First Year PhD Student – how to know if it is for you!

It is December 28th, 2020. I can officially say that I have come to the end of being a first year PhD student.

Miraculously, I have survived. I have made it far past my first week as a PhD! And I can honestly say that it has been an absolutely amazing learning experience and my self-development this past year has been at an all time high.

So, what did I learn as a first year PhD student? It has been so much more than just learning how to use R, Zotero and mark student assignments.

my first year phd student life

My experience as a First Year PhD Student

1. My day-to-day is very different.

Every day as a PhD student feels like a completely different job. I think that is what keeps everything so interesting!

No two days are the same. I have to complete an absolute myriad of tasks across each week, and all of them involve a different skill set, so I am always kept on my toes.

For example, a typical week would include a mixture of the following:

  • Researching (reading academic journal articles, taking notes).
  • Writing (not surprising!)
  • Attending meetings (lab meetings, supervisor meetings, industry partner catch ups).
  • Preparing experiments (understanding computer programs, collecting EEG equipment).
  • Running experiments (emailing and interacting with participants).
  • Attending workshops, lectures and conferences.
  • Supervising Honours students.
  • Teaching undergraduate classes and meeting with students.
  • Analysing Data (learning coding languages like python and R).
people sitting on chair in front of computer
Photo by Dom Fou on Unsplash

2. Industry partners can be great motivation.

As I’ve said before, completing a PhD can feel lonely. Especially if you don’t have a lab environment or specified PhD space to interact with other students or academics.

When you have to be working independently, it can be incredibly difficult to keep up the dedication, set your own goals and timelines and feel motivated to show up each and every day!

Therefore, a PhD project that comes under a larger project or alongside an industry partner can be incredibly helpful in keeping you accountable on your PhD journey.

For me specifically, I was having monthly meetings with the industry partners on my project. They wanted to be kept up to date with my progress, my results, and any issues I was having.

In this sense, they kept me accountable to make sure that I was in the lab everyday, and always chipping away at the project. Having someone else relying on the work that you do can be very beneficial in making sure you continuously show up!

If you are under the wing of a larger project, there will be deadlines and things that need to be done at certain time intervals to keep with the flow of the whole project.

However, I know that not every PhD project is tied to another larger project. If this is you, then make sure you are having the discussions with your supervisor and ask questions like:

  • What are the big deadlines I need to meet in the next 3/6/12 months?
  • What should I focus on this week/month?
  • What does the general outline of my PhD project look like?

It is so so important to make it clear what you need to achieve each day to reach the larger goal (and be consistent!).

woman in white and red polka dot long sleeve shirt
Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

3. Not meeting a deadline is not the end of the world.

In saying that though, having a clear deadline/timeframe can also make you narrow-minded. Of course, hitting those deadlines is amazing! However, missing them is not the end of the world.

For example, this lesson became very clear to me during data collection.

I had a goal of collecting data from 40 participants from June – October this year, and writing up a report in December.

However, with COVID continuously messing with everyone’s plans, and people being wary to venture out, I was only able to run a total of 9 participants through the experiment protocol.

I was worried this would disappoint my supervisor, but they were incredibly understanding. No matter how many people I asked, how many classes I advertised to, I just couldn’t get people to volunteer!

When December came around, I just wasn’t able to provide a full dataset and analysis. But, I was able to write up a progress report of where I was, challenges I’d faced and subsequent alteration of experiment protocols that had been done along the way.

Doing this thorough analysis of the little data I had collected means that I have a really good idea of the trajectory of trends/patterns we are starting to see. Also, I have code scripts prepared to run through all additional data that comes our way!

My first year PhD student experience has been incredible. More so that I could have imagined. I have enjoyed delving into research, but also lending a hand to undergraduate and Honours students when they need it!

I have definitely been kept on my toes!

Now, we start planning for year 2.

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Learn R with these Online Resources: It’s not Scary!

If you are in the world of research, there is no doubt that you haven’t yet heard of R and R Studio.

These programming languages are emerging as some of the most popular tools in data science for data exploration (with graphics) and statistical computing. I’m thinking you’ve come to this page because your time to learn R is now!

Some people can be totally freaked by the idea of coding, but programs such as R help science become more transparent and actually help you to keep track of your analysis process.

Why learn R?

Having all your data processes written in code from the very first step, means if anything goes wrong at any stage, you’ll always have the script of exactly what you did.

If at some stage some sorted or edited data files go missing, you can easily re-run your code to create everything again from scratch. Compared to working with data in excel – if your spreadsheet is suddenly deleted – there’s no way you’d be able to create means, delete columns and add rows from the raw data again, simply with one keyboard shortcut.

You can also see exactly what you did at every step of your analyses. If you ever get six months down the track and wonder why a certain participants’ data looks like this and not that, you’ll likely have written exactly what transformations you did to it in your code (aka script).

Using code also helps to be open about data analysis, and sharing it can lead to more reproducible research and greater scientific integrity! Research techniques can be shared, discussed and tweaked by multiple scientists across different disciplines to produce better quality research outcomes.

For someone like me (who spent an entire undergraduate degree working with SPSS), it didn’t take long to get hooked on programming in R.

The neuroscience lab that I work in is particularly obsessed with R as a platform for statistical analyses of experiments and creating beautiful graphs for theses and scientific journal article submissions.

It’s not hard to see why!

learn R studio

Before you learn R: Get R and R Studio

The best part about R is that it is all free and open source. Open source refers to programs that are publicly accessible and publicly modifiable – and this also means that learning to code in R also comes with a huge community of people interested in making it more practical, useful and accessible in the widest range of contexts possible.

R is the programming language itself, while R Studio provides an interface to work with R.

learn R

R itself can be downloaded from the website here.

While the interface, R Studio, (which makes everything prettier to work with) can be found here.

Free Online Resources to Learn R

Once you have R and R Studio set up on your computer, you are ready to delve into the realm of coding.

The great thing about R is that there is no shortage of free online resources to become a data science whiz.

Here are free online resources that I have used on my journey to learn R.

R for Data Science by Hadley Wickham

This one is not to be missed. It’s by far the first thing you need in your hands when beginning to learn R.

The book is entirely available online, and goes through the real basics of tidying data files, exploring, creating graphs, and touches on a few statistical models.

The coolest part is, the entire thing was also written in an extension of R (called Bookdown) and you can view the source code too to see exactly how it was produced!

DataCamp

If reading isn’t particularly your forte, you can also jump straight into this interactive learn to code website, where you can learn R within your browser window.

DataCamp has heaps of courses on how to learn R, as well as other programming languages like python and SQL.

While there is a paid version, you can do a few of the courses as a bit of a trial, and learn a little bit that way!

ggplot2: Elegant Graphics for Data Analysis

When it is time to really start playing around with R’s capabilities as your new graphic designer, look no further than the ggplot2 book by Hadley WickhamDanielle Navarro, and Thomas Lin Pedersen.

This book will take you through every aspect of ggplot (geoms, themes, scales and labelling). There is no doubt that you will become a graphing professional by the end!

Tidy Tuesdays

When you need some datasets to play around with, look no further then the Tidy Tuesday repository on Github. If you don’t know what a repository is, its just a place to upload code online! It simply means that things can be shared around.

Tidy Tuesdays is run by the R for Data Science community – and involves weekly uploads of new datasets to be explored. You’ll get a fancy new dataset to explore, introductions on its contents and some example code as to how others have played around with it!

R Studio CheatSheets

If you need some quick and dirty cheatsheets for R, head to their website to find lots of double-sided A4 sheets full of quickly accessible information on graphing and specific packages and functions.

These are super easy to download to your computer and have beside you anytime you might need them!

Twitter

As I said before, R is a open-source program, and therefore has a huge community of people behind it, always trying to make it better and share any struggles they’ve faced.

You will be able to find heaps of resources on how to learn R by jumping on to twitter and doing a quick search! It is the after all, the preferred social media of researchers and scientists, so it’s where you’ll find lots of discussion and sharing!

This is by no means an extensive compilation of free online resources to learn R. The community of researchers on R are only a google away, so don’t be scared to delve into the world of coding.

You’ll soon find you are not the only one!

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5 Reasons You Need to Start Mindfulness Meditation.

Meditation and mindfulness used to be words for yogis.

People used to think of meditation as ‘spiritual,’ and too far removed from the everyday person.

Mindfulness practice originates in Buddhist traditions (around 535 BC), but it has found its way into the mainstream world.

But mindfulness can do more than just make you relaxed.

Those calming few silent moments alone could actually make you a better learner, more focused and prevent age-related cognitive decline.

5 benefits of mindfulness meditation

The Rise of Mindfulness

The sudden interest in meditation and mindfulness has been encouraged largely by the growing body of scientific evidence suggesting its benefits for overall wellbeing, particularly for coping with stress and anxiety management.

Research by Jon Kabat-Zinn shows exactly how mindfulness has blown up in the Western world in the last few years.

In the year 2000, only 10 articles about mindfulness were published in scientific journals. Since then, this number has been steadily increasing every year.

In 2016, a total of 667 articles were published.

Nowadays, apps like Headspace are making mindfulness techniques accessible to the everyday individual.

You don’t need classes and you don’t need weekend retreats anymore. These techniques are easily accessible to anyone who can jump onto the internet.

Even Spotify has series of podcasts dedicated to guided meditations (my favourite is Meditation Minis!).

You know that meditation and mindfulness can promote relaxation and lower your stress levels.

But here are 5 reasons you need to start using mindfulness meditation (other than relaxation) that you probably don’t know!

5 Benefits of Mindfulness Beyond Relaxation

1. Improve Your Attention

This study by van der Hurk and Gielen looked at experienced mindfulness meditators to determine whether the practice was related to increases in attentional ability.

Experienced meditators and a group of non-meditators were tested on the Attention Network Task.

This test measures someone’s ability to react and orient themselves to different targets on a screen, and correctly respond (usually by pressing different keyboard buttons when cued).

The researchers found that those with mindfulness experience were significantly better at orienting their attention (moving it from one thing to another).

This means that meditators were better at disengaging from one task, to quickly move to another target task when cued.

They concluded that mindfulness meditation develops a more flexible attention network, as a typical session usually involves shifting of attention from one thing to the next, successively.

But these were experienced mindfulness meditators… can these effects be mirrored in shorter time frames?

Yes!

As the following studies show, improvements can also be immediate, with benefits following only short sessions of mindfulness.

This study by Ainsworth and other researchers looked at two kinds of meditation: focused attention (where people focus their mind on one thing, usually the breath) or open-monitoring (where people ‘open up’ their attentional circle to expand their observed sensations).

After either meditation session, or a purely ‘relaxation session,’ people were also tested on the Attention Network Test.

People who participated in the 3 hours of mindfulness practice – both focused attention and open-monitoring – performed better on the attention task when compared to a group that only engaged in a purely ‘relaxation’.

Improvements in performance occurred even when people could not report feeling any differences themselves.

Specifically, this article by Gallant explored the ways in which mindfulness training actually improves attention.

The researcher concluded that mindfulness benefits are targeted to one specific area: inhibition.

Your ‘inhibition,’ refers to your ability to sift through lots of stimulation or information and pick and choose what is relevant and what can be ignored.

There are lots of tasks that researchers can use to measure your ability to inhibit, including the Stroop test or the Hayling Sentence Completion task.

These tasks require you to inhibit automatic responses, and correctly respond against your first thoughts.

You can try out the Stroop Test online here.

Gallant concluded that studies investigating mindfulness and inhibition showed that people significantly improved in these tasks after mindfulness practice.

2. Improve Your Ability to Learn

Mindfulness meditation can even help you to learn better.

This study by Immink explored how a 30 minute yoga meditation can improve performance on a newly learnt motor task.

Twelve people were taught a sequence of key pressing patterns (similar to a piano).

Those who engaged in the meditation performed better when tested on the sequences 4.5 hours later, when compared to those who did not meditate.

The researcher concluded that the meditiation practice after learning promotes motor memory consolidation (the ‘sticking’ of new memories).

3. Prevent Age-related Cognitive Decline

Keeping your mind sharp as you age is super important!

Lots of people keep up reading or completing crosswords – but meditation has also been found to have positive affects on cognitive ability for both young and middle-adults.

This study explored 12 different experiments (six of which were very fancy, top-standard science ‘randomised control trials’).

The researchers reported that the various studies they reviewed demonstrated positive effects across many different cognitive domains.

This included improved attention, memory, processing speed and general cognitive ability.

However, they did note that many of the reviewed studies included only a small number of participants (making it less generalisable to the larger population) and could have been biased.

Overall though, they concluded that using meditation as a intervention for cognitive decline is definitely plausible!

Meditation could in fact have the power to help prevent age-related decline in thinking and processing ability.

4. Improve Emotional Regulation

This case study by Mosewich, Baranoff and Immink, followed an elite female athlete who participated in a mindfulness program alongside her competition training routine.

This athlete participated in a six week program with daily mindfulness sessions, along with self-compassion training.

Midway through the program, she reported greater self-accountability, self-reliance and overall awareness.

At the end of the six weeks, she also found that she felt an improvement in emotional regulation.

She could recognise her emotions better and take step back when she was feeling overwhelmed.

The athlete also reported that along with being better able to acknowledge and accept negative emotions, she also felt more connected to positive feelings.

It’s all about being more present in the moment!

woman in black tank top sitting on brown wooden dock during daytime
Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

5. Improve Immune Function

Yes, you heard me right.

Mindfulness might even may able to improve your immune function.

It is not surprising that a high-stress, run down body (full of the hormone cortisol) is more likely to become sick!

The stress on your body lowers your immune system and makes it easier for viruses to strike.

This study by Davidson and other researchers actually showed this phenomenon experimentally.

Twenty-five people participated in an 8 week mindfulness training program, while a different group of 16 people did not.

Both groups were injected with the influenza vaccine after 8 weeks.

The group in the mindfulness program showed a significantly greater rise in antibodies in blood drawn another 8 weeks later.

So what are you waiting for?

Give yourself the time of day.

Sit down. Be mindful.

I know it is easier said than done – but I’ve just given you 5 reasons to regularly be mindful that you didn’t know before!

If you have no idea where to start – jump onto Youtube or Spotify and search guided mindfulness meditations.

It’s that easy.

Read other neuroscience posts here!

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