could probably bust out a popular science article.
You may or may not consider teaching to be part of the academic world. I think I never stop to think about it because for me, teaching and academia go together – though rarely do people that want to make it into academia realise this. Academia involves two main activities: research and teaching. Post-graduate school prepares us to be researchers, but seldom to be professors, and even less so to be teachers. Personally, I believe that teaching is as important as research, and thus, we also need to be trained in the art of teaching. So, if after your PhD you want to make the next step up the academic ladder, it is important that you get teaching experience. But how and when should we acquire this experience?
If someone were to ask me what I do for a living, I’d probably say I’m a graduate student, or a wildlife biologist, or any one of a dozen other titles. Although, perhaps the title that best describes my life to this point is to call me a Professional Volunteer. I’ve spent the vast majority of the last decade volunteering in some capacity, and I consider it an essential and formative part of my life’s story. The problem is that there’s a line somewhere between volunteering and undervaluing scientific labor. It’s a line I struggle to draw in my own life, but it’s an important one to think about as you progress through the early stages of your prospective career in the sciences.
We’ve all been asked the question: “what are your plans after your PhD?” For many, myself included, the answer is “to make it in academia”. But what does this answer mean? We tend to mean one of those permanent positions, or professorship, that we hear rumours of people getting. Reality is quite different—usually a series of short-term contracts, uncertainty, often low pay, and little promise of a future. However, while many have written about this particularly challenging period in many academics’ progression, we don’t often step back and consider the benefits that postdoc’ing can have. There are many benefits of doing a postdoc, and I don’t just mean the basic fact of being employed and getting paid (hopefully more than during the PhD). Doing a postdoc can broaden your horizon, both personally and professionally. Further, many PhD graduates try to postdoc in the same institute, or even on the same project. I argue that moving institutes, moving countries, and even moving disciplines, is highly beneficial for the future. I really value the experiences and opportunities I’ve had, and here’s why.
The first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one. Mine is procrastination. In all honesty, I first starting writing this blog article as a form of procrastination, then I lost motivation, added it to my list of things to do, and put it off until the last minute. For me, this is completely normal behaviour, and in this blog post I'm going to explain why that is, and what things you can try if you suffer the same problem.
So you’ve managed to get onto a PhD program. Amazing – well done! But what type of researcher are you going to be? There are no hard and fast rules as to exactly how one should undertake a PhD. As long as you produce a thesis at the end – whether it be made up of discrete written chapters or published papers – no-one really minds. However, in an increasingly competitive field, it is becoming more important for PhD students to think beyond the realms of their thesis.
To self-fund or not to self-fund? That is the question. In 2009 I was pondering how I was ever going to secure my dream PhD when no-one (except me) was really interested in my chosen study system. I’d been thinking of doing a PhD for a long time, but stubbornly decided that I would only work on something that I was passionate about, and having always been motivated to create my own projects in the past, I decided to venture into the unknown. Perhaps a PhD wasn’t the best framework to achieve this, but I have a tendency to surge forward with new ideas and keep going until I achieve success, and so I suppose it was inevitable. It’s been a long and arduous road since then, with plenty of challenges along the way, and I often find myself looking back and reflecting on how I might have done things differently (or not), if I were to have my time again.
Choosing a field of research (and study organism) for your PhD
How I came to study the ecology and conservation of the regent honeyeater is a convoluted story: conservation biology is not the field of research my experience should have led me to. I hope that describing my unorthodox path to a PhD will prove useful to prospective students indecisive about what field of research to pursue.