37 weeks til thesis

A far less eventful week than usual – so a shorter post than usual.

I finalised my figures for the paper on my new isolation method, complete with statistical analyses, and sent them off to my supervisors requesting a meeting at the end of the week to discuss them. Then I set out to find a conference or two to attend and present my work-in-progress-paper (once it’s finished). That was a rabbit hole and half!

My project straddles two research areas: biomaterials and retinal degeneration (particularly macular degeneration). There are SO many societies and associations and institutes, all around the world, that hold their own conferences on biomaterials, let alone including all the eye research conferences too! Needless to say, I am spoiled for choice and currently short-listing a collection of about a dozen conferences covering the retinal/biomaterial realm. I took this short-list to the meeting for feedback, too. Supervisors have (you would hope!) travelled the world attending conferences in your area, so why not get their opinion on which ones are most worthwhile!

The university offers travel grants to enable graduate students like me to fly to cool new places and represent our research groups on the world stage. These grants have rounds, like any other grant, and the sooner I know what my travel, accommodation, and attendance fees will be, the sooner I can apply for the grant. Proper prior planning is applicable, yet again!

I love flying. If only it was always this smooth! (via giphy)

I am obviously only looking at conferences that align with my research, but within those options I am particularly interested in meetings that strive to include women on their expert discussion panels (I chose not to support manels – all male panels – when non-male experts exist in the field but have not been included), and especially those that have networking, forums, activities or workshops specifically dedicated to the development and furthering of new talent (read: PhD students and early career researchers). To my delight, I found several that fit my criteria. They are now at the top of my list and if my supervisors agree that one of them is best to attend I will be beyond stoked. USA, Japan, China, and Taiwan are in the running, with several European cities in the next tier.

The timing of some of these meetings is also fantastic. Two are within the final three weeks before my thesis due date so by that point I SHOULD just be doing final copy editing and proofreading for the Discussion and Conclusion sections. It should all be written, and it will just be a matter of going over it with fine-tooth comb. The other bonus is that these conferences are just a hop, skip and a jump away in Japan so the jet lag between time zones should be quite manageable and not put too much extra pressure on my deadlines. Besides, being in plane for 12+ hours each way is pretty great distraction-free proofreading time!

giphy (6)
Fast forward a few days… (via giphy)

The supervisory meeting has come and gone and all we got to talk about were the figures for my upcoming paper. I approached one of my supervisors later that day with some more targeted questions regarding the cells, methods, and controls for Aim 3 that I will be planning out in more detail in the coming months. Between those two meetings, I managed to get just about everything I needed from my supervisors for that week. The narrow focus of the main meeting also meant that I had more time to investigate the details of the student travel grants – they are even larger than I thought, so I have less restrictions on which one I attend than what I was allowing for. Win!

With the new grant info, I have decided to further short-list the conference options I found and present a much smaller list to my supervisors, including my main reasons for wanting to attend each one. I will then take on board any input my supervisors have regarding their experience of these particular meetings, especially if I have omitted any that they think would be a particularly good fit for my work. I’m trying to do as much of the thinking and leg-work for them as possible so that they aren’t having to add that onto their To Do List. It also allows me to have more of a say in how things happen, which is a bonus.

Manage your supervisors, and all that!


40 weeks til thesis

There are 40 weeks until my thesis due date: October 7th, 2016.


Having LOTS of nieces and nephews (ten, so far), I am acutely aware that this time period is synonymous with the typical duration of a pregnancy. So instead of weekly bump updates, I thought I could do weekly blog/vlog updates. Partly to keep me entertained, sane, and engaged with the world outside of the lab; partly to share my work and ideas with a wider audience; and partly to put something out into the world to which I can hold myself accountable.

Week 40, my first week back from the Christmas/New Year fortnight of holidays, was spent in ultimate planning mode. I’m not sure that my supervisor can truly appreciate the sense of calm and control that this dedicated week of timeline setting, Gantt charting, and working backwards from self-imposed publishing deadlines to project start times afforded me, but I would not have done it any other way.

In the first two years of my PhD, there were annual review milestones which required me to (among other things) prepare and submit a summary of the experiments performed to date and investigations still to be completed. The summary included a timeline outlining the proposed schedule in order to achieve everything set out in the initial project proposal within the time remaining.

As the first milestone review was due at the end of my first year, these timelines spanned the final two years, so there wasn’t room for a lot of detail. Moving into the final year… or rather, the final 40 weeks, I needed something more prescriptive. Clear objectives to achieve on a weekly basis. Bite-sized pieces of work. The big, final hurdles, broken down into smaller, more manageable tasks. So I sat myself down with the notes from my latest supervisory group meeting held at the end of 2015, and got started on breaking it down.

Break it down now! (gif via giphy)

Flashback to when I was in Year 11 and elected as a prefect for the following Senior Year… I was invited by the school to attend a leadership conference. Full formal school uniform, fancy dinner, people in formal dress giving speeches – the whole shebang!

There were a host of eloquent speakers, some more inspirational than others. I know it had a great impact on me at the time, but I cannot for the life of me remember any of their names, or even what most of them spoke about. What I do remember is a famous sportswoman sharing with us her method for the lead up to international meets. She followed the 7Ps principle, “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance” and it has stuck with me ever since. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, and all that.

The seven peas (image via Penny Thots)

Those words were echoing in my head in the final week before summer holidays, so I knew the first task for 2016 would be defining my action plan. Hence the Gantt chart is now complete, my 16 year old self is very proud that I am still employing the 7Ps a decade later, and I feel capable of what lies ahead – which is really the most important part.

There was a solid month, once the euphoria of passing the Mid-Candidature Review had worn off, where the enormity of the task left for me to complete was thoroughly overwhelming. I withdrew. I stalled. I cried. I was scared to start for fear of falling short of the mark – mostly because the very nature of a PhD is that no-one has ever done your research before so you have no idea of where that mark actually is! It was a horrible feeling of impotence. And every day that I didn’t make progress, I would beat myself up a little more. As I looked into this feeling and learned more about it, I found that it was the classic signs of burn out mixed with the ever-present Imposter Syndrome. Yay…

So when holidays came around, I switched off my PhD-brain, immediately and completely. I had no ongoing experiments to monitor, no studious thoughts anxiously buzzing away in the back of my mind during Christmas dinner. This meant I had two weeks of quality time with family and friends and my partner – and even some time to myself! Two weeks of sleeping, eating, drinking, swimming, sunshine, walking, cleaning (surprisingly cathartic to throw clutter away!), cooking, crafting, laughing, watching movies, singing, making memories.


So now, 40 weeks out from the finish line, I have a plan made of small, achievable tasks; a set of stepping stones to simply follow. All the thinking about what to do, when, and in what order has been done. It’s now just a matter of putting one foot after the other to eventually reach the finish line in this science marathon also known as “the PhD”.

The mother of all Gantt charts (current at time of post, but subject to change) outlining times for planning and executing the final experiments to complete each aim, writing and submitting papers, writing and proofreading chapter of my thesis – the LOT!