Thursday, June 11, 2009

Five side effects to being a postgraduate student

There are many wonderful things about being a postgraduate student. A personal computer! A sandwich toaster! Bakeoffs! Bliss! However, we've thought of a few side effects that we've come across in our efforts to get educated. We're sure you can think of more!

1. Judgement based on your subject area. I study platypus venom, which is strange and obscure, so it naturally follows that I am a little odd, and at risk of becoming an eccentric-professorial-type later in life.

2. Novelty T-shirts. It’s your birthday coming up. Your friends can’t afford to buy you that art deco teacup/Shetland pony you’ve always wanted. Instead, “Great, he/she studies X”, your friends think, “why not get him/her a novelty t-shirt?”*. Luckily, when I describe my area of study no-one has yet listened past my description “I study platypus venom...” to hear the next bit “...genes”, or else I would be at risk of drowning in a sea of double helix tops.platypus_tshirt-p235758194011346976y8gh_400.jpg

3. Your subject area everywhere. On birthday cakes (especially if you study cars, squares, or cakes, or if your friends are very clever like mine are (see pic). More difficult if you are studying pi or Greek furniture of the 3rd century).plat cake.jpg
On statues (especially if you are studying an Australian animal/explorer, or any fruit. Again, if you are studying pi then you might be ok). You won’t be able to get away from it!

plat statue.jpg
4. Unstructured days. Sure I can go shopping on Tuesday. Whoops, I slept in and it’s noon and I’m still in my PJ’s, is it even worth going to uni?

5. Becoming an expert in procrastination. As an undergraduate, you thought you were pretty good at this already. But you thought wrong! Until you became a postgraduate, you were a most productive individual. In fact, this is such a big facet of postgraduate life we feel that an entire procrastination-themed blog post is due in the near future.**

*Author's note: You know I love the platypus t-shirt you gave me, Kao!
** No, reading The Appendix does not count as procrastination.


Proof that we are better than trained monkeys

We have heard several PhD students over the last few years complain about how a trained monkey could do 95% of their work. Happily, Jo Griffith has pointed us in the direction of this book excerpt, which begs to differ.

Extract from Complications – a surgeon’s notes on an imperfect science by Atul Gawande, (2002, Picador: New York) on training surgeons.

"As one professor of surgery put it to me, given the choice between a PhD who had painstakingly cloned a gene and a talented sculptor, he'd pick the PhD ever time. She, he said, he'd bet on the sculptor being more physically talented; but he'd bet on the PhD being less "flaky." And in the end that matters more. Skill, surgeons believe, can be taught, tenacity cannot. It's an odd approach to recruitment but it continues all the way up the ranks, even in top surgery departments. They take minions with no experience in surgery, spend years training them and then take most of their faculty from these same home grown ranks.

And it works. There have now been many studies of elite performers - international violinists, chess grand masters, professional ice-skaters, mathematicians and so forth - and the biggest difference researchers find between them and lesser performers is the cumulative amount of deliberate practice they've had. Indeed, the most important talent may be the talent for practice itself. K. Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist and expert on performance, notes that the most important way in which innate factors play a role may be in one’s willingness to engage in sustained training. He’s found, for example that top performers dislike practicing just as much as others do (that's why, for example, athletes and musicians, usually quit practicing when they retire). But more than others they have the will to keep at it anyway."