Research

Academia is Broken.

What is happening to me?

Tears rolled down my cheeks as I sat in the emergency department, waiting to be seen by a neurologist.

It started an hour earlier. I was on my lunch break, sitting in the café at the children’s hospital next door. I noticed an absence of peripheral vision on one side. Yet I was otherwise comfortable, so I finished my meal. I moved to a bench in the vibrant foyer of the children’s hospital, and began texting a colleague.

That’s funny. I seem to be making a lot of typos today. It’s taking me 3 tries to get a word right.

“I’m freaking out a bit rn…about 40 mins ago when I sat down to have lunch I noticed peripheral vision on my right side was gone. Left [cafe] early and it seemed to get better as soon as I walked away. But still freaking out because I am having trouble spelling simple words on my phone. I don’t know if this is the start of a migraine 😐 Or a freaking stroke lol”

Gosh, that message took about 5 minutes to finish!

Colleague: “Numbness?”

“No pain at all. Or numbness”

Colleague: “Tingles?”

“No. No kaleidoscope”

Thank goodness for autocorrect…

Colleague: “When you’re stressed, which eye twitches first? How’s the hearing on the right side?”

“Left is usually the worst ear. No different with twitch. But the strangest park [sic] is spelling. It’s still happening. WTF. Like I’m slightly slew [sic]”

Colleague: “Go to the back rooms. Close your eyes for a bit. Then massage the temple. Have you got your heated eye pads?”

“Just once a while ago”

Colleague: “Your eyes probably need some rest”

“Not here. And 3 hour combined after. *Coming”

Colleague: “If there’s no pain, tingles, numbness, then no stroke. Peripheral vision – we stare at screens all day. We look at little letters. No meeting ATM? Head down to the library and relax. Then head straight home after the IR meeting.”

I made my way back to the office. Something was definitely wrong.

“Few yes maybe a break ground. Feel like me brain has feeling shut down”

Colleague: “Yeah you were doing a lot of PhD reading.”

“This spelling is weird of all.”

Colleague: “Gooo head down to the library and rest your eyes for 15min”

(Colleague sends a photo of a sign found on most highways in Victoria, which reads ‘Trouble concentrating? Powernap now’)

Colleague: “VicRoads will tell you the same thing”

I didn’t have a chance to reply. Another colleague visited my desk to see if I’d be coming to the 2pm IR meeting. It was 2:03pm. I’d been so engrossed in my texting troubles that I’d lost track of time.

Yes, I meant to say. I’ll be right there.

But the wrong words came out.

Holy crap. Puzzled, I tried again, but to no avail. My speech was slurred and my brain felt jammed. I knew what I wanted to say, but had to fight myself to get a few key words out. Meanwhile, the colleague that came to check on me had summoned a couple of nurses in my department.

“Can’t…spell…vision…right side…”

They quickly assessed my pupils and motor function. All clear, but I still needed help. They escorted me downstairs to the emergency department. I was terrified, and began crying on the way there. When we arrived at the triage desk, my right hand went numb. It took me about 20 seconds to recite my date of birth. I was given a seat in the emergency department and my vitals signs were measured. Everything was within normal range except for my heart rate, which was elevated from all the stress. My partner was contacted. He arrived in 15 minutes, and I tearfully recounted the story to him, finally beginning to regain control of my speech.

What is happening to me?

The neurologist approached with a friendly expression, aware of my anxiety but thankfully choosing not to address it directly. I told her what happened. She asked if I was stressed.

“Well, I did wake up at 3am this morning, wondering if I would get my PhD done in time.”

“You’re doing a PhD?”

“Yes.”

She made a note. Her reaction spoke volumes, as if my symptoms all made sense now. She reassured me that I had experienced a migraine,  not a stroke. Although my experiences were common to both conditions, stroke symptoms occur simultaneously, whereas mine happened in waves over the course of an hour.

I was relieved, but of course shaken. Have I pushed myself too much? Was it really worth it? It got me thinking about the pressures in the academic industry. Life as a research student was the prequel to a career in which uncertainty and imbalance reigns supreme.

Here are just a few problems with academia:

  • Academics are rewarded by volume of publications, which can compromise quality
  • Bold headlines are more appealing, and can lead to unethical research practices and frivolous claims. Media-savvy academics and research centres are more ‘successful’ in terms of funding and career progression.
  • Peer-reviewing is by and large a voluntary, unpaid service. The publisher benefits unfairly from free labour.
  • If authors want readers to view their articles for free i.e. open access, they must pay a high premium, often in the thousands of dollars.
  • The academic industry is rife with phony publishers and conferences, feeding on the aforementioned desperation to demonstrate academic activity in the form of articles or presentations. My inbox was bombarded daily with requests to contribute to articles or attend events usually unrelated to my field of research. Publishing my university email address in academic articles does not mean I consent to be spammed. There is no industry regulation; nothing similar to the Australian ‘do not call’ telemarketing register currently exists for the academic industry.
  • Income is uncertain and dependant on grant money. Work-life balance is extremely difficult to achieve.
  • Ranking indexes for academics creates unhealthy competition. I have heard of academics deliberately choosing not to collaborate with certain people in their department to prevent being overtaken in terms of academic output. Promotions are also difficult to attain.
  • Ranked indexes for publications introduce an overinflated, often inaccurate, highly subjective estimation of prestige and credibility.

Academia is broken. Research is interesting to me, but is the mental and physical price of a research career just too high? Does the industry need an overhaul?

Research Tip: Summary Tables

So you’re researching a topic in preparation for a literature review/report/proposal/fun times. You’ll soon find that you need a way to organise and summarise your notes and journal articles. EndNote and other reference management software are great for saving citation details – but what about a personalised overview of all the papers you’ve read? How can you work with your existing referencing software files to create such an overview? Well, this is where summary tables come in handy.

I’d describe a summary table as an electronic, summarised record of all of the references you’ve read on any given topic in tabular form.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a novice researcher or a pro – at some point in your career you will figure out a system that works best for you, as you trial new techniques or revert back to old but effective habits.

I use a word processor for my summary table, but you can use spreadsheet software if you prefer. Do you have your own research management system? What do you find useful?

Analogous Encouragement for Reluctant Writers

If you are perpetually reading and researching topics, or reluctant to start writing and keep writing, it feels:

Like running the tap, but never actually taking a shower.

Like packing your suitcase for a trip, but never making it out the door.

Like trying to learn a sport by watching others, but never playing it yourself.

Like rehearsing fervently all year for a musical, then hiding behind the curtain on opening night.

Like mastering theory without doing the practical.

Writing is an active component of research, though you may be sitting while you do it. It’s the next step. It’s taking the red pill. Preparation is great, but there can be such a thing as too much. Nerves are normal, but are they hampering your goals?

People don’t want you to stink.

They don’t want you to be a hermit.

They don’t want you to stay on the sidelines.

They want you to perform!

They want you to show off your knowledge!

So freshen up! Go on an adventure! Play a game! Sing and dance! Do what you think is right…and write!

Musings

As a future academic, I need to be well-informed. I also need to be able to contribute to intellectual discussions that may very well change the way we see or do things. To do this, I need to be able to communicate effectively and engage in healthy debate. I have a vision for where I want society/my profession to be, and I want to help make sure we get there, in my lifetime. Or if not, at least provide others a map with which to navigate. Like a pioneer or explorer, I must make my way into new territory and report what I’ve found to the rest of the world – which means I need to document everything I do and find.

Review: Scrivener (Part 1)

This week marks 19 months as a PhD student! It’s been…interesting, to say the least. The first nine months were spent swimming in a sea of literature and drifting from island to island, seeking refuge and sustenance. I was discovering new worlds, but eventually realised that if I wanted to make any real progress, I would need to start mapping my travels and organising my mind. And that is when, via the beacon of light that is the Thesis Whisperer blog, I stumbled upon what has become the navigational cross-staff for my thesis – and it goes by the name of Scrivener.

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In a nutshell, I would describe Scrivener as a super-streamlined take on the traditional word processor that is tailored to writers producing long documents, such as novels, screenplays, and, of course, theses. But it’s so much more to me than a fancy new brand of word processor – because it gives us writers a place for all of those side notes, ramblings and crazy random ideas. Ideas that usually have no place in a traditional draft and are simply cast away on a scrap of paper that vanishes when you need it most and magically resurfaces when you least expect it.

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Introductory Scrivener Tutorial

The toolbar across the top of the window, unlike Microsoft Word, is thankfully sparse and equipped with basic formatting and navigation tools. Just enough tools to get that crucial first draft out of your mind and onto the screen.

The navigation panel on the left is similar to Word’s once you add headings and sections to your document – except there are a few more goodies in Scrivener’s.

Sidebar Menu

Not only can you create sections and sub-sections, but you can also insert entire PDF files and photos, web pages or even audio for quick reference. No more trawling through folders for that file you know you had somewhere!

You can create sections for anything you wish – it doesn’t have to go in the final document. And all deleted items are kept in the trash folder until you manually delete them, so no need to worry about losing things forever.

Tasneem xo

8 PhD Lessons Learned at the Halfway Mark

I’m now officially halfway through my PhD (if I finish in three years, that is). How time flies! Here are some lessons learned at the halfway mark that I hope will help new and experienced researchers alike in their quest for productivity and success:

1. Create a comprehensive filing system
Filing will be mindlessly time-consuming, but helps organise your thoughts in the long term.

2. Handwrite more often
I know I’m researching in the field of informatics, which is all about electronic administration of health care (this includes electronic methods of data entry and access), but research has shown that hand writing aids information retention and creativity. I miss the days of writing furiously with my Pacer pencil on loose pages of lined folder paper, as messy as it was. I also use this awesome software called Scrivener which helps me organise my ideas, but nothing beats a good scribble!

3. Communicate more
With supervisors, administrators, researchers in your field and friends and family! All of these people need to know you’re alive and researching.

4. Establish balance and moderation
Excess is never pretty!

5. Be more decisive
First – plan. Secondly – write (and think) within your plan. A life without goals is wayward and ultimately unfulfilling. So is a paper without structure or purpose!

6. Read, read, read
Not all of it has to be work-related.

7. Each and every action or task must have a purpose
And that purpose needs to advance you in some way, shape or form. Be RESULTS oriented. Which brings us to GOALS – start broad and funnel down to specific tasks and time frames. Map out, hierarchically and chronologically, what you want and how you want to get there.

8. What other people think (beyond the boundaries of supervisory and constructive feedback) is not a primary concern
Identify those you can trust. Love and acceptance from a precious few is all you need. Those are the relationships you need to cultivate. You will never be able to please everyone, so stop trying.